I just finished a book and decided I should start offering a handful of reflections and/or quotes that are especially meaningful/significant to me from the books I read. This may or may not become a regular thing. Reflecting on this particular book, I’m surprised at how affected I was by reading the first page. Read the screenshot before you get any further.
This is the first page of a book by author Daniel Black, entitled The Coming. The book tells the story of coming to America from the perspective of the slaves who were captured, loaded onto ships, and sold at auction. Obviously there is no single, comprehensive, first hand account that could have recorded all that is found in this journey. But I think that is what wrecked me in reading the first page.
It’s so easy to collapse “slavery” to a single thing experienced by millions of men and women. But part of the cruelty and inhumanity of the institution is precisely its success in that very task. This one page upended a lot of what was unacknowledged in mind about slavery by merely pointing out the incredible diversity of cultures, languages, occupations, life stages, and so much more that was all funneled into a thing we call “slavery” – an institution into which diverse African cultures, languages, and persons were all reduced to a thing called “slaves.”
When I think about my own life, I don’t even know how to think about it without those identifiers that have defined my existence. I am a husband. A pastor. A father. An American. A guy who loves ping pong. An English speaker. An introvert. I could go on. To extract me from my life in such a way that I am only accepted as one unrelated thing would be one of the most disorienting traumas I can imagine inflicting. And yet that’s exactly what the institution of slavery was designed to do. Not only were prior careers and family ties not kept intact; people were intentionally placed with others who did not even speak the same language so that communication was impossible.
It is true that we are each individuals and that we all have worth and value that is not predicated on what anyone else thinks of us or does to us. It is true that we cannot define our self worth by the shifting sands of external validation. It is even true that I have skills and qualities that would be the same even if I were to never see another human in my life. But it is also (or maybe even more) true that we are relationally constructed beings. I don’t actually know how to conceive of my own identity, uniqueness, skills, or value apart from the inherently relational ways those markers take shape in my actual life and relationships. What is a preacher with no one to listen? What is an athlete without competition? What is an introvert without the energy drain and emotional necessity of human interaction?
Recognizing how completely relationally I conceive of myself while reading the first few pages of The Coming has been disorienting. If I cannot even conceive of my self apart from the relationships in which my individuality plays out, then I should never expect to be perceived as heroic (or even friendly) for being “difference blind” toward those who don’t look like me. My usual expectation or goal of trying to see everyone as ‘equal’ or ‘the same’ is, at best, deeply insufficient and, at worst, in harmony with one of the harshest traumas found in slavery.
Our humanity and dignity are necessarily born in and through (rather than in spite of) the incredible diversity of the actual lives we live. I find an especially profound importance within that message for the life of the church. Our work in church institutions typically plays out (whether intentionally or not) as an attempt to fit as many people within a definition of “member” that is as narrowly constructed as possible, in sometimes overt ways (like signing on to belief statements) and in sometimes unacknowledged ways (like sitting still in worship).
I don’t know exactly what, if anything, ought to be essential, but I am more and more convinced, especially in a season of change and amidst the breaking down of our usual habits and expectations, that we ought to start with learning to see the gifts and graces that are already present in the diverse lives of our churches and communities. We won’t become a healthy diverse church (much less break down racial divides) by assuming the more important goal is having diverse people squeeze into a narrow definition of faithfulness. We would all be better served by finding ways to honor the rich gifts that are waiting to be made known.
I am grateful for the disorienting push that I received from The Coming. I will never think of slavery or how I relate to other people in the same way. It is not an easy read, but I highly recommend it.