Perspectives: CeCe Jones-Davis
Hi, guys. I’m Kim Bandy, a director at Spero, and I’m facilitating a personal blog series. I’m sure I’m not alone in saying the national events of the past week and a half have been overwhelming. There are many steps that need to be taken personally, organizationally, and collectively. But one step that seems like the hardest and perhaps least exercised is the step of listening well. In particular, I know those of us who represent my personal demographic—a white, evangelical who grew up in the United States—must begin listening to those who are telling us that what happened in Charlottesville was painful.
So, I asked a few friends if they’d be willing to share with us and they graciously accepted. I have learned a tremendous amount from them about life, discipleship, leadership, integrity and compassion. And they have been instrumental in helping me understand their call for reconciliation in the church and in America.
I am hopeful about myself and about others in our community. I’m hopeful that we can listen well—just as we would to someone who is sitting across a table from us expressing this pain in the way they would any other pain in their life. I hope to listen without trying to determine if they are “right” or if I agree with every perspective. I hope to listen without asking them to hurry past the pain. And I hope to listen in a way that doesn’t filter their pain through the lens of how it makes me feel. I am hopeful to listen well to my brothers and sisters in the Kingdom. And I’m hopeful to follow their lead. Because, while they are brave enough to share this pain with us, they are most certainly not defined by this pain. They are defined by the strength and vision they possess as followers of Jesus who have much to teach me.
Let's talk with our friend, Cece.
If you're talking to me as a white, Evangelical Christian, what do you want me to know about Charlottesville?
For my white evangelical sisters and brothers, I would want you to know that the times in which we live are serious, and presents us with a divine opportunity. The evil we saw personified in Charlottesville is our problem. Not black people’s and not the Black Church. It's our problem as Americans, but most of all, it is our problem as Jesus-followers. It’s time for white Christians to use their personal agency, and the power of their congregations, to address racism.
The other thing I’d want evangelical Christians to know is that black folks are getting tired of serving in multicultural churches and feeling like the social issues that impact us don’t stir our white brothers and sisters toward action. My question to white Evangelicals, especially those who feel they get a pass on the race conversation because they attend church with minority groups is, who am I to you? Because we talk a lot about being sisters and brothers. But family shows up for each other- bears one another’s burdens. So, it makes me wonder why many white evangelicals seem disengaged from the issues of our time. Charlottesville is just the latest reminder of how far we have to go in race relations, the ideologies that fester beneath the surface of our society, and the ways in which history has been revised so that racism can remain propped up in the public square.
The incidence in Charlottesville is not just about hate, but something I think is just as dangerous, which is apathy. The fact that so many would rather hold on to a symbol of their ‘heritage’-- a statue-- than understand the pure terror that the statue represents for African Americans, lets you know that we have a problem yielding to truth and relenting ‘whiteness’. For me, that’s a pretty clear indication of willful ignorance rooted in ideas of dominance. Don’t get me wrong, there is a place for prominent historical figures. Museums and history books. Not the public square. Not on a campus. Not at the courthouse.
Earlier you mentioned to me that this was not shocking to you. It did not feel out of the blue or like a disconnected event. But many white Christians were expressing shock based on their belief that this movement of white supremacy was a thing of the past. Help us bridge that gap. Why wasn’t this shocking to you?
It's not shocking because the narrative that racism ended when slavery ended, or when Jim Crow ended--black people have always known--is a myth. And while African Americans are no longer swinging from trees or sitting in the back of the buses, racism continues to show itself in various forms.
I think it was surprising for all of us to see the visible numbers of white supremacists show up in Charlottesville. We were surprised to see how young they were. We were surprised by the venom they spewed. But I, and most African Americans, were not shocked by the fact that people still organize themselves for the express purpose of hating blacks, those that are Jewish, Native Americans, and the LGBTQ community. We’ve heard the stories from our grandparents and parents. We have experienced the ‘N’ word at stop lights and on Facebook. We saw how the first black President of the United States of America was demonized through the birther conspiracy, while his wife was called a monkey.
I grew up in the '80s in Virginia where we knew very well that the Klan was still active. Just a few years ago, there was Klan presence, in broad daylight, in my hometown. I think it's easy to kind of bury our heads in the sand when a particular evil is not directed toward us, or posing a threat to us or our tribe. The hate present in Charlottesville was not at all a shock to me, or to any black person I know.
Speaking of social media, we saw a great variety of responses, of course. But there was one in particular that caught my attention. The responses of “this isn’t the majority of white people” or “this is such a small group compared to society as a whole.” Certainly, there were those responses in a defensive tone, but I’m talking about those responses I think were meant to encourage you or make you feel better. I think it was a well-intentioned attempt to say ‘you don’t have to be scared. Nothing is really that wrong.’ Can you respond to that idea?
I think racism and, certainly bias, exists as spectrums. At the extreme end, you're wearing a hood and waving a Nazi flag or something outlandish like that. But then there are other degrees of racism and bias. And I think that we have to come to terms with the degree of bias that may reside in us and informs our worldview and behavior. So, one can’t just say, "I’m a good white person. That's not how the majority of us feel." Well, okay. That's not how you feel, but how do you feel?
And further, how do you feel, when black men in America are denied due process of law and continue to be killed in the streets by police? Or when black men are pulled over for a minor traffic violation, tell the cop that they have a registered firearm-- in an open carry state-- and get shot anyway, with a four year old in the backseat. So it is not a matter, anymore, of being a ‘good white person’. Because the standard of ‘good’, especially to me now, is not that you don’t say the ‘N’ word or participate in KKK rallies.
And I think we have to get out of these notions of goodness about ourselves in order to examine our frailty, our brokenness, our bias. Then determine what are we going to do about it. What are we going to do about our bias? What do we really think about ‘those’ people? What are the conversations we have at dinner tables when we feel safe to say whatever we want to say, whatever is in our hearts. It's not enough to be a ‘good white person’ if you are a Christian. Because as we know, at our core, we are sinners. And truly, there are none ‘good’ but God. The question really is, what are you going to do to reflect the goodness not of ourselves, but of God? How will you participate in moving the ball of humanity forward? Especially as Christians. Especially as folks who believe everybody is made in the image of God.
If someone is reading this and they are thinking these events were an awakening moment for them and now they do want to move the ball forward, what step would you ask them to take?
The first step is an education--but an education with our defenses down. I’m not talking about a history lesson on names of generals, battlegrounds, and presidents. I’m talking about an education on someone else’s lived experience. And, let me say that this is not about making people feel bad about being white. You shouldn’t feel bad about being white. White guilt does not push the ball forward. It’s about learning through the lens of the ‘other’ so that you can understand whiteness as a privilege that, if responsibly leveraged, can help advance others. It’s an education about the histories, realities and perspectives of minorities in this country, from their perspective. And being in Oklahoma, I must say this is not just about history relating to black people, but also about Native American people, who have an even smaller voice in this country. We're going to have to get an education about the whole of history and understand its impact on our present times, and commit ourselves to the truths that unfold.
Educating ourselves require more than reading a high school history book. Those books do not tell the story. They would have you believe that slavery really wasn't that bad; that white men had ‘mistresses’ and not enslaved women who were raped on a consistent basis; that Native Americans should be thankful for being ‘un-savaged’ by colonization; that the term picnic (often called pick-a-n**) wasn't used when people gathered in the public square to eat turkey sandwiches and watch black men hang from trees.
We're going to have to give ourselves a true historical context, which can then inform our values as we move forward as brothers and sisters in Christ. We can surround ourselves with people who have different backgrounds and perspectives. We can have dinner table conversations outside our circles. And we need to come to these conversations with honest questions, and be ready for honest responses. Most of all we need to come to one another with a sense of open-heartedness. Because the goal is not to further rage. The goal is to mobilize rage and make it work for us in a productive manner. The goal is to satisfy justified anger through acts of kindness and justice. We're going to have to surround ourselves with information, listen to other people, get different perspectives and then, when we know better, we’ll do better, as Dr. Maya Angelou said.
And people will have different levels of involvement in these issues. I'm not here to give white evangelicals marching orders. But I am here to say that you have a significant role to play. Particularly to white evangelical congregations who have boasted about their multiculturalism. Black people serve your churches. And if my understanding of our culture is right, black people serve your churches well. We're at the door, ushering. We're in the parking lot, for parking ministry. We're on that stage, for praise and worship. We are at those instruments. We're doing prayer ministry. We're doing all these things, because that's who we are as a tribe. That’s who we are in the Kingdom of God. We've situated ourselves in predominantly white congregations because we have a vision, too. We want more. We want unity. We want reconciliation. We know that is God’s dream.
But we need to know that black lives matter to you. And I’m not talking about the movement. I’m talking about the statement. Black people are disillusioned right now in the multicultural/predominately white evangelical context. We are questioning why we gave up our own tradition to assimilate to a people who don’t share our pain over police brutality or white supremacy.
Shifting gears a bit, I think a lot of emotional response I saw was related to the difference in policing, which I noticed right off the bat. But I think I noticed because I had tried to stay aware of other protests that were minority groups. So, potentially, someone who's just looking at Charlottesville doesn't realize why there was such a response from people of color about the way it was policed. So can you give us some context for that?
We can use the contrast between Ferguson and Charlottesville. In response to Mike Brown’s death, police responded to protesters dressed in military gear and driving tanks. But in Charlottesville, a very different scene. As a TV viewer, I had a hard time distinguishing the white supremacist from the police officers. The hate group members had on helmets and vests and carried semi-automatics in their hands. Now, to be fair, Virginia is an open-carry state. This is what I will say, though, because I believe it's true: If black people had showed up in Ferguson militarized and brandishing firearms, there would have been very different outcomes. This problem is the history of policing of black bodies in America, particularly black male bodies. Black people have always been deemed dangerous just by virtue of being black.
You know that because a young boy named Trayvon Martin was walking down the street with some Skittles and a can of tea, with a hoodie on, on the sidewalk not bothering anybody, and was gunned down by a robocop because Trayvon looked dangerous. That tells you everything you need to know about the ways in which blackness is a crime in this country.
Another element to this has to do with the power of rage. When you have a people group who’ve experienced injustice for too long, they eventually get tired of saying please: "Please, don't shoot me. Please, don't hang me. Please, don't beat me. Please, don't rape me. Please, don't work me to death in your fields. Please, don't sell my children off. Please allow us into your schools. Please give us equity in the workplace." When people get tired of saying, "please," there's a righteous rage that rises up. And the oppressor, whoever the oppressor is, is always afraid of that rage, because collective, holy rage is the foreshadow of change.
Holy rage is a threat to the norm. It is a legitimate threat, because it signals again, that things are not working and we're not going to say, "please," anymore. And so that also plays into the ways in which policing happens, because the job of institutions is to keep the status quo by any means necessary.
Anything else you thought about this weekend, that you wanted to share?
I thought this weekend about how important it is for us to name things. Evangelical church--we do a really good job talking about, naming, sin. We have not talked enough about racism and supremacy as sin. We have not called them by their names nearly enough.
Bigotry, racism, supremacy, privilege--these are the idols of our culture. And one of the things I thought a lot about in the last few days is the importance of us not continuing to distance ourselves from the problems around us. I think in tough times we tend to say, "Well, the world is gonna do what the world is gonna do." But if that’s the case, why is the Church here? Why are you here, and why is this Gospel here if the world is ‘just gonna do what the world is gonna do?’
We can’t just say “Jesus is the answer.” Jesus is the answer. But the nature of Christ has to be deconstructed in a way that is understandable, tangible and evident. In other words, what does Christ require me to do in the midst of all this that will cause me to reflect His attributes best? We can’t rock on our porches waiting on the rapture. He’s coming back for sure, but in the meantime, there’s a mess for us to take care of. Get involved in what is happening around you. Because you can't tell me that when Jesus comes back, He won’t see racial injustice as a spot and a wrinkle on His Church.
What would you say to someone who says, "The actual problem is that we are even defining what happened in Charlottesville by race, and not by sin and hate."
For centuries, whites used the Bible to condone slavery and segregation in America. The KKK used the Cross to brand its hate. Where there is a specific fruit, there is a specific root. And the sinful root here is racism. We have to name it, be specific. Repentance is specific. We don’t just say, “well, God, sorry for everything.” That is not repentance and doesn’t lead to reconciliation. And we also have to remember that racism is not just a sin against God, but also against our neighbor. The Lord’s Prayer says, “forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us, which affirms this truth.
“Everything” didn’t kill Abel. Jealousy did. “Everything” didn’t enslave the Hebrews. Racism and greed did. And the collection of our specific sins killed Jesus.
For people that are unfamiliar with or hesitant to use the term systemic racism or systemic oppression--what is an example of systemic racism that we may be part of and not realize it?
Mass incarceration. I’d encourage people to watch two documentaries, The Kalief Browder Story and 13th about race and mass incarceration. I’d also recommend I Am Not Your Negro and Hidden Colors for more context on race relations in America.
MEET OUR FRIEND, CECE.
Cece Jones-Davis is a minister from Halifax, Virginia and a graduate of Howard University and Yale University School of Divinity, as well as the Yale Institute of Sacred Music, Worship and the Arts.
Devoted to her call as a worship leader, artist, speaker, social advocate and writer, Cece's work is deeply inspired by the social ministry of Jesus Christ. She is the founder of Sing for Change, Inc., a social justice initiative that works to mobilize faith-motivated musical artists and communities in the fight against HIV/AIDS. She is also the founder and facilitator of the Women & Girls Working Group, raising awareness regarding issues impacting female reproductive health globally.
Cece has been featured on worship albums, including Stephen Hurd's "In the Overflow: Volume II" and "Times of Refreshing." her first single, "Dreams" is currently available on digital media sources.
Cece was honored to serve the Obama Administration and now lives in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma with her husband, Mike, and their children, Halo and Honor.
A note from Spero: we encourage and invite you to learn more about CeCe on her website, and book her for speaking engagements! www.cecejonesdavis.com