Wednesday, March 10, 2021

David Evans: Reversing the Gaze

Dr. David Evans is associate professor of history and intercultural studies and the director of cross-cultural programs at Eastern Mennonite Seminary. He is co-editor of Between the World of Ta-Nehisi Coates and Christianity. David is a member of John Wesley United Methodist Church in Harrisonburg, VA.

The chapel speaker slowly flipped the large poster board cards which declared the sins we were to avoid to enter the Kingdom of God: Greed. Wrath. Envy. Lust. Gluttony. Sloth. Pride.

I’d never thought much of sloth or gluttony. I’d need to do more reading to discover what those sins were about. I wanted to avoid sin as much as possible, given the sin-filled life I had lived prior to being born-again. Greed, envy, and lust I knew too well as one of four boys who felt like there was never enough food to satisfy the hunger of each of us. And as the third who was too small to contest the older two, nor given the same attention as the baby, I was aware what they had that I didn’t. I always wanted more.

But pride? A sin?

For as long as I could remember, pride was that thing that all of my elders told me I needed to have in my work, my dress, in my self… in my race. If I failed to turn in a homework assignment, my family told me, “Have some pride and follow through by turning in your work.” If I left the house looking disheveled, my grandmother, the only Black politician in a White town, would instruct me, “Take pride in how you look, you don’t just represent yourself, you are a Brown.” If I allowed my opponent to drive past me on the basketball court, my coach would say, “Take some pride in your defense and don’t allow him to turn the corner.” But of all the ways that I learned to value pride, racial pride superseded them all.    

In the pages of my African American encyclopedia and literature about the history of African American people I learned that White society disrespected and devalued us. Toni Morrison said as much through one of her characters in Beloved, “Out yonder, hear me, they do not love your neck unnoosed and straight.” She continued, “And O my people, So love your neck; put a hand on it, grace it, stroke it and hold it up.” It was up to us to believe in ourselves. It was up to us to love ourselves and hold our necks high with pride. Pride, as I understood it, was a matter of life and death—a matter to be embraced not rejected.

The command to reject pride put my teenage heart and mind in turmoil. Having only repented from a life of drugs and drinking a few weeks before this revival camp chapel in rural Michigan, I was aware that I didn’t know the rules of this Heavenly Kingdom well and I needed guidance. I had been to church my entire life, but these people were different. They were not different because they were white Christians, I’d been around white Christians at my home Lutheran church for a long time, but because they were white Christians who made me their mission project.

They wanted to save me, or get me saved, I was never sure if the distinction was significant. What I was certain of was that saving me meant conforming me to the likeness of their politics, which opposed abortion and argued ferociously for the death penalty. Saving me also meant that I had to agree to the commands of their Heavenly Kingdom, of which the two greatest commandments were: ask Jesus into your heart and deny the love of self. Up to that point, my grasp of politics and God’s commands hardly extended beyond the Martin Luther King Jr. lessons I’d learned at home: guns aren’t toys and love everybody.

I knew little of the intense scripture memorization that was necessary to succeed in this new revivalist environment. The passion which they held for saving people’s souls from hellfire and damnation was unrivaled by any passion I’d known before. I was enchanted by their fervor. And I found structure in the new Kingdom rules that gave me sufficient resolve to reject my old vices. But as I embraced their biblicism I felt my old and new Christian sensibilities at odds, almost at war—one that implored me to love myself and the other to despise myself.

I did not have the language of post-colonial mission to guide me through the conflict between Christian mission and cultural belonging. And as I marched boldly towards the kingdom that they preached, I often found myself drowning in a moat of missionary zeal that rebuked the lessons I’d learned growing up. These missionaries replaced those lessons with rules that saved me from the sometimes aimless wandering of my adolescence but also threatened to destroy my connection to my family, friends, and ancestors.

They were right that pride threatened my existence, but it was their pride in believing they knew what I needed, not my self-love. Their white missionary gaze looked upon me as an economically impoverished, single-parent, unchurched, Black, city kid. They never once asked me about my beliefs, values, church attendance, or family traditions. They took pride in assuming that they knew what I needed and that what I needed was to become more like them.

I became like them; they converted me. I assimilated to their white Christianity. I gained what W.E.B. DuBois called “double consciousness”—the ability to see the world first through the eyes of others who looked upon me with “amused contempt and pity.” And I discovered that the more I conformed in my speech, dress, and values, the more distant I grew from myself, my family, and my friends.

Was that their mission, I wonder, to distance me from my self, my people, my ancestors?

Whether it was their intention or not, the impact of their work did just that. Thankfully, the foundations my family built endured their missionary enculturation. Through the perspectives of my intellectual ancestors, like DuBois, I now wonder what would have become of the Christian mission in the midwest revival camp if they gave up their pride and gained my perspective? What if they were to embrace a double-consciousness, that enabled them to see the world first through the eyes of others who look upon them as lacking perspective and community? What if they could see that Black boys from inner-cities had something to teach them and they replaced their acts of charity with solidarity?

That has become my mission. By reversing the gaze, I want to demonstrate that righteous Christian mission is that which is guided by the Spirit’s movement towards double-consciousness, seeing from the perspective of others, and solidarity, sharing with others in community. When we share perspectives with others, then our love for them and love for self will not be at odds with one another, but will be in harmony with God’s mission and vision for a new Heaven and a new Earth.

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