Saturday, July 11, 2015

The Corporate Sin of Racism with Rev. Rachel J. Bahr

Reverend Rachel Johannan Bahr

"The poet took the terror and turned it 
against itself. What was meant for fear 
he used to stir up faith 
in a different kind of future."

Strange Fruit

Introduction to English Literature 1 
A Genealogy of Gender and Genre

In this course, we explore gender and genre through literature produced in and around the early British Isles, from the elegiac poetry of the Anglo Saxons to the Epic poetry of John Milton’s Paradise Lost. In this survey of medieval and early modern texts, we trace how forms of narrative were informed by and acted on the construction of concepts of sex and sexuality. We study how debates around nature and nurture, essential and artificial, eternal and mutable came to produce later notions of transgender, queerness, disability, race, and religious difference.


Corporate Sin

On February 19th, 2015, my course on a Genealogy of Gender and Genre hosted a guest lecturer, the Reverend Pastor Rachel J. Bahr, M.Div, who spoke on "Confession and the Corporate Sin of Racism." Corporate sin is defined by Francisco Cervantes, M.Div., as systematic social injustice in opposition to personal sin which is dependent on will and intent. "Corporate sin," writes Cervantes, "does not mean something that companies or corporations do (though they too commit sin). Corporate Sin has to do with our actions as a body of believers. It is a sinful act done by many to others" (Cervantes, A Catholic View). Like Cervantes, Rev. Bahr named racism in particular as a corporate sin prominent in contemporary American culture. One does not need to consciously think "racist thoughts" to participate in the corporate sin of racism. Because of its collective, systematic, and passive nature, corporate sin may be enacted even while holding counter-racist intents or without thought of any kind. Here, the sin is in social ideology, environment and action. Of course, personal prejudice and ill-intent still play roles but in this context they are instrumental to the wider injustice rather than being considered the beginning or the end. Personal and individual racism may be seen as the symptom of the problem rather the whole disease. As such, the reflection and response to such injustice requires a different kind of confession that turns from personal texts toward contexts.

Many of us have some sense of "confession" and "sin" but likely think of it in its contemporary context, as a personal admission of fault and culpability. This is seen today in Catholic confessionals and their secular counter-part: the psychologist's office. Here we are called to narrate our live in order to examine sins/pathologies which are supposedly diagnosed and rectified. We emphasized the pre-modern conception of sin as a collective rather than personal problem and confession as a "speaking-together" - how we act in and as society against justice and love. Rev. Bahr traced the roots of social justice from the practices of the People of Israel, the offering of sacrifices for the sins of a whole family, the Year of Jubilee where all debts and transgression are forgiven, and the practice of Prophetic Literature that reflects on moments when the community has worked contrary to Love and Justice. Next, Rev. Bahr discussed how confession began to shift in Christian communities in the 14th century during a series of outbreaks of the Plague. In order to make sense of why so many died while others were spared, sin began to be understood as unequally existing in certain persons more than others. The logic shifted from "sin is a product of community" to "sin as marking specific persons" through disease, disability, skin color, gender, and sexuality.

While the texts we would be studying in the next section of the course are drawn from a 14th century medieval context, the corporate sin and confession we are considering exist in a system that spans a time and place through a genealogy of thought and practice that isolates and eliminates communities marked with difference. These texts are drawn from John Gower's Confessio Amantis (in particular, "the Corporate Sin of Sloth in 'the Tale of Iphis and Ianthe'" and "the Corporate Sin of Pride in 'the Tale of Narcissus'") Geoffrey Chaucer's Canterbury Tales (in particular, "the Corporate Sin of Sloth in 'the Canon's Yeoman's Tale," "the Corporate Sin of Lust in 'the Pardoner's Prologue,'" and "the Corporate Sin of Wrath in 'the Wife of Bath's Prologue'"). How do examine the ethics of the these tales without victim blaming or repeating a violent prejudice by blaming marginalized peoples (women, eunuchs, mad, etc.)? This may require reading a text designed to villainize or terrorize against the grain to turn the terror against itself. On this day, we connected discussions of Love, Division, Creation, and Social Justice to the world of literature, film, and music, such as "the Hanging Tree" from the Hunger Games book and movie.  The call to remember lynchings as a call to action functions as a kind of "Confession in the Hanging Tree." Here, the hanging tree symbolizes the imagery of oppressed peoples being lynched for unfounded crimes, and the song ultimately calls for a revolution. Beginning with this popular and familiar text, Rev. Bahr turned the discussion towards the haunting classic song by Billie Holiday, Strange Fruit.

Rev Rachel J Bahr

Strange Fruit

How might we understand this in a contemporary context? Rev. Bahr also shared her work in the fields of womanism, queer and black liberation theology. Rev. Bahr turned the class discussion to the song "Strange Fruit" by Billie Holiday, based on a poem by Abel Meeropol, a teacher, and talked about the context in which this song was written. The students pointed out the obvious connection between the opening song, "the Hanging Tree," and Holiday's. Strange Fruit reminds us of the strange imagery of the lynched bodies of Black folks. "Southern trees bear strange fruit," sings Holiday, "blood on the leaves and blood at the root. Black bodies swinging in the southern breeze. Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees" (Holiday 1939). In both songs, the fruit spreads these seeds of hate, distrust, violence, and marginalization. These insidious seeds of violence that continues to grow even while seemingly dormant. Holiday's song, however, was tied to a specific hate crime when Black men in Indiana during the time of Jim Crow were suspected of a crime they didn't commit, were jailed and then released to an angry mob of over four thousand white folks, many of whom were Christians. In this context, the hanging of "strange fruit" either as violent lynching or as a genealogy of corporate sin stands in sharp relief next to two other trees in the Christian story: the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil and the Crucifix. 

The Salt Project's Emmy Winning film on the song "Strange Fruit" recasts this song in the Christian histories of creation, crucifixion, and lynching. The film begins with Genesis, imagining all Creation as a garden, where all life was made and flourished. Here humanity may be and know all things as good. The only commandment was that the humans were not to eat the "strange fruit" growing on the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. This fruit, the film articulates, was a new way of knowing and dividing humanity. "[The Humans] wanted to eat and discover truth of racism, pain, and difference of violence," explains the film in a brilliant song of biblical exegesis. "Apples don't do that. This was strange fruit. They saw themselves. Strange fruit. And the truth hit them" (The Salt Project). The forbidden knowledge was not only an object to be attained but a morbid way of knowing. Fruit after all is alive, it is digested, it is excreted, it spreads, and it grows. 

So too was the act of knowing where the self became defined through othering, setting others apart through difference and categories, the beginning of racism inscribed on the world through violence and pain. "They did not want this," continues the film's exegesis. "but it made them powerful; powerful enough to see their own pain, powerful enough to dish it to other. Fruit bears fruits" (The Salt Project). This act of original sin was not something merely spiritual, or physical, but a corporate act - a violent way of knowing that made the self powerful by subjugating the other. Sin of this sort breeds a genealogy of hate through systems of power-knowledge. The spawn of this fruit is what causes other trees to carry their own strange fruit. In Rome, racism and violence made the empire strong and brought the crucifix into being where Christ was hung. In America, racism and violence made the United States strong but hung countless black lives. "[Human's] became powerful enough to make their own 'southern trees bear strange fruit," continues the film. "Black bodies swinging in the southern breeze" (The Salt Project). Each one of these strange trees is bound up in one another, made to "speak together" by the scripture, song, and film in an act of Confession that looks beyond any specific individual to a collective struggle.

Rachel Bahr
Black Liberation Theology

Where then do these corporate sins and collective struggles call us to go? In response, Rev. Bahr pointed towards the work of James Cone's concepts of "Ontological Blackness" and James Foreman's "the Black Manifesto." Rev. Bahr recounted how she studied diligently under the scholarship of Dr. James Cone while in seminary. It is here, she attests, that she found Jesus' being was bound in solidarity with the oppressed, an inextricable relation that he maintained onto cross. Dr. Cone argued that slavery was the U.S. original sin, with over 400 years of Black people being oppressed and lynched, and segregated. In 2012, Dr. James Cone, preaching at the General Conference of the United Methodist Church in his sermon argues, "Despite the obvious similarity between Jesus' death on the cross and the Black people who have been strung up by their necks, relatively few people have looked at the deep similarities between the cross and the lynching tree" (Cone, "The Cross & The Lynching Tree"). The alienation that has developed between Christianity and the practice of social justice, contended the burgeoning liberation theology, was no accident. White Christian communities wanted a safe distance between the demands of their faith and the security of a prosperity built on the backs of racist systems of power.

According to Black Liberation theology, the central work of Christianity is offering a preferential option for the poor and marginalized. The project of such a theology is to turn the instruments of horror back on themselves by calling on those Church, political and academic authorities. "To create an antiracist theology," writes Cone, "White theologians must engage the histories, cultures and theologies of people of color. It is not enough to condemn racism. The voices of people of color must be found in your theology." (Cone, "Theology's Great Sin")In the particular American and European context, Black Liberation Theology presents "a profound critique of white theology that does not yet recognize its whiteness." ( J. Denny Weaver, The Nonviolent Atonement). This point was one the class was becoming increasingly attuned to throughout the semester. As Rev. James Ellis III writes, Black Liberation theology against "to hold white Christians and theologians accountable for their many atrocities committed against blacks under the guise of biblical orthodoxy" (Ellis III, "A Critique of Cone's Black Liberation Theology"). There is no studying scripture, theology, or literature without considering one's subjective and methodological position towards race; especially when the history of the practice works towards the exclusion and subjugation of people of color.

When Cone's argument on the ontological blackness of Christ was raised, the students were particularly curious. Rev. Bahr directed the students to read these blackness both through the twin lenses through which we read all the material in the course: historical and metaphorical. Cone writes, "Christ's blackness is both literal and symbolic... The least in America are literally and symbolically present in black people." (Cone, God of the Oppressed). Christ's skin color and other physical features marked him as part of a marginalized community in the Roman empire. Additionally, Christ himself practiced radical solidarity with the poor and marginalized. It is with the oppressed that Christ spent most of his time, did most of his service, and called on to receive preferential positions in society. In the American context, the alterity pressed upon persons because of physical features and the struggle of the oppress locate Christ with people of color. To find and follow Christ, then, Christians must exist in communion with the black community. This does not mean that a person is damned for having white skin, but if one aligns themselves with an oppressive white culture against the marginalized, one sets oneself against the way of Christ. The call of Christianity, according to Cone, is seek out communion and liberation among the black community. The work of medieval and American literature that places the emphasis of Christian back from a merely personal faith towards the corporate practices of sin and liberation is an imperative in the Church and all those who practice theology and biblical exegesis. 

Reverend Bahr
Rev. Rachel J. Bahr

The Reverend Rachel J. Bahr is currently Associate Pastor at the First Parish Congregational Church in York, Maine.
She earned a Master of Divinity form Chicago Theological Seminary and a Bachelor of Fine Arts from Catawba College in Salisbury, NC. Pastor Rachel loves working with young people and has for much of her life (especially being a PK or Preacher's Kid). One of Pastor Rachel's fondest memories is of being baptized by the Power Team (if you don't know what the Power Team is ask her). She also delights in her two young daughters, Clementine and Elanora, who daily remind her to let go and be silly; God is sometimes speaking through fingerpainting little girls with mischievous grins.

First Parish Congregational Church United Church of Christ

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