I wrote in a previous post of my belief that white folk – especially those of us living in areas where whites predominate in the population – need to listen carefully to the voices coming to us from those African-Americans who are bringing to our attention the work that still has to be done to heal the wounds of our legacy of racism. This is my strong conviction. I believe this is especially true when those voices upset us, or inspire in us a defensive reaction.
So it's wonderful to see a white Christian doing just that: listening. Richard Beck, a psychology professor from Abilene Christian University, is a devoted Christian believer from the Churches of Christ tradition who uses the Book of Common Prayer in his private prayers. He studies the Bible with prisoners. He has a wide-ranging curiosity about everything, and he likes to write on his blog, Experimental Theology, as well as to write books.
Lately, Beck has been reading Ta-Nehisi Coates's book Between the World and Me and blogging about it. In six posts, he gives evidence of reading closely, critically, and with compassion and empathy.
I recommend reading all six posts. Beck's writing is non-defensive, reflective, and both appreciative and critical. He's titled his posts “The Gospel According to Ta-Nehisi Coates”, while acknowledging that Coates is a self-confessed atheist. What Beck is saying by this title is that he finds in Coates' writing much that informs him as a believer in God.
In his final post, Beck appeals to the example of our Lord Jesus to explain his point of view on this:
Jesus...created communities centered around giving care to the most vulnerable in his society. Jesus carved out of Empire space that protected and cared for the most fragile bodies. That's what Jesus did as he moved from town to town, he created a community where the most oppressed and marginalized were welcomed and cared for. Communities of care that were open to agents of Empire, tax collectors and Roman soldiers, who were willing to work to buffer fragile bodies.
And this is what the early church did as well. The church carved out of Empire communities of care. Imperial Rome knew Christianity to be religion popular with women and slaves because of how these communities buffered their fragile bodies from the ravages of Empire.
To my eye, these communities of care carved out of Empire are what Jesus meant when he said "the kingdom of God is in your midst."
The kingdom of God is found in communities of care who struggle to carve out space in the midst of Empire to embrace, care for and protect the most fragile bodies.
And if there is such a thing as "the gospel according to Ta-Nehisi Coates" to be found in Between the World and Me here is where I think we might find it.
I'm going to read these posts again. They inspire me to listen to voices coming from across the distance; across the barriers of culture. Overhearing Beck's conversation with Coates's was to hear one human being say to another, "I care about you." Coates cares enough to write his book. Beck cares enough to read with attention, and to respond. The lessons of his reading of Coates, says Beck in his last post, are "struggle and love."