A Pause for the Cause
My moratorium on white theologians...that just so happened to fall on the week of Juneteenth
"I cannot listen to another white person tell me who God is and how I’m supposed to engage her. Not today! Not for a while. I’m instituting a moratorium!"
I make this decision sitting on a stool in my church’s library in front of the section on mysticism. The subject had come up during a weekly young adult gathering where we talk theology. I had mentioned there that I consider myself a mystic, and after talking around the subject for a bit someone innocently asked, “What is mysticism?”
I thought for a moment before responding, “I don’t know.” Somewhat embarrassed I explained, “I mean, I know what I mean when I say it, but I don’t know the proper definition.” The response disturbs me now as I sit in front of these books searching for the answer. But why? It’s not that after spending three years (and a significant amount of money) “mastering the divine” that I don’t remember a canned definition of Christian mysticism. It may have embarrassed me initially, but it didn’t bother me now. I read a lot in seminary. Some of it stuck, and the rest of it can be found in the library I accumulated during my matriculation. I’m not trippin’ that I didn’t remember a definition. What disturbs me is that my failure to remember how someone else defined a thing caused me to conclude that I didn’t know what it was.
“Of course I know”, I thought to myself as I sat on that stool. How could I be a mystic without having a concept of what it is? I know what mysticism is because my grandmother was a Christian mystic whose teaching continues to form me today. Mysticism is the idea that one can communicate with the God who is mystery and receive clarity for ordering one’s life. It’s the belief that the ethereal, the immaterial can be seen and heard and felt as we navigate the mystery of our own existence. It’s walking by faith and receiving divine “confirmation”. It’s testimony service and Holy Ghost possession. It’s petitioning someone who “can get a prayer through”. It’s inviting the Lord to “come on in the room”. It’s Black Jesus prints and Barack Obama bible covers. It’s taking a text that was intended to internalize our oppression and finding a way to read it through the lens of liberation. I know what mysticism is!
What I didn’t know in that moment was how a bunch of white men, unquestionably accepted as theologians, decided to define mysticism when they discovered it (like Christopher Columbus discovered America), thereby giving it legitimacy and paving the way for others like them to become so called authorities on the subject. Which has me sitting in this library looking like Boo Boo the Fool trying to figure out which one of these white dudes I’m going to trust to give me the answer to a question that I already know the answer to. Not tuh-day Satan!
It reminded me of a scene from Zora Neal Hurston’s, Barracoon. Kossola, one of the last slaves brought to the US, recalls how he and other recent arrivals spent their Sundays on the Alabama plantation: “...we so glad we ain’ gottee no work to do. So we dance lak in de Afficky soil.”
I can’t think of a better way to spend the sabbath--that weekly observance of rest on which work is forbidden--than to dance. To move your limbs in a way that is not legislated by your oppressor. To curate your own playlist and indulge the choreography of your soul. But the other slaves, separated by centuries from their indigenous religious practices, saw this celebration as savagery. Indoctrinated into the religion of the slave owner and submitted to the God fashioned in his image, for them, there was no sabbath. For even on Sunday their bodies did their master’s bidding, disdaining the recreation their souls so desperately needed.
But today, I choose to dance with Kossola and ‘nem. Today I choose to trust the wisdom that lies within, passed down through generations of people who may not have been German theologians, but knew God intimately. In a small, but significant act of resistance I sit on that stool in front of all those white dudes and download works by Howard Thurman and Kelly Brown Douglas. I plan to add them to the volumes uploaded in my spirit by my grandmother. Then, I saunter out of the library and down the hall in a kind of subdued dance, content to leave those other volumes on the shelf for someone who doesn’t know what I know.