What a thing it must be to be reminded of your humanity. What a shame it is that this is something that is continually needed.
Nehemiah 8 tells the story of Ezra reading from the Law of Moses to the crowd assembled in Jerusalem. The crowd is made of those who have returned from Babylonian exile, returned to the city their ancestors were led away from in chains. They are a people who were born into slavery and oppression, born into a foreign land, under a foreign power, who have been restored to freedom and self-determination. But it is not until they hear the reading from the Law of Moses that they are moved to tears.
It is in the Law that they hear their humanity spoken over them. In the Law that they hear that they are created in God’s image, created for freedom not bondage, and that God is for them and not on the side of their vainglorious oppressors. What a thing that must be, when for 70 years you have heard (and witnessed) nothing but the opposite. What a thing it must be to hear that you are known, valued, and a person when the society around you has demonstrated their belief, in no uncertain terms, that you are lesser, disposable, a non-person.
To hear that dehumanising designation challenged by the picture of a God of the oppressed, who formed your very human person in God’s own image is the moving yes, the stirring affirmation of your humanity, that washes over the No(s) of the world.
As I inferred at the beginning this need to have one’s humanity read over them, to have it affirmed in spite of the surrounding dehumanising forces, is something that is not limited to the post-exilic community of Israel. This reading comes in several forms, sacred texts, artistic expressions, community ritual.
It is the affirmation of humanity in the face of systemic dehumanisation that James Cone identifies as a key motivator of the African American slave spirituals.
These songs show that black slaves did not believe that human servitude was reconcilable with their African past and their knowledge of the Christian gospel (Spirituals and the Blues, 32)
The basic idea of the spirituals is that slavery contradicts God; it is a denial of God’s will. To be enslaved is to be declared a nobody, and that form of existence contradicts God’s creation of people to be God’s children. Because black people believed that they were God’s children they affirmed their somebodiness, refusing to reconcile their servitude with divine revelation. (Spirituals and the Blues, 33)
In the chattel slave society, where everything was designed to deny the personhood and full humanity of the black person, the spirituals played a role of reminding the slaves that white supremacy was a lie. That what the society, the law, or the master said of them was not the divine truth, but that their humanity – created in the image of the God of the Exodus – was undeniable. What a thing that must be, when for 250 years you have heard (and witnessed) nothing but the opposite. It was this reminder, Cone argues that often gave slaves the strength to flee, rebel, or survive.
As slavery made way for reconstruction, segregation, and now mass incarceration, the need to affirm the humanity of those consistently treated as less than human remains. Cone identifies this reminder as one of the key tasks of Black Theology.
“Speaking a true language of black liberation, the black church must teach that, in a white world bent on dehumanising black people, Christian love means giving no ground to the enemy, but relentlessly insisting on one’s dignity as a person” (BTBP 113)
“The task of Black Theology, then, is to analyze the black man’s condition in light of God’s revelation in Jesus Christ with the purpose of creating a new understanding of black dignity among black people, and providing the necessary soul in that people, to destroy white racism.” (BTBP, 117)
“The purpose of Black Theology is to analyze the nature of Christian faith in such a way that black people can say Yes to blackness and No to whiteness and mean it.” (BTBP, 117)
Black Theology serves as a means to speak humanity over those that society dehumanises and classical theology ignores. It lends the weight of the gospel to the cries of Black Power, the joy of Black worship, and the struggle for Black liberation. It says to those who a white society would treat as an It to remain a Thou by any means necessary. It speaks humanity over those too long oppressed.
In the contemporary context, Black Lives Matter (as statement and movement) fits this tradition of speaking humanity over those who society continually dehumanises. The often violent responses such a statement elicits only serves to demonstrate the depth to which this dehumanisation has penetrated white society and consciousness. It is the music of Kendrick Lamar, among others, that takes up the mantle of the spirituals preaching black humanity, black royalty, and fighting to remind the listener struggling for liberation that “if God got us, then we gon’ be alright”. As Cone says, “The fact that black people keep making music means that we as a people refuse to be destroyed. We refuse to allow the people who oppress is to have the last word about our humanity” (Spirituals and the Blues, 130).
There are other places too, where this speaking of humanity is needed. As Sia would sing in the wake of the Pulse Night Club shooting:
I'm free to be the greatest, I'm alive
I'm free to be the greatest here tonight, the greatest
The LGBTIQ community who consistently have to defend their full humanity are free not only to be, but be the greatest. To celebrate in the face of tragedy and the dehumanisation of hate-filled violence that who we are (as who we are as queer) is fully and beautifully human, fabulous, perfect, and never to be put aside or hidden. As is sung in La Cage Aux Folles:
I am what I am
I don't want praise, I don't want pity
I bang my own drum
Some think it's noise, I think it's pretty
And so what if I love each sparkle and each bangle
Why not try to see things from a different angle
Your life is a sham
Till you can shout out
I am what I am
To sing out a reminder of one’s full humanity is a beautiful moment not only of rebellion but also of wholeness, joy, and recognition. It is the kind of thing to bring a crowd too long denied their freedom to tears. What a thing that must be, when for a lifetime you have heard (and witnessed) nothing but the opposite.
What texts, songs, rituals, or communities are there for you, if you are a part of a marginalised or oppressed community, that celebrate and affirm your full humanity?
What Then For Me?
As someone who does not belong to an oppressed community (either presently or historically) I am reminded as I write and reflect that one of the chief manifestations of my white/straight/able privilege is that I have never doubted the fullness of my humanity – and that is not because of the strength of my mind or the security of my faith, it is because I live in a society that is designed to affirm it. I am no exile, I face no threat to my freedom, and I am not subject to media dehumanisation, or extra-judicial suspicion and violence.
However, I nonetheless need a reminder of my humanity – not because society threatens to diminish my comprehension of my humanity, but because it seeks to raise it too high. The reason the oppressed are denied their full humanity is because their oppressors think themselves into too lofty a status and seek to become like God. There is no clearer idolatry, no more precise picture of a people seeking to take the place of God, as those who make, treat, or perceive of another human as less than human. The racist slavery of the US is based on whites assuming the role of God and deciding who was or wasn’t fully human and who did or did not warrant freedom. The racism of Australia’s colonialism was deeming the Indigenous people as not really people (fauna and flora to be precise). The homophobia that inspired the Pulse shooting, and other such hate crimes and terrorist acts, is fueled by the belief that some people are less than people and hence their lives are expendable.
In a society designed for me, the great threat is not that I’ll think too lowly of my humanity, but too highly – I need my humanity spoken over me to remind me of who I am as a created being, meant for freedom… just like my neighbour and just like the stranger. As I hear my humanity read out over me, and come into contact with other communities and their cultural readings, I become aware not only of my humanity but of the humanity of others, and so am compelled to join in the work of affirming humanity, join in the struggle for liberation wherever it is needed.
This is what Jayakumar Christian designates as a “missiology for the margins”. Christian writes about the way the powerful in society form a “god-complex”, which shapes the worldview of a society:
“The god-complexes (non-poor people, structures and systems seeking to play god) in poverty situations seek to absolutize themselves. This tendency to absolutize power, influence eternal tomorrows, overflow scope-specific influence, claim immutability or fear no power deflation are traits that are normally attributed to the gods. The powerful seek to play this role in the lives of the poor.” ("Innovation at the Margins" in The State of Missiology Today, ed. Charles Van Engen, (IVP 2016) 169)
This playing god is, as Christian rightly asserts, an affront to the Kingdom of God. To counter it, those with power need to follow Christ and engage in a self-emptying, a jubilee of power balances. Christian criticises models of development that simply wish to redistribute the same power, seeking something more radical:
“If we perceive poverty as the captivity of the poor within the god complexes of the nonpoor and their structures and systems, then our response to poverty must involve the reversal of these god-complexes.” (170)
What better way to achieve that than to remember our own humanity – to have that spoken over us through art, community, and Scripture. Christian shows that poverty and oppression are the “result of the marring of the identity of the oppressed.” Hence missiology from/for the margins needs to employ the theology of the imago Dei to affirm the humanity of those who have been marred, those who have been placed in bondage, those who have been oppressed, disenfranchised and dehumanised.
This is the twofold response for someone like me – allow my humanity to be spoken over me as a counter to the societal forces which encourage me to take the place of God, and show up in solidarity in the margins, to support the affirmation of humanity present in the communities and movements of resistance and liberation.