Heaven & Earth
The Dark Jesus: How Spiritual Imagery Inspires Progressive Change and Heals Racism
A theory and an example
Cornel West, author of Race Matters and professor of
African-American Studies at Harvard, has noted that the greatest moments
of change in this country have emerged during times of heightened public
discourse and debate. The Abolitionist movement, the Women's Suffrage movement
and the rise of Populism, the Civil Rights movement, the Peace movement
and the re-emergence of feminism in the 1960's are prime examples.
These movements all arose out of extended public debate: the overflow of
small group dialogue and consciousness-raising. West predicts that if
we cannot find the ability to talk to and understand one another, the
dreams of freedom, equality, and justice that spawned this country may
soon lie shattered at our feet.
Today, public discourse is becoming increasingly religious and theological. Yet it is not very diverse. Political leaders often make
reference to the all-powerful male God of might who punishes
"evil-doers" and rewards the righteous. But little more than this enters the political arena.
It is time to understand the power and the dangers that lie at the intersection of
politics and spirituality. It is time to realize that our
concept of the Divine has direct, profound political impact.
The Power of the Image
need to seize this historic moment to break up the western hegemony of
religious imagery. We need to bring forward the rich variety of forms of the
Divine that have existed in the human family for thousands of years,
especially, but not only, those that are dark and female.
we need to encourage and support artists like Janet McKenzie, whose
groundbreaking painting Jesus of the People (at
right) embodies the kind of inclusive vision that can bring balance and wholeness to the lives of everyone, male and female
At the same time, we must remember
that female images of the Divine are not in themselves
transformational. They can be used for oppression and
exploitation, as well as for empowerment. It is how the Divine is
imagined in relationship to the human that is important. We must
also have diverse models of women and men, but especially women, who are
powerful, spiritually resourceful, compassionate, and effective in the
work of protecting and healing the world, including its environment and
its children. We need to learn their stories and make them known
to our children.
we seek to heal racism, protect the environment, promote peace, or empower
women, narrow religious and spiritual imagery creates stumbling blocks
instead of starting blocks. Let us choose images that help us and make us comfortable enough with our
differences to understand and talk with one another.
An Example: Healing Racism and The
Keepers of Love
Keepers of Love began in 2000, growing out of my research into an untold,
hidden, repressed, African-American version of history that runs alongside – sometimes
parallel to, sometimes in opposition to – the accepted, official, white
narrative. Research into county historical records and interviews with
local residents in Harrison County, which was at one time the largest slave-owning
county in Texas, led me to the discovery of Love Cemetery. Love Cemetery is an
African-American communal burial ground that the local community had been
locked out of for forty years. Research became activism as I helped organize
a grassroots, interracial committee made up of local religious leaders and
lay people, to work on restoring community access to Love. The work of this
committee – both its internal struggles with the assumptions and hidden
prejudices that can sabotage even the most well-intentioned groups, and the
outer work overcoming the obstacles to reopening and rededicating the
cemetery – stands as a model for the kind of compassionate discourse that is
the beginning of reconciliation.
Metaphorically, Love Cemetery is a symbol, a spiritual image. It stands at the center of a much larger body of
unearthed history that we have been excavating. In this case, since 1985, we have been working and unearthing material that reaches back to the time of slavery and the post-Civil War era of
Reconstruction. In particular, we've found and researched stories of
"landtakings" – the theft of land from African Americans. We've discovered forms of
slavery that continued well into the 20th century and in some cases continue even up to the present
day. Unlike South Africa, we here in the United States have had no officially sanctioned
effort toward "Truth and Reconciliation."
If racial healing is to occur, it
must begin with efforts like The Keepers of Love. Only by giving voice to
the voiceless, by telling hitherto untold parts of our shared history,
can the true scope of this vast wound be seen, felt, and healed.
work on Love continues, I've begun writing a book about the experience, The
Keepers of Love, to be published by Harper San Francisco in late 2006.
The book unpacks the tangled black and white historical narratives that
meander through this region like the sloughs and bayous that give the land
its character. I chronicle some of the work of reconciliation that underlies the
reclamation of Love Cemetery (Love includes Native American burials). By
telling the story of this one act of interracial and intergenerational
reconciliation, my intention is to provide a model – a symbol – for the kind of small
community action that can contribute to the healing of the deep racial
wounds that prevent democracy from achieving its full flowering in this
China Galland is director of the Images of Divinity Research Project (IOD), a project which began with research into the story of the Buddha Tara. At a time in which it was commonly held that only men could become enlightened, Tara publicly declared that there was no such thing as male or female and then vowed to be enlightened only in a woman's body. Galland is also author of Longing for Darkness, Tara and the Black Madonna, (Viking 1990/Penguin 1991) and The Bond Between Women: A Journey to Fierce Compassion (Riverhead Books/Putnam 1998).
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