Heidi Neumark is a Lutheran pastor and author. I don’t actually know her at all. But my friend, Laura, read her Heidi’s recent blog post, “Fifty Shades of Changing the Subject.” In it she laments both the challenge of biblical metaphors that seem only to make movement toward racial justice more difficult, but more specifically the way that many pastors try to side-step even asking the question about that. Because Laura liked the way I treated darkness in my new children’s book, When God Was a Little Girl, she said quite bluntly, “I wish you’d write something in reply to her post.” Okay, I have.
Heidi, I appreciate your choice to wade into this conversation. At my church we recently had the youth with us during an adult forum; they co-led a sort of “base community” engagement with a Scripture passage, John 8:12 — Jesus as the Light of the world. We are mostly a white congregation, but our youth, reflect our few black families as well as several children adopted from Africa. It was painful for me to listen as these dozen kids — over half of whom were brown- or black-skinned were led unwittingly into a spiritual lesson about Light. Asked to reflect on ways that their lives walk in the Light. Asked, also unwittingly, by adults responsible for their spiritual nurture to become accomplices in making Light/Dark a central set of axes in their spiritual world, only to learn all too late that their skin suddenly becomes the Adversary in the worst way long after the deal is struck.
I spoke up and challenged it that morning. I am a white man with white children, determined to stumble my way toward a world where whiteness and darkness are not so univocal in their values. Here is one way I have done it:
I have a new children’s book out, When God was a Little Girl. A story I wove for my own daughter, to help her grasp the exuberant joy of creation (it is a retelling of the creation tale through the metaphor of God as a little girl doing an art project) and to immerse her in the narrated fulness that she, too, is wholly imago Dei.
But listen to this short exchange in the story:
“—and whatever she sang she could see just as clearly as when you paint me a picture. And the first word she sang, softly but very clear, was, ‘Love.’ And the Love looked like . . . what do you think, Susanna?”
“Mmm . . . darkness. It was all dark.”
“Ah, midnight blue: the color of the sky in the middle of the night? The deepest blue you can imagine, even darker than black. Why do think Love was that color?”
“Because, Daddy, that’s just like love. It’s there, even when you can’t see it. Love always finds you in the darkness, and when it holds you close, you know you’re home.”
“That’s beautiful, darling. So, before anything else was made, there was Love. Love, like deep dark blue, has always been here.”
“Yup. Love was what God felt when she was giggling. And Love was the first color God painted when she sang.”
What if the GOODNESS of creation begins NOT with the Light, but with the love-laden darkness that fills the pregnant nothing before all things come to be. What if the Dark is cast that way from the very first? As that which, when we sense it all around us, is no cause for fear, but for trust in the wrap of God’s love.
It is ‘just’ a children’s book, but rife with wisdom, both for kids and adults.
I say to both you and your colleague on the border, play mischief with (or subvert altogether) the biblical tendency to give whiteness the upper hand over darkness. It may be an understandable preference in our past, but it becomes an intolerable bias in our present. Perhaps some biblical texts are just waiting to be argued with — their revelatory truth unveiled in our opposition to them. Liberatory mid rash. Push back. Because the way that race roils in our nation today … no less on Sunday mornings than the rest of the time … we need a richer array of metaphors if we’re truly more interested in offering news that is good rather than simply repeating verses with value-neutral (read: “deadly”) accuracy.
I don’t have the answers. But I will not keep the questions to myself. I will stumble forward into this darkness … trusting that even if I have to bump into them, there are holy truths and wholly humans waiting within to be found.