In my almost five decades of existence and as I’ve both experienced and observed the world around me in the practice of love, I came to the conclusion years ago that one of the marks of true love is being able to fight and still be together. Yet, in order to do that, the ingredients of mutuality need to be in place for that to happen. Let me explain.
Many of you who either grew up in large families or who have siblings know that it is impossible to live together with someone/people without sometimes bumping heads. I remember as a teenager, my step-mom explaining this concept to me as we discussed the complexities of marriage. True to our Urhobo custom of teaching in and by parables (remind you of anyone? Jesus, of course!), she made her point through a parable. She said something like this, “the teeth and the tongue dwell together in the mouth and both work for the common good of the body, yet sometimes, the teeth accidentally bites the tongue. Yet, they do not break up, but continue to work together for the common good.” I don’t know if my later understanding of true love (both romantic and non-romantic) would stem from this conversation. I do know that my expectations of true (Christian) love and true (Christian) community have been rooted in this belief: if we cannot fight honestly and still value and hold each other close, it is a sham of a relationship. As a result, I tend to be honest in all my relationships and do not lie, nor pretend when I have been hurt. Why? I want to dwell only where there is love.
I am thankful to say that God has indeed been kind to honor my understanding as I am part of a Christian community (my presbytery) that also knows how to fight honestly, yet value and hold each other close. My presbytery has been a huge place of finding faith in a world that often disappoints and causes one to lose hope in ever seeing the Kingdom of God manifest on earth. But last week, I added yet one more community to my list of where mutuality – the acknowledging and honoring of the common value of being created in God’s image – can be found.
Last week at the formerly CBE International owned Facebook group, now Biblical Egalitarian Christians (BCE), a series of events led to my taking a (Caucasian) sister whom I loved dearly to task. This action revealed the divide that exists among even White and people of color Christian egalitarians, as it revealed the lack of understanding on the part of our Caucasian family in matters of equality for women of color – that women of color, just like women in general, require certain conditions for the environment to be truly one of equality and mutuality for them. This lack of understanding and knowledge was made evident in the several days of often-heated discussion that ensued from my post.
For women of color, the problem was the same age-old problem: some of our Caucasian family did not realize that despite not being overtly racist, they sometimes, nevertheless, perpetuate dynamics of racism towards women of color, particularly, the assumption that we aren’t sufficient in ourselves. This dynamic is not intentional, but rather a blind spot of the effect of racism, and which can only be evident to those (Caucasians) who are willing to take an honest lesson in re-examining and re-evaluating their postures and attitudes in the light of their commitment to ethnic and gender equality.
As you may agree, trying to correct a particular action is not always the best time to try to teach everything a person needs to know about a concept. Yet, without that knowledge, the action itself cannot be corrected. What to do?
The inability of some Caucasian sisters, including my sister whom I took to task over the issue, to understand the problem meant a heightened tension in both our conversations and within the group at large. How to defuse this? Should we (w/poc) just walk away and let the wrong dynamic of relationship from our supposedly well-meaning Caucasian family continue, in order to ‘keep the peace’ in the group? Neither I, nor my other women of color sisters felt that was right. I agree. Let me explain.
Imagine you are a child again, growing up in your family, and one of your siblings loves to play with one of your favorite toys and in the course of playing with it, inadvertently destroys it. Although, they may offer an apology, they cannot understand the way the pain inflicted by their (un-premeditated) action tore your heart apart. Now, your sibling never set out to tear your heart apart. It was just the consequence of an action from them. Furthermore, although you may (should) forgive your sibling, in order to prevent future damage to your heart, you will need to establish boundaries of use about your property to your sibling, and although your sibling might still play with your toys (with or without your permission), if your sibling wants to avoid hurting you, they will do their best to respect the boundaries of use of your toys in the future.
This was the same dynamic at work with our women of color and our Caucasian sisters: the women of color were trying to establish the boundaries of what our Caucasian family could or could not do with our (w/poc) advocacy. Despite the fact that we all live in the same house (of gender inequality), nevertheless, because of racism, there are certain things that are particular to the experience of women of color, and our Caucasian sisters need to be made aware of and respectful of that in order for our relationship to be one of mutuality. Awareness and respect of, builds a foundation of trust within w/poc that our Caucasian family will always honor this boundary in the equality conversation. But the difficulty in establishing this understanding is the underlying cause of many breakups between Caucasian egalitarians and egalitarians of color. What to do?
Well, first of, I refused to forget that we are a family (of God and of humanity), and as such we bear a common last name of ‘Christian.’ A name and relationship which should never be taken for granted, treated lightly, abused, nor neglected. Being the family of God does not necessarily mean absence of accountability towards the property and persons of others. What was needed in this conversation, was a way to hold everyone (including myself) accountable to love, that is, if there was true love.
If true love means fighting fair and honestly, while maintaining value and regard for one another, then neither me, nor people of color need to reduce ourselves and our voices in order to get along with Caucasians. Neither do we need to compromise our worth or hide our pain at our boundaries being breached in order to belong in the community of God.
This whole fight questioned our (Caucasians and people of color) belonging (together), and the answer came in several ways which showed progress, growth and definite hope for reconciliation. Here they are:
Throughout the conversation, I continued praying and asking God for wisdom and direction, and asked all those (w/poc and w/poc allies) who contacted me to do the same. I will forever treasure those people and those prayers as they paved the way for what transpired next.
My sister whom I have loved, and whose love I (and other w/poc and w/poc allies) now questioned because of her (mis)use of our (w/poc) advocacy space, picked up the gauntlet to meet with me (an invitation that had been left unused for several years) within a few days of this tribal war in our group.
As we both prepared for the meeting, I held myself accountable in my duty to love my neighbor as myself and I prayed and asked God for the grace and unction to do that with her. Those prayers were answered in the love that suffused the communication between my (Caucasian) sister and I just prior to the meeting: we both still disagreed strongly, yet, recognized and made space for this love between us.
Our first sight and beholding of one another occurred amidst tears and profuse apology from my sister as she unashamedly and unabashedly owned her (unintentional) wrong towards me and our w/poc community. Although I was quick to forgive, I also knew that we needed to create pathways to understanding and knowledge of how this w/poc equality advocacy is different for and therefore ‘owned by‘ w/poc, so that proper attention is given to these boundaries in the future.
But we only had a few hours – we had an emergency, unplanned meeting amidst my academic school day. How do we do this? Is it possible to teach someone everything they need to know about another person in one day and in one communication? As we held each other close, I hurriedly sent several prayers up to the LORD, asking for direction. My answer came. I felt the LORD say “just spend time with one another, begin from there.”
So I invited her to spend the day with me (mind you, I was in school) and she agreed. We had lunch, did my class exercise together, attended my class together, and finished up with a couple more hours of talking after class and finally concluded with prayer. In total, we spent six hours together in that one day! Something I consider a feat on the part of my sister. We are both introverts, so this was a huge gift on both our parts but more so on hers as she was also dealing with an illness.
In our conversation, I was careful to remember that I stood as a representative of w/poc (it was the same vein in which I had spoken in our group), and I had the enormous task of ascertaining the true tone of this meeting and of this sister and its impact for future relationship between our people in the BCE group. As we spoke, I carefully observed and ‘listened’ to ‘hear’ everything she said, not just about her work or others, but also about herself. I needed to find out exactly where she stood – was she with us (w/poc) as a sister or was she with us as a stranger? As we bared our souls to one another, I concluded the former and we decided to close in prayer over and for one another.
During our prayer time, I silently asked God for how to articulate what transpired in this meeting to both the w/poc community and the BCE group. The answer came when my sister, Jory, prayed. In her prayer, she said “LORD, thank you for letting us fight like sisters.” And bingo, the LORD brought to my memory my understanding of love.
I come from a very large family and we are each heavily gifted and dynamic. It also means we clash a lot, but something is clear – we each have ways of establishing our boundaries, and sometimes, those ways don’t seem to be the most loving, but as we have lived, they have nevertheless improved our understanding of, and communication and interaction with one another. What’s also glaring to me in this move to improve our relationship in my biological family, is that it is a lifetime journey – it does not occur in one fell swoop, but instead and often needs repetition throughout the course of our lives.
In my family relationships, I have also realized that if one of us refuses to recognize and honor the boundary of the other, although, siblings, we are unable to have relationship for that moment and just being part of the same family is not enough to carry us along in those conditions. We must also respect each other’s boundaries in order to get along. But when that willingness and respect on both parts is there, hallelujah!, we have each other back!
That willingness was mutually present with me and my sister, Jory. Yet, it is not a once and for all accomplishment, but one that is in progress, and one that will require us (both Jory and I, as well as w/poc and our well-meaning Caucasian Christian egalitarian family) to maintain a lifetime commitment to listening to one another in order to get to understand and know, in order to honor each other’s boundaries better.
Jory demonstrated a willingness to that commitment by spending an unplanned six hours of her day with me. Today, I will drive an hour each way to support her in her exercising her call to preach at a church in Ohio. I will do this, even though today is the only day off I have had in several months. I will do this, even though I am in the midst of an academic program and still have three books and five papers to finish for class by tomorrow morning. But love calls us to make sacrifices that affirm and honor the other, and in recognizing that we represent two equally essential parts of God’s Family, we count these sacrifices as gains if it helps us build better bridges to mutuality for our communities.
That thing about siblinghood and sibling boundaries? It cannot occur in an unsafe family environment, but requires a place where the siblings feel a sense of mutual belonging. I am happy to say that our group, Biblical Christian Egalitarians, provided that space for us to fight and find belonging as siblings.
-Rev. Oghene’tega Swann
They say a picture says a thousand words and I agree. Of all our pictures together (we both love taking pictures), I chose to post this because of my firm belief and commitment to the Theology of Food (a term I made up and which I’ve been spouting for a few years now). This one picture says a lot about belonging and having equal space at God’s Table. May our (Caucasians and people/women of color) future endeavors and interactions with one another work to honor and affirm this, in Jesus name.