By Joshua Long
I remember turning to the news on August 12, 2017, tiki torches, and white militias paraded the streets of Charlottesville, Virginia. I watched as ministers from a wide range of faiths and denominations put their bodies on the line to stand against the deadly white supremacist rally that was taking place. Just eight months into the presidency of Donald Trump gave many men of European descent the permission they needed to outwardly March again the equality of black and brown bodies.
Four years later, we have a semblance of justice. Derrick Chauvin is found guilty of the murder of George Floyd. His sentence does not meet the crime as he will get out in 22 years, but the conviction gives a small shroud of hope that things may eventually change. While I believe our continued analysis of systemic racism in our legal structures is essential, I’ve spent the past year reflecting on the ways racism is found in our bodies. Resmaa Menakem’s bestselling book My Grandmother’s Hands has led me into this work of self-reflection and holistic activism.
When I heard they had announced the verdict for the trial of Derek Chauvin, my body became warm and tingly. I felt my nerves electrify, and blood began to rush as adrenaline spread throughout my body. I was physically bracing for the trauma of “not guilty.” Before reading Menakem, I would have only paid attention to what I was thinking. My thoughts about the not guilty probability and the coming protest. Will I protest as well? However, having just done one of the meditations Menakem instructs in his book a few hours earlier that day, I had become more aware of what my body was doing in its moment of anxiety. My body was also creating trauma as a response to protect itself.
I appreciated Menakem’s book “My Grandmother’s Hands: Racialized Trauma and the Pathway to Mending Our Hearts and Bodies” where he approach to racial justice as he speaks from his profession as a licensed clinical therapist. His expertise connects a large portion of what is missing in our conversations around dismantling racism. So much of western (European descended) discourse is solely linked to the cognitive. Post-enlightenment ideologies dominate American Culture. My denomination, Unitarian Universalism, comes out of a deep appreciation for a reason, science, and human ingenuity. However, we struggle to dismantle white supremacy because of our inclination to ignore the body and only talk about the mind. Menakem writes, “We will not change this situation through training, traditional education, or other appeals to the cognitive brain. We need to begin with the body and its relation to trauma.”
Before I began my recent mental health trauma therapy journey two years ago, I believed I didn’t carry any trauma with me. I thought trauma was this weighted thing that only “damaged people” or “rape victims” have. My therapist would define trauma similar to Menakem’s. “Trauma is not a flaw or a weakness. It is a highly effective tool of safety and survival. Trauma is also not an event. Trauma is the body’s protective response to an event or series of events that it perceives as potentially dangerous.” Trauma is a natural part of the human or even living experience. The body, the lizard brain, and the soul nerve all work together to protect us without consideration, morals, ethics, who, what, where, why!
This is an argument against the doctrine of Original sin. If trauma is the natural response for protecting our entire being, and if Genesis 1 repetitively states that God’s creation is Good, and if Jesus has liberated us through the resurrection and invites us to redeem as well, then what about the human being is so depraved? White supremacy has taught that the body is the place of sin and shame. Paul’s letter to the Romans can become problematic if it is taken out of its context of redemption through Jesus Christ. Romans 7:6 reads, “To set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace.” Paul’s words are appropriated in European theology and permit Europeans to destroy white bodies.
There were many ways to butcher, torment, and murder a human body. When the Europeans cross the Atlantic to invade and conquer the Americas, they carried this trauma. When European settler-colonizers encountered Africans and Native Peoples, they took their dirty pain out on the bodies of those they deemed inferior. Only a theology that demonizes the body allows for this type of trauma to exist for a thousand years and then justifies the passing on of trauma to other communities. White Christianity becomes the tool that allows for the cycle of dirty pain to exist; it justifies the crucifying of black bodies for white bodies to live.
Earlier this year, I visited my great-grandfathers grave and walked the ground that he walked. My body reacted to my ancestors’ trauma—living conditions in Southwest Virginia during the Jim Crow Era. My ability to heal from this trauma is 2-fold. It requires me to go through the trauma through clean pain. But, as a Christian, I must also strip my entire being of European Christianity and decolonize my faith. I would argue that the latter is more challenging because of our shared culture of White Supremacy. When I let go of the doctrine of Original sin and adhere to a theology of original blessing, I see my body and all bodies as good.
As I explored my healing of radicalized trauma, I discovered that my love for music and passion for the environment is deeply embedded in my body, soul, and spirit. I sang I want Jesus to walk with Me as I walked along the Appalachian Trail. The Jesus that I walk with must not have any blemish of European Christianity. The Black Jesus I call upon knows my trauma and is with me through my times of pain.
For those of African and Indigenous descent, we must let go of the reflex to soothe white bodies to heal fully. “There will surely be times when soothing someone is exactly the right thing for you to do. Sometimes that person will be white. But from now on, when you soothe another body, I encourage you to do it by choice, not out of reflex.” That may be one of the most healing things that I can do while working with people of European Descent. This will also challenge white bodies to do their healing and decolonizing work.
Theological conversations for dismantling racism are not solely a cognitive or academic experience. These discussions involve holistic healing of heart and body and a commitment to decolonizing our individual and collective faith. As a person of African descent who has decided to follow Jesus, I must work on my healing to not harm other bodies.
My calling to minister through music and support the climate justice movement must be grounded in a faith that centers my black body and the liberation of all marginalized peoples. Do People of European descent need to be liberated from the lie of white supremacy? Absolutely! However, my work is to create healthy cultures through music and activism, hoping that all peoples will one day come together for collective healing and liberation.
Joshua Long is the Director of Music Ensembles at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Annapolis. He serves on board of the UU Ministry for Earth and is currently a student at Wesley theological seminary working on an M.div with a specialization in Public Theology. His heart for faith, climate justice, and social change is made clear in both his music and ministry.