A Tale of Two Queens

“Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a great battle.”

When we hear of rumors of civil unrest, when we see images of angry and often unfamiliar looking people, we may begin to feel the weight of worry and anxiety over our daily lives and how society may or may not affect us. Sadly, we often feel helpless in our ability to filter out these images. My colleague and good friend Terrence Freeman often talks about the theater of the mind. It is in this space of our thoughts that we can begin to build nightmarish narratives. In this age of social media, images and words are often charged with unfiltered opinion like never before. It is in this climate that old stereotypes may become infused with new and often uncontested power. One that is particularly damaging and incredibly poisonous is the image of the Black Welfare Queen. Poisonous because it is insidious in its ability to set a tone that can often permeate a person’s perceptions and potential interactions with a whole cross section of people; namely, African American women. Furthermore, it is damaging in so far as it can provide the fuel for micro aggressions, or flat out hostility, that is played out against an unknowing other, i.e. the woman who is trying to juggle her tired and fussy kids at the grocery store.

The interesting thing about the narratives that we often invest ourselves into, is that they tend to come from a place that is easily accessible, comfortable and unchallenged. What if we were to step back from the lens of our worldview and to try and see the world from a different perspective? Perhaps then, we might begin to see that the experiences of others are not only different from our own, but the way these individuals have processed their experiences are radically different too. In other words, we may assume we know what someone else is going through, or why they have made the decisions they have made, but the simple truth of the matter is that we don’t know!

Some of the most powerful interactions I have had at Reconciliation Services have been with these “welfare queens” and make no mistake, what made the interactions powerful was the ability of these women to not necessarily shatter, but rather to turn the stereotype on its head. What the stereotype tries to present are women who are undisciplined, immoral, materialistic and gross. However, what I have experienced are women that are surprisingly resourceful, dedicated to their children, deeply spiritual in their time of need and wonderfully creative!

The idea of revealing the strengths of the community we serve isn’t just a slogan at RS, it is something that we experience daily. To be clear, it was in the engagement and willingness to see these women for who they are, and not exclusively their circumstances, that began to correct the negative narratives that have played in the theater of my own mind.

Often, we forget that stereotypes are caricatures, shadows of something real. In opposition to the caricature stands a reality that can only be experienced by actually seeing these women for who and what they are: Icons of Christ. This reality of bearing the image of God is so much more than lofty theological ruminations, or sentimental ponderings. It is often visceral, unavoidable and illuminating. For many of these women, the trauma they have experienced should simply have crushed them. Yet, something inside them pushes them forward. Something inside them chooses to love and to hope.

Black Madonna of Czestochowska

Black Madonna of Czestochowska

In the dining room of RS there is a large picture of the Black Madonna of Czestochowska, the Queen of Heaven. In this icon her face is soft, but troubled. She bares two scars on her cheek, all the while never wavering in the supportive embrace of her son Jesus. This icon does so much more than passively sit as a decoration in a dining room; it silently teaches, inspires and reveals what is hidden, but still very much there. It speaks of the resilient strength, hope and faith of Mary, the mother of Jesus, and it reveals the same qualities in the community we serve here on 31st and Troost. Even if someone isn’t religious per say, I believe the narrative of the young Mary of Nazareth, who in spite of incredible obstacles chose to never give in and to push forward in hope, can be seen as inspiring. Accordingly, it is the ability of so many of the mothers we serve at RS to push forward in spite of incredible social obstacles, and personal mistakes, to be selfless in their devotion and love for their child, that forms a different kind of impression on the theater of my mind. This indelible impression is that of a woman who is worthy of  honor and respect, because she hasn’t allowed any obstacle (including asking for help) to keep her from the devotion and care of her children. A woman who like the icon of Mary, bares scars! When I remember that scars are the reminders of battles survived, not lost, it leaves me with a vision that is actually heroic. The fact that these women are in front of me, looking for a path forward, resilient and refusing to surrender in the great battle of their lives for the sake of their children, makes them nothing less than heroic.

Article by Turbo Qualls, Case Manager - Reconciliation Services

 

Racism as Iconoclasm

The greatest danger in the modern world is the attack on man as the image of God. That God became man in order to unite man to God is the only sure Divine underwriting of human worth. We have value because of the image we bear" (Archbishop Dmitri of Dallas).

Earlier this afternoon while at Reconciliation Services I was speaking with a young man whom I have known now for about a year and a half. He is very bright but admittedly troubled and he is working through the issues that aren’t so uncommon for most young men of his age. On this particular day, he was commenting on a book about the history of Christianity in Africa which I had given him the week prior. He had just finished the section that was speaking about the repopulation of the earth by the sons of Noah; Shem, Ham and Japheth. After having a relatively simple (as much as that is possible) and quick discussion on allegory and genetic possibilities, my friend gave me a side-eyed glance and said to me, “so if Noah was given the job of repopulating the earth, then that means we (human beings) are all related, right?” To this, my best answer in the moment was to quote Jimi Hendrix, from his song Machine Gun where he assumes the character of a lamenting soldier, who in midst of the carnage and murder of combat, observes: “evil man make you kill me, evil man make me kill you, even though we're only families apart!”

The Apostle John taught that if you hate your brother you are guilty of murder (1 John 3:15). These are the strongest of words, especially for us here in the United States where we are seemingly in an unending cycle of racial tension. For many of us, the best we can do is to throw up our hands in resignation, and to do our best to “mind our own business.” I admit that this type of resignation in the face of such deeply entrenched attitudes and issues, seems like the wise choice; however, as the old adage states: those who are ignorant of history are doomed to repeat it. For me, the hard fight for understanding of the theology of the Icon by the ancient Church has been the greatest antidote against the atrophying doom of ignorance.

The iconoclast period was a period in the history of the ancient Christian Church, that lasted roughly 90 years (730-787CE and 813-843CE) where the controversy over the use of the Icon in Christian worship violently erupted. In short, the iconoclasts saw the Icon as idolatry; where as the Orthodox saw the Icon as the proclamation of the incarnation of God in the flesh. The final triumph of the Icon and the reasons behind it are explained best by the hymnography sung by all Orthodox Christians on the first Sunday of Great Lent. This hymn says: 

“No one could describe the Word of the Father; but when He took flesh from you, O Theotokos (Mother of God), He accepted to be described, and restored the fallen image to its former beauty. We confess and proclaim our salvation in word and images.”

If I were to boil this down to an essential statement, I believe it would simply say that the Icon explains what words alone cannot. It reveals to mankind that God loves His creation. That God would humble Himself and become a man like us, is too great of a mystery to simply be pronounced with words. How is it then, that racism is the new Iconoclasm? Racism not only blinds our ability to see those who simply look different than us as being made in the image of God, it can go as far as to distort our vision of them into horrific caricature. We all have family members that we struggle to get along with; accordingly, most have also had the experience of having a friend that is closer than a brother. This phenomenon is the proof, that relation is something deeper than biology. It’s about relating.

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The ancient Christian church affirmed the veneration of Icons because she discerned that the Icon could not be properly seen with just fleshly eyes, that ultimately there was something hidden behind the wood and paint. Therefore, the destruction of the Icon had little to do with the simple vandalism of a painting; rather, it was a flat out assault against the great mystery of God becoming man, to affirm his love for man. How much more of an affront is it, when we see the assault upon our brothers and sisters who are living icons, because of their outward appearance, because of biological facets like skin color and hair type? Like the Iconoclast of old, is it not because we are blind to what lies beneath? Is it not Christ who is the very archetype of every man? Panayiotis Nellas, a Greek theologian wrote:

“…It thus becomes clear that the essence of man is not found in the matter from which he was created but in the archetype on the basis of which he was formed and towards which he tends… As the truth of an icon lies in the person it represents, so the truth of man lies in his archetype (Christ).” (Deification in Christ, p33)

In looking back to ancient history, I have found that the answer to the racial strife that lies in the hearts of so many in this country isn’t an easy fix, but it is a simple one. History can be a very tricky course to navigate, but sometimes the most complex concepts are best explained simply, and in regard to understanding the Iconoclastic tone of racism, I think I’ve heard it best summed up by an abbess of a monastery in California who recently said, “God doesn’t make junk.”

Article by Turbo Qualls, Case Manager - Reconciliation Services