By Tonetta Landis-Aina
As I enter another New Year and consider with care the habits I want to break and the habits I want to build, I’m struck by one quirk I tend to repeat without thinking. I have the terrible tendency of harassing people who knit. In truth, while my quirk may not quite come up to the level of harassment, I do quite often tend toward an over enthusiasm when I encounter anyone sitting with a morass of yarn or even who talks about their propensity to sit with one. I’m drawn toward knitting not so much for the end product, which always seems to be moored in the realm of mystery, but rather for the process. For the faith and the commitment to what is only imagined. Who are these people who sit like the desert mothers and fathers of old, using their hands in productive ways to embody a dream while, at the same time, being grounded in an awareness that resists distraction and diversion — that is grounded in the contemplative particularity of the now?
A few weeks back, one of the elders in my church, Bekki Fahrer, shared a Christmas Eve meditation. She is a knitter, one of the unfortunate subjects of my near harassment and, to my delight, she grounded her reflection in her experience of knitting. She spoke of her three decades practicing the craft, but especially of those moments when she had encountered a complicated tangle in the work. She spoke of these as moments waiting for epiphany. You cannot move forward without moving backward. There are hard decisions to be made. Do you cut that section of fabric away completely or do you commit to the slow work of investigating each thread until you find the roots of the tangle? Epiphany, she noted, happens not when you receive the complete answer to the problem but rather when you begin to see the path forward. Epiphany is the first glimmer of light before the fullness of dawn. It’s the moment when you exhale — partly in relief, partly in hope — toward the work.
In Frederick Douglass’ first autobiography, The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, he writes, “Between the Christianity of this land, and the Christianity of Christ, I recognize the widest possible difference — so wide, that to receive the one as good, pure, and holy, is of necessity to reject the other as bad, corrupt, and wicked […] Indeed, I can see no reason, but the most deceitful one, for calling the religion of this land Christianity.”1 Douglass, an orator who had previously been enslaved, makes clear in his narrative that American Christianity is entwined with, and benefits from, systemic oppression. In his day, the most obvious examples of that were African-American enslavement and the displacement and genocide of native peoples. He and others such as Sojourner Truth noted that the American expression of Christianity was rooted in domination. They held that it was unrecognizable from a way of being church that reflected the subversive way of Israel’s God, the lynched Christ, and the Spirit which is ever drawing communities of difference toward “the common” in every sense of the word.2
Yet, even amid the fraudulent Christianity that Douglas named there existed an alternative church. Many Quaker folx laid the tracks for the Underground Railroad, beckoning the church to a movement of abolition that eschewed hierarchy and stood in the radical tradition of the Genesis writers who saw all people as created in the image of God. Enslaved folx too resisted dominant forms of Christianity by slipping away in the middle of the night to witness intuitively to the God of liberation — a God they discovered in cane brakes and forest clearings and craggy ravines.
Today, it seems increasingly difficult to leave unacknowledged the rotting roots of America’s Christianity. We are seeing the snarled tangle that American Christianity has become and, in so many ways, always was. Historians and theologians such as Dr. Anthea Butler, Dr. Kristin Kobes Du Mez, and Dr. Willie James Jennings are clearly naming the ramifications of our Christianity as rooted in domination systems. But there are practitioners too — pastors, church planters, songwriters, organizers — who are remixing abolitionist practices for the enslaving systems of our day and who are creating hush harbor communities away from the plantation of the modern American church. They are not so much distinguished by what they build but rather how they build it. They refuse the illusion that the master’s tools can dismantle the master’s house.3 They remember that being free is more important than becoming whoever the secure “them” of the moment happens to be. They recognize that we can go no further until we investigate the tangle to its source. We can only hope that they become more and more of us.
These days it strikes me that many of us in the American Church are in a moment of Epiphany. We recognize the depth and urgency of the tangle we find ourselves in. We are beginning to wake up to the path forward. We see that the manner in which we shift our view and practice of power has the capacity to disrupt everything we have previously experienced as church in the most exciting ways. We know that we must move the margins to the center and let those previously discounted frame our questions and thus our future.
The thing we must ask ourselves now is less about the path forward and more about our orientation to that path. Are we able to become comfortable experimenting our way forward? Can we tolerate the mess of structures falling, of entire threads rewoven or even cut out? How are we doing in our capacity to practice resurrection and to invite the wisdom of folx who have been doing this work far longer than we? As we set our shoulders toward a long night of untangling, what imagination of the morning guides us?
In this season of Epiphany, may we catch a glimmer of things made right by the long journey into the uncertain. May we be baptized as knitters of a life-altering new creation right where we stand.
Notes: 1. The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass by Frederick Douglass (70). 2. Acts: A Theological Commentary on the Bible by Willie James Jennings. 3. Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches by Audre Lorde
Rev. Tonetta Landis-Aina holds a Master of Divinity from Wesley Theological Seminary and is currently a pastor serving at both Resurrection City DC and The Table Church. She is passionate about marginalized people finding their stories in scripture as well as about the new shapes the church will take in the 21st century. When Tonetta isn’t geeking out on the Bible or trying to piece together what God might be doing in her beautiful city, she is enjoying time with her wife and 4-year old son.
Resources to check out: Jesus and John Wayne: How White Evangelicals Corrupted a Faith and Fractured a Nation by Kristin Kobes Du Men, White Evangelical Racism: The Politics of Morality in America by Anthea Butler, The Christian Imagination: Theology and the Origins of Race by Willie James Jennings.