Project 12

Discovering Discipleship in the 21st Century

Archive for the ‘American History’ Category

NO SHOW!! Fred Phelps’ “God Hates Fags” Fails to Appear after all…

Posted by Jon on December 4, 2008

Where was everybody?!

A few passers-by were the only people we initially saw where the “God Hates Fags” /
Westboro Baptist Church had said on its website it would march
against Barack Obama. Ah, well. We’ll save our signs and try again!

As I posted yesterday, our Project 12 program’s students went downtown today in order to picket the picketers. The infamous Fred Phelps and his Westboro Baptist Church (actually all members of his own biological family), were set to tell Barack Obama, the Canadian embassy, the Chinese embassy, and the Democratic National Party, that Phelps’ gawd hates them. We thought Jesus ought to be represented. So we made signs, wrote up a press flier, and drove our old rickety Project 12 van downtown to the Federal Building on South Dearborn.

But… We were there. Numbing cold weather was there. Lots and lots of police were there. Barracades were there. After a while a self-proclaimed satanic group called “S. I. N.” (Sodomite Insurgency Network) was there. (We tried to talk with them but they had no interest in our message.) Who was not there, however? Westboro Baptist Church. No idea on why.

UPDATE: It appears that Westboro changed the time of the event as well as the targets of it. They may or may not be appearing later today (near noon) at 233 N. Michigan Avenue. That is a severe scale-back from what had been planned. They also plan (if they’re to be believed) to appear at the same spot a number of times this month (as this pdf from their website lists).

At any rate, here we were:

Posted in American History, Bible, Christian Experience, Evangelism / Missions | Leave a Comment »

The Danger of American Christians as “Embedded Reporters”

Posted by Jon on October 9, 2008

Today in my Drama of Scripture class we discussed this quotation from the book:

Everyone has a basic story. How are we to relate the biblical story and the… story of western culture? In its different versions, the modern western story has been so dominant and has so strongly asserted its right to be the story that it is often assumed that we should use it for understanding the grand narrative of Scripture. But biblical Christianity claims that the Bible alone tells the true story of our world. [Italics mine]

Shelby Monroe, a reporter embedded with U. S. Troops in Iraq, learns how to fire an assault rifle.

Shelby Monroe, a reporter embedded with U. S. Troops in Iraq, learns how to fire an assault rifle.

In one of my usual digressions from the text, I asked the students if they remembered what the reporters who traveled with American troops during the invasion of Iraq were called. “Embedded,” I reminded them. And what did that term, “embedded reporters” mean? It meant that these reporters were having what they saw, what they were able to learn from others, filtered to them through the official channels of the United States military. “This meant,” I said, “that often what they reported to us was in fact the ‘official story’ of the United States government.” We viewers did not get the story of the invasion, but rather a story which had been sanitized and defined by our own government.

I contrasted this to the Viet Nam war, which I watched reported on television as a child. The reporters during that war were free to go anywhere, and to see and report on anything. I remember seeing actual firefights and wounded and dead soldiers and “unauthorized” footage which exposed American wrong-doing in Viet Nam. The result of such reporting? A rejection of that war by the so-called “silent majority.” Those reporters were not embedded, at least not in the way those in Iraq later on were.

But all that was illustrative, I suggested to the Project 12ers, of how we Christians in America are also “embedded reporters.” We hold cultural assumptions which, more often than we realize, are at direct contradiction to and variance with the Scripture’s clear teaching. It behooves us as believers to re-examine, and continue to re-examine, our assumptions and beliefs in light of the Word. American values should not determine what we see; biblical values are the lenses through which we are meant to perceive our neighbor, our enemy, our self, and Our God.

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Lower (for Ralph Ellison) – Black Writers, part 4

Posted by Jon on February 26, 2007

What follows is a brief reflection upon, and poem inspired (mostly) by Ralph Ellison.

(Re the poem I also have to thank Toni Morrison for her insightful, if painful, Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination. It will be obvious to those readers of the latter that I was affected by it even while likely indulging in the very things she finds irritating.)


Ralph Ellison’s novel, Invisible Man, is my personal favorite among novels authored by African American writers. There really is not another serious contender against it, though there are many other black novelists whom I like very much. (If I had to choose just one or two more, I’d pick James Baldwin’s Another Country [can’t wait to see the comments on that!] and Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon.)

Exactly why Ellison flips my tumblers is hard to explain. But I think it has a lot to do with his being able to write a “racial” novel that nonetheless takes us past race into the heart of ourselves. For a white reader, encountering “racial” novels

This quotation from Invisible Man offers a taste:

I am an invisible man. No, I am not a spook like those who haunted Edgar Allen Poe; nor am I one of your Hollywood-movie ectoplasms. I am a man of substance, of flesh and bone, fiber and liquids–and I might even be said to possess a mind. I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me. Like the bodiless heads you see sometimes in circus sideshows, it is as though I have been surrounded by mirrors of hard, distorting glass. When they approach me they see only my surroundings, themselves, or figments of their imagination indeed, everything except me.

Ellison’s character begins the story as a naive southern black man — nearly a boy, really — going to a school suspiciously similar to Booker T. Washington’s Tuskegee Institute located in Alabama. He inadvertently gets into trouble for race-mixing (innocently, but appearances are everything!). The head of the school sends him to New York, where he takes a message from the man to various white men. He doesn’t know the message’s content, and it later turns out the message is a warning not to trust the young man! From there to the novel’s ending, which takes place in the sewers of New York City, we observe a man relentlessly in pursuit of himself despite the various definitions others try to overlay onto him. The Brotherhood (Ellison’s version of the American Communist Party of his day) attempts to use him; various others do the same.

The end of the novel — actually its “epilogue” — is to me one of the most powerful human statements I’ve ever read anywhere. It’s last lines and overall thrust inspired what follows.



Young, I imagined the limbs of
black women wrapped around me,
desperate for rescue, desperate
for one white heart that understood.
I strove with them in loving lust,
Knew gentle every inch of skin, a
Kiss kiss kiss of my own body,
The hope of love rushing toward
Only me, there, in the darkness of
my white and lonely imagination.
(I rescued her to define her — “mine.”)

Young, I inhabited my ignorance
as thoroughly as a diving suit;
down, lower, into depths of darkness
I saw, in my helmet’s visor,
My own pale and lonesome reflection.
They swam just out of sight, their
Limbs and murmurs the waters themselves
Waters between us as deep and wide,
Deep and wide as reflected stars’
White light on its dark surface.

Younger, I thought not on these things
Until with eleven year eyes and ears, in spring
I saw our neighbor dance, yes,
dance and sing, screaming “They got him!
They got that commie nigger
Martin Luther King!”[1] Yes, everything
Changed without my knowing,
That same year as my awakening
Innocence died, and I had nightmares
About dark women touching me painlessly
(though I awakened, weeping and terrified)

The sicknesses of light and dark swirled
in a place I could not enter,
and if not enter, then how to fix it?
Singing “red and yellow, black and white”
While white colored the rest, and the best
I could do was read Soul on Ice[2] and
Pretend I understood a rapist’s rage
While away from my safe prairies, Watts
Burned[3] and Chicago cops beat yippies[4]
and murdered young black Fred in bed[5]

Still young, though not as much, I
read the books and studied the times,
Hoping for entrance to the dark sea, the
Unity, denied the sinner (who of course was me)
Needing a dark savior, but not yet
Understanding that this too was reflection
and thus, rejection, of the truth of it.
Down, down, into the dark sea, my
Diving suit between good air and water
Which might baptize or might kill me.
(Jesus, sex, and blackness my ghosts.)

I washed ashore, cast out by the waters
Finally willing, though clueless, to learn.
The place where heavenly waters flow was
Barred to me: Unity? My dreams faded.
“This is your suffering, not to know another’s,
or in knowing another’s, knowing
you cannot save them from it.”
This voice, coming to me from the Other, echoed
of Theodicy[6], and breaking, I almost heard…
Ready to cave in to the truth of it all.

There are no waters, and there is no other.
The diving suit of lies makes them real.
The smoking gun of misplaced pity denies, defends,
when nothing else keeps the truth at bay.
Here is the truth, poor boy, dear child.
There are no doorways — no, not one.
There is only a road, and that road
Goes Lower, takes you lower, down into yourself,
Lower until darkness blinds day’s lies
And brings you, newborn, into the sight of yourself.
(Christ, who is God but also one man, will wait.)

-Jon Trott (c) 2007, all rights reserved.

[1] This incident, alas, actually occurred to the author April 4, 1968.
[2] Eldridge Cleaver’s book, Soul on Ice, told of his career as a rapist, a prisoner, and an eventual member of the Black Panthers, a 1960s era radical activist group.
[3] The Watts riots of 1965. See:
[4] “Yippies” is a term coined (I believe) by Abbie Hoffman, author of “Steal This Book” among others. In 1968, the Democrat Convention was held in Chicago. As the entire nation (including myself at only 11 years of age) watched, the police basically attacked non-violent yippies, hippies, and even news people with their billy clubs.
[5] “Young black Fred” was Fred Hampton, a Black Panther who (along with fellow panther Mark Clark) was murdered in his own apartment by Chicago Police. Hampton, wounded but very much alive, was assassinated by the police after his arrest with two shots to the head.
[6] A Theodicy is a theological explanation of the antinomy (apparent contradiction) between God being wholly loving and wholly powerful and yet allowing terribly evil things to happen to those He loves.

Links to more info on Ralph Ellison and Invisible Man:

I was glad to find a good page and links on Ellison on Calvin College’s site.
PBS “American Masters” page on Ellison for teachers.
Wikipedia on Ralph Ellison

Posted in African-American, American History, Art & Literature, racism, Uncategorized | Leave a Comment »

Phillis Wheatley – Black Writers, part 3

Posted by Jon on February 26, 2007

I’m taking my time getting back to the novelists. Today, I’m swinging back to one of, if not the, first African-American poet, Phillis Wheatley.

Phillis Wheatley’s name, as with so many slave names, unintentionally mapped her history. Phillis was the name of the slave ship that brought her to America; she was only (according to her eventual owner in a 1772 letter) between seven and eight years old. John Wheatley, her owner’s name, became the rest of hers.

She apparently learned English at an astonishing rate of speed. And it wasn’t long before she showed abilities as a writer, though it also seemed for some more an amusement (Look, an African can write words!) than art. Thomas Jefferson in particular found her poetry worthless (but seemed, as his affair with Sally Hemmings proved, to have strong opinions on what young African slave girls were for… writing not being among those talents).

Looking back, it is easy to criticize Wheatley from the opposite end of the spectrum. With our hindsight we might think of accusing her of caving in to the white narrative regarding her own race and personhood. But that seems more than a bit simplistic to me. Sure she was a product of her culture, just as we are of our own. But she also gently challenged, or at least bent from their otherwise rigidly defined norms, the way in which she and her race were viewed by the white culture she was embedded within.

Consider this poem as an example:

On being brought from Africa to America.

‘TWAS mercy brought me from my Pagan land,
Taught my benighted soul to understand
That there’s a God, that there’s a Saviour too:
Once I redemption neither fought nor knew,
Some view our sable race with scornful eye,
“Their colour is a diabolic die.”
Remember, Christians, Negroes, black as Cain,
May be refin’d, and join th’ angelic train.

Today’s reader will be perplexed by some of the above and annoyed with some as well. The reference “black as Cain” refers to the theologically erroneous belief that when God marked Cain after the latter murdered Abel, He marked him with black skin. Thus, believers in this doctrine drew a corollary that all Africans and/or dark-skinned peoples were offspring of Cain, marked with his mark of sin. The fact that Wheatley accepted such a doctrine isn’t surprising in light of the lack of options she likely had to it.

A deeper issue, likely to perplex and irritate readers, is Wheatley’s suggestion that her enslavement is part of a redemptive Divine Mystery. Those waters are too deep for this very white and male human being to go paddling about in. But one thing I do resonate with over the vast expanse of time, race, and gender separating us… meaning and beauty can indeed be drawn from terrible suffering. While I don’t want to fall into the usual patronizing nonsense regarding blackness as victimhood (which those of us white folk who have allegedly “tender” hearts love as a narrative!), Wheatley’s own words do more than plead.

Christianity is subversive of all authority, though the nature of that subversion works from within as often as from without. In fact, the work within is where new birth originates, a new vision and new interrelationship between human and God, human and her fellow-human. Wheatley’s vision was a seemingly passive one, yet not as passive as it seemed. Like the Apostle Paul, so easily misunderstood on the issue of slavery, the message of equality undeniable lies at the heart of things.

Wheatley expressed this in various ways. Perhaps one of the more striking I could find comes in her eulogizing over the death of evangelist George Whitfield, and her recreation of what his message of redemption said as well as to whom it was said:

“Take him, ye wretched, for your only good,
“Take him ye starving sinners, for your food;
“Ye thirsty, come to this life-giving stream,
“Ye preachers, take him for your joyful theme;
“Take him my dear Americans, he said,
“Be your complaints on his kind bosom laid:
“Take him, ye Africans, he longs for you,
Impartial Saviour is his title due:
“Wash’d in the fountain of redeeming blood,
“You shall be sons, and kings, and priests to God.”

[from On the Death of Rev. Mr. George Whitfield, 1770]

Impartial Savior? The One who promises not only to American (that is, to white) but also to African slave, “You shall be sons, and kings, and priests to God”?

This is the most gentle, whispering subversion. Yet at its core it contains a mustard seed enough to overthrow the greatest darkness of heart this nation ever knew.

Wheatley did occasionally let her inmost heart express itself more freely than even this. Attempt to imagine with what care a black slave woman in America had to guard her words when her owners and benefactors were all around her, as well as being her only audience. Then imagine she had only the tools of her captors to express herself with, their thoughts, even their religion (though in truth it was often not their religion–or, to subversively quote Nietzsche, “Christianity is a religion of slaves and women”).

Phillis Wheatley’s life after the American Revolution began to unravel. When her master died, she shortly afterward married a freed black man, John Peters. But John eventually left her.
In 1784, after giving birth to her third child, Phillis died. Her child died hours later.

A complete second volume of poetry had been completed, it is said. But those poems have never been recovered. Perhaps that serves as a metaphor of sorts for not only the life of one brilliant lonely woman, but for the lives of a people who, in each of their unique and individual ways, had to find the words of poets and, in speaking them, discover the strange and lonely path of the prophets.

I dare not suggest I know such things. At best, I know of such things. But that of is all the difference between Stephen who, as he was stoned cried out to God, and Paul, who stood by holding the coats of those casting stones. For Paul, there remained the need to be knocked off his high horse and to hear the mouth of murdered Stephen — the mouth of Jesus Christ — sigh out truth and forgiveness.

This is the quiet, secret subversion of Phillis Wheatley which is also the subversive love of Christ for even the persecutors of his beloved.

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Posted in African-American, American History, Art & Literature, Christian Experience, Feminism, Poetry, racism, Uncategorized | Leave a Comment »

Jon’s Favorite African-American Writers, part 2

Posted by Jon on February 6, 2007

I promised I’d try to do better by African American women in the literature department. And in the process, I seem to have rediscovered an incredibly powerful voice that for me may end up a star in my personal galaxy. I’d seen the movie of Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God and also read various bits of her writings over the years. But pondering her this year brought a deeper realization of just what powers of description — both of nature and of the inner human terrain — she uniquely possessed.

* A short but good biography of Zora Neale Hurston.
* More on her probably most famous novel, Their Eyes Were Watching God.
* And the 2005 movie (by the same name:

And… here’s my pathetic little homage to her. In it I attempted to borrow some of her own images and reflect them very imperfectly back.

The Bee in Every Blossom (for Zora Hurston)

“I did not just fall in love, I made a parachute jump.”
– Zora Neale Hurston

Your words are rich as honey
And sting like making love
Your suffered lack of money
That’s not what you were made of…

You worked in sorrow’s kitchen
Licking out the pots and pans
You went under then you came up
Lazarus kind of woman

You’re the bee in every blossom
The spring that comes each day
You stung yourself for sweetness
It was a way to let you pray
Zora… Zora…

The spices hang about you, girl
Like dark skin, exotic clothes
A heart / mind kind of fusion
Both as sharp and true as swords.

Your eyes were watching gods
The strange gods of men’s design
Your cosmic lonely shadow
Proved their idols dumb and blind

You’re the bee in every blossom
The spring that comes each day
You stung yourself for sweetness
It was a way you let us pray
Zora… Zora…

You died in a welfare home
And were buried nameless underground
But I saw you this December
Chicago’s winter swirled ’round

Zora of the ageless Spring
Receive this as my offering
I know a man who suffers all
Like you he still loves everything…

Sweet bee, sweet honey, sweet bee…
Love’s sting.

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Posted in African-American, American History, Feminism, racism, Uncategorized, Women | Leave a Comment »