They Already Knew They Were Sacred

Written for The Word Is Resistance Podcast. You can listen to the episode here.

:: TRANSCRIPT ::

Week: April 29th, 2018
Podcaster: Blyth Barnow
Scripture: *Acts 8:26-40

:: INTRO ::

Welcome back to “The Word is Resistance,” a podcast exploring what our sacred texts have to teach us about living, surviving, and thriving in the context of empire, violence, and repression – the times in which we are living today. What do our sacred stories have to teach us, as white folx, about our role in resistance, in showing up, in liberation?

My name is Blyth Barnow and this is a project of SURJ – Faith. This podcast is designed to be a resource for white people who are realizing that to be Christian in this time and in this country requires listening to, learning from, and joining in with the struggle against racism and white supremacy.

A bit about me, I am a queer white femme who was raised working class in Ohio, and now lives on the occupied Ohlone land, known as Oakland CA. I am a writer, preacher, community organizer, and minister. I learned what I know about the sacred from harm reductionists, survivors, sex workers and working class grandmas. My community. You can learn more about me at femminary.com

:: SCRIPTURE ::

This weeks scripture is Acts chapter 8 verses 26-40. I always like to read the verses so we know more clearly what we are dealing with, so here we go.

“26 Then an angel of the Lord said to Philip, “Get up and go toward the south to the road that goes down from Jerusalem to Gaza.” (This is a wilderness road.) 27 So he got up and went. Now there was an Ethiopian eunuch, a court official of the Candace, queen of the Ethiopians, in charge of her entire treasury. He had come to Jerusalem to worship 28 and was returning home; seated in his chariot, he was reading the prophet Isaiah. 29 Then the Spirit said to Philip, “Go over to this chariot and join it.” 30 So Philip ran up to it and heard him reading the prophet Isaiah. He asked, “Do you understand what you are reading?” 31 He replied, “How can I, unless someone guides me?” And he invited Philip to get in and sit beside him. 32 Now the passage of the scripture that he was reading was this:

“Like a sheep he was led to the slaughter,
and like a lamb silent before its shearer,
so he does not open his mouth.
33 In his humiliation justice was denied him.
Who can describe his generation?
For his life is taken away from the earth.”

34 The eunuch asked Philip, “About whom, may I ask you, does the prophet say this, about himself or about someone else?” 35 Then Philip began to speak, and starting with this scripture, he proclaimed to him the good news about Jesus. 36 As they were going along the road, they came to some water; and the eunuch said, “Look, here is water! What is to prevent me from being baptized?” 38 He commanded the chariot to stop, and both of them, Philip and the eunuch, went down into the water, and Philip baptized him. 39 When they came up out of the water, the Spirit of the Lord snatched Philip away; the eunuch saw him no more, and went on his way rejoicing.”

:: REFLECTION ::

First, let us sit in the particularity of place. Philip is instructed to travel the road that goes from Jerusalem to Gaza. Take that in. These are names we know, because these places are real.

In fact, in the last several weeks hundreds of people have been wounded in Gaza and at least 37 have been killed as they non-violently protested their occupation. Both Jerusalem and Gaza exist under occupation today. We cannot gain wisdom from the stories of their homeland without also responding to the crisis they face today. A crisis largely fueled by the U.S. white supremacy and fundamentalist christian legislation.

These forces, they are deadly. To the people of Gaza, to all of us.

When I was 20 my ex-boyfriend died of an accidental overdose. In the month following his death I was filled with a sort of grief and rage that rendered me silent. I didn’t speak to anyone.

I felt his death like a failure. And for years, I convinced myself that I could have saved his life if I had just married him when he’d asked, instead of going back to school.

Grief is strange. And it has seasons. At least mine has. For years I stayed in blame. Then acceptance. Then rage again. Then understanding. And back to rage. At first I was angry at myself. Then I was angry at him. And then the world. Grief changes. And your relationship to the dead changes with it.

The night he overdosed, someone was with him. They were in a hotel room the next town over. And when he began to overdose, they left him. Everybody seemed to know who it was, but nobody was talking. In my white working class community there was an unspoken understanding that you didn’t rat people out. Particularly if jail was on the other side of the truth. I also honored that code, even though I was nearly certain who it was. Instead I silently hated her and refused to speak to her ever again, even though she was once my friend.

I’d flown home the day before his funeral and met some friends at his old apartment. There was a box of things they had left for me to go through. It was all the wigs and skirts and corsets that he’d kept hidden in the bottom drawer of his dresser. They’d packed them up before his parents could find them and asked if I wanted to take them.

I knew that he was queer, though we never spoke about it. But many a night he crawled into bed with me after just having sex with a mutual friend of ours in secret. He had long struggled with gender and sexuality. In fact, on our first date in high school, I came over early and found him in his room wearing a skirt. I just chalked it up to him being artistic and eccentric. He had long blonde hair and wore rings on every finger, with occasional nail polish, but that wasn’t uncommon for boys in my life. For some reason the hypermasculinity of heavy metal culture allowed for more femininity in appearance sometimes. Which, of course, now I want to think alot more about.

After we’d been dating awhile he told me that we couldn’t have sex. I was surprised and asked him why? And he told me that he wanted to get right with God and that the next person he slept with was going to be his wife.

His parents were fundamentalist christians and he struggled with his love of god and his fear of god. More than that, he struggled with his own worthiness. He was queer and gender non-conforming and a drug user and he truly believed that God would not love him until he stopped sinning. So he tried. In fits and starts he tried to be sober or celibate or more masculine. But he always failed, so he thought himself a failure.

But really he failed because he could never address the root issues. He couldn’t name the homophobia and transphobia he was wrestling with, because his community didn’t have the words for it, we didn’t have the words for it. So instead he measured himself against the roots of what raised him, the impossible standards of fundamentalist christianity and white supremacy.

They are related. Both value purity, individualism, isolation, and perfection. Both call for rigid boundaries and threaten extreme consequence. They serve as a reinforcement for one another. The white supremacy that killed people in Gaza and the christianity that killed my ex, they are connected.

Years after my ex’s death I found myself working at the Harm Reduction Coalition. Which was somewhat ironic since I’d spent years of my life judging and fearing people who use drugs. I’d lost many more friends to overdose and suicide and I was tired of being around people who were so selfish and who treated their lives so carelessly. In fact I moved clear across the country to escape them.

Harm Reduction is described as ”a set of practical strategies aimed at reducing negative consequences associated with drug use”. For example, using clean syringes reduces the risk of contracting Hepatitis C and HIV, the same way wearing a condom reduces the risk of pregnancy and the transmission of STI’s, the same way wearing a seat belt reduces the risk of injury while driving a car. Harm reduction uses a spectrum of strategies from safer use, to managed use, to abstinence, in order to meet drug users where they’re at. It is a movement for social justice built on respect for the rights of people who use drugs.” Including the right to live and live well.

Simply put. It is is meeting people where they are at and supporting them in keeping themselves as safe, healthy, and connected as possible. Without the condition of their sobriety.

And to be honest, it was really challenging for me. Because I didn’t want to meet people where they were at, because it wasn’t where I wanted them to be. I wanted them to be sober.

Working in Harm Reduction is hard and really vulnerable because it called me on my shit. It poked holes in my good intentions and saw what was underneath.

I told myself that I just wanted the people I loved to be happy, and that’s why I wanted them to be sober. And of course that was true, but also people who were actively using felt dangerous to me. I was certain that they would hurt me, or hurt themselves, which in turn would hurt me. I wanted to protect myself from that.

But I was also angry at them. Because I was judging them for their lack of control. They weren’t holding up their part of the bargain. They weren’t doing what they were supposed to do. They were supposed to work harder to be pure. They were supposed to keep their struggles to themselves and not make them my problem. They were supposed to take care of their own messes, like I had to. They were supposed to hide their imperfection the way white supremacy had taught us to.

Our response to drug users is cloaked in white supremacy. The more you meet the standards of whiteness, the more drugs you are allowed to use and the more support you are given. It is why there was no national outcry or mourning during the crack epidemic of the 80’s, it is why drug legislation has always targeted immigrants and communities of color, it is why it doesn’t matter that people of color, the white working class, queer and trans people, and folks living on the streets have been dying of overdoses for decades. Because under white supremacy they, we, are expendable. It has taken the opiate overdose crisis reaching the towers of white supremacy to get any response at all.

Working in harm reduction was a reality check. It asked me to honestly reflect on what I believed about people I loved. It asked me to look beyond my hurt and see what was systemic. And what I saw was a community struggling and in pain. What I saw was people who were doing their best but had been discarded by their communities because they did not live up to the standards of white supremacy.

My ex wasn’t careless with his life, he was attempting to survive it. He wasn’t trying to die, he was trying to live with the pain. He was trying to cope with the pain of being closeted, the pain of never being able to meet the expectations of his parents theology, the pain of never being able to adhere to the form of whiteness that the world demanded of him.

Opiates are painkillers, they decrease the pain. End white supremacy, end the opiate crisis.

And the person who left him that night was not selfish. In fact, I learned later that she had called the ambulance right after leaving. She’d done all she thought she could. But couldn’t go to prison, she had a son that was counting on her and there were no Good Samaritan laws to protect her.

Had they had access to naloxone, a life saving drug that can reverse an opiate overdose, had she been able to stay with him and call the ambulance without the threat of prison, perhaps they would both be here today. Instead they are both gone, both dying of accidental overdoses. Hers nearly 10 years after his.

Their deaths are not a result of their failures. Their deaths are the result of a system that deemed them disposable.

Harm reduction taught me that.

I remember meeting someone from a local drug users union, a few years ago. I’ll call her Jay. She spoke about herself and other people who use drugs with such love and authority. Listening to her felt like being invited into a new reality, a new way of living, one with sooo much less shame. She was clear about her worth and the worthiness of her community.

She reminds me of the person in today’s scripture. So often we refer to them only as the Eunuch. We get fixed on that. On their otherness. So much so that I think we miss their power, and in missing their power we also miss the point. Instead we focus on Phillips willingness to baptize them, we make the story about the inclusivity of the church. When really Phillip had little to do with what happened.

Philip didn’t introduce this person to the prophets. They were already reading Isaiah. When the spirit said to go over to the chariot and join it, we’ve assumed that Philip was supposed to go over and share the good news. That Philip was supposed to go teach this person something. But I don’t think that’s the case.

Instead I think the spirit told Philip to join them because God knows that we need each other in order to grow in our understanding. That the Gospel is not individualistic. We are meant to struggle with it together. We are meant to learn it’s meaning, in community.

This is not the story of a generous and inclusive church. Instead it is the story of a person who trusted their worth so fully that it helped shape a church. This person wasn’t waiting for Phillip to mark them as sacred. They already knew they were. So much so that they commanded the chariot to stop and initiated their own baptism.

It was not bestowed upon them by Phillip. They orchestrated it. “What is to prevent me from being baptized?” That isn’t the question of someone asking permission. That is the question of someone who already knows the answer. The question isn’t passive. It is a challenge. It is an assertion of value. It’s sass.

It is like Sojourner Truth when she asks, “Aint I A Woman?”.

What is to prevent me from being baptized? Nothing. Because I am already sacred. I am already deserving. There is no barrier between me and God. I am already worthy.

Like Jay, the person in this scripture claimed their right to worthiness, their right to the sacred. After all dignity and divinity, they are related. In harm reduction the organizing of drug users and peers does not wait for the rest of us. They are not waiting for others to deem them worthy. Instead they assert their right to life, wellness, freedom, and dignity. Instead they invite US into a world that is more inclusive and freer of judgement.

Access to clean syringes, the distribution of naloxone, supervised consumption sights, test strips that detect the presence of fentanyl, these are all life saving responses to drug use that are rooted in the skill and wisdom of drug users.

People who use drugs do not need us to invite them to salvation. Instead they need us to go and join them. In this moment where so many are facing the impact of rising overdose deaths, I think we christians, we church people, would do well to see the ways that the communities we “other” are leading the way. And like Phillip, we would do well to follow their lead.

And in doing so we refute the lie of white supremacist christianity that would have us believe that our salvation is dependent on purity, isolation, and perfection. Instead we come to live out the promise of the gospel and we remember that salvation is found only when we come together.

:: CLOSING ::

For this weeks call to action I encourage you to learn more about the racialized history of the war on drugs and familiarize yourself with the principles of harm reduction. Check out the Harm Reduction Coalition and Drug Policy Alliance for more ways to get involved. At the end of this weeks transcript I will include links to those sites as well as information about places to donate to support the protesters in Gaza during this urgent time.

Thank you for joining us today. Let us know what you think about today’s episode by commenting on our Soundcloud or Facebook pages. As always, you can find a transcript of this week’s podcast, including links to resources and copyright information, on our website.

The music you heard is a live recording of a song gifted to the freedom movement by Dr. Vincent Harding, “We are Building Up a New World.” The group you hear singing is “No Enemies,” a multi-racial group of activists and musicians in Denver, CO who come together for “movement choir practice” to bring singing back into direct actions and other movement spaces. This particular “choir practice” is led by Minister Daryl J. Walker. We are deeply grateful to the Freeney-Harding family for allowing us to use this song for the podcast.

You can find out more about SURJ at showingupforracialjustice.org. To find our podcast again simply search for the “The Word Is Resistance” on Soundcloud or iTunes.

Be sure to tune in next week when we will have a brand new episode.

Until then may you go forward in the peace and power of a God who loves us for all that we are and in spite of nothing. The same God that calls us to the work of justice. Amen.

:: END ::

 

:: Resources ::

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