In the third chapter of the ancient Gospel narrative titled John, a religious leader named Nicodemus approached Jesus under the cover of night. Jesus stated, “I tell you the truth, unless you are born again, you cannot see the Kingdom of God.” Nicodemus then inquired of The Christ, “What do you mean? How can an old man go back into his mother’s womb and be born again?” As with Nicodemus, the idea of rebirth has been a point of contention, controversy and curiosity, a point vigorously debated among the early church councils, a point of departure among diverse adherents to the faith. Just what does it mean to be “born again”? Of many perceptions of meaning, one prominent belief is that to…
In the third chapter of the ancient Gospel narrative titled John, a religious leader named Nicodemus approached Jesus under the cover of night. Jesus stated, “I tell you the truth, unless you are born again, you cannot see the Kingdom of God.” Nicodemus then inquired of The Christ, “What do you mean? How can an old man go back into his mother’s womb and be born again?”
As with Nicodemus, the idea of rebirth has been a point of contention, controversy and curiosity, a point vigorously debated among the early church councils, a point of departure among diverse adherents to the faith. Just what does it mean to be “born again”? Of many perceptions of meaning, one prominent belief is that to be “born again” is to be released from the fatal consequences of sin, which first originated with Adam and Eve and became a heritage for the entire human family, and to have the hope of an Utopian existence with God in a future time.
If America has a sin of origins, a sin deeply rooted within the nation’s epistemology, it is undoubtedly racism. Permeating the soil and soul of our country even before the nation’s founding, and fully grafted into our nation’s DNA through its founding documents, racism is a sin long befalling America.
If the wages of sin is indeed death, America’s bloodied history reveals that we have been fully compensated.
In 1915, American racism may have reached its zenith with the cinematic release of The Birth of a Nation. Widely regarded as a cinematic masterpiece and historically footnoted as the first motion picture screened at The White House, The Birth of a Nation’s racist depictions of African Americans — especially African American men as inherently ignorant, violent and hyper-sexualized savages — aided the Ku Klux Klan, who used the film as a recruitment tool, in dramatically increasing its membership rolls. The movie reflected and exasperated fears of an American society under Black rule, fears emergent during the Reconstruction Era after Blacks were freed from slavery, en masse.
Our nation’s xenophobic proclivities have caused great harm to many and have led to generations of marginalization and oppression. The Birth of a Nation vividly offered a portrait of White America’s worse nightmare: a society run a muck by freed Blacks. The film would reached its horrifying height as a white woman fled through the woods to escape a large Black male seeking to rape her.
Ironically, although common, the Black male rapist was depicted by a white male actor. When finally cornered by her would-be assailant, the white woman leapt from a cliff to her death. As she fell, she incited the murderous intentions of thousands, and hundreds of real Black men became their victims. Since its release nearly one hundred years ago, we have lived in an era defined by the film’s cultural constructions, the greatest legacy of which is the terrifying Black man — ignorant, deviant, bent on destruction. This construction is so ingrained within our nation’s consciousness that, for many, the Black man is the personification of evil.
Even as The White House is presently occupied by a biracial, African American self-identifying man and his Black family, constructions of African Americans as ignorant, violent and sexual deviants remain prevalent throughout culture and media. These constructions are not without consequence, and it has often proven fatal. In fact, it is this cruel criminalization of color that has resulted in the death of countless unarmed Blacks at the hands of police officers for generations.
As innocent blood flows in our nation’s streets, parks, stoops and stairwells, it calls forth for justice. As constricted airways whisper forth screams of agony, it calls forth for a new day. As the body count attributed to these painful atrocities continues to rise, our nation has reached a boiling point and the calls for justice amid gross injustices has resulted in an uprising. It is in the midst of these uprisings, the likes of which we have not seen upon these shores in two generations, that America is being reborn.
Surely some are as Nicodemus, unsure, even doubtful of the possibilities of this rebirth. Jesus answered Nicodemus’ concern thusly: “The wind blows wherever it wants. Just as you can hear the wind but can’t tell where it comes from or where it is going, so you can’t explain how people are [born again].”
It may be hard to explain rebirth, but it is easy to hear.
I recently had the opportunity to address a “This Stops Today Rally” in downtown Dallas. As I panned the diverse crowd, the cries of “Black lives matter,” “Hands up, don’t shoot,” “No justice, no peace,” “I can’t breathe,” and “This stops today” filled the night time air. Under the cover of night, the mystery of rebirth once again unfolded.
I told the story of Allen Brooks, a 50-year-old Black man who had been accused of assaulting a white child. I acknowledged that any Black man accused of anything in 1910 was deemed guilty by mere accusation. As he appeared in court, a mob broke into the courtroom, placed a noose around his neck and threw him out the second floor window. He landed head first upon the ground below.
Some have stated the fall may have killed him, but he was still stripped of his clothes, then dragged by the rope around his neck to the corner of Elm and Akard Streets where he was lynched. His body would later have to be rushed out of the city as, after being cut down, the rabid crowd still desired to burn Brooks’ body. When the judge called a grand jury to identify Brooks’ killers, although a multiplicity of police officers were present, and although there were horrific pictures of the day’s tragedy, the police officers said that they could not identity one offender.
For Allen Brooks, there was no justice.
As we gathered that night, only 0.3 miles from where Brooks was lynched, it was impressed upon me that the same sin that killed Allen Brooks in 1910, and the same sin that informed The Birth of a Nation in 1915, continues to claim new victims today. So as we rallied and marched, it was not just for Michael Brown, Eric Garner, John Crawford, Tamir Rice and Ezell Ford, but for all whose names history no longer remembers but who suffered similar fates.
As we continue to lie down, march, chant and organize for justice together, we serve as the midwives to our nation’s rebirth. Our collective cries echoing forth in these winds of change signify that our nation’s water has finally broken in order that justice might “flow like rivers, and righteousness like a mighty stream.” America is contracting, and ours will not be a still birth. No, these present labor pains will bring forth justice and equality to all!
On account of America’s many sins, we are now being redeemed by the people and for the people. Our fight is still young, and it is not without opposition. Indeed, there appear to be days of struggle ahead. Although the road ahead remains challenged, the imperative before us is clear:
Our labor shall not be in vain.