Conversation with Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove

Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove is a speaker, spiritual writer, who, along with his wife Leah, founded Rutba House a house of hospitality where the formerly homeless share community with the formerly housed. He has also worked with the Rev. William Barber on the Poor People’s Campaign. Rev. Wilson-Hartgrove talks to Michael about his 2018 book Reconstructing the Gospel: Finding Freedom from Slaveholder Religion.


Michael Cheuk 0:04
I’m Michael Cheuk, the host of Communication Matters. And today I have the privilege of having a conversation with Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove. He is the author of the book, Reconstructing the Gospel: Finding Freedom from Slave Holder Religion. I have really been challenged by this book. And I look forward to having this conversation with you, Jonathan, about your work, both in written form, but also in living embody form continually in terms of racial justice, so thank you.

JW-H 0:39

Thank you. I’m glad to talk to you and to the Collective via this video. I’m grateful for the work you’re doing there in Charlottesville.

Michael Cheuk 0:49
Well, thank you so much. Yes, to begin … Reconstructing the Gospel. What’s the main thesis?

JW-H 1:00
Well, I’m borrowing “Reconstruction” from American history there, you know, the period following the Civil War was a time when there was a broad recognition that in order to recognize all people as citizens and guarantee equal protection under the law, the structures of our society would have to be reconstructed. And there was a massive resistance to that in the South that was shrouded in religious veneer. As a matter of fact, historians called that period of backlash against reconstruction, “Redemption.” And so they take a theological term, and they do so rightly, because it was often preachers who were telling southerners that they needed to be redeemed from black people who had political power and from what they perceived as, or what they framed as northern corruption coming and destroying their way of life. And that led to the era of white supremacy in this nation’s history that was not just about the south. It was about whiteness being framed as a norm. And, and everything from science to sociology being used to justify that white supremacy, and religion working hand in glove with that, right. So slaveholder religion is not just about the southern denominations that separated from Northern or, you know, other …

Michael Cheuk 2:42
anti-slavery denominations, so to speak,

JW-H 2:44
Yeah, not just … but it’s the influence that that whole conversation has had on what we think we understand when we talk about church and Christianity in America. And this book is about my own journey of trying to understand how reconstruction can be a framework to help us understand what Jesus is up to, and what the real gifts are, that can invite us into the heart of the gospel, that tradition that I often call the freedom church, a tradition that has always resisted slave holder religion, on the edges of plantations, you know, with folks who got away to the brush harbors when slavery was still the law of the land. But that tradition has continued and all sorts of fugitive and an interracial ways, right? It’s not never been just a quote unquote, “black church.” It’s always been a church for all people. Right? And I think ultimately, that is the richest witness we have in the American story of what the way of Jesus looks like in our world. So it’s really a book about trying to highlight that to to help people understand Jesus through the lens of the great gift of freedom church in America.

Michael Cheuk 4:07
Yeah. I think as I read your book, there is such an awareness and intentionality about our “embodiedness.” I mean, you talk about blindness, you talk about our broken bodies, our shriveled hearts, our deaf ears. And I’d love to hear more about how you see all of those things working together to reconstruct our whole beings as individuals and as a society.

JW-H 4:48
Yeah, well, I think part of what I have to realize is someone who’s been a long journey of trying to find freedom from the habits and practices of slaveholder religion is that I had inherited a way of understanding Jesus and the Christian story, that that was, by and large, disembodied, and that that had everything to do with the history of justifying the enslavement of black bodies. Right, so going back and reading, the actual structure of the arguments that were made, during the 19th century to say, that, you know, enslaving African people was actually good for them. White preachers argued in the south, because it allowed for their souls to be saved in the Hereafter, and, and that there was no necessary change in the condition of their bodies, but that it was a good because it promised them eternal salvation. That that distinction between the embodied reality of faith and the inner destination of this imagine soul, because somehow be separated from body that has deeply shaped American Christianity in many, many different dreams. And so I think it’s, it’s a part of the culture in which we are called to, you know, turn from the habits of this world toward eternal life. And, and if we understand eternal life, as a way of embodying the reality that Jesus Christ in flesh, when he dwelt among us, and demonstrated in, you know, a community that Jesus was forming, and that Jesus promised would be a reality in the body that’s called the church, I think that we can begin to understand the sort of multiple levels on which embodying the message of Jesus is really what it means to be Christian.

Michael Cheuk 6:43
Yeah, yeah. So I must confess, … I have a tendency to think that kind of doing this work, right, is something that maybe I can merely think my way through … a conversion of certain ways of believing. And I think what you’re trying to tell me and others is that this reconstructing the gospel really calls for the transformation of our bodies rooted in communities, because your book has a lot to say about actual practices. And not just about merely our head knowledge. So, did I read that right? Or am I catching that correctly?

JW-H 7:42
Oh, yes, yes. I’m glad it’s coming through loud and clear.

And you know, I’m saying what I’ve learned from my own experience, I mean, I’m a deeply shaped by, you know, the intellectual traditions of the Evangelical Church in the United States, you know, the institutions of higher education that trained me. So I get that, and, you know, I have benefited from critical reflection on things. So I’m not in any way discounting the role of reason, or critical thought plays in the life of faith. But, you know, I think about just being true to the tradition that we’ve inherited, that, that the intellectual life in the true Christian faith is always faith, seeking understanding. And in some ways, I think slave holder religion obscured the way in which faith is necessarily an embodied reality that’s experienced in the body. And that what theology has always been at best is secondary to that, right? It’s a reflection on, you know, what does that mean? And how do we make sense of that in terms of thinking … But no, until you’ve experienced the reality of Jesus being present to us in a community, of a loving community, that’s real. And that breaks down the social habits and divisions that we’ve inherited, and that so often separate us, I don’t think we can understand very well, what faith means. So when I talk about this book, these days, I often, in group group work, find myself just wanting to teach people to sing the songs. Sing the songs of the freedom church, because in so many ways, I think those songs resonate in the body. Right, you can’t sing without letting them hum in your gut. And there’s something about that, hum, I think that communicates to us the deep truth of the tradition.

Michael Cheuk 9:53
Yeah, especially toward the end of your book, I mean, the healing of the heart. And you, you talked about, about your experiences, and, and how the singing of those gospel hymns and songs were very transformative.

JW-H 10:10
So yeah, actually, this makes me think there’s a great window into this gift of the tradition that is captured in a film that’s coming out. So Easter weekend, they’re finally releasing the film of Aretha Franklin’s Amazing Grace album. It was recorded in 1972, but they botched the technical stuff of it. It’s, you know, kind of been in a dustbin for a while. But anyway, it’s been restored. And I’ve had a chance to screen it with the poor people’s campaign. And it’s absolutely incredible! Because what it captures is the conversation, the communal conversation that’s happening between between her, as you know, a master of the craft, and that tradition, and the choir and the others she’s working with She’s working with the Reverend James Cleveland, who’s one of greatest gospel artist, the 20th century. She’s doing that in conversation with a congregation that’s there. It’s recorded in a church. And in some ways, I think it captures on film, what I’ve often seen sitting on the pulpit of churches, where you can watch how the music is moving through people’s bodies. And the gospel that is preached is in some ways inhabited in that song.

Michael Cheuk 11:27
As you’re saying that, so I’ve been a pastor for about 20 years in white churches. But in the past couple of years, I’ve had the privilege of worshiping in black churches. And my experience is that when I worship in the black church, it’s more “bodily.” There’s more of a conversation. When I preach as the minister of my church, right, it felt to me like a monologue.

JW-H 12:03

Michael Cheuk 12:04
Whereas while worshiping in a black church, there is this kind of communal 360 conversation that goes around …

JW-H 12:16
Yeah, if what you’re saying is true, somebody’s going to say “Yes, Lord!” And if you’re getting a little heady, they’re gonna say “Help him, Jesus!”

Michael Cheuk 12:22
Right! Right! Yeah, yeah. And is that what you’re alluding to in terms of this, this dialogue, this conversation that’s happening all around, so that becomes a truly a communal thing. And maybe even less this hierarchical (thing), whereby the preacher is always like on a high pulpit: “This is the word.” And we just kind of receive it. Whereas the other is, is more like a give-and-take. And there’s a movement of the Spirit so that if there is even a printed bulletin, right? there is freedom to say, “The Spirit ain’t going there!” It just kind of go with what they sense in their bodies.

JW-H 13:10
Yeah. Yeah, I think, you know, transgressing our religious sense of order is an important part of living into the gospel. Jesus actually says this, you know, when the woman who’s called Mary, in one of the Gospels comes in, and washes his feet, and breaks the jar and you know, uses her tears. It’s very disruptive to the Pharisees and folks … the respectable people at the dinner. And Jesus says pointedly, that wherever the gospel is preached, this story must be told. And it’s striking to me how we’ve sanitized that from the experience of worship. In most of American Christianity, there’s actually a culture that refuses to be interrupted. And I think there’s an openness in the freedom church to the fact that God is greater than any order that we imagine or try to impose on what God might be up to. And doesn’t mean we don’t plan and it doesn’t mean that there’s not structure and craft that goes on into singing and preaching and all that. But, yeah, there’s an openness to recognize that God can show up. And if God really shows up, you know, the person who’s supposed to be in charge might fall out on the floor. You know, it’s entirely possible. And, and if it does, that’s not the end. That’s actually the beginning of something important. So I think that openness to the Spirit is an important part of what has to be learned if we want to leave slave holder religion behind.

Michael Cheuk 14:53
What I’m hearing from you, too, is, those of us who have been conditioned by our previous college, have assume that we have control. Yeah. And when we don’t have control, it disrupts us. Yeah, mentally, spiritually, physically, and it is very, very uncomfortable. But in communities where they have experienced oppression, they know within their very body that in so many ways, life is out of their control. And it is almost like a school of discipleship to fully trust in the Providence and the provisions of, of Almighty God.

JW-H 15:51
Yeah. Yeah. Wow, so much of the Bible then begins to make sense, you know, the stuff that just does that I was kind of taught, at least implicitly to just dismiss because it wasn’t practical, you know, give to whoever asks, How in the world, are you going to do that? If you think you’re in control? Like, you know, that’s no, that’s no a guiding principle, it’s not in the bylaws of any foundation. Who gives … who gives to whoever asked? This, this is not a strategic plan. But this is a way of engaging when you know, you’re not in control. Right? Right, that any any request of you is an interruption that could be a gift. So you open yourself to radical receptivity. Jesus is trying to invite us into that. And I think whiteness is a lie that closes us off to that truth of the gospel.

What you said about control, I think is, is probably a better description of what whiteness actually is, than us using the color words that we’ve inherited, because I really don’t think whiteness has much of anything to do with the shade of skin, especially as it’s performed today. Basically, anyone can be white as long as they’re willing to perform the expectations of whiteness. But basically, what that means is to pretend that you’re in control. Because of course, that’s what the plantation economy depended on, right? You ever acknowledged that you weren’t in control? And they were way more of the people enslaved than there were the enslavers? How could you maintain the thing if you didn’t pretend that you are in control and that God had ordained you to be in control? That’s the foundational lie of slaveholder religion, that God somehow blessed this system that gave some small group people control over the bodies ofeveryone else.

Michael Cheuk 17:43
Right, right. And so there, then we have do some machinations theologically, and through biblical interpretation, and literally through laws and structures and systems in order to maintain control by a small group of people over others. Yeah, for the sake of profit and comfort and privilege.

JW-H 18:10
Yeah. And I think talking about what that does to bodies, to people who live within those structures, is helpful to get us beyond the kind of, you know, impasse we have in so many conversations about race where … white people are often trying to sort of flip the conversation around in these what I find to be fairly pointless conversations [around] reverse discrimination, … when as a matter of fact, like whiteness is this lie, that people with lighter skin were invited to perform, in order to prop up a system that actually didn’t benefit most of them. Poor white people haven’t benefited much from racism, either. But they have been sort of attracted to the myth that, you know, even if they weren’t much, they were at least better than a black person.

And I think, I think part of finding freedom from that is hearing this radical message of Jesus, which is essentially summed up in Psalm 118, that the stone that the builders rejected, has become the chief cornerstone. That’s like what it’s all about, that the system, the world system — that gets called various things in Scripture, but is always at root, a manifestation of sin of rebellion against God — that world system rejects people that God made. And the good news of Jesus is that those people who’ve been rejected, are actually in a position to show all of us what it means to really be human. And so when we join the community, where the rejected people are elevated to the position of being, you know, the capstone on the arch, then then we can realize what it means for all of us to be human. And to realize that sort of exaltation of people based on this lie, was actually bad for the people who were exalted too! You know there’s, there’s nothing worse than believing that you have some, not only divine right, but responsibility to control other people. That’s this, that’s destructive of the soul. And it has warped people into this imagination of control that has kept us from, from receiving the gift that God wants to offer us. So that’s why I think exposing the lie of slaveholder religion is really only a pathway towards like opening ourselves to the gift, to really recognize what it is that Jesus is offering us.

Michael Cheuk 21:13
I want to take what you’ve just said, and turn that into the work that we’re doing in the Collective. I think, you know, we we’re a group of probably about 25 people who come every month. And right now, currently most are white. We probably have five or six black leaders, and they were, they were the leaders from the beginning. But I sense, I mean, I think there’s always this kind of … here, here are some things that we’re experiencing and hearing, right? The number one: maybe a little bit of grief that there aren’t more black faith leaders who are part of this collective. That’s number one. Number two, is maybe there’s a temptation on our part, those who are not black to kind of takeover, frankly, you know, to kind of take the take the lead. There’s also the tension of those of us who really want to hear and to listen, — which listening was a very big part toward the end of your book, right? — to listen to the story and experiences of our black brothers and sisters. But they tell us that some of those things, you know, that they’re really tired of constantly over and over again, re-traumatizing themselves to tell these stories to white people. And many times they could do their own research and Google it and understand without them having to always put themselves out there, right? And then finally, this sense of I think, among most of the white pastors, there’s a need to go slow in reconstructing the gospel, so to speak, in their own faith communities. While we hear, I hear, loud and clear that for many of our black leaders, they have a sense of urgency. They say, look, you know, we’ve had 400 years of oppression. And that’s enough! What tangible actions can we do to make life more safe, equitable for black people, for people of color?

JW-H 23:59
Well, I don’t think it has to be extremely complicated. Because the people who’ve had their backs pressed against the wall in this nation’s story have been pretty clear throughout about what they want. And have been organized in, you know, organizations like the NAACP for a century. So I think the response from folks you’re in relationship with make sense of people do get tired of repeating themselves. I think most folks just want people who are waking up to the realities that they have experienced and born in their bodies, to show some genuine commitment to do something about it. So you know, join your NAACP, join the poor people’s campaign, join the movements that have been trying to work for racial justice in this country. And then show up and do the things that those people asked you to do.

I don’t think it’s incredibly complicated. But it but it is difficult, because it’s often costly to people who have inherited all of these — I mean, part of whiteness is inheriting these kind of categories. Where I think often for Christians, there are proposals that sound radical, because you’ve been told that they’re radical. You know, there are some circles in which people are beginning to talk about reparations? Like, why would anybody who reads the Bible not think that reparations, whenever there’s an injustice, matter? Like, that seems pretty basic, but people have been, you know, [told] that’s a radical idea, and that it would disturb people, and they leave the church or whatever.

So, I think just a sort of a simple commitment to show up and to do the things that people have been asking folks to do is one piece of it. And the other thing is that I think most white folks — or most people who’ve been conditioned by whiteness, — also, we need to open ourselves to the way in which sorrow and joy dwell together, in beloved community. To just show up to do the things you asked to do, but to not always be so serious about it. If you want to survive, the freedom church says you got to be able to sing sometimes, you got to be able to dance sometimes. To be able to eat good food, and enjoy one another, and talk about something other than the issues. You got to actually care what’s going on people’s lives and how their mom and dad and cousins are doing. Like that’s, that’s a big part of, and to appreciate the richness of culture that is there.

I think most, most people who think they’re white, have no idea how ignorant they are, of the way in which even the culture that we think we understand has largely been appropriated and pulled out of the context in which it makes sense and is part of a community. And I think to, to simply want to be part of the community that has produced the greatest gifts that have emerged out of this nation: gospel music, jazz music. Yeah, I think if you have any sense of the contemplative tradition and Christian history, you ought to want to — like if you heard John Coltrane play one song — you want to want to be part of a culture in which you would show up in a place where somebody is doing that on Saturday? Why would you want to be part of that?

Michael Cheuk 28:16
Yeah. Ah, so I think once again, what I’m hearing from you is, there already have been people doing this work. So join them, and let them take the lead. But as you do the work, also understand that we are in relationship, and so we can have fun, and we can play and we can appreciate the gifts that we all bring, but especially those that we’re trying to … I think for me, as I hear this, and hooks, my great temptation, like to be the savior. And, and just to follow what Christ did, and be incarnational and lived among the people. Right. So that’s, that’s, maybe that’s my takeaway, from what you’ve just said.

JW-H 29:22
Yeah. Yeah, white people might not need as many vacations if they, if they had some decent block parties to go to …

I never ceased to be amazed by how much people spend on cruises. It just scratch my head, I have no desire to go on a cruise. I don’t know why people want to do that. But in some ways, I think it again, like, you know, I’m not saying that there’s never a time to get away from people. But it does seem to me to be an expression, even that kind of American notion of a vacation, seems to me to an expression of how the so-called privileged people in this society, understand somehow that their so-called privilege is not a real privilege. There’s still the sense that people want to get away from it. And I think, I think we ought to pay attention to that, and listen to it, and, and ask ourselves what that says about the life that we’re pursuing. And whether it, whether it is what the Bible calls to life, that’s really life. Or whether we need to learn from people who know how to take care of one another, know how to love one another, know how to enjoy life a little bit while they’re going through. Learn from them what it means to really live.

Michael Cheuk 30:45
Yeah, thank you. Well, I see that we are at the end of our time. Do have a parting word, to those who might be viewing this video?

JW-H 30:59
Well, the me just say to those of you who were in Virginia, who like me down here in North Carolina, you know, have to pray and find our way right in the belly of what was the birthplace of the plantation economy. I think we’re living in a moment, when, as Malcolm X used to say that the chickens are coming home to roost, in terms of this history that we’ve inherited. And I know that is scary and painful. And I’ve spent a little time with you all there in Charlottesville. And I know that there are options of violence and and this white nationalism that that you all have seen have been traumatizing to a lot of people. And so I just want to lean into the contemplative wisdom of the freedom church, to encourage people to — well, as we say, in church — to take, take your burdens to the Lord and leave them there, which is not a way of saying that you can lay it down once and for all, but a way of saying that we can enter together into a kind of communal contemplation, where we can tend to these wounds, even while we continue to struggle. So that’s my prayer for y’all that you will take care of one another love one another, even as you continue to maintain a bold witness against the lies that are that are really destructive, not only for our black and brown sisters and brothers who are bearing the greatest burden of this, but also for those young white men who — who a few of them live there, many of them have shown up from elsewhere — who are being sold a bill of goods by by a neo-capitalist regime that’s in decline, and can’t offer all of the titillation that maybe it did to their parents, to keep things going. And yet, is still trying to sell this false identity as a way of holding on to control. I think that’s what we need to be freed from. So I’m praying for your healing, for mine, and for us to be able to maintain a witness to a better way.

Michael Cheuk 33:20
Thank you so so much, really appreciate it. And to know that there are folks like you and others who are doing this work and who continue to press on. It’s an inspiration to us. And so thank you for the work that you do. And we just continue to be faithful in the ways that God has called us and continue to call.

JW-H 33:43
Amen. Bless you. Good to be with you.

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