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Thin Places: Black History Month & the Agonizing Jesus

It was one of those spaces that Celtic people might refer to as “Thin”. The Last Supper was over, but Jesus hadn’t been arrested yet. He journeyed with some of his friends to a nearby garden to pray. This story is one I have read hundreds of times over the years, but I began to see it with new eyes about a year ago. Jesus is in agony. He prays. He weeps. He sweats blood. His friends sleep. He wakes them up and begs them to stay with him, to resist the urge to fade into the numbness that sleep promises. But for sorrow, they sleep again.

Last month was Black History Month. For many years this meant nothing more to me than knowing I would see lots of faces on television that I might recognize from history class. Growing up in a part of the US that thought it “diverse” to have 1 Black family in town, I suppose I never had an awareness of how important it might be to pay attention to the stories of those faces, to learn—in great detail—the painful history of Black folks in America.

The death of Mike Brown, and the events that followed, stirred something in me—as it seemed to do with many others around me. I had no idea what to make of it, but I felt a strong invitation to listen—really for the first time.

This year was the first time I really engaged with Black History Month. I journeyed from Talbot County, Maryland with Frederick Douglass into Stamps, Arkansas with Maya Angelou, and concluded my journey in Baltimore and New York with Ta-Nehisi Coates. Aside from the obvious achievement of finishing 3 books in one month (a solid record for me I assure you) this journey solidified an awareness of a certain type of posture I am being invited to take.

I have to confess that I had hopes of being able to articulate with more clarity some smart sounding ideas about racism in America after reading these books. If I’m really honest I will also admit that I hoped it would lead to me being seen as “woke”, “progressive”, or just solidly “not racist”. But transformation rarely strokes the ego, and this is no exception.

Rather than give me clarity and really clever sound-bytes, my trinity of authors led me into that same Thin Place at the garden. My desire for sound-bytes and assurances of being seen as decidedly not-racist, is nothing more than a desire to get a quick fix so I can go back to sleep and return to the blissful numbness of my dreams. But Jesus wouldn’t let that happen. He beckoned me to not look away as Frederick Douglass recounted story after story of himself or someone he knew being de-humanized by the horrors of pre-emancipation slavery. He repeatedly shook me awake and begged me to listen as Maya Angelou told her own story of growing up in the segregated south as not only Black, but also a Woman. He whispered “stay with me Ben” as Ta-Nehisis Coates laid out the reality that seeing myself as White is a myth that perpetuates a dream that relies on the continued de-humanizing and brutalizing of Black bodies for its very survival.

Jesus is in agony. He continues to weep, pray, and sweat blood. The Celtic Christian tradition invites us to receive these words in more ways than simply literal. We are invited to experience the power of symbolism and metaphor. In that spirit my journey through Black History Month led me into one of those sacred Thin Places. The transformational question is: Am I willing to not look away? Am I willing to remain present to pain, regardless of the sorrow it will produce? Am I willing to stay awake?

Ben Edwards is a member of Celtic Way's Board of Directors. Read more about him here.

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