Of Kente and Two Corinthians
Congressional Democrats kneel for a moment of silence.
Ah, the temptation to scold--and to jump on the scolding bandwagon.
A friend posted a Washington Post piece about a "performative" symbolic act in the U.S. Capitol. For eight minutes and 46 seconds, Congressional Democratic leaders knelt in the Hall of Emancipation. All--both black and white--wore stoles made of Kente cloth, a traditional west African textile that is a powerful symbol of African cultural identity. There are many Kente patterns, each symbolizing a different virtue, value, or tradition. In the United States, Kente cloth stoles are often wore by African-American students during their graduation ceremonies. They also make frequent appearances in African-American churches. It's not unknown for a white guest preacher to wear a Kente stole at a black church service.
The scolding came from a Nigerian/Ghanaian scholar at Oxford University, who was offended at the "performative" nature of the event. A Google search turns up a dozen different news stories, all highlighting the controversy--and none really getting it. There were accusations of cultural appropriation, calling it a photo op akin to Donald Trump's brandishing of a Bible outside a church that had just been cleared of peaceful protesters, and still reeked of the tear gas used on them. The word "performative" comes up a lot in these stories, along with a finger-wagging wokeness that I often find in news stories written from outside a church, looking in on the wacky irrational things Christians do. It's not just progressives who feel the brunt of it: I am tired to death of reading and hearing pundits decry Donald Trump's use of the words "Two Corinthians" as he was addressing an audience of Christian college students in January, 2016--that's right, more than four years ago, a full year before he moved into the Oval Office and ruined everyone's lives forever. (I write that with my tongue nowhere near my cheek.)
A quick pivot to that incredibly minor incident, and then I'll be back on the far larger case of the Kente-wearing white politicians. Speaking before an auditorium filled with Evangelical students of Liberty University, Donald Trump awkwardly dropped a Bible verse. In citing it, he referred to Paul's Second Epistle to the Church at Corinth as "Two Corinthians," clearly not knowing the custom, in American churches at least, is to call it "Second Corinthians." I read and heard the pundits pouncing en masse, and winced, and have gone on wincing ever since. It's become a cliche used to highlight Trump's inexplicable (to pundits, anyway) appeal to Evangelicals: here's a man who says "Two Corinthians," ha ha ha.
I wince because what you call this particular book of the Bible is utterly secondary to what it's about. It's not uncommon for British Christians (remember the British? They invented the English language we're scolding Trump for using so poorly) to refer to books whose titles include a number by the active number, rather than the passive "first," "second," or "third," and I distinctly remember hearing this usage when I was attending seminary in Dallas, Texas. In case you've forgotten (I sometimes do, in fact), I'm a fully ordained elder in the United Methodist Church, though I haven't served a church as its pastor since 2000, and have devoted most of my energy since then to teaching elementary general music.
I wince, as well, because of the monstrosities Evangelicals are willing to give Trump a pass on. There's ample hypocrisy to criticize Christian Trump followers over. The man comes closer to embodying the Antichrist than any fictional representation I've ever encountered--and I've seen quite a few. I used to really get into the genre, not because I believed it, but because the intellectual convolutions involved in building such a world fascinated me. Anyway, to put it simply: Christians who support Trump have chosen to ignore far worse behaviors than him being unfamiliar with the most common way for Americans to refer to a particular book of the Bible, and laughing at him for this microscopic faux pas is not convincing anyone to change their mind one way or the other. It just makes the pundit look petty and ignorant.
Now back to the Kente incident: seeing the headlines, the first thing that ran through my mind was, "Clearly these writers have never been to a black church service." The next thing was, "Do they not see Congressman John Lewis standing right next to Nancy Pelosi? If he's not offended, why are they making such an issue of it?" I finally had time this morning to Google the story, and found the controversy stemmed from a tweet by Jade Bentil, a researcher at Oxford. Her words: "My ancestors did not invent Kente cloth for them to be worn by publicity-obsessesed politicians as 'activism' in 2020."
Here's where I get cautious. I am not here to lecture any African or African-American about cultural appropriation, the use or misuse of cultural symbols, or taking offense at anything a white politician may be doing in the context of a global uprising against the abuses police commit against people of color. But I need to show you some pictures: