Excerpted from “Radical Spirituality,” Chapter “Promise and Perils of Perpetual Revolution”
For Halloween 2013, Vonetta and I allowed our children, Chloe (age 5) and Elgin (almost 4), to choose their costumes. We gave them each five choices from a list. Chloe was almost Coco Chanel, but opted for the more vibrant Frida Kahlo (she looked stunning in red dress, turquoise jewelry, and uni-brow).
Elgin ultimately chose Che Guevara, which raised all sorts of ethical questions, particularly due to our family’s Mennonite identity and commitment to peace and non-violence. I had to ask myself, regardless of how high-minded he claimed to be, why I included Che on the list? And why did Elgin, who is not even allowed to use water guns, choose a violent revolutionary? Well, we gave Elgin agency, and so we consented to him being Che, the Argentine doctor-turned-revolutionary.
One of the persons on the list that Elgin did not choose was Cornel West. I imagined my son dressed in a black-and-white three-piece suit with a small silk scarf around his neck, and perhaps some make-up to make it look like he had a gap between his front teeth to enact that inimitable Cornel West smile. And while my daughter, whimsical and wise for five, has the Westian flair and outrageous extroversion more than my son, it is my son who exudes West’s cool dignity.
And while West has influenced me even to the point that I considered dressing my son like him for Halloween, so too Delores Williams, bell hooks (who is not a womanist, but a black feminist) and others provide the possibility that my daughter may choose to imagine and reimagine her social location throughout her life.
My wife is Afro-Guyanese, yet she also has Chinese-Indonesian and Amerindian in her DNA. My ancestors were Norwegian and Hutterite, which is a religio-ethnic group unto itself. My wife is from the South American continent and I am from the North American continent. And our children were born in New York City. Our children are, in most senses of the word, postmodern. As they mature, they will have many identities with which they may choose among. It is our hope as parents that their main identity will be in Christ.
When I had children, I discovered that I had become more radical and more committed to causes that affected my family, yet I was also more cautious. I stood less often in protest lines outside of the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) detention center, and more often explored ways to participate in movements, often as a board member of an organization or by hosting planning meetings, that proved strategic and hopefully more prone to effect deep change.
Children have a way of radicalizing parents (and the reverse is surely just as true).
And so, as a father, I asked myself, how do my chosen identities affect my children’s identity? For example, how much womanist God-talk should I employ for my son and daughter’s sake? We do not have to choose between identities, but can be whole persons in a fragmented society who speak from our experiences, histories, and self-identities. We choose who we are, and we choose from where we will speak.
I am thankful that there are voices like Cornel West, bell hooks, Delores Williams, and James Cone as well as personalities like Frida Kahlo and Che Guevara who found ways to express their art, their angst, their desire to overcome systems of domination and oppression through various means, including painting, scholarly endeavors, and, dare I say, even violent revolution. In our postmodern age, people do not tune in to the 9 o’clock news on Channel 5 each evening. They gather news from various sources on the internet and elsewhere. There is no one spiritual leader, such as Billy Graham, who speaks a message for all, rather we live in an increasingly pluralistic society with many voices and a variety of ways for those voices to be heard. And in our fragmented society we must seek voices and other work to engage the dominant culture in an attempt to increase peace, justice, hope and liberation, and eventual reconciliation.
This is an excerpt from “Radical Spirituality: Repentance, Resistance, Resistance, Revolution” (Orbis) released in September 2014. Jason Storbakken and his wife Vonetta are co-founders of the Radical Living Christian community in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn, NY. He is also chapel director at The Bowery Mission and a Mennonite minister.
Jason began his writing career as an intern at The Madison Times.