When we talk about Whiteness, we refer not to a biological race but to a way of organizing the world. Race, as we formally understand it, is a recent social construct. There was no White race, Black race, Indian* race, or Asian race before 1492. In order to justify genocide, land theft, and chattel slavery, European colonizers invented the Indian and Black races. In so doing, they created White people. Whiteness is the daily, encultured justification of White Supremacy. It exists and constantly exercises in order to maintain the violent social and economic position of the White race over all other peoples. This is primarily a means of social and class control. It makes its way through media representation, the mechanisms of politics; it’s a stalwart of philosophies, education, and theology. It is pervasive and structural and systemic.
So understand that the problem with the following paintings is not the tone of the skin of those portrayed in them (though that figures in as well. It’s impossible to not also figure in skin tone since that is the arbitrary marker of White Supremacy). It is the cultural touchstones of Whiteness perpetrated through the entire narrative. This is important because a criticism of Whiteness should not be confused with a criticism of (individual) White people, but of a cultural understanding that maintains White Supremacy. Similarly when White is used as an adjective before an institutional or movement label (eg, White Christianity, White Theology, White Feminism), it refers not to the skin color of those who are encompassed by them, but of the predominant worldview that pervades the practice.
The following image was shared by an Anabaptist-leaning Christian theology professor on Facebook. It is a sepia-toned painting of a White Jesus in a robe, sandals and long, curly hair carrying the bag and rifle of the uniformed Nazi officer he is chatting with. They are alone on a solitary road. The piece is titled The Second Mile, referring to a line Jesus makes in his Sermon on the Mount in the Gospel according to Matthew: “And if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile” (Matt 5:41, NRSV). The original FB poster said about it that, “[I]t gets to the core of enemy-love – the way we make space for God to work in reconciling the world.”
This image was made by and shared uncritically mainly among White male Evangelicals, the single largest factor of those who voted for and still support Donald Trump. To say that it is problematic is to not even scratch the surface, but let’s start with the reference.
Peace activist and theologian Walter Wink has pointed out that the way we interpret the Enemy-Love passages from the Sermon on the Mount (Turn the other cheek, Give your cloak, Do not resist the evil-doer) is contrary to what Jesus was communicating with his hearers. Jesus, Wink says, wanted his people to fight back, but not in the direct confrontational means that would see the Jewish people scattered to the winds (as in 70 AD after an uprising). Thus, he demonstrated creative resistance against the occupying Roman forces and the wealthy that were throwing the poor into prison over debt.
In the Second Mile instance, the Roman forces, in an effort to not drive up the angers of those they were occupying, had limitations on what kinds of burdens they would put on the citizens. They could force them to go one mile and carry their stuff, but no further. When Jesus said go the extra mile, he was — at least according to Wink — trying to force the Roman soldiers and officers to confront their own shame in an effort to dare them to force the people to carry their load anymore.** It’s a subversive confrontation and act of liberation.
So that’s the first thing to point out: There is no resistance here. Enemy-love is seen instead as a passive moment making a potential friend. What we experience is a normalization of violent White Nationalism through Buddy Jesus, who has come to lighten the load of the fascist murderer.
Second, notice how this depiction both completely erases Jewishness and centers Whiteness. There are no shema, prayers, cultural practices, or synagogues, but also no concentration camps, no ghettos, no markings, no hiding in secret rooms, no sitting shivas, no piles of bodies. As in most depictions of Jesus in White America, his Jewishness is annihilated — he put upon the cross of Whiteness. Hell, look at his designer sandals. This is not a brown peasant of the Near East circa 30 CE. This is a deliberate choice to whiten Jesus for a White Christianity.
This obliteration of Jewish (let alone any non-White) identity is across the board in Belk’s Journeys with the Messiah collection. But especially and hilariously so in his Metamorphosis: Uncovering the Christ in You, where a White man in a turtleneck and khakis enters what appears to be Jesus’ tomb to turn around to a fancy standing mirror. Looking inward, he sees a happy, handsome Jesus staring back contentedly as his own reflection.
White Christian men, as Kathy Khang points out, see themselves as Jesus. Not just any Jesus, but that White Jesus, where Jesus actively and passively reflects back not only themselves but also the performative aspects of Whiteness. They do not come to grips with the fact that White America is the occupying force, is the Roman soldiers, is the Nazi officer. But yet there is that inkling that they know that they are, and that underneath the postures of power and murder, they just need to be talked to and treated as human beings. They need those they subject to violence to come at them politely.^
In light of Richard Spencer, Milo Yiannoupolis, the Muslim travel ban, and hyper-aggressive deportations and raids, White Evangelicals who overwhelmingly supported Donald Trump and that culture (and still overwhelmingly support the Muslim ban) are not in a position to highlight how they want to hold conversations with Nazis and other White Nationalists in order to convert them. The time for niceties is past. It is high time for active resistance from White Evangelicals and their leaders. This centering of Whiteness is an aggressive act of violence against the marginalized and oppressed, the very people Jesus came to seek and save.
As a friend pointed out, Jesus was Jewish and would have found himself dead alongside the road. Jesus would not have a chance to dialog with someone that saw him as subhuman. Where should the church be? I know that a significant amount of non-White Christians are in such a position.
Where is the White Church now? Are they ready to become the Confessing Church of Bonhoeffer’s letters — the opposition to Hitler’s nationalist violence? Will White Evangelical scholars, pastors and leaders resist this rising attack against the people of God, or will they continue to place a high emphasis on racial reconciliation without repentance?
Which is to say, will white-skinned Christians pick up their crosses and follow Jesus to the deportation centers or will they continue to polish their Whiteness, hiding in their feelings until the subaltern learn to be polite enough for their tastes where they just might say something? Will white Christians continue to live in their Whiteness and maintain it through hyper-sensitivity, or will they be brave and question their assumptions about Whiteness and how they operate within it?
Are they truly willing to be like Jesus, or just imagine themselves as reflections of a White Jesus who has nothing meaningful to say to the world?
*Aka, Native Americans or First Nations, generic terms and understandings not used by people indigenous people in the Western Hemisphere until European colonization and genocide forced them.
** Wink. Jesus & Nonviolence.
^Their mantra is “Best not to resist the Nazis lest you become one!” If you punch a Nazi, you take the Nazi’s place. If you hurt a white person’s feelings, you strengthen white supremacy. Etc. etc worldwithoutend.
In light of the recent extreme acts of the Illegitimate President of the United States of America, I’m thinking of how awful the terms “radical Muslim” and the related term, “radicalized Muslim” are. As a linguist and writer, I’m concerned about words and how they’re handled and understood. Words are symbols and so they mean whatever (social and psychological) power we give them, but words then hold that power and dispense that power. The power of a term such as “radical Muslims” – highlighted by its use in Trump’s defense of his Executive Order banning immigrants from Muslim majority countries – is phenomenal and changes how people not only see, but think about and then act on a group of people.
The word radical generally means “getting to the roots of.” This is at least how many self-avowed Leftist Americans (such as myself) read it. Of course that is not the predominant reading, that largely being somewhat negative and dismissive of activists, due in no small party to American acquiescence to passivity in relation to the status quo. In all of these understandings is a kind of root: That a radical really believes and believes very strongly. Also note when it is used–rarely for something that is considered the norm. We never hear the phrase “radical capitalist” as America and Britain are very radical and devout in their relation to the economic theory. Rather we tend to hear the phrase attached to something that is outside the norm. “Radical communist”. “Radical integrationalist” during the height of Jim Crow and “radical segregationalist” afterward. “Radical pacifist” during war time.
The term is often worn as a badge of honor, the bravery of going against the norms of society. The fundamentalist branches of Christianity that I spent most of my life in loved to be called “radical Christians”. “X Church trains up radical, fanatical Christians” was the motto from one of my churches for a couple years. Radical for Jesus was a way to live, to celebrate an insular community. Christian, Fundamentalist, Born-Again, Bible-Believer, Jesus Freak. A very popular Christian music song from the rap-pop band DC Talk put it, “What would people say if they found out I’m a Jesus freak?” Fundamentalist Christians, radical Christians, should not be afraid or ashamed of proclaiming their beliefs despite a seemingly hostile word. In the US, they were never criminalized nor extradited for stating these beliefs, but that’s what it is..
DC Talk then used the popularity of the song to sell a hip version of Foxe’s Book of Martyrs for the teenage church. The radical Christian is the real, true Christian who is then persecuted by the world for following the real God. This is interpreted as a positive thing. The problem then isn’t so much the word “radical” but what it is modifying.
As one of my Facebook friends reiterated this phrase “radical Muslim terrorists” on my wall, I can’t help but notice the spread of that specific phrase used by Trump. IPOTUS himself picked it up from its reiteration by the Islamophobic industry before him (which helped propel him to political prominence both through his Birther controversy and then through his Islamophobic comments throughout the campaign) and has spread it like wildfire.
The stigma of the term is now connected insolubly with all those who observe, practice, or are even near Islam, its language, its practices, its appearances.
The term “Islamic radical” assumes that there is something inherently wrong with Islam. Or, more to the point, something wrong with Muslims. Muslims thus are viewed as positive in White Western eyes only in as much as they don’t really believe in Islam (New Atheists have long called non-fundamentalist Muslims “fake Muslims”; believing as Wahhabis do that there is only one legitimate form of Islam. This view does injustice to historical and current Muslims and Islam). And as much as Muslims accrue to Western modes of activity. This view erases Muslim feminism, Muslim liberation, Muslim science and whitewashes Western societies savageries of genocide, hyper-masculinity, and capitalist war-mongering, for starters.*
Islam is seen to be inherently dangerous in itself, despite the fact that it is as large and as diverse as Christianity, that it has many different forms, that most of what we recognize as “radical Islam” such as Wahhabism and related sects are post-modern, illiterate takes on a pre-modern religion and thus stripping it of its historical roots and valid interpretationsto promote a much more violent, reactionary and hyper-masculine version of the religion–not unlike the Fundamentalist Christianity of Jerry Falwell and Franklin Graham. The comparisons don’t end there, either. Wahhabism teaches that whoever does not follow its version of Islam is damned, whether or not they were Muslims. Much as the Bible churches I grew up in believed that only those who believed as they do were saved from hell.
True Islam is not represented by the so-called Islamic State any more than the Ku Klux Klan represents true Christianity. In fact, these are not the sole faces of their respective religions, but only relatively small variants therein. The rest of Islam and Christianity should not be refracted through them, but only inasmuch as they differ from their more violent messages.*
Realizing how powerful and dangerous this linguistic term is is important not just against the standard Islamophobe, but against the entrenched Islamophobia, or rather Muslimphobia that is mainstreamed in standard Euro-American discourse and policy. Because if we’re being honest, this ostracizing, expulsion, and detention of American citizens and workers merely due to the predominant religion of their national origins (regardless of their desire to be US citizens) is making militarized versions of Islam more palatable to those being ostracized.
Maybe what we’re talking about isn’t Radical Muslims but Militarized Muslims. After all, the US and its allies are pushing militancy upon Muslim communities with the hyper-surveillance, the drone warfare, the police raids, the anti-Muslim rhetoric, the nearly-universal suspicion. The turning away and detentions. This racist militancy by the United States, by European allies, and especially by the neo-fascists such as UK’s PM May, French pol Le Pen, and our own Illegitimate One work to create a reaction of entrapment that will be worth all the trouble of breaking international treaties because, LOOK MUSLIMS DOING BAD THINGS! never mind the fact that we forced them into that situation.
It’s the self-fulfilling prophecy of the Never-ending War on Terror. Muslims do bad things because we expect them to and then force their hands until a small segment of them breaks off to do bad things. If only we had ended this racist, fake war eight years ago when we had the chance to.
*I know that some reader somewhere is going to get the idea to tell me that The Muslims did and do all these horrific things, etc, etc. Yes, they are human. Yes, they were involved in wars and empire-building and slave trades of their own. This isn’t a zero-sum game.
**As a Christian, I’m well aware of portions of mainstream White Evangelicalism that readily connect to theologies that the Klan practiced. It does not delegitimize Christianity as a whole, but helps to pinpoint how theological practices can remain in pockets and cause violence.
Here’s Graham to the Huffington Post on how he can square his and Trump’s literal, political xenophobia (literally, stoking fear of outsiders) carried out in Trump’s executive order to ban immigrants and refugees from several Muslim-dominated countries with his Christianity:
It’s not a biblical command for the country to let everyone in who wants to come, that’s not a Bible issue. We want to love people, we want to be kind to people, we want to be considerate, but we have a country and a country should have order and there are laws that relate to immigration and I think we should follow those laws. Because of the dangers we see today in this world, we need to be very careful.
Contrary to the Culture Warrior Christian’s idiotic statement, it’s not only a biblical command for Christians, it’s a biblical command for nations. Recall that the Bible wasn’t written to individuals, but to communities, from the Israelites to the early Church.
When a foreigner resides among you in your land, do not mistreat them. The foreigner residing among you must be treated as your native-born. Love them as yourself, for you were foreigners in Egypt. I am the Lord your God. – Leviticus 19:33-34 (NIV)
This idea is repeated in Deuteronomy 10:19 and Exodus 22:21: Do not oppress a foreigner, for you yourselves were mistreated foreigners in Egypt.
Throughout the Jewish scriptures, the idea is reiterated time and again as both a national story and as a decree, not only should the immigrant (or stranger or refugee) be welcomed, but treated, befriended, and loved as any other member of the community. Deuteronomy 27, in fact, curses those who mistreat the stranger. The effect is one of continual remembrance; the act of welcoming the stranger is one of communal redemption.
Welcoming sojourners is seen as a definite sign of following God’s commandments. Job, for instance, refers to his good deeds of hospitality toward strangers (in chapters 29 and 31).
Throughout the Older Testament scriptures*, the idea that the Hebrews were aliens, were stuck in a foreign land, and were strange to their own God is reiterated so that the people could empathize with the traveler – those who are forced out of their own land and into a new land, as was Abraham and the people under Moses and Joshua. The Lost. This is a prominent story of Israel, that of a people who were oppressed foreigners and travelers who found a home among God and remember this story through their own hospitality toward foreigners and travelers.
And then there’s Jesus and the New Testament, expanding this national story into Jesus himself (who Matthew recounts as a refugee fleeing the genocidal Herod into Egypt) and then his disciples and Christians themselves (Jesus tells his first followers to go town to town as strangers and accept hospitality, which is expanded in the Great Commission [Go out into all the world and make disciples]; Paul recalls the story before Mars Hill in Acts through an elaborate evangelistic call; Peter does so explaining the new order of Christ-followers on the multilingual Pentecost). The story of strangers being accepted by the community and the parents becomes the story of Christianity, spread throughout the Pauline letters and other epistles as well as through the Gospels themselves.
In Matthew 25, Jesus makes it clear that those who welcome and are hospitable to the stranger are welcoming him; that those who reject the stranger reject him.
The Newer Testament book of Hebrews again retells the national story of Israel, God’s people, as being aliens and strangers and then closes to remind the expanded people of God (according to Christian theology) to:
Let mutual love continue. Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it. Remember those who are in prison, as though you were in prison with them; those who are being tortured, as though you yourselves were being tortured. (Chapter 13. NRSV)
[Oh, now there’s that pesky commandment about torture and imprisonment, both of which Franklin Graham is silent about as his presidential preference is promising to increase.]
In short, we see that while White Evangelicalism promises to be exclusively biblical in following Christ, it is fundamentally cultural, which is to say it is foundationally a linguistic and political theology that establishes and reinforces Whiteness. Franklin Graham is emblematic of this approach, this sin, this heresy of White Theology.
Not that I’m working on a book about this or anything… **
*For instance, Genesis 15:13; 23:4; Psalm 39:12; 105:12; 119:19; I Chronicles 16:19; 29:15; Leviticus 25:23, 35
** I am working on a book about this. Really, two books. Please subscribe to the newsletter for updates.
As I’ve said several times and will say many times to come, Martin Luther King, Jr. is known by most for one line in one speech and wearing suits when he protested*. It’s this sheer veneer of a hagiography of King that allows Liberty University to welcome #DonaldNaziTrump to give the MLK address. Which is weird because presidential candidate Donald Trump is basically running as a national Sheriff Bull Connor. But the higher-ups at the conservative Evangelical Liberty U, despite having many students of color, feel the xenophobic, misogynistic, racist, jingoistic Trump is an appropriate speaker for a retrospective on Martin Luther King, Jr.
“We chose that day so that Mr. Trump would have the opportunity to recognize and honor Dr. King on MLK day,” Liberty University President (and son of founder) Jerry Falwell, Jr. told The Richmond Times-Dispatch.
[Falwell] pointed to King’s principle that people should be judged, as King put it ‘not by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.’
“Liberty stands for that principle and I believe that Mr. Trump does as well,” he said.
Liberty’s Falwell Jr. swears that a crude, racist, violence-loving capitalist class fascist lives by Martin Luther King’s standards. Let’s think about the abundantly evident patterns being made here for a moment.
The first being that there is little critical analysis of King’s legacy in the public eye. Just like Jesus, we remake him in personal images because we don’t want to scrutinize the text – and even when we do, we are rarely honest about the presuppositions we carry with us in our readings.
Take this consideration in combination with the fact that Jerry Falwell, Jr. is a crude, racist, violence-loving capitalist theocrat, like his father Jerry Falwell, Sr. before him. And that he interprets others in binary models in this framework. If they are good, they think like him and are like him. If they are bad they may or may not think like him, but are on the receiving end of his actions – for example, those Muslims that he told Liberty students to “end” and should be “taught a lesson”.
Contrary to King’s most famous mode of organizing, Falwell, Jr. told his Christian students that they should arm themselves. In their school. Never mind the implications of intimate violence in an environment rife with hyper-masculine theology and ecclesiology. While King advocated nonviolence as a means of organizing protest, it was as a critique of violence located within White Supremacist democracy. We can’t talk about nonviolent agitation without acknowledging that it is an organized resistance to the locus of violence: White Supremacist Empire.
King, it should be noted, was not strictly opposed to gun ownership for black families in terms of protecting their homes from direct white violence (cf Taylor Branch’s At Canaan’s Edge). Malcolm and the Panthers preached that this personal method of protection should be extended to organizational efforts against the threat of White violence. In the end, Dr. King and the Black Panthers fell to White violence and intentional disruption (and Malcolm would have likely have done so too if his life wasn’t cut short by an internal power play).
If Falwell, Jr. is to be believed and White Christians are under violent siege from Muslims, then and only then can his call to arms be taken seriously.
Muslims in the US and abroad are exponentially more likely to be harmed and killed by White American Christian violence than white Christians are by Extremist Muslim violence. In this scenario, Falwell represents the Klan, mob violence, and lynchings that King and his contemporaries were under threat from and (sometimes) armed themselves against.
This centering and outpouring of White violence coupled with the economic terror known as capitalism is central to how Jr. envisions Jesus and Martin Luther King. So of course Trump – another crude White Supremacist capitalist – speaking at an event honoring the pacifist, anti-racist, class-consciousness King is perfectly acceptable.
Trump, Falwell Jr. tells us, reminds him of his father.
Jerry Falwell, Sr., by the way conspired with FBI Director J Edgar Hoover to spread propaganda about King and elevated American capitalism over and above the health of Black Americans. In the 1960’s, he preached that racial segregation was ordained by God. And…
In a 1964 sermon, “Ministers and Marchers,” Falwell attacked King as a Communist subversive. After questioning “the sincerity and intentions of some civil rights leaders such as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Mr. James Farmer, and others, who are known to have left-wing associations,” Falwell declared, “It is very obvious that the Communists, as they do in all parts of the world, are taking advantage of a tense situation in our land, and are exploiting every incident to bring about violence and bloodshed.”
Falwell concluded, “Preachers are not called to be politicians, but soul winners.”
Then, for a time, Falwell appeared to follow his own advice. He retreated from massive resistance and founded the Lynchburg Christian Academy, an institution described by the Lynchburg News in 1966 as “a private school for white students.”
Note: Many progressives tend to overplay Falwell’s post-Brown V. Board explicit racism as the genesis and centrality of Liberty University and his Moral Majority. Falwell Sr would later repudiate and even destroy remaining copies of sermons such as “Ministers and Marchers” and “Segregation or Integration: Which?” – arguably for political and numerical reasons, to further his reach and base among those who did not care for such explicit racism. The concern here is this false thinking that racism, like misogyny, is only real and harmful when it’s explicit rather than structural. The Moral Majority and Falwell both endorsed policies and practices which were functionally racist and sexist, but not out of a desire to be racist or sexist.
In the contemporary West, the White Supremacist Empire is located in the relation that the state and its arms (the police and the military) have with corporations and banks. This was true during King’s era as seen in Jim Crow and Vietnam, and it is true in its current manifestations of the War on Crime and the War on Terror. On the rare, exaggerated, and misattributed occasion that peaceful protests get out hand and start burning or looting, White media and masses tend to focus on that rather than the White violence that is the we fail to recognize actual violence.
The actual violence is that people, and especially black and brown people, are commodified and perceived as property in the first place. We see how this happens in both practice (privatization of black and brown schools; overpolicing) and in memory (King as nice-&-eloquent black man who asked whites to free his people).
*For more, check out Austin Channing Brown’s “What Would MLK Do?”
The GQ piece on the ultra-hip, Hollywood-ish Hillsong NYC Church struck any number of – to me at least – important topics, one of which is this concept of relevance. The truth is, I don’t think Hillsong nor pretty much any megachurch (nor most churches in general) is relevant despite their hipness.
There are a few ways of understanding relevance, I know. As a linguist and a post-modern, I’m aware that there is no ‘pure’ or central definition for such a term. But I want to propose a popular definition of relevance as substantial in opposition to a shallow hipness.
First, as a post-evangelical, there is an ever-rising Hipness Christianity. This is a demonstration of Christianity that keeps up with the times. It’s hipster. It’s vogue. It wears skinny jeans and beards. Of Relevant Magazine. To paraphrase Christian rap-pop group DC Talk, it “doesn’t change but it rolls with time.” This is what Taffy Brodesser-Anker refers to as: “Christianity’s whole jam [as] remaining Christian” in her terrific but terrifying profile of Hillsong Church in NYC. But that says nothing to me about my life and, unless fashion is all you have, I’m guessing it says little to you about yours either.
If it speaks to us merely because it imitates us, is it relevant? Maybe. But this is what I think of in terms of substantial relevance.
I think of the fact that we tell children that they need to go to school to learn to read and write and do math and recite Shakespeare and solve quadratic equations because it will help them later in life. And that may be true for a number of children. It wasn’t for me and it isn’t for any number of kids who do not see a future where calculus is of any use for them. That’s what teachers will often tell their students because it’s an easy answer. But it’s not, for one of the primary purposes of schools in poor communities of color – and poor White areas as well – is of containment. Not much in the field of education for poor children has changed since the late 19th century – students are still being trained to work in factories, with a rigid, top-down hierarchical approach, rows and columns of students/proletariat facing the front toward the teacher, uniforms, and busy-work presently in the form of standardized tests.
This isn’t to say that good education doesn’t arise from public schooling (and the charter and private schools that adhere to this method with apocalyptic zeal), but that in a very real sense, school for poor children is systemically broken. We tell kids to do something that may not hold interest to them and when they ask why – which is what kids do because they are children – we tell them it’s for their future benefit somewhere down the line. That somewhere-down-the-line may as well be imaginary for kids and youth. Why do we believe that children and teens (who are by now tired to death of hearing the same lines and seeing few results) who live in the present will attempt their best for a future decades down the line, let alone one that may never arise?
What if, instead, students learned skills that were not only useful for some future, undisclosed and blurry time but now? What if reading, writing, math, and social studies could be used to organize for better living conditions currently? Or analytical skills were sharpened to wake minds?
This is what I think of when I think of relevance. Something useful, not just hep. Something substantial. The Hip Classroom will use computers and hip hop to teach about dead white men. The Relevant Classroom will consider the edifice of hip hop and the structure of the internet.
The Hip Church will feature Justin Bieber-like music, cool clothes and a unique hat. It will be attractive, but not sexy. It may tell gay and lesbian people they are welcome to worship there. But they will not be welcome as functionally sexual beings. It will have an ethnically diverse congregation (and maybe even non-Whites in leadership), but teach an Anglo-White theology that centers individualism. It may tell you that God loves you as you are, but punishes you for gender and sexual transgressions as they understand it.
This is Hillsong. A church that fires worship leaders for “practicing” homosexuality.
Hillsong Australia, via wiki
It will teach a disembodied heaven and the long way to get there but with cool dressing. It’s a literal flash in the pan.
Hipness is inherently shallow. A hip education or ecclesiology will have you turn from yourself, leave behind your home language and reject your family and friends and body and sexuality, for a pie-in-the-sky notion that may or may not pan out decades later. But it can do so because its sheen veneer tricks you into thinking that it works for the present.
The Relevant Church (in this understanding) may or may not be cool, but it will speak to your soul and refashion your vision to think from the present to the future. It will remodel Christianity to its core, which is not rescuing from the world and the self but loving the world and the self within it.
I believe that many white people, particularly white Christians, have good intent in saying “All Lives Matter” – after all, the argument goes, black people are human and are not the only oppressed people in the world. So “all lives” obviously covers theirs as well.
But All Lives is not the work of kinship. It is not acknowledging shared humanity in an honest way.
The US Constitution and Declaration of Independence are documents steeped in “all”-inclusive language, but they made provisions wherein black people are property of white slave-holders and Natives are pawned “savages” to be exterminated.
This is a world where Black people are treated
- and economically
in private and public
in public schools and private homes
– and by the very state that purports to serve and protect them –
+ as less-than people,
+ as threats,
+ and as property.
The declaration that their lives do matter (and by extension, so do Native lives), that they too are human, and thus have volition and power and intelligence should never be trivialized nor violated.
To write on top of Black Lives Matter is to say that the phrase needs fixing, is to trivialize the work of activists and resisters. For white and other non-black people to (continually) do so is to say that the struggle of black people for their own survival is not good enough so we White people have fixed it for them.
This is not solidarity. This is not loving our neighbors as we love ourselves. It is harmful.
Note: This was originally a part of this response to the Gungor song, but I felt it didn’t belong there as Michael and Lisa were deliberate in not making their song say “All lives matter.” I decided to post this upon seeing the very great Austin Channing Brown having to explain why White Christians should not with the hashtag #WeExpectMore.
There is little in the field of White worship (church) music that I can listen to anymore. Fred Hammond, Israel Houghton & New Breed, Kirk Franklin, Mavis and the Staples (tell me “Carry This Load” isn’t worship) is more along my lines. But I rather like Gungor. Their hit song “God Is Love” definitely declares that God is not a White man, that God is in fact not a man. That’s something that my eight year old daughter appreciates. I also appreciate a recent falling out with conservative Christians over Gungor’s open objection to the idea of eternal torture.
So I was a bit disappointed when I found the lyrics to a new song after someone brought up what they felt was some #AllLivesMatter erasure or derailing. And so I and a number of others asked some questions out loud.
I tweeted at Gungor not to gain notoriety or to punish the band or hurt their sales (if you think I can do that, thank you for having so much confidence in me I guess?), but because they are people who I believe will listen and whom I have faith in. During the course of our morning-long discussion on Twitter, I promised to write my thoughts out more coherently in a blog form[i]. The following is partly a reaction, but also contains many thoughts about White allyship of Black struggles and the problems of co-opting in efforts to assist that extend beyond this one song and this one group.
“We Belong Together” – Gungor
We are better together
We are the day and night
Together we are stronger
We are stronger
We are better together
There is no real divide
The winter and the summer
We are stronger
Every black life matters
Every woman matters
Every soldier matters
All the unborn matter
Every gay life matters
Here’s to life and all its branches
All together we are stronger
We belong together
I believe Gungor created this song as an attempt of solidarity – to show that they stand with and even personalize the Black Lives Matter movement and what it says and does. Solidarity is an action where diverse people join together around a common cause, specifically of liberation for an oppressed/marginalized/exploited people group (workers/strikers, indigenous people in the Philippines or Mexico, black Nigerian mothers and children).
Solidarity works best:
- when we recognize both the commonality of all as well as the individuality and uniqueness of each;
- when we are not flattened – when we don’t minimize what the represented group is going through as if we all were in the same boat;
- when we can see the beauty of the person but also the particular ways that racism, misogyny, transmisogyny, classism, homoantagonism, bi-antagonism, ableism, ageism, etc, impact us on various spots and in various ways (ie, a white woman will experience sexism differently than a black woman who will experience it differently than a First Nations woman who will experience it differently than a Filipina transwoman).
Solidarity, then, understands the distinctions between real live experiences and their struggles and thus does not attempt to flatten them.
Towards the end of his blog explaining this song, Michael argues he didn’t want to wash away Black Lives Matter but wanted to add to it in order to expand sympathy for the movement. But yet, that is what effectively happened.
The unborn are not oppressed in ways similar to black people. In fact, even with “every woman matters”, adding “all the unborn matter” turns the song into a political declaration, one particularly anti-abortion. This then arguably comes at odds and undercuts the line before it where “every woman matters”. Anti-abortion rhetoric compares women who have abortions to murderers and justifies their harassment and even murder. A presidential candidate, Ben Carson, also a medical doctor, just likened abortion-seekers to slave-holders.
Fundamentalists as a class, in fact, tend to oppress children, women, and sexual minorities within their domains, and if can be, within their reach (Kim Davis, anybody??). They certainly oppress gay as well as lesbian, bi, trans, and queer people. So what is the point of putting them on the same list and saying that their lives matter the same if fundamentalist parents and churches are meting out (at times lethal) violence to LGBTQ people, as well as women+ seeking medical care for their bodies.
Herein lies the problem with the framing of the Otherization argument that Gungor tries to tackle in this song. They named groups they felt were Other-ized. But the problem is not one of feeling that the named group (whether it be fundamentalists or black people) are made fun of or not understood. That was never the intent behind #BlackLivesMatter, nor of solidarity. It is that specific people are harmed, are not allowed to live, are infantilized, are not given bodily autonomy, are hunted in the streets and at home, are incarcerated as a way of life.
That’s quite a different thing that thinking that a certain group of harassers is weird and mean.
To say that there is no real division between fundamentalists and the LGBTQ people they oppress is to say that the body does not matter. But Black Lives Matter and the LGBTQ-freedom movement are specifically about the importance of the body: incarceration, sex, gender, rights, brutality, murder, hostility, acceptance for whom they are. To make the argument merely metaphysical is to remove it from an earthly, embodied plane of existence – to wait upon God or the cosmos or The Force to make things right.
Under faux solidarity, or forced teaming, we are not allowed to make things right right now because then we will be harming our fellow travelers. This is what this logic teaches. That by asserting rights to live and to be liberated from oppression, the oppressed cause divisions and that division harm us all. True liberation comes from the oppressors in the right time, this logic says.
This is not joining in the struggle, it is not aiding the oppressed. It is telling them that they must wait. And that does not work. It has never worked. Oppression does not relent out of the goodness of its heart.
Fauxlidarity is a philosophy and theology for and by slavers, bankers, and the heteronormative patriarchy. We need instead a praxis that focuses on the theology for and by the enslaved. A God that liberates her people and draws them out of Egypt and into the Promised Land. Not a God who merely promises land with milk and honey and warns against rebellion.
Black Lives Matter is a political, social, theological, and philosophical statement of moral resistance to the political epicenter of anti-black violence of a nation state that rests in and prospers on the blood and bodies of black and brown people. To rephrase it as a personalized philosophical statement is to ignore its power in the collective imagination. This imagination, already in action, is vital to build up a mass movement of people across divides who are willing to create polity changes that respect black life, that effectively takes swipe against the racist incarceration system and against agents of the state that seek to snuff out black life at the slightest provocation.
While it is a nice thought that:
Oceans from drops of rain
Everybody made the same
White folks, we need to talk about solidarity with the oppressed on their terms. We need to talk about intersectionality, for sure, and how we identify, and how power (politics) works within that field. We need to talk about how ideas are spread through theology, philosophy, music, social media, to imbalance or rebalance those power differentials, to work towards justice or injustice or a bit of both.
The issues facing Black people in the United States, however, are distinct from the problems facing White or second-generation LatinXs in the States. They are distinct from Desi people, Afghanis, Central Africans, let alone from fundamentalists.
And at the very least, it’s time for White pro-life Christians to stop comparing Black people to the unborn.
How to show that Black Lives Matters:
Trust them. Get involved locally in funding black communities (equitable, living wage jobs, investing fully in public education from K-Terminal Degrees, building health and mental health community centers, allowing property within communities of color to flow back to those communities) and defunding institutions that detain and defraud them (such as jails; militarized, unaccountable police; payday loan centers and banks with usury fees; for-profit education). If your community does not have a plethora of black voices, your state likely has several. If you’re in one of those states with few black people, recognize your state’s wealth is tied to theft from black and native peoples nonetheless.
But mostly, recognize that Black and Brown people are beautiful, full of life, intellect, will, survival, and love.
- Post-Post Note:
Also worth noting is Dianna Anderson’s post on this song.
[i] I’m over a month late in this response btw
Jesus said unto them:
“Take care that you do not despise one of these [oppressed] ones; for, I tell you, in heaven their angels continually see the face of my Father in heaven. What do you think? If a shepherd has a hundred sheep, and one of them has gone astray, does he not leave the ninety-nine on the mountains and go in search of the one that went astray? And if he finds it, truly I tell you, he rejoices over it more than over the ninety-nine that never went astray.
And the religious and political leaders answered:
But Jesus, All Sheep Matter!
What about the wolves, Jesus?
ALL Animals Matter, Jesus!
(adapted from Matthew 18, NSRV)
Love’s in need of love today.
Coming from an evangelical background, I’ve had these dueling tendencies. On the one hand, we were constantly admonished to “take everything captive”, to be aware of the Devil, who comes like a lion prowling for what he may devour. That we were to beware of the lusts of the flesh, the eyes and the pride of life. We were fighting a war against sin. Sin became the center of discipline and Christian habits the way that older denominations focused on the Christian calendar. Sin and trying to avoid it became such an obsession that they actually captured the imagination and locked it in a dungeon.
On the other hand, there is love – the greatest commandment. It was what first drew me to Christianity and in the midst when nothing else made sense, passages like I Corinthians 13, I John 4, Romans 13, Galatians 5, Mark 12, and Matthew 22 kept me going, grounded me, pushed me and worked to define my Christian identity.
Since I have left the Evangelicalism fold, I’ve noticed that many of the old habits, but especially the centering of sin, are hard to kick. I refer to my state as post-Evangelicalism, because the ways of forming congregants take a pervasive and deeply embedded mental hold on us. Experience has taught me that post-Evangelicals are hardly fully free of those ways of thoughts because the patterns were established in our bodies and minds through regular, regurgitated practice.
This is troubling because it makes me look at the world through deficits. It becomes easy to look at myself and my kinfolk through problematizing lenses, rather than acknowledging us as whole, complex creatures. People who are fully lovely and complex and beautiful and maybe not so lovely. People who may be full of grace, generosity, grace, peace, anti-social tendencies, greed, intellectual curiosity, prowess, survivor skills, difficult histories, kindness, generosity, stinginess, power, tenderness, viciousness, pettiness, greatness…
Instead, I easily reduce people to the awful things that they experience. People thus become projects. Those who don’t conform White Supremacist Heteropatriarchy are thus reduced to victims of it.
But we are not merely victims.
When Dylan Roof, the White Supremacist terrorist, came to Mother Emanuel AME church – a church founded out of necessity to resist and openly fight White Supremacy and slavery; a church burned down by slavers as a result of a foiled slave revolt; a church that was underground for thirty years because it would not subject itself to white overseers in the most intense days of slavery – sat in the congregation while they were praying for an hour, enjoying their welcoming of him in their space. He later says he was grieved to the point that he was worried he couldn’t do what he set out to do.
But he did. He opened fire.
What must have gone through their eyes at this violent betrayal of their love.
And to hear victims’ family members saying now, to Dylan Storm Roof, “We forgive you.”
That is superhuman. It is often expected of victims to forgive their abusers, oppressors, murderers. But it shouldn’t be. It cannot be. That is not forgiveness but more violence, more abuse, more oppression, more murder.
But yet the Mother Emanuel AME Church has a history of surviving in a world of White Supremacy through the seemingly conflicting or at least contradictory spaces of both resistance and forgiveness.
This is not the norm nor should it be expected. It is not loving to expect that of people. But it is a testimony to their loveliness – in both the resistance and the extreme acts of forgiveness. For children to say, “I cannot hold my parent any longer, but I forgive you,” is a testimony not to what should be universal, but to a vivid imagination that clings to hope in the most violent of spaces. It is family trying to find ways to recognize, respect and continue the work that their lost ones stood for. It is a legacy of endurance and beauty.
The beauty of Black, Indigenous, South Asian, East Asian, North African and Middle Eastern people, of differently-abled persons, of women, and of those outside the heteropatriarchal sexual/gender norms is based in their humanity. For myself as a Christian, it is in the bearing of God upon us all and the Spirit that flows in through us all. That must be the initial point. That God has Come By Us and resides in us. It becomes more evident under the suffering, but suffering does not make one more lovely – only the loveliness becomes more evident.
The Blues, Black Gospel, Salsa, hip hop: Mavis Staples, Aretha Franklin, Otis Redding, Mahalia Jackson, Fred Hammond, Public Enemy, Bob Marley, Ladysmith Black Mambazo, Fela Kuti, Celia Cruz, Stevie Wonder – these are testimonies of struggle and survival, but also of innate beauty and grace and ugliness.
To be brief, they are worthy of being loved because they are lovely. No one disputes that. And no one should dispute the loveliness of the subaltern.
 I planned this as an essay to think through loving my neighbor before I woke up to the news of the Charleston massacre. That affected the shape of this, and the delay in presenting it, but hopefully the message is the same.
This weekend I witnessed – mostly through Twitter – my town being taken over by two gatherings for justice, both of which themselves included diverse voices. One was an Evangelical Christian seminar called The Justice Conference, held downtown and featuring an array of Christian voices on issues of justice as identified from a largely White Evangelical perspective. The other was a series of protesting actions to get a trauma center in the South Side, which would be used to save people shot within range as there are no trauma centers for adult victims of shootings on the South Side of Chicago.
I would not argue that one was more important or justice-y than the other. Both were calls to justice but for different audiences. Evangelicals need to be called to economic, sexual, gender, and racial justice. There were problems as Ryan Kenji points out. It largely centered on white and male voices, framed conversations in the problematizing nature of White Privilege, disappeared LGBTQ issues and speakers, and included only one Woman of Color for the mainstage, etc. But at the same time, for many it was revelatory and even earth-shaking to hear voices speak loudly and prophetically against capitalism, patriarchy, prison-as-justice, and White Supremacy.
But the problem was that while the protestors at the University of Chicago were directly confronting White Supremacy, detainment control of poor black communities , and capitalism in order to get a much-needed trauma center open for victims of gun violence in the South Side and save lives, attendees and organizers of The Justice Conference were largely operating in a mode that takes White Supremacy and Heteropatriarchy as norms. We could see this in some of the problematizing of the very definitions of Justice, or in how the conference was arranged in the first place. Calling men “pastors” while calling women “sisters” is a capitulation to a male supremacy ever present in the majority of Evangelical churches – whether or not they call themselves Complementarian* or even know what that term means.
At heart was a re-defining of justice to fit into a highly individualistic framing. Oddly enough for a culture at-odds with post-modernism and a society they consider too relativistic, Evangelicalism redefines justice not to movements of people righting societal injustices, but to people individually helping to curb things they consider wrong or unjust. Because there is little room for community-based action and little understanding of corporate responsibility (everything is broken down to individual sin and individual responsibility), it’s a mess for the foreseeable future**.
All of this to say that, in some respects, justice is often a word applied to the top of specific interests of Evangelicals (I believe Daniel spoke about this) and in line with Evangelical priorities (worship, missions, sex trafficking) that either are directly a part of Evangelicalism or can be neatly aligned with it (White Privilege, as opposed to addressing White Supremacy). I’m thinking about this as I’m writing my book on Evangelicalism’s roots and how it nose-dives with neoliberalism, but also as my church is partaking in a several-week-long sermon series on reclaiming Evangelism. And, for a variety of reasons, this discussion gets me in an uncomfortable position.
I don’t necessarily like to be uncomfortable, but I do like to interrogate what could make me squeamish, and why something may be making me uncomfortable and what to do about that.
Being a Christian means – in some aspect – in evangelism as an outpouring of care. I believe that some sort of sharing of my faith, some public performance of it that can be communicated is necessary. It’s an outpouring of love. It’s reproduction, and reproduction is vital to life.
And yettttt, Christian witness of our faith has largely sided against life. It has been and still is a message steeped with death, and given in ways that reflect that. Rich recalled going to a Hell House when he was a youth. For those not familiar with Hell Houses, it’s a Halloween-themed church gathering that uses imagery left over from Dante’s epic poems and Carman’s music videos to scare people away from hell and into the abusive Jesus who would send them there for not believing that he could and would send them there.
Most churches despise this form of evangelism, however. In light of more friendly and effective Evangelists like Bill Bright, Billy Graham and megachurches following in the footsteps of Willow Creek Church, seeker-friendly churches do not pound on doors, do not preach condemnation, rarely-if-ever talk about hell, and go out of their way to show visitors and would-be Christians that they are welcome at the church.
I remember when seeker-friendly was seen as a denigration by my more fundamentalist peers. They were seen as “not preaching the truth”, being afraid of “man’s approval rather than God’s”. I felt then that they may have a point.
I think I agree with them now. Not that the truth is that every person is on their way to hell without affirming some four or five points about doctrine and then saying a prayer. But that their seeker-friendly message was just a veneer, a sleek cover for the same old thing and therefore dishonest.
Gospel was, in early Christian times, a message from the courts of power that meant (in an Orwellian sense) “good news”. That good news was usually the ascension or birthday of a new emperor. Or the conquering of a city.
This was certainly not good news to the colonized. That good news was of suppression and oppression.
Which is why the good news of Jesus was upsetting to that order (and why he was killed by that same state power). Because Jesus’ good news was good for the poor, for women, for the indentured, for the slaves and the nobodies and the prisoners. This was the message when reading from a synoptic gospels-centered view at least (there’s great stuff in Acts, the epistles, Revelations, and John’s Gospel, but I’m convinced that trying to read those outside of the framing of the gospels first is a huge mistake and leads to a recontextualization of the texts that over-spiritualizes them, robs them of their liberating power and upholds current, violent, dominant power structures).
The gospel message of the seeker church is delivered in a nice package, but inside the package is the dominant, oppressive system’s Gospel. It is Caesar’s gospel of war, empire-building, fear, hell, torture, suppression, oppression. Anti-LGBTQ. White Supremacist Euro-American theology with abundance of shame and guilt. Capitalism-entrenched. Patriarchal. Abuse-as-central to salvation. Eternal suffering and torture to justify unnecessary suffering…
When so many White Christians are justifying child abuse that happens in their own communities (whether it happens when a Duggar male child sexually abuses Duggar female children or when cops target, harass, beat up, throw down black kids attending a pool party in a white neighborhood) but blaming LGBTQ people for imagined abuse – or at the least being silent about such abuse coming from their own communities – the “nice” Christianity doesn’t appear so friendly to those on the margins.
As long as the Christianity that we offer to the world is fundamentally capitalist and abusive, then perhaps it’s not a message that needs to get out so much? If the good news that we have to offer to the people is like the good news of empire and dominion and violence, then how does it differ from Caesar’s good news?
Also, if our good news is tied together with a culture that seeks to superimpose over other cultures – if it aligns godliness with whiteness or consumeristic spirituality, for instance – then is it actually good news?
Because if the good news isn’t the good news of liberation, if the good news isn’t good to the poorest and the most oppressed, then it isn’t good news for anyone but the wealthiest. And that is not a gospel worthy of Jesus, (as far as I’m concerned).
So, a new evangelism needs to be tied in with a liberating gospel.
* Complementarians believe that women and men are essentially different and that each has an assigned gender role to facilitate the other in a heteronormative marriage relationship. Shortly, the man is the head of the household and the woman is his helper.
**Though we can hope for better in the future, yet this may encapsulate structural theological problems within Evangelicalism that will need to be addressed before it may be able to be an effective engine for justice.
I was talking to my fiancee about this well-understood dynamic we have in Christianity, where since the church prioritizes forgiveness and repentance/redemption, it is also a haven for abusers of all varieties and stripes, but particularly male abusers of children and women. When their aggressions come to light, they are treated as grave-but-forgivable sins. The person who has committed the offense merely needs to act contrite in front of the church leaders and maintain that God has forgiven him.
If God has forgiven the repentant abuser, we are assured, then who do we believe we are to not do likewise? We are sinning against God. And moreso against redemption – this idea supposedly unique to Christianity that those who have done wrong can be made right again; those broken can be fixed; sold can be bought back.
Testimony time in the fundamentalist and evangelical church is rife with people who once were lost and now are found. And the more lost they were, the more attractive their stories. We celebrate the bad-boys-gone-good. For if God could change a murderer, God is still good, right?
While not exactly the same formula is used in progressive circles, there is still this stretch, this application, this remnant of redemption. Redemption is a prize over safety. It’s sexier. If the church area is justice-oriented, well, even better.
Justice-oriented spaces prioritize messengers who are also redeemed.
The man who -despite all odds – became a feminist and is now a national leader and speaker on feminism.
The white guy who teaches – for a price – how to not be racist.
The spousal abuser who speaks, and writes against violence.
How much brave.
Too many redemptive.
God used a donkey. God used Saul of Tarsus. God can use them. – We’re told. Time and again.
But these redemption stories aren’t quite… redemptive. They don’t encourage repentance, but cheap grace. Redemption is something earned – the traitor has to earn (back) trust, not authority and responsibility. They can make things right, possibly, but it is up to those they have wronged to decide that.
To do so minimizes those hurt the most and tells them that they are not safe in these spaces.
Then what kind of Christianity are we enacting?
What sort of justice are we fighting for?
One that prizes the powerful over those who they’ve disempowered. Those with megaphones against those they’ve devoiced. We prize the very ones we are supposed to be fighting against because they have done a great job of presenting this image as protectors of the powerless. So good that they cannot allow messages that counter their narrative to be loose out there on the internet.