Jesus Is in the Camps. Where Is the Confessing Church?

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.”

Image may contain: one or more people and outdoor

White Jesus. aka The Second Mile, Michael Belk

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 Youwhere 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.

wallpaper Jesus

Uncovering the Christ in You, by Michael Belk

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.

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#AllSheepMatter

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)

The Women Are Not Pious; They Understand Grief and Loss

I went to church on Good Friday. There’s something about the day and the season, about meditation, about sorrow and joy, death and rebirth. It’s always been one of my top – if not my top – holidays. Even for my advanced ADD, it helps to have a special frame and place where I can focus, if only for a few minutes at a time. Today, we were invited to sojourn and visit among artistic representations of the stations of the cross. And I could only make it to three of them before I was overloaded. One thought I had in particular centered around the station known as Jesus meeting the daughters of Jerusalem:

A large number of people followed him, including women who mourned and wailed for him. Jesus turned and said to them, “Daughters of Jerusalem, do not weep for me; weep for yourselves and for your children. For the time will come when you will say, ‘Blessed are the childless women, the wombs that never bore and the breasts that never nursed!’

Luke 23:27-29 NIV

Pietro Lorenzetti’s fresco of women following Jesus on Via Dolorosa, Assisi, 1320 via Wiki

I think of the mothers in my community who have lost and continue to lose their children to the state violence of the Prison Industrial Complex. I think of how overfilled Cook County Jails is, of mothers grieving the loss of their children to a system that chews them up and spits them out as a means of maintaining a permanent underclass. Most of our incarcerated are political prisoners, like Jesus, and mothers grieve for their loved ones.

The incarnate was incarcerated, died the death of political prisoners. And what is prison if not death – if not a ripping from economic, familial, social, psychological, intellectual, communal life?

The sin that Jesus bore on the cross was not the sin of intentions and “impure thoughts”. It was the sin of the world – which is to say that what killed Jesus was Empire. Empire’s sins – of control, domination, abuse, purposeful poverty, incarceration – of throwing lives away and deeming entire populations worthless.

These are the reasons Jesus died. Christians picking up their crosses is not about piety. It is about identifying with the most oppressed and marginalized. This is the message of Good Friday through Holy Saturday.

And it drastically effects how we interpret Easter and afterwards as well.

The Error of Reconciliation Theology

 So watch yourselves!

If [a kin] sins, rebuke that person; then if there is repentance, forgive. Even if that [brother/sister] wrongs you seven times a day and each time turns again and asks forgiveness, you must forgive.
Luke 17 (New Living Translation)

A young generation ago, White Evangelicalism came in contact with a firestorm of a soft-patriarchalist movement called Promise Keepers. Football stadiums were rented out and filled with men – all and only men – who would hear speeches by other men, mostly white about the need to redeem and reconcile. Men, we were told, need to redeem our rightful places as strong-but-gentle leaders in the household and the workplace. This wouldn’t be a redemption, of course, but merely a nicer-clothed pushback against the full humanity of women that the conservative church and religious right had been waging since the 1960’s. We can and should talk about the gender-segregated and what Sarah Moon refers to as Benevolent Sexism church modus later, but I want to focus on the reconciliation aspect.

At Promise Keepers events, White men were told – and rightly – that an unaccountable sin was of being distant from their brothers of color (notice that their is no intersection here. This is about what they considered the primary relationship, men-to-men). Tearful white men were challenged to turn to their black and brown brothers and seek forgiveness for racial sins that the White men never caught owned up to, never quite understood. But now they had the added benefit of making instant friends with people of another race and having their consciences wiped clean of corporate wrong-doings. So, White Evangelical men could go around saying “I have black friends!” while voting against the interests of their black friends. They could still push for incarceration and criminalization of black men; they could punish black women and families through welfare reform and slut-shaming; they could continue to marginalize Asian Americans by using them as Model Minority pawns against Latin@ and African Americans and, ultimately, against themselves; they could continue the eternal undergrounding of Latin@ communities; they can continue mascoting and erasing Native communities.

the final Cut

the final Cut – by Robb North via Flickr

While heaping praise upon themselves for welcoming non-Whites to worship and barbecue with them, White evangelicals could talk a big game about the work they’ve done to “bridge the gap” between White and “minority” peoples, but the only gap jumped was by the non-Whites. Whites have made no effort to de-center themselves, to weep where the sufferers weep, to grieve over and when oppressed people grieve, to join. Rather, under the auspices of “community” and “unity” White people put Black, Brown, and AAPI peoples in the situation of having to conform to White normalcy.

White normalcy, by the way, isn’t restricted to Fundamentalist or Evangelical situations. White normalcy is the underlying identity in a White Supremacist structure, in which most of the world under Euro-colonialism exists. So progressives (of the political and Christo-theological variety), liberals, Marxists, libertarians, all have to resist the dominant racism gene that places white people and white narratives and themes at the center even when talking about issues important to People of Color. And, let’s be straight, that is not happening a lot.

So, basically, White Christians are demanding that Christians of Color meet White Christians on White Christian ground, worship at a White Cross, come under a White Jesus.

As Amaryah Shae points out, the very notion of Christian racial reconciliation is flawed because it is always on White terms.

But Christian reconciliation, I argue, favors the dominant because it sees reconciliation and not justice as the virtue. Reconciliation theology holds that if two are separate, the separateness must be a sin in itself and the priority needs to be in removing the separation. Much of this comes from a bad reading of the Luke 17 passage above, somehow removing the very important prerequisite of repentance.

Additionally, it rips the forgiveness from its broader context. One socially above us who continues to berate, humiliate, and strike is not kin. Kin are on similar levels. As Gustavo Gutierrez and bell hooks have said, “Where there is no justice, there is no love. For there cannot be love among unequals.” That Jesus is represented in the bodies and experiences of those on the outskirts of society, the lives of the oppressed according to Matthew 25 and Matthew 5, and that we are blessed when we “mourn with those who mourn” and likewise serve and stand with and among the oppressed. As Sarah Moon (again) makes clear, when the abuser is welcome at the table, the survivor is not. When we privilege abusers, we disinvite their victims and tell them that they are not welcome. So while forgiveness – in its proper place and time – may be a good individual spiritual practice, it is bad universal policy.

Reconciliation Theology is harmful. It is not loving. It is not of God.

We see this in more predictable White male Christian calls to accept apologies from abusers, whether that person be a physically, mentally, or sexually abusive partner or spiritually and psychologically abusive pastor. Sexually abusive youth ministers are often forgiven and moved back into previous roles due to the pressure to always “forgive and see as Jesus sees and forgives.” We see this currently in Jonathan Merritt’s recent article “Why I Accept Mark Driscoll’s Apology… And You Should Too.” Leaving aside the fact that Merritt was not targeted by Driscoll’s rabid homoantagonism and misogyny and therefore doesn’t have much in the game to forgive, what the fuck gives him the power to compel Driscoll’s targets – parishioners, interlocutors, feminists, LGBTQI people – to forgive Driscoll?

Reconciliation Theology does. Again, it is the work of the put-upon, the marginalized, the oppressed to make the leap of faith. And again, that leap of faith is rewarded with a punch in the guts.

Reconciliation Theology has as its virtue reconciliation. Reconciliation, however, is a possible after-effect of justice come to a shattered relationship. (Notice there is an assumption of a relationship to heal in the first place. The emphasis should never be on the relationship because relationships are not static; they are not made in the image of God; they are not of eternal and divine value. People, on the other hand, are. And so what is needed is justice. Making the wrong right is the virtue and should be the goal.

And sometimes that goal means to NOT reconcile or even attempt reconciliation. Sometimes that reconciliation is the sin.

The Cross and States of Denial

Content Warning for discussions about DV & erasure.

What do we know about the cross, about suffering, about a God who chose to side with the oppressed and was executed for it? What do we choose to un-know about suffering, about the oppression of black American men, rounded up, imprisoned for petty crimes, denied opportunity, released, denied opportunity, rounded up again? What do we know of women trapped in domestic violence situations and encouraged to stay there by economic, social, and physical forces? What do we know of homosexual, bisexual, or trans runaway teens, violently not welcomed at home, violently not welcomed not at home. What do we know about and yet un-know about how people with learning or cognitive disabilities are scorned, mistreated, abused, robbed?

What do we know of hungry children in a land of plenty, or hungry communities that we extract resources from? For here, we debate over how much food they can eat and in others we talk about our generosity in sponsoring little black and brown individual children, as if we are being magnanimous in either approach when we should talk about restoring to the communities what we have robbed them of, both domestically and abroad.

 

How can Christians contend to understand the suffering of Jesus and yet tell sufferers – either through silence, policies, or through rhetoric and guilt – of all stripes that they need to be content where they are. That their lives are not as important as our comfort.

The claim that we really know where all the black men have gone may inspire considerable doubt. If we know, why do we feign ignorance ? Could it be that most people really don’t know? Is it possible that the roundup, lockdown, and exclusion of black men en masse from the body politic has occurred largely unnoticed? The answer is yes and no.

Much has been written about the ways in which people manage to deny, even to themselves, that extraordinary atrocities, racial oppression, and other forms of human suffering have occurred or are occurring. Criminologist Stanley Cohen wrote perhaps the most important book on the subject, States of Denial. The book examines how individuals and institutions—victims, perpetrators, and bystanders—know about yet deny the occurrence of oppressive acts. They see only what they want to see and wear blinders to avoid seeing the rest. This has been true about slavery, genocide , torture, and every form of systemic oppression.

Cohen emphasizes that denial, though deplorable, is complicated. It is not simply a matter of refusing to acknowledge an obvious, though uncomfortable, truth. Many people “know” and “not-know” the truth about human suffering at the same time. In his words, “Denial may be neither a matter of telling the truth nor intentionally telling a lie. There seem to be states of mind, or even whole cultures, in which we know and don’t know at the same time.”

Today, most Americans know and don’t know the truth about mass incarceration. For more than three decades, images of black men in handcuffs have been a regular staple of the evening news. We know that large numbers of black men have been locked in cages. In fact, it is precisely because we know that black and brown people are far more likely to be imprisoned that we, as a nation, have not cared too much about it. We tell ourselves they “deserve” their fate, even though we know— and don’t know— that whites are just as likely to commit many crimes, especially drug crimes. We know that people released from prison face a lifetime of discrimination, scorn, and exclusion, and yet we claim not to know that an undercaste exists . We know and we don’t know at the same time.
~ Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow, pp. 181-182*

Today we remember a man who rendered unto the poor and marginalized what belongs to the poor and marginalized, one who chose to side with the oppressed against the oppressors. Today, Christians, we dip our bread in the bitter herbs and remember – we know.

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*This quote lifted whole from the comments section on Corey Robin’s blog on Clarence Thomas and Lacanian Silence 

White Christian Indifference in the Age of Black Lynchings

It is frustrating that the White American church – particularly Evangelicalism and post-Evangelicalism – is silent about racial injustice at home. Not just in sermon topics, but particularly in forward-leaning post-Evangelical blogs. The spectre of racism is banished in favor of Christian Celebrity Culture and a very specific form Purity Culture (from a largely White, Middle Class perspective – often ignoring how the same culture affects or views the bodies of black and brown women, for instance). Homophobia is often brought up, but in a pretty narrow category – that of marriage between (usually white, usually cisgender) same sex partners. Other intersections and violences are largely ignored.

I wrote two articles last week about Michael Dunn’s mistrial – or should I say Jordan David‘s mistrial? Because, let’s face it, 21st Century White liberalism is similar to its forbearer, 19th Century White liberalism – a philosophy that believes in the inherent goodness of people and that education can truly change people from bad and barbaric to enlightened and civilized. This is a problem of not being the target of radical, ongoing, and systemic evil. White liberals tend to think that people are overall good and society is nice and the only problem are those dang Republicans. They tend to understand racism as something Paula Deen or that One Hit Wonder/Cat Scratcher/Machine Gun Hunter says. Racism and sexism and classism and other oppressions are Othered – something that we are not responsible for and can’t quite possibly beWe’re good people. They don’t tend to see the deeper issues of racism and other oppressions and how they affect non-white people in a post-Euro-colonized world.*

I would expect White Post-Evangelical Christians to be a bit better, though, in addressing this topic. For we understand sin and evil. We can name it; it’s part of our lexicon. Sin and evil are integral parts of our theology even when we aren’t as focused on it as in our Fundamentalist and Evangelical days. Furthermore, we’re intimately familiar with the story of an innocent man brought up on false charges and made to die for it. Our Christ, our center, our Sweet Jesus was lynched due to the sins of the world as theologian James Cone points out in The Cross and the Lynching Tree*.

What happened to Trayvon Martin and what happened to Jordan Davis and what happened to Renisha McBride are modern-day reenactments of the “strange fruits” from the Reconstruction through the Civil Rights era of the US South. What happened to Emmett Till and Marie Scott and James Chaney happened to Jesus. There is a genealogical tree stretching from Jordan Davis sitting in a car, his body pierced with bullets, and Jesus of Nazareth hanging on a tree, his body pierced with nails.

The violent, ruthless occupying force sentencing Jesus to die for his uprising was the Roman Empire in the first; for Jordan Davis it was White Supremacy.

Image from Wikipedia

Image from Wikipedia

Jesus was killed for acting out of line – for speaking up against the power structure. For being rebellious. Michael Dunn told police he shot and killed Jordan Davis because Jordan –a black teenager – dared defy his White Man orders. The Roman Empire and its surrogates have been replaced by White Supremacy in these United States. And crucifixions have been replaced by the Lynch Laws of Stand Your Ground.

And White Christians are silent witnesses of modern-day crucifixions. There is an assumption here that, in our own land and through our political and social leaders and in a power structure that benefits us white Christians, somehow we are not responsible. Somehow, we can ignore this…

Emmitt Till’s birthday was last week. Trayvon Martin was shot down two years ago yesterday. What are White Christians doing about this tomorrow? Rarely do we, White Christians, talk about the violence and sin that we are complicit in in our own backyards.

Because there will be deflection about “black-on-black crime”, I offer this from Ta-Nehisi Coates to remind that White Christians are responsible for this travesty too:

Spare us the invocations of “black-on-black crime.” I will not respect the lie. I would rather be thought insane. The most mendacious phrase in the American language is “black-on-black crime,” which is uttered as though the same hands that drew red lines around the ghettoes of Chicago are not the same hands that drew red lines around the life of Jordan Davis, as though black people authored North Lawndale and policy does not exist. That which mandates the murder of our Hadiya Pendletons necessarily mandates the murder of Jordan Davis. I will not respect any difference. I will not respect the lie. I would rather be thought crazy.

The blood of Jordan Davis is upon us. Take this bread, it is his body. Take this wine- it was poured out for us.

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*For this, we’ll focus on racism.

** My partner-in-crime, h00die_R aka Rod aka Political Jesus, is writing an ongoing series on Cone. You can read the first part here and the second here .re .

Grace Shake UP

Let’s talk about representation and diversity today, shall we?

To hear many Christians talk, there’s nothing necessarily wrong with being homosexual. For a smaller amount, one can maybe even be both homosexual and Christian. You’d also think listening to how they talk that some black people are Christians. Or some dirt poor “working class” folks. A single mother, struggling with her English, someone crazily suggests, can be reached by grace. Even some indigenous people, say the missional crew. Now, here me out. Hell, there’s even some gay dirt poor indigenous Mexicans who are Christians. I mean, probably, right? God is just that intense he’ll save people that are very different from normalized White American Middle Class Straight Christians.

This is what passes for diversity in elements of the White US Christian Church. See how diverse we are? See our magnanimousness? We *allow* these elements to represent us like the handful of students from the Asian/Asian-American/Pacific Islander and the La Raza clubs represent Midsize University on their brochures.

And so Church in the White contextual experience still largely centers the world upon itself and still considers itself the best hope for humanity. But its nominal head don’t want no part. Jesus:

I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me.

–          Matthew 25:42-43

If Jesus identifies directly with the oppressed, why do we consider the Christian experience to be primarily the bodies and minds of white, male, cis-, straight, Anglo, wealthy, educated, able-bodied, housed, normalized people?

But Jesus is a homeless Cuban man we call Carlos. He’s got schizophrenia and a drinking problem, cast out in the cold by a shunning community and a family that can’t deal no more. And he may die of hypothermia tonight. Jesus is a black transwoman who is violently ostracized, threatened, and feared by a people that fail to grasp the mere fact of her humanity and beauty. Jesus has been diagnosed with learning disorders and behavioral problems since he first jumped out of his seat out of boredom, a Hot Cheetos diet, and way too much stress for a five year old. At three in the morning, Jesus rolls out of bed and unwraps five dozen corn husks for tamales she sells this morning and every morning on California Avenue. She hopes to sell them all today just in case her oldest son doesn’t find work today. Jesus is hoping no one will bother him from his spot under the Kennedy by-pass at Logan tonight. Jesus got beat up in high school to the point where he attempted suicide.

"Jesus on Wheels" - Holly Northrup via Flickr

“Jesus on Wheels” – Holly Northrup via Flickr

Jesus’ default setting isn’t White. He’s extremely unlikely to be found in a middle class setting. He probably doesn’t know how to set a proper table and he likely doesn’t speak Proper English.

This isn’t metaphorical. This isn’t some white liberal fairy-tale to make us feel all fuzzy wuzzy for Christmas and then go back home and repeat the same patterns of meaningless, benign exploitation. Let us once and forever replace the false White Middle Class Jesus with Black Prisoner Jesus and reorder our lives accordingly. This colonial, exploitative world is hell and needs heaven.

I don’t think White Christians should be asking in the reaches of the imagination if it is possible that people of color can truly come to grace.

I think White Christians need to ask if it’s possible for grace to break in to a Christianity so limited, so fragile, so cruel.

It’s a miracle that God gives White Christians grace. Because God don’t look like us.

Christian Pacifism’s Unintentional Martyrs

This post is done in conjunction with the #TheNewPacifism blogathon hosted by our friends at Political Jesus. All the my posts on this series can be found here.

War is not the only – nor, would I argue, the greatest single – form of violence in the world. If we were to take a much wider and necessary lens to the subject of violence, I propose that we consider three primary forms through which it comes: Poverty, sexism, and racism/ethnicism. Because war is special; it is declared; it is relatively infrequent; it is targeted. Yet poverty, racism, and misogyny are underlying and ignored facets of reality and the violence they wage are enfleshed and lived out every moment and in myriad and dynamic ways.

Those who do not believe that poverty is the basest of evils have never had the privilege of meeting poverty and its hunger, want, need, constant fear and worry. Nothing else kills as many people per day. Nothing else cuts the lives of children shorter, reduces men, women and children to mere numbers, consumable goods and numbers. Pacifists who consider war to be a great violence because of sheer lives killed are like anti-abortionists who only care about the life before birth, but not about the quality of life – not about abuse, neglect, health and well-being, or, well, poverty. They focus on lives being killed rather than lives being stolen and impacted.

We cannot look at any form of violence – whether it be poverty, war, or colonialism – without considering the weight of racism/ethnicism within it. What allows us to conquer and conquest a people is the evil internalized machinery that otherizes our fellow human being. We are so callously brutal to our fellow person because the evils of racism allow us to view them as brutes and bugs in need of destruction on the one end, in need of our rescuing on the other – but for most of us who reside somewhere in the ambivalent center, they remain the targets of our pity or the forgotten of our imagination – pushed out to the margins of remembrance. Here is the radical notion: People of color are human and are made in God’s image. The violence that befalls on them – whether through abusive microaggressions such as iconography and words that ostracize or stigmatize or institutional apartheid such as in South Africa of the 1980’s and Chicago of now – is not accidental. And we, White Christians, allow it through nullification, marginalization, and justification. Many Christian pacifists took to the blogosphere when Mark Driscoll said that pacifism is wimpy, but where was the outcry when Christian preacher John MacArthur said that slavery is a neutral good? Or when slavery apologist Douglas Wilson was saying he isn’t racist, but black people need to listen to him.

Misogyny is the premise that half of the human population is not quite fully human – that half of the population deserves to be the object of male sexual, psychological, and physical violence. But yet misogyny is the devil most often ignored or downplayed by Christian pacifists – the overwhelming majority of whom are white, economically-advantaged, and male. It is the physical and sexual abuse of women ignored by a party that largely idolizes a man, Yoder, while ignoring or downplaying his serial sexual assaults on women? Let us be unwavering here: Sexual assault is violence! Christian pacifism follows another man who had problematic statements telling Christians that their sex organs are not theirs* – a familiar Christian teaching with deep roots into Christian rape culture.

White Christian pacifists need to grapple with and antagonize over these demons within their leadership before they find they have much to say among themselves, least over the bodies of underprotected women and children who are taught to sacrifice themselves for the cause of peace.

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It is with disembodied detachment that Christian pacifists imagine scenarios that they have little experience in (“What if I saw a man attacking his girlfriend? How shall I act to not cause harm to the man?”), giving priestly advice to those who very seriously want to follow and honor God, but in the process teaching them to privilege their attacker more than themselves. This goes above and beyond Jesus’ teachings about loving our neighbors.

Christian pacifism needs less theoretical scenarios and more space for analytical praxis. It needs to be based on life lived within and amongst the violence.

Christians – and particularly any Christian men interested in pacifism – need to listen deeply and long to the stories of those who suffer and/or survive domestic – or economic, racial, or sexual – violence before we offer even suggestions for what they should or could do in any given situation. More importantly, we need to reduce sexual oppression that allows for and justifies wife-beating and rape culture.

Middle Class, Male, White Christians are not in a place to forget those who bear the brunt of our social, economic, or sexual sins. Nor are we in a place to put them on a pedestal nor demonize them. No one who believes that all of humanity is made in the image of God can dear afford to Other our fellow God-bearers. Doing so reduces each of us and reduces our God to nothingness.

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*In the Stanley Hauerwas Reader we find this (italics mine):

Christians, to be more specific, do not believe that we have a right to do whatever we want with our bodies. We do not believe that we have a right to our bodies because when we are baptized we become members of one another; then we can tell one another what it is that we should and should not do with our bodies. I had a colleague at the University of Norte Dame who taught Judaica. He was Jewish and always said that any religion that does no tell you what to do with your genitals and pots and pans cannot be interesting. That is exactly true. In the church we tell you what you can and cannot do with your genitals. They are not your own. They are not private. That means that you cannot commit adultery. If you do, you are no longer a member of “us.” Of course, post and pans are equally important.

Because pots and pans and privates are the same, y’all!

The Paradoxical Kingdom

You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be your slave— just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.

Matthew 20:25b-28 (NIV)

Church,

What does it mean that the First shall be Last in Christ’s Paradoxical Kingdom? What does it mean that the enslaved becomes first?

What will then become of the colonizers? What will become of presidents and speakers of the house and supreme court justices and law makers and kings and queens? Are they to be exalted, to be lifted first?

The Gladiator Arena at Sunset

What will become of the oppressed and the dirty and the filthy? Of the homeless in our churches, on our streets? Side-stepped, or treated with honor and dignity in ways they do not find outside of the embodied church?

How do we treat the testimony and the personhood of women and children that survived rape and battered abuse? Do we ignore, or do we prioritize?

How do we recognize international banks and resource-stealing multinational agrarian/oil/diamond/manufacturing/textile/technology corporations that steal the resources of colonized countries and people? Do we prioritize them or question them to the fullness of their evil deeds as they Lord it over?

How do we treat hungry families? Do we tell them to wait, or do we prioritize them?

How do we react when influential pastors like John MacArthur advance White Supremacist theology from their pulpits, on the radio, and on the internet? Where does he go in the Body?

How does the Church as whole and as embodied members act out as agents of liberation for the Paradoxical Kingdom?

And how do we act as tools for the continued status quo, resisting the paradox, maintaining the Empire of Rome and the Ways of the World?

The Temples Must Be Cleared

According to New Testament scholar NT Wright, the elite social-religious ruling class of Jesus’ Palestine, the Sanhedrin, were in their purity laws trying to both maintain their own bourgeois-like status they had within the Jewish community and yet throw off non-native, foreign, godless influences. They felt that by being pure enough, the Delivering God of Moses and Isaiah would come down, slay their enemies and deliver them into the Promised Land*.

In this, there is striking confluence between American churches – particularly but not at all exclusively the Religious Right – and the Sanhedrin. The reign and rule that Christian churches and the old Sanhedrin want to establish is of a preferred culture, is Middle Class, is whole and well and apparently without blemish – it is “pure” according to whatever definition they establish and regulate within their community. All others must either meet up to the standards and be more holy than the Pharisees or get the hell out, as Jesus acknowledged in (and is widely misunderstood by Evangelicals in) Matthew 5.

Somebody's Little Girl

Of all the major incidents in Jesus’ life/ministry, the most pertinent to the divide between this culture of Holy Purity and Jesus’ working definition of purity is also one of the least talked about. And maybe that’s because it is ultimately rebelling against how church and society are run.  Even when the Christian Left illustrates the issue (with a cartoon of Jesus driving out Wall St types), though it may touch on an important aspect of what being a prophetic Christian should be about and in keeping with the ministry and teaching of Jesus, the prophets, apostles and Church fathers/mothers (and we try to touch on that as well at Commie Pinkos Wrote My Bible), it really doesn’t get to the heart of this centralized illustration of Jesus clearing out the Temple Courts.

The story, in fact, is so integral to the Christian witness it is repeated in all four of the Gospels and with little, but yet significant, variation. We’ll begin by encountering John’s version of it, which comes, interestingly enough, early on in his declaration of the goodness in the life of Jesus.

The Passover of the Jews was near, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem.

In the temple he found people selling cattle, sheep, and doves, and the money changers seated at their tables. Making a whip of cords, he drove all of them out of the temple, both the sheep and the cattle. He also poured out the coins of the money changers and overturned their tables. He told those who were selling the doves, “Take these things out of here! Stop making my Father’s house a marketplace!”

His disciples remembered that it was written, “Zeal for your house will consume me.”

This is the common reading told by John in the second chapter – confusing those who read the bible as being linear (whereas the others arrange the accounts more-or-less chronologically and therefore place this setting towards the end – right near his crucifixion).

Usually, when there are variations, scholars will point out that each of the writers have a particular perspective to pull out of the narrative. However, I like to think here that a combined reading pulls in pieces of a bigger picture: A Jesus who infuriates the social leaders  by denying their rules. A Jesus who sees worship of God without denied people as being sacrilegious.

Matthew 21 says that after the clearing, people with blindness and physical disabilities were able to come into the temple. They came to find and receive healing.

Luke 19 says that Jesus took over the temple, teaching from it, for the next several days. He and his crowd cleared the temple of the restrictive market forces to occupy the temple for its intended purpose: So the people can gather to be a part of and enact in the Kingdom of God.

Luke and Mark 11 record that the chief priests, the religious powers, thus enraged were condemning him to death and plotting to murder him. Jesus was challenging their livelihood. He was upsetting the power balance. He was disturbing the peace. He was rousing the rabble. It is for reasons like this that Jesus suffered the rebel’s capital punishment.

In each one of these accounts, the radicalism of this action of temple-clearing is front and center. The religious-political-economic powers are frustrated and turned on their heads, so they fight back in the ways they know how. They question Jesus’ authority. In a shaming and patriarchal society, that normally works. But here, Jesus outsmarts them. They find the crowds loving Jesus and his rebellion.

He is labeled a rebel – a threat. And he is. They are not mistaken. Jesus prominently featured a God welcoming all to her breast like a mother hen protecting her chicks as the barn burns down. The ruling classes would have none of that; it disturbs the status quo of their dead God. Jesus had upset the order carefully placed by the ruling classes and would continue to do so.

Christianity in the 21st century

Jesus and his fellow broken humans were occupying the temple in the name of The Father who welcomes all to her presence. This theme would be further explored and pushed to the most obscene level at the crucifixion the leaders were planning. It is there where the veil separating the presence of the Most Holy God would be ripped, allowing the scoundrels, the riffraff, the gangbanger, the Samaritan, the mute, the paralyzed, the bipolar. These people the Pharisees labeled unclean, demon possessed, beggars, them, that person. In Jesus’ stories they are the heroes, they are moved from the silent margins and into the middle of the action.

These are not the people the church wants to make protagonists of.  That would privilege people who can do no good for business. And the contemporary American church operates as a business. Churches have not just “lead” and “teaching” pastors, but “executive” pastors who peddle books for ministers molded on the same forms and types of executives that run Boeing, Apple, and Citigroup – companies that prey on, extract from, shoot down, or otherwise exclude the marginalized, poor, people of color. This reinforces the idea that the Christian church is primarily concerned about convenience, about the wealthy, able-bodied, developmentally abled, psychologically stable. Those who fit in the mold with ease. Those without blemish are allowed to participate fully, without shame.

The boards of the typical Evangelical church are comprised of white businessmen. Because they obvs know how to run a business, the thought goes, they deserve first-preference to run the church.

Even the poor who flood megachurches are wanted only for their change which helps to keep the church running and the pastors eating well while the congregants delay their pressing worries for another day. The songs, the greetings, the preaching, the vocabulary, the overall messages of the church delay the hopes and dollars of struggling, suffering, sacrificingcongregants into a tomorrow that is promised but can never arrive. Though they are ostensibly welcomed into the prosperity gospel-preaching church, their beings are not, their concerns are daily being rebuffed. The message is clear: To be poor or physically, mentally, sexually, socially, emotionally “unclean” is to doubt God’s work through that church and teacher.

In the established Temple Marketplace, God cannot work, cannot deliver, without the socio-religious elites’ purity being enforced throughout. The minds, bodies, concerns, and beings of the poor, oppressed, and marginalized are not allowed into the temple area.  The business of the holy is business; therefore, the sacraments are not accessible, the price is too steep – doves cannot be offered when doves cannot be bought. Tithes cannot be offered when the family can’t make rent.

This is in terrible contradiction to the Jesus who disturbed the temple business and reclaimed the House of Prayer. To paraphrase the Methodist blessing: The Temple of the Lord for the People of the Lord.

When the order of the church’s day is business, profit, and maintaining the purity status quo – whether stated or not, whether in an Evangelical, prosperity gospel, neo-reformed, Catholic, Orthodox, or mainline church – then the marginalized are restricted access to the full glory of God as witnessed in the teachings and restorative healing actions of Jesus. And when the marginalized are restricted, God is not welcome. For God sides with the oppressed.

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*While evoking Moses, Jesus also evoked Jonah’s God and Jeremiah among others not so easy to hear.

Static, White Jesus Vs Oppressed, Occupied Jesus

Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.

The first thing to understand about the distinction between following Jesus and following an institutional religion – although institutional religions can be a place to follow Jesus – is that White Jesus is not Jesus. We must remember that Jesus was born into an oppressed corner of a large colonial power. Jesus and his people were conquered, colonized, and occupied by the forerunners of European imperialist culture. Additionally, even if Jesus wasn’t itinerant and therefore homeless by default, he was a poor peasant. He was not Middle Class; he was not a citizen of the Empire, but a sub-servant of it. So understanding Jesus through the lens of Middle Class and Upper Class empirical AmeroEuropeanism is to replace Jesus.

Chichicastenango Market, Guatemala

In order to make sense of Jesus in an oppressive Western place of immense privilege, we must either read him as a wealth-denying, poor, Middle Eastern member of an occupied country, or we must deny Jesus his place and his perspective. Much of AmeroEuro theology takes this second route – it downplays his very humanity for an ethereal, otherworldly God. It privileges thinking about God the way Greek culture thinks about forms. In such a response, it denies the living being of the God of Jesus and replaces him with a Nietzchean god of deadness.

The Euro/American-centric theology concerns itself with concepts and arguments that have no matter, that are not situated on the concerns of suffering people. Rather than focusing on a Kingdom of Justice on earth, this disembodied theology can focus on disembodied concepts that have nothing to do with neighbors, nothing to do with oppression and abuse, have nothing to do with unjust wealth accumulation, misogyny, ableism, and racism. They are preoccupied with being preoccupied, and in the absence of such concerns they ordain, excuse or even promote oppression, abuse, wealth disparity, misogyny, ableism, racism.

EuroAmerican theological preoccupation with disembodied concerns like Biblical inerrancy favor a dead, static God that privileges the status quo. Inerrancy is based off the idea that the bible must be perfect and non-contradictory because it comes from God, a foreign logic imposed upon the bible. Inerrancy ignores what is happening in the bible itself when, for instance, Jesus or the gospel writers will rip sections of the bible out of context to speak to another context, ignoring certain passages to make a point that inerrantists would never approve. However, it is pretty obvious that Jesus didn’t have an inerrant view of the Holy Scriptures.

When the oppressed ask about God’s justice as a concern, EuroAmero static theology brushes off that concern as insignificant. “But the Word of God is completely without error or contradiction in its original form, right?” “But Jesus’ atoning death took upon the wrath of God only for repentant sinners, right?” “But the Trinity operates in this way.” “The rapture will occur at this period of history and will take up all bible-believing true believers up with Jesus, away from the earth where there will be* great suffering.” For EuroAmero Theology affirms the status quo until at least a tbd time ( Post-Jesus’ Return).

The oppressed must answer according to the questions given by the oppressed in order for the oppressors to listen to the oppressed. And must give answers appealing to the oppressors. And then must continue to operate according to the rules and rhetoric of the oppressors.

This shouldn’t be new. After all, most theologies of the oppressors are like most rhetoric and pedagogy of the oppressors and operate in many of the same assumptions – lift up the status quo through language and imagery that will not interrogate the oppressive systems.

Having said that, shouldn’t a theology  supposedly centered on Jesus the Oppressed center on an oppressed perspective?

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*EuroAmero theology cannot comprehend the idea that the apocalyptic passages refer to an ever-present suffering, as EuroAmero theologians do not understand suffering as a way of life, but as a choice. And, being human, EA theologians choose to not suffer.

Is God Neutral?

God has no favorites.

A variation of this is said throughout the Holy Scriptures, in the Mosaic Law, in Job, the Psalms, the Prophets, the Pauline letters, and by James and Peter – the last three being cornerstones of the Christian Church after Jesus himself. If you’re like me, you probably read “God has no favorites” as “God is neutral” and therefore whether one is poor or rich doesn’t matter in God’s judgment. Or maybe you heard a preacher talk about it with the implication that though things are bad for some, but we cannot really help. Things are going to remain the way things are until Jesus comes again.

But that doesn’t square with most of the bible, particularly passages where the Prophets, the Psalmists, Jesus and the Apostles talk about the way things are and the way things ought to be. Their risky and embodied words and actions enforce the message that being neutral in terms of power imbalance is to side with the status quo. And that doesn’t jibe with Mary’s Magnificat, the song she sang in considering the coming savior in her womb:

Oh, how my soul praises the Lord.
How my spirit rejoices in God my Savior!
For he took notice of his lowly servant girl,
and from now on all generations will call me blessed.
For the Mighty One is holy,
and he has done great things for me.
He shows mercy from generation to generation
to all who fear him.
His mighty arm has done tremendous things!
He has scattered the proud and haughty ones.
He has brought down princes from their thrones
and exalted the humble.
He has filled the hungry with good things
and sent the rich away with empty hands.
He has helped his servant Israel
and remembered to be merciful.
For he made this promise to our ancestors,
to Abraham and his children forever.

The common reading of James 2 – at least among Evangelicals – is that we should not show bias toward the poor or the rich, but treat them all the same regardless of position or status – but only in church! This is reading doesn’t consider the rest of the book’s treatment of the rich – those who were dragging Christians to court to rob them of all they had and who will someday fade away like the flowers. (In this context, it sounds like James was talking to a people enamored of Lifestyles of the Rich and Fatally Fabulous or MTV Cribs; people worshiping wealth. So, same sun, same moon.) If that is the case, then, why is that treatment of equality limited to the church service?

We’ve de-radicalized the bible by considering it to be a place out of time, detached from the current world, esoteric and floating above a place of reality. Church may be – but often isn’t – an image of the disembodied, extra-life we anticipate, what with its singing and talking to God and learning about God and often its topsy-turvy social orders*. But outside of church is the real world – unrelated to the world of heaven. We remain close to heaven by keeping our eyes from seeing bad stuff, from saying bad stuff, by praying to a disembodied God, by reading our disembodied bibles.

We omit “on earth as it is” from the Our Father/Lord’s Prayer: “Our Father, who art in Heaven, may your will be done… in Heaven [after we die].”

It is in taking the bible to speak about the after-life in a disembodied sense that we understand God to be static and pro-status quo.

In ancient Greek culture, Greeks were lifted above non-Greeks, males over females, free citizens over enslaved (who Aristotle notes are not much better than beast, in case we’re wondering about the roots of Western Civilization). Second Temple Jewish leaders taught much the same around the time of Jesus and early into the Apostles: Jew OVER Gentile; Man OVER Woman; Free OVER Slave.

king of the subwayThis is the “natural” order, the stasis, the overlapping function of society. But it is not the way of the God that emptied self, stepped off the throne, became a peasant in a corner of occupied Imperial Rome, and then was executed as an insurrectionist. This God threw down kings starting with God’s own self. This Jesus lifts the lowly starting with the sight- and hearing-impaired and physically immobilized.

So, no, God is not neutral.

The status is not acceptable.

According to Galatians 3, “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.

In recognizing that the normal order doesn’t work for Jesus, the writer is saying that the natural order doesn’t work for God or God’s people (all of humanity) and needs to be overhauled. The Kingdom of God overturns the normal order, raises every valley and lowers every hill, makes straight the road, levels the field. It willfully works to de-privilege the privileged; it privileges the unprivileged.

Jordan - Pink Sunset over Petra

Hills and valleys are purty, but they’re not very helpful and separate the hoarders from the peasants

So, it raises women while humbling men, raises people of color while humbling white people, raises people with disabilities while humbling able-bodied people, raises trans* people while humbling cys people, raises enslaved while humbling enslavers, raises the colonized while humbling the empire, raises the poor while humbling the wealthy, raises the uneducated while humbling the educated – patterns Jesus established himself before he was executed. Patterns he picked up from the Psalms and Prophets, from Moses and Amos and Isaiah and Micah. To do otherwise, to be neutral, is to favor the oppressors and the oppression.

Biblical justice raises and lowers so that all may see the glory of God – which is to say the image of God upon each human being. We are all human.

As I remind my daughter, we are all persons.

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*More so in poor churches that I’ve encountered where, for once, we could gather without putting on class airs. It’s not so much the case in middle class and professional class churches I’ve been a part of – even in ostensibly more rich ones.