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Can white Jesus be saved?

First posted to my newsletter which you can subscribe to here.

This week, in my little corner of the Internet, some people were wringing their hands about white Jesus. As statues and monuments to the Confederacy are being torn down, some people have begun to wonder whether it’s time to remove representations of Jesus which portray him as white.

To these suggestions, others countered with the fact that Jesus has often been portrayed with the cultural and ethnic distinctions of the person artistically representing him. A good case can be made that these diverse representation actually point to one of the unique claims made by Christians, that God became one of us. The miracle of the incarnation comes into view each time Jesus is represented in a culturally accessible manner.

I think too of Lamin Sanneh’s work on the translated nature of Christianity into particular cultures. “[With] the shift into native languages, the logic of religious conversion assumed an internal dynamic, with a sharp turn away from external direction and control. Indigenizing the faith meant decolonizing its theology, and membership of the fellowship implied spiritual home rule.”

Christianity, Sanneh asserts, is a religion which expects itself to be translated into the cultural vernacular. The linguistically and culturally diverse pilgrims of Acts 2 didn’t have to get help to understand the disciples’ message; the Holy Spirit translated it.

In other words, there are traits inherent to Christian faith which provide a certain logic for culturally diverse portrayals of Jesus. So, what’s the problem with white Jesus?

The problem is theological. White Jesus is not an expression of cultural or ethnic uniqueness. Rather, he represents the move away from the Jewish particularities of Jesus to a racial construction in which, in Willie Jennings’ words, “the body of the European would be the compass marking divine election.” It’s not that white Jesus represents the incarnation to a particular group of people; he claims a universal power to represent God to all people. White Jesus is not one cultural expression of the gospel’s ability to translate itself into many cultures; he represents the erasure of those cultures.

So, should white Jesus come down? Well, how about this question: Can white Jesus be displayed in a manner that doesn’t reveal what his racialized nature was meant to communicate? In other words, can white Jesus take his place as yet one expression among others of the incarnation of the Son of God? Or is there something inherently anti-Christ (anti-incarnation, anti-contextualized translation of the gospel) about this image’s whiteness?

For me, the answers are no, no, and yes. How about you?

The (un)importance of cross-racial friendships

First posted to my newsletter which you can subscribe to here.

This week, during an interview about Rediscipling the White Church, the conversation drifted into the role of relationships in the work for racial justice and reconciliation. It’s a tricky topic. As Emerson and Smith write about in Divided by Faith, relationalism is one of three characteristics of white Christianity (individualism and anti-structuralism are the others) which sabotage efforts at reconciliation. Relationalism is the belief that behind most social problems lies broken relationships. Fix the individual relationships and, ta-da!, the social problem will be fixed.

The reason this particular characteristic is so detrimental to racial reconciliation is because the sources of racial injustice are not fractured relationships but entire systems infected with racism. Christians of color who attend majority white churches, or culturally white multiracial churches, often find out that their presence alone defines success for the white people. In this (white) version of reconciliation, the material sources of racial inequality which impact people of color can be left entirely alone because now the white people have some friends of color.

The problem with this approach is, I hope, plain to see.

In Rediscipling I tried to take a very different approach by focusing on systems and structures which lead to racial segregation and injustice, as well as on corporate practices which can disciple us in a new direction. Even so, I still chose to include a chapter about relationships. I saved it for last, knowing our tendency to reduce systemic justice to personal friendships. But I couldn’t leave it out.

This is what we talked about during the interview this week. The host pushed me, helpfully, to be clear about the connection between cross-racial friendships and justice. Clearly they are not evidence of justice. But neither are they the means to accomplishing justice. As a Christian, it’s important to say that people are never a means to an end, however noble we make that end. So then, how can we think about these relationships?

Yesterday I participated in a Juneteenth march alongside faith leaders from around the city. My spiritual director, a lifelong resident of Chicago’s South Side was there as were many friends and neighbors from the community. To understand anything about my own spiritual maturing in the areas of racial justice, you’d have to understand my place within these networks of friends, peers, and neighbors. How I pursue systemic racial justice has been profoundly shaped by this relational network.

And that’s finally what I landed on in that interview. Cross-racial friendships have been a network from which I, alongside those same people, pursue racial justice and reconciliation. These friendships shape my memory and imagination. They have changed how I see the world, revealing both the ugly stuff and beautiful possibilities I’d have otherwise missed. They are not evidence of racial justice. Neither are they the means to that end. They are, instead, the ecosystem from which justice can be joyfully pursued in community.

So yes, relationships are really important for the work of racial reconciliation and justice. Just not in the ways many of us have assumed.

On living counter to this racist culture assisted by the saints, including one or two white ones.

First published in my newsletter which you can subscribe to here.

What do you imagine when you hear racial segregation? I think many of us imagine the Civil Rights Movement. Maybe we think about a time when housing segregation was legal. But more than an ugly reality of a bygone era, we know that de-facto segregation is the lived experience for most Americans, especially white Americans.

For white Christians, one of the results of our contemporary segregation is that we have significantly limited the saints who went before us, whose lives are worthy of imitation. There are rosters of names and collections of testimonies we have never heard. While some of us argue over whether it’s appropriate to esteem giants of the faith who also enslaved people, there exists outside our view many Christian women and men whose faithfulness could shape our own discipleship.

I’ve written before about people like Frederick Douglass, Ida B. Wells, and Fred Shuttlesworth and how I’ve come to see the deep connections we share- despite my race; because of our faith. This has been, for me, one of the greatest gifts of the work and ministry of racial justice and reconciliation. It is an amazing thing to find that I belong to a company of saints whose lives, however imperfectly expressed, compel me more fully into the kingdom of God.

But are there any white role models for those of us on this pilgrimage? I think the answer matters for at least two reasons. For one, despite what I said above, in a racialized society, representation matters. In a similar way to people of color who look for their representatives in media, the arts, government, etc., white people are right to search for historical figures who share our race while also resisting its de-forming power. Second, any time we find one of those people we are made aware that the racism and racial terror of previous generations was not inevitable. The immorality was known if widely ignored.

Identifying a few white saints who lived counter to white supremacy in their day can inspire us to do the same in ours. Problem is, they can be hard to find.

I’m coming to the end of the new Dorothy Day biography by John Loughery and Blythe Randolph. I first encountered Day in graduate school when The Long Loneliness was assigned reading. I reread that autobiography again last summer along with the newly published memoir by Day’s granddaughter, Kate Hennessy. I mention these books to say that, until this most recent biography, I’d never noticed Day’s emphasis on racial equality. Yet it’s a theme that appears again and again throughout her life.

Her biographers tell us of her outrage at Emmet Till’s murder; she made sure her paper publicized it. She traveled south from the Catholic Worker’s headquarters in New York City to stay at the Koinonia Farm in southern Georgia. Led by Clarence Jordan, the farm was an intentionally interracial community located in the Jim Crow south. “During Easter week, Dorothy took a turn as one of the night sentries of the farm… A car sped by in the middle of the night and a shotgun was fired, hitting the vehicle but not [Dorothy].”

The Catholic Worker covered incidents of racial violence around the country as well as pointing out the fact that “most Catholic parishes were making no effort whatsoever to integrate their congregations.” Shining a discomforting spotlight on her own church’s racism was a hallmark of her work. In one incident, one of Day’s writers in Detroit confronted a group of Catholics who were protesting the racial integration of a housing project. The faithful “became enraged, almost to the point of violence, when she informed them that their church did not support segregation. They has certainly never heard their own priests utter a word about integration, nor did they think the Church as they knew it could have any business telling them they had to accept black people as equals.”

There’s more, but these give a sense of Day’s long-term commitment to racial justice. As a Christian. A white Christian. If she could see the inequity and violence of her own day, so could have many others.

I’m adding Dorothy Day to my wall of saints. She’s a reminder of faithful discipleship no matter the cost. No matter the loneliness. But she’s also a warning: The apathy about racial justice that is endemic to white Christianity has never been about a lack of knowledge. Not really. And so, if we’re to follow Saint Dorothy’s example in our own day, our commitment must be as deep and counter to this racist culture as was hers. It’s not a lack of knowledge we’re up against but something more wicked, more… spiritual.

Thank God for the saints who point the way forward.

How brave will we be?

First posted in early June in my newsletter which you can subscribe to here.

It’s Saturday evening. It’s been a hell of a week. A hellish week. From within a pandemic, the country has exploded, sparked by the murders of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and George Floyd. Helicopters have hovered near our apartment most nights this week. Most of the groceries stores on this side of the city are boarded up. Earlier this week – I’ve lost track of the days – after putting the boys to bed, I walked five blocks from our home, drawn by the sounds of a protest. At an intersection I found a standoff: police in riot gear toe-to-toe with young women and men. I stood waiting and watching until, thankfully, the protesters turned away to continue their march.

I’m sitting on our back porch thinking about the many white people who reached out this week. They want to talked about what to do. This is new for me. For the past decade the white Christians I’ve talked to about racial justice have generally been politely – sometimes actively – disinterested. Maybe the truth is making itself impossible to ignore, save for those most actively committed to the lie.

It’s good that some white people have started to care about racist police brutality. I’m glad that some are finding their voices to speak against these brutal crimes.

Hidden in this week’s chaos was some reporting about the economic disparities between black and white communities. A study by the Sandford School of Public Policy at Duke University found that “black households with children had only one penny of wealth for every dollar held by their white counterparts.” An article in the Washington Post laid out the inequities with jaw-dropping detail:

  • The wealth gap between white and black households is greater now than it was in 1968.
  • ”…you would have to combine the net worth of 11.5 black households to get the net worth of a typical white U.S. household.”
  • “The typical black household headed by someone with an advanced degree has less wealth than a white household with only a high school diploma.”

The article goes on to show how COVID-19 has disproportionately impacted black people:

  • Currently, only 49% of black adults are employed.
  • ”…2 out of 5 black small businesses and self-employed workers have been forced to shutter during the pandemic — well over twice the rate of white businesses.”
  • “More than 1 in 5 black families now report they often or sometimes do not have enough food — more than three times the rate for white families. Black families are also almost four times as likely as whites to report they missed a mortgage payment during the crisis — numbers that do not bode well for the already low black homeownership rate.”
  • “On average, black households had $8,762 in cash or equivalent liquid assets compared with $49,529 for white households…”

Here’s what I’m wondering as I think about white pastors putting the finishing touches on the sermons which they wrestled hard with this week: What sort of a vision will we now proclaim for the future? Yes, racist police brutality is obviously antithetical to the kingdom of God. The public murder of unarmed black people, this nation’s ancient legacy, should be publicly denounced without qualification from every pulpit tomorrow. But what of this other reality, less visible but intimately connected to the videos that provoke our shame and anger? What will we say about that?

If we are only brave when the violence is undeniable to a nation build on white supremacy, then we are simply perpetuating the instincts of our deaf and mute ancestors. We betray, at best, a disinterest in the testimonies of our black neighbors about how this nation continues its plundering ways. Our refusal to believe what our fellow citizens and members of the same body of Christ have told us is a bracing indictment about the extent of our cowardice.

This is what we should listen for tomorrow. We need a repentance that takes us deep, even as it spreads our remorse as wide as our collective sins. We need a vision of flourishing that does not depend on our malevolent privilege. We need to be led to a solidarity with neighbor and kin which might cost us the world.

After all, our souls are at stake.

Covering Our Nakedness With Lament

First posted in my newsletter which you can subscribe to here.

In his little book about race, The Hidden Wound, Wendell Berry grapples with his history as a member of a southern land-owning family and how his racial whiteness impacts him in ways he’d previously been oblivious to. He’s willing himself to wake up. “What I had done caused my mind to be thrown back forcibly upon its sources: my home countryside, my own people and history. And for the first time I felt my nakedness.

This frightening vulnerability – nakedness – is an inevitable part of opening our eyes to the terrifying landscape in which we’ve blissfully made our homes. Those whose racial power has concealed reality from us are shocked by what we had missed. After all, the extent of the damage and the depth of the pain are profound. How is it that we had been so blind?

The racial terror that is is generally a strong current below the surface, powerfully felt if not seen by those of us with the privilege of remaining on the surface, is boiling over. Families grieve loved ones killed on video. Cities convulse and burn. The pandemic continues to ravage communities of color. And those of us, like Berry, who’d previously found the current to be a benign aid to our way of life are having a harder time sleeping. We are waking up, by choice or by force.

This is how we discover our nakedness. Our previously held assumptions slip through our hands. How we’d imagined the world, all evidence to the contrary, is revealed for the dumb fog it always was. Interpretations and ideologies crumble. Our eyes open to the horrors with which we’ve been complicit, the lies we’ve told with full-throated conviction, and we have to ask: What is left?

We’ll want to cover ourselves now. To be so exposed is a disorienting experience and too many white people choose, after glimpsing reality, to step back into the fog. There is another option.

In 1961 James Baldwin said, “To be a Negro in this country and to be relatively conscious, is to be in a rage almost all the time. So that the first problem is how to control that rage so that it won’t destroy you.” For those of us who are not black, the righteous anger felt by black Americans is a guide. Yes, we will feel angry but there is something else for us too: lament.

I’ve come to think of lament as a sort of limp. It does not keep us from moving forward, from joining the struggle for freedom. But neither does it absolve or sooth us. Lament is always there. It serves not as a moment or a season but an ongoing posture for the previously deceived, the still complicit, the too-slowly waking up.

Baldwin asks about how to feel the rage without being consumed by it. The answer, according to some friends who have known this life-long anger, is to not forget it. Remember the rage even when this country pretends to have changed. By staying in touch with the anger, these friends are not shocked, though still wrecked, by the racist barrage at times like these.

This is what the limp of lament can offer us. We are steeled against false promises of comfort and invitations to old delusions. We clothe ourselves with grief, anger, prayer. We join the chorus of those singing on the edge of despair, teetering but not falling, held by that newly discovered tether: the truth.