I first shared the following post in my newsletter which you can subscribe to here.
Not long ago I noticed how often over the past few years I’ve been returning to the biblical themes of wilderness and exile. There’s a lot to say about these themes and I hope to explore some of them in this newsletter, but for now I’ll just say how much more sense our circumstances make when interpreted through the lenses of wilderness and exile.
It seems to me that the only reason this way of seeing isn’t intuitive to some of us has to do with how we’ve imagined ourselves in – or on our way to – the promised land.
In Stand Your Ground: Black Bodies and the Justice of God, Kelly Brown Douglas makes the case that this country’s sense of manifest destiny has its origins in the mythology of Anglo-Saxon exceptionalism, an exceptionalism that came to be imagined as racial whiteness tied to Christian belief. To access America’s promises, one had to acquiesce to the myth and, if possible, become white.
To be white, then, is to be the object of God’s delight, in no small part because whiteness expresses the will of God. Douglas mentions Missouri senator Thomas Hart Benton who, in a speech in 1864, claimed, “It would seem that the White race alone received the divine command, to subdue and replenish the earth! For it is the only one that hunts out new and distant lands, and even a New World, to subdue and replenish.”
To summarize, racial whiteness came to symbolize God’s divine sanction to subdue the earth. Manifest destiny was evidence that this people – white people – were God’s people and that this land was the land of his promise.
Few of us today hold to this warped theology but I’m not sure we’ve adequately reckoned with how significantly our imaginations have been shaped by it. That is, many of us, on a level we’re mostly unaware of, assume something of the promised land in how we interpret our daily frustrations and longings. So we overlook the injustices and inconsistencies that might betray our actual location, something more akin to wilderness or exile. We satisfy ourselves with a narrative which legitimizes unearned privileges and rationalizes someone else’s suffering. We act as though a bit more work and/or prayer will finally pry open the door to the promises of the American Dream.
Well, some of us are prone to this sort of misinterpretation. Douglas writes about an alternative.
Black faith was forged in the midst of the perverse and tragic paradoxes of black life. It is a faith, therefore, that does not ignore the unthinkable and irrational terror of black living. It takes it seriously. It does not belittle or romanticize the pains and sufferings of black bodies. It does not revel in illusions and false hope. Neither does it allow black bodies to give into the hardship and to be overcome with despair. Indeed, the faith born in slavery provided a weapon to resit and to fight against the religiously legitimated tyranny of America’s Anglo-Saxon exceptionalism.
I don’t think it’s hard to agree that the Christian life, in general, is less like the promised land than it is wilderness and exile. It’s something else entirely though, for those steeped in racialized, divinely articulated exceptionalism, to imagine our way to the sort of resiliency and hope Douglas describes. For this, we need the example and tutelage of those who never believed the myth, who’ve always been clear about the true nature of our collective circumstances.
We spent a portion of this chilly spring day walking one of our favorite trails at the Indiana National Lakeshore. Just as we were getting started, we crossed a wetland where we spotted a group of Sandhill Cranes.
Last week Ed Stetzer, director of the Billy Graham Center at Wheaton College, was interviewed by NPR about the white evangelical presence at the U.S. Capitol insurrection. It’s obvious that, for Stetzer, this is a catastrophic moment which requires serious reflection and blunt questions. He asks, “How did we get here? How were we so easily fooled by conspiracy theories?” Later in the interview he wonders, “What happened? Why were so many people drawn to somebody who was obviously so not connected to what evangelicals believe by his life or his practices or more.”
It’s right that white Christians would ask questions about ourselves after seeing so many of us represented amidst symbols of violence, conspiracy, and racial supremacy. I wonder, though about the timing and direction of our reflection.
In early 2017 the Council of Bishops of the African Methodist Episcopal Church wrote an open letter warning of the un-Christian and destructive aims of the Trump administration. Here are the first two sentences. Note the explicit call to action.
The Council of Bishops of the African Methodist Episcopal Church had hoped that the Trump Administration would alter the views and policies espoused during the presidential campaign, but is disappointed and troubled by the decisions and actions taken during the early days of this administration, and vow to do all that we can to see that these decisions and actions do not last. We ask that every member of this denomination, and people who are committed to justice and righteousness, equality and truth, will join with us to thwart what are clearly demonic acts.
It took far less than a deadly insurrection to compel the bishops of the AME church to warn of the coming danger. It’s probably inevitable and necessary that white Christians are asking the sorts of questions suggested by Stetzer right now. But shouldn’t we have been doing this a long time ago?
Was an attack on our nation’s symbols of power and democracy really necessary to force this introspection? Why was the attack on the Central Park Exonerated not enough? The slander of immigrants from Mexico and Central America? Separating children from their parents?
The collective disinterest in these previous dehumanizing offenses hints at my other question about this reckoning. For many of the white Christians who were appalled by the scenes from Washington D.C. last week, the foremost question seems to be, How? How did we get here? This is the framing question for Kristin Kobes Du Mez’s excellent new book, Jesus and John Wayne. Not surprisingly, the book begins and ends with our outgoing president and the rest is a compelling answer to that How? question.
But why is this the first question? Let’s review again that ugly scene last week. Whatever their specific aims, the mob successfully broadcast their racial/religious messages and symbols of supremacy. There’s nothing new about this. Listen to what James Cone writes in The Cross and the Lynching Tree. “The claim that whites had the right to control the black population through lynching and other extralegal forms of mob violence was grounded in the religious belief that America was a white nation called by God to bear witness to the superiority of ‘white over black.’“
The white supremacist insurrectionists should be prosecuted. But any eventual convictions will do little to blunt the terror that was already brazenly unleashed. Every attempt to downplay the terror – as many Republican representatives have done – only exacerbates it.
Terror aims beyond its specific victims. It is the members of the community represented by the victims who are the real targets. Cone writes, “Whites often lynched blacks simply to remind the black community of their powerlessness.” Terror is meant to traumatize communities.
I hear a lot of non-Black people who are outraged at the desecration visited upon the country by that white mob. Our sense of dignity or respect or civility or patriotism or justice or whatever has been offended. This is when we start asking our preferred question, How?
But many of us don’t see the terror and the trauma. Why not? Cone writes, “Whites acted in a superior manner for so long that it was difficult for them to even recognize their cultural and spiritual arrogance, blatant as it was to African Americans.” Supremacy inoculates us against the truest experience of the insurrection. We see but don’t rightly interpret what has been wrought. We don’t feel the shattering impact on flesh and blood. And so, rather than beginning with the intended trauma of that terrorizing mob, we make ourselves the focus. Again. Rather than opening ourselves vulnerably to the experience of suffering, we retreat to our analyzing and theorizing. Again.
How did we get here? We have to ask this question. But when we make this our first question – and often our only question – we are revealing just how incapable we are of answering it truthfully.
I wish I could remember what I was reading when the stay-at-home orders reached Chicago in March. It may have been Ghosts in the Schoolyard, Eve Ewing’s devastating look at the closures of public schools in our city – mostly in Black neighborhoods – a few years back. I might have been deep into the new Dorothy Day biography. I don’t remember, but what I won’t forget anytime soon was how faithfully the stacks of books on my desk and beside our bed played their conversational role during these months of distance and isolation.
Aside from immediate family, almost all of my conversations since last winter have been mitigated by screens and WiFi signals. Which isn’t to say they were bad: I got to talk with some of the people I most respect in the days following my book’s publication and Maggie and I have had a few Zoom date nights with friends. But it’s different, isn’t it? Different than sharing a meal together or leaning over a table in a noisy coffee shop to hear what your friend is saying. Earlier this fall I sat in a friend’s backyard until we were both shivering but, man, it was good to share space and conversation together.
Books have always been conversation partners to me, a fact that can be more than a little frustrating to the person vying for my attention when my nose is buried between some pages. But more so than previously, this year I reached for books that could satisfy the hunger for conversation. Eddie Glaude’s Begin Again exemplifies the way certain books can provoke good discussion. Glaude’s previous book, Democracy in Black, provided some of the important scaffolding for my understanding of racial discipleship. In this new one, Glaude walks alongside James Baldwin and leans on the imminent author and critic for help understanding these strange days. “We should tell the truth about ourselves,” Glaude writes about Baldwin’s persistent demand of his country, “and that would release us into a new possibility.”
Ida B. Wells, as some of you will know, has assumed an authoritative presence in my imagination. I sometimes think I hear her asking, Really? You’re discouraged because of that? This year I finally got around to her unfinished autobiography which is endearing for the quotidian details she chose to include, and for what she left out. (I wanted a lot more about her friendship with Frederick Douglass.) Reading her account of her life left me with the impression that, while aware of the significance of her anti-lynching work, Wells was the sort of person who simply couldn’t help doing the righteous thing she found in her path, no matter how small or how impossible.
I read Howard Thurman’s classic Jesus and the Disinherited and My Grandmother’s Handsby Resmaa Menakem around the same time. Thurman’s famous question toward the beginning of his little book is one that demands a response: “What was the word that the religion of Jesus says to the man with his back against the wall?” It’s the question Thurman wrestles with while inviting his readers to do the same. Menakem is concerned with the trauma inflicted upon those whose backs have been forced against the wall, as well as the kind experienced by those of us who’ve done the forcing. The author is interested in trauma- its origins, impact, as well as what healing can look like for all of us. In a year with so many moments of racial violence and protest, these books helped me grapple with questions I wouldn’t otherwise have thought to ask.
This summer our family drove about five hours north to camp for a week in the Manistee National Forest in Michigan. On the way we stopped into a bookstore and I picked up Aldo Leopold’s A Sand County Almanac. This was required reading in college, probably for one of my environmental studies classes. It was the first nature writing I read and I was curious how it held up. Reading Leopold’s careful observations about his Wisconsin farm twenty years later, this time from the proximity of our own years in the Midwest, was a treat. Like other great nature writes, Leopold equips the reader to see what they might otherwise miss.
(A few years ago we visited the Chicago Botanic Gardens and found they were having a used book sale. I picked an illustrated edition of A Sand County Almanac; sections from the original are interspersed with photos from Leopold’s land. As with the original, this version proceeds through each month of the year and a non-Midwesterner might start to get an idea of why the naturalist found so much beauty on his sand farm and the bits of prairie that remained along roadsides and in ditches.)
I gravitate to the kind of writing that reckons tenderly and honestly with the natural world; Robin Wall Kimmerer’s Braiding Sweetgrass (a gift from some knowing friends) fit the bill as did English Pastoral by James Rebanks and David Allen Sibley’s delightful What It’s Like to Be a Bird(another thoughtful gift). Much of my reading tends toward the messy intersection of race and theology, but I’ve come to believe that these books about creation are in some ways related. Listen, for example to Kimmerer, a member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation, as she wonders about our collective future. “For the sake of the peoples and the land, the urgent work of the Second Man may be to set aside the ways of the colonist and become Indigenous to place. But can Americans, as a nation of immigrants, learn to live here as if we were staying? With both feet on the shore?”
The question about a future in which the dehumanizing power of race is diminished by the generative power of creation is one that won’t leave me alone, and books like these help me imagine what might – might – be possible.
We kept pace through this strange year with short drives over to the Indiana National Lakeshore for hikes through forests and over sand dunes along with many afternoon walks through our beloved Jackson Park. In a way I couldn’t have anticipated at the beginning of the year, we have spent more time outdoors this year, beginning in early spring when the pandemic reached our city. We’ve watched the seasons change, felt the temperature of Lake Michigan rise and then drop again, and noticed when the little snakes and frogs appeared along the trails. We saw our first Sandhill Cranes this year. I think that, when we remember 2020 years from now, these regular walks and how they kept time for us will be one of the things we recall gratefully.
Since the publication of Rediscipling the White Church in May, I’ve had the chance to speak with many white pastors and ministry leaders around the country. Most of these women and men are interested in the role they and their churches can play in the ministry of racial reconciliation. The killings of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and George Floyd among with too many others seem to have pushed them to the brink; no longer is the racial homogeneity of their settings a reason to keep quiet. Often these sorts of leaders are told to diversify their reading. They are asked to notice how many of the authors on their shelves are white (men). And this is good advice; there’s a world of literature that has existed beyond their awareness. But more than simply reading authors of color, the real possibility lies in how books like the four in the preceding paragraph can open up the scriptures imaginatively. For example, it will be hard for me to preach any of the narratives about the exodus or the conquest without taking into account the perspective of the Canaanites after reading a couple of the essays in Native and Christian. This, I think, is where the real hopeful possibility lies when we diversify our bookshelves.
Aside from a few outdoor worship services that our church was able to organize safely this summer, the only times I’ve been with groups of people of any size has been at protests against racial injustice. For a period of a few months this summer, these protests were taking place nightly in our city. One evening I walked a few blocks from our apartment to observe a tense standoff between protesters and Chicago Police; it was gratifying to watch the young organizers defuse the tension and lead the crowd away from the threat of tear gas and God-knows-what else.
The protests I participated in were all, as best I can remember, led by local clergy here on the South Side. On New Years Eve I again joined a march; this time we were downtown, on the Magnificent Mile, passing shoppers looking for post-Christmas deals. We remembered the almost-800 people who lost their lives to homicide in our city this year, a fact made less visible by the pandemic and the handful of spectacularly brutal instances of racial terror that broke into our collective consciousness. Mothers held portraits of the children who’ve been snatched from them. We heard their testimonies and their rage at so many unsolved murders. According to our local NPR station, homicides involving Black victims are solved 25% of the time compared to 47% when the victim is white.
In Caste: The Origins of Our Discontent, Isabel Wilkerson argues that we need to understand disparities like these, and the protests that regularly erupt in response to them, by recognizing this country’s caste system. “Race, in the United States, is the visible agent of the unseen force of caste. Caste is the bones, race the skin.” Wilkerson is a beautiful writer – if you’ve not read it, drop everything and pick up The Warmth of Other Suns immediately – and she makes a compelling case for adopting the language and assumptions of caste to better interpret our American circumstances. People have been marching and protesting for racial justice in my city and yours for a very long time. Perhaps, as Wilkerson suggests, there is something deeper and uglier that we’ve yet to account for.
Here’s to the strange and grievous year that was and to the many different books which helped us make our way through it. And here’s to a new year. It will certainly be just as unpredictable as the one we left behind save, I hope, for the the presence of the books we will reach for, the books we will think about, and the books we will – Lord hasten the day! – talk about in one another’s company.
This was first published in my newsletter earlier this year.
Earlier this week I finished Vince L. Bantu’s new book about the global nature of early Christianity,A Multitude of All Peoples. It’s a fascinating look at lots of source material from streams of the ancient church which have largely been ignored by western expressions of Christianity, whether in the academy or the congregation. Bantu skillfully introduces us to the growth of the church in Africa, the Middle East, and Asia.
Occasionally, in the middle of historical description, Bantu will offer some brief commentary. For example, in his chapter on the church in Asia, he writes, “Perhaps the greatest challenge for non-Western / non-white people in coming to faith in Christ today is the association of Christianity as a ‘white / Western religion.’” In these comments we get a sense of the author’s motivation, the reason he believes it’s important to remember these overlooked histories.
In the conclusion, he follows-up on this theme. “It is important to recognize and lament the reality of the Western, white cultural captivity of Christianity and for the people of God to take responsibility for the genocide wrought on countless millions in the name of (Western) Christianity. It is equally incumbent to recall that the Christan faith did not have its beginnings – nor the totality of its history – embedded in white supremacy.”
There’s a lot for us to consider in these two sentences. The first is the prophetic word that is desperately needed in so many of our majority white, Christian spaces. Our history is one which deserves truthful recognition as well as persistent lament. Many of you find yourselves in churches and institutions which have yet to take even the most basic steps in this truth-telling direction; you are missionaries sent to people who believe themselves to already be sufficiently saved.
But consider also the second sentence, one which I assume applies to many of this newsletter’s readers. We are aware our sordid history. We are growing accustomed to lament. But our introduction to the unholy allegiance between Christianity and white supremacy has concealed from us what Bantu is at pains to point out: Christianity was not born in white supremacy and it hasn’t been contained by it.
If we are not careful – especially those of us who have been recently acquainted with a more accurate version of Christianity history and its ongoing complicity with racial injustice – we will end up advancing a narrative about our the faith which whitewashes the experiences of the racially, ethnically, an culturally diverse people of whom the church has always been comprised. Put differently, there is a way of talking about white supremacy which fuels its universalizing aims. We ought to to watch our mouths.
This is why Bantu’s book is important. Global Christianity is not simply a result of modern missionary movements which have often had their own racist tendencies. Rather, these sisters and brothers can often trace their roots in the faith much farther back than can we in the West. While we can’t understand today’s Christianity without reckoning with white supremacy, we can never forget which came first. Neither can we overlook the many resilient communities of faith which, in Bantu’s words, haven’t experienced the totalities of their histories embedded in white supremacy.