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.
I spent this week with my family in Wisconsin, mostly unplugged. One afternoon we visited a small bookshop in downtown Woodstock, IL, just across the border. It was my first time in an independent book store since March and, despite masking-up before entering, it felt great to browse the stacks and shelves.
It wasn’t what I expected when we walked in the door of this small town book store.
The other day I got to interview my friend Drew G. I. Hart for an event at his local bookshop in Harrisburg, Midtown Scholar. Drew thinks about race a lot and his book is one of the more sober treatments about the fraught intersections between Christianity and racism. I wanted to know what he thought about the recent groundswell of interest in racial justice.
Drew’s answer surprised me. Yes, he said, this moment does feel unique, certainly in our lifetimes. And the thing that really stood out to him was how many non-Black people are suddenly interested in justice for Black communities. Ta-Nehisi Coates said something similar the other day during a conversation with Ezra Klein. “I don’t want to overstate this,” he said, “but there are significant swaths of people and communities that are not black, that to some extent have some perception of what that pain and that suffering is. I think that’s different.”
Does that explain the display of racial justice books in the Woodstock book store? Probably. Why else would the only bookshop in the area expect to sell these titles to a clientele which, if it mirrors the town, is close to 90% white?
It’s possible, then, that the same thing is behind those books and the hesitant optimism shared by those like Coates and Hart: White people are finally understanding our essential role in taking apart racism. If this time is really going to be different it will largely be because enough white people have woken up to precisely this. We are finally understanding that, in so many ways, racism is our problem.
I’m not sure there’s such a thing as a bad year of reading, but if there is, this wasn’t it. I got to review some very interesting books: The 21 (see below), Passionate for Justice, and The Color of Life for The Englewood Review of Books and Whole and Reconciled for Missio Alliance which, along with I Bring the Voices of My People (see below), has influenced my perspective on racial reconciliation. A friend recommended Beyond the Abortion Wars which I in turn also recommend for tender and charitable engagement about a reality which can seem impossible to talk about in mixed company. I loved David Blight’s biography about Frederick Douglass and I learned so much from The Heartbeat of Wounded Knee, David Treuer’s stark and beautiful reminder that Native American life continues with a diversity of expressions all over this country. I could go on: N.T. Wright’s biography about Paul was the perfect companion for our travels in Greece, The Water Dancer by Ta-Nehisi Coates surpassed my high expectations, and I finally got to Eugene Peterson’s A Long Obedience in the Same Direction. I’ve been doing a bit of bird watching and Maggie gave me God’s of the Morning as a birthday gift. Oh, and I finished The Crucifixion by Flemming Rutledge early in the year. A genuine masterpiece!
So, as I do each year, here are five of my favorites from a list full of favorites. There is biography, theology, history, and whatever The 21 is on this list. I hope there’s something here that piques your readerly interest.
I am ashamed to admit that I had forgotten about the twenty-one men whose beheading in Libya by ISIS fighters was broadcast around the world in 2015. In the ensuing years my memory has constricted to the frenetic pace of our world’s rolling timeline of disasters and tragedies, whether close to home or, as with those young men kneeling before their masked captors, on a lonely beach on the other side of the world. It was the cover image on Martin Mosebach’s recently translated book, The 21: A Journey into the Land of Coptic Martyrs, that jostled my mind. On it we see a procession of bound men in orange jumpsuits, their heads bent under the heavy hands of their captors, dressed head to toe in black. Even those readers who had forgotten this story, or had somehow managed to miss it the first time, will understand that this choreographed march will end terribly for the men in orange.
Of all the books I read this year, this may be the one that has most stayed with me. Mosebach’s account of the men’s deaths and their lives has worked its way into my memory. I’ve found myself mentioning these stories throughout the year, awed by the Coptic Church’s risky witness to Jesus.
Originally from Ghana, Esther E. Acolatse brings her perceptive eye to this study on the different ways Christians in the West and global South think about supernatural realities. Engaging with theologians like Rudolf Bultmann, Walter Wink, and Karl Barth, the author holds up western assumptions about the spiritual life against the experience and perspective of churches in Africa. Seeing these differences as one of the major points of distance between these regions, this is a project worth undertaking.
Acolatse wants to call all Christians back to accounts of spiritual warfare found in Scripture. “Accounts of evil from the global South currently lack appropriate attention to personal complicity and guilt as well as structural dimensions; but accounts from the global North also emphasize the individual and structural dimensions without giving sufficient attention to extra human components.” It’s this larger hermeneutic of the spiritual powers that she is after in these pages.
This is an academic book with all of the accompanying analysis. But Acolatse is not a dispassionate observer; there is a conviction that runs through the book, occasionally erupting in passion. A longer quote will illustrate this.
It is probably that the lack of knowledge and experience of the presence of the demonic in modern times – through to our current times – has made it easy to turn Christianity into a primarily cerebral, morality-infusing code for civilizing humanity, rather than the life-transforming, Satan-crushing, God-Glorifying powerful religion or lifestyle that was intended… We seem to have exegeted (almost exorcised) the power out of the Logos and propped it up with philosophy.
I’ve come to think that, for those of us engaged in the work of racial reconciliation, a strong emphases on the spiritual nature of evil and oppression is vital. Forgetting this leaves us confused about the true nature of our fight. Powers, Principalities, and the Spirit is a helpful and at times jarring reminder.
I like the idea of reading poetry more than I actually like reading poetry. But that has changed some in recent years and the poet who is responsible for this is Gwendolyn Brooks. Brooks was a life-long resident in the communities where we live and do ministry and reading her helps me not only imagine what the neighborhoods were like fifty or sixty years ago, but also what I have missed today.
In A Surprised Queenhood the author, also a poet, tells us Brooks’ story. This was a woman seemingly born a poet; it was the thing she always wanted to be. We learn too about her community, Bronzeville, and the many currents then shaping this community to which black citizens were migrating from racial terror in the south. We also see how Brooks’ conception of being a black poet changed over the years, how younger artists and poets shaped her vision and voice.
An older pastor once told a gathering of pastors that each of us should have “our” poet. By this I think he meant we should have that one poet whose work we continue to turn to for help in gaining some perspective about our own lives and circumstances and our own small place in the world. This is what Brooks has done for me. As a small example, here’s one of her short poems, provoked by the lynching of Emmett Till. And be sure to watch this creative rendition of what is probably her best-known poem, “We Real Cool.”
The Last Quatrain Of The Ballad Of Emmett Till
(after the murder, after the burial) Emmett’s mother is a pretty-faced thing; the tint of pulled taffy. She sits in a red room, drinking black coffee. She kisses her killed boy. And she is sorry. Chaos in windy grays through a red prairie.
I began the year with David Blight’s really great biography of Frederick Douglass and ended it with Delbanco’s history of the Fugitive Slave Act. In fact, I’ve recently found myself spending a lot of time in the years surrounding the Civil War. The more I learn about the debates and political maneuverings leading up to the war and the responses and betrayals following it, the more I feel that I understand some of the instincts motivating our own fraught American moment.
Delbanco takes the Fugitive Slave Act, passed eleven years before the war began, as a lens through which to view and interpret the roiling debates and civic, religious, and cultural clashes leading to it. At the heart of these debates is the simple question of personhood: Can an enslaved person who liberates herself be thought of as having stolen herself? Can you be held accountable for freeing yourself when the place you were held captive never saw you as fully human? To most in the south the answer was clear and the demand that fugitives be prosecuted and returned rang loud and clear. To many in the north the answer was murkier. Even those who found slavery reprehensible were often willing to accept the status quo as a matter of law and order. Delbanco reminds us that the war between the states, and the horror which led to it, implicated both the north and south.
Chanequa Walker-Barnes is a uniquely qualified guide to the world of Christian racial reconciliation. Having led in these spaces, she now reflects from a theological vantage point that finds much to critique. For example, with other students of the movement, she views multi-ethnic churches as regularly defaulting to white cultural norms and inevitably avoiding the sources of racial injustice. This is an important and very necessary criticism.
But Walker-Barnes is not content only to level critique. Rather, this book is a vision of what reconciliation could be, especially if the voices and experiences of women of color were to lead the way. So, for example, this way forward is unafraid to identify white supremacy as the source of racial injustice, rather than the relatively benign relational separateness that is so often the focus in white-led reconciliation ministries. (I couldn’t help rehearsing my own book as I was reading. While I can’t be sure, I think that my own suggestions about addressing racial injustice fall in line with Walker-Barnes’ justice focus.)
Throughout the book I wondered if the author would ever abandon the language of reconciliation. Such has been the tendency over the past 3-5 years in the circles I travel. But no.
For me and many others, only one thing keeps us on a journey in which we are destined to encounter people who devalue our personhood: captivity. That is, we are held captive by the understanding that reconciliation is core to the gospel, that it reflects God’s intention for humanity, and that it is central to our identity as Christians.
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A few weeks ago a friend retweeted a well-known bishop who is vocal in his opposition to racism who had declared something along the lines of: I’d rather not go to heaven if I’ve got to be there with white evangelicals. To this my friend added, “I hope to have a good conversation with the bishop about this a few thousand years from now.” To his witty response, I commented,
Reminds me of a large group conversation I was in yesterday…
Person: “Will there be racists in heaven?”
Me under my breath: “I sure as heck hope so or I’m in a world of hurt.”
I’m still thinking about this short exchange. I think my friend’s response was right: I expect many of us will be surprised about who we’re spending eternity with. And I think mine was too: If sin of any kind – including racist ones – is going to keep someone from heaven than I’m out.
And yet. I think there’s more to wonder about here.
During the same meeting I mentioned in my Twitter comment we found ourselves discussing which Christian doctrines are worth going to the mat for and which fall into an agree-to-disagree category. Or, to use the language of the bishop’s provocative tweet, which Christian beliefs can be considered central-enough to salvation that they might impact a person’s salvation? In our meeting the example of racism was brought up. Might one’s posture toward racism be an example of something that, however odious and deadly, might be considered a non-essential to Christian orthodoxy?
You can imagine that there were some differing opinions on this question. Those of us for whom racism remains largely in the abstract – a sin to resist and repent of – were willing to consider it a matter of great importance, but perhaps not raised to the level of orthodoxy. (I don’t know for sure, but I imagine for some of us white Christians this open-heartedness has to do with those family members we love who remain happily ensconced in their racism. It’s tough for us to talk about the theological significance of one’s beliefs about race when the people we’re talking about are grandma and grandpa.)
And then there were those whose experience with race and racism is absolutely real. They experience in their bodies the desecration of the imago Dei and there is nothing secondary or peripheral about it.
Racism is an interlocking system of oppresion that is designed to promote and maintain White supremacy, the notion that White people – including their bodies, aesthetics, beliefs, values, customs, and culture – are inherently superior to all other races and therefore should wield dominion over the rest of creation, including other people groups, the animal kingdom, and the earth itself.
Racism, Walk-Barnes points out repeatedly, is not a matter of private prejudice or relational separateness; it is a matrix of beliefs and behaviors which systematically elevate some at the expense of another person’s suffering. Viewed – experienced – thusly, it’s hard to make a case that racism is anything other than a central concern of Jesus’ gospel. And so it must be for all of his followers too.
I’ve started a personal newsletter which, so far, I’ve been posting weekly. I’ve not yet figured out its connection to this blog, but something I wrote for it seems to fit here. You can subscribe to the newsletter here.
It is too simple to tell this tale as a fable of good versus evil,
not because of any ambiguity about the evil of slavery itself but
because – given the facts of antebellum politics, the compulsion of
economic interests, and the constitutional protections slaveholders
enjoyed – it was far from clear how the evil could be destroyed.
“Humanity cries out against this vast enormity,” Herman Melville wrote
in 1849, “but not one man knows a prudent remedy. By “prudent” he meant
some way of destroying slavery without destroying the union itself. Nor
was this a matter of two competing goods: abolition on the one hand
versus union on the other. There was reason to believe that destroying
the union would actually strengthen slavery rather than weaken it. If
the constitutional guarantee of the right of slave masters to recover
their runaway slaves were to collapse, an outraged South might go its
own way, emboldened to build a slave-based empire beyond the limits of
the United States.
Delbanco’s point about the complicated factors facing abolitionists
has me thinking about the responsibilities facing those who oppose
today’s injustices. Do we too often frame these fights simplistically,
as though they are matters of easily chosen right and wrong? Imagine,
for example, being an abolitionist or free Black person in the decades
before the Civil War. What if your efforts led to greater power for the
slave states and, thus, more enslaved people overall? What is your
responsibility amidst such awful ambiguity?
I wonder, though, if the real moral complexities identified by
Delbanco are experienced differently by Christians. People like
Frederick Douglass, to take just one example, never wavered about the
imperative to reject slavery no matter the political costs. For him, as
David Blight shows in his recent biography,
his reading of Scripture and personal experience of the wickedness of
slavery, made him impatient with those who allowed murky political
possibilities to slow down the work of liberating actual people. Might
one of the things that sets Christians apart in the battle for justice
be that we move forward in the face of the many unknowns, convinced that
we’ll never know enough and assured that the righteous God goes before