Opposed, Cautious, and Irrelevant

What King taught me about how white people respond to racial justice.

15 or so years ago, while enrolled at a Christian graduate school, I went to an evening seminar in which the speaker, a well-known visiting professor from a prestigious university, was to present on the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s theology. The turn-out from the largely white campus was small, especially given the topic and professor’s reputation, but what I most remember was how much of the presentation was dedicated to making the case for King’s Christianity. It was as though the professor knew that, before discussing King’s theology, he had to convince his mostly white, Christian audience that the most revered preacher America has ever produced was… a Christian.

I’ve thought a lot about that strange moment over the years and again on this 50th anniversary of King’s assassination. I’ve learned so much from him in the past 20 years, about theology, preaching, organizing, prayer, and more. But what I’ve most learned – what that 15-year-old memory reminds me of – is how white people, including Christians, generally respond to movements for racial justice.

I guess this shouldn’t be a surprise; most of what I’ve learned about white people, about myself, has been from black people. Ida B. Wells taught me about the violence that cannot be disentangled from whiteness. James Baldwin showed me the blinding nature of whiteness. Frederick Douglass helped me disentangle the slaveholding religion of white Christianity from the peaceable religion of Christ. Numerous mentors and friends have revealed to me with increasing clarity the meaning of whiteness and my mindless benefitting from or willful opposition to it. Black people, for whom understanding whiteness is of deadly concern, have always known more about white people than we have about ourselves. And King, in a myriad of ways, has shown me the defensive and violent response of most white people to expressions of racial justice. He most famously discussed this in his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.”

When I was suddenly catapulted into the leadership of the bus protest in Montgomery, Alabama, a few years ago, I felt we would be supported by the white church. I felt that the white ministers, priests and rabbis of the South would be among our strongest allies. Instead, some have been outright opponents, refusing to understand the freedom movement and misrepresenting its leaders; all too many others have been more cautious than courageous and have remained silent behind the anesthetizing security of stained glass windows.

In spite of my shattered dreams, I came to Birmingham with the hope that the white religious leadership of this community would see the justice of our cause and, with deep moral concern, would serve as the channel through which our just grievances could reach the power structure. I had hoped that each of you would understand. But again I have been disappointed.

I have heard numerous southern religious leaders admonish their worshipers to comply with a desegregation decision because it is the law, but I have longed to hear white ministers declare: “Follow this decree because integration is morally right and because the Negro is your brother.” In the midst of blatant injustices inflicted upon the Negro, I have watched white churchmen stand on the sideline and mouth pious irrelevancies and sanctimonious trivialities. In the midst of a mighty struggle to rid our nation of racial and economic injustice, I have heard many ministers say: “Those are social issues, with which the gospel has no real concern.”

Wether debating King’s movement strategy, American loyalty, or Christian faith, white Christians were quick to find ways to discredit the movement for racial justice and thus ignore or oppose it. In this regard, as that college seminar revealed, very little has changed in the 50 years since King’s murder.

Occasionally I’m asked about how white people respond to things I write and say publicly about racial justice. The assumption, correct much of the time, is that the responses can be harsh. In fact, I think very little about these responses anymore. Mostly this is because I know how much more opposition my friends of color, particularly women, face when they speak for racial justice. Any flak I take is small in comparison. But the other reason I’m not surprised about these typical and troublesome responses is that King prepared me. He taught me to understand how unrepentant whiteness responds when the possibility of genuine racial justice surfaces.

Let me be more honest: King taught me to anticipate my own backlash to racial justice. His words and actions, and the violence they provoked, help me to see the violence within myself. Under his influence, I’ve come to doubt my initial responses to calls for racial equity and repair. The privilege and blindness that comes with my race make my emotions and experiences untrustworthy guides in the journey toward justice. King taught me to submit my instincts to the wisdom of those friends who exist outside of whiteness’s blinding lies.

King taught me to understand and anticipate the tepid caution, dangerous opposition, and utter irrelevancy of most white responses to racial justice. This backlash has exerted only a tiny price from me but this week we remember that for many others the cost has been deadly.

Audacious Faith

A sermon about the requirement of active faith in the struggle for racial justice.

MLK350WikimediaTrikosko,_Marion_SOn August 16, 1967, less than a year before he was assassinated in Memphis, the Rev. Dr. King spoke to the 11th Annual SCLC Convention in Atlanta in a speech entitled “Where Do We Go From Here?” Toward the end of the speech, after recounting the many successes of the Civil Rights Movement up to that point, King turns to more sobering realities.

And I must confess, my friends, that the road ahead will not always be smooth. There will still be rocky places of frustration and meandering points of bewilderment. There will be inevitable setbacks here and there. And there will be those moments when the buoyancy of hope will be transformed into the fatigue of despair. Our dreams will sometimes be shattered and our ethereal hopes blasted. We may again, with tear-drenched eyes, have to stand before the bier of some courageous civil rights worker whose life will be snuffed out by the dastardly acts of bloodthirsty mobs. But difficult and painful as it is, we must walk on in the days ahead with an audacious faith in the future.

For King, in light of inevitable setbacks, audacious faith was a requirement in the pursuit of racial justice. The opposition was simply to great. He knew, theologically and experientially, that the spiritual powers of racial oppression would not relinquish without a fight. He understood that much of the time – maybe most of the time – it would seem like righteousness was losing, as though justice would remain out of grasp, as though hate would in fact overcome love. The fact of racist presidents and powerful economic interests opposing King’s beloved community did not come as a shock to him or to peers like Ella Baker, Fred Shuttlesworth, Rosa Parks, or Dianne Nash.

Likewise, perhaps we should not be shocked when we encounter such opposition today. The audacious faith that was necessary then is just as needed now.

King closes his speech by urging his colleagues to hang on to audacious faith.

Let us go out realizing that the Bible is right: “Be not deceived. God is not mocked. Whatsoever a man soweth, that shall he also reap.” [Galatians 6:7] This is our hope for the future, and with this faith we will be able to sing in some not too distant tomorrow, with a cosmic past tense, “We have overcome! We have overcome! Deep in my heart, I did believe we would overcome.”

From a distinctly Christian perspective, King envisions how faith is to be embodied in the struggle for justice. He quotes from Galatians 6, the longer passage which reads:

Do not be deceived: God cannot be mocked. A man reaps what he sows.Whoever sows to please their flesh, from the flesh will reap destruction; whoever sows to please the Spirit, from the Spirit will reap eternal life. Let us not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up. [Galatians 6:7-9]

Living by faith means far more than a one-time placing our faith in Jesus, though it includes this. And the life of faith means far, far more than waiting quietly through injustice until Jesus returns. The life of audacious faith, as described by King, is one of actively sowing, planting.

We sow in faith, actions and words that please the righteous Spirit of God. We sow the truth in times of deception. We sow solidarity when our neighbors are slandered. We sow compassion in the face of dehumanizing policies. We sow public protest in response to cover-ups and backroom deals. We sow reconciliation in the midst of purposeful segregation. We sow prayer and fasting, we sow Sabbath worship and rest, we sow joyful celebration and feasting… we sow, in other words, a vision of the Kingdom of God that is coming even now, on earth as it is in heaven. And we sow in faith.

All of this is an act of audacious faith because the reaping – the harvest of justice and righteousness – is not our responsibility. Only the holy and sovereign Creator God can bring in this harvest. We, through audacious faith, are simply called to sow.

But though our faith in God’s righteousness and justice may be audacious, it is not misplaced. Our faith is secure; our hope is assured. And so, despite what the circumstances of the present moment may claim, we must press on in faith. 

Let us not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up.

Do not grow weary. Do not grow skeptical. Do not grow cynical. Do not grow bitter. Do not succumb to despair, to selfishness, to greed.

No, like the saints who’ve gone before us, I urge you to once again choose faith. Choose audacious faith. And then go from this place – not weary or despairing – but energized by the life-giving Spirit of Jesus to plant that audacious faith everywhere you go. Plant hope. Plant justice. Plant reconciliation. Plant forgiveness. Plant mercy. Plant grace. Plant truth. Plant love.

For in the power of God’s time we will reap a harvest – a harvest of righteousness and justice – if we do not give up.

Exposing White Lies

We’re right to be appalled by the constant revelations of sexual abuse and assault. But what, exactly, are we shocked about?

Recently it seems hardly a day can pass without credible new allegations of sexual assault or abuse leveled against another powerful white man. It’s not that only white men abuse and assault women, but there is something important about women who are believed when standing against powerful white men. I think this moment – when a woman’s word is trusted over that of political or entertainment mogul –  is unique in the history of the United States. We are grappling with something new and I wonder whether it can be sustained.

lynch lawIn 1892, in the aftermath of the Civil War, the abandonment of reconstruction, and her own expulsion from Memphis under the threat of mob violence, journalist Ida B. Wells wrote Lynch Law, an investigation into the lynchings then rampant throughout the American South. She also looked into the purported causes of these murdered black citizens. She found one cause to be more common than any other: “[The Negro] is now charged with assaulting or attempting to assault white women. This charge, as false as it is foul, robs us of the sympathy of the world and is blasting the race’s good name.”

In this and later investigations Wells documented case after case of black men standing accused of sexual assault by white women and summarily executed (often after being tortured) by white men.  The public history of white men, particularly powerful white men, and sexual assault is one in which we are judge, jury, and executioner. This makes the recent tendency to believe the women who have come forward so surprising. We are used to the deceitful lore of the violent and sexualized black man and the equally fantastical legend of the universally virtuous white man. Seeing so many white men assumed guilty of their crimes is exceptional, utterly counter to the widely accepted narrative that Wells exposed so plainly.

But our surprise should run even deeper. I’m thinking about a horrifying passage in Edward E. Baptist’s masterful The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism. Here Baptist writes about two enslaved women, Rachel and Mary, as they stood before gazing eyes in New Orleans, their bodies offered to the highest bidder.

Rachel watched. She had been leered at, too – when she came through the door, all the way back to the point of her sale in Baltimore. It had been going on ever since she reached puberty, but sale time was when the forced sexualization of enslaved women’s bodies was most explicit. Before the 1830’s, and sometimes after, whites usually forced women to strip…

For white people, seeing Mary up on the bench was one of the rewards of membership in the fraternity of entrepreneurs. Men asked questions of a woman that they did not put to John or Willam, questions that attempted to force her to acknowledge everything that was being bought and sold. Women who refused to play along could expect white anger, as one observer noted: “When answers were demanded to the questions usually put by the bidders to slaves on the block, the tears rolled down her cheeks, and her refusal to answer those most disgusting questions met with blood-curling oaths.” Of course, not all white bidders minded resistance. Some relished overcoming it. It was all part of the game.

The American instinct to impute sexual violence to black men is, as Baptist points out, deeply at odds with our actual history. Rachel, Mary, and countless other enslaved women of African descent experienced this terrorizing history. They lived before the gaze of white men who believed it to be within their power to take land and bodies at will, their right to arrange plundering hierarchies built upon others’ blood and toil. What is today being exposed as sexual predation was for them a birthright so deeply assumed as to remain unquestioned.

The demonic genius of the white gaze was to deflect its own sexual violence, this one terrible representation of its pilfering nature, onto other, darker bodies. Wells saw through the lie. “Nobody in this section of the country believes the old thread bare lie that Negro men rape white women. If Southern white men are not careful, they will over-reach themselves and public sentiment will have a reaction.” It seems that more of us are finally beginning to see what was never obscure to Wells or to Rachel or to Mary. Have the powerful white men finally over-reached themselves?

Many of us have been astonished by how frequently these abusing men have been exposed. Our shock, though, shouldn’t begin with the revelation that many powerful white men are also sexual predators, but that it’s taken so long to reckon with this foundational aspect of our troubled history.

 

The Ends of Silence

Who can afford to be quiet when the white supremacists come to town?

I had a quick reaction when I first saw the photos of white nationalists gathering by torchlight in Charlottesville on Friday night: Please everyone, can we just ignore them? Any attention, I thought, would benefit the idiotic agenda of these racist young men. Look away, was my instinct; let them revel in their lunacy and absurdist version of reality. If a couple hundred nazis hold a white pride rally and no one else cares doesn’t that reveal how little they matter?

But my quick reaction was wrong. And though the events following the Friday night march might have been less violent had my reaction been widely shared, it still would have been wrong.

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Credit: Susan Melkisethian

To begin with, thinking that the best response would have been a non-response to a perspective which demands one’s persecution or annihilation can only seem reasonable to those who aren’t threatened by that hateful perspective. More to the point: Only a white person – me! – would think it rationale to be quiet in the face of such blatant white supremacy.  I saw those torch-wielding men and thought, What a bunch of cowards! Their insecurities seemed palpable; their willingness to be manipulated obvious to the point of easy ridicule. Any attention seemed like adding kindling to their pitiful, dim flame.

I was thinking about these young men as bullies. The bully wants you to react because he’s itching for a fight. The bully only knows confrontation and any other form of communication is wasted on his narrow vision of reality. Your mother’s advice about bullies, though not always practical, contained some wisdom: ignore a bully and he’ll often go away to find someone else who’ll agree to his rules of engagement.

But the white supremacists who gathered in Charlottesville are not like bullies at all, which leads to the second reason my reaction to them was wrong. According to news reports, many of the marchers wore those red Make America Great Again hats while carrying their signs and chanting their bigotry. The man who owns that slogan and that red hat, the president, still hasn’t directly confronted the marchers or their agenda, choosing instead to blandly condemn “hatred, bigotry and violence on many sides. On many sides.”

Many sides. This is what my gut reaction missed. The white supremacists appear so fanatical in those photos that it’s tempting to laugh and then turn away. As Vann R. Newrick II wrote in The Atlantic, “It’s easier to joke about losers camping out in a park than to consider them capable of the kinds of paradigm-shifting horror that destroyed countless black families.” But this is a fatal mistake because, regardless of their appearance or the outrage of so many, these men understand that their assumptions are not those of an easily marginalized or ignored bully, but of much of the nation, including, it’s not a stretch to assume, the president. So when he, the most powerful man in the world, talks about the events in Charlottesville, he’s not talking about the overwhelming forces of good standing against the small vanguard of hate; he’s conjuring a strange sort of predetermined battle in which everyone is equally to blame. The problem, for the president and much of the nation, isn’t with the white nationalists’ premise but in how they advanced it this weekend.

We heard a lot about the silent majority this past election cycle, people who related profoundly to candidate Trump’s vision of a country returned to a mythical past. It’s that word silent that seems important now. The silence of the powerful is deadly. It’s what allows the president to recast the day’s events as an ideologically-neutral fight which should have been fought with more dignity. It’s what will allow so many of the president’s supporters to role their eyes at the news, claiming that the events have been blown out of proportion while admiring the marchers’ goal of defending the statue of Robert E. Lee. That silence creeps into the chests of even those who are disgusted by the hate on display in Charlottesville but who’d rather avoid the complicated conversation, the awkward moment.

But this silence only cuts one way and many of those who showed up to oppose the white supremacists must understand this innately. For while the silent majority has the luxury to watch its agenda advanced from the sidelines, those who’ve long suffered under that agenda have no such privilege. Ignoring the foul propaganda doesn’t delegitimize it because it’s already legitimate. Newrick again: “[E]ven the most feared white supremacists in the lore of Jim Crow were just regular white men, transformed from lives as politicians, mechanics, farmers, and layabouts by the sheer power of ideology. And often, their movements were considered “fringe” and marginal—until they weren’t.”

The events in Charlottesville today exist not as an anomaly that can safely be ignored but as a veil pulled back revealing the ends of silence. So silence, no matter the cost, cannot be an option.

Race, Conservation, and Kindness

Wendell Berry on the destructiveness of distance and its remedy.

9780871568779I’m reading Wendell Berry’s classic The Unsettling of America: Culture and Agriculture and he’s helping me think about an unsettling dynamic I see in certain white people when it comes to talking about race and acting on the ideas they talk about. In a chapter titled “The Ecological Crisis as a Crisis of Agriculture” Berry writes about well-meaning conservationists whose ideas about and actions toward the environments actually damage it. How these unintended consequences come about is important and, I think, may shed light on the harmful impact of certain assumptions held by earnest white people.

Berry begins with the limits of any organization.

One reason that an organization cannot properly enact our relationship to the world is that an organization cannot define that relationship except in general terms, and no matter how general may be a person’s attitude toward the world, his impact upon it must become specific and tangible at some point.

He is thinking about environmental organizations which, however good their intentions, have to deal in generalizations and, to some extent, abstractions. They are concerned with nature and the environment as essential concepts deserving of great advocacy and support. But, however necessary these generalizations may be for an organization, they obscure the particularities of the places they represent. It’s one thing to say that the environment is worthy of our protection; it’s rather different to speak about weather patterns, soil composition, and the migratory habitats of a specific plot of ground. The former is the purview of advocates while the latter can only be spoken about by residents.

I’m a frequent participant in or observer of conversations with white people about race. Sometimes these conversations involve diverse participants and other times they are homogeneously white. What matters in these conversations, as it relates to the dynamic I mentioned above, is that these white participants view themselves as informed to the realities of race and racial prejudice. We might call them “good white people” for the way they contrast themselves with other, less informed and less compassionate white people. (I’m prone to these tendencies so I write with some knowledge about this dynamic.) Berry’s observations about the generalizations made by environmental organizations seem similar to the troubling abstractions I hear from these white conversation partners. Their language is seasoned with concepts that may have been picked up on a blog or at a conference – centering, intersectional, asset-based development – but which require no specificity. The concepts themselves can be immensely helpful, but detached from place and people they take on the same generalizing sound that troubles Berry about environmental organizations.

Berry quotes from a letter sent to him by a rural man who cares deeply for the ecological health of his region while bristling at how distant environmentalists erase people like him from their advocacy.

What I’ve noticed around here with the militant ecology people (don’t get me wrong, I, like you, consider myself one of them) is a syndrome I call the Terrarium View of the World: nature always at a distance under glass…

I don’t care about the landscape if I am to be excluded from it. Why should I? In Audubon magazine almost always the beautiful pictures are without man; the ugly ones with him. Such self hatred! I keep wanting to write to them and say, ‘Look! my name is David Budbill and I belong to the chain of being too, as a participant not as an observer (nature is not television!) and the question isn’t to use or not to use but rather how to use.’

This man’s complaint is not about conservationist groups’ motives; he shares those in common with them. Rather, he’s annoyed that their distance from the land they claim to care about has forced them to deal in idealized generalities which render people like himself and their place as caretakers of the land invisible or irrelevant.

In conversations about race, white people who think of themselves as woke to racial nuance and prejudice can demonstrate a similar posture. Their language and assumptions often deal in vague and idealized notions about people. This white person genuinely cares about these communities of color but has very little actual relational connection with them. They remain an abstraction which can be discussed and debated without ever having to be consulted, much less submitted to in love.

Back to the environmentalists. By advocating from a distance, Berry believes they end up harming the land they claim to love. While not nearly as destructive as those who willfully exploit a place for profit, the idealized and abstracting lens through which the environmentalist views a place blinds him to the actual place and to the people who’ve long made their home within it. Action, when it comes in the form of advocacy or policy, will be weighed down by the unintended consequences that come with distance. How can you really know the possibilities and perils of a place if you’ve not made it your home?

In contrast to the incoherent visions for a place by those who don’t belong to it, Berry suggests the idea of “kindly use.”

The land is too various in its kinds, climates, conditions, declivities, aspects, and histories to conform to any generalized understanding or to prosper under generalized treatment. The use of land cannot be both general and kindly – just as the forms of good manners, generally applied (applied, that is, without consideration of differences), are experienced as indifference, bad manners… Kindly use depends on intimate knowledge, the most sensitive responsiveness and responsibility. 

Obviously, kindly use can only really be employed by those near enough to the land to treat it kindly. Only they – farmers, residents, caretakers – have enfleshed access to dirt and trees and weather systems to imagine what will be best for the land and its inhabitants.

Kindly use, as we come back to the well-intentioned but distant white people, is kindness. It’s immensely possible to read all the important books about race, watch the latest documentaries about the many ways racism evolves within our American way of life, and attend social justice conferences and rallies without ever being kind. And this is simply because kindness depends on relationships with actual flesh and blood people. Kindness cannot be shown to an idea, however good and righteous it might be. Kindness can never by general, abstract, or vague; it must always be specific. Being kind requires proximity and knowledge about that person and her life.

That any of this is not intuitively obvious to some of us is a cold reminder about the power of race to depersonalize what must always be personal, to distance what requires closeness. There is nothing human about the abstractions of race and basic kindness demands that we push past them- not with agendas and foregone conclusions, but with the desire – maybe long buried – to be more fully persons, living not among generalities and stereotypes but alongside flesh-and-blood whose fates and hopes become our own.

“Please no don’t let him be gone Lord.”

A Lament for Philando Castile in the Words of Diamond Reynolds and her Four-Year-Old Daughter

On July 6, 2016 Philando Castile was killed by Jeronimo Yanez, a Minnesota police officer. Sitting next to him was his girlfriend Diamond Reynolds who, once Philando had been shot, began live-streaming the tragic scene while pleading to God for his life. Her four year-old daughter watched it all from the back seat. Today officer Yanez was acquitted.  After the verdict Philando’s mother said what so many know: “The system in this country continues to fail black people and will continue to fail us.”

The following is a lament for Philando Castile in the words of Diamond Reynolds and her daughter as recorded on her live-streamed video.


Oh my god please don’t tell me he’s dead. Please don’t tell me my boyfriend just went like that.

Please don’t tell me this. Lord please Jesus don’t tell me that he’s gone. Please don’t tell me that he’s gone. Please officer, don’t tell me that you just did this to him. You shot four bullets into him, sir. He was just getting his license and registration, sir.

You made us retreat before the enemy, and our adversaries have plundered us. You gave us up to be devoured like sheep and have scattered us among the nations. (Psalm 44:10-11)

Where’s my daughter? You got my daughter?”

[Daughter crying in background]

Please don’t tell me he’s gone. Please Jesus no. Please no. Please no don’t let him be gone Lord.

Please don’t tell me my boyfriend’s gone. He don’t deserve this. Please. He’s a good man, he works for St. Paul Public school. He doesn’t have no records of anything. He’s never been in jail, anything. He’s not a gang member, anything.

All this came upon us, though we had not forgotten you; we had not been false to your covenant. Our hearts had not turned back; our feet had not strayed from your path. (Psalm 44:17-18)

You cover him Lord. That you allow him to still be here with us Lord. Still with me… Lord. Please Lord wrap your arms around him. Please Lord make sure that he’s OK, that he’s breathing Lord. Please Lord you know our rights Lord, you know we are innocent people Lord. We are innocent people. We are innocent people. We are innocent. My four-year-old…

How long will the enemy mock you, God? Will the foe revile your name forever? Why do you hold back your hand, your right hand? Take it from the folds of your garment and destroy them! (Psalm 74:10-11)

[Child] I’m scared.

Don’t be scared.

[Child] It’s OK mommy.

I can’t believe they just did this I’m fucking, fucking…fuck! [screams].

[Child] It’s OK, I’m right here with you.

Why should the nations say, “Where is their God?” Before our eyes, make known among the nations that you avenge the outpoured blood of your servants. (Psalm 79:10)

Y’all please pray for us, Jesus, please y’all.

[Cries]

 

Photo: Lorie Shaull.

Bigotry is Normal

Innocence and Forgetfulness in Trump’s America

On my way to meet a coworker for coffee I passed a flier taped to a light pole. The bright purple letters grabbed my eye: “BIGOTRY is NOT NORMAL.” I was running late but something about this apparently self-evident statement made me stop. The flier invited students from the nearby university to protest an event featuring the former campaign manager for the President of the United States. There are a few interesting things about this flier but my curiosity lies with its premise and, I assume, the rationale behind protesting the event in question.

I assume that only those who have not themselves experienced bigotry, at least not regularly, would think of such predictable human prejudice as abnormal. A person who has been on the receiving end of a bigot’s hate is likely to come from a family or social group with a long memory of  what bigotry feels like, of the havoc in causes, and, importantly, of how invisible it seems to be among those who aren’t themselves experiencing this hate. I can’t imagine that this person – the one who knows bigotry firsthand – could claim with any conviction that bigotry is not normal.

I assume the people who conceived this pithy call to action have been exempt by virtue of race, gender, and class from the prejudices that are common in this country. Maybe I’m wrong in this assumption, but if not then it lines up with a trend I’ve noticed since the election. Among those who were strongly – morally, even – opposed to the president’s election there have been two general and divergent reactions. The first is shock, a kind of wrecked disbelief that this person could be elected to the nation’s highest office. The second reaction can be summarized by a friend who, despite her convictions about this man’s moral and political bankruptcy, told me that once the election results were clear she turned off the TV and slept like a baby. The first reaction is elicited from those who believed their nation to be something other than it revealed itself to be on election day. Those who were disappointed but unsurprised by the results have always seen this nation for what it was and is. They rolled their eyes and went to bed on election night. The first group had mostly avoided this nation’s bigotry; the second have long known it firsthand.

The assumptions behind the flier and the shocked response to the election share in common a tame estimation of evil. This optimistic view of the world assumes an unstoppable move toward the good and just, an arc that bends, however slowly, inevitably toward justice. Bigotry, for the optimists, simply cannot be normal and neither can this president. These must be anomalies along what is otherwise an upward trajectory to a more perfect union.

(I’m being overly general in my descriptions and hopefully not unfair, but I’ve had enough of these sorts of conversations since the election that I have some confidence in these observations.)

In Donald Trump’s America the optimism proclaimed by that campus flier seems utterly naive, until one considers the alternative. There is, I think, a new and personal fear that many of those shocked by the election are currently experiencing. Ironically, this fear shares an important similarity with that of many of the people who voted for the president out of fear for the country’s future: each believes in an America which is inherently good. For those who support the president the call was to make America great again. Those who oppose him often share this conviction; for them the country is already great because, as the Clinton campaign proclaimed, it is already good, and getting better all the time. Bigotry is not normal. For all of their differences, the opposing camps share in common optimistic convictions about the nation, convictions that must be strongly held regardless of alternative evidence. They are, both groups, Americans first. What, then, would it mean if America was not good? If, for the more conservative, it was not founded in a goodness worth reclaiming? And what, for liberals, would it mean if the nation did not bend unstoppably toward goodness? It would imply, I think, something painful about ourselves, something pressing about evil that we’d rather leave unexamined.

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I write this during the Christian season of Lent. The beginning of these forty days of fasting and abstaining is marked by a somber service during which ashes are smeared on the foreheads of the congregants; we leave the service with dusty reminders of our mortality. “Remember,” the pastor says while applying the ashes, “you are dust, and to dust you shall return. Repent and believe the gospel.” More than once, glimpsing my reflection in a mirror, I’ve been shocked to stillness at the sight of that smudged cross on my forehead, an ancient countdown clock ticking relentlessly toward the hour of my death.

Remember and repent. I’m expected to look back over my sin, my complicity with evil while also looking ahead to my death. I’m dust and to dust I shall return.

In theory, this stark practice of remembrance and repentance should collide spectacularly with a culture that, at best, sanitizes the past, excuses our sins, and assumes the best about our intentions. Imagine, for example, a flier on that light pole which confessed: “Bigotry is normal and, what’s more, I’m a bigot.”

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In his most recent book, Tears We Cannot Stop, Michael Eric Dyson writes that, “one of the great perks of being white in America is the capacity to forget at will.” His words, penned after the election, are directed toward the chronic amnesia intrinsic to whiteness when it comes to facts and history which threaten one’s view of this country- this good, possibly great, country.

That most white Americans cannot understand ourselves apart from this country’s definition means that we apply our forgetfulness not only to the nation, but to ourselves as well. We become, in James Baldwin’s words in The Fire Next Time, “the innocents.” He writes to his young nephew:

Now, my dear namesake, these innocent and well-meaning people, your countrymen, have caused you to be born under conditions not very far removed from those described for us by Charles Dickens in the London of more than a hundred years ago. (I hear the chorus of the innocents screaming, “No! This is not true! How bitter you are!” – but I am writing this letter to you, to try to tell you something about how to handle them, for most of them do not yet really know that you exist.)

The innocence, in Baldwin’s precise description, scatters its malevolence: the damage is heaped upon the women and men who exist outside the bounds of whiteness, and yet those wounded bodies will not be seen or believed because, well, whiteness is innocence. Still, the facts remain and the wounds and bruises betray our protests, our appeals to our goodness. “It is not,” writes Baldwin, “permissible that the authors of devastation should also be innocent. It is the innocence which constitutes the crime.”

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There is one lens through which I can view the campus flier as resonant with the facts as Dyson and Baldwin express them, though I doubt it’s what the organizers had in mind. Christian people will say that bigotry shouldn’t be normal and, one day, won’t be. Hate was not present at creation nor will it cloud the new creation.

I expect, though, that both the make-America-great-again and the bigotry-is-not-normal crowds would ignore my lens for its painfully confessional nature. Because to say that bigotry was not God’s plan and will not be God’s future is also to say that it is our present experience, to which some of us contribute mightily, from the essence of our identities, despite whatever white noise of innocence has stopped up our ears. Through this lens America’s past greatness fades into something more ugly and complicated, the presidential administration’s bigotry is not dissimilar to my own prejudices, and the facade of innocence crumbles to reveal my complicity.

It’s one thing to have those cruciform ashes pressed onto my forehead once each year; it’s something else completely to look each day into a mirror and onto a country and know that our innocence was lost long ago.

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I’ve unspooled too much from that one flier and, honestly, I’m heartened to realize that bigotry, even when supported by the presidential office, will be identified and opposed by some. We can gladly say that, at the very least, the organizers of that protest were motivated to action by their optimistic view of the world. And what of my critique? Does this darker interpretation of our nation and its motives not lead to passivity, toward pious quietism or selfish isolation?

In a letter to his son, Ta-Nehisi Coates urges him to,

resist the common urge toward the comforting narrative of divine law, toward fairy tales that imply some irrepressible justice. The enslaved were not bricks in your road, and their lives were not chapters in your redemptive history. They were people turned to fuel for the American machine. Enslavement was not destined to end, and it is wrong to claim our present circumstance—no matter how improved—as the redemption for the lives of people who never asked for the posthumous, untouchable glory of dying for their children. Our triumphs can never redeem this. Perhaps our triumphs are not even the point. Perhaps struggle is all we have. So you must wake up every morning knowing that no natural promise is unbreakable, least of all the promise of waking up at all. This is not despair. These are the preferences of the universe itself: verbs over nouns, actions over states, struggle over hope.

Struggle over hope. Elsewhere I’ve heard Coates say that struggle is hope. And while he roots this stark definition of hope in a world devoid of God, I believe he has articulated a Christian vision of hope, one that has been liberated from the countless unkept promises of American optimism. Accounting soberly for evil and hate need not freeze us in fear or keep us from just action. Opening my eyes wide to the creeping shadow in our land and in my soul is cause for righteous struggle, one that for Christians is oriented to God’s righteous future. Despite the reputation we have among many, Christians have at our disposal a wealth of spiritual resources that compel us to tell unsavory truths – about everything, ourselves included! – and remain happy warriors in the struggle for our neighbors’ good.

Bigotry is normal and it cannot only be those whose personhood makes them targets of it who say so. Perhaps this moment will be dramatic enough to cause us to shed our innocent optimism, consider the evil we’d previously discounted, and finally enter the hopeful struggle.