The Eruption of Mt. Saint Helens

On the plight and hope of an angry people before the wrath of God.

Then the kings of the earth and the magnates and the generals and the rich and the powerful, and everyone, slave and free, hid in the caves and among the rocks of the mountains, calling to the mountains and rocks, “Fall on us and hide us from the face of the one seated on the throne and from the wrath of the Lamb; for the great day of their wrath has come, and who is able to stand?”

Revelation 6:15-17

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40 years later people still remember where they were when Mount St. Helens erupted. My grandma talks about watching the news from her Washington home, a few hours north of the blast. Later that year, in the summer of 1980, she and my grandfather would drive past the smoldering mountain on Interstate 5 and collect ash from the median to show the fourth-graders she’d be teaching in the fall. The bookseller on San Juan Island told my wide-eyed sons about being near the mountain when it happened, about the way daylight turned to dusk and then to night under the cover of the ash cloud spreading across the horizon. Later he would approach the mountain, working for the forest service, and see how some trees had been burnt to a crisp except for the bottom few feet which had been covered with snow.  A friend on the east side of the Cascades told us about the ash drifting down like snow, covering the darkened streets with inches of the stuff.

Everyone who was near the blast has a story to tell.

There had been warnings in the weeks before the mountain erupted: hundreds of earthquakes, small bursts of ash, and, most ominously, a bulge on the volcano’s north slope that pushed outward like some festering wound, sometimes five feet in a single day. Maybe these signs allowed the onlookers to feel prepared. Restricted zones were mapped out and residents within them forced to leave their homes.

At 8:32 on May 18th, a Sunday morning, the heaving mountain triggered an enormous  landslide. Mount St. Helens immediately lost 1,300 of its 9,600 feet. David Johnston, a young geologist observing the mountain from miles away, had about 45 seconds before the avalanche of boulders, trees, and tons of earth buried his ridge, just enough time to radio his colleagues in the nearby town of Vancouver, Washington: “Vancouver! Vancouver! This is it!”

A few minutes later, Mount St. Helens exploded. Not from the top, as was expected, but from its side. I’ve tried to picture this moment but I can’t; it’s beyond the capacity of my imagination. The blast swept down the opening crater at 300 miles per hour, leaving behind 230 miles of scorched earth. Towering forests were peeled back to bare rock. Combined with the landslide, the volcanic blast liquified the mountain’s stores of spring snow and ice to send churning mudflows down the valleys- overwhelming the streams, covering over rivers, and relocating familiar lakes hundreds of feet from their pre-eruption locations. Videos from that day show trees, houses, and bridges tossed aside, barely an afterthought to what appears to be the mountain’s singular purpose: total and complete devastation.

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Jonathan Edwards began his famous sermon in 1741 by reflecting on Deuteronomy 32:35, “To me belongeth vengeance and recompence; their foot shall slide in due time: for the day of their calamity is at hand, and the things that shall come upon them make haste.” His focus is on that vivid description of demise – “their foot shall slide in due time”- and from there Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God goes on to describe the plight of the wicked before a holy God.

From these few words, the New England preacher derives four implications. The first is this: “That they were always exposed to Destruction, as one that stands or walks in slippery Places is always exposed to fall. This is implied in the Manner of their Destruction’s coming upon them, being represented by their Foot’s sliding.” God’s justified wrath against sin, says Edwards, is withheld by God’s love, but when it comes, as it surely must, it comes upon us so quickly that we are like those careening down a landslide, the sheer absurdity of our having long remained upright now undeniable as the mountain falls around us. On top of us.

This topic – the wrath of God – is an unfamiliar one to many of us. I suppose some find the idea of Edwards’ angry God repugnant, but my hunch is that most Americans, Christians included, simply don’t think about it at all. Ours are divinities of love, including the Christian God, who we imagine as benign and benevolent forces. We might occasionally get mad at God, but the American gods of our imaginations rarely get angry with us.

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Our family of four recently spent two nights in the campground nearest to Mount St. Helens. We made the 200 mile drive south from the Puget Sound – our temporary home during our family vacation – because for the past two years our youngest son, now four years old, has been infatuated with volcanoes. His knowledge of the geological forces at work in these mountains far exceeds mine, and I was an environmental studies minor!

We couldn’t actually see the mountain from the campground – we had to drive a few minutes for our first glimpse – but we were able to make the short hike to where the mudflow had overwhelmed the nearby creek. We saw it as we approached through the dense forest, a growing patch of sunlight that eventually became a sort of dusty river plain. The ground turned an ashy grey and was littered with pumice, carried all these miles from the volcano. Even now, decades later, it was easy to see how the eruption had sculpted the valley. The following day the road to Mount St. Helens followed the mudflow for miles, our imaginations recalibrating the power of the mountain we were on our way to visit.

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My oldest son, crossing a creek through the mudflow.

 

We were lucky to awake to sunshine and clear skies on the morning of our visit. Wildfires are once again ravaging the western United States and the skies in Washington had been hazy, reducing visibility to a mile or two at times. At the Johnston Observatory the ranger told us that two days earlier, the same mountain that rose so clearly across the valley from us was invisible from where we stood. The millions of acres now burning around the country are not natural. A warming climate and increasing development in dry areas provide the flammable potential for human error: ninety-five percent of these fires are started by us.

The four of us gazed intently at the crater, pointing out the still active lava dome inside it and the way the downed timber pointed the same direction, away from the blast. We imagined the destruction, thankful that a different kind of devastation, at least on that day, wasn’t obscuring our view.

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The biblical wrath of God that Edwards described comes rapidly and unexpectedly. The prophet Ezekiel describes it as a hailstorm, a spreading pestilence, a fire, and most often, as being poured out onto its recipients. But as surprising as it must always seem to those peering the other way, Scripture reveals God to reserve his wrath for two predictable human activities: idolatry and injustice. So the jealous God will not tolerate the lesser deities so often propped up on hillsides and valleys by his people, idols like Baal and Molech who demand sacrifices of human flesh and sexual exploitation. But neither will God turn a blind eye to injustice.

Execute justice in the morning,
    and deliver from the hand of the oppressor
    anyone who has been robbed,
or else my wrath will go forth like fire,
    and burn, with no one to quench it,
    because of your evil doings. (Jeremiah 21:12) 

It’s a daunting standard. Injustice, in God’s eyes, is not only committing unjust acts; it includes the absence of justice, of failing to confront the oppressor and thief.

There is nothing arbitrary about God’s wrath. It erupts with fury, an “almighty merciless Vengeance” in Edwards’ words, but there is always a righteous logic when it finally rains down. God’s wrath is always instigated by his people’s idolatry and injustice.

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According to the US Geological Survey, the eruption of Mount St. Helens in 1980 released 24 megatons of thermal energy, about 1,600 times the size of the atomic bomb that was dropped on the city of Hiroshima during World War II. We heard this horrifying fact more than once during our two-day stay near the mountain. We also learned that, compared with other volcanoes throughout history, the 1980 eruption of Mount St. Helens was relatively very small.

But it’s the comparison itself with the atomic bomb that most interested me, a comparison between a natural disaster and one purposefully inflicted by people upon other people. The former, far greater in power, claimed the lives of 57 people; the latter killed tens of thousands.

The churches I’ve known have generally been hesitant to speak about God’s wrath. A caricature of Edwards’ angry God is so thoroughly instilled in our society’s imaginations that many of us have felt the need to round out the picture. Over time, we’ve simply stopped thinking about God’s anger. I think we’ve also stopped thinking – if we ever had – about our own anger. Yet the bomb dropped on the citizens of Hiroshima and the fires advancing throughout the American west have me wondering about our collective unacknowledged and unchecked anger.

Anger, or wrath, is probably not how we think about the infernos of our own making. We frame our disasters as inevitable consequences of our wars or the unfortunate costs of our freedoms. Some think of them as our selfishness enfleshed; others as catastrophes totally unrelated to our choices. The explanations for the ways we destroy one another and our planet are many, but I wonder if our anger – rage, maybe – plays an outsized role.

Human retaliation always exacts a higher, vengeful cost than is necessary. Our atomic bombs are the obvious example. We are capable now of inflicting total and final vengeance upon the entire planet. Similar observations could be made about how we incarcerate people and, despite so much room for error, execute them for certain crimes. Our judgements are not fair and they are not equally distributed. As a nation we respond to horrifying attacks by unleashing our own horror, trading our thousands of lives for thousands upon thousands of our enemies.

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Our view through the smoke from our vacation home on the Puget Sound .

But I think the wildfires we ignite, along with other less obvious examples, are also expressions of our anger. We know why these fires burn hotter, longer, and more frequently. We know where we shouldn’t build our homes and suburbs. We know how we could slow the climate’s warming. Yet we don’t. For many reasons we don’t, but could one of those reasons be a simmering anger at being shown the limits of our humanity? Like Cain, we respond with fury at being told what we must do. The creation groans under our insatiable appetites and we, children of wrath as the apostle Paul says, will not listen.

A couple of weeks after our visit to Mount St. Helens, our family drove slowly past a smoldering mountainside in northern Montana. Wisps of smoke gathered into small clouds and roadside signs warned of fire crews entering and exiting the highway. From our car, we peered up into the hazy forest not quite able to grasp the size of this one fire. The next day we read in a local newspaper that it was still relatively small but expected to spread rapidly.

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I began thinking about the eruption of Mount St. Helens as a picture of God’s wrath at one specific moment during our visit. Most of the exhibits and ranger talks highlighted, with good reason, the volcano’s devastation. Our time near the mountain was filled with descriptions, photos, and short films showing the landslide and ensuing eruption from every possible angle. We heard eyewitness accounts of the the apocalyptic-like hours and days that followed. None of this made me think about God’s wrath.

That moment came during our second day. At the observatory looking across to the crater, my wife and I sat with our two young sons listening to a ranger. Almost in passing he told us that three days after the explosion, on the same ground covered by what would come to be recognized as the word’s largest recorded landslide, a small herd of elk were seen crossing the ash-covered slope. Their hoof-marks and droppings left behind the first seeds after the blast. Within 72-hours the mountain had begun to heal itself. Those elk are what made me think about the wrath of God.

Jonathan Edwards preached his sermon with the purpose of saving people from hell but maybe his intent can be widened. Despite his vivid descriptions of divine anger and judgment, Edwards does not hesitate to desperately urge his congregation to run to this same God, the source of wrath. “And now you have an extraordinary Opportunity, a Day wherein Christ has flung the Door of Mercy wide open, and stands in the Door calling and crying with a loud Voice to poor Sinners; a Day wherein many are flocking to him, and pressing into the Kingdom of God.” The God of wrath, Edwards preaches, is the God of salvation. The God who cannot look away from idolatry and injustice will neither look away from those who flee to him.

The Psalmist believed the same:

Serve the Lord with fear,
with trembling kiss his feet,
or he will be angry, and you will perish in the way;
for his wrath is quickly kindled.

Happy are all who take refuge in him. (Psalm 2:11-12)

So did the prophet Nahum, in language that evokes an erupting, crumbling volcano.

The mountains quake before him,
and the hills melt;
the earth heaves before him,
the world and all who live in it.

Who can stand before his indignation?
Who can endure the heat of his anger?
His wrath is poured out like fire,
and by him the rocks are broken in pieces.
The Lord is good,
a stronghold in a day of trouble;
he protects those who take refuge in him. (Nahum 1:5-7)

I thought about God’s wrath when the ranger mentioned the elk because God’s wrath is so unlike ours. How else can we be urged, straight-faced, to take refuge in the mountain that has just exploded before our eyes? Why, given the experiential rubrics of our own collective expressions of anger, would we throw ourselves onto the mercies of a wrathful God? But the wrath of God is not like our atomic bombs, wildfires, or execution chambers. The wrath of God is not retaliatory, not vengeful in the way we express it.

God’s wrath is so different from ours because God is so different from us. Our collective anger is rooted in selfishness, ego, and pride. In simple contrast, using biblical language, the Lord is good. That is to say, God is always merciful, forgiving, and kind. And yes, righteous too. God’s wrath, then, is expressed not from the absence of goodness, but as an expression of it. And in its aftermath lies healing and restoration. Lakes and rivers are restored, meadows and forests take root again. What our own collective anger leaves behind couldn’t be more different: poisoned bodies and lands, disenfranchised communities, skies choked with haze.

Unrighteous people like us will, in our unacknowledged anger, turn to idolatry and run headlong into injustice. We will worship anything other than the one righteous God and our idol-worship will inevitably lead us to acts – individual but also corporate – of tremendous oppression. We articulate our sins against God by disdaining our neighbors and abusing the earth. We, an angry people, stand in want of God’s wrath.

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In Romans 5:1-10 Paul tells us that Jesus Christ saves us from God’s wrath. His atoning death did so, in fact, even as our idolatry and injustice placed us deservingly under judgment. This good news is, I think, the extent to which most American Christians think about God’s wrath. If at all, divine anger is remembered in the past tense, something not especially relevant except, as Edwards exemplifies, as a means to urge others to flee to Christ’s salvation.

Yet those of us who claim Jesus as Savior must also accept him as Judge. When we diminish the wrath of God against idolatry and injustice to something that no longer concerns us, we are left vulnerable to an uglier kind of wrath- our own. And so we trade healing redemption for retaliatory vengeance. We seek refuge not in the mountain but in our weapons. We accept the warfare we’ve fomented, the prisons we’ve erected, and the infernos we’ve kindled as the reasonable price of vanquishing the wrathful God. In place of the divine Judge, our own unholy judgements inflict death, only and always.

We have become so accustomed to our own ruthless wrath that it can be hard for us to imagine another way. Paul helps us.

Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. Live in harmony with one another; do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly; do not claim to be wiser than you are. Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all. If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God; for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” No, “if your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink; for by doing this you will heap burning coals on their heads.” Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good. (Romans 12:14-21)

Here is a vision wherein a people have renounced their own wrath for God’s. A community that welcomes God’s vengeance is one that also renounces persecution, deception, and retaliation. They will be known for their orientation toward blessing, solidarity, harmony, humility, truthfulness, forgiveness, peace, and compassion. They will be a people of worship and justice. They will reject the death-dealers who levy ever more devastating judgements upon their enemies and their enemies’ children and their enemies’ lands.

This community will come to know that God’s wrath is better than theirs.

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Our first look at Mount St. Helens.

I wouldn’t have chosen to visit Mount St. Helens. There were other places I’d have preferred to visit during our stay in the Pacific Northwest. I think the same is true for my wife and older son. But we each love the four-year-old and so we joined him in his pilgrimage to the mountain he’d been talking about since he began forming sentences. The car was full of our typical chatter on the morning we drove up to the volcano. And then my wife pointed through the windshield. “Is that it?” We all got quiet, watching as the blunt peak, larger by far than anything around it, rose through the haze. The road followed a creek up the valley and we began noticing how it had been widened by the torrent of mud, water, and debris decades prior. Soon we could recognize how everything around us, the entire landscape, had been shaped by the blast.

The silence in our car – a rare occurrence – continued and something in me changed as we drew near to the mountain. I was glad we had come. I wanted to get closer.

It is not light that is needed, but fire.

Frederick Douglass on telling the truth about injustice instead of protecting privileged sensibilities.

frederick douglassIndependence Day is always a good day to re-read Frederick Douglass’ famous speech, “What to the Slave Is the Fourth of July?”, given to an abolitionist group that had gathered in Rochester on July 5, 1852 to commemorate the signing of the Declaration of Independence. Douglass – the former slave, abolitionist, and renowned orator – used his speech to draw attention to the absurdity of African Americans celebrating a holiday which did not include them in its nostalgia for independence. For him, America’s sins against slaves and former slaves were never more obvious than on the day the nation celebrated its freedoms. “Whether we turn to the declarations of the past, or to the professions of the present, the conduct of the nation seems equally hideous and revolting. America is false to the past, false to the present, and solemnly binds herself to be false to the future.”

In the very next paragraph the masterful orator anticipates his audience’s objections to his purposefully blunt language.

But I fancy I hear some one of my audience say, it is just in this circumstance that you and your brother abolitionists fail to make a favorable impression on the public mind. Would you argue more, and denounce less, would you persuade more, and rebuke less, your cause would be much more likely to succeed. 

Douglass has identified a tendency that remains potent in 2018. He identifies – after, I imagine, having encountered it countless times among his white abolitionist allies – a reaction to his harsh language that demanded he shift his tone from denouncement to argument, from castigating his white audience to more gently helping them see the work that remained to be done.

This is the sort of thing that is common to hear today when advocates and activists precisely and directly oppose injustices perpetuated against, say, migrants and their children or, as is currently playing out here in Chicago, young victims of gun violence. Reacting to plainly spoken demands for justice, well-meaning people ask for more time, more understanding, even more empathy from those who are suffering. So, for example, those working for an equitable public school system that will serve all of its children are chastened that they must understand how bureaucracies and governments work and that, if they did, they would be more gentle with their critiques. In fact, these advocates, and the underserved families they represent, understand exactly how these institutions work since they’ve experienced firsthand how resources are consistently allocated for the privileged at the expense of those on the margins of the city’s power structures.

But Douglass will grant not a single inch to these kinds of banal requests: “I submit, where all is plain there is nothing to be argued.” He goes on to list a number of arguments his hearers might wish him make, arguments that are so plainly obvious that they are an offense to those Douglass represents. “What point in the anti-slavery creed would you have me argue? On what branch of the subject do the people of this country need light? Must I undertake to prove that the slave is a man?” And then: “Would you have me argue that man is entitled to liberty? that he is the rightful owner of his own body?” And then, with fire:

What, am I to argue that it is wrong to make men brutes, to rob them of their liberty, to work them without wages, to keep them ignorant of their relations to their fellow men, to beat them with sticks, to flay their flesh with the lash, to load their limbs with irons, to hunt them with dogs, to sell them at auction, to sunder their families, to knock out their teeth, to burn their flesh, to starve them into obedience and submission to their masters? Must I argue that a system thus marked with blood, and stained with pollution, is wrong?

The fundamental mistake that Douglass’ fellow-abolitionists consistently make is one that remains with us; they move the focus from the wrongs of the sufferer to the emotions and perspectives of the advocate. He’s sick of it!

What, then, remains to be argued? Is it that slavery is not divine; that God did not establish it; that our doctors of divinity are mistaken? There is blasphemy in the thought. That which is inhuman, cannot be divine! Who can reason on such a proposition? They that can, may; I cannot. The time for such argument is passed.

Those who are offended by unequivocal demands for justice would do well to remember that our offense is nothing compared to the outrage experienced by those who suffer injustice, outrage that is exacerbated by the entrenched reticence by those of us who have the capacity to right what is so obviously wrong. We are not the point. Our feelings are not the point. Our comfort is completely and totally besides the point!

What then, if not argument and persuasion? What tact did Douglass take a decade before the Civil War, when freedom for enslaved people was far from a foregone conclusion?

For it is not light that is needed, but fire; it is not the gentle shower, but thunder. We need the storm, the whirlwind, and the earthquake. The feeling of the nation must be quickened; the conscience of the nation must be roused; the propriety of the nation must be startled; the hypocrisy of the nation must be exposed; and its crimes against God and man must be proclaimed and denounced. 

It’s not that Douglass chose fire over light as a way to vent his righteous anger. He believed, rightly I think, that convincing the comfortable was a battle without end. Beginning with the perspectives and concerns of the privileged meant never extending beyond the limits of extraordinarily limited imaginations. It would require constantly negotiating between delicate white sensibilities and bloodied black bodies. It was an immoral negotiation and one in which he was no longer willing to be implicated.

If they were to move forward into the battle with him, Douglass’ abolitionist friends and allies must leave behind their tender feelings and patriotic delusions for something more difficult, more honest, and, as Douglass concluded that day, more hopeful. Of course, to those of us steeped in the patriotic privileges of this unjust nation, this way will not feel hopeful. But that, in Douglass’ pursuit of lasting justice, was exactly the point.

The (Criminal) Body of Christ

When human beings are reduced to criminals, it is time for the church to become criminal as well.

This country’s president and his supporters regularly criminalize entire groups of people, most obviously the immigrants who’ve been called murderers and rapists but also those from so-called shithole countries and the people the administration has labeled animals by dent of their association – actual or perceived – with gang activity. The repercussions of this consistent dehumanizing rhetoric is daily becoming more evident; the stories of children torn from the arms of their families – parents fleeing genuine violence and seeking asylum – are gut-wrenching. But when people are no longer people, simply criminals whose offenses against this country must be punished, we, the citizens of this aggrieved and apparently besieged country, do not have to consider the nuances of the actual human experience. We don’t have to admit our complicity in the violence that has forced these families to make impossible decisions. We don’t have to grapple with the Christian responsibility to love neighbors and welcome immigrants.

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Remaking people into criminals allows us the deception that flesh and blood is no longer human. Our response to other image-bearers of the living God is to slander, cage, and expel them.

When human beings are reduced to criminals, it is time for the church to become criminal as well.

Paul writes that the church is the “body of him who is the head, that is, Christ.” This body has a history of being criminalized. Jesus’ life ended as a criminal- arrested, tried, convicted, and executed. It is this identity that rationalized his crucifixon, that allowed the religious and political powers to wash their hands of any guilt. The Galilean heretic and zealot got what he deserved. James Cone, in The Cross and the Lynching Tree, notes that the Roman Empire reserved crucifixion for insurrections and rebels. “It was a public spectacle accompanied by torture and shame – one of the most humiliating and painful deaths ever devised by human beings.” Criminals were crucified and the body into which we are incorporated hung on a cross, as a criminal.

Jesus also commanded his disciples to follow his example by taking up their own crosses as they followed him. We interpret his instructions to be about the sacrifices associated with discipleship, but we shouldn’t miss the meaning of the cross to those first disciples. To them it was a symbol not of spiritual self-denial but of societal criminality. Rebels, rabble-rousers, and young Galileans who fit the description were hung from roadside crosses by the hundreds, their expiring bodies a permanent mark of their non-human status within the empire. By instructing his disciples to pick up their crosses, Jesus was making them criminals in their society’s estimation. As Fleming Rutledge writes in her book about the crucifixion, a church that lives into its true identity is one which understands “itself as the community of the cross, the community that suffers-with (com-passion), the community that willingly bears the stigma of the passion in service to others.”

The church, as Christ’s body, is criminal in the eyes of empires and powers and its members willingly pick up the symbols of dehumanizing criminality in the pattern of our crucified Savior.

Today, though, it seems that American Christianity, at least of the privileged variety, avoids any association with the empire’s criminals in one of two ways. Some have associated so closely with partisan politics that they’ve come to see, through the empire’s eyes, criminals instead of people. And so we hear pastors and ministry leaders rationalize and spiritualize the administration’s violent policies. Others have created a moral high ground, a respectable and seemingly prophetic perch from which to lob sanctimonious pleas about justice without ever drawing near to those who are being oppressed. Identities are created by opposing the president and his supporters without incurring any actual risk. Racial privilege and class segregation keep these Christians safe from being joined together with those who’ve been criminalized.

What is needed in this time of pervasive dehumanization is for churches to reclaim our criminal status.  We must pick up our crosses – our border walls and jail cells – and follow the criminal messiah. We must trade our bland reputations for the fire of his gospel- freedom for captives announced by the crucified one. And we must associate intimately, to the point of being indistinguishable, with each person whose humanity has been made criminal.

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.