Manifest Destiny and Black Faith

I first shared the following post in my newsletter which you can subscribe to here.

Not long ago I noticed how often over the past few years I’ve been returning to the biblical themes of wilderness and exile. There’s a lot to say about these themes and I hope to explore some of them in this newsletter, but for now I’ll just say how much more sense our circumstances make when interpreted through the lenses of wilderness and exile.

It seems to me that the only reason this way of seeing isn’t intuitive to some of us has to do with how we’ve imagined ourselves in – or on our way to – the promised land.

In Stand Your Ground: Black Bodies and the Justice of God, Kelly Brown Douglas makes the case that this country’s sense of manifest destiny has its origins in the mythology of Anglo-Saxon exceptionalism, an exceptionalism that came to be imagined as racial whiteness tied to Christian belief. To access America’s promises, one had to acquiesce to the myth and, if possible, become white.

To be white, then, is to be the object of God’s delight, in no small part because whiteness expresses the will of God. Douglas mentions Missouri senator Thomas Hart Benton who, in a speech in 1864, claimed, “It would seem that the White race alone received the divine command, to subdue and replenish the earth! For it is the only one that hunts out new and distant lands, and even a New World, to subdue and replenish.”

To summarize, racial whiteness came to symbolize God’s divine sanction to subdue the earth. Manifest destiny was evidence that this people – white people – were God’s people and that this land was the land of his promise.

Few of us today hold to this warped theology but I’m not sure we’ve adequately reckoned with how significantly our imaginations have been shaped by it. That is, many of us, on a level we’re mostly unaware of, assume something of the promised land in how we interpret our daily frustrations and longings. So we overlook the injustices and inconsistencies that might betray our actual location, something more akin to wilderness or exile. We satisfy ourselves with a narrative which legitimizes unearned privileges and rationalizes someone else’s suffering. We act as though a bit more work and/or prayer will finally pry open the door to the promises of the American Dream.

Well, some of us are prone to this sort of misinterpretation. Douglas writes about an alternative.

Black faith was forged in the midst of the perverse and tragic paradoxes of black life. It is a faith, therefore, that does not ignore the unthinkable and irrational terror of black living. It takes it seriously. It does not belittle or romanticize the pains and sufferings of black bodies. It does not revel in illusions and false hope. Neither does it allow black bodies to give into the hardship and to be overcome with despair. Indeed, the faith born in slavery provided a weapon to resit and to fight against the religiously legitimated tyranny of America’s Anglo-Saxon exceptionalism.

I don’t think it’s hard to agree that the Christian life, in general, is less like the promised land than it is wilderness and exile. It’s something else entirely though, for those steeped in racialized, divinely articulated exceptionalism, to imagine our way to the sort of resiliency and hope Douglas describes. For this, we need the example and tutelage of those who never believed the myth, who’ve always been clear about the true nature of our collective circumstances.

Terror, Trauma, and Better Questions

Last week Ed Stetzer, director of the Billy Graham Center at Wheaton College, was interviewed by NPR about the white evangelical presence at the U.S. Capitol insurrection. It’s obvious that, for Stetzer, this is a catastrophic moment which requires serious reflection and blunt questions. He asks, “How did we get here? How were we so easily fooled by conspiracy theories?” Later in the interview he wonders, “What happened? Why were so many people drawn to somebody who was obviously so not connected to what evangelicals believe by his life or his practices or more.”

It’s right that white Christians would ask questions about ourselves after seeing so many of us represented amidst symbols of violence, conspiracy, and racial supremacy. I wonder, though about the timing and direction of our reflection.

In early 2017 the Council of Bishops of the African Methodist Episcopal Church wrote an open letter warning of the un-Christian and destructive aims of the Trump administration. Here are the first two sentences. Note the explicit call to action.

The Council of Bishops of the African Methodist Episcopal Church had hoped that the Trump Administration would alter the views and policies espoused during the presidential campaign, but is disappointed and troubled by the decisions and actions taken during the early days of this administration, and vow to do all that we can to see that these decisions and actions do not last. We ask that every member of this denomination, and people who are committed to justice and righteousness, equality and truth, will join with us to thwart what are clearly demonic acts.

It took far less than a deadly insurrection to compel the bishops of the AME church to warn of the coming danger. It’s probably inevitable and necessary that white Christians are asking the sorts of questions suggested by Stetzer right now. But shouldn’t we have been doing this a long time ago?

Was an attack on our nation’s symbols of power and democracy really necessary to force this introspection? Why was the attack on the Central Park Exonerated not enough? The slander of immigrants from Mexico and Central America? Separating children from their parents?

The collective disinterest in these previous dehumanizing offenses hints at my other question about this reckoning. For many of the white Christians who were appalled by the scenes from Washington D.C. last week, the foremost question seems to be, How? How did we get here? This is the framing question for Kristin Kobes Du Mez’s excellent new book, Jesus and John Wayne. Not surprisingly, the book begins and ends with our outgoing president and the rest is a compelling answer to that How? question.

But why is this the first question? Let’s review again that ugly scene last week. Whatever their specific aims, the mob successfully broadcast their racial/religious messages and symbols of supremacy. There’s nothing new about this. Listen to what James Cone writes in The Cross and the Lynching Tree. “The claim that whites had the right to control the black population through lynching and other extralegal forms of mob violence was grounded in the religious belief that America was a white nation called by God to bear witness to the superiority of ‘white over black.’“

The white supremacist insurrectionists should be prosecuted. But any eventual convictions will do little to blunt the terror that was already brazenly unleashed. Every attempt to downplay the terror – as many Republican representatives have done – only exacerbates it.

Terror aims beyond its specific victims. It is the members of the community represented by the victims who are the real targets. Cone writes, “Whites often lynched blacks simply to remind the black community of their powerlessness.” Terror is meant to traumatize communities.

I hear a lot of non-Black people who are outraged at the desecration visited upon the country by that white mob. Our sense of dignity or respect or civility or patriotism or justice or whatever has been offended. This is when we start asking our preferred question, How?

But many of us don’t see the terror and the trauma. Why not? Cone writes, “Whites acted in a superior manner for so long that it was difficult for them to even recognize their cultural and spiritual arrogance, blatant as it was to African Americans.” Supremacy inoculates us against the truest experience of the insurrection. We see but don’t rightly interpret what has been wrought. We don’t feel the shattering impact on flesh and blood. And so, rather than beginning with the intended trauma of that terrorizing mob, we make ourselves the focus. Again. Rather than opening ourselves vulnerably to the experience of suffering, we retreat to our analyzing and theorizing. Again.

How did we get here? We have to ask this question. But when we make this our first question – and often our only question – we are revealing just how incapable we are of answering it truthfully.

(Photo: Brett Davis on flickr.)

Loving Opposition

This was first published in my newsletter earlier this year.

On Wednesday, two weeks prior to the election, our church began two weeks of prayer and fasting. For a template we are using a list of 10 commitments that Dr. King’s movement used in the non-violent movement in Birmingham. Each weekday we’re reflecting on one of the commitments, sometimes with slight updates, and a corresponding scripture passage.

Yesterday we looked at the third commitment: “Walk and talk in the manner of love, for God is love.” The scripture came from John 13:34-35: “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” For being so simple and direct, both of these caused me some dissonance.

One of the reasons we called the fast was a sense that the days before and after the election will call for American Christians to demonstrate a particular kind of faithfulness and courage. The possibility of deception, chaos, and even violence is not hard to imagine given what we’ve seen in recent months and how so many influential voices are willing to stoke those destructive instincts.

What makes the third commitment feel particularly difficult to me in this moment is the way so many of my fellow-Christians have themselves aligned with or been animated by these dangerous leaders. What does it look like to believe that these sisters and brothers are so thoroughly wrong – and wrong in a manner that threatens lives – and still love them?

Of course, any struggle of mine to love is small when compared with what the participants of the non-violent demonstrations faced. In that case, the adherents pf Christ’s command to love were daily faced by those who made of themselves violent enemies. And yet, I’ve heard the testimonies of those who chose to love their enemies even as their bodies were bruised and beaten.

I find that what the philosopher and theologian Jacques Ellul wrote about prayer helps me imagine a non-violent expression of love. He wrote, Prayer is never other than a sequel, a consequence, a response, to the word of invitation If it is not God who is speaking, then there is nothing. The relationship is begun before the idea of praying occurs to us. I never have the initiative. Otherwise, prayer would in fact be a discourse, a monologue.

Prayer, for Ellul, is a response to the word of God which has already been spoken. It does not create something but acknowledges what has already been created and revealed in Jesus Christ.

I hear a similar expression in Jesus’ command to love. We love as a response to the love that God has expressed in Jesus: “As I have loved you.” We do not create the circumstances which allow us to love others. That possibility has already been accomplished in God’s love for us.

King and those who committed to the way of non-violence, were opposed in their freedom struggle by mobs who claimed to share the same Christian faith. It was necessary and right for the leaders of the movement to state plainly their disagreement with these fellow-Christians and to tell the truth about the many ways the segregationists and racists were doing terrible damage to people and their communities. And still, they refused to enter this spiritual battle armed with anything less than love, “for God is love.”

This, I’m convinced, is what is necessary in the days to come. We need Christians of every race, ethnicity, and culture to obey Christ’s command to love one another. And the witness of the non-violent movement reveals that this command is best understood and expressed not from the comfort of a church pew but from wherever those who fashion themselves as our enemies present themselves. We can love these men and women because we stand on the objective foundation of God’s love for us. It’s the same reason we can place our bodies in peace-making opposition to those same people when they align with violence and deception.

The command to love one another is not at odds with our obligation to seek justice. They are, in fact, sustained by the One who calls us to both.

Local Countercultures of Reconciliation and Justice

This was first published in my newsletter earlier this year.

I’ve recently been listening to “Motive”, a podcast produced by our local NPR station about the rise of of neo-Nazi skinheads in Chicago and beyond in the 1980’s. It’s pretty troubling stuff, as you can imagine, and it’s hard not to make connections to the white nationalists of our own day.

Christian Picciolini was in the thick of this racist movement before he got out and he’s the primary narrator throughout the podcast. A lot of what he describes is interesting (and, again, troubling) but I found his descriptions of how young people were recruited into the skinheads to be especially eye-opening. For the most part, people don’t accidentally become neo-Nazis. Christian describes a process through which likely recruits are identified, their fears played up, and then an offer of camaraderie and protection is extended. It’s all very intentional.

I spend a fair bit of time trying to convince white people that white supremacy is bigger and more subtle than the story being told on “Motive.” I describe it as our societal operating system, humming along in the background to encourage the ugly outcomes of our racial hierarchy. I want people to stop reducing white supremacy to burning crosses, hooded marchers, and… neo-Nazis.

Clearly we still need to be concerned about these sorts of overt and violent racists; they hadn’t gone away in the 1980’s and they’re still around today. But I still think our focus should mostly be on the operating system. Those young people who were attracted by an ideology of hate existed within a larger society that tolerated that ideology and, in some cases, fostered it. The podcast describes one of the south side Chicago neighborhoods where many recruits came from as one of the last holdouts against white flight. The local school boundaries were gerrymandered to keep the schools mostly white. Were the elected officials and community leaders who made these decisions hoping their children would become neo-Nazis? I doubt it. But they certainly contributed to a culture which made such a drastic choice a little more possible.

There are two things this podcast has me thinking about. First, where are the cultures we foster in our churches leading? Will the young people in our churches be any less likely than their peers to agree to the racial status quo in this country? The data aren’t encouraging.

Second, does the intention of our churches to disciple people into the just and reconciling kingdom of God match the purpose of those who are intentionally recruiting people into hateful ideologies? I worry that it doesn’t. Too often it feels like our goal is to make nicer American citizens instead of disciples who’ve counted the cost of our faithfulness to Jesus.

We’re living through fraught days; white supremacy is an insatiable and violent idol. We need many more local congregations who are nurturing countercultures which point to God’s justice. It won’t just happen though. We need to be intentional.

The Truth of the Protest

This was first published in my newsletter earlier this year.

Why is it that you can know how terribly something will turn out and still be devastated when it does? This is what I was wondering on Wednesday afternoon after the grand jury declined to indict anyone for Breonna Taylor’s killing. When I read about the protest planned for that evening by Saint Sabina Catholic Church, I knew that’s where I had to be.

I’ve been to a lot of protests over the years and have helped organize a few. I knew how the space would feel: a mix of sadness and anger layered over a deep resolve to hold back the despair.

When I walked up to the church I saw that we’d be a relatively small group. Father Mike caught my eye and kind of smiled. And then, after reminding all of us why we had gathered, he and some of the church’s youth led us a couple of blocks to a large intersection where we proceeded to inconvenience traffic for the next thirty minutes. “Your commute is delayed, but Breonna Tayor is dead,” someone shouted.

As with many protests, our small group chanted, lamented, prayed, and kept silent vigil. But the thing I started thinking about on the drive home, the thing I keep coming back to is the way the truth was spoken so plainly at that intersection. There were no debates about the legality of what the police officers did that night in Louisville. There were no questions about whether Breonna or her boyfriend somehow deserved to have their front door knocked down. There was just truth: This is wrong. It has always been wrong. It has gone on so long. How much longer Lord?

There was more truth proclaimed in thirty minutes from that intersection than has ever been spoken from many pulpits and platforms.

There were a few of us pastors in the crowd that evening and I wish, in these days especially, that more pastors would show up to a protest. But what we really need is for more truth-telling protest to show up in our pulpits.

What do you do when the horribly unjust thing that you knew would happen happens? You join a protest, letting your small voice join a chorus of others who’ve determined, despite everything, to keep telling the truth.