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.)

The Priority of Prayer

Wendell Berry, in an interview in The New York Times on October 1, makes this important point:

Both of the political sides, so far as I am concerned, have to accept responsibility for the emergence of Donald Trump, the autonomous man, the self-made man, economically “free” and sexually liberated, responsible only to himself, starting from scratch and inventing his own way of doing things. To get outside the trajectory that produced Trump, we will have to go back to tradition. I am unsure when we began to think of, for instance, the 15th Psalm and Jesus’s law of neighborly love as optional. They are not optional, as I think the Amish example proves, and as proved by present failure.

I think Berry is exactly right to identify the fundamentally bipartisan nature of the president’s emergence. While we’re watching the Republicans fall in line and the Democrats engage in varying levels of resistance to this administration, we shouldn’t forget that the culture that gave rise to current resident of the White House is the same one that continues to animate our country’s partisan politics. To be clear, I hope that more Democrats will get elected in the midterms; a check on this administration’s powers is overdue. But such political victories should hold very limited hope without, as Berry notes, an alternative to the assumptions and ideologies that led us to this sad place in the first place.

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Jaques Ellul

Christians ought to be able to think about these sorts of moments differently than others. In the afterword of his fascinating new book, The Year of Our Lord 1943, Alan Jacobs introduces the reader to one of my favorite Christian thinkers, Jaques Ellul. In the years immediately following World War II, Ellul, a Frenchman who spent the war years aiding the resistance and giving shelter to Jewish refugees, wonders about the role of Christians in rebuilding war-ravaged communities and countries. Jacobs’ book is all about the rise and eventual preeminence of a cultural mindset that elevated technology – the machine, science, etc. The old Christian humanism championed by C.S. Lewis, T. S Eliot, and the others Jacobs’ chooses to highlight would fade in the gleam of powerful technologies. Ellul understood the inevitability of technology’s ubiquity – and the human instinct to worship the glittering, gleaming machines – and still wondered what a distinct Christian response would be.

His answer, as he thought about Hitler’s rise, was that the unique thing Christians should have done – as Christians – was to pray. “But Christians,” writes Jacobs, “while they certainly did pray, failed to give prayer the priority and centrality they were required to give it. Had they done, then ‘perhaps the result would not have been this horrifying triumph of the Hitlerian spirit that we now see throughout the world.'”

And this brings me back to Berry and his observation about the emergence of Donald Trump. While Christians ought to think about how best to mitigate the damage inflicted by the presidential administration, we must do so from a very particular starting point. Voting and organizing are activities in which Christians ought to participate, but we will also remember that there is nothing inherently Christian about these things. Prayer, on the other hand, as a posture of submission and allegiance to Jesus Christ is something only available to those who confess Jesus as Lord. Our confession will lead to the kind of sober-minded assessments exemplified by Berry – we’re all responsible for this president – as well as for creative and humanizing responses that will remain invisible or irrelevant to our fellow citizens.

Come Get Your Boy

Ted Olsen has written incisively over at Christianity Today about how much – or, more accurately, what kind of – public criticism of the president Christians should engage in.

With the US midterm elections a few months away, this is not a call to political silence, to a privatized, “spiritual” faith. Rather, this is a call to speak politically as the Bible does. We should be on guard against talking about Trump more than Paul talked about Nero—especially if we’re talking about Jesus less than Paul talked about Jesus.

Given how much I’ve written about this president since the days of the campaign, Ted’s caution is directed at people like me. If I read him correctly he’s not asking the president’s critics to retreat into spiritual quietism, but to reflect on the proportionality of our criticism when compared with our proclamation that Jesus alone is Lord. This is important and I’ll be mulling it over for a the foreseeable future.

But – you just knew there’d be a but – the other thing the editorial makes me think about is the significance of where one’s criticism about the president is directed. Many of my politically liberal friends are regularly, and understandably, distraught over what this presidential administration says and does. A singular vision of what America was, or, at least, was moving toward, appears to be snatched away with every relentless news cycle. These friends rebuke the president persistently; their anger and disappointment pushes hard in the direction of one man and his many accomplices.

I sympathize but it’s hard for me to find the energy to join their cause because, I think, I’m unable to see this country as hopefully as they have. Chalk it up to a childhood overseas and a decade among friends who’ve never seen themselves as the objects of America’s affections, but the good old days don’t seem so good and the inevitability of a just future not so… inevitable. It’s not that this president is benignly tending to the institutions of our democracy, it’s just that the community to which I’m bound – made up of immigrants and the descendants of the enslaved – has long suffered the damage done by these same institutions.

Despite this patriotic ambivalence, I’ve hardly been quiet about this president. He’s an unrepentant racist and a sexual predator whose policies are wreaking havoc on vulnerable places and people.  But the direction of my criticism – and that of many other Christians – is only tangentially directed at the man himself. Ted’s editorial rightly asks us to notice how the early church mostly ignored the empire and its emperors. (My favorite example of this studied disinterest comes in Acts 12 when Herod basks in the blasphemous praise heaped upon him by the disingenuous crowds in Caesarea: “Immediately, because Herod did not give praise to God, an angel of the Lord struck him down, and he was eaten by worms and died.” And then, in the very next verse, in a sentence surely constructed to show just how inconsequential this puppet king was to the church’s Lord: “But the word of God continued to spread and flourish.”) But there’s an important difference between the early church in the Roman Empire and American Christians today: There were no first century Christians wearing red Make Rome Great Again hats while claiming that God had raised Nero to the throne to restore church and state to their former glories.

When compared with their risen Lord, no emperor was worth that much of the early church’s time or energy. I’m not sure it’s all that different for us, which is what Ted is getting at. The difference, though, is that today there are many Christians, powerful ones, singing Nero’s praises, tossing our pearls before swine. And this does deserve sustained and vocal critique. It’s true that focusing too much on this president will diminish the church’s witness to our Lord. I’d add that too little criticism of the emperor-loving church in this moment will also gravely damage our ability to point to the Lord in whose presence all other lords must bow. Paul may not have said much about the emperor, but he was plenty vocal about allegiances and idolatries.

In the run-up to the election, back in December of 2015, comedian W. Kamau Bell directed a Facebook post to white people. He wrote, “Stop acting like Trump isn’t the pinnacle and the result of America’s history and tradition of white supremacy. And again, I don’t care if you had no plans to vote for Trump or anybody, if you are white, he is your problem above all else.” And then, in what I take to be an easily transferable appeal to the American church,  “Simply put, white people, come get your boy.” For American Christians who see the sinful damage actively inflicted by this president, our boy to get is the Christian gleefully cheering him on. To this Christian we say, Jesus is Lord, but also, Nero is not.

Photo credit: Thomas Hawk.

“America is literally unimaginable without plundered labour shackled to plundered land…”

Any fair consideration of the depth and width of enslavement tempts insanity. First conjure the crime – the generational destruction of human bodies – and all of its related offense – domestic terrorism, poll taxes, mass incarceration. But then try to imagine being an individual born among the remnants of that crime, among the wronged, among the plundered, and feeling the gravity of that crime all around and seeing it in the sideways glances of the perpetrators of that crime and overhearing it in their whispers and watching these people, at best, denying their power to address the crime and, at worst, denying that any crime had occurred at all, even as their entire lives revolve around the fact of a robbery so large that it is written in our very names. This is not a thought experiment. America is literally unimaginable without plundered labour shackled to plundered land, without the organizing principle of whiteness as citizenship, without the culture crafted by the plundered, and without that culture itself being plundered.

White dependency on slavery extended from the economic to the social, and the rights of whites were largely seen as dependent on the degradation of blacks. “White men,” wrote Mississippi senator and eventual president of the Confederacy Jefferson Davis, “have an equality resulting from a presence of a lower caste, which cannot exist were white men to fill the position here occupied by the servile race.”

Antebellum Georgia governor Joseph E Brown made the same point: “Among us the poor white laborer is respected as an equal. His family is treated with kindness, consideration and respect. He does not belong to the menial class. The negro is in no sense of the term his equal. He feels and knows this. He belongs to the only true aristocracy, the race of white men. He blacks no master’s boots, and bows the knee to no one save God alone. He receives higher wages for his labor than does the laborer of any other portion of the world, and he raises up his children, with the knowledge that they belong to no inferior caste; but that the highest members of the society in which he lives, will, if their conduct is good, respect and treat them as equals.”

Enslavement provided not merely the foundation of white economic prosperity, but the foundation of white social equality, and thus the foundation of American democracy. But that was 150 years ago. And the slave south lost the war, after all. Was it not the America of Frederick Douglass that had prevailed and the Confederacy of Jefferson Davis that had been banished? Were we not a new country exalting in Martin Luther King Jr’s dream?

I was never quite that far gone. But I had been wrong about the possibility of Barack Obama. And it seemed fair to consider that I might be wrong about a good deal more.

– Ta-Nehisi Coates, “We Should Have Seen Trump Coming” in The Guardian. This essay, an excerpt from his upcoming book, is about so much more than the current president.

“…we sons of the Church cannot wholly keep silence…”

But whatever it may please you to do in a matter which concerns your crown, your soul, and your kingdom, we sons of the Church cannot wholly keep silence about the injuries done to our mother [church], and the way in which she is despised and trodden under foot; for we perceive that these evils, besides those which we lament piteously have already fallen upon her, are again partly inflicted afresh and partly threatened. We will certainly make a stand, and fight even to death, if need be, for our mother with the weapons allowed us, not with shield and sword, but with prayers and lamentations to God…

– Bernard of Clairvaux, “Letter to King Louis of France” (1142).

Was it easier for the church to see its injuries at the hand of the state in the middle ages? Is there a reason it’s so hard for much of the American church to see  the wounds now being inflicted upon its multi-racial Body?