There is a strange warning being passed around these days and I expect, with Independence Day coming up, its urgency will be heightened. It comes in different shades, but essentially we are being alerted to a frightening new development which seeks to retell this country’s origin story. If you have even a passing awareness of the back-and-forth about, for example, Critical Race Theory or The 1619 Project produced by the Times you know what I’m referring to. It’s not that most of the critics of CRT or Nicole Hannah-Jones’ work are engaging with particular nuances about the way U.S. American history is being reexamined. Rather, at their most flustered, they have labeled these efforts as un-American and, in some circles, anti-Christian.
However, as we approach July 4th it’s a good time to remember that criticizing the story this country tells about itself has a long history and is, in fact, a deeply Christian instinct.
One of the most obvious example comes in the form of Frederick Douglass’ famous speech on July 5, 1852 to a gathering of abolitionists in Rochester, New York. “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?” is the question Douglass put to his audience that day. By questioning the fundamental meaning of the day the nation celebrated its independence, Douglass was forcing his listeners to imagine a different – and truer – story.
Fellow-citizens, above your national, tumultuous joy, I hear the mournful wail of millions! whose chains, heavy and grievous yesterday, are, to-day, rendered more intolerable by the jubilee shouts that reach them. If I do forget, if I do not faithfully remember those bleeding children of sorrow this day, “may my right hand forget her cunning, and may my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth!” To forget them, to pass lightly over their wrongs, and to chime in with the popular theme, would be treason most scandalous and shocking, and would make me a reproach before God and the world.
For Douglass, to not confront a national myth which erased the suffering of so many people, which narrated the privileged as God’s innocent chosen ones, would be deceptive and un-Christian. It would represent a failure of discipleship.
America is false to the past, false to the present, and solemnly binds herself to be false to the future. Standing with God and the crushed and bleeding slave on this occasion, I will, in the name of humanity which is outraged, in the name of liberty which is fettered, in the name of the constitution and the Bible which are disregarded and trampled upon, dare to call in question and to denounce, with all the emphasis I can command, everything that serves to perpetuate slavery, the great sin and shame of America!
Again, Douglass understands it to be his Christian responsibility to compel those who prefer their comfortable myth to open their eyes to a shameful reality. “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.”
There is, of course, room for disagreement and debate as we discuss the complexities of this country’s history. But the wholesale rejection of attempts to tell a truer story, a story which does not center those of us who’ve benefitted from the lies we’ve told but on those who’ve long endured under them, well, this is an un-Christian instinct and one that disciples of Jesus, like Douglass and so many others, must firmly reject.
Using fearmongering and shaming tactics to reinforce a false narrative is to live coherently, if wickedly, from this very narrative. People who have lied about their own goodness and innocence for so long, at the expense of so many, are today repeating what they have always done. Douglass reminds us that despite this long trajectory of deceit, it is possible to stand before the beneficiaries of a warped mythology and speak the plain truth. In fact, our allegiance to Jesus, if not this country, demands it.
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In this post I’m delighted to feature the following reflection by Dr. Suzie Sang. Dr. Sang responded to my recent social media post – “Beware the colonizer disguised as a multicultural pastor” – and was gracious enough to turn that response into this article. I can’t thank Dr. Sang enough for sharing her experiences and wisdom with us.
America is my chosen home. I am a Black Caribbean immigrant woman who has lived in the United States for 17 years. I migrated from my island home of Jamaica as a bright, energetic and hopeful young adult ready to take on the world. My first round of migration to America (there were two) came in response to a call to seminary to be trained for ministry. At the time of migrating, I knew that I was called to ministry and had already been ministering for 5 years. But I knew I needed some theological training to undergird and supplement the hands-on experience I already had. So off I went to sunny Southern California for a 10-year sojourn of life and ministry in my second home. At the end of my time in SoCal, I moved back to Jamaica for a 5-year stint and then migrated again, this time to Chicagoland. Fast forward 7 years and today I feel settled and established in the city that has captured my heart – Chicago.
In a recent social media post, Pastor David posted the following statement – “Beware the colonizer disguised as a multicultural  pastor”. To be honest, I had a visceral reaction to his statement. My response on social media was “Oh yes, I hope there is more to come about this”. I then emailed Pastor David to ask him to say more. Instead of him saying more, he flipped the script and asked me to say more. So here we are.
Over the years, I have reflected on the wide and varied church experiences I have had – some were really good, some were OK and one in particular was the most traumatic experience I have had with a Pastor in my 26 years of being a follower of Jesus. I would describe him as a multicultural colonizer. In 17 years, I have been to a plethora of churches in a couple different denominations and with a variety of ethnic make ups. There were large and small African American churches, large and small predominantly white churches, church plants and churches that self-describe as multi ethnic.
My church experiences in predominantly white churches where I was in the racial ‘minority’, presented an air of welcome but reeked of either tokenizing or exoticizing me. I was different from the other Black and Brown folks and there was always a fascination with how ‘well I spoke’ or how ‘I knew English’. At the time, I didn’t realize that these were racist tropes – my ethnic identity was rooted in a national identity and I was just Suzie, the Jamaican girl living in the United States. I didn’t see the racism. As if white evangelical churches weren’t enough, I attended two predominantly white Christian institutions to obtain graduate degrees in those 17 years. While these institutions amplified my encounters with white supremacy and racism, I grew in my racial consciousness and was able to clearly see the unholy marriage of white supremacy, theology and Christian nationalism that created what Dr. Anthea Butler poignantly names “white evangelical racism”.
So why is all of this important to a conversation about multicultural pastors being colonizers? Good question. I share these examples to frame the making of a multicultural colonizer. Some of the multicultural colonizer development is very subtle and may not be initially seen. White evangelical theology is typically presented as theological authority and that has sadly shaped and formed many BIPOC locally and I would also say globally. Think about it – most seminaries are predominantly white and only until very recently did some of these institutions start to shift their perspective from BIPOC theology being on the periphery and as an elective to affirming its place as valid theological understanding on par with white evangelical theology. Make no mistake, we are on the journey but we are a long way from systemic sustainable change.
So, what are we left with? BIPOC who are influenced, trained and impacted by white evangelicalism sometimes succumb to divesting ourselves of our ethnic identity for the sake of assimilation. And some of us have endured enough trauma and drama in these non-affirming spaces to force us to walk away hurt and homeless. And when this happens, some BIPOC look to Pastor a third alternative – a community that reflects a multiethnic Church, capturing the Revelation 7:9 idea, as it were. Mind you, these is of course nothing inherently wrong with this desire or vision but for BIPOC who have been influenced and impacted by white evangelicalism, there has to be a deliberate interrogation of their white evangelical experiences to explore how those have shaped how they perceive and do ministry.
So then how does the multicultural pastor become a colonizer? How does a marginalized BIPOC who has faced racism, marginalization, white supremacy etc. turn around and become the colonizer they escaped? Remember I mentioned that I have had a lot of experience in a variety of church environments. Well, I had the unfortunate front row seat of being in a church led by a multicultural colonizer. And I can tell you that the trauma and harm from this type of colonizing may actually be worse than that of a white colonizer. Why do I say this? Because there is a feeling of double betrayal – one in which the colonizer marginalizes his or her own people and where you witness firsthand the colonizer relinquishing their soul on behalf of white evangelicalism. The source of this colonization is whiteness.
By definition, whiteness is a hegemonic system that perpetuates certain dominant ideologies about who receives power and privilege. Whiteness maintains itself in cultures through power dynamics within language, religion, class, race relations, sexual orientation, etc.  And racism is based on the concept of whiteness—a powerful fiction enforced by power and violence. Whiteness is a constantly shifting boundary separating those who are entitled to have certain privileges from those whose exploitation and vulnerability to violence is justified by their not being white . Whiteness is a powerful construct that has real and very tangible, violent effects and it embodies white normativity based on white culture, norms and values that wields power as a tool of control. Let me be clear and say, whiteness is not based on skin color, it is rooted in an ideology, whose weapon is power, whose action is violence and whose lifeblood is lovelessness and inhumanity.
In Pedagogy of the Oppressed Paulo Freire warns about the dangers that oppressed people need to be aware of lest they become oppressors. He talks about the task of the oppressed to be liberating themselves and the oppressor as well. He suggests that it is the power that comes from the weakness of the oppressed which is strong enough to liberate both the oppressed and the oppressor. It is the humanizing of the oppressed and a desire to extend love and charity that leads to counteracting the acts of lovelessness which is at the heart of the violence of the oppressor.
He says that in this humanizing, the oppressed need to be careful that they do not become oppressors themselves because they have been conditioned by and adhere to the existential situations of the oppressors. If we are not careful, the oppressed cane become a multicultural colonizer. All of us suffer from the effects of white supremacy, racism and oppression. No one is exempt, neither the oppressed or the oppressor because it is in the literal air we breathe. We are aware that the oppressor may never interrogate themselves enough to do and be different but when the oppressed absconds from doing that work to interrogate the ways whiteness has influenced and shaped them, the fall for the power, control, deception and lies that whiteness promotes which only leads violence and further inhumanity of those they lead. Because the oppressed, by nature understand what it means for their humanity to be stifled and subjugated, when they do the work, they can leverage their resilience and promote the embodiment of a fuller humanity.
The web of whiteness is tangled mess rooted in hegemonic power often married to misogyny. It thrives on the fact that the multicultural colonizer is wounded and craves for power and control. It creates a false persona which can suppress the colonizers own ethnic identity in favor of adopting the tendencies of whiteness as normative. It is hard to reconcile how one can do this knowing that they too have endured the pain of marginalization. Crazy making, right? Yes, it is. But what is worst is the actual demonstrated colonization of your own BIPOC. It is literal violence (mostly mental and emotional). And it causes trauma, hurt and pain that is both terrible to observe and even worse to endure. To inflict trauma and violence on your own people is a different level of cruel – but that is what whiteness does.
What follows are some of my observations about the ways that multicultural colonizers operate. At their core, they are driven by ego and the wield weapons of control, domination and power over people. Unfortunately, in most of the stories I have heard, Black women are on the receiving end of the rage of a multicultural colonizer because it is not uncommon for them to be misogynoir as well as being a narcissist. This combination terrorizes Black women by a consistent suspicion of their motives, voice and word which then leads to widespread censorship of those who dare to speak up. The colonizer prefers to lean into the voices of white people as trusted authorities and struggle to deferring to the expertise or wisdom of Black women. And when they cannot control the Black woman, they fabricate stories about them, accuse them of not being a team player, paint them as angry, problematic and uncooperative in an effort to punish them and force them into submission. They are unwilling to adopt a posture of learning because they are experts and so they forfeit the ability to live out nuance and intersectionality among the issues of race, socio economics, immigration etc. Therefore, what could make for a rich diverse experience is traded for the safety of white ignorance and a lack of interest.
If the multicultural colonizer is called out about their colonizing, they rebel against any form of accountability and there will be violent backlash towards anyone who would dare to insist that they are accountable. At the core of the multicultural colonizer, I think is a battle for their ethnic identity and sense of self. Because of the influence of whiteness, I believe there is internal turmoil that manifests as rage and anger. While they may be committed to a vision for multiethnicity, they don’t reflect an understanding about restorative justice and I think the reason for this is because justice demands accountability and cannot begin without ownership. Multicultural colonizers don’t want to own their own pain, much less the pain, hurt and damage they inflict on others.
In closing, where do we go from here? Is there hope for BIPOC to not get tangled in the web of whiteness towards a trajectory of multicultural colonization. Emphatically, yes. I believe that the Spirit of God calls us to decolonization and deconstruction. We have all been impacted by whiteness and we cannot ignore its effects. The work of racial justice and healing must therefore be done in contexts of nuance and where there is a safe environment reflecting humility, mutual submission, unlearning and relearning from the marginalized people within a community. Navigating a variety of ethnicities with a myriad of cultural histories and stories in multiethnic spaces requires a heart and posture of learning. It requires prioritizing the lived experiences of BIPOC over white normativity and at the same time interrogating, confessing and repenting when one discovers another place where whiteness shows up. It requires the embodiment of a faith that is communal and cohesive and that demands self-awareness and other awareness.
It is a lesson in growing more towards our humanity and less about performance that leads to oppression. The struggle to become more human is an exercise in exploring our inhumanity to ourselves and others. Our inhumanity is forged and fortified in systems and perceptions that are ruled and reigned by whiteness. We must interrogate and dismantle them all as part of the work of racial justice. The work demands our commitment to Jesus and the common good standing in solidarity with the marginalized and oppressed. To do that work requires us to have the courage to work on our own racial identity and the areas that need healing, help and hope. Because if we don’t, we continue to re-enforce the persona of multicultural colonizer who uses trauma and violence to enforce the very injustice that they claim to want to eliminate. I believe we are called to build a different type of community based on mutuality, submission, accountability, learning and growth. It is hard work. It is necessary work. And it needs to be done because in the words of Fannie Lou Hamer “nobody’s free until everybody’s free”.
 For the purpose of this article, the term multi ethnic and multicultural are used interchangeably although the term multicultural by definition is much broader than multiethnicity.
 “What do You Mean by Whiteness?”: A Professor, Four Doctoral Students, and a Student Affairs Administrator Explore Whiteness Stephanie Power Carter, Michelle Honeyford, Dionne McKaskle, Frank Guthrie, Susan Mahoney, Ghangis D. Carter”
I first shared the following post in my newsletter which you can subscribe to here. (Photo credit: David Buchi.)
I first shared the following post in my newsletter which you can subscribe to here.
Last week I listened to a powerful episode of one of my favorite podcasts, Pass the Mic, hosted by Jemar Tisby and Tyler Burns. In it, Tisby describes his many years deep within some of white evangelicalism’s premier institutions. After experiencing countless instances of racist complicity and enabling, the 2016 presidential election became a breaking point and he began de-tangling himself from these institutions. Pointing to an influential article in The New York Times about the “quiet exodus” of people of color from evangelical churches, Tisby and Burns are narrating their own journeys publicly, choosing to not go quietly. “To #LeaveLOUD is to tell our stories, to name things for what they are, to take back the dignity we’ve lost while being in institutions that don’t value the fullness of the image of God within us, and to go where we are celebrated and not just tolerated. ” (In the most recent episode, Burns shares his own story. I’m about a third of the way through and it’s just as impactful as Tisby’s.)
The story of Black Christians leaving – or being forced to leave – white Christian spaces is as old as this country. The first African American denomination, the African Methodist Episcopal Church, was founded after Rev. Richard Allen and others were forcibly separated from the white members of St. George’s Methodist Episcopal Church in Philadelphia. By publicly sharing their stories, Burns and Tisby are joining a long list of Christian witnesses who have testified against the moral corruption and racist complicity that is entrenched in so many of our white Christian institutions.
In an article about this series of podcasts, Kristin Du Mez, scholar and author of the compelling book Jesus and John Wayne, notes the similarities between the exodus of Christians of color from evangelical institutions and others who have left these spaces. She writes, “This evangelical exodus is not new, and it is not only caused by a seemingly insurmountable racial divide. A growing “exvangelical” movement has sought to draw attention to their own departures in recent years.”
Interestingly, the examples of the evangelical exodus which Du Mez goes on to cite are all, as best I can tell, white. Tisby’s experience of the racism prevalent in these institutions and churches becomes a point of departure for a host of other reasons for leaving. Du Mez wants us to see a commonality shared by those who are leaving, whether people of color or white, which is that they tend to depart quietly without making much noise about why they felt they had to leave. This is what makes the #LeaveLOUD project important. By telling their stories, Tisby, Burns, and others are opening space for truth, a prerequisite for healing and justice.
But I’m interested in a significant difference between what The Witness is doing and the trends Du Mez observes. The white people leaving white evangelicalism often find themselves with no idea about where they are going. Theirs is an exodus into a void. Whiteness, including its Christian forms, acts as a totalizng lens through which the world is seen and, importantly, erased.
One way to observe how this crisis plays out is to watch the decisions left to the departing white Christian. Sometimes they walk away from their faith entirely, not even attempting to replace their previous experience. But other times they move to a different Christian tradition or find their home with others who are deconstructing where they’ve been. What remains the same with each of these choices is the pervasive frame of whiteness. Rarely, if ever, have I heard a white Christian on this exodus who chooses to worship with, for example, a nearby Black congregation. A problematic expression of Christianity has been upended for these white women and men but they’ve left the foundation of whiteness undisturbed.
Compare this with the exodus of people of color from white and multiracial churches. Obviously, not all of these people take the same journey or land in the same kinds of places. People are complicated and our journeys are unpredictable. However, unlike their disheartened white counterparts, many of these women and men can imagine an alternative to white Christianity. Some of them return to the churches of their youth. Others foster new expressions of the faith, drawing from the faithfulness and wisdom of generations of Christians who have stood against the racism and supremacy long fostered by white churches. This exodus, from what I can tell, is pushed by a sacred history and pulled by a vision purposefully devoid of whiteness.
I want #LeaveLOUD to be a lesson for the (white) exvangelical movement. And I’m sure there are enough similarities between their stories and the tender ones being shared by Tisby, Burns, and so many others. But to learn those lessons and to join that particular exodus, it’s not just a toxic form of Christianity that needs to be renounced. It’s whiteness too.
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.
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.