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A few weeks ago a friend retweeted a well-known bishop who is vocal in his opposition to racism who had declared something along the lines of: I’d rather not go to heaven if I’ve got to be there with white evangelicals. To this my friend added, “I hope to have a good conversation with the bishop about this a few thousand years from now.” To his witty response, I commented,
Reminds me of a large group conversation I was in yesterday…
Person: “Will there be racists in heaven?”
Me under my breath: “I sure as heck hope so or I’m in a world of hurt.”
I’m still thinking about this short exchange. I think my friend’s response was right: I expect many of us will be surprised about who we’re spending eternity with. And I think mine was too: If sin of any kind – including racist ones – is going to keep someone from heaven than I’m out.
And yet. I think there’s more to wonder about here.
During the same meeting I mentioned in my Twitter comment we found ourselves discussing which Christian doctrines are worth going to the mat for and which fall into an agree-to-disagree category. Or, to use the language of the bishop’s provocative tweet, which Christian beliefs can be considered central-enough to salvation that they might impact a person’s salvation? In our meeting the example of racism was brought up. Might one’s posture toward racism be an example of something that, however odious and deadly, might be considered a non-essential to Christian orthodoxy?
You can imagine that there were some differing opinions on this question. Those of us for whom racism remains largely in the abstract – a sin to resist and repent of – were willing to consider it a matter of great importance, but perhaps not raised to the level of orthodoxy. (I don’t know for sure, but I imagine for some of us white Christians this open-heartedness has to do with those family members we love who remain happily ensconced in their racism. It’s tough for us to talk about the theological significance of one’s beliefs about race when the people we’re talking about are grandma and grandpa.)
And then there were those whose experience with race and racism is absolutely real. They experience in their bodies the desecration of the imago Dei and there is nothing secondary or peripheral about it.
Racism is an interlocking system of oppresion that is designed to promote and maintain White supremacy, the notion that White people – including their bodies, aesthetics, beliefs, values, customs, and culture – are inherently superior to all other races and therefore should wield dominion over the rest of creation, including other people groups, the animal kingdom, and the earth itself.
Racism, Walk-Barnes points out repeatedly, is not a matter of private prejudice or relational separateness; it is a matrix of beliefs and behaviors which systematically elevate some at the expense of another person’s suffering. Viewed – experienced – thusly, it’s hard to make a case that racism is anything other than a central concern of Jesus’ gospel. And so it must be for all of his followers too.
I wrote this for my weekly newsletter which you can subscribe to here.
Yesterday morning I walked three quarters of a mile from my in-law’s home in Brownsville, TN to this roadside marker beside a small family cemetery.
James Bond, a quick internet search will reveal, was once one of Tennessee’s largest slaveholders.
By the eve of the Civil War, Bond had amassed property holdings in Haywood County alone of more than seventeen thousand acres and approximately 220 slaves. In 1859 his five plantations yielded more than one thousand bales of cotton and nearly twenty-two thousand bushels of corn. The federal manuscript census for 1860 estimated his total wealth at just under $800,000. (By comparison, the total value of all farmland, buildings, and other improvements in the entire county of Johnson–situated in the mountainous region in the northeastern part of the state–was just under $790,000.)
The average passerby will intuit none of this from the marker standing watch over the great pioneer’s grave even though almost nothing on that marker would have been accomplished or amassed without those women and men he enslaved.
It’s not exactly a secret that James Bond owned people; people in this town know it, or at least some of them do. But seeing a sanitized version of his legacy etched in steel does reveal something about our shared memory. After all, the choice – and it must have been a conscious decision – to gloss over the source of the man’s wealth and generosity was an act of deliberate forgetfulness.
I’m sure this sort of thing is not unique to this country. It’s one of the privileges exerted by the powerful in any society to remember history in a manner wherein our forefathers and mothers retain their heroic status. But still, there is a particular way in which we forget things in the U.S.A.
In 1962 James Baldwin published a letter to his nephew. In it, he warns his young namesake about the dangers he will face from forgetful white Americans.
I know what the world has done to my brother and how narrowly he has survived it and I know, which is much worse, and this is the crime of which I accuse my country and my countrymen and for which neither I nor time nor history will ever forgive them, that they have destroyed and are destroying hundreds of thousands of lives and do not know it and do not want to know it. One can be–indeed, one must strive to become–tough and philosophical concerning destruction and death, for this is what most of mankind has been best at since we have heard of war; remember, I said most of mankind, but it is not permissible that the authors of devastation should also be innocent. It is the innocence which constitutes the crime.
Baldwin was surely thinking about more than deceptive roadside memorials to slaveholders, but it does illustrate his point in concrete and metal.
The gravity of Christian worship is the Lord’s Supper when bread is broken and wine poured out. “This is my body, which is for you; do this in remembrance of me… This cup is the new covenant in my blood; do this, whenever you drink it, in remembrance of me.” (1 Cor. 11:24-25) In remembrance. There are echoes here of the many times God commanded his people to remember their former captivity and God’s saving intervention.
Forgetfulness, in other words, is not normal for Christians, at least not the willful variety. Remembering is one of the choices we can make which draws us toward our Savior and into the presence of sisters and brothers. And yes, this is a remembering that centers on Christ, but at table we also remember precisely why we come so hungry and thirsty. We remember our sins, even the ones previous generations worked so hard to forget.
This week, using this helpful site, some of us posted to social media which Native American people’s land we were celebrating Thanksgiving from. It’s true that this could easily slide into a kind of meaningless virtue signaling. But, for some, it represents a decision to remember what has been forgotten for so long that many of us hadn’t even known that it could be remembered. It’s a small decision which can remind us that forgetting isn’t inevitable.
After visiting James Bond’s grave, I walked to the small town square which is dominated by a monument dedicated to “the Confederate dead of Haywood County.” There, a block away, is a recently placed monument to Elbert Williams, a man known as the NAACP’s first martyr. For his efforts to register black voters, Williams was kidnapped by the police and drowned in the Hatchie River.
I’m not sure why the Tennessee Historical Commission decided to erect this marker so many decades after Williams was lynched, but its presence is notable. Standing in the shadow of the county courthouse is this honest testimony to an ugly past and proof that, if we want to badly enough, we can remember what was previously and purposefully forgotten.
Botham and Brandt Jean and White Christian America’s Refusal to be Forgiven
When Brandt Jean extended forgiveness to the police officer who murdered his brother in his own apartment having, apparently, mistaken it for her own, I saw a poignant example of grace. Given the racial dynamics however – Brandt’s brother, Botham, was Black; the woman who killed him is white – many others didn’t see grace at all, but a tiresome and infuriating repetition of an old reality: an African American is mortally wounded by a white neighbor and is expected to forgive publicly and quickly. The word of forgiveness is a stabilizing word which leaves the racial hierarchy undisturbed and allows both the perpetrator and the supremacist system that shaped them to walk away unscathed.
First Lady Dorena Williamson, in an important article for Christianity Today, identifies the way racism distorts our understanding of forgiveness and grace.
Yes, God is a forgiving God. But we haven’t really understood the depth of that grace if all our examples of forgiveness are times when the people being forgiven look just like us. Given the long history of white supremacy in this country, we as Christians should ask: Why aren’t there videos of white people forgiving their black assailants trending on our social media? Why aren’t black accusers hugged by judges or comforted by the victim’s family members, as this former police officer was? How long O Lord?
Indeed, this was one of the many insights shared on social media following Brandt’s forgiveness. Why is it always Black people who are expected to forgive the assaults of their white neighbors? We think back to those relatives of the slain members of Mother Emanuel in Charleston who, despite the explicitly racist motivations of the murderer, chose to forgive him.
After the courtroom forgiveness, my friend Dr. Marcus Board shared an article that investigates the Mother Emanuel massacre to better understand this racialized forgiveness. In “‘But I Forgive You?’: Mother Emanuel, Black Pain and the Rhetoric of Forgiveness”, authors Andre E. Johnson and Earle J. Fisher write that when “atrocities grounded within a racist socio-historical framework explode upon our collective consciousness that causes Black pain and suffering, there is an expectation that those victims forgive their perpetrators.” Within a white supremacist landscape “white emotion usurps the affirmation of black humanity. This is why African Americans in times of such tragedy cannot express ‘black rage’ or anger.”
The authors quote an op-ed by Roxane Gay in which she explains why, contrary to this racist assumption of Black forgiveness, she will not forgive the many who murdered the worshipers at Emannuel AME Church.
What white people are really asking for when they demand forgiveness from a traumatized community is absolution. They want absolution from the racism that infects us all even though forgiveness cannot reconcile America’s racist sins. They want absolution from their silence in the face of all manner of racism, great and small. They want to believe it is possible to heal from such profound and malingering trauma because to face the openness of the wounds racism has created in our society is too much. I, for one, am done forgiving.
These warning and complaints are more than legitimate; they are true. Yet in them I still see an example of grace, both for the reality of forgiveness to which it points as well as the reality of justice which such an act of grace creates. Brandt’s choice to forgive, I believe, testifies to something that has long been accomplished, a grace whose offense is largely lost on us until we’re confronted by something like his courtroom forgiveness. And it also calls into existence a possibility of justice- genuine justice that has long eluded the racialized imaginations of our nation’s justice system.
Despite the understandable protests elicited by Brandt Jean’s decision to forgive, I still see in him the closest example to Christ’s costly grace that this racist nation is likely to experience.
In the forgiveness offered to the woman who murdered his brother, Brandt Jean offers a window to the grace of Christ not despite our long racist history but precisely because of it. Many have pointed out the endless ways white people presume upon the forgiveness of Black people who we have purposefully and systematically oppressed for centuries. We might worry that by elevating Jean’s act of grace we are rendering it meaningless. After all, this is the sort of thing that always happen in this nation and to what effect? Black people continue to be attacked and murdered; those entrusted to protect them aid and abet their killers.
Yet to rightly understand grace in the Christian tradition, we must reckon with this offensiveness. For those willing to grapple with our nation’s racism and white supremacy, Jean’s forgiveness is unpalatable. It feels unjust, undeserved. It is. But if we are to even get close to understanding the crucifixion of Jesus of Nazareth, we must be willing to drift into this kind of objectionable territory. The grace of God extends to us through the Christ’s bloody sacrifice – and only though it – because of our corruption and complicity, because of our propensity to sin and to sin again. If this divine grace is less offensive to us than Jean’s forgiveness it is our own fault. It is not grace that does not offend but our tepid and self-serving interpretation of it.
This is the reality to which Jean’s forgiveness points. This, for Christians, is our sure foundation. It is offensive, a stumbling block as the apostle Paul rightly understood. Yet to those who’ve realized our sinful corruption and complicity, it is the way to life. And here is where we see that in Jean’s forgiveness, and in the similar acts of grace by African American Christians over the centuries, a new reality is being created. Christian forgiveness, as a reflection of Christ’s grace, is creation-al and allows for the possibility of true justice.
In Luke 19, when Jesus invites himself over to the despised tax collector’s home, Zacchaeus responds to this grace in a public and accountable manner.
“Look, Lord! Here and now I give half of my possessions to the poor, and if I have cheated anybody out of anything, I will pay back four times the amount.”
Jesus said to him, “Today salvation has come to this house, because this man, too, is a son of Abraham. For the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost.”
The assumption, readily understood by Zacchaeus, was that Jesus’ grace required a costly response. By accepting it genuinely, he had to repent of his previous way of life which had depended on the exploitation and oppression of his neighbors.
The rich young man in Luke 18 also understood the nature of the Christ’s grace. Having been told by Jesus to sell his possessions and give the proceeds to the poor, he “became very sad, because he was very wealthy.” Though their responses differed, both the wealthy young man and the corrupt tax collector understood the nature of the grace offered by Jesus. Accepting it required a complete reversal of their previous ways of life. They would become new people, living in harmony with the righteousness and justice of the Christ.
This, I think, is what white Christians persistently misunderstand about grace. Roxane Gay’s indictment of us is dead on: we want absolution. So we cheapen grace, desecrating the costly sacrifices of our Black (and Brown and Native and…) neighbors. Or to put it differently, we reject the gift that is being offered for a counterfeit of our own diseased imaginations, one that justifies our ongoing oppressive ways. In this context, it’s reasonable to think that the most gracious thing a Black Christian can do is to withhold forgiveness so as to not, in Jesus’ evocative phrase, cast their pearls before swine.
What would it look like for Botham Jean’s murderer to receive the grace offered by his brother? It would mean confessing her sins and dropping her defense. It would mean reflecting honestly on the ways her imagination and assumptions have been infected – like mine – with, in Bryan Stevenson’s phrase, the malicious narrative of racial difference. It would mean living in solidarity with those, like Jean’s mother, Allison, who tell the truth about police brutality and political corruption. It would mean losing her life in order to find it.
Were this costly grace to be received it would lead to justice. Like Zacchaeus, recipients of this grace give themselves to repairing what we have exploited. There is no spiritualized absolution here, only sacrificial and accountable action.
This is what Christ’s costly grace can create. It is a reality in which the woman who murdered Botham Jean becomes a new person. That white America, as shown not by our occasional tears or social media shares but by our sustained actions, has for centuries refused this grace is evidence not that Brandt Jean’s offer was not genuine, but that we have not genuinely received it. The fault is ours alone. As are the consequences.
I’ve started a personal newsletter which, so far, I’ve been posting weekly. I’ve not yet figured out its connection to this blog, but something I wrote for it seems to fit here. You can subscribe to the newsletter here.
It is too simple to tell this tale as a fable of good versus evil,
not because of any ambiguity about the evil of slavery itself but
because – given the facts of antebellum politics, the compulsion of
economic interests, and the constitutional protections slaveholders
enjoyed – it was far from clear how the evil could be destroyed.
“Humanity cries out against this vast enormity,” Herman Melville wrote
in 1849, “but not one man knows a prudent remedy. By “prudent” he meant
some way of destroying slavery without destroying the union itself. Nor
was this a matter of two competing goods: abolition on the one hand
versus union on the other. There was reason to believe that destroying
the union would actually strengthen slavery rather than weaken it. If
the constitutional guarantee of the right of slave masters to recover
their runaway slaves were to collapse, an outraged South might go its
own way, emboldened to build a slave-based empire beyond the limits of
the United States.
Delbanco’s point about the complicated factors facing abolitionists
has me thinking about the responsibilities facing those who oppose
today’s injustices. Do we too often frame these fights simplistically,
as though they are matters of easily chosen right and wrong? Imagine,
for example, being an abolitionist or free Black person in the decades
before the Civil War. What if your efforts led to greater power for the
slave states and, thus, more enslaved people overall? What is your
responsibility amidst such awful ambiguity?
I wonder, though, if the real moral complexities identified by
Delbanco are experienced differently by Christians. People like
Frederick Douglass, to take just one example, never wavered about the
imperative to reject slavery no matter the political costs. For him, as
David Blight shows in his recent biography,
his reading of Scripture and personal experience of the wickedness of
slavery, made him impatient with those who allowed murky political
possibilities to slow down the work of liberating actual people. Might
one of the things that sets Christians apart in the battle for justice
be that we move forward in the face of the many unknowns, convinced that
we’ll never know enough and assured that the righteous God goes before
Could it be that in the West the presence of the demonic is muted not because demons have ceased to exist or never were, but for the precise reason that no one fights against nothing? Perhaps, as long as lukewarm faith exists, perhaps the demonic need not be troubled nor trouble themselves. While the purpose of the Christian life is not to irritate demons and incur their wrath through spiritual attacks, a quasi Christianity that is washed out and bears little resemblance to what is epitomized in the Acts of the Apostles and the Epistles and demonstrated in the account of Jesus in the Gospels is also bankrupt in holiness and power. It is probably that the lack of knowledge and experience of the presence of the demonic in modern times – through to our current times – has made it easy to turn Christianity into a primarily cerebral, morality-infusing code for civilizing humanity, rather than the life-transforming, Satan-crushing, God-Glorifying powerful religion or lifestyle that was intended… We seem to have exegeted (almost exorcised) the power out of the Logos and propped it up with philosophy.
I’ve been thinking about this passage from Esther E. Acolatse’s fascinating book in the aftermath of this weekend’s massacres in El Paso and Dayton. I understand how it is that people who are not Christian can ignore the spiritually malevolent forces wreaking havoc in our violent society. But what about the Christians? Those who are more liberal in their disposition are clear about the profound problem of gun violence but their strategies rarely seem able to even acknowledge the existence of, as Acolatse says, the demonic. On the other side are the conservatives who, while often acknowledging what Paul calls the spiritual forces of evil in Ephesians 6:12, are ideologically unwilling to apply this belief to the terrors of gun violence.
Readers of this blog won’t be surprised to hear me next say that this strange relationship to what Jesus assumed to be a normal part of the Christian life – that is, engaging with Jesus in the battle against immaterial evil – seems to me a characteristic of white Christianity. There are plenty of churches where this bifurcation has been avoided. It is to these Black and immigrant churches that the rest of us would do well to turn and humbly learn from if we are ever to do more than mourn the impact of an evil we have thus far been barely able to name.
The concept of leading up within organizations is common. Leading up, when done well, benefits the entire congregation, as the insights and innovations of youth are brought into conversation with the foresight and wisdom of older generations of godly leadership. This dynamic is important when it comes to racial reconciliation and justice, particularly among majority-white churches. Given the inertia of racial privilege and the insulating impact of racial segregation, these churches benefit from the idealistic voices of younger leaders. If these women and men can leverage their influence up the leadership ranks with wisdom and humility, the entire church stands to grow in racial reconciliation and justice.
I recently reviewed Al Tizon’s new book, Whole and Reconciled for Missio Alliance.
One of the defining and disappointing characteristics of western Christianity has been our instinct to bifurcate the church’s mission. Consider, for example, the countless ways we find to debate whether evangelism or justice should be our priority. Is it the church’s primary mission to address the material sources of a person’s present suffering or the spiritual nature of their future? These either-or debates often happen within privileged confines among those with the ability to theorize about these things. It’s probably not surprising that communities relegated to the margins have often held together the same attributes of Christian identity that others of us have torn apart. I’m thinking of the many African American congregations in my neighborhood whose services end with an old-school altar call and whose bulletins are filled with opportunities for their members to seek justice throughout the week.
In Whole and Reconciled: Gospel, Church, and Mission in a Fractured World, Al Tizon applauds those who have attempted to bridge theological bifurcations such as this by encouraging, in the language of the Lausanne Movement, “the whole church to take the whole gospel to the whole world.” By emphasizing whole—or, in other contexts, holistic—these theologians and practitioners are advancing a version of mission that cares about word and deed, evangelism and justice. Importantly, the church beyond the west is included in this vision. Rather than the old assumptions about western missionaries being sent to the majority world, mission is now from everywhere and to everywhere.
Whole and Reconciled is a paradigm-shifting book with the potential to enlarge how our churches envision and participate in God’s mission. Here are four ways Tizon succeeds in challenging us to think bigger about everything, beginning with reconciliation.