Come Get Your Boy

Christian Political Critique in the Age of Nero (and Trump).

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.

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.

“There is no more important calling for the church in our time than claiming the self-identification of the God who is the Father of the Lord Jesus Christ.”

A fundamental problem is that it is not at all clear exactly who God is. We have not become a secular society so much as we have become a generically religious one. Undifferentiated spiritual objects, therapies, and programs are widely marketed. Popular religion in America tends to be an amalgam of whatever presents itself. Discerning observers have noted that these new forms of spirituality are typically American; highly individualistic, self-referential, and self-indulgent, they are only feebly related to the history or tradition of any of the great world faiths. There is no more important calling for the church in our time than claiming the self-identification of the God who is the Father of the Lord Jesus Christ.

– Fleming Rutledge in The Crucifixion: Understanding the Death of Jesus Christ. She’s not so much lamenting these shifts in our society as she is the inability (or unwillingness) of the churches to maintain our particularly Christ-centered distinctions.

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.

“It isn’t that grace is ineffective or inefficient but that we are, being what we are, imperfect vessels for it. “

The man must never have known a longer hour. Hope is a thorn in the side of doubt, not a thing with feathers that perches in the soul. It aches. And at the end of it all he does —you will—still fail. Peter denies Christ again. The rooster crows, and Jesus looks at Peter, because even though Peter has denied Jesus, Jesus has not denied him. His opportunities are not yet exhausted.

The majority of us — who Augustine called the non-valde-boni, the not-very-good-ones—live our whole lives in the space of that hour. We hope. We try. We will probably fail. It will happen over and over again. The most relatable Christians in literature are not the subjects of hagiographies, but of the kind of morally ambiguous stories that amount, in the end, to what we call a life. Shusaku Endo’s Kichijiro, who repents only one more time than he apostatizes, is perhaps the ideal form.

In an era where solutions are judged by their efficiency, it can be hard to accept that this is just how grace works on fallen creatures: like a spiral, circling around you over and over again as you repeat the same mistakes, drawing nearer and nearer to your heart the longer you seek it. It isn’t that grace is ineffective or inefficient but that we are, being what we are, imperfect vessels for it. The miracle is that it works anyway

Elizabeth Bruenig on Peter’s denial and the Christian life of grace.

“Then white evangelicals voted for Mr. Trump by a larger margin than they had voted for any presidential candidate.”

Black congregants — as recounted by people in Chicago, Los Angeles, Atlanta, Fort Worth and elsewhere — had already grown uneasy in recent years as they watched their white pastors fail to address police shootings of African-Americans. They heard prayers for Paris, for Brussels, for law enforcement; they heard that one should keep one’s eyes on the kingdom, that the church was colorblind, and that talk of racial injustice was divisive, not a matter of the gospel. There was still some hope that this stemmed from an obliviousness rather than some deeper disconnect.

Then white evangelicals voted for Mr. Trump by a larger margin than they had voted for any presidential candidate. They cheered the outcome, reassuring uneasy fellow worshipers with talk of abortion and religious liberty, about how politics is the art of compromise rather than the ideal. Christians of color, even those who shared these policy preferences, looked at Mr. Trump’s comments about Mexican immigrants, his open hostility to N.F.L. players protesting police brutality and his earlier “birther” crusade against President Obama, claiming falsely he was not a United States citizen. In this political deal, many concluded, they were the compromised.

– “A Quiet Exodus: Why Blacks Are Leaving White Evangelical Churches” in The New York Times. I’m not sure we’ll ever know the extent of the negative impact this past election had on the lives of individual Christians. I’ve heard a lot of stories about disgruntled white progressive evangelicals who found themselves to be further out of step with the rest of their churches than they’d previously imagined. But this is the first story I’ve read about the particular spiritual damage inflicted by white churches on black Christians, people, it must be said, who genuinely wanted to find spiritual homes among white Christians.

As an aside, I spoke with the reporter, Campbell Robertson, months ago as he was working on this piece. He struck me then as a trustworthy narrator of this very particular experience of American Christianity and I think the article bears that out. It’s always refreshing to read good religious reporting.