Here is Jerry Falwell Jr. answering a question about whether it’s hypocritical for evangelical leaders like himself to “support a leader who has advocated violence and who has committed adultery and lies often.”
There’s two kingdoms. There’s the earthly kingdom and the heavenly kingdom. In the heavenly kingdom the responsibility is to treat others as you’d like to be treated. In the earthly kingdom, the responsibility is to choose leaders who will do what’s best for your country. Think about it. Why have Americans been able to do more to help people in need around the world than any other country in history? It’s because of free enterprise, freedom, ingenuity, entrepreneurism and wealth. A poor person never gave anyone a job. A poor person never gave anybody charity, not of any real volume. It’s just common sense to me.
Thankfully there have been plenty of evangelical leaders who have pointed out the silliness of Falwell’s reasoning and shallowness of this expression of a two kingdoms theology. I’m more interested in how those of us who rightly decry this blatantly deficient vision of Christianity succumb to less obvious versions of it ourselves.
Falwell believes that America’s wealth is responsible for accomplishing more good around the globe “than any other country in history.” Setting aside the question of how such a thing could be measured or, more significantly, the exports of suffering and destruction for which we are also responsible, his claim reveals an understanding of the wealthy rather different than the one Jesus repeatedly taught. In Falwell’s theology, the wealthy are important for what their wealth does, including how it meets the needs of the poor. Jesus, of course, warns of the hazards of wealth as a massive – thought not impassable – barrier to the kingdom of heaven. The problem with wealth is what ultimate good works to keeps us from.
On the other hand, the poor are merely an afterthought to Falwell, dispensable for what they cannot do. In contrast to the rich whose money makes things happen, those who suffer poverty can be set aside exactly because their impoverishment weakens their ability to accomplish anything of “real volume.”
Falwell says that his hierarchy of the wealthy over the poor is merely common sense and I can’t disagree with him. In fact, though we may be subtler about it, I have to wonder if the vast majority of American Christians don’t also trade Jesus’ teachings about wealth and poverty for something closer to Falwell’s logic. We measure our ministries by the metrics of the marketplace. Our well-known leaders and their churches are not poor, not even by vocation. Middle-class Christians are quick to give to those suffering poverty but we’d be hard-pressed to find any of those same people submitting to the spiritual authority or ministry priorities of their less-resourced kin.
It’s not hard to point out the absurdity of Falwell’s justification for supporting the president. But what about when the absurdity fades into something more like our own, acceptable, version of common sense? It seems likely that many more of us may be further from Jesus’ uncommon kingdom than we’d want to admit.
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.
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.
Last December I wrote about a letter Dietrich Bonhoeffer sent to his friend Erwin Sutz in 1934 as the German church was succumbing to National Socialism and Hitler’s regime. In it, Bonhoeffer considered the struggle for the church against the forces of nationalism and ethnic purity.
And while I’m working with the church opposition with all my might, it’s perfectly clear to me that this opposition is only a very temporary transitional phase on the way to an opposition of a very different kind, and that very few of those involved in this preliminary skirmish are going to be there for that second struggle.
I’ve thought a lot about these sentences over the past year, about how Bonhoeffer remains prescient for this decisive moment faced by white Christians in this country. We too have entered a “second struggle” for our Christian witness and it must look different than the initial resistance to White Christianity’s support for Donald Trump and his policies. Before we can imagine the second struggle, I should explain what I mean by White Christianity.
In the appendix to the biography Frederick Douglass wrote in 1845 he described the differences between White Christianity – what he called “slaveholding religion” – and the “pure, peaceable, and impartial Christianity of Christ.” Because he loved the latter, Douglass hated “the corrupt, slaveholding, women-whipping, cradle-plundering, partial and hypocritical Christianity of this land.” He went on:
Dark and terrible as is this picture, I hold it to be strictly true of the overwhelming mass of professed Christians in America. They strain at a gnat, and swallow a camel. Could any thing be more true of our churches? They would be shocked at the proposition of fellowshipping with a sheep-stealer; and at the same time they hug to their communion a man-stealer, and brand me with being an infidel, if I find fault with them for it. They attend with Pharisaical strictness to the outward forms of religion, and at the same time neglect the weightier matters of the law, judgement, mercy, and faith. They are always ready to sacrifice, but seldom to show mercy. They are they who are represented as professing to love God whom they have not seen, whilst they hate their brother whom they have seen.
Douglass reminds us that the instinct by white Christians to ignore and distrust those who share their faith but not their race – a dynamic hideously displayed during last year’s presidential election – has a long and contemptible history.
We shouldn’t imagine White Christianity simply as every congregation comprised of white people; it is, rather, heir to the slaveholding religion Douglass so accurately described. The attributes of that deviant Christianity have been passed down through generations: White Christianity chooses its gate-keeping sins while, in practice, tolerating the destruction of People of Color and their communities; it is expert about intricate nuances of particular theologies while remaining ignorant of the lived realities of Christian neighbors who cannot or will not assimilate to whiteness; it organizes itself powerfully around partisan issues while ignoring its ongoing complicity in the oppression of its neighbors, including those who confess Christ from outside the bounds of whiteness. White Christianity is grotesquely displayed when its adherents trust their preferred media more than the testimonies of racially diverse saints. White Christianity is the legitimate decedent of Douglass’ slaveholding religion precisely because it finds its ultimate authority and identity in whiteness rather than Christianity.
This malicious distortion of Christian faith centers on, in theologian Kelly Brown Douglas’ words, “the White Christ” who, “allowed for (1) the justification of slavery, (2) Christians to be slaves, and (3) the compatibility of Christianity with the extreme cruelty of slavery.” In truth, this anti-Christ has never been unveiled and rejected by the recipients of that old slaveholding religion and so his blinding influence continues unabated with disastrous effect.
That white Christians continues to support a president who is claimed by white nationalists, supremacists, and nazis should be all the evidence anyone needs that White Christianity places racial solidarity far above ecclesial unity. Time and again its spokesmen excuse the president’s sinful rhetoric and oppressive policies while simultaneously discounting the fears and suffering of other Christians: Native Americans whose lands continue to be stolen, who are killed by police as often as are African Americans; immigrants from the Middle East, Mexico and Central America who are profiled for harassment and deportation in ever more frightening ways; black communities targeted for unaccountable and militarized policing, disenfranchised from voting yet again; Americans of Asian descent whose cultural and ethnic particularities are rendered invisible to a gaze that sees only perpetual foreignness. White Christianity is willfully blind to those who suffer under the president about whom they believe, as one of its leaders has said, that “God’s hand intervened… to stop the godless, atheistic progressive agenda from taking control of our country.”
But the vulgarities of this past year could obscure something important about White Christianity which is that it is possible to forcefully oppose this presidency and its increasingly visible instances of white supremacy and still fit comfortably within its boundaries. There are forms of White Christianity which protest the most obvious expressions of racism while quietly benefitting from the racial hierarchy. It’s possible, likely even, that one can fiercely resist this presidential administration – self-consciously as a Christian – while tacitly contributing to public school segregation, community displacement, income inequality, and a skyrocketing racial wealth gap- each a symptom of a racial caste system that, regardless of one’s enlightened politics, advances the aims of this nation’s ancient slaveholding religion. By some measures progressive white denominations are even more segregated than the Evangelical ones most associated with our racist president. As an inoculation, liberal Christianity is far too weak for this hereditary sickness.
White Christianity cannot be contained by denominations or ideologies; it is rampant wherever majorities of white Christians of all theological persuasions and partisan perspectives are found.
White Christianity, then, is any expression of Christianity which, in practice, places fidelity to the aims and assumptions of whiteness above solidarity to the Body of Christ. And because whiteness disguises itself as the country’s neutral foundation, to renounce White Christianity white congregations must explicitly proclaim that Jesus is Lord and that whiteness is not. And, because white supremacy is woven into this nation’s systems and psychology, white Christians must work out their salvation with fear and trembling by disavowing our illegitimate inheritance of power, wealth, and – by every possible metric – supremacy.
Bonhoeffer wrote his letter to Sutz believing the struggle for the German church had been lost. It wasn’t that the church was no longer worth fighting for; neither did he walk away from his faith as some American Christians have been tempted to do this year. If anything, the coming years would show how far the young theologian was willing to go to prepare the church for a future devoted to Jesus alone as Lord, a seemingly impossible task that was fueled by his restless faith. But the German church was lost to Bonhoeffer and he would no longer fight to save it. The swastika would soon be added to the German church’s symbols and the aryan paragraph barred any Jewish person from a position of authority in the churches. Church leaders were lining up in support of the Nazi regime and its charismatic leader. There was, in Bonhoeffer’s view, nothing within those corrupted ecclesiastical paradigms worth contending for. In hindsight the decision seems obvious but to most of his contemporaries there was nothing predetermined about Bonhoeffer’s trajectory. In the slow boil to crisis, his response was the exception.
A similarly pivotal moment has arrived for white Christians. In the past it was possible – if not truthful – for many of us to gloss over our tendencies toward nationalism, the inaccuracies we embrace about this country’s history of racial inequity and white supremacy, our partisan priorities that always held racist underpinnings, the schools we founded to separate our children from public (integrated) ones, and the missionary priorities which sent people around the world while ignoring – or, as Douglass’ contemporary Ida B. Wells pointed out, lynching – our African American neighbors. But this president has made it impossible to excuse these actions as having been acceptable within their times. Because those times are now our times and it is clear that the underlying ideology of supremacy and racial hierarchy remains as deeply entrenched now as it was then.
The struggle for White Christianity must be abandoned. The president has embraced white nationalism as his god and White Christianity has supported him at every step and tweet. As long at its countless representatives will not renounce their primary racial allegiance there is no reason to expend time or energy within its sanctuaries, seminaries, conferences, publishing houses, or anywhere else its presence overwhelms all others.
This doesn’t mean that White Christianity can be ignored. When compared with Frederick Douglass’ “pure, peaceable, and impartial Christianity of Christ,” this deviant form of the faith has amassed immeasurable wealth and cultural power. Black churches, for example, have long known that interacting with White Christianity and its representatives is an inevitable part of existence in this country. Especially for those of us who are white, interacting skillfully with white Christian culture and institutions is perhaps one of the roles we play for our sisters and brothers who’ve long suffered its malevolence. A friend of mine, a white pastor, says he continues to show up in these spaces not with any hope of rescuing White Christianity but to do his best to mitigate the damage it inflicts on those he serves. This, I think, is exactly the right posture. We struggle not to save White Christianity but to blunt its violence.
If, as Bonhoeffer did with the German church, we concede the irreparable status of White Christianity – something many American Christians did a long time ago – where then is our second struggle? For Bonhoeffer, this struggle would be characterized by suffering.
Simply suffering is what it will be about, not parries, blows, or thrusts such as may still be allowed and possible in the preliminary battles; the real struggle that perhaps lies ahead must be one of simply suffering through in faith. Then, perhaps then God will acknowledge his church again with his word, but until then a great deal must be believed, and prayed, and suffered.
Suffering, through unblinking obedience to the commands of Christ as found in the Sermon on the Mount, is what Bonhoeffer anticipated after the struggle for the German church was abandoned. If we are willing to consider it, this form of suffering – induced by discipleship to the crucified Jesus – may provide a lens through which to reckon our coming struggle. I can’t pretend to know how this second, suffering struggle will be experienced by those who accept its invitation, but I can imagine some possibilities.
A person who awakens to her place within White Christianity must choose between regressing to its destructive lie or stating her opposition. The latter is surprisingly difficult. This past year I’ve watched many white pastors and Christian leaders voice their opposition to the racism latent within their churches and organizations only to withdraw to vague spiritual truisms upon being reprimanded by this president’s Christian supporters. I’m sympathetic to their decision, yet we need to be clear about their decisions: They have placed the comfort of their fellow white Christians over the well-being of the Body of Christ. I’ve been there and can testify that this is one of White Christianity’s powers, the pressure to grant racial whiteness superiority over shared eucharistic fellowship across race and ethnicity. I’ve retreated more often that I care to admit.
But the decision to publicly renounce White Christianity is necessary because one’s silence will always be interpreted as acceptance. This moment, and the long and peculiar history behind it, has left us no neutral ground. If white Christians are going to reject White Christianity for the good of the Body of Christ, it will come with the instinctive cost exacted by a defensive dominant system. The betrayal will provoke varying levels of opposition, suffering even. It won’t be the severity of suffering we have inflicted on others of course. I imagine, instead, Jesus’ sobering promise to his followers in Luke 12 that discipleship to him will lead to painful divisions, “father against son and son against father, mother against daughter and daughter against mother, mother-in-law against daughter-in-law and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law.” We shouldn’t search out such painful divisions but they will become increasingly inevitable in spite of our attempts to live peaceful lives. After all, the peace pursued by the political and cultural allies of White Christianity is one that exacts a wicked cost upon the psyches and flesh of Christians of color. Those who reject this false peace will themselves be rejected.
The second struggle will be one in which white Christians who have been discipled into a racialized stupor come to identify with the suffering Christ and their suffering ecclesial family. Theologian James Cone, in The Cross and the Lynching Tree, points out that many American Christians, accustomed to suffering this nation’s scorn, have always known that “white Christianity was fraudulent.”
I and other blacks knew that the Christian identity of whites was not a true expression of what it meant to follow Jesus. Nothing their theologians and preachers could say would convince us otherwise. We wondered how whites could lie with their hypocrisy – such a blatant contradiction of the man from Nazareth. (I am still wondering about that!) White conservative Christianity’s blatant endorsement of lynching as part of its religion, and white liberal Christians’ silence about lynching placed both on the outside of Christian identity.
Like Frederick Douglass and Ida B. Wells before him, Cone argues that because White Christianity worships the “White Christ” it cannot be identified with the historic, suffering Jesus. The indictment cuts through religious conservatives and liberals alike. Any expression of the faith that places race above fellowship with Christ’s Body must be abandoned by those who willfully enter this second, suffering struggle. The white Christians who do so are not making a unique or prophetic claim; we are very simply aligning with sisters and brothers who’ve always understood the heretical nature of White Christianity.
“Whites today,” writes Cone, “cannot separate themselves from the culture that lynched blacks, unless they confront their history and expose the sin of white supremacy.” This is where our struggle lies, along the repenting road where we finally confess our ancestral sin. Here we find a company of saints who’ve never been deluded by White Christianity’s strange promise that faith can be built on plunder and exploitation. Within this company we encounter the crucified Christ.
Claiming, as I’ve done, that white Christians must choose between White Christianity or the Body of Christ is not unique. Neither is it especially insightful. As long as there has been a United States there have been those like Wells and Douglass who have made this case courageously. The Reverend Francis J. Grimke is another. In 1898, as lynching and Jim Crow laws terrorized African American citizens in the south, he preached a sermon from his Washington D.C. pulpit, “The Negro Will Never Acquiesce As Long As He Lives.” In it he lamented that, despite these well-known acts of terrorism, in white churches “the pulpits of the land are silent on these great wrongs.” He went on:
This is the charge which I make against the Anglo American pulpit today; its silence has been interpreted as an approval of these horrible outrages. Bad men have been encouraged to continue in their acts of lawlessness and brutality. As long as the pulpits are silent on these wrongs it is in vain to expect the people to do any better than they are doing.
Despite the plain truth spoken by countless women and men like Rev. Grimke, White Christianity has hurtled forward, unabated in its perverse disregard for most of the church. When given the choice to renounce racial idolatry for genuine fellowship, white Christians have almost always chosen the former. But now, in the form of our demagogue-like president and the white supremacy churned up in his wake, we are being offered the choice again. Yet despite the bleak light of the moment, the likelihood of some kind of suffering will compel most of us to return to our apathy. Some will find theologically twisted ways to acquiesce to – if not support – the political forces exacerbating and exploiting racial segregation and oppression. Others of us will find comfort in our loud ideological opposition to the president and his policies while continuing to benefit from the status quo.
If there is anything at all distinct about my argument it is simply this: White Christianity cannot be redeemed. It must be renounced. This is the painful but necessary aim of the struggle for those who, having been stirred from slumber, refuse to close their eyes. I fear this suffering struggle, fraught with tender divisions and uncertain futures, will prove to be a bridge too far and that, as Bonhoeffer wrote to his friend, “very few of those involved in this preliminary skirmish are going to be there for that second struggle.”
Even so, the choice remains and despite our long history of selfish and destructive decisions, our responses have not been determined for us. The suffering Christ and his prevailing church remain open to all who disavow false gods, including the racial idols and ideologies that have poisoned our hearts for as long as we’ve imagined ourselves to be white.
This afternoon the president announced that he is withdrawing the nation from the Paris Climate Accord. Many who oppose this move – like me – will see the motivation by the president and his supporters to walk away from the commitment to reduce climate change to be about two things: the economy and/or a disregard for science. Mostly what we hear from those who disregard climate change is that it is either a fiction or, slightly more benevolently, that we must prioritize our economy while, eventually, addressing environmental concerns. There’s another lens through which to view this decision, and its one made most visible by the support by so many white Christians of this president and his environmentally-destructive agenda.
The Bible is full of imagery and metaphors taken from creation. The biblical narrative begins in a garden and ends with a return to Eden, this time within God’s Holy City. We’re told that the creation groans for redemption and humanity’s vocation from the beginning was to work with God to care for the earth and all of its inhabitants. So why the enthusiastic support by Christians for a presidential administration that so blatantly disregards basic Christian beliefs about creation?
Greed and scientific skepticism are not enough to explain this strange phenomenon. For this we need to recognize the power of white supremacy as a guiding, if generally invisible and unacknowledged, force when it comes to how many white Christians see the environment and their role in caring for it. The history of white supremacy as the beginning of the construct of race and racial hierarchies that we experience today is rooted in a moment that combined the colonialist enterprise with a supersessionist theology which detached Christianity from its Jewish roots.
In his important book, The Christian Imagination, tracing this historical development, Willie Jennings writes that the “earth itself was barred from being a constant signifier of identity. Europeans defined Africans and all others apart from the earth even as they separated them from their lands.” Rather than viewing the new cultures and peoples through the lens of creation, the colonialists began viewing people through a racial gaze. He goes on: “They saw themselves as those ordained to enact providential transition. In doing so they positioned themselves as those first conditioning their world rather than being conditioned by it.” [Emphasis mine.] In other words, as Europeans began understanding themselves as racially white, they no longer viewed themselves as being formed by God’s creation; now they were the ones with the racially-sanctioned ability to categorize, form, and exploit those with whom they came in contact, as well as the lands these cultures had long inhabited.
When white Christians forsake the clear biblical mandate to care for God’s creation and cheer for the president’s call to put our economy first while ignoring the obvious threats to this earth and its vulnerable inhabitants we are simply exhibiting the logic of white supremacy. In accepting our detachment from creation and claiming a god-like place of “conditioning” the world through our racialized gaze we have closed our eyes and stopped up our ears to the plight of this world.
When white Christians applaud policies that will further our planet’s destruction we might rightly feel many things, but surprise can’t be one of them.
It takes fifteen Chicago blocks to read aloud the names of the women and men murdered in our city within the past twelve months. It might be done quicker under some circumstances, but not these: hundreds of us walked slowly down Michigan Avenue on New Years Eve, our pace restrained by the crowd, the tourists along the Magnificent Mile reaching into the street with their cameras, and the occasional pause while police officers cleared an intersection. Also, the crosses. They were heavier than I expected: hefty beams, the fresh sawdust pressed onto the shoulders of my black coat. A single man had cut and assembled each of the more than seven hundred crosses, affixed a plywood heart to the cross beam, and painted onto it the victim’s name and date of death. We carried the crosses and walked down the street and then back again, the weight of the wood but also something else slowing us down. The names were read through a bullhorn chronologically by date of death and, occasionally, from somewhere within the cruciform waves, someone would cry out in recognition. Otherwise it was quiet, the whole event like a distant kin to a graduation: quiet, names in order, the uncontrollable scream at everything the name has meant.
As we moved I angled toward the curb, walking at the edge of the crowd so I could see the response of the unsuspecting shoppers and tourists. Many of the crosses had photos of the deceased attached, the black and brown faces matching the statistics of who gets killed in Chicago. The sidewalk faces varied in their reaction from puzzled to somber, from annoyed to grief-stricken. None, that I could see, joined our quiet march.
The unexpected emails started arriving in the months before the presidential election. My correspondents were men who could have been my uncles or cousins, if I had a small collection of kind Christian relatives who believed I’d lost my way. My blunt opposition to the next man who would be the president provoked them to write with varying levels of concern and correction. They worried that my polemics missed greater truths about the other candidate, about their own self-consciously Christian support of Donald Trump.
I know these men. They are gentle and modest. They care for their country, but not in the chest-thumping, flag-waving, you-damn-well-better-stand-for-the-anthem way that is sometimes assumed of certain kinds of Christian men. They are authentically pious and God-fearing.
They are also white, though they might question the relevance of this particular fact.
In an essay about his visit to the West Bank, Teju Cole asks, “How does one write about this place?”
Every sentence is open to dispute. Every place name is objected to by someone. Every barely stated fact seems familiar already, at once tiresome and necessary. Whatever is written is examined not only for what it includes but what it leaves out.
He’s thinking about the troubling relationship between Israel and the Palestinian Territories. The names of the places, people, wars, and sacred claims have become so common and heavy with assumptions of guilt and innocence that conversation becomes nearly impossible.
Last February, on a rainy day in Israel, I sat in an idling bus with a group of clergy looking across an impressive wall into Palestinian land. The pastors, most of them, were impressed with the wall and sympathetic to its military architect who stood at the front of our bus explaining into the microphone why the separation was necessary. He told us that he hoped one day to lead the work to demolish the wall, once the people on the other side learned to police themselves.
Through the rain-streaked windows, across the border, we could see some houses, small and meager next to the impressive wall. I wondered about the people whose days began in those homes before making the slow walk through tangled border crossings to work on the other side.
Did you know, asked the architect, that some of your politicians have visited our wall to study how to build a similar one on your border?
Seeing is hard. The stimuli enter my eyes and I register, somewhere, the scene as it unfolds. My eyes are exposed to experiences that exist beyond the limits of my body; I take them in as a passerby, sometimes as a confidant. But do I see?
It took a couple of weeks after this election to notice that I’d stopped posting photos of my sons to Facebook. The decision wasn’t deliberate; I’m proud of my sons and delight in sharing their smiles and adventures. I was aware, almost immediately, that there was nothing rational about my unconscious decision, but once it surfaced it became an unmovable fact, a thing I don’t do. The knowledge that many in my digital timeline voted for the man who has made himself a threat to my black and brown sons made posting their images seem, I don’t know, somehow inappropriate. As though I’d be aiding and abetting those who will not see my beautiful boys for who they are. These friends – and they are, still, I think – believe that what is best for my sons is to empower a man whose words and actions menace those who share what will be sons’ tenuous experience of this nation.
There is a lot to which I am blind but, when the emails came, I could see what my correspondents saw. I know the concerns and hopes they feel. I can hear the sermons they nod along to each week. I imagine the dinner-table conversation or the commentary over the latest headline. I see them.
That’s not totally right. I know this; there’s so much that I miss and Jesus says this discomfiting thing about beams and motes that chastens any assumptions about how clearly I see. Still, I’m willing to say this: They can’t see, not really, the experiences I try to explain- the ones about my sons, our friends, this segregated country, the good things being led in our city by people whose race renders their stories uninteresting to those with the power to tell them. In America, seeing happens through tinted lenses. What is made visible by dint of proximity and friendship is rendered perilously opaque to those who lack these basics. Seeing accurately requires closeness and familiarity.
The choice, such as it was, to stop posting photos of my sons is probably misdirected. Silly even. But it’s instinctual, a spasm provoked by bad eyes. These eyes are blinded to the flesh and blood village in front of them as they look to the gleaming, reality-defining wall in the distance.
In 1955, Mamie Till Mobley, upon hearing that the lynched and mutilated body of her 14-year-old son had been recovered from a Mississippi river, decided that Emmet would rest in an open casket during his Chicago funeral. About this decision, Claudia Rankine writes that “Mobley’s refusal to keep private grief private allowed a body that meant nothing to the criminal-justice system to stand as evidence.” Her decision, steeped in a courage I cannot grasp, was a mother’s demand to be seen. For her son to be seen. Photos were taken and articles written. But, as Rankine writes,
We live in a country where Americans assimilate corpses in their daily comings and going. Dead blacks are a part of life here. Dying in ship hulls, tossed into the Atlantic, hanging from trees, beaten, shot in churches, gunned down by the police, or warehoused in prisons: Historically, there is not quotidian without the enslaved, chained, or dead body to gaze upon or to hear about or to position a self against.
In this land, seeing demands more than an open casket and a mother’s deep resolve. We cannot be made to see. The white gaze blinks, even weeps at these moments – Emmet Till in the Tallahatchie River, Michael Brown on Canfield Drive, Tamir Rice at the Cuddle Recreation Center – but somewhere deep in the racialized reptilian subconscious is the anticipation of these scenes. This is the dark traumatic screen upon which whiteness has projected itself for centuries. We know the rituals and act them out; some will grieve and others will explain the violence away. But we do not see. We do not want to see.
It has long been this way. Sixty years before young Emmet’s funeral, Ida B. Wells published A Red Record, an account of American lynchings between 1892 and 1894. The book was “respectfully submitted to the Nineteenth Century civilization in ‘the Land of the Free and the Home of the Brave.'” It is a brave and gruesome book, the fruit of Well’s brilliance and incomparable will. Chapter after chapter documents the sad and brutal cases in which black bodies were desecrated and hung under the most speculative of pretenses. Then, toward the end, Wells describes a trip to England in support of her anti-lynching crusade. While there, Wells was asked about another American Christian, the Rev. Dwight L. Moody who was an internationally known evangelist and founder of a well known Bible college. Unlike Wells, he was white. Her English supporters were curious whether Rev. Moody had supported Wells’ efforts to stop the rampant lynching of black women and men. She replied, “Mr. Moody had never said a word against lynching in any of his trips to the South, or in the North either, so far as was known.”
In a forward to one of Wells’ previous books Frederick Douglass praised her work.
Brave woman! you have done your people and mine a service which can neither be weighed nor measured. If American conscience were only half alive, if the American church and clergy were only half christianized, if American moral sensibility were not hardened by persistent infliction of outrage and crime against colored people, a scream of horror, shame and indignation would rise to Heaven wherever you pamphlet shall be read.
But, as Rankine observes, the scream never comes. The white Christians indicted by Douglass cannot see, or rather, what horror they do see slides from consciences that were generations ago hardened to the violence inflicted upon black bodies. There is no whiteness without the juxtaposition of black bodies and, in America, those same bodies have always been interpreted through the lurking threat of state-dependent violence.
So the white gaze sees the unending assault but not the associated horror of any human encounter with violence. The suffering black body becomes black-ness, a disembodiment requiring no empathy or reflection, certainly no confession or repentance. The gaze can survey a ruined landscape, decimated by violence of its own making, and feel no complicity for the damage, no compassion for its victims. Within this devastation, Rankine writes, black citizens are asked, “What kind of savages are we?” But the legitimate question, she writes, the question grounded in truth and history, the question invisible to the white gaze, is different: “What kind of a country do we live in?”
My sons are black and they are brown. The oldest can tell you what continents and countries his ancestors came from. How they came here and why is unfolding before him. They must learn to see clearly for the critical reason that they cannot expect the same from those whose hazy sight has not hindered their accumulation of tremendous power.
“Every sentence is open to dispute,” writes Cole, but it’s more than that. Vision itself is contested. The gaze renders specific bodies invisible; it replaces flesh and blood with specters of an ancient, terrified imagination.
Our New Years Eve memorial ended about two hours after we first gathered in the December chill. Family members were invited to keep the crosses bearing the names and photos of their deceased. The rest of us placed ours near the trucks that had brought them; they would be delivered far from the Magnificent Mile, to an empty city lot as a larger version of the memorials that dot certain neighborhoods throughout the city. We left then, our ranks replaced by window shoppers and tourists ready to welcome a new year. Some looked over curiously, quickly. But mostly they walked on, their sight attracted to the shimmer and sparkle ahead.
Now, months later, I try to remember the name of the man whose cross I carried. I imagine it, scrawled across the plywood heart, but in my memory I see only a blank space where his name should be.