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.
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.
White Christianity cannot be redeemed. It must be renounced, again.
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 blindness. 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.
The ambivalence about climate change by many white Christians isn’t only about money and scientific skepticism.
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.
What an 82-year-old letter from Dietrich Bonhoeffer can teach us about Christian faithfulness under a President Trump.
First, a caveat: It is pointless to compare our next president to any specific political strongman or tyrant of the past, including the most infamous one who will make an appearance below. Such blunt comparisons ignore important distinctions and claim a vantage point available only to our grandchildren. Even so, and despite our tendency to make false equivalencies, history remains our best teacher and so it’s worth revisiting the past with care and nuance.
And another: Those for whom our president-elect is a literal answer to prayer will probably find what follows to be misguided or, more likely, incomprehensible. I’m resigned to this but will still aim for as much coherence as possible.
Finally: I genuinely want to be wrong about the president-elect. I pray and hope that everything I’ve assumed about his presidency and its devastating impact on people I love will be totally wrong. Nothing would make me happier. But until then…
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In 1934 Dietrich Bonhoeffer was serving as a pastor to two German-speaking congregations in London. Hitler’s rise to power was almost complete: the first concentration camp in Dachau had opened the previous year and in 1935 he would announce himself the Führer of the Third Reich. Bonhoeffer watched the rapid changes in his country first from New York where he studied at Union Seminary and worshipped at Abyssinian Baptist Church under the leadership of Adam Clayton Powell and later from a poor section of Berlin as he taught confirmation classes to rowdy and easily distracted boys. Now, from London, the 28-year-old reflected on how quickly everything was changing and how blind most of the German church was to the encroaching evil.
In April he replied to a letter from Erwin Sutz, a Swiss friend from his days at Union. With the previously-stated caveats in mind, I think Bonhoeffer can provoke our imaginations as we face our own uncertain days.
London, April 28, 1934
My dear Sutz,
I have just destroyed the remains of a letter to you that I started more than four weeks ago and never finished. I hope this one will not meet the same fate!
What is going on in the church in Germany you probably know as well as I do. Nat. Socialism has brought about the end of the church in Germany and has pursued it single-mindedly. We can be grateful to them, in the way the Jews had to be grateful to Sennacherib. For me there can be no doubt that this is clearly the reality that we face. Naive, starry-eyed idealists like Niemöller still think they are the real Nat. Socialists —and perhaps it’s a benevolent Providence that keeps them under the spell of this delusion. Maybe it is even in the interest of the Church Struggle, for anyone who is still at all interested in this struggle.
The German church had, mostly, succumbed to the promises of National Socialism which included abandoning their Jewish neighbors to the new regime. A month after Bonhoeffer wrote to Sutz the Reich Church would add the swastika to its official crest. Some Christian leaders, like Martin Niemöller, thought the church could still be rescued if enough resisters joined the Nazi Party and changed it from within. Bonhoeffer knew such efforts were futile, that the struggle for the German church had been lost and could only be seriously engaged by “starry-eyed idealists” who hadn’t come to grips with the extent of its apostasy.
In the days since our presidential election there has been much handwringing about the overwhelming percentage of white Christians (Evangelicals especially, but not only) who voted for the now president-elect. They voted for him despite the sustained witness by African American and Latino Christians about his bigotry and fear-mongering. They voted for him despite his disdain for women. They voted for him despite the threat to religious freedom that begins with barely-veiled Islamophobia. And they voted for him despite his claiming Christian faith while disdaining the Biblical requirements of confession and forgiveness, a reworking of the faith that, at a very basic level, cannot seriously be considered orthodox Christianity.
Bonhoeffer was sympathetic to those who fought for the soul of the German Church but could muster none of their energy. The day for that struggle had passed and he would direct his efforts elsewhere. Has that day arrived for us? The structures of white American Christianity have consistently made known their ignorance of and antipathy toward those Christians who exist outside the confines of whiteness. The recent election is only the latest evidence in a long and devastating case against white Christianity, a version of the faith that consistently chooses racial exclusivity over Christian solidarity. (The question of what exactly constitutes white Christianity deserves a full answer, but it would have to include the thorough disregard for the plainly stated concerns of black and brown believers, a disregard that has been undeniable these past months.)
The struggle now, for many of us, lies elsewhere.
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For some time it hasn’t even been about what it appears to be about; the lines have been drawn somewhere else entirely. 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.
Bonhoeffer was looking ahead to life as a confessional Christian under the German regime. He predicted, rightly, that the initial struggle against nationalistic and racial ideologies would fade into a second, less popular, struggle. This one would be different from the first in at least two ways. First, the fight wouldn’t be for the German Church – that one had already been lost – but for faithful discipleship to Jesus despite the church’s failure. This would be a kind of discipleship in exile and it would later be enfleshed for Bonhoeffer in an alternative seminary at Finkenwalde focused on study, spiritual formation, and the common life. And second, Bonhoeffer assumed that in the second struggle many of his former co-belligerents would disappear into the new normal. Once the Nazi Party had completed its takeover and once the German Church fell in line, those who had initially resisted would find it harder to continue their struggle. The threat of marginalization, not to mention the persecution that was still a few years away, would be enough to silence many of Hitler’s Christian opponents. From London, peering into the murky days ahead, Bonhoeffer anticipated these lonely days of the second struggle.
In these post-election days, as much of white Christianity has made plain (again) its allegiance to racial ideology, the struggle is also shifting. The scenario is different by many degrees than the one faced by Bonhoeffer and other confessional Christians. For example, America has always known expressions of Christianity that have existed in faithful distinction and, at times, opposition to white Christianity. Many of my elders have long heritages in black churches and, while they are disappointed by the man the country elected for its next president, they are not especially surprised . They’ve long taken this country at its word – a word that cannot be understood apart from the white supremacist assumptions surrounding it. They face this moment as they have many other moments, as self-consciously Christian people who will continue a path of discipleship to Jesus which puts them at odds with this nation’s motives and ends.
Despite differences such as this, we can learn from Bonhoeffer’s prescience and prepare ourselves for a second struggle. This will be discipleship struggle. As much of white Christianity moves on – mostly in celebration, some in resignation – we will need to prepare for a robust discipleship that forms us as members of Christ’s diverse and suffering Body. None of us are immune to this country’s idols and so this discipleship will prioritize repentance and forgiveness. We see how fear is stoked and monetized and so this discipleship will prioritize awe-inspiring worship, Fear-of-the-Lord worship. Those of us who grew up within the confines of white Christianity will submit ourselves to churches and leaders whose existence threatens the very assumptions of our old congregations. And the list goes on…
This will also be a discipleship that is aware of its resistance to much (most? all? time will tell.) of the new president’s agenda and underlying assumptions. There is, of course, nothing unique about Christian discipleship that intentionally resists corrupt and destructive authorities, but it’s a tradition that some of us have forgotten. We’ll need to remember. More complicated is how a discipleship of resistance will place Christians at odds with those white forms of Christianity that are even now moving ahead with business as usual, some with a conviction of God’s divine intervention and others with the temporary and small sadness that comes when one’s political party loses. Over time it will become clear that these forms of Christianity have very little to say to those engaged in a discipleship of resistance. This is cause for much grief, ongoing lament, and fervent prayer but maybe not much more.
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I believe that all of Christendom should be praying with us for the coming of resistance “to the point of shedding blood” and for the finding of people who can suffer it through. 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.
Later, Bonhoeffer would join those who believed Hitler had to be opposed with violence. But here, when he writes about a blood-shedding resistance, he has in mind the suffering that lies ahead for those who resist the Nazi Party. For the young theologian, Christian resistance to oppressive and violent forces was a question of faith. Who, he seems to ask, would he choose to believe in this moment when all appeared lost? When demonic ideologies had won the day, would the church have eyes of faith to see an alternative ending? Would they have the courage to pray and act with faith?
Here the historical gap lessens. We don’t need to predict any particular suffering to take seriously the challenge of faith. The temptation to despair is strong. Equally strong is the temptation to take matters into our own hands, to find places and people where our control can be exerted. And then there will be the lasting temptation to acquiesce, to content ourselves with the glittering things this nation offers in exchange for our willingness to agree with the deception, to turn away from the destruction.
Our suffering, if it comes, will begin with our choice to place our bodies in front of the deception and destruction. It will come with our choice to tell the truth, occasionally with our mouths but mostly with lives that testify to our crucified Savior. It will come with our embodied solidarity with those whose bodies and histories mark them for harassment and trouble in the days ahead.
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You know, it is my belief—perhaps it will amaze you—that it is the Sermon on the Mount that has the deciding word on this whole affair… Please write and tell me sometime how you preach about the Sermon on the Mount. I’m currently trying to do so, to keep it infinitely plain and simple, but it always comes back to keeping the commandments and not trying to evade them. Following Christ—what that really is, I’d like to know—it is not exhausted by our concept of faith.
Bonhoeffer’s posture toward National Socialism and the church’s tepid response to Hitler was deeply rooted in the Bible. He regularly returned to the Sermon on the Mount and his question to Sutz about how to preach this passage was probably very sincere. For all of Jesus’ impossible teaching in these famous verses, Bonhoeffer finds the primary question to be whether or not a Christian will obey Jesus. Such costly obedience cannot be evaded by claims of faith, by sincere-sounding appeals to the priority of right belief over Christ-like action. In 1937 Bonhoeffer would publish Discipleship, a book in which he would explore the Sermon on the Mount in depth and differentiate between costly discipleship and cheap grace. In this letter, as he thinks about returning to Germany with its many threats, Bonhoeffer reminds his friend that appealing to Christian faith cannot replace righteous action. The former, detached from the latter, cannot in any real way be considered discipleship to Jesus.
We need to hear this unequivocal call to discipleship today. We have in this country a dominant form of Christianity that claims right belief and sincere faith and which has repeatedly and systematically ignored the appeals from other Christians for righteous action. It is appropriate to make this plain, with sadness. It is appropriate, in spite of the inevitable sharp and sarcastic responses, to reveal the pledge to cultural whiteness over ecclesiastical reconciliation. And it is crucial that we examine ourselves with the expectation that we too have made similar compromises. That is, this moment calls for direct appeals to costly discipleship in the way of Jesus and, precisely because it is Jesus’ way, the appeal will always begin with my own sinful heart.
From his London parish in 1934 Bonhoeffer could not fully imagine the years ahead, including his eventual imprisonment and execution by his government. But he saw enough to move forward with joyful courage. May God grant us similar companions, joyful in disposition and courageous in action, for the days ahead, whatever they may hold.
For those who think that these impulses are somehow at a great distance from Trump’s campaign and his White House, we need only note the appointment of Stephen Bannon as Trumps strategist and senior counselor, a position with direct access to and great influence over the president. Bannon himself described his own work as a platform for the “alt-right.”
Many evangelical supporters of Trump have been quick to note that they are not racists, anti-Semites, or misogynists themselves, but they have been slower to denounce the racism, anti-Semitism, and misogyny that have ridden Trump’s coattails like an invisible down-ballot candidate. (Others have simply said that “there will always be crazies” attached to candidates from any party. “There will always be crazies” is not an appropriate response to David Duke and the KKK or to anti-Semitism or to the subjugation of women.)
Any evangelical Christian unwilling to acknowledge and repudiate the hatred that has been stoked by Trump’s campaign, and tempted to claim clean hands because they themselves don’t embody that hatred, should remember both the call to smash false values and the Apostle Paul’s words in Romans 1:32, which condemn not only sinful deeds but also condemn giving approval of those who practice them.
I can come to no other conclusion, no other possibility in this disorienting moment.
The presidential candidate of the Republican Party deserves non-partisan resistance from this country’s Christians. I’ve asked questions of Christians who support, or are considering supporting, this candidate. I’ve listened to, read about, and imagined the circumstances that would lead people – Christian people – to giving the candidate their support. And still I can come to no other conclusion, no other possibility in this disorienting moment: It’s time to resist.
The list that compels our Christian resistance is long. The early church grew in large part because of the honor granted to women including, radically for that time, single women with no intention to marry. Yet the candidate has shown himself chronically incapable of interacting with the women in his family or employment with anything close to respect, much less honor. Women, in this man’s gaze, are objects to be rated and commodities to be exploited. Or consider that the idolatrous nationalism that American Christians have come to expect from both political parties has grown through this man’s vision into full-blown xenophobia. It’s no longer enough to pay lip service to the troops, publicly salute the flag, and ignore all evidence of the nation’s inglorious past; patriotism now requires that other nations bear the violent weight of our scorn. The candidate has identified new scapegoats – living cultures of people – who deserve our wrath for making our lives less than we think they deserve to be. This development has to trouble a people whose allegiance to Jesus always puts us out of step with our rulers. And when we remember that the eucharistic blood we share with Mexican, Palestinian, and Chinese Christians is thicker than whatever is meant to bind us to other Americans… well, we must speak loudly on their behalf. Our reputations – those publicly maligned Christians and us – are one and the same. What sort of family would we be if we simply let the candidate slander our sisters and brothers?
But these reasons, among others that could be listed, are not enough. Every day it seems we hear of new Christian leaders – mostly of the so-called conservative or Evangelical variety – supporting the candidate. For some it’s a question of the lesser evil – a strange way to speak for those who actually believe in evil and its malevolent powers. For others the support is more enthusiastic; there are true believers among the Believers.
How is their support – however tepid or enthused – possible? I’ve been listening and trying to understand, as sympathetically as can be expected from one who thinks the candidate deserves only resistance from this country’s Christians. There are others, but I’ve heard three consistent reasons for Christian support of the candidate. The first has to do with a variety of social conservatism which believes, despite all evidence to the contrary from his life and career, that the candidate he will make policy decisions and judicial appointments aligned with the so-called religious right. Another reason for supporting the candidate has more to do with opposing, no matter what, the Democratic Party and, especially, its nominee. There is something deep and dark that is invoked by this woman’s presence among some of the candidate’s supporters, something that evolves into ugly sexism in the worst cases and in many is expressed by a profound distrust. Finally, and most interesting to me, are the supporters who see in the candidate some reason to hope that their economic depression will finally be addressed. J. D. Vance has told this story beautifully in his new memoir, Hillbilly Elegy, and there’s a lot here worth examining closely. For example, the generational poverty that is common to many white Appalachian and rust belt families has important points of contact with the experience of some Black Americans yet, as this political contest proves on a seemingly daily basis, race works to separate those who might otherwise find common cause with each other.
I recently sat across a table from a friend, a Latino pastor. We wrapped up our conversation about his church and ministry in Chicago and I asked, in my good-enough Spanish, what he thought about the candidate and all of the surrounding chatter. He smiled and laughed, told some stories about the jokes his family and church make about this moment. And then- I’m surprised, he said. Surprised that so many people will follow this man. Can’t they hear what he’s saying?
The rationale some Christians give for following the candidate are interesting to consider even as I find none of them weighty enough justify their support. Again, I’m writing as a Christian, so even if there were more substance to these reasons I would still be compelled to resistance. The reason has everything to do with that Latino pastor, a man who is my friend and brother – as we Christian people say and claim – in Christ.
The candidate’s racism is well known and extensively documented. (And now, as much as I’d prefer to maintain the blessed absence of this man’s name, I must finally write it in association with, what I believe to be, the primary cause of our Christian resistance.) Donald Trump is a racist. This is not, actually, an especially bold thing to say. Others have said it more persuasively than I will. And, obviously, I’m also a racist. The difference is not one of scale but simple acknowledgement: though the candidate and I breathe the same racist American air, I am repentant and he is not. I limp while he struts.
The only way white Christians can get around the candidate’s racism is by claiming that he doesn’t actually mean it, that he’s simply being ironic in the way all of our political candidates must be in order to secure the necessary votes. David Foster Wallace wrote about this in 1993: “All U.S. irony is based on an implicit ‘I don’t really mean what I’m saying.’ So what does irony as a cultural norm mean to say? That it’s impossible to mean what you say? That maybe it’s too bad it’s impossible, but wake up and smell the coffee already? Most likely, I think, today’s irony ends up saying: ‘How totally banal of you to ask what I really mean.'” But while such irony may be the accepted assumption behind our culture’s political discourse, it can’t be justified away by people who are bound to tell the truth about all things, to the best of our ability. As such, a Christian would have to be willfully, vehemently blind to the candidate’s history to believe such nonsense about his inevitable transformation into someone less dehumanizing.
But this isn’t the worst of this ironic rationalization. What makes this a completely un-Christian argument – one that I’ve heard repeatedly – is the assumption that the person on the receiving end of the racism spouted by the candidate and some of his more vocal supporters is an untrustworthy narrator of their own experience. More baldly: The white Christian claims to know what’s better for the Black or Brown Christian than she or he knows for themselves.
That white Christians in this country can with a clear conscious support the candidate or, with mild distaste, privately disapprove of him seems to me another reminder of how divided our churches are. The plain fact is that very few white Christians are in a position to hear firsthand how one of their Black or Brown family members is experiencing this election. We will be more influenced by the media ideologues of our choice than by the sisters and brothers of our Faith.
And here we must say two things that should be obvious but are apparently not. First, of course there are some Black and Brown people who support the candidate. Their presence – especially as spokespeople – is held up by some white Christians as evidence that the candidate is in fact not a racist, merely misunderstood for all of his politically incorrect truth telling. But this is silly, an obvious exception proving the rule. Would that those white Christians be in a position to listen to communities of those who share their faith but not their race, that their ears could be filled with the stories and perspectives of flesh and blood unmitigated by pundits and screens.
Second, in listening to some white Christian supporters of the racist candidate it becomes unsettlingly evident that race, not faith, is the strongest lens through which the world and its dangers are viewed. “Why do so many white Evangelicals support him?” The question surprised me, coming from a Black friend as we left church. I stumbled and stuttered. This was around the time that two unarmed Black men were killed by police within the same week. I know the answers I’ve heard from his Christian supporters, but to the question behind my friend’s question – How can so many white Christians support a racist? – I’m left to admit that race exhibits an influence greater than faith. I want to be wrong about this. It’s an ugly thing to say. I’d like to be convinced of an alternative explanation, but one has yet to be presented with any persuasiveness.
And so, Christian resistance is what the moment requires. It’s necessary to say that this is a non-partisan resistance because our imaginations have been so diluted that we think only of our vote as a signal of support or opposition. But there are other ways. We might submit our vote to a person who has been the target of the candidate’s hate. We might devote our attention to local candidates whose decisions will impact classrooms and housing. We might, as some of are, begin to think about what resistance will look like after this election. There will be reasons to resist if the candidate is elected- he’s made no mystery of how his policies will ostracize and divide. And if he’s not, there will be a reinvigorated contingency of citizens who have been deputized in their bigotry. This too will require our Christian resistance.