The (Criminal) Body of Christ

When human beings are reduced to criminals, it is time for the church to become criminal as well.

This country’s president and his supporters regularly criminalize entire groups of people, most obviously the immigrants who’ve been called murderers and rapists but also those from so-called shithole countries and the people the administration has labeled animals by dent of their association – actual or perceived – with gang activity. The repercussions of this consistent dehumanizing rhetoric is daily becoming more evident; the stories of children torn from the arms of their families – parents fleeing genuine violence and seeking asylum – are gut-wrenching. But when people are no longer people, simply criminals whose offenses against this country must be punished, we, the citizens of this aggrieved and apparently besieged country, do not have to consider the nuances of the actual human experience. We don’t have to admit our complicity in the violence that has forced these families to make impossible decisions. We don’t have to grapple with the Christian responsibility to love neighbors and welcome immigrants.

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Remaking people into criminals allows us the deception that flesh and blood is no longer human. Our response to other image-bearers of the living God is to slander, cage, and expel them.

When human beings are reduced to criminals, it is time for the church to become criminal as well.

Paul writes that the church is the “body of him who is the head, that is, Christ.” This body has a history of being criminalized. Jesus’ life ended as a criminal- arrested, tried, convicted, and executed. It is this identity that rationalized his crucifixon, that allowed the religious and political powers to wash their hands of any guilt. The Galilean heretic and zealot got what he deserved. James Cone, in The Cross and the Lynching Tree, notes that the Roman Empire reserved crucifixion for insurrections and rebels. “It was a public spectacle accompanied by torture and shame – one of the most humiliating and painful deaths ever devised by human beings.” Criminals were crucified and the body into which we are incorporated hung on a cross, as a criminal.

Jesus also commanded his disciples to follow his example by taking up their own crosses as they followed him. We interpret his instructions to be about the sacrifices associated with discipleship, but we shouldn’t miss the meaning of the cross to those first disciples. To them it was a symbol not of spiritual self-denial but of societal criminality. Rebels, rabble-rousers, and young Galileans who fit the description were hung from roadside crosses by the hundreds, their expiring bodies a permanent mark of their non-human status within the empire. By instructing his disciples to pick up their crosses, Jesus was making them criminals in their society’s estimation. As Fleming Rutledge writes in her book about the crucifixion, a church that lives into its true identity is one which understands “itself as the community of the cross, the community that suffers-with (com-passion), the community that willingly bears the stigma of the passion in service to others.”

The church, as Christ’s body, is criminal in the eyes of empires and powers and its members willingly pick up the symbols of dehumanizing criminality in the pattern of our crucified Savior.

Today, though, it seems that American Christianity, at least of the privileged variety, avoids any association with the empire’s criminals in one of two ways. Some have associated so closely with partisan politics that they’ve come to see, through the empire’s eyes, criminals instead of people. And so we hear pastors and ministry leaders rationalize and spiritualize the administration’s violent policies. Others have created a moral high ground, a respectable and seemingly prophetic perch from which to lob sanctimonious pleas about justice without ever drawing near to those who are being oppressed. Identities are created by opposing the president and his supporters without incurring any actual risk. Racial privilege and class segregation keep these Christians safe from being joined together with those who’ve been criminalized.

What is needed in this time of pervasive dehumanization is for churches to reclaim our criminal status.  We must pick up our crosses – our border walls and jail cells – and follow the criminal messiah. We must trade our bland reputations for the fire of his gospel- freedom for captives announced by the crucified one. And we must associate intimately, to the point of being indistinguishable, with each person whose humanity has been made criminal.

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

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

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

Some Kind of Mob

St. Augustine on why the USA will never be good for all.

AugustineIn chapters 21-24 of Book XIX in City of God, Augustine reflects on whether Rome, or any empire, can be thought of as a commonwealth. He’s asking, in other words, whether an empire can exist for the common good of its citizens. First he takes up a definition from Cicero’s On the Republic which identifies a commonwealth as the “the weal of the people” – or, the good of the people – wherein people are defined as a group “united in association by a common sense of right and community interest.” This right and interest, according to Augustine’s interpretation of Cicero, “cannot be maintained without justice.” In short, a commonwealth exists for the good of those who are united by justice.

Without justice, according to Augustine, the whole thing unravels and rather than a commonwealth the empire is actually “some kind of a mob, not deserving the name of a people.” A few pages later he suggests a different definition of “a people” as if to explore whether an empire is ever capable of pursuing the common good of all of its citizens. Perhaps a people should should be defined as “the association of a multitude of rational beings united by a common agreement on the objects of their love.” In this instance the focus is on love rather than justice, particularly on the common objects of the multitudes’ love. In this case, to determine the quality of the people we must observe what they love. “Obviously, the better the objects of this agreement, the better the people; the worse the objects of this love, the worse the people.”

By this second definition Augustine is willing to concede that perhaps Rome is a commonwealth, but only barely given the direction of its loves: “bloody strife of parties and then to the social and civil wars, and corrupted and disrupted that very unity which is, as it were, the health of a people.”

When he considers both expressions of a state that exists for the common good, Augustine ultimately finds each lacking because of their disregard for God. The first disdains justice and so “takes a man away from the true God and subjects him to unclean demons.” Similarly, the second cannot acknowledge God as ruler “because it disobeys his commandments that sacrifice should be made to himself alone.” Both visions of commonwealth ultimately fail because they do not recognize the lordship of the one God. Any attempt at justice or love apart from the One who embodies them will be a shadow of the common good at best, oppressive at worst.

Augustine, it should be said, does not sound especially judge-y about these two inadequate expressions of the common good or the disappointing states and governments they represent. It’s not as though he expects anything different; he concedes that these are the best empires can do. The City of Man, in contrast to the City of God, is severely limited in its capacity to be just or to inspire love because it does not submit to the God who is the definition of justice and love.

Within our own American expression of empire we have a version of Christianity that seems hellbent on establishing its particular vision of the City of God using tools from that other city. I doubt that Augustine would be impressed, seeing the willful association with injustice and disordered loves as a pathetic attempt to grasp what can only be fully known within that future city wherein God alone will be worshiped, when justice and love will be defining characteristics of his people forever. No empire can ever be good for all, something the representatives of this grasping Christianity probably know full well. In the meantime, I fear they appear to their neighbors as nothing more than some kind of a mob.

Of Monsters and Money

A sermon about the empire’s money, the exile’s hope, and the Savior who would not be bought.

14 “To the angel of the church in Laodicea write: These are the words of the Amen, the faithful and true witness, the ruler of God’s creation. 15 I know your deeds, that you are neither cold nor hot. I wish you were either one or the other! 16 So, because you are lukewarm—neither hot nor cold—I am about to spit you out of my mouth. 17 You say, ‘I am rich; I have acquired wealth and do not need a thing.’ But you do not realize that you are wretched, pitiful, poor, blind and naked. 18 I counsel you to buy from me gold refined in the fire, so you can become rich; and white clothes to wear, so you can cover your shameful nakedness; and salve to put on your eyes, so you can see.” [Revelation 3:14-18]

11 “The merchants of the earth will weep and mourn over her because no one buys their cargoes anymore— 12 cargoes of gold, silver, precious stones and pearls; fine linen, purple, silk and scarlet cloth; every sort of citron wood, and articles of every kind made of ivory, costly wood, bronze, iron and marble; 13 cargoes of cinnamon and spice, of incense, myrrh and frankincense, of wine and olive oil, of fine flour and wheat; cattle and sheep; horses and carriages; and human beings sold as slaves. 14 They will say, ‘The fruit you longed for is gone from you. All your luxury and splendor have vanished, never to be recovered.’” [Revelation 18:11-14]

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During Lent we remember Jesus’ 40 days in the wilderness and the Israelite’s 40 years in the wilderness. The wilderness experience was a common experience for God’s people in the Old Testament, as was its corollary of exile. Exile, the experience of being sent or kept from one’s homeland, is something the early Christians experienced as well, something they anticipated from Jesus’ teaching and, later, from the Apostle Paul.

“You do not belong to the world, but I have chosen you out of the world. That is why the world hates you.” [John 15:18] 

But our citizenship is in heaven. And we eagerly await a Savior from there, the Lord Jesus Christ. [Philippians 3:20]

Exile is a normal part of the Christian life. And how we engage with money in exile is incredibly important because, as we’ll see, money is a spiritual force that competes with God for our worship. Money, according to the Bible, is different than we tend to think of it, as a neutral object that we can use for good or ill. According to the French sociologist Jaques Ellul, money in the Bible is seen as “a power which tries to be like God, which makes itself our master and which has specific goals.”

The warped spiritual power of money is nowhere exhibited more strongly than within the context of empire and exile. If the Christian experience is one of regular exile in this life, then we need to pay special attention to the power that the empire’s money exerts over our desires and decisions. Otherwise we’ll think we are using money when we are being used by money.

Laodicea sat at the intersection of two major trade routes, had fertile grazing land, and became a center of banking and finance. It is of the church in this city of which God says, I am about to spit you out of my mouth. Why? The Laodicean church had forgotten their exile and thought of themselves as being comfortably a part of the empire. They saw themselves as citizens of the Roman Empire rather than exiles of the Kingdom of Heaven. Let’s look more closely at why this provoked such a fierce response from God.

The letter to the church in Laodicea is found in Revelation, a letter from the Apostle John to churches throughout the Roman Empire. Revelation was written to people who knew the particular exilic experience of one of the most powerful empire’s the world has known. The Emperor Domitian called himself “Lord God,” demanded worship, and brutally persecuted Jews and Christians who refused to do so, taking their property and executing them.

It’s important to remember that John’s letter to Laodicea is contained within Revelation, a letter written as apocalyptic literature. This form of literature is foreign to us but it had important characteristics that help us understand why God threatened to spit the Laodicean Christians out of his mouth. First, apocalyptic literature revealed the spiritual realities behind physical events, like pulling back a veil between the natural and spiritual worlds. Second, apocalyptic literature described current events through the use of symbolism. By using dense symbolism and metaphors, John was able to warn the churches about life in exile without antagonizing the wrath of the empire. In this way is less like gazing into a crystal ball to see the future and more like the spirituals sung by enslaved women and men in the American South, their songs serving as coded and subversive instructions for the long and dangerous journey to freedom.

God’s harsh words to the church in Laodicea were written in this strange, apocalyptic style. But we need to jump ahead a few chapters to understand how God’s anger with these Christians was connected to their relationship to money.

The merchants of the earth will weep and mourn over her because no one buys their cargoes anymore. [18:11]

Who is the woman over whom the merchants are weeping? Between the letter to the Laodicean church in chapter three and the weeping merchants in chapter eighteen, Revelation tells us about three layers of evil that are violently opposed to God’s people. The first is God’s enemy, Satan, who is described as “an enormous red dragon with seven heads and ten horns.” [12:3] The second is the beast, or monster, who is, as N.T. Wright puts it, “the dark power of pagan empire.” This monster derives its power from the dragon – Satan – and is the spirit of empire that violently chases God’s people into exile. The third layer of evil is the prostitute who is the particular expression of the monster, the spirit of empire expressed as the Roman Empire. Of his vision about the empire John writes:

Then the angel carried me away in the Spirit into a wilderness. There I saw a woman sitting on a scarlet beast that was covered with blasphemous names and had seven heads and ten horns. The woman was dressed in purple and scarlet, and was glittering with gold, precious stones and pearls. She held a golden cup in her hand, filled with abominable things and the filth of her adulteries. [17:3-4]

The image in Revelation of the prostitute is not of a person exploited or trafficked as we might think of prostitutes today. Rather, this is a person who derives power from the beast, from the spirit of empire, to lure people with glittering promises to their destruction.

As Wright notes, the prostitute, “in it of her own volition can dress up fine, can put on a great show, and (not least) can hold out a wonderful golden goblet as though she’s inviting you to a rich banquet. But the eye of faith, not merely of cynicism, recognizes that the goblet is full of urine, dung, and blood.” The language Wright uses is harsh, meant to offend our sensibilities and provoke our gag reflux. But it’s an accurate description of the wickedness inflicted upon God’s people by the empire: I saw that the woman was drunk with the blood of God’s holy people, the blood of those who bore testimony to Jesus. [17:6]

This personification of the Roman Empire is who the merchants mourn in chapter eighteen. They grieve because John’s vision looks ahead to the day when the Roman Empire would finally collapse. And now we’re getting closer to seeing how money is a spiritual power that competes with God for our worship. Those who’ve made their money from the empire will grieve over their losses, but John wants the church to remember that this empire gained its power – as all empires do – from the monstrous spirit, a spirit who receives its potency from Satan himself.

The monster of empire is drunk on the blood of God’s holy people. In fact, the entire system of empire is built upon the exploitation and destruction of human beings. The business people grieve over the long list of resources from which they will no longer be able to profit now that Rome has fallen – precious stones, fine linen, expensive spices – and at the end of the list of things they will no longer be able to profit from: human beings sold as slaves. The monster of empire – the demonic spirit which chases God’s people into exile – expresses itself by exploiting and destroying women and men.

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You say, ‘I am rich; I have acquired wealth and do not need a thing.’ But you do not realize that you are wretched, pitiful, poor, blind and naked. [3:17]

It’s not just that the Laodicean church was depending on their wealth rather than on God, though they were. Their real problem was that they had built their security upon the exploitation of the weak and vulnerable, including other Christians whose blood cried out from the empire’s cup. Their financial security came from the very empire whose wicked power derived from the dragon, a power that fueled itself by treating image-bearing people as resources to extract, exploit, and eventually extinguish.

It’s not that they were intentionally profiting from the slave trade or had as part of their financial portfolio government bonds built on the bloody persecution of their fellow Christians. No, the problem was their tacit acceptance of the empire’s monetary regime of buying and selling everything, including people. The problem is how they embraced and benefited from a system of exploitation and death.

Do you know that thirty-five percent of mutual funds contain investments in a maker or retailer of guns and ammunition? Do you know that after the president’s election the stock price for two publicly traded for-profit prison and immigration detention corporations went through the roof? As one financial analyst said, The deportation crackdown is doing very good things for these companies. On a personal level, it leaves a sour taste in my mouth, but I guess business is business.

Like Rome, our American expression of the beast of empire assumes that exploitation and death are the reasonable collateral damages of our wealth. Indiscriminately imprisoning black women and men, massacring children with military-style weapons, building economic bubbles on the backs of the poor… all are the cost of doing business with the beast. I guess business is business.

The particular expression of any empire is always built on the monstrous spirit of empire and so the way the empire engages with money will never be neutral. Money, in the empire, will always be wielded as a spiritually oppressive power. The option to wash our hands of responsibility simply does not exist for those who have been exiled within the pagan empire… whether that empire is Rome in the early 100’s or America in the early 2000’s.

Of the Laodicean Christians, theologian Brian K. Blount writes that they “comprised a wealthy, self-sufficient community of faith. They believed that their wealth was an indication that they were recipients of God’s favor. John believed that their wealth was an indication that God did not favor them. Because one could only gather wealth in that Greco-Roman context by blending into the very culture that denied God’s lordship, wealth was a sign of accommodation.”

God was angry with the Laodicean Christians because the money and wealth in which they had put their trust came from the monster’s ravenous appetite for human flesh. Their comfortable homes, secure borders, respectable jobs, and secure bank accounts were evidence not of God’s favor but of their collusion with the demonic forces of empire, the same forces that had exiled members of their own Christian family at the knife’s edge of persecution unto death.

How could the Laodicean church miss it? How could they mistake wealth that was built on the backs of enslaved and exploited people as God’s blessing? How could they ignore that the same empire that had made them wealthy was literally killing their Christian family? And what about us? We miss the same thing those early Christians missed, that money is a spiritual power that the evil one exploits for his destructive purposes, purposes that are heightened and hidden within the machinations of the empire.

Once we understand the satanic power behind empire we can better understand the Laodicean church’s captivity to money, and perhaps our own as well. The Bible tells us two important things about God’s enemy, the red dragon of Revelation who animates the beast of empire. First, his desire is to destroy.  So of course the spirit of empire – whether the Roman empire of the past or the current expressions of empire that we experience today – of course empire will destroy human life. And not just as a matter of occasional policy, but as the fundamental rationale for its very existence. There is no way to profit from the empire without profiting from someone else’s exile; there is no way to take the empire’s money without being complicit with the empire’s bloodthirsty violence- human beings sold as slaves.

Second, Satan is a liar. The Laodiceans show us how the dragon who animates the monster of empire is a deceiver. Not only have they been blinded to how their wealth has been squeezed from the bodies of others, blood pooled in the prostitute’s cup; they’ve also become convinced that this wealth is a sign of God’s love for them, rather than proof of their complicity with the empire’s wicked agenda. Standing on the security of their money, the Laodicean church proclaims “we don’t need anything.” In fact, they are in danger of being spat from God’s mouth along with the other filth that has collected in the prostitute’s golden goblet.

Jesus warned his followers in similarly stark terms. “No one can serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and money.” [Matthew 6:24] We are tempted to think of money as an object to be used. But Jesus warns us, as does John in Revelation, that money is a spiritual power that competes with God for our worship. The empire’s money is a spiritual power opposed to the Kingdom of God. If we choose to play by the rules of the empire we will never simply use money; money will always use us, and we will get used for the enemy’s deception and destruction. Or to put it slightly differently, when we get used by the empire’s money, someone else is guaranteed to be abused.

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Is there any hope for us? If exile is our experience until Christ’s return, is there any way we can stand against the monster of empire and its oppressive use of money? Each of us has been ensnared at some point by this monster. Many of us are like the complacent Laodiceans, mistaking our relative wealth and comfort for God’s favor when in fact we are reaping the rotten empire fruit of exploitation and dehumanization. Others of us today know genuine poverty. We’ve had money squeezed from our bodies in the form of payday loans; court and legal fees collected by justice system that privileges the wealthy and the white; Chicago water fees that are higher in black and brown neighborhoods; Chicago property taxes that are adjusted at higher rates in lower-income neighborhoods; and on and on it goes.

As much as we’d prefer to think of ourselves as the masters of our money, if we can stomach the truth than we must admit that the Biblical view of money as a spiritual power that demands our worship and brokers no rivals is a far more accurate description of reality.

Is there any hope for an exiled people?

18 I counsel you to buy from me gold refined in the fire, so you can become rich; and white clothes to wear, so you can cover your shameful nakedness; and salve to put on your eyes, so you can see. [3:18] God urges the Laodiceans to repent, to turn from the Mammon of the empire and worship the God who is the only source of true wealth. If there is hope for them, there must be hope for us too.

There is hope for us, even in a place of exile, even as our world groans under the oppressive regime of the monster and its dragon. There is hope because God did not abandon us to the empire.

The God of grace subjected himself to the monster’s regime of buying and selling, of exploitation and greed; the Son of God took on the flesh of our frail and vulnerable humanity and subjected himself to an empire where everything was commodified, including the very creatures created in his image.

The God whose character it is to give, to forgive and then to forgive again; the God who cancels debts and liberates captives; the God who makes covenant with his people and then agrees to uphold both ends of the promise; the God who came to proclaim good news to the poor; the God who came to to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for blind Laodicean and American eyes; the God who came to set the oppressed free… this God – the very definition of grace and gift – this God subjected himself to the greedy empire and this God – for us and our salvation – allowed himself to be sold for thirty pieces of silver.

There is hope for exiles like us whose minds have been colonized by a greedy empire because this God allowed the monster to crush him; allowed the beast to display his cheaply purchased body from Calvary’s tree.

There is hope for the exiles who have forgotten that we are exiles; who have acculturated ourselves to the pleasures and luxuries of the monstrous empire. And there is hope for the exiles who are this empire’s scorn, the ones whose blood and bodies have long sustained the crops of America’s ill-gotten cash. Despite the dragon’s power behind this ravenous monster, there is hope for the exiles because though he subjected himself to the empire’s marketplace, Jesus would not be bought. Though he allowed his body to be purchased, Jesus would not be owned. Though he subjected himself to the enslavers, Jesus would not be captured. Though he allowed the spirit of money to lay claim on his life, Jesus would not be commodified.

The Son of God was sold, but he could not be bought. And so in God’s divine reversal, the purchased Son of God gave himself away and with his death freely given he purchased our salvation.

There is hope for us because the One who subjected himself to our exile is now leading our exodus from the empire. The one who allowed the monster to crush him has defeated the dragon.

Money is a spiritual force that competes with God for our worship. This power is amplified within the empire, causing some of us to forget our exile and others of us to suffer greatly under its destructive power. But Jesus, by allowing himself to be purchased, has opened the way for our salvation; he has exposed the ultimate powerlessness of the empire’s money. In a nation that buys and sells everything and everyone, Jesus has made us free.

We are free to confess how we have suffered the monster’s lies: the shame we have been made to feel by our financial poverty; the false sense of blessing we have been made to feel by our wealth.

We are free to sell our stuff to provide for the poor.

We are free to give generously from whatever abundance God has provided.

We are free to admit our financial addictions without shame to those who will walk with us, holding us accountable, cutting up those unnecessary credit cards.

We are free to tell our community that we don’t have enough to pay the rent this month. And we are free to tell our community that we have too much money and that we need help giving it away.

We are free, in other words, to reject the false god of money, to scoff at its weak power, and to worship instead the God of Grace.

The Laodiceans thought they were wealthy, not realizing they were wretched; thought they were powerful, not realizing they were pitiful; they misunderstood their poverty for wealth, their blindness for sight, their nakedness for luxurious cloth. May it not be so for us. May we see through the destruction and deception of the monster and its dragon, so that we might know the freedom that is ours in Christ Jesus, whose body and blood freely given forever purchased our freedom.

Photo credit: vonderauvisuals.

Make Babylon Great Again

The delusion of mistaking our exile for home.

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Credit: Thomas Hawk

On Sunday I began a preaching series called Thriving in Exile. The premise is simple: Much of the time in Scripture God’s people are experiencing exile – having been sent or kept away from their homeland – and must wrestle with the inevitable theological and practical questions of an exilic experience. While the exile’s desire is always to return home – or, for the Christian, to experience finally what Paul calls our citizenship in heaven (Philippians 3:20) – often God promises not a quick exit from exile but a flourishing life in exile. Jeremiah’s letter to the exiles in Babylon is probably the best-known example as seen in Jeremiah 29.

Preaching about the experience of exile in a multi-racial church provides an interesting challenge for the different ways members have experienced their place in this country. For many of us who are white, our general posture toward the USA has been hopeful. We have felt at home in the land of the free. Our experience of Christianity has usually done little to challenge our deep affinity with the country. If anything, certain types of white Christianity have, at different times, identified certain moral concerns as a means of describing our cultural marginalization. Public school desegregation, school prayer, and contraceptive mandates have each functioned as rallying cries for communities that perceive themselves to be besieged.

Then there are those in our congregation who’ve never once mistaken this country to be their homeland. More than once, mostly from black members but not only, I’ve heard laments about how this nation has communicated dangerous disdain toward certain of its citizens. The biblical description of exile – in the cries of the psalmists, the questions of the prophets, and the experiences of the early Christians – resonate with their own experiences in a land that has made of them permanent exiles in this world.

There’s a difference, then, in how we hear Jesus’ promise in John 15:18 that his followers will experience the same hate he knew. Those who’ve made this nation our home, despite its deadly treatment of those who share our faith but not our race, will be tempted to hear a vague spiritual threat to our individual rights or happiness. But to those who’ve known their exilic status in this place, Jesus’ warning holds the potential for great peace. The one who outlined our exile in this life was himself despised, rejected, and made to suffer. Those who’ve never been confused about their homeland are the guides to thriving in our exile, to identifying with the despised One who makes available to us the abundant life, even here and now.

Thinking this Babylon to be our home has led many of us to fight for power in ways that damage not only our Christian reputation but the very lives of our fellow Christians. Our long battle to Make America Great Again has been a mistake greater than many of us are willing to imagine much less one for which we will consider repenting. But time remains and friendship with the crucified Lord and his exiled children remains a possibility for all who will come to embrace exile.

“Everyone knows, deep down, that there has to be some sort of judgment if there is to be justice.”

Moore: You argue that our understanding of the judgment of God has become untethered to His love. Kindly unpack that some for us.

Rutledge: Well, I guess it’s pretty obvious that our culture despises “judgment” above all things. There is hardly any room for discernment or connoisseurship any more. If you love Bach more than you love crossover thrash, you’re an elitist and not worthy of a hearing. When you hear that a person is “judgmental” you know that’s a crushing judgment on that person (yes, the irony is deliberate). It’s not easy in today’s culture to show how the judgment that crushes is the judgment that heals and restores—not only restores, but indeed “makes all things new.” So preachers and teachers of the Christian faith must be tireless in illustrating how the necessary judgment of God upon evil is a facet of his all-embracing love and his conquest of all that is harmful to human flourishing. It’s not all that hard to illustrate if we work at looking for examples of how this works. Everyone knows, deep down, that there has to be some sort of judgment if there is to be justice.

– Interview With Fleming Rutledge on Scot McKnight’s blog.

The Suffering Struggle

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.

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Frederick Douglass

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.

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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.

Ida_B._Wells
Ida B. Wells

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.

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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.

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Dietrich Bonhoeffer

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.

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Francis Grimke
Rev. Francis J. Grimke

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.

Header image: Sunday School in Harlan County, Kentucky, 1946.