It is my hope that the thesis I completed for my M.A. English degree is attuned to the so-called “real world.” Concomitantly, I hope that those who want to read it will find that is accessible; I want people to be able to find it, and I don’t want people to have to be used to reading academic articles to comprehend it. So, here it is:
Almost a year ago, I wrote that I was done being a white man. I gave the reasons why, and I set out a new course for my racial identity.
Almost a year later, I’m still a white man.
The fact that I have, when possible, declined to give my race on applications and such has not changed the fact that anyone who sees me knows that I’m white. Even as I figuratively scrub at my skin like Lady MacBeth, I can no more change that damned spot than can the leopard – I remain in my pale camouflage that comes with a history of superiority and a future of possibility.
This is not an affliction. Being forced to retain privilege isn’t something that will ever make me ask for sympathy. Even if remaining trapped in a fallacious race is frustrating, well, at least my name will never cause my job application to be summarily thrown out. Don’t mistake this post as a diatribe of fake problems. My frustrations are very real, but I can’t claim that I’m a victim of injustice in this case.
Even though my physical condition has not changed in the past eleven months, I have continued to read and observe and listen and learn, expanding my knowledge and understanding of race – of blackness, of whiteness, and of the way in which the farcical American melting pot has boiled at such unbearable temperatures. I’m no expert, but these are things about which I’m often thinking and learning.
Whiteness is, of course, defined by what it is not (namely, not colored), but, just as much, whiteness lives on because of what it is. Or, more precisely, what it pretends to be. The fantasy of whiteness is built on the foundation of white supremacy, and it engenders what Ta-Nehisi Coates might call The Dream. This Dream is an American Utopia built on comfort and stability and the freedom to pursue the things that people are led to believe will make them happy. There is no room in this world for disturbance.
Awakened Americans with white skin are a threat to the comfort and stability of whiteness. So whiteness must have a solution for the thoughts, words, and actions of people like me, just as it has come up with ways to defend itself against red, brown, black, and yellow people. The solution has been to attempt to prove me wrong, to make me change my mind, or to silence me. Whiteness won’t try to expel me, but it will try to make a part of me disappear, even as it lays claim to my ethnicity. I am still white in the eyes of the world because whiteness will not let me go. Whiteness wants me to holistically blend into society. It wants what I have to offer just as long as there are no racial strings attached.
The strategy revolves around discrediting my views on any grounds that will deny racism and thus perpetuate white supremacy. So I’m told that I’ve been swayed by liberal media – that either my naivete concerning propaganda or my political party affiliation is what has misguided my racial judgement. I’m told that I’m too young to have any accurate idea of who Malcolm X was, or what the Black Panthers stood for. I’m told that I’m insufficiently educated, and that my understanding of history is wrong. I’m told that I can’t possibly understand police work because I’m not a policeman. I’m told that Christ is the answer and I should be more worried about the Gospel and less worried about social issues. In each example, an aspect of my identity (maturity, political ideology, age, education, occupation, religion) bears the brunt of my correction so that my whiteness may remain pristine and a view of people of colored may remain undisturbed.
This is no different from how whiteness explains the actions of other white radicals. When whiteness recognizes actual factual racists (which it rarely does) it explains them away based on geographical location and antiquated heritage – making obvious white supremacists a benign piece of Southern Americana rather than a fabric woven into the entire American tapestry. Whiteness sees armed organizations attacking state property and calls them “militias” with a slightly overzealous love of freedom. Whiteness explains away murderers like Dylan Roof on the basis of mental health. In each instance, whiteness insists that whiteness cannot be the problem.
Whiteness deals with me like it deals with out-and-out racists, civilian armies, and domestic terrorists: it comes up with a reason for us being wrong that preserves the felicity of whiteness.
There is another strategy which is perhaps the most insidious tactic of regulating awakened whites. It is to trap them on one side of the veil and to keep them on one side of the colored line. This tactic uses our own whiteness against us by claiming that, because we are white AND young/uneducated/liberal/idealistic/etc we cannot possibly know what life is like for non-white people (and in my case this has referred to black America). My opinion is discounted because I am not black, let alone poor, urban, and black. Whiteness quiets my opinion of blackness because I am not black, and this will, of course, not change because I can never be black.
But here is the coup de grâce: if I somehow did become black, my opinion on race still wouldn’t count. People of color have been shouting about race for generations and whiteness has not listened. Rather, they are maligned for unsettling the peace and comfort of The Dream. Protesters today are called thugs who whine and complain about imaginary problems instead of dealing with their own issues. Even as whiteness mitigates the offense of the Bundy “militia,” it lambastes every move of Black Lives Matter.
That’s game over, isn’t it? My opinion doesn’t matter because I’m white and don’t really know what goes on, but if I was black, then my opinion wouldn’t matter for an entirely new set of reasons.
But I don’t believe it is game over – otherwise I don’t think I would do what I do. Bleak as it may seem I think there is a way forward, and it will come when people of all colors work together towards these goals. James Baldwin writes: “If we – and now I mean the relatively conscious whites and the relatively conscious blacks, who must, like lovers, insist on, or create, the consciousness of the others – do not falter in our duty now, we may be able, handful that we are, to end the racial nightmare, and achieve our country, and change the history of the world.” And, whereas Baldwin mostly rejected religion, I believe that the Gospel does have the power to help unify people across racial lines.
Yet, even when peaceful racial unity and reconciliation is the mission, whiteness feels threatened. Dr. King was murdered. The FBI assassinated Fred Hampton. Do not forget that.
And, as whiteness continues to regulate renegades like me, I wonder how to awaken white people – how to insist on or create their consciousness – when there was no red pill in my own experience. My awakening was a long and complicated process. I don’t know if I began to mortify prejudice because I liked aspects of black culture, or if my interest in aspects of black culture prompted me to mortify prejudice. There’s no fool-proof formula. All I know for certain is that education is key, and that’s why I hope to teach people about these things going forward.
But a further complication is the racial ambiguity that awaits whites who awaken. To deny your whiteness is to deny yourself a race. I hate my whiteness, so even though I will be white forever I will never feel like I’m a part of the white community. But I can’t be black either. There’s no home for my identity offered there. And rightfully so. I can’t become black just because I like Kendrick Lamar, The Wire, Lupita Nyong’o, or any other aspect of black culture and heritage (and trust me – I like a lot of them). Just because I get emotional listening to “Glory” from Selma doesn’t mean that I can really put myself in community with John Legend when he sings “One day when the glory comes it will be ours” (well, depending on how you look at it, I can and I should, but that’s another discussion). I can’t be sure yet what toll this will take, and how that might affect potentially awakened whites.
So, nearing the end of my first year of attempting to deny whiteness, I’m still white. No surprise there. I knew that wouldn’t change. What I didn’t know was how fiercely whiteness would fight to keep me. I didn’t know how ruthless the regulation of race could be.
I didn’t know I’d be such a nightmare for The Dream.
- The Souls of Black Folk by W.E.B. Du Bois
- The Fire Next Time by James Baldwin
- Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates
- The Autobiography of an Ex-Coloured Man by James Weldon Johnson
- Quicksand by Nella Larsen
Forth now, and fear no darkness (or whiteness).
Soli Deo Gloria
This post hinges largely on a basic premise that I firmly believe, and one that grieves me because I firmly believe it:
American Christians are not doing enough to promote social justice.
Exploring this premise unfolds in numerous directions. There are many in which Christians fail, there are a number of reasons (valid and faulty) that Christian give for being less involved, there are plenty of ways in which Christians can become more involved, and there is a plethora of indictments that might be brought against American Christianity for their shortcomings in this area.
It would be impractical to try to touch on all of this in a mere blog post, so let’s turn our attention to one incongruity that strikes me as inconsistent and perhaps even hypocritical within the zeitgeist of American Christianity.
Christian doctrine must, like all religions or other concepts of spirituality, reconcile our distinctly physical existence with what is, as far as we can tell, non-physical. How is it that people “go” to heaven? How does God “hear” prayers? How is one “filled” with the Holy Spirit? These are part of a set of very complex philosophical questions that people have tried to answer for thousands of years.
Oftentimes, Christians will make a distinction between the physical and the non-physical or spiritual, speaking of the ways in which their flesh is at war with their spirit, or the way in which their brain is different from their mind or the way in which a spirit or soul exists within their physical frame. Christian must consider these distinction when judging how they handle themselves, as well as how they interact with their fellow human beings. This brings Christians to what is really a false dichotomy: “Do I serve my neighbor’s physical needs or their spiritual needs?” Is a Christian to feed poor people or give them Bibles? Should they become a doctor or should they become a pastor?
Even as I write this I have to fight the urge to run off in a dozen different directions with this, but I will do my best to focus this discussion on the single most important picture of the relationships between physical and non-physical: the Nazarene named Jesus. Just as Jesus’s place in the Trinity is a logically accepted mystery, so too is the union of Jesus’s spirit with an earthly body a tricky doctrine of nearly unsurpassed significance. In short: the second person of the Trinity, usually referred to as “the Son,” existed at the beginning, long before Jesus ever did. But the Son took on a human body, and thus the spiritual Son and the physical man were fused together in what is known as the hypostatic union. In order for the Gospel to work, Jesus must be a god-man; he must be 100% divine and 100% human.
Christians fail to value social justice when their view of their neighbor’s physicality does not match their fixation on the body of Jesus. Too often, Christians look at issues of social justice and fail to see where there might be an opportunity to evangelize or explicitly present the Gospel or in some way tend to the spiritual side of their neighbors, and as a result they consider it not worth their time. Supposedly, they will substitute this with some sort of direct spiritual action, but I find that this is not the case and usually this spiritual action amounts to posting a spiritual message on social media. Christians worry about wasting their time and effort pouring themselves into an issue of social justice, all the while living a life that they justify with words like “relevancy,” confining their spiritual work to the occasional conversation with a friend or coworker, furthering the false dichotomies of sacred and secular.
Because it is an issue that I am invested in, I will use race and racism as my primary example in this post, starting now: too many Christians, even those who acknowledge that racism is a big deal, are slow to act against it because they don’t think that the Gospel can be advanced in battling institutional racism. If they do not see a way that fighting racism can be a direct avenue to sharing the Gospel, then they see mistreatment of people based on appearance as something not worth devoting direct attention to. The “physical” need (job discrimination, harmful stereotypes, economic disadvantages, police brutality, justice system bias) is seen as being secondary to the “spiritual” need (accepting Jesus as savior, becoming a Christian), so much so that the physical need is just ignored.
Meanwhile, American Christianity is obsessed with the carnality of Jesus. Most Christians have, at some time, been walked through the gory details of Jesus’s death, emphasizing the physical pain that he went through in order to be the atonement for sin. The bloody spectacle of The Passion of the Christ brought in hundreds of millions of dollars, as people sat through extended sequences depicting the destruction of Jesus’s body, including the horrific flogging sequence that is based on one sentence in the Gospel of John. The physical details of Jesus’s death are the most obvious example of Christianity’s obsession with the body of the Christ, but it is hardly contained to this. Communion reveals a fixation on the body that ranges from the most mild interpretation (that the bread and wine merely represent blood and body) to the rather mind-blowing concept of transubstantiation (the bread and wine literally become the blood and body of Jesus). Some Christians muse on the sexuality of Jesus, and most everyone can’t help but wonder about some details that are fairly trivial, such as whether or not Jesus cried when he was a baby. The bottomline is that Christians care a lot about the human part of the god-man Jesus.
What makes this fixation on the physicality of Jesus that much more inconsistent is the way in which many Christians do not emphasize the deity and thus the spirituality of Jesus. Sure, any Christian can tell you that Jesus is God, but what does that really mean? It means, among many important things, that Jesus wasn’t just afraid of being hung on a cross – rather, what had Jesus crying out for help (and possibly sweating blood) the night before his death was his impending separation from the first person of the Trinity, commonly called the Father. Think about this – the Son had been with the Father for eternity. The Son had been incomparably happy, because he was with the Father, forever. But, in order to take the weight of sin, the Son, now incorporated in Jesus, would be separated from the Father. If you believe in that theology (which Christians should), then that prospect is way (way) scarier than even the horrific fate of crucifixion.
If you read the New Testament, you will find a startling dearth of references to the physicality of Jesus, with the exception of references to the fact that a spiritual being took on an earthly form. The authors of the New Testament are much more concerned with the spiritual implications of the life and death of Jesus the Nazarene. However, in regards to fellow human beings, the story of Jesus is flanked by ministries inspired by Jesus that emphasize tending to physical needs. In Lukes’s account of John the Baptist, the Baptizer responds to the three questions of “What shall we do?” with three directions of physicality: “Whoever has two tunics is to share with him who has none, and whoever has food is to do likewise.”…. “Collect no more than you are authorized to do.”…. “Do not extort money from anyone by threats or by false accusation, and be content with your wages.” In his letter to the Galatians, Paul writes that the Christian leaders in Jerusalem made only one special request as he set out on his ministry to the Gentiles: “Only, they asked us to remember the poor, the very thing I was eager to do.” The book of James says that “religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world.” It appears, to me at least, that the authors of the New Testament were very concerned with the physical needs of the world, but in regards to Jesus they were less interested in the violent destruction of his body and more interested in his spirituality.
And yet, so many Christians go on emphasizing the humanness of Jesus. This is not to say that they ignore the spirituality of Jesus, but it certainly receives less emphasis, and it is vastly disproportionate in comparison to the way in which so many Christians regard the way they should care for their neighbor.
So now that I’ve raked the muck, let me see if I can propose a fix to what I hope you see is an inconsistent, even hypocritical mindset for many Christians.
The first thing is to consider how you balance your vision of Jesus as being both physical and spiritual. But I can’t really say what that balance should look like.
Because perhaps there’s a good reason for the particularly carnal vision of Jesus, and maybe there is a good reason for the tendency to see Jesus as a human first and God second. In Jesus, Christians have the full revelation of God. By taking on the life of a human, the separation between God and humanity was bridged. But it was only through the physical actions of Jesus that this good news might be understood, as Paul repeatedly refers to Jesus as the answer to a mystery hidden for ages. It was because the Son stepped into a human life – a human life that involved friends and family and laughing and weeping and anger and food and drink – that humanity might see the good news delivered to them through Jesus’s call for love and peace in a ministry aimed to be for humanity’s good and for the Father’s glory. Indeed, Jesus’s humanity is crucial to appreciating his life.
But this emphasis on the physicality of Jesus should extend to the rest of his life, rather than just on his death and resurrection.
Consider the story in which Jesus heals the paralytic. The first thing Jesus tells the man is that is sins are forgiven, but of course the crowds cannot comprehend this. They need some sort of proof from Jesus, otherwise his ludicrous claim is blasphemy. What does Jesus do? He gives a physical sign and heals the man so that he may walk.
Of course Jesus came to save the souls of sinners from death, but he also said, “Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.” (Kendrick Lamar knows what I’m talking about).
Which is all to say: Christians can talk all they want about Jesus’s love as they tend to the spiritual needs of their neighbor, but sooner or later they had better prove it.
And, if you can’t see the love in social justice, then you are probably thinking about various causes with a skewed vision. What the news says about Black Lives Matter protests is going to set you against it. What the old guys at your workplace say about feminism is probably really misinformed. Chances are if you live in an affluent community you have no idea what perpetuates poverty. The reality is that American society is progressive enough that average people have ample opportunities to invest themselves in improving the physical well-being of fellow human beings. And that is, from a Christian perspective, a way to tend to their spiritual needs. Remember: the dichotomy is false.
Why do Christians remind themselves of the broken body of Jesus hanging on a cursed tree?
Could it be for the same reason that we should remind ourselves of the smoldering body of Bobo hanging from an apple tree?
I ardently believe that Christians are called to tend to the physical needs of the world, even when there is no explicit opportunity to share the Gospel – I think the life of Jesus and the rest of the Bible makes that quite clear. And I believe there are tremendous opportunities for Christians from all walks of life to engage in matters of social justice and improve the physical well-being of their neighbor. And, through that, Christians can “do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly” while also providing opportunities to share not only the message of the Gospel, but the love of Christ in a way that is as tangible as a crucifix.
If Christians can come to value the body of their neighbor like they value the body of Christ, just imagine what a world we might live in…
Forth now, and fear no darkness.
Soli Deo Gloria
The third installment of “Love is the Why” features the next great issue that American Christians must meet with love – or fuel with inaction.
Most Christians are not racists.
Which is, of course, a very good thing, considering that few things are so diametrically opposed to the Gospel as racism.
But there are some racist “Christians.” And some “Christians” who use Christianity to justify racism.
And many Christians are racenorant (too ignorant to be just racist, too racist to be just ignorant). And just about every single Christian (including this writer) suffers from some degree of subconscious racism.
American Christians live in a nation that is racist. And racial tensions are as high as they have been in some time. The last 300 days have seen the rise of a powerful movement of protesters that has especially focused on police brutality against black Americans. Their efforts have shed light on systemic injustices that go well beyond the guns of the police.
Race will be one of the most important issues in America in 2015 and beyond. And my heart longs for my generation be the one to finally be the change I wish to see.
American Christians are a part of this struggle. How will we acquit ourselves?
Because, so far, our participation in this issue has been pitiful. And unless we act, the 21st Century Church of AC will stand next to slaveholders and the KKK in a tradition of Christians that chose which people counted as their neighbor.
This topic, like gay marriage, is worth considerably more than a couple thousand words. Again I find myself needing to narrow the scope of my writing in order to take on something a little more manageable. In just the first 250 words of this post I have already set off numerous alarm bells and made many statements that might need clarification or justification.
First thing’s first: this Scandinavian-American perspective will comment on white American Christians and their place in this issue. Obviously black American Christians can also be racist and can also fail to live out the Gospel in race relations, but it’s not quite the same. I hope I don’t have to explain this any further.
Second, we can’t dwell on the history for now. It’s just important that you understand that, while the Christian message is unequivocally anti-racism, Christianity has in its history had some pretty big racial issues. Your idea of Christianity’s place in history might be just a tad misguided (for instance, John Newton didn’t give up slaving right after his conversion. Yikes.).
And, lastly, it’s important to understand that this is, in fact, a big deal/problem/thing/issue.
And it’s because many white American Christians either refuse to believe this is a problem or ignore the problem altogether that brings us to our place in this discussion.
Christians facing this issue have tended to use five different responses:
- “This is just a bunch of media fodder. There’s not really a problem to worry about.”
- “There’s a good explanation for all this.”
- “Those people have problems.”
- “Christ is the answer.”
- “My brothers, sisters, and neighbors are crying out in pain and I must listen and act.”
The fifth option is the only acceptable response. Walk with me here.
“There’s not really a problem….”
This the response in which the Christian avoids showing love by denying that an object in need of love even exists. The person who ignores this issue and pretends racism doesn’t exist somehow manages to be blithely ignorant of their surroundings. Or, they truly do live in a bubble that appears free of racial tension, and when some tension is introduced to that bubble, they react by playing it off as a non-issue. Because this is the most ignorant of the four responses, it is hard to call this type of response un-loving. But it is self-absorbed. I believe Christians should constantly have their ear to the ground. While we are supposed to have our beliefs and convictions, some of which we would gladly die for, we should also be always listening and considering the views of others. For an individual to think that their view of the Gospel, the Bible, God, and the rest of the world is the immaculately correct view is all sorts of obtuse. Christians should always be listening for voices that sound different from theirs, while also seeking close community with people echoing what they believe to be true. So, as a Christian, if you hear a black person saying “I’m being oppressed because of my skin color” or “The police are unfairly targeting me,” shouldn’t you take some time to listen and consider? Might there be a problem even if you hadn’t ever given it much thought?
“There’s a good explanation….”
It seems to me that white Christians are quick to explain away or justify racial injustices, perhaps especially when it comes to police brutality. Where is the love in rushing to the side of the people holding the power and the badges and the guns? How is it loving to use mental gymnastics to explain why the young unarmed black man lying dead on the street was in the wrong? Why does a crime make someone deserving of death? I wonder: if Jesus was walking through a park in Cleveland and saw Tamir Rice dying on the ground, what would he have done? I can’t speculate, but I don’t think he would have brought up how much the toy gun looked like a real one. I think he might have John 11:35’d.
“Those people have problems….”
This is the most unloving response that Christians seem ready to use. This line of thinking attributes the Baltimore Uprising to misguided anger, exploitative thuggery, moral depravity, cultural deficiencies, and urban brokenness. Essentially it seeks to bring up all the problems in the black community, and it uses those problems to mask the issues that protesters are bringing to light. Christians should have open hearts and minds. Rather than criticizing a black person for smashing a window, why don’t we ask what could have possibly made that person so mad in the first place? We can try to understand these things without condoning them. What is the Christian response? “Shame on those people. How dare they break the law.” Or “Those people are hurting and I don’t understand why they’re doing this but I want someone to help them.” Rather than creating this figure of the poor, uneducated, hip-hopping, drug-dealing, angry black person, why don’t we ask “What has made them so upset?” Why do we rush to the side of those in power? Why don’t we sympathize with the protesters?
“Christ is the answer….”
Yes. Of course Christ is the answer. I believe that with all my heart. But what does that look like? What do Christians think will be accomplished by only speaking the Gospel? I believe in the power of the Gospel, and I believe as Paul writes that the Gospel is to be proclaimed first and foremost, and I echo Lecrae’s sentiment “Lord kill me if I don’t preach the Gospel.” But since when does sitting around shouting “Jesus saves” solve anything? I am not, for a moment, minimizing the power of the Gospel and the Holy Spirit. I’m maximizing the ability of God to work through Christians who go forth and live out the Gospel in their actions as they preach it. The Gospel has equipped us to join in issues of social injustice with hearts full of love as we live to glorify the name of above all names. Sitting at home and in our segregated churches is not what preaching the Gospel is about. What is masked in this response is a desire to just keep things the way they are and avoid controversy. Where in Jesus’ ministry did he avoid controversy? And, if we are to keep things the same, how is that going to do anything but just make the issue worse? And, finally, being angry is not sinful. We as Christians should get angry when we see injustice. Not rageful or hateful, and our anger should not drive us to sin, but it is okay for injustice to make us angry.
“My brothers, sisters, and neighbors are crying out in pain and I must listen and act….”
“He has told you, O man, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” Micah 6:8
“We are not to simply bandage the wounds of victims beneath the wheels of injustice, we are to drive a spoke into the wheel itself.” Dietrich Bonhoeffer
If you are a Christian, you should be listening for the cries of the oppressed. And when you hear those cries, you should act. Perhaps this means acting against the government. Maybe it means causing a stir or creating controversy.
If you don’t think there is a race problem in America, you are tragically mistaken either as a result of colossal unawareness or close-minded unkindness. And if you recognize that there is a problem but decide to explain it away when it is inconvenient or just ostrich the situation altogether, then you are not acting in a loving manner.
To my brothers and sisters in Christ: please, please, make racial relations a priority in your life. Get educated in the history of black America. Seek out black perspectives. Become aware of your own racism. See the media’s racial bias. Recognize white privilege. And love. Not just those black people who wake up on a Sunday morning to get dressed up for church, but the ones marching and holding signs and even the ones who smash windows, run from the police, steal, or reach for the officer’s weapon. The Gospel message is so fundamentally opposed to everything racism stands for, and when we refuse to act against racism on the personal and systemic level, evil prospers. And to explain away or ignore an issue when fellow Christians of darker skin speak out is the type of self-centered Christianity that destroys church communities. If a Christian won’t try to believe a fellow Christian about an issue like this, there is something quite wrong.
The battle to defeat racism in America is intensifying and it will endure. No justice no peace. The movement lives. It will continue and, Lord willing, it will one day be resolved. If AC lives out the Gospel, and bears in mind the words of Micah 6:8 and Dietrich Bonhoeffer while trying to follow Christ’s example, Christians will naturally end up at the front of the charge that brings this reign of fear and hatred to an end.
But if AC continues in its current course, others will take our nation to a more progressive and humane condition while Christians waste time chasing other issues. Christians will have failed, but at least the racial situation will be better.
Or maybe the issue won’t get better. Maybe it needs Christians to heal racial wounds and bridge racial gaps with the love of the Gospel. And maybe, when white Christians are needed to step up, they will be nowhere to be found.
Just as Nero fiddled while Rome burned, perhaps Christians will carry on singing Chris Tomlin songs as the body of Black America hangs smoldering on a liberty tree.
Soli Deo Gloria