America

Repentance as the Path to Decolonization: Confessing my family’s role in Manifest Destiny

Recently I ran across an interview with Ann Coulter on the View. In that interview Coulter made a claim that her family wasn’t originally immigrants but were settlers. While I disagree with how Coulter uses this assertion, the truth is that during the period of U.S. expansion and conquest White Europeans were settlers of that expansion and conquest.  My Swedish immigrant great great grandparents and great grandparents settled land recently taken from the original native inhabitants. For Coulter, this reality is a badge of honor, for me it is a reality to lament and with which to wrestle as I must face what it means to be White benefiting from conquest.

Coulter is one extreme example of the lack of grief among White people I wrote about here. This lack of grief or lack of tears is a spiritual problem, it is symptomatic of a failure to repent. For the Desert ammas and abbas, tears are tied to repentance and salvation. Daniel Jose Camacho recently asked what would it look like for Euro-American Christians  to repent of the Doctrine of Discovery. He defines the doctrine of discovery thus:

“… was a Christian invention which justified dispossessing indigenous peoples of their land, parceling it out among emerging nation-states, and turning it into private property for settlers. In this framework, Indigenous peoples are left with either extermination or assimilation.”

Camacho suggests two ways for Euro-American Christians to repent 1) through a radical rethinking of relationship to land and indigenous claims to sovereignty. 2)abandon the Eurocentrism of Modern Christian mission. I add to this that Euro-American (White) Christians need to grieve and lament our support and participation in the Doctrine of Discovery. We find this difficult if impossible to do because our Whiteness as Euro-American is rooted and entwined with the Doctrine of Discovery. In order to grieve and lament, Euro-Americans need to uproot and disentangle from the White Doctrine of Discover through naming the ways we have participated in whiteness and this doctrine.

Here is my beginning of this naming. My great great grandparents who came from Sweden and settled in what is now Minnesota, they weren’t immigrants but were settlers. The Native American nations had recently been driven further west and placed into reservations. The U.S. Government was parceling that land out cheap. In Sweden, Swedes were recruited as settlers through ads in newspapers and elsewhere promising idyllic conditions in the United States of America. I don’t know how influenced my great great grandparents were by those ads, but family stories told us that back in Sweden they were very poor on land that hardly produced enough to eat, they came in hopes that life would be better and they were used to settle lands of conquest.

As far as I Know we didn’t ask why the land was so abundant and so cheap. For reasons unclear my great grandfather didn’t keep or didn’t inherit the land his father first settled.  At the turn of the 20th Century my family was drawn to California with incentives from the railroad company to settle land along its rail lines in the central valley of California, once again cheap land.  Family story goes that the railroad failed to tell the settlers (and thus my great grandfather) that the central valley was desert.

Family stories of our immigration to the U.S. and settling in Minnesota and then California, never questioned why the land was available.  The stories simply assumed the Doctrine of Discovery. What our family stories did focus on was the pain and struggle of assimilation. We did assimilate. Here’s another thing we never asked: why we eventually could assimilate. The answer is that as Europeans we were White.

We ethnic Europeans were molded into White people through the U.S. Government bringing us over to settle its lands of conquest from the Native Americans.  Our being from Europe (Norther Europe even better) was the necessary raw material. We lost a great deal, possibly even our souls, but we gained wealth and power. We didn’t necessarily individually gain great wealth or great power, but we became citizens of the greatest power in the world, the heir of European empires and colonialism. We were rewarded for our assimilation and cooperation through the United States becoming a world power, outstripping its colonial competitors and former sovereign.

Coulter is correct, we Europeans who came to the U.S. were settlers occupying land of conquest serving the Manifest Destiny (the U.S. take on the Doctrine of Discovery) of the United States. This isn’t a badge of honor but it is something to lament and grieve. Yes, we were used as we sought to escape poverty and starvation and at first we were mostly unable to assent to our role in the Doctrine of Discovery. However, now we, in various ways, are defending it tooth and nail. What we Euro-Americans (Whites) decedents of settlers must do is repudiate, repent, and shed tears for our part in the United States conquest and expansion that robed indigenous people of their land.

Feeling Safe and Secure without Grief or Lament

Alas for those who are at ease in Zion, and for those who feel secure on Mount Samaria. Alas for those who lie on beds of ivory, and lounge on their couches, and eat lambs from the flock, and calves from the stall; who sing idle songs to the sound of the harp, and like David improvise on instruments of music; who drink wine from bowls, and anoint themselves with the finest oils, but are not grieved over the ruin of Joseph! Therefore they shall now be the first to go into exile, and the revelry of the loungers shall pass away. – Amos 6:1a, 4-7

The above passage is the Hebrew Scripture reading  for today (Sunday September 25th, 2016, proper 21)  according to the Revised Common Lectionary. As I prepared the sermon today I could not shake that this word of Amos’ could be addressed to White Christians (and White people in general). The response to police shootings repeatedly shows a general inability by many white people to grieve for the loss of life. Rather, in general the attitude of whites is to immediately turn to questioning the actions of the victim of the shooting. I didn’t preach on this, but this leads me to wonder what is the source of our inability (as White people) to grieve, to lament, to weep with Black folks? Why is it that if you are White ones first response to a Police shooting of a black person isn’t lament and grief but defense and justification?

Part of the problem is the story we tell ourselves about America and its moral and ideological superiority, and its destiny on the world stage. This story we tell ourselves is why the action of refusing to stand for the national anthem, by Kaepernick and others following him, elicits such an angry response.  The anthem and the flag (and pledge of allegiance) are the central sacred objects of this story.  To suggest, as Kaepernick’s protest suggests, that racism and white supremacy is at the core of our mythology and that it taints the sacred objects of our civil religion shakes the security of those who are secure in the conviction of  the innate goodness and rightness of America: its institutions, mythology, and civil religion. White Americans are, not surprisingly, offended by the suggestion that what we hold sacred isn’t so holy.

(If you are a person of color who sees something useful in the American mythology for bringing about the remedy to your continued oppression and unequal treatment, I’m not criticizing your use of that mythology for your own ends. I’m speaking of how the mythology also works against liberation among white Christians, and whites generally.)

Because of our clinging to this narrative of American destiny as guardians of liberty, if we grieve it isn’t necessarily  over the injustice, oppression, and pain, but is over our loss of innocence and  feeling secure in our goodness.

The difficulty Whites have with truly grieving for and with the victims of police murder and violence is due to the depths and extent of racism and white supremacy. White supremacy is entangled within the philosophies, ideologies, and faith we’ve been taught to revere.  To admit that racism is still a problem, to admit that our system is still (even after Martin Luther King Jr. and the Civil Rights movement) racist and white supremacist shakes us to our core. It is difficult to understand how we haven’t reformed racism out of our system, therefore the problem can’t be with the system, it can’t be the police so it must be the victim of police violence.

But this is where the mythology works against seeing the truth. We can’t accept that Francis Scott Key as a slaveholder didn’t have African-Americans in mind as citizens of “land of the Free and home of the Brave”. This is the problem : those that instituted our sacred institutions and mythology and ideology had themselves in mind and people like them and not people of color.

For White Christians what stands in the way of grief is the causes of the division between white and black, white and people of color in  American Christianity. We often talk about the White and Black Church as if that separation of Christianity into white and black was some accident enforced upon the church by some external force. Worse still we talk about the black church forming without recognizing that the Black church formed because white Christians refused to worship with and ordain Black Christians. Whites left the black Christians or forced them out, not the other way around. Denominations that are White or predominantly White today have yet to really face and renounce what created them.

When white people choose to remember their immigrant origins, we tend not to recall that we are here in part due to deliberate quota’s that favored Europeans over other immigrant groups. We don’t think about the huge swath of land now owned by white people who were European immigrants isn’t an accident of amoral and natural forces of history but due to U.S. Government policy with the full cooperation and consent of White Christianity, It was due to the deliberate policy of the  U.S. government toward Native American people, and recruitment of poor Europeans to settle land taken from Native Americans as they were rounded up on small tracks of unwanted land.

In order to grieve what is happening in our streets requires no longer sitting securely in our comfort and safe place of America: no longer sitting comfortable in the belief that we are slowly progressing away from ignorance into enlightenment. We aren’t’ here because people didn’t know better back then.  No! Whites and White Christians seared their conscience and then created reasoned justifications to support a system that was to their benefit.

I’ve written subsequently about how my immigrant Swedish family through our settling Wisconsin and California play into what I’m talking about above. But even this second blog post is just beginning to tease out the depths of our racist system, what lies behind the persistence of systemic racism in spite of reforms and the reformers. What I believe is that this all persists because it is in the very structure of our society, it wasn’t that Racism and White supremacy was an add on after the U.S.A and the global economic system we inhabit came into existence, rather it is in the very structure and foundation of everything we know.

Edited on October 18th, 2016

Listening for the Mind of Christ in Time of Crisis: Do not be afraid, Part 3

12 Meanwhile, when many thousands of the crowd had gathered so that they were trampling on one another, Jesus began to speak first to his disciples, “Be on your guard against the yeast of the Pharisees, which is hypocrisy. Nothing is hidden that will not be revealed, and nothing is secret that will not be made known. So then whatever you have said in the dark will be heard in the light, and what you have whispered in private rooms will be proclaimed from the housetops.

“I tell you, my friends, do not be afraid of those who kill the body, and after that have nothing more they can do. But I will warn you whom you should fear: Fear the one who, after the killing, has authority to throw you into hell. Yes, I tell you, fear him! Aren’t five sparrows sold for two pennies? Yet not one of them is forgotten before God. In fact, even the hairs on your head are all numbered. Do not be afraid; you are more valuable than many sparrows.   Gospel of Luke 12:1-7 (NRSV)

Fear is powerful and at times needed. Fear alerts us to danger and prepares our bodies for confronting that danger, either by fighting or fleeing.  Jesus though calls us to not fear those who would have the power to end our life, “…do not be afraid of those who kill the body”. Why might Jesus tell us not to fear such a threat as someone who has the power, opportunity, and means to kill us?

I suggest part of the reason Jesus encourages us to not live in fear even of those who can kill us, can be found in reflection upon the tenor of the GOP national convention in July.  That whole week the GOP and Donald Trump wanted us to be afraid, to be very afraid. We were told to Fear the terrorists, fear the refugees who might be terrorist, fear immigrants and the list of what to fear continued on. One may argue that there’s no need to fear these things. The terrorists aren’t refugees Yet there are those who aren’t controlled by any legitimate government nor represent a nation who seek to harm the U.S. and its standing in the world. There is a real danger, though, not an immediate danger to most of us residing in the U.S. One may even want to counter that it is more realistic to be afraid of a random person carrying a legal firearm than an Islamic Terrorist (who actually kill more Muslims than Americans).  Whether or not what the GOP and Trump wish us to fear is based in any actual potential threat, the effect is still the same: the focus on who or what is feared, a focus that doesn’t allow us pay attention to much else, let alone seeking to find other possible responses than fight or flight. Fear works at its best in instances of immediate threat, in which we can immediately respond in either standing to fight or in getting away. Then the fear and adrenaline can dissipate once the threat is dealt with. But to fear that there are people in the world who may harm or even kill when that threat isn’t imminent keeps us from seeing the larger picture. Fear about generic and non-immediate threats allows us to be manipulated by fear mongering and we begin to fail to make a distinction between actual imminent threat, possible future threat, and plausible but unrealistic threat. We saw this mix of real and unrealistic fear in the GOP convention in July.

Yet, Jesus’s remarks aren’t only set against this jumble of undiscerning fear mongering. For Jesus, the reason not to fear isn’t that the fear is misplaced, but that it is generic and not immediate. When we live in fear even if of a legitimate but not immediate threats our focus is still on the fear and the feared. Jesus, says do not be afraid of some future possibility that there are people in the world who can harm you.

In order to demonstrate this, Jesus goes on to say that if one must be afraid of a possible future bodily threat, then be afraid of God. Jesus isn’t counseling actually fearing God, but if one is going to fear a potential real future threat, God serves as good as anything else to fear, after all, God is much more threatening, and then at least your focus would be on the source of ultimate meaning and of all life. Jesus is pointing us to an awareness and a way of being beyond fight or flight of our fear response.

What is Jesus doing here? I suggest that the reason Jesus says to not be afraid of even legitimate possible future threat is that we know God the creator of the universe who knows us intimately and lovingly knows odd details about us (the numbers of the strands of hair we have on our heads). We are intimately known by and sacred to our creator. So if we are going to fear a legitimate but future potential threat then we should fear God, but if you know God, when you come to know God, you are aware that God is a ridiculous thing to fear. For the members of Christ’s Body, we know something further about this God who knows intimate details about ourselves that we can’t know about ourselves; this one not only cares for us but is joined with us in our humanity and suffers with us. In Jesus of Nazareth God went to the extremities of life even death.  This one who cares and upholds our life also knows what it is to suffer, to be oppressed and abused and knows what it is to die, Jesus of Nazareth the Christ.  This is the God we know and love.

Now this doesn’t tell us what to do in the place of actual imminent threat. But it can and has led many to face and submit to violent death without fear. Yet, it has also led others to flee in the case imminent danger, until it was no longer time to flee the threat. To not be afraid doesn’t mean to be passive and do nothing in the face of a threat. But, it is to be put in the place of discerning beyond fight or flight. It allows us to be critical of all calls to fear something by the powerful (including the call of the Clinton campaign for us to fear a Trump presidency.).

So be not afraid, and oppose the powerful, but do not fear them. Don’t focus your attention on such potential threats.  Focus on God and the transformative work of God’s coming kingdom in the world through Jesus Christ.

Part two can be found here and part 1 here

Listening to the Mind of Christ In Time of Crisis: Nothing is Hidden that will not be revealed, Part 2

12 Meanwhile, when many thousands of the crowd had gathered so that they were trampling on one another, Jesus began to speak first to his disciples, “Be on your guard against the yeast of the Pharisees, which is hypocrisy. Nothing is hidden that will not be revealed, and nothing is secret that will not be made known. So then whatever you have said in the dark will be heard in the light, and what you have whispered in private rooms will be proclaimed from the housetops.

“I tell you, my friends, do not be afraid of those who kill the body, and after that have nothing more they can do. But I will warn you whom you should fear: Fear the one who, after the killing, has authority to throw you into hell. Yes, I tell you, fear him! Aren’t five sparrows sold for two pennies? Yet not one of them is forgotten before God. In fact, even the hairs on your head are all numbered. Do not be afraid; you are more valuable than many sparrows.   Gospel of Luke 12:1-7 (NRSV)

“Nothing is hidden that will not be revealed.”

This Gospel text came to mind as the succeeding revelations that followed the WikiLeaks DNC e-mail leak, that lead to Debbie Wasserman Schultz’s stepping down as DNC Chair, which revealed the likelihood of Russian Intelligence as the source of the e-mails, and giving a possible glimpse into Russian attempts to influence the current election and possible ties between Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin.  In this one instance we had a cascading set of revelations of things done in secret (that even people would have rather been kept under wraps). I wondered is there something hopeful in these things coming to light? Depending on your political slant or loyalty one may spin those revelations one way or another, but that isn’t the same as something hopeful being found in the unveiling of secrets.  I wondered, and still am asking is Jesus here talking about a sign of the Kingdom of God?  In contrast to the hypocrisy that acts like yeast hidden in dough, unseen except in its eventual effects. Does the truth of the transforming work of the reign of God in the world simply expose what is hidden?

DNC e-mails and Russian covert operations aren’t the only thing being brought into the open this election, overt White-supremacy and racism has come into the open in the wake of Trumps campaign and rhetoric. Trump’s campaign and rhetoric has made overt white-supremacist feel they can more publicly display their opinions and attitudes. While dangerous and frightening I think this bringing out into the open what we as a culture and society had effectively kept out of sight.  What is hopeful in this is the possibility to also then recognize and bring to light the covert and social acceptable white-supremacy and racism

Overt and Covert White Suppremacy

Above image found in a the Salt Collective Facebook Page post August 8th 2016 p

Part of Socially acceptable white supremacy and racism, is being exposed as in the arena of policing and lethal force use against people of color. Exposure in and of itself doesn’t solve things, it can even worsen situations.  Such is the case of people feeling free to come out in the light and overtly show their White-Supremacy KKK affiliation, etc., creates a less safe environment for POC. The exposure of the DNC e-mails and Russia’s involvement has ratcheted up anti-Russian sentiment and rhetoric and accusations of collaboration and infiltration eerily and frightening analogous to Cold War Anti-Russian and Communist rhetoric and accusation.  Things being brought into the open in and themselves isn’t’ necessarily hopeful.

While things coming to light and into the open that were once hid away and in secret are often frightening and carry danger, there’s also the hope that once exposed change can happen. When overt white supremacy is hidden away it is possibly more difficult to see more covert-white supremacy. When certain things are kept under wraps and hid in a corner where there is no light there’s the possibility for yeast like hypocrisy to invade and lulled into a false sense of security and sense of progress

Due to the Civil Rights movement of the 1960’s,  overt and some forms of covert white supremacy were through Federal intervention, legislation and legal decisions brought to an end. Along with the ending of de jure white supremacy overt expressions of white supremacy where rightly marginalized and relegated to the privacy of one’s own secretly held opinions. Since overt white supremacy was now taboo and no longer supported by law gave the impression to many of us that white supremacy is merely a matter of attitude and hate, that could be addressed by individualistic transformation, ignoring the way that the de jure elimination of overt White Supremacy didn’t address or change the more covert and structural aspects of White supremacy woven into the very fabric of our nations consciousness, history and legal and political and economic realities. With the ascendancy of Trump giving people permission to express their overt White supremacist has exposed along with the Black Lives Matter movement, the lie that White supremacy is just in the past and simply has to do with personal hate of another person or fear of a group of people.

There is an opportunity in this moment, especially for White members of the body of Christ, to fully acknowledge the depth and breadth of white supremacy in American institutions (including our denominational institutions) and turn aside not only from the overt white supremacy but all forms of it. As these things come to light we can truly repent and let our POC siblings in Christ to tell us how we should respond, and taking their cue rather than attempting to justify ourselves and our attempts to reform the White systems of government, and white religious institutions.  When things are exposed hypocrisy comes to light and there is the opportunity to repent.  Then change, healing injury, and mending what is broken can begin What is hidden away only fester and remain unacknowledged and unchangeable.  This is the hope of Christ’s word’s what you speak in secret will be shouted from the rooftops.  This is often painful, even frightening and far from safe, but it offers the opportunity for true repentance and radical transformational change of the Beloved Community God sent in motion in the life death resurrection and ascension of Christ.

Next week Part three, “Be not afraid.

And if you missed last week here’s the link to part one An Hypocrisy that is like Yeast

Listening for the Mind of Christ in Time of Crisis: An hypocrisy that is like yeast, Part 1

12 Meanwhile, when many thousands of the crowd had gathered so that they were trampling on one another, Jesus began to speak first to his disciples, “Be on your guard against the yeast of the Pharisees, which is hypocrisy. Nothing is hidden that will not be revealed, and nothing is secret that will not be made known. So then whatever you have said in the dark will be heard in the light, and what you have whispered in private rooms will be proclaimed from the housetops.

“I tell you, my friends, do not be afraid of those who kill the body, and after that have nothing more they can do. But I will warn you whom you should fear: Fear the one who, after the killing, has authority to throw you into hell. Yes, I tell you, fear him! Aren’t five sparrows sold for two pennies? Yet not one of them is forgotten before God. In fact, even the hairs on your head are all numbered. Do not be afraid; you are more valuable than many sparrows.   Gospel of Luke 12:1-7 (NRSV)

Be on your guard against the yeast of the Pharisees, which is hypocrisy”. We can too easily dismiss the Pharisees. The Pharisees were seeking the renewal of the people of God, and in comparison, to the likes of the Herodians they took the high road. The ideals of the Pharisees were closely aligned with that of Jesus Christ. Jesus’ metaphor of hypocrisy being like yeast indicates that we are to be on our guard for what is hidden and isn’t obvious.  The hypocrisy of the Pharisees is something that is subtle and unseen except ultimately in its effect.

The hypocrisy of the GOP and the Religious right has been brought to light.  The choice of Donald Trump with so many republican and religious leaders stumbling around to get behind him, when for years the GOP and the Religious Right have talked of the personal and moral character of candidates for high office criticizing at times their opponents for not being such persons of character.  The GOP’s hypocrisy is easy to see it has leavened the whole loaf, but we must be on guard for hypocrisy before the dough starts to rise. In the case of the GOP and its presidential candidate this election, the dough has risen!

A subtle yet largely unnoticed hypocrisy is already needed into the dough of U.S. history.  For his own hypocritical ends Donald Trump has used this hypocrisy in attempts to justify restrictions on Muslim immigrants and   tracking Muslim U.S. citizens by appeal to the use of concentration camps of Japanese during WWII along with the restrictions and surveillance of Germans and Italians during WWII by FDR’s administration.

The administration of FDR with the approval of the U.S Supreme Court in prosecuting war for “Freedom” and human rights, without cause robbed Japanese Americans of their freedom and violated their human rights.  We compound and perpetuate this hypocrisy by attempting to justify or explain away the hypocrisy by excusing it or claiming they didn’t know better at that time.  We let our guard down when we for the sake of our ideals and our mythos of America pretend that the U.S. Government and a great number o its citizens have hypocritically held to its own ideals.  We further compound this when we do not admit that the seeds of this hypocrisy, are needed into the dough of our national life from the moment of our revolution and founding.  As the founders of this nation wrote and spoke eloquently of Freedom they were also slave holders or those who in some way benefited from slavery or at least tacitly approved of the enslavement of Africans. To be on our guard for the the yeast of hypocrisy is to be conscious of this radical hypocrisy at the founding of the United States.

At the Democratic Convention where we at last have a woman for presidential candidate of a major party, we also extolled how we are the greatest nation in the world surpassing all others yet, ignoring a failing that doesn’t fit with our national aspirational narrative of being a leader of the nations, of being out in front.  Women have been at the helm of Government in nations all over the world, in growing numbers over the years, since at least the 1980’s.  On this we haven’t been a leader in the world nor in line with America being the best and greatest.  In not looking closely at ourselves and the narrative we use here is another place where hypocrisy can slip in.  We aren’t even the only nation to have the aspirations to freedom and democracy and equality.  France too has it’s mythology and believes itself to be a beacon in the world to freedom and democracy, after all “LIberte, Egalite, Fraternite” is its national moto.  We should be on guard for way our positive and aspirational story of America has this leaven already within it.

What this means for us as member of Christ and citizens of the U.S. is to be aware of the ways in which hypocrisy can invade and appear even in our desire for the moral high ground.  Especially if that moral high ground is identified with a particular nation and when those aspirations are also human aspirations shared beyond the boundaries of the nation.  We may even say that the leaven of the Pharisees was precisely; in this area:  They were good people devoted to Gods law and ensuring that the people of Israel stay true even under a harsh occupation when the occupier sought to dissuade their unique devotion to their god and customs (because it excluded paying fealty to the occupier’s ways and God.) Even thought there was much good in what they did, Jesus calls them out for their hypocrisy.  Good motives even seeking the Good of your group doesn’t prevent the yeast of hypocrisy.

To be on guard in this manner means not resting in party religious or national loyalties. To be on guard means to be attuned and open to God’s work of building up the Beloved Community which transcends and transgresses national and other boundaries we draw and write and put up.  To be on guard in this way is both positive and negative.  We are to be aware of where the reign of God is popping up and to be aware of the ways in which simply resting in our sense of Good or being part of the right group can lead to a hypocrisy that can choke out.  member of the body of Chris be on your guard hypocrisy is rampant it is in us, it is in the stories we tell ourselves.

In the next two weeks I will continue with this reflection on these words of Christ, part two “Nothing is hidden that will not be revealed…” and part three “…do not be afraid …”

“Racial Tensions” or an affront to the Gospel?: White Christians against Martin Luther King Jr.

Rachel Held Evans has a post on white forgetfulness (She says Christian but she means white Christian) when it comes to our honoring of Martin Luther King Jr.

As we come to the close of this Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, I won’t focus on the above mentioned forgetfulness but seek to do what Rachel Held Evans suggests but didn’t do, read and examine both King and his opponents, in the letter of the 7 white and one Jewish clergymen and Kings response the  Letter from Birmingham jail.

First I think we should name who these clergy were and their affiliations and not just say 8 clergy.

C. C. J. Carpenter, D.D., LL.D. Bishop of Alabama. Joseph A. Durick, D.D. Auxiliary Bishop, Diocese of Mobile, Birmingham, Rabbi Hilton L. Grafman , Temple Emanu-El, Birmingham, Alabama, Bishop Paul Hardin Bishop of the Alabama-West Florida Conference, Bishop Nolan B. Harmon Bishop of the North Alabama Conference of the Methodist Church,George M. Murray, D.D., LL.DBishop Coadjutor, Episcopal Diocese of Alabama, Edward V. Ramage Moderator, Synod of the Alabama Presbyterian Church in the United States, Earl Stallings Pastor, First Baptist Church, Birmingham, Alabama

They represent the mainline denominations Episcopal, Presbyterian, Methodist, and Baptist. They aren’t local clergy but members of the hierarchies. These are men of authority and power within their denominations not simply rank and file clergy. Seven of these are White Christian clergy and one is a rabbi.  The presence of a rabbi is erased in claiming this letter is simply from eight clergy.  The rabbi’s presence perhaps, makes this letter not only more complex but more troubling.

The letter is brief and holds itself forth as representing reason and good order.   The situation is a “problem” that can be solved through the law, the courts, and reasoned discussion. A faith most whites still hold to strenuously to this day. They speak of racial tensions, and don’t speak directly to the injustices that are the underlying cause of those “racial tensions”. They also speak about outside agitators.  What is striking is how unobjectionable (if one forgets the real conditions of blacks at this time) and contemporary this letter sounds.  The letter makes no attempt at specificity, makes no mention of the actual reality of segregation.  The letter remains on the level of abstraction and generality and never mentioning by name the matter at hand, segregation.  Rather it is just “racial tension” and the need to solve the “racial problem.”  They object to tactics, that don’t fit with their expectations of peace, and law and order.  Even today white folks would rather talk about problems and how to resolve them and are concerned mainly about peace and tension and not real suffering or injustice.

Martin Luther King Jr.’s  reply Letter from Birmingham Jail is lengthy because, in contrast, he deals in specifics and concrete details and the reality of the oppression suffered.  When accused of being an outsider, he not only shows his connections to Birmingham, but shows those who claim to be insiders are really the outsiders, (willfully) ignorant of the actual conditions of those they call to patience.  While the eight clergy speak of law and order and the courts, urging slow incremental change that doesn’t disturb Whites and the status quo,  King speaks as a minister of the Gospel and out of the larger Christian tradition. King aligns himself with Paul. He quotes Aquinas, and shows his identification with Christ.  King doesn’t lash out and lambaste these prominent clergymen who are representatives of their Mainline White denominations, but he demonstrates, by their lack of care and concern for the conditions under which Blacks  suffer, their hypocrisy and abandonment of the Gospel.  He shows them to be moderate defenders of the status quo and not members of Christ. In the end as a preacher of the Gospel Martin Luther King, Jr. calls to repentance.

On this Martin Luther King Jr. Day I’m struck by the contemporaneity of the exchange. White Christian denominations and Christians have accepted the success of the civil Rights movement and King’s tactics because they succeeded and are facts, as much as because of any deep belief in their rectitude and Gospel truth.  This is mere acceptance of what has happened and little more, we have yet to embrace the transformation King was after.   We show our acquiescence by doing, as I’m doing here, nodding to this day and the honor we now believe is due to Martin Luther King Jr, as a personage of the past. What we haven’t done, what the denominations haven’t done, is repent.  We elided over the various ways in which in the very least White Christians have stood by as injustices were perpetrated and are perpetrated on Black people and at worst were perpetrated by we White Christians.  We want to embrace King as though we were right all along; as if it was some foreign power that kept us from siding with the suffering of our Black siblings in Christ, and seeing Black people as our fellow human beings.  When there was always only us White folk and no one else.  We weren’t forced or coerced but chose purely and simply a path contrary to the Gospel of Jesus Christ in blatant contradiction to the reality of the Body of Christ.

For Whites, Christian and non-Christian, our celebration of this day will be empty and hypocritical until we admit that King doesn’t belong among our pantheon of heroes.  King isn’t  honored because he is like George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, and all our other White heroes, but because he is a minister of the Gospel and the truest and greatest American theologian (I must thank James Cone for this insight into King) and not a builder of America.

If Martin Luther King, Jr. calls us to our truest and most just selves as Americans, it is because he was a minister of the Gospel and a prophet of God, Father Son, and Holy Spirit. If we honor him in our pantheon of heroes it can only be because he exceeds them and isn’t really one of them.  He is the only one of our heroes to call us prophetically to repentance.  A call to which White Americans and Christians have yet to fully and truly respond.

In the Letter From Birmingham Jail, Martin Luther King Jr. is prophetic, in all meanings of the word and set forth a warning and prediction that came true and continues to be true :

But the judgment of God is upon the church as never before. If the church of today does not recapture the sacrificial spirit of the early church, it will lose its authentic ring, forfeit the loyalty of millions, and be dismissed as an irrelevant social club with no meaning for the twentieth century. I meet young people every day whose disappointment with the church has risen to outright disgust

We wonder why we are reduced to a shadow of what we once thought ourselves to be. We find ourselves in such a situation as described by King, because we have yet come face to face with what we did, and that we were never who we thought ourselves to be.  If there was true repentance we would cling less to the greatness of White America and its past, and would look to a future in which we as Whites no longer dominate or set the standards by which others must use to gain access to the goods of the world.  Here is the beginning of repentance and our transformation when we accept that those who have most consistently and truly been bearers of the Gospel and who show us Christ are truly those who have been oppressed by us since the founding of this Nation. All else is mere co-option of King and the Civil Rights movement in order to maintain the status quo and continue business as usual, expanded to include those who once served its ends without benefit or reward.

I hesitate to even post this, for I can claim no exemption.  Yet, I speak knowing I’m just beginning, that this is only a beginning.  We must somehow begin without attempting to justify our Whiteness, and make it clean by our own works.

Things have come a long way and there is yet a long way to go.

We can’t get there by seeking preserve Whiteness and the current order.

The Necessity of White American Christian Repentance

 At Personal musings I wrote a sober (perhaps depressing) account of our situation as citizens of the U.S.A, as a country and nation that is racist, has committed genocide and war crimes as it has attempted to bring its ideal of democracy and freedom across a contentment and as a beacon of democracy to the world.  I contended there, that any good such a nation produces is always already mixed with its evil. The Nation State and its citizenry are stuck in this impossible bind even as that people might seek to disentangle and only live into its good ideal, but the ideal is suspect.

For the U.S. this has a theological and ecclesiological dimension. I will suggest here (and this post isn’t the place to flesh this out fully, rather this is a sketch that maybe some would like to help flesh out), that part of what we are seeing still working itself out in our streets, in our policing and criminal justice system and our politics, is a working out of an heretical misapplication of the qualities and the purpose of the Body of Christ to a nation state.

Theologically what I described, in the other post, could be summed up by the theological concept of original sin.  Human failure and evil have powerful and continuing effect upon generation after generation of the original act.  Human good of its own can’t cancel out or redeem human evil and failure. At best, from the perspective of mere human action, what we can  hope for is a mixture that might be accented upon human goodness.  But any human goodness is always already tainted by human failure and human evil.  The solution is in two parts: one is repentance, a change of heart and mind and which is opening up to the second part of the solution is that which God ultimately did in Jesus of Nazareth, as the crucified one.

However, for white Christians in the United States this theological account runs aground as a way forward.  The reason for this is ecclesiology, or an ecclesiological heresy. This too is twofold: There is the identification of the United States, America, with images and role of the Church, the People of God, Israel, the Body of Christ.  The U.S. as America is a “City set upon a hill” to be a light to the nations.  At the same time Whites, those of European descent, think of themselves as Whites as the People of God entrusted to bring the truth, civilization and salvation to people of color.  These two misappropriations of ecclesial distinctive to a nation and a race create the divisions and racial segregation we continue to see in American Christian Religion.

Part of the mythology of the United States is the heretical appropriation of the purposes and reality of the Body of Christ to a particular Race , Whites, and a particular Nation State, the U.S.A, under the name “America”.  The mythological greatness of the United States and its role in the world is founded upon this appropriation of the role of the Church the Body of Christ by this Nation State.

While one dimension of this was something Europeans had already begun as Race and Whiteness were invented.  However, White American Christians took it further and identified it with the state formed out of the rebellion from the British Empire, “America”.

One can argue that White Christians then bear a particular burden for what we see today in our streets and justice system.

The hopeful response to all of this, the bad theology, the misapplication of some special role for the United States as America in bringing democracy and enlightenment to the world, is the repentance of White American Christians, which should include the renunciation of the mythology of “America”

This repentance and renunciation of this heresy of American exceptionalism, of bringing the light of freedom and democracy to the world, a light to the nations, can lead to further repentance both in regards to slavery but also in regards to the genocide of Native Americans.  White Christians need to stop appealing to the American mythology, recant any claim to exceptionalism for the United States, and seek to first be identified not as Christians but as members of the Church the Body of Christ.  Such a repentance and renunciation and subsequent affirmation would be one source hope in our time.

Sacramental Politics: A Review

In Sacramental Politics: Religious worship as political action, Brian Kaylor explores the various ways religion and politics commingle, focusing on acts of worship and political activism.   The book presents a problem: Two things that don’t go together and we think of as separate and radically different things do in fact often come together, religion and politics. Religious worship can influence and affect politics and politics can effect religious worship.  Given the dominant view of religion and politics that they are two irreconcilable and separate realms, Kaylor offers a theory of how to account for the times that religious worship and political action and activism do come together and commingle.  His theory for how this occurs uses the doctrine of transubstantiation as a  controlling metaphor as he explores this commingling of religion and politics varying from prayers said at Democrat and Republican party conventions to Shane Claiborne’s 2008 Jesus for President tour.

At first Kaylor’s uncritical acceptance of our current beliefs and assumptions about religion and politics was disorienting.  At first it seems that Kaylor merely accepts the assumption that politics and religion are entirely separate spheres that have (or should have) nothing to do with each other while seeking to give an account of the many and varied ways religion and politics do in fact have a great deal to do with each other.  This apparent acceptance of this view, affirmed that religion and politics really were these two absolutely distinct substances that couldn’t naturally commingle, yet the author also seemed to want to give a positive or at last neutral account of the transubstantiation of politics in worship and worship in politics.  It was difficult to tell in the early chapters whether Kaylor was arguing that this “transubstantiation” was something to avoid that violated the clear and true realms of political and religious activity, or if the author was meaning that religious worship had a relevance to the world and politics and thus “transubstantiation” was the way this was allowed to occure.

The first four chapters given the acceptance of our general assumption that religion and politics should be and are separate and irreconcilable things, seems to critique the ways both the religious left and religious right make use of  transubstantiation.  Though, Kaylor’s stance is one of academic and scientific description of what occurs without judgement.  Also, I had the unease of if one accepts the absolute separation, then religion and worship are meaningless activities that can have no relation to any real action in the world political or otherwise. By the fifth Chapter “Religious Worship as Political Space” the transubstantiation theory begins to be an indirect critique of the assumptions about religion and politics the author seemed to accept as a given.

Chapters 6 and 7 get to the heart of Kaylor’s position: “Religious worship as inherent Political Action” and “Relgious worship as Politics.”  For Kaylor there is no way to actually separate out religion and politics, politics will at moments simply be transubstantiated in religion or worship and religion and/or worship will be transubstantiated in politics.  However, Kaylor believes we should be aware of how and when this occurs and shouldn’t accept all instances of this transubstantiation

Sacramental Politics offers a good and extended reflection on the various ways that religion and politics interact, mix together and influence and participate in each other.  His theory of “transubstantiation” is useful only in the rhetorical structure of the book that seeks to undermine our assumptions about the absolute and impenetrable “wall of Separation” between religion and politics that if it were true would render religion and worship to be a merely meaningless private individual subjectivity that would have no effect or consequence for how one would live their daily life.  And would render politics as a realm that any true person of faith couldn’t enter into as a person of faith.  What Kaylor in the end offers is a way to move beyond our current assumptions and dogmas about the separation of religion and politics offering a way to evaluate and critique any particular instance of the commingling of religious worship and political action. However, I’d argue since the “theory” presented in the book functions more as a rhetorical device to avoid a direct critique of our cultural and societal assumptions and dogmas, for Kaylor or anyone to move forward one would need to leave the author’s theory behind.

On the Web:

Brian Kaylor

Brian Kaylor on Twitter

Biran Kaylor on Facebook

Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the author and/or publisher through the Speakeasy blogging book review network. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR,Part 255.

A Nice Indian Boy: A Rich and Savory Play

Rasaka Theatre’s current production is the Midwest premier of Madhuri Shekar’s A Nice Indian Boy, Running through March 8 at Victory Gardens..  Full disclosure my wife Kate Setzer Kamphausen is the Costume Designer for the production

A Nice Indian Boy is a poignant family comedy that explore the meaning of love marriage, gender, ethnicity and the adaptation and transmission of tradition.  We the theater goer are simply dropped into an episode in the life of an Indian immigrant family.  The mother and father (Megha Gavaskar and Artchit Gavaskar) were born and married in India and then immigrated to the U.S where they had and have raised their two children (Arundhathi and Naveen) in the San Francisco Bay area.  We meet this family as the son  Naveen (the youngest of the two children) has met and is in a serious relationship with his boyfriend, Keshav.

On the day Naveen has planned to introduce Keshav to his parents his sister, who lives in New York, shows up unannounced and without her husband.  In this scene tensions mount in both hilarity and painful to watch misunderstanding and retrenchment.  Arundhathi, reveals that she has felt pressured into the marriage her parents arranged (as their marriage was arranged) and is resentful of how they now seem so accepting of her brothers not only choosing whom he will be with but that he is bringing home a boy.  the boyfriend is both more Indian than Indian and not what Archit and Megha expected.

As a comedy the rest of the play works out these tensions as characters wrestle with love, family acceptance and how to maintain ethnic identity and traditions.  Resolution comes as it becomes apparent that tradition and identity are more fluid, richer and more complex than we may at first perceive, especially when we feel that identity threatened by the unexpected.

A controlling trope through which the play works out these tensions is cooking.  Rasaka’s production of the play draws out how even the structure of the play progresses like a meal being cooked.  At the beginning of the play the members of this family are all very distinct and separate.  It was almost hard to see what their family life was like.  The distinct and sharp character traits of each individual character is up front, like the separate ingredients of a dish as one gather’s up all the ingredients for a meal or dish.  Over the course of the play the characters slowly blend and aspects of their characters that stood out against others blends with and heightens traits of other characters, like a well cooked dish where each ingredient is recognized but not as itself but in its interaction with other flavors and textures.

Cooking also is central to the story as both Achit and Keshav, love to cook.  Both are men, and slowly it is revealed that Megha doesn’t cook and hasn’t cooked for the entirety of their marriage except for the first week when she ruined every dish she cooked, and one night woke to her new husband cooking in the kitchen. She and her husband had a feast of food he cooked, and Megha hasn’t cooked since.  Archit though is very particular of following his mother and grandmothers recipes, yet when it came to the recipe of marriage and gender roles in marriage, Archit and Megha have already changed up the ingredients.

The play ends happily and with the family having become comfortable with the tensions and more aware of how one can play with the recipe and yet still have the same dish.  However, all isn’t resolved.  We leave them to live out their lives.  A Nice Indian Boy  leaves the audience savoring and ruminating upon the complexity and richness of ethnic identity and traditions.