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.

Privilege, Privileged, Privileging

Once again this year at the North Park Theological Seminary Symposium on the Theological Interpretation of Scripture (this years theme The Human Response to God) I have found my thoughts turning to privilege.  Some of the presenters have directly or indirectly addressed the problems of privileging certain aspects of the human over others which then  can undermine our seeing an other human as fully human.   White and male privilege haven’t been addressed directly  which was the subject of this post of mine around the symposium last year.

I want to sit with these words: privilege, privileged, and privileging.

As I grew up my parents would give my sister and I privileges.  These “privileges” were at times things we could earn, say by doing our household chores without grumbling and without being reminded by Mom or Dad that we should do them.  Also, what we termed “privileges” in my family had to do with allowing us age appropriate freedom that  also challenged our ability for self-regulation: meaning that if we abused the said privilege we could lose it.

My having a certain set of privileges didn’t affect my sister having the same or other  privileges.  So, If I had privilege X it didn’t mean of necessity that my sister didn’t have said privilege.  Also, as far as I recall, our privileges (nor our responsibilities at home) weren’t doled out based on gender (though, I suppose to be sure of that you’d need to corroborate that with my sister.  As evidence though I submit this short list some of my responsibilities growing up: cooking supper, doing laundry, and mowing the lawn.)  My point is that privilege in my family was a bonus that was something good for you but receiving the privilege didn’t negatively affect others in the system.

In this system it also meant the opposite of a right: a privilege was something granted, by my parents, that could be revoked. For instance use of the family car once I had my drivers license was a privilege.  As a privilege I couldn’t assume I’d have access to the one or two family cars we had at the time (there was a period in high school when we as a family only had one car for three potential drivers).  Failure to come home with the car when I did or taking the car without permission would have meant losing the privilege of using the family car. Privilege, in my family’s usage, was context dependent and something I couldn’t demand or assume.

I might also say something like “I’m privileged to know you.” or “It is a privilege to know you”.  If I say this it means that I have something others (those who don’t know you don’t have) but having the privilege of knowing you isn’t bound up in others lack but in the quality of your friendship.  For the phrase to make sense to be privileged is to have something others do not have and in a different context I might not have and which I find valuable.  However, there is also an element of gift in this phrase, the acquaintance isn’t something I can take credit for and depends on the addressee having given the gift of their presence to me.  Others lack is implicit here however again the privilege is granted and the phrase expresses that the privilege that has been granted can’t be assumed or taken for granted.

At the symposium last week the first two presenters talked about privileging qualities and privileging certain persons when examining the nature of what it means to be human (remember we were talking about the Human response to God, to some extent one’s definition of humanity might decide your sense of a human response to God.)  The presenters sense of privilege in this context does entail exclusion. To privilege something or someone in this context is to exclude other things or certain people.  To privilege say reason as the quality par excellence of what it means to be human is then to exclude and ignore other qualities.  In this sense privileging means something or someone looses out. It though also means an assumption of superiority of a particular quality, say reason.  That is qualities that aren’t reason thus aren’t considered when defining human being.  Thus, the problem of “privileging” in this sense of the term means that other qualities that might be attached to human being aren’t considered as expression of the human and thus those qualities and certain set of humans lose out.  Privileging then as used above entails assumptions of superiority without regard to context and in the act of privileging others lose out automatically.  Privileging is preferential and as such entails that the other can’t have the privilege that the act of privilege bestows upon the object of the privileging.

I contend that in this brief  examination “privileging” comes closest to what we mean when we are speaking of White and male privilege.  White privilege is an act of privileging.   By definition to have white privilege is to have something that those who are not in the constructed set “White” do not have.  In addition these assumptions are assumed and in the system that constructs race. As an assumption the privilege isn’t seen as gift that could be given to any in the system but a right that is intrinsic to the set “White”.  Similarly this is what is at work in male privilege.

privilege, privileging, and privileged in usage has a range of meaning may cause some confusion when thinking and reflecting on how to address White and male privilege.  For instance if we assume White and male privilege are like the privilege of using the family care when I was in high school, we may say that White privilege should and could be used for good and the betterment of others.  By way of example, I could have in high school used my privilege for merely selfish and self-centered activities (which I think I mostly did) taking myself and my friends to the movies or party and such.  However, I could have used that privilege (which I think I did on occasion) to drive someone to a doctors appointment who didn’t have a car, or offer a ride to a friend or acquaintance for an errand that I wouldn’t benefit from in anyway.  Or even more pertinent voluntarily taking my sister and her friends to the mall or a movie when I had no intention to shop or see a movie myself. I contend this doesn’t work for White privilege because the logic of the privileged use of the family car didn’t obtain automatically to me because of who I was in the system (ie. oldest male son, once my sister had her license she had the same privilege as I).   The privileges we are referring to when we speak of White privilege are intrinsic to being “White” and depend upon that those  privileges don’t and aren’t granted to those who aren’t classed as “White”.

When I wrote and spoke about renunciation of White privilege it was an attempt to address and confront the intrinsic nature of the privileges of being White.  To use white privilege to reform or change the system is to re-inscribe white privilege in the new situation created by those reforms.  The use of white privilege for the betterment of others who aren’t white has already been part of the racial system we inhabit, it is known as “the White man’s burden.”   If I use my White privilege to reform and change the racist system and that use of white privilege is seen as necessary for the system to be reformed then certain dominance and privileges will continue to pertain to the class of “White” qua “White” if nothing else as the proper subject of the system.   One thing I’m saying is the conditions  for justice to prevail and oppression to end do not depend upon I as “White” (and male) to act.  Rather I’m suggesting that it is when I as White renounce that any intrinsic privilege attends to me qua “White” (though not denying that the system grants both my class and attendant privilege) and as White refuse the burden that will  re-inscribe the privilege that is the source of the injustice and oppression we seek to end.

All this of course is a denial of the claim that the racist system wishes to keep in place namely that the classifications of the system are ontological and biologically grounded, and not a social construction of biology and ontology.

P.S. I haven’t addressed male privilege, though I think one can argue that in the current racist system it is and has been also a sexist system, such that any privileges granted to the White female are derivative from being White and male.



Church, Race and the Nation State: Prolegomena

I’m embarking on a series of posts in which I want to look at what it means to be church in light of Ferguson, Missouri and the killing of Michael Brown at the hand of a police officer (and that this sort of incident is a far too common.)  This inquiry assumes much that I’ve written about and be wrestling with here in Ecclesial Longings.   Ecclesial Longing emerges from a conviction that  Our current understandings of Church among all Protestants does not offer a means to fully live into who we are in Christ.  The Believers Church idea of the Free Church was possibly a needed corrective of ways of living into the Body of Christ that were too focused upon two of the four main orders of the Church. However as I have begun to articulate here and here, as a robust theology that takes into account the organic and architectural metaphors of Ephesians it falls short.

AS for this series of posts, it seems to me that American White Protestant (that I can legitimately put all these qualifiers on our identities as Christians should make us uncomfortable) understandings of church do not give us a means to see how the Nation-State desires (demands?) from us  the sort of identification we are are only to have with the Body of Christ.  The Nation-State co-opts or replaces, sometimes both, the Church.  In my view, this is easy to do when we view the church as a non-physical purely spiritual (non-institutional) reality of some vague connection between all individuals who “believe” in Jesus Christ. This is a very weak sense of identity based upon our sense of connection with other individuals are Christians.  To my eyes this appears as an atomization of ourselves as members of Christ’s Body, and allows for  the Nation-State to pick out the Christian from her proper identity and insert her into the Body of the Nation state without here being aware that of the dislocation or conflicting allegiances.  I don’t’ think I’m alone in making some of these observations  (Hauerwas comes to mind).  What I’d like to suggest is that the higher ecclesiologies represented by Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy have something to offer here.  Though, not necessarily in every aspect.

In recent two posts over at Personal Musings I have suggested that the Nation-State is the systemic seat of  Racism.  I think this is key to understanding how policing (one of the two coercive and violent arms of the Nation-State) remains racist and how then routine policing ends up disproportionately targeting Blacks and people of color.

I want to examine the Nation-State from its emergence in Europe as a state that was for and to govern a particular ethnicity, that is a nation.  The boundaries and the State itself in its original idea was for being able to clearly identify  the French and the English. This emerged also as a mean to separate from the State of the Holy Roman Empire.

Given in part that this ethic identification of State land and people was in conflict with the Holy Roman Empire, the emergence of the Nation-State in Europe is also an emerging reality out of conflicts between church and state in the late middle ages.  I wish to suggest then that there are ecclesiological consequences of the Nation-State, on some level the Nation-State is to replace the role of the Church in it’s unifying function as it was understood in Medieval Europe

I Haven’t yet read Willie Jennings The Christian Imagination: Theology and the Origin of Race , but my from what I know and from lectures I’ve heard of his I think some of what I’m attempting here is related to his analysis in this book.

I will seek to articulate in this series, that Racism is the result of a series of ecclesiological heresies, and thus is as such a an ecclesiological heresy itself.  But it isn’t just about ideas, but that these heresies actually hide from us the true nature of the Nation-State and the systems (powers) we take for granted and are told are necessary for our survival and are simply the  natural way of things, and the height of our human achievement and progress.  When in fact they are inventions, and more to the point spiritually speaking are the same powers that crucified Jesus of Nazareth, the Christ.

I am engaging  this inquiry out of the conviction that knowing who we are as the Body of Christ is what will allow followers of Christ to act not out of the systems of the World (that is the logic of the Nation-State the current system of the World), but of the new system/cosmos The Church, the Body of Christ.

Lastly, I recognise that I can’t escape being White.  Much of what I write is an attempt to address White heresies.   In a sense what I’m doing here is also an attempt at renunciation (see this post on renunciation and privilege) of trust in systems that have and still privilege and benefit Whites.  I recognise the possible limits of what I will be exploring.  This should not be read then as trying to correct or evaluate theological systems of the African-American Church or Latino/a theology or feminist theology, Liberation Theology and so forth.  I would hope some dialogue could ensue, that we can approach this as a means to continue to learn what it means to be the Body of Christ in the World.  For myself this line of thought is already followed out of listening to and reading various authors, voices and theological perspectives.