White Christianity

The Veil Over the Holy Nativity

The icon of the Holy Nativity has something that eludes us.  I return, again and again, to its contemplation because it is a rich image but also because it challenges me. I don’t see it completely. The meaning eludes us, there is a veil over the icon.

One layer of this veil is the familiar imagery of Christmas, which smooth’s out the edges, softens the light, ignores the presence of death that lurks in Holy Nativity.  Most images seek to honor this moment through abstraction of the material and fleshly reality the holy nativity inhabits. There is a veil (The “veil” is an allusion to Saint Paul’s usage in 2 Corinthians 3:12-14 ) over this icon and the reality the icon invites us to enter. Because of this veil we are unable to enter Christmas, we turn away from the crack in the world it created.

We look at this icon and we see only a dogmatic claim. VIRGIN BIRTH, screams out at us. Isolated, without context, we hear “Just accept and believe that Mary conceived without intercourse with Joseph.” What is at root of this dogmatism disconnected from a lived and material existence? Why might we only see in this image a dogmatic assertion? Why the fascination with and the rejection of the miraculous? More importantly why do we think the miracle is the point? (side note, it’s not!)

Asking the question of whether a Christian need to believe in the Virgin Birth as Nicholas Kristof does in his interview with Timothy Keller, misses the point. Timothy Keller’s answer that the virgin birth is integral to the Christian thought system, reinforces the veil over the icon of the Holy Nativity (though I agree with his point that the doctrine has meaning). What is this veil? Why the retreat into abstraction and systematic theology and the integrity of belief systems and organizations?  This is so far from the material and physical reality of a virgin birth. Why do we retreat from the holy nativity’s visceral moment? Keller, later in the interview, when talking about the Resurrection, will tell Kristof that these beliefs about Jesus were an offense to the Greek philosophers who couldn’t abide a God bound up in the messiness of the material and fleshly, and yet Keller answers with that same attitude of distance from the messy material world. What Keller presents is a tidy precise sterile world with discrete doctrines that ensure the precise relationships, and the protocol for dealing with God. If doctrine and belief is all you see in the Holy Nativity, then you aren’t seeing.

I think I’ve identified the veil and turning away from this sight. The eyes are veiled for both the one who professes to believe and the one who is skeptical or has abandoned belief. (for my purposes here, I make the distinction between faith and belief. Belief is assent to propositions, faith is about trust and relationship that can be expressed in propositions but whose referent isn’t those propositions.) From what are we shielding our eyes, as we rush to take these  postures.? From what do we veil ourselves, what can’t we bear to look upon in the icon?

Our turning away has been happening for a very long time. All I give at this moment is a quick sketch of this retreat and veiling. I will make some rapid connections of disconnect and retreat. Trump and his Christian supporters have more in common with those who don’t appear in this icon; the client King Herod (see, Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove’s
use of this trope in his Open Letter to King Herod at Red Letter Christians
) and the other religious leaders who know the Torah (the Bible, if you will) and who in differing ways collaborate with the occupation of Judea and Galilee. White Christianity isn’t found in this icon. The “we” if you find this icon unintelligible, is a Christianity of Empire, in service to Babylon the Great (Revelation 17 and 18). The most recent iteration of Babylon is that which inherited the White supremacist system of European colonialism. This sketch of course isn’t convincing (for the case and argument for this sketch one must read Willie James Jennings, James Cone, Harry H. Singleton III, and others).

I will add to this historical sketch a tableau, a “pastoral image”*, if you will: Christmas on the plantations in the “new world”, slaves and their masters at Christmas. In the celebration of Christmas, the White Christian slave holders would allow slaves a moment of reprieve from their harsh conditions. Some of the conditions of their enslavement were lifted, surveillance was lessened, work load lightened. Some slaves, tasting of this Christmas liberty, grabbed hold of it and fled to freedom. Some managed to gain their liberty at Christmas. There were also slave rebellions at Christmas. (see Christmas and the Resistance to Slavery in the Americas in AAIHS)

This is the veil, the reason of our retreat: White Christians instinctively loosening their grip of oppression, but not understanding that the Holy Nativity stood in opposition to them. The White Christian is nowhere to be found in the icon of the holy nativity. The religious collaborators do not make an appearance in this film. We’ve attempted to make the holy nativity a pastoral image of innocence that White Christianity can’t claim for itself, but must insist upon.

We are some distance from the above tableaux of Christmas on the plantations. Yet, it still reverberates. Babylon and its religious (often devoutly so) collaborators, who can answer the questions when those seeking truth come, and ask “Where is the messiah to be born,” and knowing the scriptures can give the correct answer. Even so, white Christians never come into the Holy Nativity.

Where are we, (by “we” I mean both those who seek to come out of Whiteness (Babylon) and those upon whom Babylon has fed and who cry out “how long” (Revelation 6:9-11)- people of color, who currently cry out “Black lives matter”).

In this icon. At this moment, I think most of us are at the bottom of the icon with Saint Joseph and the midwives. We are either caught in a moment of indecision, uncertain what to make of it all, without answers, full of doubts. We ask with Saint Joseph, has any of this been true, the apparition of angels, the message they delivered. Or we are with the midwives handling the holy as they’ve done year in year out, perhaps not fully aware of who they are handling, and washing, swaddling, protecting through their resistance, (recall the midwives, Shiphorah and Puah in Exodus 1)

The veil hasn’t been lifted, we can’t yet see the center of this icon. Even so, we are drawn into this holy nativity, we are here. We who sit with Saint Joseph this is a very melancholy Christmas. There is much to ponder, and the lies of Satan, and the lure of Babylon must be resisted. We who sit with saint Joseph need to pay attention to the resistance and the strength of the midwives. Yes, we must ponder and reflect, but we must also be drawn into the activity of the midwives who know Christ in the flesh ( 1 John 4:2), who handle and wash and protect and guard God in this vulnerable moment of newness and liberation. But many of us are frozen in Saint Joseph’s melancholy, the veil still hangs over our eyes and we have yet to remove the veil and gaze upon  the light emitting from this icon..

*by using “pastoral image” I’m intentionally referencing Billie Holliday’s reported explanation of the term as used in “Strange Fruit.”


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.

Reconciliation and “the disgrace of Egypt”

I recently preached a sermon where I wove together God’s assurance to the Israelites, as they entered Canaan, that the disgrace of Egypt* had been rolled away, with Paul’s reflection on not seeing anyone or anything from a human point of view, with the attitude and space of the father in Jesus’ parable of The Prodigal Son. In this weaving I sought to take into account Willie Jennings’s assertion in The Christian Imagination: Theology and the Origins of Race, that the reading of the story Israel and appropriating of the story of Israel for White Christians is troubled and that we can too readily apply Israel’s story in a way that discounts and erases the story of biological and historical Israel. Yet, the sermon rushed too quickly to a conclusion and was in danger of mimicking the move of White Christianity’s  too easy taking into itself the story of Israel as its native story . This reflection is to reopen a space of contemplation and on going reflection on the themes of the sermon. I wrestled and wrestled with this reading, which is to read Joshua, Corinthians and a parable of Jesus in away that faces that White Christianity claimed for itself the identity of Israel but acted like Egypt and enforced upon Africans the condition of the Israelites in Egypt, as a race, just as Egypt enslaved the Hebrews as a people.  The weaving of these texts seeks to reflect the  trouble  of reading of all these scriptures in our context.

I begin with God’s word to Joshua “Today I have rolled away from you the disgrace of Egypt.” This word echos and haunts. I want to  hear these texts in ways that bear in mind white supremacy and the legacy of the enslavement of Africans. In so doing another echo was heard that of  Martin Luther King Jr.’s conclusion to his sermon preached the day before he was assassinated.” I’ve been to the mountaintop….and I’ve looked over and seen the Promised land…” White supremacy the enslavement of Africans, Jim Crow, segregation and the struggle for the civil rights of Black folks resonates with the Israelites entering the promised land, finally to be freed from the disgrace and burden of having been enslaved. Yet to hear this resonance and these echoes truly we must also see that we continue to face  today that Black people are still struggling to come out from the burden of having been an enslaved people. This fact is due to structures within this country. I wondered if King also had Joshua 5:9 in his thoughts when he spoke of going to the mountain and seeing into the promised land. I suspect it was. Black people are freed from slavery but not fully freed from the disgrace, the consequences of having been enslaved, due to the White system that itself refuses to confront the necessary continuing effects of having been a society and economy that enslaved Africans. The “disgrace of Egypt” is twofold for American Christianity: the fact of having been enslaved, for black people, and for White Christians it is the fact of having been those who enslaved black people. Christianity in the United States is both Israel and Egypt.

There is a fundamental division within American Christianity, it is analogous to  the division of Egypt from Israel.  There then is another echo and resonance, though fainter and less distinct.  Paul’s theology of reconciliation and his seeing that enmity between Israel and Gentiles and human enmity with God is resolved in Jesus Christ.  Yet, this Pauline assertion is distorted within White Christianity, as through White supremacy Christianity is now also a source of the enmity.  In appropriating to itself the story of Israel that justified its enslavement of Africans White Christianity became Egypt and is now in relation to Black people mimics the relation between Egypt and Israel. What possible hope is there to be found in this reading? To find the hopei this, we need to hear another promise to Israel : the Nations will one day come to Israel. These nations who will seek Israel out,  include Egypt. Israel will welcome into itself those who formerly had enslaved them.  The Hope then is that In Jesus Christ, this prophetic promise has happened and will happen for historical and biological Israel.**

Here we could rush too quickly to a solution, there is a dangerous moment for us in this hopeful interpretation. Wihtou nuance it will offer hope through reducing the promised land and the rolling away “disgrace of Egypt” to only be about us and our need to get past the continuing effects of slavery. This “hope” then becomes a means to escape our disgrace of the continuing effects of a White system that enslaved black people, rather than being set free through God and God’s work that began among Israel the people of God. This is a tight rope of these insights and application we must  walk. We must both see the meaning of the story for us today and retain its having happened for Israel brought to fulfilment in Jesus of Nazareth, a Jew. The story and the disgrace that was being rolled away is part of Israel’s story and history. The disgrace was rolled away. And neither black people nor white people are Israel, yet both black and white members of the church are joined to Israel through Christ (Willie Jennings).  The problem is that incredibly not only did white Christians appropriate to themselves the identity of Israel they did so in away that obliterated Israel, and then when enslaving Africans not only enslaved other human beings but enslaved and severely oppressed Black members of the body of Christ. In a very twisted turn. In the name of being Israel, Whites created enmity between themselves and all other peoples, while claiming to be proclaiming the Gospel of Reconciliation.

So we have a problem, we (especially White Christians, but White supremacy affects us all in our current system), we want to say , “See it’s all solved let’s just embrace in Christ and continue on.” However, This is to seek reconciliation through a forgetting. Yet in  Paul  speaking of the ministry of Reconciliation, there is a memory of the disgrace of Egypt that Israel suffered. Paul then insists that  Isaiah’s prophesying that the nations will come into Israel isn’t the outworking of human historical processes but is in the in-breaking of God in the Jew Jesus of Nazareth. Thus, our hope isn’t conceived of or seen from the point of view of the flesh (or human point of view NRSV, or Worldly point of view , NIV), but is found in Christ and Israel. Paul seems to indicate that Christians, members of Christ’s body can have this other than human viewpoint.  And we desperately need in our time to no longer see our world and our system with the eyes of the flesh. The opposite of the flesh in this passage in Corinthians  is being in Christ.

What then is it to be in Christ?

There are two things Paul in the Corinthians passage read on the 4th Sunday of Lent highlights ( I don’t believe these things exhaust the meaning or reality of being in Christ):

  1. New creation
  2. The ministry of Reconciliation, being Reconciled to God.

To see from this other than human point of view is to firmly stand in the place of Christ, which is from the point of view of the cosmos transformed and remade.  This space is one that is reconciling old and new, all which is at enmity (even for real and good reasons.) These two things lead nicely into the Parable Jesus tells that we commonly call the parable of the prodigal Son. I suggest that we see this as a parable about the father, and not about the sons. However, this isn’t God the father, rather what is pictured for us in the person of the father in the story is the space of new creation and reconciliation (which is then by extension a picture of God, but this would be of the Trinity and not just God the Father). The father is the world when we are within Christ, and the two sons are pictures of seeing the world and ourselves and others from the point of view of the flesh.

Here is where my sermon collapsed under the pressure of drawing things to a conclusion. This weaving of the texts and their possible meaning for our time and place, as I attempted to draw conclusions from these observations and connections, I continued to lose sight of biological and historical Israel.  In desiring to offer hope I falsely offered a confident step forward.  I’m not confident of the next step. I need to sit in contemplation of the father as image of the promised land and being in Christ, before I can say what that might mean for us now as we continue to wrestle with continuing reality of white supremacy and the outworking of enslavement of Africans by Europeans. I tried to draw this all to a conclusion and how these insights could lead us to a reconciliation that was truly liberative. I attempted to draw some parallels between the two brothers and our human approaches to reconciliation or rectifying enmity between people or between ourselves and others. There perhaps isn’t a one to one correspondence.  I attempted to give an answer I wasn’t ready to give and can’t give.

What I did say and will say now, but without attempting to draw a conclusion of its meaning for us, is that the two brothers do illuminate two ways seeing according the flesh can manifest, shame and self-condemnation, and condemnation of others. Both brothers fail to fully enter into the place of new creation and reconciliation. One stands outside the promised land the other within the promised land still remains self-condemning all the while living in the space of reconciliation but having yet to take it into themselves.

This weaving of these texts above and in the sermon are potentially fruitful but I leave them here to ponder and contemplate. But also, I perhaps alone preaching to a small group of people can’t draw a conclusion, what we do with this reading of these texts needs a broader audience and larger discussion.

Maybe it can begin here.

These are the Scripture texts that are being interpreted in the above essay: 

 

 

 

 

*not to be understood as the modern nation state of Egypt nor its Arab or Copt populations

** For a full account of the necessity of maintaining constantly this double vision of both application of the stories and scriptures of the Hebrew people as both applying to us but only through Jesus of Nazareth (a Jew) and keeping in view both the continuity with the Jewish people and with the Church made up of both Jews and the gentiles as grafted in to the people of God, Israel, C.f Willie Jennings The Christian Imagination: Theology and the origin of race.  This reflection is deeply indebted to the sustained argument in The Christian Imagination.

-Special thanks to Jeremy John for editorial work done on this post