Letters to Phil, #11 — Philemon Fridays

Dear Phil,

You noted in your last letter that it’s easy for me to advocate big changes for others. After all, as you observe, those changes don’t const me anything. That’s a fair critique. I’m not in the position to surrender most of my wealth and that of my children in order to free currently enslaved persons. I live a privileged existence that demands very little sacrifice on my part. As a result, I know that my relationship with the Lord Jesus is in constant danger of collapse under the weight of my personal hypocrisy.

You see, Phil, I know that I must repent of the sins of whiteness and to make efforts to repair the damage that white supremacy has done for centuries and continues to do in the present. I know that because I have listened to and continue to listen to the real testimony of history behind the mythology so often taught in our white schools and white homes.

That’s all pretty academic and abstract, I know. Maybe an example from your time will help. Perhaps you have seen the expensive carved relief set in cameo and produced for the emperor and other high-ranking folks in your time. We have an example of such a cameo in one of our museums. We call it the Gemma Augustea. As you know, this setting is an affirmation of and advertisement for every bit of self-serving, self-justifying, and self-congratulating imperial mythology of your time.

The upper register depicts Caesar Augustus as the benevolent savior of the whole inhabited world. Both the Earth and the Sea pay tribute to Caesar and support his reign. The Roman eagle declares that the empire is favored by Jupiter, the king of all the gods. Next to Caesar is the goddess, Roma, always ready for war with both spear and sword. She stands atop the booty of conquest. Roma may be modelled after Livia, the wife of Augustus. The goddess, Nike – Victory – is driving a chariot from one successful conquest to the next.

You know better than I that this gem bears the imperial propaganda in full. Rome, in the person of Caesar, is invincible. Yet, Caesar dispenses peace and abundance – what the pagans call “salvation”! Smart people get with the program and reap the benefits of enthusiastic collaboration. The alternative is poverty, punishment, and persecution. It’s an easy decision for most people.

The lower register of the gem portrays, literally, the underside of the imperial system. The defeated figures are part of the group erecting a troparion, a monument to imperial victory made from the trophies of conquest. German and Celtic prisoners of war – destined soon to be enslaved – are seated on the ground as human booty. They are about to be tied to the base of the troparion, perhaps to be mocked and tortured. The troparion is, in fact, a cross that will display some of the loot taken from the defeated. It also resembled the lynching trees that populate a large swath of our own perverse history.

Mars, the god of war, presides over the grisly celebration. Figures representing the sun, moon, and stars look on in admiration. Mercury drags a female captive into the scene, perhaps to be raped and then enslaved.

The glory of Rome in the upper register is literally built upon the foundations of war and conquest, rape and pillage, torture and terror in the lower register. This is the mythology of the Empire. It’s no wonder some Christians resisted that mythology and labelled it as idolatry.

Yet, as you pointed out in your last letter, resisting the Imperial system was no simple matter. Just as slavery was as ubiquitous to you as electricity is to us, so that imperial mythology was as all-encompassing to you as the air we breathe. Resisting the air produces suffocation rather than salvation, eh?

I live in my own version of an imperial system. The goddess we worship, however, is not Roma. Rather, it seems we worship a god named “Leukos.” We white, Western Europeans and Americans worship at the altar of whiteness. No, Phil, that’s not quite right. We worship at the altar of “Leukos Anotatos” – the altar of white supremacy.

If we were to produce our own “Gemma” to carry this idolatrous mythology, a white man would certainly be at the center of the upper panel. Perhaps the image would be that of Robert E. Lee, the leading general in our war of rebellion, a war intended to preserve the system of chattel slavery and to extend it throughout our nation. Lee would sit atop a rearing horse, named Traveler, perhaps against a field of cotton. Behind him would be a virtuous white matron, protected from the hordes of invading black barbarians who would be defeated, dismembered, and destroyed.

The lower panel might display enslaved men, cowering under the lash of the overseer and begging forgiveness for their ingratitude. Enslaved women would be dragged off to be raped in order to produce the next generation of chattel. Some of those children might be depicted as playing happily with their soon-to-be enslavers. Abraham Lincoln might be shown prostrate in defeat on the portico of a plantation house.

Well, perhaps you get the idea.

Our idolatrous mythology is built of layer upon layer of falsehood. There is the Doctrine of Discovery, a “Christian” proposal that the lands of the West were empty and in need of civilizing discovery and development. The indigenous inhabitants of the land were not owners but merely residents. Therefore, they could be controlled, removed, and erased from history by any means necessary.

The complementary myth, another “Christian” proposal, was Manifest Destiny. This was the idea that white Christian domination was ordained by God to stretch from sea to shining sea on the North American continent.

We worship the myth of American exceptionalism – that our country is peculiarly blessed by God and serves as a shining city on a hill for all the world to see. Anything bad that happens here, therefore, is an anomaly that can be quickly corrected – a bug, as we would say these days, and not a feature of the system. America is the repository of all that is beautiful, true, and good, this myth asserts. Every white American politician embraces this idea without question – if they want to get re-elected.

This American exceptionalism is, of course, white American exceptionalism. In the life of the individual white person, this gets expressed as the myth of white innocence. On the one hand, we have “it’s not my fault and therefore not my problem” school of thought. I didn’t own slaves. My family didn’t get to this country until the 1880’s – after the Civil War. I don’t discriminate in business or religion. I don’t have a racist bone in my body. I worked hard for what I have. I’m sorry that history sucks for Black, Brown, Indigenous, and Asian people. I feel terrible for them, but it’s not my fault. Why can’t we just move along?

This mythology ignores centuries of theft that give me my advantages and privileges. It ignores the ongoing systems that favor white men above all other people in this society. It ignores the continuing disparities in educational, health, transportation, and economic outcomes. This mythology assumes that we exist only as isolated individuals who can choose to be responsible for one another or not.

That, by itself, should rule this mythology out of bounds for American Christians. But it does not.

All of this willful blindness created the convenient illusion of a “post-racial” society. Since a few Black, Brown, and Asian people achieved some exceptional measure of economic and political power, we white people could delude ourselves into thinking that the “race problem” was solved. We began, as a result, to remove the legal, political, cultural, and economic backstops that had produced the progress in the first place.

This was like saying that since we had a haircut, we no longer needed a barber. After all, our hair was short enough. I know, nonsense! Right? But there it is.

Through it all, the idolatry of white supremacy has been and is being sustained. These days, many of our leaders want us to avoid learning any real history that might give us an accurate picture of ourselves and our past. Just teach the mythology, they say. All that history stuff just makes us white people feel bad.

That’s like saying that the solution to being overweight is to avoid scales and mirrors. Self-delusion cannot result in self-improvement.

Why do we white people do it? You know the answer, Phil We do it because honesty is expensive and painful. The truth is rarely simply. History is written by the perpetrators. Repentance and repair feel like dying – at least if you’re white in our culture. I imagine you’ve had an analogous response in dealing with Onesimus and Paul. Dying to self is indeed as bad as it sounds.

But, as we both know, the alternative is worse. Mythology produces the day of the living dead for the few of us who are privileged. As an oppressor, I become subhuman. And it produces a real nightmare of suffering and death for those on the lower register of our cultural Gemma. I can’t follow Jesus and live the mythology at the same time. So, it will cost me, and, I imagine, you.

I look forward to your next letter.

Yours in Christ,

Low

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