On Bullshit and the Baptizer — Throwback Thursday Books

“One of the most salient features of our culture is that there is so much bullshit,” writes philosopher Harry Frankfurt. “Everyone knows this. Each of us contributes his share. But we tend to take the situation for granted.” Frankfurt’s slim volume, entitled On Bullshit, is one of those few works that makes me proud to have a bachelor’s degree in philosophy. At least one of us in the guild has produced something useful and of substance.

Harry Frankfurt is Professor of Philosophy Emeritus at Princeton University. He wrote this little gem in 2005.

Frankfurt is convinced that most of us think we can recognize bullshit when we see it, and that we are quite mistaken. As a result, most of us are routinely taken in by some variety of BS or another in our daily lives. He sets out to define and describe bullshit in such a way that people in general can be equipped to both recognize and reject bullshit when it is placed in our path.

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“However studiously and conscientiously the bullshitter proceeds, it remains true that he is also trying to get away with something,” Frankfurt writes. “There is surely in his work, as in the work of the slovenly craftsman, some kind of laxity that resists or eludes the demands of a disinterested and austere discipline” (page 23). Frankfurt notes that BS is analogous to shoddy, knock-off merchandise that the seller knowingly offers as the real deal.

The counterfeit character of BS is one mark of the substance. In addition, Frankfurt suggests, bullshit tends to claim more authority for itself than can be warranted. It has the character of exaggeration, hyperbole, and some measure of fabrication to support whatever has been asserted.

This is not, Frankfurt notes, intentional lying. It is, rather, a sort of mindless expression which the speaker assumes (consciously or not) that the listener will simply let slide because it’s too much work to track down the excesses. The bullshitter’s fault is not so much the failure to get things right but rather the failure to even try to get things right (page 32).

“It is just this lack of connection to a concern with truth—this indifference to how things really are,” Frankfurt concludes, “that I regard as of the essence of bullshit” (pages 33-34).

Bullshit is language emptied of meaning and truth just as “excrement is matter from which everything nutritive has been removed,” Frankfurt notes. “Excrement may be regarded as the corpse of nourishment, what remains when the vital elements in food have been exhausted” (page 43). BS is language from which the vital elements of meaning and truth have been removed – and are not missed!

So, to summarize, bullshit is not necessarily true or false. Rather, it is rhetoric which is simply unconcerned with whether truth matters. “What bullshit essentially misrepresents,” Frankfurt continues, “is neither the state of affairs to which it refers nor the beliefs of the speaker concerning that state of affairs” (page 53).  Rather, “the fact abut himself that bullshitter hides,” Frankfurt argues, “is that the truth-values of his statements are of no central interest to him” (page 54).

In essence, Frankfurt proposes, the bullshitter “is neither on the side of the true nor on the side of the false. His eye is not on the facts at all, as the eyes of the honest man and of the liar are, except insofar as they may be pertinent to his interest in getting away with what he says. He does not care whether the things he says describe reality correctly. He just picks them out,” Frankfurt observes, “or makes them up, to suit his purpose” (page 56).

Therefore, Frankfurt concludes, “bullshit is a greater enemy of the truth than lies are” (page 61). I would add that the greatest friend the bullshitter has is the rest of us who believe to one degree or another that truth still exists. Part of the power asymmetry which the bullshitter exploits is precisely that differential approach to whether or not truth matters. This describes to some degree, I think, the difference between the major American political parties at this point in history.

The application of Frankfurt’s work to the rhetoric associated with Donald Trump and the current Republican party is both transparent and apparent. Frankfurt speaks “prophetically” about the precise rhetorical strategy which is the beating heart of Trumpism. Bullshit is what we get when truth is subservient to the acquisition and maintenance of power. In the hands of the powerful, positioned, and privileged, bullshit is a deadly substance. Such people have the capacity to insist that bullshit is Reality and to penalize anyone who dares to differ.

Why is this a useful discussion in the study of the beheading of John the Baptizer? I would suggest that a definition of the role of the biblical prophets, including John (and Jesus) is to name publicly, identify, and oppose the bullshit of the powerful, positioned, and privileged. When prophets do such a thing, they often pay for that behavior with their property, their liberty, and (often enough) their lives.

John names what everyone knows – that Antipas has broken the law and violated cultural and religious norms. More than that, Antipas, and his household, assert that this arrangement is normal and good. Nothing to see here, they say. Move along and tend your business. Everything is fine.

But John declares that everything is not fine. No amount of power, position, and privilege can change the facts of the case. John is, therefore, faced with a choice. Be quiet or be killed. By the time we get to our narrative, that choice no longer exists for John. The question is not if he will die but only when and how.

One of the hallmarks of bullshit is that when it is called out, the response is violent rage. We can see that in the character of Herodias in our text. We can see that as well in the characters of the Jerusalem elites who make sure that Jesus is silenced after he calls out the bullshit going on in Jerusalem and in the Temple. Anti-bullshit artists have, on average, relatively short life spans – especially in authoritarian regimes.

I want to connect this to current conversations about anti-racism, critical race theory, history, and the like. We can, I think, leave the details of critical race theory aside. The real issue is that CRT is an anti-bullshit methodology. It simply asks, “What really happened? How did things get this way?” It is, like many academic disciplines, an attempt to get a glimpse of the “man behind the curtain.”

Therefore, we should not be surprised when the response is white rage, verging on homicidal insanity. Certain commentators have mused that perhaps critical race theorists should be erased from the conversation somehow. And certain of those commentators are not all that choosy about how the erasure happens. Short of that, state legislatures are erasing the conversation itself from school curricula in order to sustain the overarching bullshit narrative of white supremacy and innocence.

This strategy is the essential strategy of white supremacy. Kaitlin Curtice puts it this way in Native. “A thread runs through the history of America, a thin line that connects people, places, moments, cultures, and experiences. This thread started when Columbus arrived and deemed Indigenous peoples savage and unworthy of life, a thread that continued as African peoples were enslaved and forced onto this continent. We see it today in hate crimes against people of color and religious minorities. It is a thread of whiteness,” Curtice argues, “of white supremacy, that aims to erase culture, to assimilate those deemed “unworthy” of humanity.” (page 13).

“You shall know the Truth,” Jesus says in the Gospel of John, “and the Truth shall make you free.” We church people should be determined, deliberate, dauntless friends of Truth, wherever it takes us. That is, we Jesus followers should be implacable enemies of bullshit. Yet, in my experience, white churches have been and continue to be revered repositories of all sorts of bullshit – especially of the supremacist kind. We need only observe the theological self-cannibalism society called the Southern Baptist Convention to note the truth of the previous statement.

My own theological tribe, however, is not about to cast the first stone in this matter. We draft social statements, messages, policies, and letters. They have some impact in a few places. But for the most part, we are just as white, upper-middle-class, and insular as we were forty years ago. The quality of the bullshit is perhaps more refined, but the substance has changed very little.

Perhaps this is part of why John’s execution is in Mark’s account in such exquisite detail. We can kill in order to sustain the bullshit, or we can die in opposition to it.

There’s a topic for discipleship discernment, eh?

References and Resources

https://headtopics.com/us/i-want-his-head-on-a-platter-kentucky-mom-tells-911-dispatcher-of-suspect-who-took-her-baby-in-ca-10235366.

Black, C. Clifton. https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/ordinary-15-2/commentary-on-mark-614-29-3.

Frankfurt, Harry G. On Bullshit. Princeton University Press. Kindle Edition.

Jennifer A. Glancy , ” Unveiling Masculinity : The Construction of Gender in Mark 6:17-29,” Biblnt 2 (1994): 34-50.

Hurtado, Larry. Mark (Understanding the Bible Commentary Series). Grand Rapids, MI.: Baker Books, 1989.

Jeremias, Joachim. Jerusalem in the Time of Jesus. Philadelphia, PA.: Fortress Press, 1969.

Kraemer, R. (2006). Implicating Herodias and Her Daughter in the Death of John the Baptizer: A (Christian) Theological Strategy? Journal of Biblical Literature, 125(2), 321-349. doi:10.2307/27638363.

Malina, Bruce, and Rohrbaugh, Richard L. Social Science Commentary on the Synoptic Gospels. Kindle Edition.

McCauley, Esau. Reading While Black: African American Biblical Interpretation as an Exercise in Hope. Downers Grove, Ill.: Intervarsity Press, 2020.

Noegel, Scott B. “CORPSES, CANNIBALS, AND COMMENSALITY: A LITERARY AND ARTISTIC SHAMING CONVENTION IN THE ANCIENT NEAR EAST.” Journal of Religion and Violence, vol. 4, no. 3, 2016, pp. 255–304. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/26671507. Accessed 1 July 2021.

Powery, Emerson. https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/ordinary-15-2/commentary-on-mark-614-29-5.

Sandmel, S. “Herod (Family).” Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible, vol. 2. Nashville, TN.: Abingdon Press, 1962. Pages 585-594.

Smit, Peter-Ben. “The Ritual (De)Construction of Masculinity in Mark 6: A Methodological Exploration on the Interface of Gender and Ritual Studies.” Neotestamentica, vol. 50, no. 2, 2016, pp. 327–352. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/26417640. Accessed 1 July 2021.

Swanson, Richard. Provoking the Gospel of Mark: A Storyteller’s Commentary Year B. Cleveland, OH.: The Pilgrim Press, 2005.

Book Review: How the Word is Passed: A Reckoning with the History of Slavery Across America

“The history of slavery is the history of the United States,” Clint Smith writes in his newest book, How the Word is Passed: A Reckoning with the History of Slavery Across America. “It was not peripheral to our founding; it was central to it. It is not irrelevant to our contemporary society; it created it. This history is in our soil, it is in our policies, and,” Smith argues, “it must, too, be in our memories” (Kindle Location 4321).

I have just finished a first read of How the Word is Passed, and I want to recommend it without qualification in the highest terms. The book has moved quickly to number 1 on the New York Times bestseller list for nonfiction. In my opinion, that status is well-deserved. So, first of all, find a copy of this book and read it. It is beautifully written and masterfully combines history, politics, and personal story. It is the best of how one can combine journalism, scholarship, and memory. I am certain this will be an award-winning work.

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In this book, Smith travels to eight places in the US and to Goree Island off the coast of ancient Senegambia to deepen his understanding of how the people in each of those places come to terms with the history of American slavery and their places in that history. In the process, Smith experiences those places in deeply emotional and visceral ways. And he comes to a deeper understanding, not only of the history of American slavery, but also of his own story and his place in that larger history.

Smith visits and unearths in new ways Jefferson’s Monticello, New Orleans, the Whitney Plantation, Angola Prison in Louisiana, Blandford Cemetery, Galveston Island and the founding of Juneteenth, New York City, and the House of Slaves off the coast of Africa.

The book shares testimony from people who have grappled with the obscenity of enslavement and the institutions that created the American enslavement system. David, a guide at Monticello, gave a clear exposition of the reality.

“Slavery’s an institution. In Jefferson’s lifetime it becomes a system. So, what is this slave system? It is a system of exploitation, a system of inequality and exclusion, a system where people are owned as property and held down by physical and psychological force, a system being justified even by people who know slavery is morally wrong. By doing what? Denying the very humanity of those who are enslaved solely on the basis of the color of their skin.” (Kindle Location 173).

The contradictions of Jefferson as “author of freedom” and holder of slaves is only one example of many such historical oxymorons Smith explores. Jefferson held hundreds of persons as slaves, used them as collateral for his farm, and decreed them to be sold to settle the debts of his estate. “Jefferson believed himself to be a benevolent slave owner,” Smith notes, “but his moral ideals came second to, and were always entangled with, his own economic interests and the interests of his family. Jefferson understood, as well, the particular economic benefits of keeping husbands and wives together, noting that ‘a child raised every 2 years is of more profit than the crop of the best laboring man.’” (Kindle Location 272).

Smith’s trips to his native New Orleans and the Whitney Plantation contain refreshing notes of hope in a sometimes bleak book. “In a state where plantations remain the sites of formal celebrations and weddings, where tours of former slave estates nostalgically center on the architectural merits of the old homes, where you are still more likely to hear stories of how the owners of the land ‘treated their slaves well’ than you are to hear of the experiences of actual enslaved people, the Whitney stands apart by making the story of the enslaved the core of the experience.” (Kindle Location 839). I would like to see this place sometime.

Then there is Angola Prison. “The average sentence at Angola,” Smith writes, is eighty-seven years.” I had to stop and read that sentence several times. If there’s any sentence that illustrates the rotten core in the Thirteenth Amendment, this is it. Mass incarceration is not only the New Jim Crow. It’s the old slave system as well.

That’s true in literal terms at Angola, where a modern penal plantation is built on top of the old-fashioned kind. But who notices? “If in Germany today there were a prison built on top of a former concentration camp, and that prison disproportionately incarcerated Jewish people,” Smith argues, “it would rightly provoke outrage throughout the world. I imagine there would be international summits on closing such an egregious institution. And yet in the United States,” he observes, “such collective outrage at this plantation-turned-prison is relatively muted.” (Kindle Location 1525).

Smith takes us to Blandford Confederate cemetery and a Memorial Day celebration to understand and experience the mythology, theology, and politics of the Lost Cause. “White Southerners’ commitment to the Confederate cause was not predicated on whether or not they owned slaves,” Smith observes as he reflects on that experience. “The commitment was based on a desire to maintain a society in which Black people remained at the bottom of the social hierarchy.” (Kindle Location 2550).

The Lost Cause, the myth of white innocence, confederate monuments, Civil War re-enactments, the KKK, and history revised beyond recognition all blend together in a surreal worldview that makes white racists the victims and those terrible Yankees and uppity Black folk the aggressors. As we know from contemporary headlines, that worldview is alive and well – and not only in the Old South.

The chapter describing the founding and establishment of Juneteenth is timely and worth the price of the book by itself here in mid-June of 2021. The concluding paragraph of that chapter says it well. “Juneteenth, then, is both a day to solemnly remember what this country has done to Black Americans and a day to celebrate all that Black Americans have overcome. It is a reminder,” Smith continues, “that each day this country must consciously make a decision to move toward freedom for all of its citizens, and that this is something that must be done proactively; it will not happen on its own. The project of freedom, Juneteenth reminds us, is precarious,” Smith concludes, “and we should regularly remind ourselves how many people who came before us never got to experience it, and how many people there are still waiting.” (Kindle Location 3079).

Throughout the book, Smith reminds us of the importance of knowing, studying, and embodying the accurate history of the United States, especially when it comes to race. “How different might our country look,” Smith wonders, “if all of us fully understood what has happened here?” (Kindle Location 2692).

History that reinforces white supremacy is nostalgic mythology, not real information. But the impacts are very real. “It is not enough to study history,” Smith argues. “It is not enough to celebrate singular moments of our past or to lift up the legacy of victories that have been won without understanding the effects of those victories—and those losses—on the world around us today.” (Kindle Location 2747). But learning the real history is a beginning in dealing with and changing how things got to be the way they are.

“Don’t believe anything if it makes you comfortable.” Damaras, the tour guide who led Smith and others through the enslavement history of New York City concluded her tour with those words. In a chapter called, “But We Were the Good Guys,” Smith reminds us that we northerners have been anything but “the good guys.” The tour begins with a journey to the second largest slave market in American history, walking distance from the New York Stock exchange. The story of the historic black burial ground in New York city gives horrifying context to the guide’s moral guidance.

“New York was unique in that, like Damaras had shared, it presented itself to me as a place ahead of its time,” Smith observes. “The pretense of cultural pluralism told a story that was only half true. New York economically benefited from slavery, and the physical history of enslavement—the blood, the bodies, and the buildings constructed by them—was deeply entrenched in the soil of this city.” (Kindle Location 3495). The same can and must be said of every inch of territory north of the Mason-Dixon line.

The chapter was a vivid reminder that while some white people were and are in favor of the abolition of slavery (and its cultural successors), it is quite possible at the same time to continue to be in favor of the outcomes and structures of racism. It was not then and is not now enough to be antislavery. Our call as white people is to live the principles of antiracism.

His visit to Goree Island reinforced the essential realities of white supremacy producing antiBlack racism and the Transatlantic and American slave systems. One of Smith’s conversation partners put it well. Europeans and Americans “considered Black Africans not as human beings but as a simple merchandise. If they consider Africans as merchandise, that is because they understand the necessity to dehumanize Africans in order to work for the acceptance by all the Europeans. The necessity to use Africans because Africans are not human beings.” (Kindle Location 3716). The economic and political practice preceded and required the story, not the other way around.

This chapter contains the most powerful single line in the book. We have often heard that history is written by “the victors.” Another of Smith’s African interlocutors put it clearly. “History,” he noted, “is written by the perpetrators.” We need history written by the resistors.

Smith closes with a trip into his own personal history. He remembers that his family is as much of a resource for telling the story as any of the places he visited. This epilogue is by far the most moving and powerful section of the book. “My grandparents’ stories are my inheritance,” Smith writes with love and reverence, “each one is an heirloom I carry. Each one is a monument to an era that still courses through my grandfather’s veins. Each story is a memorial that still sits in my grandmother’s bones. My grandparents’ voices are a museum I am still learning how to visit,” he concludes, “each conversation with them a new exhibit worthy of my time.”

Worthy of our time as well – I encourage you to read this marvelous, moving, and meaningful work.

Jesus and the Disinherited — Throwback Thursday Books

“The masses of men live with their backs constantly against the wall,” Howard Thurman writes. “They are the poor, the disinherited, the dispossessed. What does our religion say to them? The issue,” he continues, “is not what it counsels them to do for others whose need may be greater, but what religion offers to meet their own needs. The search for an answer to this question,” Thurman argues, “is perhaps the most important religious quest of modern life” (Jesus and the Disinherited, page 13).

In this edition of Throwback Thursday books, I want to review and appreciate Thurman’s classic 1949 work, Jesus and the Disinherited. Numerous reports indicate that this was one of the books that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., carried with him during the Montgomery bus boycott, and as he traveled to other places. It was a well-used and annotated copy that represented and continued Thurman’s impact on Dr. King and many others of the Civil Rights movement.

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It was Thurman who was primarily responsible for connecting the Civil Rights movement to the principles, strategies, and philosophy of nonviolent resistance which Mahatma Gandhi practiced and pursued. Thurman traveled to India in 1935 to meet Gandhi and learn from him. During that meeting, as Paul Harvey reports in his Smithsonian magazine online article, Gandhi suggested to Thurman that “it may be through the Negroes that the unadulterated message of nonviolence will be delivered to the world.”

Thurman was a theologian and teacher of religion. More important, however, he was a mystical philosopher who was able to join the power of personal spiritual transformation to the challenges of social and political resistance and reform.

“The disinherited will know for themselves that there is a Spirit at work in life and in the hearts of men which is committed to overcoming the world,” he writes at the end of the book. “It is universal, knowing no age, no race, no culture, and no condition of men. For the privileged and underprivileged alike, if the individual puts at the disposal of the Spirit the needful dedication and discipline, he can live effectively in the chaos of the present the high destiny of a son of God” (pages 108-109).

I am visiting this book today because it is new to me even though old to the Movement. I have been aware of this book for years but only now have taken the time to read and digest it.

My bad.

Thurman reads the Good News of Jesus Christ through the lens of the disinherited and the dispossessed, those whom he describes as the people “with their backs against the wall.” In particular, he reflects on the suffering, oppression, abuse, and violence inflicted on Black people in the United States and how the Church has been integral in that horror.

“To those who need profound succor and strength to enable them to live in the present with dignity and creativity, Christianity often has been sterile and of little avail,” he writes in the first chapter, entitled “Jesus – An Interpretation.” He continues, “The conventional Christian word is muffled, confused, and vague. Too often the price exacted by society for security and respectability is that the Christian movement in its formal expression must be on the side of the strong against the weak” (pages 11-12).

Thurman could easily have written those words yesterday, rather than over seventy years ago. Very little has changed in large parts of white Christendom in the West. Thurman sees clearly that the oppression of Black people in America is part of the larger imperial, colonial, extractive process that has driven history in the west for 500 years. At a time when America was basking in the glow of victory after World War II, his vision is clear and precise.

He notes that the process of setting Christianity against the disinherited began when Jesus was separated theologically from his impoverished and Jewish origins in Palestine. Jesus was a Jew, was a poor Jew, and was a poor Jew under the domination of a controlling imperial power. Thus Jesus addressed a significant question, Thurman asserts. “There is one overmastering problem that the socially and politically disinherited always face: Under what terms is survival possible?” (page 20).

That question hasn’t changed for Black, Brown, Indigenous, and AAPI people in the United States. Lynching may have gone underground, and assimilation is perhaps more polite, but none of it has gone away. We have only to read the headlines about children’s bodies found on the grounds of a former Christian boarding school in Canada to be reminded of the ongoing realities in our lives.

There is a certain spiritual kinship with Victor Frankl in Thurman’s writing. He begins with a focus on the inner attitude of those with their backs against the wall. Frankl noted that the one source of freedom which the oppressor cannot steal is the inner freedom to choose one’s attitude of response. Thurman puts it this way.

“This is the position of the disinherited in every age. What must be the attitude toward the rulers, the controllers of political, social, and economic life? This is the question of the Negro in American life. Until he has faced and settled that question, he cannot inform his environment with reference to his own life, whatever may be his preparation or his pretensions” (page 23).

Thurman knows that this inner resolve will be wedded to external action if it has any integrity. Transformation and resistance go together for him. He defines resistance “as the physical, overt expression of an inner attitude” (page 25). The fact that our white churches are so resistant to resistance may be the clearest evidence that we have not experienced the transformation on offer through the power of the Good News of Jesus Christ.

In Thurman’s view, Christianity began as a “technique of survival for the oppressed” (page 29). In the hands of the powerful, however, it has become a tool for the distraction of the oppressed. “The desperate opposition to Christianity rests in the fact that it seems, in the last analysis,” he writes, “to be a betrayal of the Negro into the hands of his enemies by focusing his attention upon heaven, forgiveness, love, and the like” (page 29).

Thurman echoes the enslaved who left white churches to form their own denominations. He channels Black preachers who could not remain Christian if the Bible actually endorsed enslavement. He vibrated with the passion of Frederick Douglas who saw the hypocrisy of white Christians – the more Christian they became, the more violence they did to the enslaved. He helps me understand Nebraska’s own Ernie Chambers, who seems to love Jesus and knows deeply our white Christian hypocrisy and cynicism.

While Thurman doesn’t call Jesus “Black” in this text, the connection is obvious. “The striking similarity between the social position of Jesus in Palestine and that of the vast majority of American Negroes is obvious to anyone who tarries long over the facts” (page 34).

Thurman devotes a chapter each to the fear, deception, and hate to which the disinherited are subject. Quotable lines and paragraphs come out on every page. One that is salient in the present moment has to do with the price of deception. “The penalty of deception is to become a deception, with all sense of moral discrimination vitiated. A man who lies habitually becomes a lie,” Thurman writes, “and it is increasingly impossible for him to know when he is lying and when he is not” (page 65).

The number of public figures who have “become a lie” grows by the hour.

He observes that mere proximity between Black and White people is clearly not enough to overcome hatred of the Other. “Understanding that is not the outgrowth of an essential fellow-feeling is likely to be unsympathetic,” he suggests. “Of course, there may be pity in it—even compassion, sometimes—but sympathy, almost never. I can sympathize only when I see myself in another’s place. Unsympathetic understanding,” Thurman concludes, “is the characteristic attitude governing the relation between the weak and the strong” (page 77).

In fact, Thurman notes, these strategies of oppression become all that gives a sort of integrity to the perpetrators. He suggests that oppressors are terrified to surrender their tools of oppression because without these tools to hold them together psychologically and spiritually, the perpetrators may simply disintegrate. This is especially true of hatred. “The logic of the development of hatred,” he argues, “is death to the spirit and disintegration of ethical and moral values” (pages 87-88).

The proper response on the part of Jesus followers to fear, deception, and hate is love – and particularly love of enemy. He describes this response first in terms of how Jesus dealt with the oppression of imperial Rome and Romans. He moves by analogy to the oppression of Blacks by Whites in the United States –especially in terms of Jim Crow segregation. He writes,

“This is one very important reason for the insistence that segregation is a complete ethical and moral evil. Whatever it may do for those who dwell on either side of the wall, one thing is certain: it poisons all normal contacts of those persons involved. The first step toward love is a common sharing of a sense of mutual worth and value. This cannot be discovered in a vacuum or in a series of artificial or hypothetical relationships. It has to be in a real situation, natural, free” (page 98).

Thurman then reminds us that such segregation is nowhere more evident than in Christian worshipping communities. Ho observes, “The result is that in the one place in which normal, free contacts might be most naturally established—in which the relations of the individual to his God should take priority over conditions of class, race, power, status, wealth, or the like—this place is one of the chief instruments for guaranteeing barriers” (page 98).

Little has changed.

Thurman worked to forge a genuinely multi-colored Christian worshipping community and achieved some success in that regard. But it was the exception that proves the rule – White Christianity in America remains a tool of oppression much more than a tool of liberation.

That being said, reading this book is more equipment for the ongoing struggle to be different. I’m going to read it again now.

The Four Loves — Throwback Thursday Books

C. S. Lewis stands as an unofficial saint among English-speaking Christians. That’s especially true in the “Evangelical” tribes in the United States. I think he would find that odd, given his Anglican commitments, but he’s not the only unofficial saint to get the shaft through misappropriation and misinterpretation. The mythological hatchet job Eric Metaxas did on Bonhoeffer comes to mind as an example (but that’s a conversation for another time).

I have read Lewis since my sophomore year in college. I was never taken by the dogmatic, philosophical, and hardcore apologetic elements of his work. That’s the place that seems to grab many, but I went elsewhere. I was most attracted simply by his conversion story as he recorded it in Surprised by Joy.

“You must picture me alone in that room at Magdalen,” he wrote, “night after night, feeling, whenever my mind lifted even for a second from my work, the steady, unrelenting approach of Him whom I so earnestly desired not to meet. That which I greatly feared had at last come upon me. In the Trinity Term of 1929 I gave in, and admitted that God was God, and knelt and prayed: perhaps, that night, the most dejected and reluctant convert in all England” (p. 266).

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I read those words not too long after I found myself the most dejected and reluctant (re)convert in all of Pella, Iowa. That’s not such a big pond for such a small fish, but it was the pond in which I found myself at the time. I identified strongly (and still do) with his description of “a prodigal who is brought in kicking, struggling, resentful, and darting his eyes in every direction for a chance of escape…” That captured my position precisely.

No, it wasn’t the argument and apologetics. It was the philosophy or theology. It was his fiction. I loved The Screwtape Letters. I read annually The Great Divorce. I devoured the Narnia chronicles. I savored the Perelandra trilogy. I even enjoyed his Letters to Malcolm: Chiefly on Prayer. In later years, I read and meditated on Till We Have Faces. I was captured not by argument but rather by art. I was somewhat repelled by what seemed to be a brand of smug certainty that had no place in my paradoxical Lutheran heart (by the way – even when I was an atheist, I was a “Lutheran” sort of atheist).

One piece of Lewis prose cuts against the grain here. The Four Loves has been a touchstone for me for most of the last four decades. I will proceed to the paragraphs which riveted me in the beginning and continue to pin me down to this moment. Lewis discusses the fourth of the four loves – agape, charity, self-giving rather than self-seeking love. He meditates on the cost of that love for the lover and why such love must be costly.

“If I am sure of anything,” Lewis writes, “I am sure that His [Christ’s] teaching was never meant to confirm my congenital preferences for safe investments and limited liabilities.” That was precisely my approach to love and to life. I treated love as a scarce commodity which could hardly ever be secured, and which was sure to flit away at the least breeze of adversity or disagreement. If self-giving love was such a rare and unstable thing, why should I put any stock in it?

“I doubt whether there is anything in me that pleases Him less,” Lewis continues. I must always still pause at this statement and take it in. Precisely that which makes the most sense to me about Love makes the least sense to the author of that Love. “And who,” Lewis asks, “could conceivably begin to love God on such a prudential ground – because the security (so to speak) is better?” (page 120). Yet, that is precisely my default position in loving. No wonder it works so poorly for me on my own.

Our Lord’s love, Lewis notes, must be of a quite different quality. “Even if it were granted that insurances against heartbreak were our highest wisdom,” he writes, “does God Himself [sic] offer them?’ Does God guard against the cost of loving in the face of possible abandonment? “Apparently not,” Lewis responds to his own question. “Christ comes at last to say, ‘Why hast thou forsaken me?’” (page 121).

Shit. I know, not the most eloquent response. But it is precisely what comes to mind every time I read these words.

Then comes the big finish. If I thought this was terrifying before, just wait. “To love at all is to be vulnerable,” he writes. “Love anything, and your heart will certainly be wrung and possibly be broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact,” he suggests, “you must give your heart to no one, not even to an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements; lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket – safe, dark, motionless, airless – it will change. It will not be broken,” he concludes, “it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable. The alternative to tragedy,” Lewis declares, “or at least to the risk of tragedy, is damnation. The only place outside of Heaven where you can be perfectly safe from all the dangers and perturbations of love is Hell” (page 121).

Double shit. Still precisely what comes to mind every time I read these words.

Lewis knew all about wrapping and protecting his heart from hurt. He had spent a lifetime doing just that. Then he met and ultimately married Joy Gresham. Three years later he buried her, dead from cancer. They were certainly the three best years of his life. Then he plunged into the depths of despair as he recorded in A Grief Observed. Grief is the price we pay for loving. And Lewis paid the bill in full.

Once written, books do not change. But we are readers certainly do. I collided with the words of The Four Loves at a more superficial level many times over the years. Lewis examines and describes our love for pets as a genuine love and real loss when they die. I was grateful for his perspective. The loss of parents, grandparents, relationships of all kinds, jobs, communities, hopes and dreams – Lewis knew and described it well.

Then Anne died ten years ago, and I started the conversation all over again. That was the moment I came to an infinitely deeper appreciation of both the wounds and the wisdom Lewis shared. I know many live and die by Mere Christianity, for example. But I prefer my Lewis wounded and uncertain, human and humble. That’s when I feel like I can talk to him as a friend.

Friendship was a love of great value to Lewis. This love is worth mentioning here as well. Most are familiar with his deep and generative friendships with the “Inklings” – that astonishing little literary guild which included Owen Barfield, Jack A. W. Bennett, Lord David Cecil, Nevill Coghill, Hugo Dyson, Adam Fox, J. H. Grant III, Roger Lancelyn Green, Charles Williams, and J. R. R. Tolkien. The spiritual wisdom and literary power of that group is quite astonishing. Lewis describes friendship as sharing a desire and care for “the same truth.”

“Hence,” he writes, “we picture lovers face to face but Friends side by side; their eyes look ahead.” (page 66). It is not surprising that in a week and a half we shall hear Jesus describing his disciples as his “friends” in John 15. Lewis puts it this way. “The Friendship is not a reward for our discrimination and good taste in finding one another out,” he writes. “It is the instrument by which God reveals to each,” he says, “the beauties of all the others” (page 89).

I won’t rehearse his arguments on erotic love, the third of the four. He has some legitimate cautions about the contemporary tendency to divinize and then idolize human erotic love. He is also a bit more jaundiced in his views than I think the evidence warrants. But it’s worth reading and drawing your own conclusions in that regard.

One of the great side benefits of reading The Four Loves is that it makes Till We Have Faces much more accessible and understandable. Lewis rewrites and reinterprets the Eros and Psyche myth in a complex, subtle and mature fashion. Faces is his most mature and ambiguous work. Thus, I find it his most compelling. But without his reflections on the promise, power, and peril of love (especially erotic love), it can be hard to follow.

I’m grateful for Lewis’ leading in my own return to the Christian faith. I am even more grateful for his challenge to the simplicities of that faith as he went deeper into live and love and loss. He’s not a saint in my personal pantheon. But I’d like to think that we might have been friends.

The Cross and the Lynching Tree — Throwback Thursday Books

“Two Italians were lynched in Florida. The Italian Government protested, but it was found that they were naturalized Americans. The inalienable right of every free American citizen to be lynched without tiresome investigation and penalties is one which the families of the lately deceased doubtless deeply appreciate.” — The Crisis, Volume I, Number 1 (November, 1910).

In its first issue, The Crisis, official publication of the NAACP (launched by W. E. B. DuBois and associates) published the bloody but wry notice of a Florida lynching. Since Italian immigrants had not yet approximated or achieved Whiteness in the United States, they were still subject to the same extra-judicial executions as Black people in this country. This was the only mention of lynching in the inaugural issue.

Photo by Brett Sayles on Pexels.com

By the fourth issue of the newspaper, “Lynching” had become a regular heading and a steady report of the ongoing terrorism against Black individuals and communities in America. It was included in the “Opinion” section of the paper. In that February 1911 issue, the publishers quoted an editorial from the Sioux City (Iowa!) Herald opinion page. Please remember that this is the same part of the country that a century later would produce the election of Steve King to the U. S. House of Representatives.

“The Sioux City Herald has an editorial pointing out how little the laws of the country protect black men,” The Crisis reports. “‘The record of the year 1910,’ it says, ‘is tainted by the stories of mob rule and murder of black people in the South. “Eight Negroes lynched in Alabama, eight in Arkansas, eight in Florida, ten in Georgia, five in Mississippi, three in Missouri, one in North Carolina, one in Oklahoma, one in South Carolina, two in Tennessee and four in Texas. A national scandal, a race crime. Besides these 52 black men, five whites
were lynched, four of them in the South and one in Ohio. There were 75 lynchings in the United States in 1909 and 65 in 1908.”

The publishers were playing a bit of “catch up” in their reporting of this ongoing horror. They would continue the collection of reports, rumors, photos, and outrages for the next several decades. These reports served as one of the many precursors for the comprehensive work of the Equal Justice Initiative, both in its own reports, and in its memorial and museum on the grounds of the EJI dedicated to remembering and reporting the American history of white lynching of black people. These reports are part of the data set which will inform several of my posts leading up to Holy Week 2021.

Today I reflect on a book that I have read several times — James Cone’s The Cross and the Lynching Tree. This is not an “old” book, having first been published in 2011. But it represents a culminating summary of Cone’s work in the theology of Black (and therefore of human) liberation over the previous five decades. I return to this text as we approach Holy Week and Good Friday, and I will refer to it in a number of posts next week in preparation for preaching and teaching on the Passion of Jesus the Messiah.

“Despite the obvious similarities between Jesus’ death on a cross and the death of thousands of black men and women strung up to die on a lamppost or tree,” Cone writes, “relatively few people, apart from black poets, novelists, and other reality-seeing artists, have explored the symbolic connections. Yet,” he continues, “I believe this is a challenge we must face” (page xiii). Reading Cone’s text is a searing and gut-wrenching experience for those of us who live in the community of and in continuity with the perpetrators of such crimes. But without this sort of historical, personal, and theological reckoning, we can never begin to think about the repentance, repair, and rehabilitation which must precede any move toward racial reconciliation.

Cone brings personal passion and theological precision to the work. I ask myself over and over, “How did I not know this? Why did I not read Cone’s work during my own theological training?” Cone wonders the same thing — although he knows the answer to the question. “How could any theologian explain the meaning of Christian identity in America and fail to engage white supremacy, its primary negation?” (page xvii).

This question has some real bite for me as an adherent of Martin Luther’s theology of the cross. “That person does not deserve to be called a theologian who looks upon the invisible things of God as though they were clearly perceptible in those things which have actually happened,” Luther writes in his theses for the 1518 Heidelberg Disputation, “he deserves to be called a theologian, however, who comprehends the visible and manifest things of God seen through suffering and the cross.”

I can no longer think about Luther’s theology of the cross without taking Cone’s work into account. I find any discussion of that theology which ignores Cone’s work to be incomplete. Cone states his basic question as this: “how to reconcile the gospel message of liberation with the reality of black oppression” (pages xv to xvi). That failure makes white American theologians what Martin Luther calls “theologians of glory.” Luther writes in thesis 21, “A theology of glory calls evil good and good evil. A theology of the cross calls the thing what it actually is.” White supremacy is Exhibit A in the American case against a theology of glory.

Cone’s questions are even more pointed and pertinent now in the era of Black Lives Matter, the Derek Chauvin murder trial, the clear racism of white American churches and denominations, the growing “Leave Out Loud” movement of Black evangelicals away from white evangelical institutions, and the inevitable “whitelash” of even mainline (ELCA Lutheran) white male theologians trying to tell Black people how they ought to theologize in such a time as this.

“How could whites confess and live the Christian faith,” Cone asks, “and also impose three-and-a-half centuries of slavery and segregation upon black people?” The answer is quite plain and simple. “Self-interest and power corrupted their understanding of the Christian gospel” (pages xvii-xviii). If only the past tense of those verbs were accurate! Little has changed in the decade since Cone wrote those words. Again, Luther would nod, I think, and note the theology of glory still at work.

As I read The Cross and the Lynching Tree, I see similarities to Luther’s framework in many places. For example, Cone highlights the paradoxical nature of the cross. Luther would note that God’s grace and mercy are always hidden under the form of their opposites — judgment and condemnation. “The cross is a paradoxical religious symbol,” Cone writes, because it inverts the world’s value system with the news that hope comes by way of defeat, that suffering and death do not have the last word, that the last shall be first and the first last” (page 2). He expands that observation on page 18 as he notes the life-giving power of Christ’s death on the cross for African Americans in their suffering.

Cone taps into the theme of the hiddenness of God which informs Luther’s theology at such a deep level. Luther asserts that the invisible things of God can only become visible by looking through the lens of the cross. Cone quotes one of Luther’s favorite passages in this regard, Isaiah 45:15. He then expands on this divine “inscrutability.”

“Nowhere is that paradox, that ‘inscrutability,’ more evident than in the cross. A symbol of death and defeat, God turned it into a sign of liberation and new life. The cross is the most empowering symbol of Gods loving solidarity with the ‘least of these,’ the unwanted in society who suffer daily from great injustices. Christians must face the cross as the terrible tragedy it was and discover in it, through faith and repentance, the liberating joy of eternal salvation” (page 156). Perhaps we Lutherans have been silent on this “cross connection” because we have resisted the obvious political implications of Jesus’ crucifixion for those of us who live in and benefit from the system of white male supremacy.

The intimate connection between the crucifixion of Jesus and the lynching of Black people in America is not new, and Cone claims no novel insight in this regard. The December 1919 issue of The Crisis has two stories relating Black life to the Christian gospel of the cross. First, there is “The Gospel according to Mary Brown.” The story of Jesus is told as that of a Black impoverished mother. Her son, Joshua (another name for Jesus) is lynched. But he returns to his grieving mother as Jesus risen from the dead. She dies in the joy of the gospel rather than in the despair of hell.

The other connection in this issue flies in the opposite direction. On page 61 you will find a gruesome picture captioned “The Crucifixion of Omaha.” It is one of a number of photographs of the September 1919 lynching of Will Brown in the streets of Omaha, Nebraska. Brown’s charred remains appear in the form of a crucified victim, and the parallels were not lost on the publishers. The accompanying article detailed the white criminal and political interests that were served by the riot and murder. The picture was theology enough.

Cone comments on this lynching and the accompanying photo. “The contradictions between the gospel message and the reality of lynching,” he writes, “or more precisely, the relation between what white Christians did to blacks and what the Romans did to Jesus — was reflected in a photo…of a burned victim, with a throng of white men observing their handiwork.” (pages 103-104).

I have found the caption to that photograph compelling and convicting. It was not the crucifixion “in” Omaha, or “at” Omaha that was depicted. The editors named it the crucifixion “of” Omaha. It was not, in the end, Will Brown who has crucified for the sins of the city. Instead, the sins of the city were exposed for all to see. The cross was used to make the “invisible” things visible — starting with the leering faces of those who took such pleasure in this atrocity. The photograph continues to crucify white Omaha, a city that did not acknowledge this horror until a hundred years later and which has not placed a permanent marker to remember the event.

“The lynching tree is a metaphor for white America’s crucifixion of black people,” Cone writes to end his book. “It is a window that best reveals the religious meaning of the cross in our land. In this sense,” he continues, “black people are Christ figures, not because they wanted to suffer but because they had no choice.” It is only in the making visible those things we white Americans wish to keep hidden and in reckoning with our past and ongoing white male supremacy that repentance, rehabilitation, and repair can happen. “If America has the courage to confront the great sin and ongoing legacy of white supremacy with repentance and reparation,” Cone concludes, “there is hope ‘beyond tragedy'” (page 166).

Perhaps that is a theme for Holy Week 2021 — hope beyond tragedy. We shall see…

Racism Makes Us White People Stupid, Irrational, and Subhuman

Why have non-wealthy white people consistently voted against their economic self-interest to one degree or another since 1964? That question came to a head with the election of Donald Trump in 2016, but it hasn’t gone away. The answer, when controls for other factors are included, comes down to the fear of losing racial supremacy, dominance, and privilege. This fear is framed as “losing our way of life,” and some white politicians suggest that violence may be the only way to maintain that so-called “way of life.”

This is what racism does “for” non-wealthy white people. But do we non-wealthy white people think about what racism does “to” us? We are impacted in a variety of ways that make the “white wage” of racism (as W. E. B. DuBois named it) a bad deal for all but a few white people. To receive the white wage, we pay a variety of “white taxes.” Those taxes come in several forms:

  1. Documented and demonstrated costs in economic growth, public amenities, voting access and rights, and government services and benefits,
  2. Trauma responses based on Perpetrator-Induced Trauma Syndrome,
  3. Self-dehumanization of white people as a result of participation in the historic and ongoing systemic and institutional racism in America
Photo by Kelly Lacy on Pexels.com

1. “Why can’t we have nice things?” Heather McGhee asks in the first sentence of her new book, The Sum of Us: What Racism Costs Everyone and How We Can Prosper Together. The reason, McGhee argues, is racism.

Racism in America is maintained, in large part, by a zero-sum story that asserts any gain for Black, Brown, Native, and/or AAPI folks means equal and opposite losses for White folks. This story serves the interests of the few white people in power. “The zero sum is a story sold by wealthy interests for their own profit,” McGhee writes, “and its persistence requires people desperate enough to buy it” (page 14).

White people have been told a story that says they will lose resources if people of color gain resources. The story serves the wealthy white people who continue to accumulate power, privilege, and property at the expense of everyone else. It is perpetuated to make sure that other white people do not align themselves with people of color – people with whom they share numerous social, economic, and cultural interests.

McGhee uses the master metaphor of the fate of public swimming pools when segregation was outlawed in the United States. In numerous towns and cities across the nation, these formerly “whites only” public amenities were closed, neglected, abandoned, filled in, and paved over rather than being shared by citizens of all colors. Not only were people of color denied the use of such publicly-funded amenities, lower-class and poor white people were deprived as well.

“A once-public resource became a luxury amenity,” McGhee observes, “and entire communities lost out on the benefits of public life and civic engagement once understood to be the key to making American democracy real” (page 28).

The areas where lower-class and impoverished whites are caught in the racist blast radius include the closing of public amenities and services as listed above; the reduction of government safety-net protections, especially beginning with the Reagan administration; access to affordable higher education including grants rather than loans; the war on drugs and mass incarceration; the cash bail system; access to healthcare resources and benefits; hospital closures in rural and small-town settings; and predatory lending practices and evictions.

This is not an exhaustive list, but it is complete enough. It is certainly the case that , on average, white people have come out better than people of color on every element of that list. But “better” is not the same as “good.” In her discussion of the financial crisis of 2008, for example, McGhee notes, “There is no question that the financial crisis hurt people of color first and worst. And yet the majority of the people it damaged were white. This is the dynamic we’ve seen over and over again throughout our country’s history, from the drained public pools, to the shuttered public schools, to the overgrown yards of vacant homes.”

McGhee demonstrates in a variety of ways that there is what she calls a “Solidarity Dividend.” Cooperation, collaboration, sharing, and synergy produce greater wealth and opportunity for all who don’t currently have such benefits. The zero-sum story is false and dangerous. Diversity, equity, and inclusion make good economic, political, and social sense for all Americans who are not currently in the 1%. We get more, she concludes from “the sum of us” than by promoting just “some of us.”

Racism is a stupid strategy for almost all of us white folks.

2. The Zero-Sum Fallacy is stitched into the very founding of the United States, and before. McGhee writes that from the country’s “colonial beginnings, progress for those considered white did come directly at the expense of people considered nonwhite. The U.S. economy depended on systems of exploitation,” she continues, “on literally taking land and labor from racialized others to enrich white colonizers and slaveholders. This made it easy for the powerful to sell the idea that the inverse was also true,” McGhee concludes, “that liberation or justice for people of color would necessarily require taking something away from white people” (page 7).

Mark Charles and Soong-Chan Rah, in their book, Unsettling Truths: The Ongoing, Dehumanizing Legacy of the Doctrine of Discovery, describe and detail the process of creating this system and writing it into the founding documents, foundational court decisions, and political turning points in American history. They point to the possibility that white people have been and are traumatized as perpetrators of this ongoing, systemic, and institutional crime against humanity.

They point to the work of Rachel McNair, who wrote Perpetration-Induced Traumatic Stress: The Psychological Consequences of Killing. McNair has studied “Perpetration-Induced Traumatic Stress (PITS), a form of PTSD symptoms not caused by being a victim or rescuer in a horrifying event but by being an active participant in causing the event” (page 174). McNair studied soldiers, executioners, police officers and others who were expected to kill other human beings and identified traumatic stress responses analogous to those suffered by victims of such events.

I say “analogous to” because McNair does not draw any equivalency between victims and perpetrators. Nor do Charles and Rah. Instead, they see similarities in the responses that might be instructive. Those similarities include the multi-generational nature of some traumas and the complex nature of traumas that are systemic and institutional.

“Is it possible that PITS also has a complex version for people who lived their entire lives perpetrating dehumanizing violence against people of color?” ask Charles and Rah. “This version would include,” they suggest, “slave owners, soldiers participating in genocidal battles against Native peoples, and white settlers moving west and pushing the removal, and even extinction of indigenous tribes” (page 176).

Commentators have noted the irrationality of white behavior in voting and acting against their clear self-interest. This irrationality confounds any number of “rational actor” models of human behavior. What if the irrationality arises from the historic and multi-generational trauma of enacting and benefitting from the systematic dehumanization and destruction of Black, Brown, Native, and AAPI people?

“In short,” Charles and Rah ask, “are whites experiencing the phenomena of a generational trauma that can be labeled ‘the trauma of white America’? White America could not perpetrate five hundred years of dehumanizing injustice,” they conclude, “without traumatizing itself” (176). Again, there is no equivalency between perpetrators and victims here. This is no plea for sympathy. It is, rather, a tool for understanding that might lead to honest reflection, repentance and repair initiated by white Americans.

Without such honesty and effort, the first response to trauma – denial – will continue to be the only response most white Americans will make. Charles and Rah point to school textbooks in Texas and Oklahoma which may be edited to exclude any reference to “slavery.” If only that were limited to other states. We know from recent work by students in a local district that such whitewashed history is a current reality in Nebraska. “Institutions established by whites,” Charles and Rah write, “are so ashamed of their own past that they are unable to even publish accurate history” (page 177).

Racism makes white people stupid and too traumatized to admit it.

3. Racism dehumanizes not only the victims but also the perpetrators. Social psychology research in the area of self-dehumanization continues to reveal that treating others as less than human requires that I see and treat myself as less than human in most cases. In “Losing Our Humanity: The Self-Dehumanizing Consequences of Social Ostracism,” Bastian, et. al., tested the effects on the perpetrators of committing acts of social ostracism.

They “provided empirical evidence that people see themselves as less human when engaging in the social ostracism of others” (page 164 of Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin 39-2). They note that some people who dehumanize others will minimize their personal responsibility for the behavior and even think more highly of themselves.

These people are likely to commit further damaging acts and may even spiral into psychopathy and narcissism. In these cases, it is certainly possible for someone to lose their humanness altogether. The more severe the damaging act, the greater the chance of this outcome, I think.

However, when people are aware of the damage they do to others, a couple of things happen. We tend to see ourselves as less human. Perhaps this is a way to deal with the cognitive dissonance we have created. Fully human beings don’t treat others in that way, so we must be or have been less than human in order to do such things.

The second outcome is that when people are aware of the damage they do to others, they are more likely to engage in actions to return to the community of real humans. “Self-dehumanizing in response to interpersonal transgression,” they write, “appears to allow for and facilitate repentance, reconnection, and rehabilitation” (page 165).

Key to this process is direct awareness and acknowledgment of the harm done. “Maintaining a sense of ourselves as human is indeed important,” the authors conclude, “however when we have harmed others, recognizing that we have lost some of that humanity is an important process in motivating reparation” (page 165).

In the experiments conducted, the subjects could not escape or deny their responsibility for and active participation in the bad behavior. Most of us white people now can delude ourselves and deny our responsibility for the effects of racism. I never owned slaves. I never stole land. I never redlined a neighborhood. I never lynched a black man. So, we can maintain the illusion of our humanity.

Or can we? Here Charles and Rah are correct in pointing to the multi-generational and systemic trauma of Whiteness. It takes tremendous work to deny our corporate responsibility. And perhaps the amount of energy required is no longer worth the return on investment. It is destabilizing for me as a white person to continue to confront my history of oppression, abuse, and genocide on this continent. But I am also freed from the need to deny and delude.

A real reckoning with racism for me as a white man opens the possibility of reclaiming my genuine humanity.

Racism makes white people stupid, too traumatized to admit it, and less than human in the process and as a result.

All of this in order to be able to say, “I May Not be Much but at least I’m Better Than (Generic Person of Color).”

That’s a bad deal. For all of us.

Text Study for John 2:13-25 (Part 4); 3 Lent B 2021

Part Four – Politics in the Pulpit

White scholars, preachers, and pew sitters squirm as we consider the Temple Incident. The squirming becomes sweating when we begin to discuss Christian civil disobedience. No, that’s not right. The sweating begins when we consider “politics in the pulpit.”

The general rule in white, mainline congregations on that one is quite simple. Don’t do it. When pastoral leaders engage in something that resembles Christian civil disobedience, such as participating in a peaceful public demonstration for Black Lives Matter, the response from some parishioners is somewhere between panic and outrage. So, this text requires us to dig deeper into such responses and look ourselves in our (white supremacist) faces.

Photo by Julia Volk on Pexels.com

The fact that this is even an issue betrays our privileged, colonial position in the culture. If we resist Jesus’ actions, we are reading the text from the perspective of the religious, economic, and political establishment, not from the perspective of the oppressed and exploited people Jesus represents. That perspective is largely the viewpoint of white male supremacy that dictates the terms of power and the pace of “change.”

I think of the words of Ijeoma Oluo in this regard. She’s worth quoting at length (as is often the case).

“How often have you heard the argument that we have to slowly implement gender and racial equality in order to not ‘shock’ society? Who is the ‘society’ that people are talking about? I can guarantee that women would be able to handle equal pay or a harassment-free work environment right now, with no ramp-up. I’m certain that people of color would be able to deal with equal political representation and economic opportunity if they were made available today. So for whose benefit do we need to go so slowly? How can white men be our born leaders and at the same time so fragile that they cannot handle social progress?” (Mediocre, pages 7-8).

Oluo’s words could be transposed quite easily into the Temple Incident. Who was resistant to changes in the Temple system of wealth extraction? It certainly wasn’t the people who had to decide between getting groceries and buying a pair of doves for the required sacrifice. It certainly wasn’t the people who had to decide between a visit from their friendly Roman legionnaires and having enough money to clothe their children. The people who reacted negatively to Jesus’ Temple intervention were those who benefitted from the system of exploitation.

With whom do we identify? And what is the place of “political witness” in the life of Christian congregations? Here we privileged, powerful, and positioned white people can learn a great deal from the experience and expertise of our sisters and brothers in Black congregations. I deeply appreciate the writing and witness of Dr. Esau McCauley in his book, Reading While Black. I want to quote extensively from that work here.

We white folks have a long history of treating Black Christian political witness as bothersome (at least) and far too extreme (most of the time). McCauley rehearses the criticism of Dr. Martin Luther King’s actions in the Birmingham bus boycott from eight white mainline religious leaders. We Lutherans have our own tales of shame as when, for example, James Forman was summarily rejected by Lutheran authorities when he presented them with a plan for reparations from the church. McCauley describes the pushback as a question. “Was [King’s] public and consistent criticism of the political power structure of his day an element of his pastoral ministry or a distraction from it?” (page 49).

In most of our white mainline congregations, the honest answer would be obvious. Pastors do spiritual things, not political things. White people generally thought that Dr. King should stay in his lane and tend to his flock. Of course, as McCauley points out, such a binary approach was not an option and would not be considered in most Black congregations. The privilege of separating religion and politics is a mark of white supremacy and not a mark of biblical Christianity. The Temple Incident is a case in point.

I can imagine some of the critiques applied to Jesus during and after the Temple Incident, especially by those in power. What does that stupid rabbi think he’s doing? He may know the Bible, but he knows nothing about the real world. Why doesn’t he mind his own business and help people deal with their problems? We liked him a lot better when he was healing people and handing out bread.

But now that damned fool has gone from preaching to meddling. Doesn’t he know the Romans are watching? What if they decide to strike back? And doesn’t he understand that the whole Temple system depends on that money? How will we keep the doors open if people stop buying the animals and using the Temple banking services? He’s going to have to be dealt with, one way or another.

McCauley then works through the “quietist” texts in Romans 13 and 1 Timothy 2. He suggests that Romans 13 cannot be used to justify violent revolt. But there’s a lot of distance between armed insurrection and doing nothing. “Submission and acquiescence,” he writes, “are two different things” (page 51). Indeed, we are called to pray for the welfare of government officials. But that is also not an invitation to inaction. “Prayer for leaders and criticism of their practices are not mutually exclusive ideas,” McCauley says (page 53). “Both have biblical warrant in the same letter” (1 Timothy).

McCauley discusses the inherently political and politically explosive nature of Jesus’ ministry. This was not Jesus’ innovation but rather a fulfillment of the trajectory in the Jewish scriptures to challenge and upset the rulers of this world, beginning with the Egyptian Pharaoh. “It was precisely inasmuch as Jesus was obedient to his Father and rooted in the hopes and dreams of Israel,” McCauley writes, “that Jesus revealed himself to be a great danger to the rulers of his day” (page 55). The Temple Incident is a clear illustration of this revelation.

McCauley reminds us that “those Christians who have called out injustice are following in the footsteps of Jesus” (page 57). This means, of course, that those of us who remain silent are not following in the footsteps of Jesus. That’s not something I’ve preached very often, nor have I heard it with much frequency in our pulpits until recently. John 2 presents an opportunity to at least point this out.

“Protest is not unbiblical,” McCauley concludes, “it is a manifestation of our analysis of the human condition in light of God’s own word and vision for the future. His vision may await an appointed time,” he continues, “but it is coming” (page 62). Analysis of the human condition in most of our mainline pulpits is limited to individual consolation and comfort. In order to avoid the political and social justice conversation, we retreat into individualized “spiritual disciplines” that may offer us personal serenity but do little to inform our social consciousness or energize our public witness. I know that in some cases such disciplines do in fact inform and energize. But my observation is that such connections are exceptional.

I come now to some real dynamite in McCauley’s chapter. I will quote the paragraph fully.

“The question that ought to keep Christians up at night is not the political activism of Black Christians. The question should be how 1 Timothy 2:1-4 came to dominate the conversation about the Christian’s responsibility to the state. How did we manage to ignore the clearly political implications of Paul’s casual remarks about the evil age in Galatians and his wider reflections on the links between evil powers and politicians? How did John’s condemnation of Rome in Revelation fall from view? Why did Jesus’ public rebuke of Herod get lost to history?”

We might add, how did Jesus’ act of civil disobedience fail to motivate white, privileged, mainline Christians to embrace such public and prophetic actions as normal for us? “It may have been,” McCauley continues, “because it was in the best interest of those in power to silence Black voices. But if our voices are silenced,” he declares, “the Scriptures still speak” (page 64).

It is not the case that radical liberal political crazy people have cherry-picked Scripture for a few proof texts to underwrite their causes. It is the case that our positions determine our reading. If we read without analyzing our social positions, we will read inaccurately and narrowly. It is not that Blacks carved an anti-slavery position out of a pro-slavery Bible. It is the case that slaveholders whittled their Bible down until the anti-slavery ammunition was removed.

McCauley’s work can help us to see that white mainline Christians do that more broadly. It is not that individual conversion is in the Bible and social justice is not. It is the case that privileged, powerful, and positioned people prefer a Bible that contains the former but not the latter. Such a pared down text then allows us to stay where we are. But if we stay where we are, we will not follow Jesus where he goes.

References and Resources

Croy, N. Clayton. “The Messianic Whippersnapper: Did Jesus Use a Whip on People in the Temple (John 2:15)?” Journal of Biblical Literature, vol. 128, no. 3, 2009, pp. 555–568. JSTOR, https://www.jstor.org/stable/25610203?seq=1. Accessed 23 Feb. 2021.

Domeris, William. The ‘enigma of Jesus” temple intervention: Four essential keys. http://www.scielo.org.za/scielo.php?script=sci_arttext&pid=S0259-94222015000200038.

Hurtado, Larry. Mark (Understanding the Bible Commentary Series). Grand Rapids, MI.: Baker Books, 1989.

Jeremias, Joachim. Jerusalem in the Time of Jesus. Philadelphia, PA.: Fortress Press, 1969.

Lewis, Karoline. https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/third-sunday-in-lent-2/commentary-on-john-213-22-3.

Malina, Bruce J., and Rohrbaugh, Richard L. Social-Science Commentary on the Gospel of John. Minneapolis, MN.: Fortress Press, 1998.

McCauley, Esau. Reading While Black: African American Biblical Interpretation as an Exercise in Hope. Downers Grove, Ill.: IVP, 2020.

Myers, Alicia D. https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/third-sunday-in-lent-2/commentary-on-john-213-22-5.

Ruiz, Gilberto. https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/narrative-lectionary/cleansing-the-temple/commentary-on-john-213-25-2.

Salmon, Marilyn. https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/third-sunday-in-lent-2/commentary-on-john-213-22.

Shore, Mary Hinkle. https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/third-sunday-in-lent-2/commentary-on-john-213-22-4.

Witherington, Ben. “Jesus and the Temple Tantrum (A Study of John 2:13-17).” https://www.seedbed.com/jesus-and-the-temple-tantrum-a-study-of-john-213-17/.

White Pastoral Poverty

I have heard tell of white (like me) pastoral colleagues who weary of conversation, reading, study, and calls to action when it comes to anti-racism work. Some note that they are already hard-pressed by The Pandemic and all its related complications. Some note that they have their hands full already with partisan political posturing without adding conversations about race to the mix. Some even suggest that since they have no people of color in their neighborhood or township or county, for them the conversation is beside the point.

In the spirit of Christian charity, I hope and am willing to concede that these responses may be the results of frustration and fatigue. I know in my own case, however, that frustration and fatigue do not create new thoughts in my head. Instead, they tend to lower my inhibitions, unfilter my words, and render me unfit for decent human company.

I am not throwing the first stone of judgment since I am freed from the slings and arrows of parish ministry in my retirement. But it is painful to hear that such conversations are taking place in the white, mainline pastoral guild.

Photo by Alex Green on Pexels.com

If we strip away the superficial aspects of the complaint, the basic question is simple. What’s in it for me? Issues of racial justice don’t impact me and my ministry directly. I’m doing fine as I am. Why should I bother with this stuff when I have so many other things demanding my energy and attention?

Few of us would admit to such a jaundiced view out loud. But I have asked that question on many occasions as a pastor. I’m not proud of that admission, but it is no less true because of that.

The problem is, of course, that it is the wrong question. It is not the wrong question merely because it is so damned arrogant and selfish. It is the wrong question because it tacitly assumes that there is nothing “in it” for me as a white person to engage in conversation with Black and Brown and Asian people and their faith practices and traditions.

With a few exceptional moments, I have lived and worked that way for a lifetime. I am ashamed by my ignorance and grieved by what I have missed. The question presumes that if I am a white person with no connection to Black, Brown, or Asian people, that I am not missing anything. The question presumes that my whiteness is sufficient and self-sufficient. In fact, we White Christians are deficient and incomplete on our own and by ourselves.

Seventy-five percent of white Americans have no connections to Black, Brown, or Asian people in their lives – me included. The percentage is actually higher for White Christians. We who try to live as if Whiteness is enough have hollowed out our humanity almost beyond recognition.

That’s not a judgment merely on our white identities. It is, rather, contrary to a description of God’s intention for Creation. It is not good for us to be alone. We cannot be fully and authentically human and Christian if we whittle ourselves down to mere Whiteness.

I forget that fact almost every day. I settle for the little nub of humanity left when I limit myself to Whiteness. So, I’m grateful for the reminders that human life is about so much more. I’m grateful for the reminders that people with other experiences and social locations can enrich my life and I can enrich theirs, if only I will engage in the conversation as a partner and be willing to listen and learn.

I need to engage in anti-racism work and relationships not only out of love for neighbor. I am not in the position of all-powerful giver here. I need to engage in that work and those relationships out of love for self. If my vocation is to be fully and authentically human, then I dare not cut myself off from the resources God provides.

My most recent reminder of this reality is Esau McCauley’s book, Reading While Black: African American Biblical Interpretation as an Exercise in Hope. McCauley is assistant professor of New Testament at Wheaton College, a priest in the Anglican Church in North American, and a contributing opinion writer for the New York Times.

McCauley did his doctoral work with N. T. Wright, and it pleases me to hear echoes of that relationship in his writing. But his work is no mere echo of a giant in the field of New Testament studies. McCauley is a careful and close reader of Christian and Hebrew scriptures, a careful thinker about biblical theology, and a clear-eyed interpreter of texts from an historic and contemporary Black perspective.

I don’t take McCauley as a representative of “Black theology” as a whole. That’s not the point and would be insulting to McCauley and to Black theology – a variegated and complex field (just like White theology). I do experience him reading scripture texts from a social position I cannot occupy. I can’t read the texts that way myself, but I can listen and learn and have my eyes and ears opened to new (at least to me) insights.

This is one reason to engage in such studies. I cannot live, read, think, or act out of a social location other than my own. How can I know what the larger world is really like if I am limited to my own understanding and experience? How can I be fully and authentically human if all I know is a small, cramped, and often not very attractive slice of that human experience?

Without the voices of Black, Brown, and Asian theologians, I am stuck with, as McCauley describes it, “a certain reading of American history that downplayed injustice and a gentleman’s agreement to remain largely silent on current issues of racism and systemic injustice” (page 11). I will no longer be content with such an anemic view of Reality.

The question I want us white pastor types to ask is this? What do I need in order to be a better Christian and more fully human? And one answer I want us to give is that we need to listen to and learn from our Black, Brown, and Asian sisters and brothers. We need to do that for a very long time, especially we white males who have called the shots for too long.

We White Christians need to continue to learn that faith and politics are separated only to maintain the privileged, powerful, and propertied in their places. Black Christians have not been saddled with the social quietism that is assumed to be The Truth in most of our White congregations. “How might Jesus’ words inform a theology of political witness of the church?” McCauley asks in a chapter about political engagement in the church. “Jesus shows that those Christians who have called out injustice are following,” he concludes, “in the footsteps of Jesus” (page 57).

We White Christians need to continue to hear and practice a vital and passionate engagement with Scriptural texts for our lives here and now. We need to remember that from our social location, we are going to hear things in the texts that will convict us and demand conversion. We need to remember that others will hear words of liberation and life in the same texts. If we do not listen to the other voices, we will end up with a “slaveholder’s canon” designed to underwrite our White supremacy. And we will continue to be God-awful boring.

In particular, we benefit from the constant reminder that God is not only a forgiver but a liberator. We benefit from the constant reminder that Jesus not only welcomes the little children but challenges the powers that be. We benefit from the constant reminder that salvation is not merely about individuals but is about systems and the restoration of all of Creation.

The topics McCauley addresses in his work are, by and large, areas I have not addressed in my preaching and study over the last forty years. My ministry, education, and understanding have been impoverished as a result. He outlines, for example, a New Testament theology of policing based on an examination of Romans 13 and Luke 3. This is a deep and sophisticated discussion that opened my eyes to new possibilities in the text.

As he comments on the Magnificat in Luke 1, he asks, “Is this not the hope of every Black Christian, that God might hear and save? That he might look upon those who deny us loans for houses or charge exorbitant interest rates in order to cordon us off into little pockets of poverty and say to them your oppression has been met with the advent of God?” (page 87).

As I read that, I was wishing that someone might have preached such a gospel to my father who loved farming so dearly but was forced by federal and state policies to leave the farm and work “in town.” McCauley, as a side effect of his comments, reminds us that poverty and injustice easily cross the Color Line. We need our Black, Brown, and Asian sisters and brothers to keep rubbing or White noses in that truth until we get it.

We desperately need other witnesses to remind us that racialized “colorblindness” (even of the Christian variety) is, after all, just blindness. “God’s vision for his people is not the elimination of ethnicity to form a colorblind uniformity of sanctified blandness,” McCauley writes (page 106). A colorblind uniformity of sanctified blandness – White colleagues, that’s what we have now.

“Instead,” he continues, “God sees the creation of a community of different cultures united by faith in his Son as a manifestation of the expansive nature of his grace. This expansiveness is unfilled unless the differences are seen and celebrated,” McCauley concludes, “not as ends unto themselves, but as particular manifestations of the power of the Spirit to bring forth the same holiness among different peoples and cultures for the glory of God” (pages 106-107).

I am certain that McCauley and I would disagree about any number of textual, theological, and social issues. That’s the good news. My education is deficient, and my training is incomplete without such conversation. “What I have in mind then,” McCauley writes, “is a unified mission in which our varied cultures turn to the text in dialogue with one another to discern the mind of Christ” (page 22).

That’s one reason why we White Christians need to do this work. I thank God for the chance to be a partner in such a convicting and generative conversation.