Letter 13 — Philemon Fridays

Dear Phil,

In your last letter you noted that discussing enslavement in polite company was the height of rudeness in your culture. Honorable people didn’t mention such things to one another and even pretended that enslavement didn’t exist – all while their every whim was met by the enslaved persons in the shadows behind them.

I don’t mean to make fun of anyone by lifting this up. Phil, we have our own brand of such self-deception in our white treatment of the anti-Black racism which is so deeply embedded in our society. We call it being “color-blind.”

Now, I should tell you that I have a deficiency in my color vision. I have trouble seeing and distinguishing certain shades of red and green. It’s a condition that affects about four percent of males in our population.

Photo by Vinu00edcius Vieira ft on Pexels.com

I discovered it playing a table game that was called “Chinese Checkers” (a title which, in hindsight, has its own set of racialized problems). The game pieces are colored glass marbles. As the game proceeds, the marbles representing the various players get intermixed. As I played, I was routinely moving marbles that weren’t mine. It was clear that I did not see the difference in the colors.

At first, my family members assumed I was cheating. They then realized that I wasn’t actually winning when I played the wrong pieces. They then assumed that I was just causing trouble – an assumption that was a bit more evidence-based. Finally, they assumed that I was just stupid when it came to the game. It took a great deal of time for them to believe that I simply couldn’t see the colors the way they could.

That is not the kind of “color-blindness” I mean here. There is nothing biological, inherent, or unintentional about racialized color-blindness. In most of polite society in my time, it is bad form for white people to “notice” and discuss race. Instead, white people say things like, “I was taught to treat everyone the same,” or “I don’t see color.”

Some will get more descriptive and declare, “I don’t care if you are pink, purple, or polka-dotted.”[i] The last one seems relatively easy to declare, since the likelihood of meeting a polka-dotted human is fairly low.

The stated intention of such racial colorblindness is to “move beyond racism.” For a while, white people began to believe that we were living in a “post-racial” society. The last several years of our history have put that delusion to rest, but it was as highly destructive as it may have been well-intentioned.

“We might think of conscious racial awareness as the tip of an iceberg, the superficial aspects of our racial socialization: our intentions (always good!) and what we are supposed to acknowledge seeing (nothing!),” Robin DiAngelo writes. “Meanwhile, under the surface is the massive depth of racist socialization: messages, beliefs, images, associations, internalized superiority and entitlement, perceptions, and emotions. Color-blind ideology makes it difficult for us to address these unconscious beliefs,” she argues. “While the idea of color blindness may have started out as a well-intentioned strategy for interrupting racism, in practice it has served to deny the reality of racism and thus hold it in place.”[ii]

In our time, this “color-blind” racial ethic was ostensibly rooted in the words of a speech by the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. In what came to be known as his “I Have a Dream” speech, King hoped that little children would one day be judged not by the color of their skin but rather by the content of their character. That hope was taken out of context and turned into a political and sociological construct to shield white people from their own continuing racism.

King’s point “was never that ethnicity and culture are irrelevant,” Esau McCaulley writes, “but that they should not be the cause of discrimination…Far from being colorblind, King called on his people to look upon themselves as Black and to see in that blackness something beautiful.”[iii] But racial colorblindness has served our white supremacy in many ways.

For one thing, it has relieved liberal white people of the need to do anything about the continuing realities of racial discrimination. Those realities are most obvious in our American system of mass incarceration. In that system, “race” is no longer discussed. Instead, skin tone has been criminalized.

“In the era of colorblindness,” Cornel West writes in the forward to Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow, “it is no longer socially permissible to use race, explicitly, as a justification for discrimination, exclusion, and social contempt. So, we don’t. Rather than rely on race,” West continues, “we use our criminal justice system to label people of color ‘criminals’ and then engage in all the practices we supposedly left behind. Today it is perfectly legal to discriminate against criminals in nearly all the ways that it was once legal to discriminate against African Americans.”[iv]

Racial color-blindness is not a way to combat racism, anymore than refusing to discuss enslavement was a way to resist the Imperial enslavement system. Our “color-blindness” performs precisely the opposite function.

Whiteness continues to be the unquestioned norm for and center of American culture and polity. Since whiteness remains the standard for what it good, true, and beautiful in our culture and polity, when we refrain from naming race, we simply agree to the current system. Silence on race is support for and participation in systemic racism. That is fiercely resisted by most white people in our culture. But that resistance does not make it any less true.

Debbie Irving puts it another way in her book, Waking Up White. “Though it once felt polite to ignore a person of color’s race and just see all people as individuals, my former color-blind approach was actually allowing me to ignore my own part in the system of racism,” she writes as part of her self-disclosed journey in anti-racism. “Color-blindness,” she continues, “a philosophy that denies the way lives play out differently along racial lines, actually maintains the very cycle of silence, ignorance, and denial that needs to be broken for racism to be dismantled.”[v]

You noted that some of Paul’s own words have been used to justify this intentional ignoring of enslavement in your time. The same has been true of this intentional suppression of whiteness in our own time. In particular, both in your time and ours there has been a damaging misreading of his words to the Galatians about all being one in Christ.[vi] Some in our time take Paul’s words to mean that race is no longer a topic for discussion or notice among Christians.

“Some take this passage to mean that Paul claims our identity in Christ cancels out our ethnic identities,” writes Esau McCaulley in Reading While Black. “But this is strange for many reasons. Few would claim that they do not see gender because of our identity in Christ…How could Paul make a point of evangelizing Gentiles if he didn’t care about ethnicity? How could he speak about different mission strategies unless he recognized the differences between Jews and Gentiles? The colorblind interpretation of Paul,” McCaulley concludes, “cuts against the grain of his entire ministry.”[vii]

McCaulley notes that this colorblind perspective gets Paul’s perspective inside out and backwards. It draws a broad and unrelated conclusion from a very specific text. “The colorblind reading of Galatians 3:28 is most flawed because it doesn’t take the context of the book of Galatians seriously enough,” he writes, “Paul’s point is that being a Jew does not make you more of an heir to the promises in Christ than being a Gentile. It is a question about standing as it relates to the inheritance, not ethnic identity full stop.”[viii]

The silences on enslavement and race perpetuate the injustices of each system. The antidote to these realities is not silence or the suppression of conversation. It is rather, an awareness of the history, reality, and necessity for change in each system. “If the white person chooses to courageously continue down the path of racial awareness,” Jemar Tisby writes in How to Fight Racism, “colorblindness eventually gives way to color-consciousness.”[ix]

He builds on the thought and words of Michelle Alexander. “The colorblindness ideal is premised on the notion that we, as a society, can never be trusted to see race and treat each other fairly or with genuine compassion,” she declares. “A commitment to color consciousness, by contrast, places faith in our capacity as humans to show care and concern for others, even as we are fully cognizant of race and possible racial differences.”[x]

Color-consciousness will move us white people to confession and repentance – the necessary preludes to repair and reconciliation. Perhaps enslavement-consciousness had the same impact on you, Phil. I’d be interested in your thoughts in that regard.

I long for the hope that Alexander suggested over ten years ago. “We should hope not for a colorblind society but instead for a world in which we can see each other fully, learn from each other, and do what we can to respond to each other with love. That was King’s dream,” she concludes, “a society that is capable of seeing each of us, as we are, with love. That is a goal worth fighting for.”[xi]

I’m not entirely sure how that fits with your situation, Phil. But it is central to ours. I rejoice that we follow a living Lord who makes the blind to see. We need that healing in our time and space.

Greetings to Lady Apphia, Master Archippus, and the saints who gather in your household.

Yours in Christ,

Low


[i] DiAngelo, Robin J. White Fragility. p. 71.

[ii] DiAngelo, p.42.

[iii] McCaulley, Esau. Reading While Black, p. 113.

[iv] Alexander, Michelle. The New Jim Crow, p. 2.

[v] Irving, Debbie. Waking Up White, pp. 118-119.

[vi] See Galatians 3:28.

[vii] McCaulley, Esau. Reading While Black. Pp. 113-114.

[viii] McCaulley, p. 114.

[ix] Tisby, Jemar. How to Fight Racism. P. 48.

[x] Alexander, p. 302.

[xi] Alexander, p. 303.

Text Study for Mark 6:30-56 (Pt. 2); 8 Pentecost B 2021

Compassion is Not for Suckers Anymore (It Never Was)

“And [Jesus] had compassion upon them because they were as sheep who did not have a shepherd, and he began to teach them many things” (Mark 6:34b, my translation).

Is human compassion normal or exceptional? Are we humans wired for selfishness or altruism? These questions have fascinated and frustrated philosophers for as long as there have been philosophers – and before. The generally accepted answer during the Enlightenment was that human compassion is exceptional and that compassion in the so-called “natural” world is non-existent.

Alfred Lord Tennyson popularized the phrase that nature is “red in tooth and claw.” Brutal competition was thought to produce the “survival of the fittest” (a concept that was not really part of Darwin’s evolutionary theory). In human affairs, the state of nature was the “war of all against all” according to Thomas Hobbes. The chief function of civilized society was to restrict and regulate these bloody impulses, so we all didn’t just kill each other daily.

Photo by Meruyert Gonullu on Pexels.com

For Hobbes, the solution to this issue was the creation of the Leviathan, the all-powerful, autocratic state that would provide a measure of protection in exchange for total control. It should come as no surprise that this view of human nature was part of a political argument. Hobbes used it to support the institution of absolute monarchy in the face of nascent democratic sentiments in the European monarchies.

The assertion that compassion is for suckers was (and is) used as well to support and argue for the highly individualistic and rapacious neoliberalism which has driven our economic life in the West since the late 1970’s. Credit is usually given to Adam Smith for “inventing” such capitalism in his The Wealth of Nations.

Few people have actually read Smith’s far more important work (at least in his own estimation), entitled A Theory of Moral Sentiments. In that book, Smith argues that human morality is rooted and grounded in what we would now call “empathy” (although Smith, following the usage of the time, called it “sympathy”). Here’s a quote from Smith’s work that says it well.

Though our brother is upon the rack, as long as we ourselves are at ease, our senses will never inform us of what he suffers. They never did and never can carry us beyond our own persons, and it is by the imagination only that we form any conception of what are his sensations…His agonies, when they are thus brought home to ourselves, when we have this adopted and made them our own, begin at last to affect us, and we then tremble and shudder at the thought of what he feels.”

In fact, Smith was certain that his brand of capitalism was sustainable only under the influence of such empathetic imagination and the actions that imagination would produce in people. Without the operation of compassion, Smith believed, capitalism would create the very war of all against all that Hobbes predicted and would lead to social chaos rather than social progress. Smith may not have believed that such compassion was “natural,” but he certainly believed it was necessary.

It is in the twentieth century that compassion is most clearly regarded as a political and economic liability. The works of Ayn Rand and Friedrich Hayek provided much of the theoretical foundation for this view of human nature and human flourishing. In The Fountainhead, Rand writes this monologue.

Compassion is a wonderful thing. It’s what one feels when one looks at a squashed caterpillar. An elevating experience. One can let oneself go and spread–you know, like taking a girdle off. You don’t have to hold your stomach, your heart, or your spirit up–when you feel compassion. All you have to do is look down. It’s much easier. When you look up, you get a pain in the neck. Compassion is the greatest virtue. It justifies suffering. There’s got to be suffering in the world, else how would we be virtuous and feel compassion?”

Hayek was certain that libertarian, individualistic freedom was the most reliable path to overall human flourishing. He was also certain that efforts to organize human beings into caring collectives (by governments) was the most reliable path to human misery. “I am certain, however, that nothing has done so much to destroy the juridical safeguards of individual freedom,” he wrote, “as the striving after this mirage of social justice.”

We live in a time when large numbers of people in the Western world believe that compassion is for suckers. If they don’t admit that, they are certainly ready to believe that compassion is, while admirable, exceptional – the realm of saints and martyrs, not of real people who need to get their hands dirty on a regular basis. That perspective is part of the larger framework that elected a man to the American presidency who clearly believes that self-giving love is for losers.

The field of Positive Psychology paints a far different and evidence-based picture of human nature and human flourishing. I could refer you to a number of authors and scholars in this regard. However, I want to talk about the work and writing of Dacher Keltner, particularly in his book, Born to be Good: The Science of a Meaningful Life. In this work, Keltner tries to show “how survival of the kindest may be just as fitting a description of our origins as survival of the fittest” (Kindle Locations 67-68).

Keltner notes that neuroscientific studies suggest we are wired for the “complex mixture of kindness, humanity, and respect that transpires between people” (Kindle Location 153). Giving, cooperation, and other compassionate actions light up the reward centers in our brains. “People around the world will sacrifice the enhancement of self-interest in the service of other principles: equality, a more favorable reputation, or even, God forbid, the advancement of others’ welfare” (Kindle Locations 298-299).

Neuroscience continues to show that we are more “wired” for compassion than for selfishness (for good evolutionary reasons). More than that – and more to the point for our conversation – the emotions that wire us in that way are grounded in our guts. Studies of the human autonomic nervous system reveal, Keltner reports, “that our emotions, even those higher sentiments like sympathy and awe, are embodied in our viscera. As this line of inquiry shifted to the ethical emotions,” he continues, “emotions like embarrassment and compassion, a more radical inference waited on the horizon—that our very capacity for goodness is wired into our body” (Kindle Locations 917-919).

We humans are made with what Keltner calls “the moral gut.”

Human moral judgments are not, Keltner argues, primarily rooted and grounded in our conscious brains. “Our moral judgments of blame are guided by sensations arising in the viscera and facial musculature” (Kindle Locations 949-950). It’s not that our brains are trumped by our guts, however. “Reason and passion are collaborators in the meaningful life” (Kindle Location 975-976).

My point is that compassion is not an exceptional human characteristic. It is, rather, key to fully human flourishing. Suppressing compassion renders us less than human. When Jesus feels compassion for the crowds because they are lost, he is demonstrating what fully flourishing humanity looks like. Disciples need to watch and learn.

But often we don’t.

In fact, “survival of the kindest” is a far better explanation of evolutionary processes than is “survival of the fittest.” Survival of the fittest is an excellent theoretical framework is your goal is to show that human beings exist to produce a few powerful, privileged, propertied, and positioned people at the top of the heap. Survival of the fittest is the theoretical foundation for policies such as “trickle-down economics” and practices such as chattel slavery.

An egregious example of this sort of thinking is the infamous “Mud Sill” speech delivered in the U. S. House of Representatives by James Henry Hammond in 1858. Hammond, an ardent pro-enslavement apologist, was debating the admission of Kansas to the Union as an enslavement state. The paragraph below captures all we need to know about the speech.

In all social systems there must be a class to do the menial duties, to perform the drudgery of life. That is, a class requiring but a low order of intellect and but little skill. Its requisites are vigor, docility, fidelity. Such a class you must have, or you would not have that other class which leads progress, civilization, and refinement. It constitutes the very mud-sill of society and of political government; and you might as well attempt to build a house in the air, as to build either the one or the other, except on this mud-sill. Fortunately for the South, she found a race adapted to that purpose to her hand. A race inferior to her own, but eminently qualified in temper, in vigor, in docility, in capacity to stand the climate, to answer all her purposes. We use them for our purpose, and call them slaves.”

Survival of the kindest is a more accurate reflection of authentic human flourishing. Based on numerous physiological, psychological, and sociological measures, “our survival depends on healthy, stable bonds with others” (Kindle Location 1228). Life that is rich, meaningful, happy, and joyful is based on kindness, gratitude, service, altruism – compassion.

As we move from the Royal Birthday Banquet, where cruelty is the point, to the Messianic Banquet in the wilderness, where compassion is abundant, we move from human degradation to human flourishing. Jesus is not only the true King but also the truly human one.

References and Resources

https://teachingamericanhistory.org/library/document/mud-sill-speech/.

De Waal, Frans. Mama’s Last Hug: Animal Emotions and What They Tell Us about Ourselves. W. W. Norton & Company. Kindle Edition.

Keltner, Dacher. Born to Be Good: The Science of a Meaningful Life. W. W. Norton & Company. Kindle Edition.

Letter Twelve — Philemon Fridays

Dear Phil,

You suggested in your last letter that Paul made a practical accommodation with the enslavement system in the Empire. It would have been economic folly and political suicide, you noted, to do anything else at that time. Christian tolerance of the Imperial system of enslavement was a “necessary compromise,” you argued, that allowed the fledgling Christian movement to survive the first three centuries of its existence. I’d like to reflect with you a bit further on the argument you make.

Walter Scheidel proposes that the Imperial enslavement system was “the largest slave society in history.” He notes that given the number of enslaved persons in the Empire during most of its history, and given the number of years the Empire existed, the Imperial system would have enslaved a total of between one hundred and two hundred million persons. This is ten to twenty times the total number of enslaved persons kidnapped and destroyed by the American system of enslavement.

At any given time in the Empire, several million human beings were enslaved. The Empire depended on the enslavement mode of production for agricultural production, mineral output, and major construction projects. Scheidel reminds us that the Empire was a “slave economy” as well as a “slave society,” Most scholars are convinced that without the Imperial enslavement system, the Roman Empire would not have existed in anything like the shape and scope it occupied for much of its history.

Photo by Michael Giugliano on Pexels.com

So, from a somewhat trivial perspective, it is historically demonstrable that the Imperial enslavement system was “necessary” for the existence and survival of the Roman Empire as we have come to know it. I quite understand that any criticism of or attack on that system would be regarded as an attack on the Empire itself. Such attacks were met with massive and deadly force by the Imperial regime. One only needs to think of the thousands of crosses on the road between Rome and Puteoli after the Spartacus revolt to be clear about the Imperial response.

This argument from “necessity” reminds me of the same sorts of arguments made on behalf of the American enslavement system.

For example, we have recently observed another anniversary of the founding of the American republic. The story of this founding, and of the founders, has become politically contested territory. This is especially the case when it comes to the role of most of the “Founding Fathers” as slaveholders. The contradictions and hypocrisy on the part of men who fought for freedom from tyranny and liberty for all are intolerable. Thus, the contest is between those who wish to bury the realities of this history and those who wish to display these realities.

Thomas Jefferson, the author of our “Declaration of Independence” was one of the group and representative of the contradictions and hypocrisy. One of our fine authors and journalists, Clint Smith, notes that “Jefferson sold, leased, and mortgaged enslaved people—often in an effort to pay off debts he owed, as well as to preserve his standard of living.”[i]

Jefferson believed that the continued enslavement of Black people was necessary to sustain the new republic. Compromises and contradictions were built into our founding documents based on this necessity. Without them, the representatives of slaveholding states would not have agreed to the union. The project of the American republic would have looked quite different. Of course, without enslaved persons, Jefferson’s own way of life would have looked quite different as well.

“Jefferson believed himself to be a benevolent slave owner, but his moral ideals came second to, and were always entangled with, his own economic interests and the interests of his family,” Smith writes. “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.’”[ii]

I imagine that this sentiment sounds familiar to you as a member of Imperial society. Scheidel notes that “homegrown” enslaved persons made up a large proportion of the enslaved population in the Empire. In our own system, after the importation of enslaved persons was outlawed in 1808, such “homegrown” victims were the only source of newly enslaved persons. It was, for us, such a successful system that the American system is the only enslavement regime in history to actually grow the number of enslaved persons to match and even exceed economic growth.

It seems to me, Phil, that it is problematic enough for Christians to have tolerated the Imperial enslavement system. It is quite another thing to have participated in that system, not merely in a transitional way shortly after conversion, but in active ways for the whole life of the Empire and beyond. The argument from “necessity” collapses, it seems to me, in the face of such ongoing exploitation.

“Jefferson, it seems, was above all a statesman,” Clint Smith writes. “And upon recognition of how increasingly steadfast opposition to any semblance of abolition was in Virginia and throughout the South, he largely backed away from public admonishment of the system.”[iii] He believed, Smith notes, that his generation had done all it could by getting free from an oppressive government power. It would be up to another generation to bring about freedom for all.

Perhaps that was Paul’s sentiment as well. Paul had the added fact that he expected, or at least hoped, that history as he knew it would come to an end soon. Jefferson did not have that added dimension. Nor, to be honest, did the Church after the first few generations.

When we get to the role of the Church in the American system, we have a story of compromise for the sake of self-interest. “Christians participated in this system of white supremacy—a concept that identifies white people and white culture as normal and superior—even if they claim people of color as their brothers and sisters in Christ,” Jemar Tisby writes in The Color of Compromise.[iv] Paul’s equivocation on the Christian response to enslavement systems was used to justify this behavior. But the system was self-perpetuating.

“Historically speaking,” Tisby argues, “when faced with the choice between racism and equality, the American church has tended to practice a complicit Christianity rather than a courageous Christianity. They chose comfort over constructive conflict,” he asserts, “and in so doing created and maintained a status quo of injustice.”[v]

As Tisby notes, however, the word “complicity” makes this practice sound “as if Christianity were merely a boat languidly floating down the river of racism.” In fact, we American Christians, both North and South, have participated actively in the American system of enslavement. In many cases, we have argued that this participation was not merely “necessary” but was in fact a positive good.

I could rehearse all of that horrific history, but it is well-known to many. I have touched on it in previous letters. Instead, I want to address and confess how this history works itself out in the present. On the one hand, there is the “bury the past and forget it” school of thought in some churches. Why should we bring this all up again? The past is the past, and there’s nothing we can do about it. Our white ancestors did the best they could under the circumstances. Why make such a big deal about it now?

That’s the “necessity” argument in one key. It’s reprehensible now as it was then. The question isn’t whether participation in the system was necessary for survival. The question is, rather, whether a Christian movement that paid for its survival with the bodies of enslaved persons is a movement worth having. I don’t think white Christians will risk asking and answering that question, even as an exercise in historiography.

The more practical “necessity” argument is about congregational tranquility. We white (supremacist) Christians can’t really address issues of racism, either then or now, in our communities, because that conversation will produce conflict. In that conflict, people will leave our congregations. Some of those congregations will not survive such an exodus. Therefore, in the interest of peace in our local communities, we will keep silent in order to stay safe as white people.

The upshot of the “necessity” argument is always the same, Phil. My self-interest and comfort as a white person are always regarded as more important than truth, justice, health, safety, and humanity for Black, Brown, Indigenous, and Asian-American/Pacific Island folks. No matter how much some American Christians might shout that “all lives matter,” the tranquility of white (supremacist) congregations is always regarded as more important than faith active in love directed toward those who are enslaved by our domination.

“Although our eternal peace is secure, a diverse but unified body of Christ will only come through struggle in this life,” Jemar Tisby declares. “A survey of the history of racism and the church shows that the story is worse than most imagine. Christianity in America,” he asserts, “has been tied to the fallacy of white supremacy for hundreds of years.”[vi] As far as I can tell, in the most practical of terms, that tie is as strong as ever.

So, you see, Phil, I am no better off than you in this regard. I live in and serve a Christian system that continues to value white domination, comfort, and tranquility, at the expense of any measure of justice and peace for those who are not in the dominant group. Most of our white (supremacist) congregations will put suppression of conversation and conflict ahead of any move toward truth and reconciliation.

White comfort in our churches matters far more than black lives. That’s the current argument from “necessity.” I wish I could be more hopeful that our own church people would be open to hearing a different story.

I hope to hear from you soon.

Yours in Christ,

Low


[i] Smith, How the Word is Passed, Kindle Location 184.

[ii] Ibid, Kindle Location 272.

[iii] Ibid, Kindle Location 372.

[iv] Jemar Tisby, The Color of Compromise, page 16.

[v] Ibid, page 17.

[vi] Ibid, page 24.

Text Study for Mark 6:14-29 (Pt. 4); 7 Pentecost B 2021

The End of Innocence

In his workingpreacher.org commentary, Emerson Powery describes the report of John’s death as “the end of innocence for Jesus’ mission.” He argues, “Interpreters who choose to think that Jesus’ life and mission were disconnected from the socio-political affairs of his first century context must view this account (John’s death by Herod) as an aside… Mark placed this account between the commission and the return of the disciples,” Powery writes, “to intimate its significance for the expansion of Jesus’ mission.”

“Where’s the good news in Mark 6:14-29?” C. Clifton Black asks in his workingpreacher.org commentary. “There may be none. The drive shafts of corrupted politics torque this birthday party. Everywhere greed and fear whisper: in Herod’s ear, among Galilee’s high and mighty, behind the curtain between mother and daughter, in a dungeon prison. When repentance is preached to this world’s princes,” he concludes, “do not expect them to relinquish their power, however conflicted some may be.”

One might argue from this text that today we see the consequences of mixing the pulpit and politics. That lack of discretion gets John the Baptizer served up as the dessert course on the platter of the powerful. We church folks would like to avoid that sort of outcome.

Photo by Duanu00e9 Viljoen on Pexels.com

While we are not likely to risk execution if and when we bring political issues into our preaching, we are likely to bring about conflict. If the positions we take are partisan, we risk running afoul of federal tax laws for nonprofit organizations.

I should be quick to note that this risk has been honored much more in the breach than in the “execution” (a shameless pun). Publicly visible preachers have advocated partisan positions in their preaching for years and only rarely have they suffered any consequences. In fact, such preaching – typically of a socially and/or politically conservative bent – has been celebrated rather than censured. In my experience, the legal argument against bringing politics to the pulpit has been a convenient ploy rather than a concrete concern.

The greater risk to preachers has been the more local variety of “execution.” Progressive preachers in my denomination have experienced criticism, rebuke, cuts in compensation and benefits, bullying by leaders and members, public embarrassment, and death threats – both to the preachers themselves and to family members in response to preaching and teaching that has been deemed by some to be “too political.”

It is no accident that Mark creates a parallel between the rejection of Jesus at Nazareth and the foreshadowing of the crucifixion in John’s execution. Preachers know the risks of getting too public and specific in critiques of the powerful. The threats do not come from the larger world but rise up from the very members the preachers are called to challenge.

As I noted in a previous post, as the writer of Mark’s gospel preaches “The Tale of Two Tables,” that writer is challenging disciples – then and now – to discern under which table we are putting our feet, the banquet table of Herod Antipas or the table of abundant life where Jesus is both the host and the meal. It should be clear from the text of Mark’s gospel that this will inevitably be a political choice. It will be a choice between kings – the pretender and the Messiah. That choice faced the first listeners to Mark’s gospel and it faces us as well.

We white, western, Enlightenment Christians have often resisted the notion that politics should find a natural place in our pulpits. In fact, that resistance to politics in the pulpit is, I fear, a sign of our allegiance to the domination system which guarantees our privilege, power, and position. That resistance is not a sign of our piety or deep spirituality. That resistance is a mark of Herod’s table, not Jesus’ table.

I think we can find some help in our thinking from those who are clear about their exile from the tables of privilege, power, and position. For that reason, I want to interact for a bit with chapter three of Esau McCauley’s Reading While Black, which addresses “the New Testament and the Political Witness of the Church.”

McCauley notes the pushback from white preachers who opposed Dr. King’s involvement in the Civil Rights Movement. One of the critiques was that his work incited violence and did not produce peace. They called upon him to stay in his spiritual lane and avoid any extreme measures, such as protests and civil disobedience. Was Dr. King jumping lanes and mixing politics with the pulpit to the detriment of both?

“For many Black Christians the answer to this question is self-evident,” McCauley writes. “We have never had the luxury of separating our faith from political action” (page 49). He refers to the great address by Frederick Douglass, “What to a Slave Is the Fourth of July?”

In that address, Douglass criticizes white American Christians on that day: “your prayers and hymns, your sermons and thanksgivings, with all your religious parade and solemnity, are, to [God], mere bombast, fraud, deception, impiety, and hypocrisy – a thin veil to cover up crimes that would disgrace a nation of savages.” I hope that many white Christians have read or re-read Douglass’ stinging and honest words as American Independence Day has recently landed on a Sunday.

“Douglass called upon American Christians to live out their faith by establishing a truly equal and free society,” McCauley writes. “He argued that this country could make no claim to any form of greatness until she faced what she had done to Black and Brown bodies.” Douglass, I would suggest, comes as close to a John the Baptist as our country has produced in our history. He barely escaped a “head on a platter” fate several times in his life as he spoke truth to White power.

To summarize McCauley’s insights regarding politics and the pulpits, I will be brief. The New Testament does not prohibit resistance to governing authorities, but it does not authorize violent revolution. “Submission and acquiescence,” McCauley argues, “are two different things” (page 51).  

We can and should pray for leaders who are in legitimate authority, but this is not an authoritarian blank check. As he discusses the argument in First Timothy, chapter one, he notes that the writer can walk and chew gum at the same time, in political terms. “Prayers for leaders and criticism of their practices,” he writes, are not mutually exclusive ideas. Both,” he argues, “have biblical warrant in the same letter” (page 53).

McCauley notes that Jesus wasn’t executed because he told people to be nice to each other, any more than John was beheaded because he was a stodgy moralist. Holiness and righteousness are inconvenient for the rulers of this world, regardless of party (job security for the Church as political critic). “It was precisely inasmuch as Jesus was obedient to his Father and rooted in the hopes and dreams of Israel,” McCauley suggests, “that Jesus revealed himself to be a great danger to the rulers of his day” (page 55).

“How might Jesus’ words inform a theology of political witness of the church?” McCauley asks. “Jesus shows that those Christians who have called out injustice are following in the footsteps of Jesus” (page 57). Politics in the pulpit is not an irritant or an option. Indeed, it is required. When we affirm our baptismal covenants in the Rite of Confirmation, we promise to “…live among God’s faithful people; hear the word of God and share in the Lord’s Supper; proclaim the good news of God in Christ through word and deed; serve all people following the example of Jesus; and strive for justice and peace in all the earth.”

Unfortunately, many ELCA Lutherans get to about the halfway point of these vows and decide that half a loaf is better than none.

“When Black Christians look upon the actions of political leaders and governments and call them evil,” McCauley writes, “we are making a theological claim…Protest is not unbiblical,” he continues, “it is a manifestation of our analysis of the human condition in light of God’s own word and vision for the future” (page 62). In ELCA terms, putting politics in the pulpit is a necessary part of striving for justice and peace in all the earth.

The goal of this analysis, however, is not conflict. It is rather peace. But, as McCauley notes, there can be no Biblical notion of peace without justice. There can be no rejoicing without lament. There can be no forgiveness without repentance. There can be no repentance without confession. There can be no reconciliation without repair.

McCauley’s closing paragraph is worth quoting in full (apologies in advance for the less than inclusive language here).

“The Black Christian, then, who hopes for a better world finds an ally in the God of Israel. He or she finds someone who does more than sympathize with our wants and needs. This God steps into history and reorders the universe in favor of those who trust in him. He calls us to enter into this work of actualizing the transformation he has already begun by the death and resurrection of his Son. This includes the work of discipleship, evangelism, and the pursuit of personal holiness. It also includes bearing witness to a different and better way of ordering our societies in a world whose default instinct is oppression. To do less would be to deny the kingdom” (page 70).

I think John the Baptist would approve.

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.

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.

Text Study for Mark 6:1-13 (Pt. 4); 6 Pentecost B 2021

Vulnerable Missionaries (Mark 6:7-13)

In her award-winning book, Native, Kaitlin Curtice reminds us of the story of John Allen Chau. Chau travelled in 2018 to the Sentinelese Islands to evangelize and “save” the indigenous people of that place. “Chau ignored years of legal protection placed on the Sentinelese peoples,” Curtice writes, “who have remained connected to their own culture and traditions without contact by outsiders and who wish to remain as they have always been” (page 50).

“What happens when white supremacy taints our Christianity so much,” Curtice wonders, “that we would rather scream the love of God over someone than honor and respect their rights to live peacefully within the communities they have created and maintained for generations?” (Page 50). Chau’s solo intervention cost him his life. It also illustrates what Curtice names “The Problem of Whiteness.”

Photo by Jessica Lewis on Pexels.com

As we read this gospel text, we need to keep in mind how we white, Western, Christians have done missionary work historically. “We remember that stories of Christianity and imperialism, of power and control, have been present all over the world as Christianity became a religion that benefited those at the top more than those at the bottom,” Curtice writes, “rather than a religion that encouraged people to follow the lifestyle and teachings of Jesus. Instead of doing good in the world, many Christians used the name of God to actually create those hierarchies” (page 45).

We are painfully reminded of the real grounds upon which much of our white, Western Christian missionary work has happened as authorities in Canada (and soon in the States) examine the burial sites and grave records (if they exist) for Indian residential schools. We remember with shame and horror the words of Captain Richard Pratt, who succinctly described the mission of those schools – to “kill the Indian” in order to “save the man.”

The actual result of this approach stops at the first phrase and never gets to the second one. The goal was simply to kill the Indian. “Whiteness is a culture that requires the erasure of all others, considering them less-than,” Curtice writes, “It is believing in that well-known metaphor of a melting pot that we so love to hold on to in America, but erasing the value of the lives of the ‘other’ within the narrative and in the process presenting the idea of assimilation as virtue. But really,” she concludes, “assimilation is about power, power that puts shackles on Black people, Indigenous people, and other people of color” (page 45).

The apostles gathered around Jesus, and told him all that they had done and taught” (Mark 6:30, NRSV, my emphasis). That is the summary statement that rounds off the apostolic mission journey in our reading. By itself, the report of the disciples may be quite innocent. But when we place it in the context of all the ways The Twelve get off the track, the self-aggrandizing element is warranted.

It would appear that Jesus sends the “apostles” (as labelled in the text) as de-colonizing servants who are to be vulnerable as part of their mission strategy. Instead, they seem to perform as colonizing heroes who bring the answers to the places they visit. Lots of good gets done, it would seem, There’s no doubt about that. But I have to wonder if the loudness of their method tended to drown out the power of their message.

“America was founded in part on the image of the ‘just missionary’ who came to save the ‘heathen,’” Curtice reminds us, “and flowing out of that was the inability to see humanity in Indigenous peoples all over the world, including Indigenous Africans stolen from their homelands and shipped to the US to be enslaved” (page 50). One of the reasons why Critical Race Theory has become such a rhetorical flash point in our public discourse is because CRT seeks to tell the whole truth about this history – and we white folks simply don’t want to hear it.

I am reminded of one of my favorite theological films, Bruce Almighty. The movie is, among other things, a meditation on the purpose and function of divine power. Bruce begins by thinking that power is for his own priorities and pleasures. It takes him a whole script to discover that power is only worth having in the context of love. When power is placed under the rubric of love, it is not about the self. That kind of power is always in service to the Other.

The Twelve never really grasp this notion of power in Mark’s gospel account. They are constantly squabbling along the way about which of them will be the greatest – the most powerful – in the new administration. These squabbles present Jesus with opportunities to set them straight about power. Jesus comes not to be served but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many. That is how it is supposed to be among The Twelve and in the Church. But the lessons are lost on them, and perhaps on us as well.

In this text we see, Moloney (2001) summarizes, that “the Twelve are missionaries of Jesus only insofar as they respond to the initiative of Jesus, remain with him, recognize that their authority to preach conversion, to cast out demons and to heal the sick is from him.” Thus, they are always “followers” of Jesus and do nothing on their own. This is, perhaps, the lesson that is lost on them. And it is, perhaps, precisely the lesson that we must grasp here.

In our text, we appear to learn about what some have described as “vulnerable mission.” On the one hand, The Twelve are authorized to cast out demons. They exercise the power of healing and engage in teaching the Good News of the Kingdom of God. They are able to do these things because Jesus is with them. But it would seem that they want to take the power for themselves.

Jesus instructs them to be “dependent disciples” as they go. They can have a walking stick which, perhaps, could be used to fend off attacks. But they had no road trip snacks, no walking-around money, no extra shoes, and one jacket for the rain. They were not to shop around for the best accommodations and menus but rather to stay where they landed. If they wore out their welcome, they weren’t to take it personally. Cut your losses and move on, is Jesus’ counsel.

They were to be vulnerable in their mission work, not powerful. Anne Dyer describes this approach to missionary efforts. “So, ‘vulnerable,’ non-indigenous missionaries are those who, by their attitude, adapt to each context and attempt to use local resources only to meet local needs. When choosing to be ‘vulnerable,’ people deliberately choose not to assert control, or take authority and power” (page 39).

“Westerners have tended to see another culture from the perspective of ‘have’ or ‘have not,’” Anne Dyer writes, “particularly from a material perspective. If Christian, compassionate Westerners consider that they can improve the lot of some other people materially, they will try to do so. The problem with this,” Dyer concludes, “is that it can result in a patron-client relationship with all the colonial-postcolonial connotations of superior-inferior relationships” (page 40).

It seems that Jesus is intent on preventing these dynamics from occurring. It’s not clear The Twelve cooperate with this emphasis. In the season of summer mission, work, and vision trips in Christian congregations, this text is a challenge to our standard models of doing “short-term mission work” both in the States and abroad. Jesus is not looking for heroes and conquerors. Jesus is looking for self-giving servants who can be vulnerable in order to accompany the vulnerable and be accompanied in return.

This is not a critique of the overt motives of many folks who go on such mission and work trips. But it is a call to reflect deeply on the underlying assumptions behind and motivations for such trips. In the process of seeking to serve, are we rather underwriting and deepening the system which assumes that white is superior, and all other “colors” are inferior and in need of the “improvement” of assimilation? I know this will make life complicated for lots of youth leaders in white churches. But our life should be far more complicated than it currently is.

Our ELCA theology of mission is based on the notion of “accompaniment.” “Accompaniment helps us see mission differently,” we read in our foundational document for this approach, “In reconciliation, we realize that my story and your story are not divided by boundaries, but are both reconciled within God’s story.” We acknowledge the asymmetrical power relationships inherent in our mission efforts. And we strive to address those asymmetries through willing vulnerability to one another.

The values of the accompaniment theology, we would say, include mutuality, inclusivity, vulnerability, empowerment, and sustainability. We don’t bring gifts or resources. We share with one another and privilege local rather than outside perspectives. We seek to build relationships and communities, not just buildings. We regard all partners in a mission effort as those who have assets for the project.

My experience with accompaniment has been to listen and learn first. Opportunities for doing will come when appropriate. If I assume that I come with the power and the goods and others are mere recipients, then I will inevitably engage in cultural and racial violence whether I see that or not. In this day and age, there is no excuse for ignorance in this regard. The failure to pay attention to the need for vulnerable discipleship is an exercise in unthinking privilege and white supremacy.

I resemble that remark. Sigh…

References and Resources

https://www.elca.org/Resources/Global-Mission

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

Curtice, Kaitlin B. Native. Baker Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

Dyer, A. (2017). A Discussion of Vulnerability in Mission for the Twenty-first Century from a Biblical Perspective. Transformation, 34(1), 38-49. Retrieved June 27, 2021, from https://www.jstor.org/stable/90008944.

MOLONEY, F. (2001). Mark 6:6b-30: Mission, the Baptist, and Failure. The Catholic Biblical Quarterly, 63(4), 647-663. Retrieved June 23, 2021, from http://www.jstor.org/stable/43727251.

Pavlovitz, John. A Bigger Table: Building Messy, Authentic, and Hopeful Spiritual Community. Presbyterian Publishing. Kindle Edition.

VAAGE, L. (2009). An Other Home: Discipleship in Mark as Domestic Asceticism. The Catholic Biblical Quarterly, 71(4), 741-761. Retrieved June 25, 2021, from http://www.jstor.org/stable/43726614.

Walker, B. (2016). Performing Miracles: Discipleship and the Miracle Tradition of Jesus. Transformation, 33(2), 85-98. Retrieved June 23, 2021, from https://www.jstor.org/stable/90008863

Wright, N. T. Mark for Everyone (The New Testament for Everyone). Westminster John Knox Press. Kindle Edition.

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

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.

Photo by RODNAE Productions on Pexels.com

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.

Text Study for Mark 35-41 (Pt. 4); 4 Pentecost B 2021

(35-36) And he says to them on that day as it was becoming evening, “Let’s go across into the other side.” And leaving the crowd they took him as he was in the boat, and other boats were with him. (37-39) And there was a great storm of wind, and the waves were beating against the boat, so that the boat was already filling.  And he was in the stern, sleeping upon the pillow; and they were rousing him and saying to him, “Teacher! Does it not matter to you that we are being destroyed?”  And having awakened, he commanded the wind and said to the sea, “Calm down! Be silent!” And the wind ceased, and there was a great calm. (40-41) And he said to them, “Why are you cowering? Don’t you have faith yet?” And they experienced a great fear, and were saying to one another, “Who indeed is this, that even the wind and the sea are obeying him?”

Look, I’m not a “courageous Christian” – never have been. I have plunged into things out of arrogance and folly, and sometimes those things have panned out. I have partnered with brave people who just needed a nudge, a bit of organization, and some financial support to do something important. In more positive terms, I have been compelled by compassion to do the right thing, and that has gotten me into spots that I wish I could have avoided.

But I don’t see myself as either emotionally or physically brave. Even when I found myself piloting a small boat in the midst of gale-force winds, I wasn’t brave. I was stupid, selfish, and simply had to deal with the consequences of my own actions.

Photo by Lukas Hartmann on Pexels.com

So, I recoil when Jesus looks at his freaked-out followers and says, “Why are you cowering?” For crying out loud! Seconds before they were engaged in a fight for their very lives, and they were losing. They knew the families in their villages who had lost fathers, sons, and brothers, to the impersonal and implacable force of wind and water. Now they have to feel bad for being afraid? That seems a bit harsh, Jesus, don’t you think?

Yet, “courageous Christianity” is precisely what is called for in this time. I’m in a group that’s reading Jemar Tisby’s How to Fight Racism, and it’s a good experience. But I’m intimidated by the subtitle – Courageous Christianity and the Journey toward Racial Justice. “Courageous Christianity,” Tisby writes, “contrasts with the complicit Christianity that led so many religious people to cooperate with bigotry instead of challenging it” (page 10). I’ve spent a lot more time in the arms of complicity Christianity than in the vanguard of courageous Christianity. (Read Tisby’s The Color of Compromise for more on the history of “complicity Christianity in North America).

“Courageous Christianity moves beyond the numbing safety of church walls and the comfortable Christianity that makes its home in segregated pews on Sunday mornings,” Tisby continues. “Racial justice comes from the struggle of a small but committed group of people who choose courageously to stand against racism rather than compromise with it. Courageous Christianity,” he concludes, “dares to love through action and to risk everything for the sake of justice” (page 10).

Yes, this is the kind of Christianity for such a time as this. But the disciples seem to have an advantage or two. If only, for example, we could cry out in fear (cowardly or not) and get immediate Divine action in response! Pasquale Basta observes that this text may be cruelly disappointing for those who face their own existential crisis, cry out in desperate fear, and hear nothing but apparent silence in return. I wonder how many hearers of this text might say, “All right for the disciples, but what about me?” A fair question for the preacher to keep in mind.

“In the face of these enormous questions,” Basta writes, “it is more urgent than ever to reread the passage of the stilling of the storm, seeking to interpret it in depth so as to grasp its fundamental meaning which does not actually consist in the search for a miracle or the wonderful intervention of a God who frees from difficulty those who turn to (sic) him” (page 34). That is, preachers, let’s not allow the text to sound like it makes promises it will not keep.

While I appreciate Basta’s question, I don’t find his answer compelling. What is the nature of Jesus’ criticism here? It seems that the stilling of the storm is not a positive response to the disciples’ request for help. It is, rather, a concession to their desperate terror. The disciples are, if anything, portrayed here as anti-models of discipleship.

So, is the message that we are not to call on the Lord in the midst of crises? That does not seem to embody the Good News of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. The issue is about Jesus’ identity. If they really knew who he was and trusted in that identity, then desperate terror – fear grounded in hopelessness – would no longer be an option. Jesus was in the boat with them, and that would have been enough if they were clear about who he is.

But they are not yet clear about who Jesus is. The “advantage” of an immediate response doesn’t seem to make them any braver. The “advantage” rests, in fact, with us the readers. We know who this is. And yet, I join the disciples in their mind-numbing, shutdown-inducing terror.

The construction is a lexical cognate. “They feared a great fear.” And after spending days, weeks, perhaps months with Jesus, they asked the question which anchors Mark’s gospel. Who indeed is this? We will come back to that question in chapter eight, the center of the gospel drama – “Who do people say that I am?” The question for Mark’s audience, as some of them prepare to enter the sea of the baptismal waters is the same: Who is this Jesus?

This final question, Jim Bailey suggests “hints that their desperate fear in the face of the storm has changed to awesome fear in the face of their rescuer” (page 27). He proposes that the story moves the disciples from a great storm to a great calm to a great awe. What, they wonder, have they gotten themselves into?

“We would be wise, therefore, to keep our apocalyptic glasses on as we read about Jesus’ trip on the boat and the stilling of the storm,” David Schnasa Jacobsen writes in his workingpreacher.org commentary. “That means that this is not just another boat ride, but the apocalyptic boat ride from hell. This is not just another miracle either,” he concludes, “but an apocalyptic revelation of Jesus’ identity.”

Tshehla argues that Jesus’ identity in Mark in thoroughly entangled with “the Teacher’s solemn concern for the others whom the tradition designates as different, lesser, unclean, even unworthy” (page 10). There is always, in Mark’s gospel, an eye to the other – the other boats, the other side, the other ethnic groups. This is present, he notes, in Mark 1:39, as Jesus goes throughout Galilee healing and casting out demons. “The presence of other boats with Jesus is thus not a remnant of some lost message,” Tshehla writes, “but rather a living invitation to every disciple to take up the challenge of experiencing God’s Kingdom outside safe spaces characterized by familiarity” (page 10).

That’ll preach as we come out of Covid-tide and begin to cross to the “other side” of that experience.

But will we take the opportunity presented by a good crisis? That’s the question facing the disciples then and the church now. The temptation in the face of the storm might have been to hold on, pull back, and hunker down. The disciples, on their own, were out of their depth and in fear for their lives. They couldn’t go back to safety, and forward seemed to hold doom and death.

“In crises, doubts about God’s presence and power arise within us,” Bailey wrote several years before the current crises besetting us. “Afterward, however, we might be in a new place to reconsider God’s involvement in this world, so that this rescue story could comfort and challenge us,” he suggests. “Confronted with our limits, this story declares that the saving God we know in  Jesus  Christ  does  not  abandon us. A divine, peaceful presence accompanies our panic-filled lives.”

“But,” he continues, “the story also challenges us to ask whether we truly entrust ourselves to Jesus as the one who will bring peace into our personal chaos and disordered world.  When delivered from an overwhelming crisis, we ponder anew the One who rescued us,” he concludes. “This storm story calls us to discern more deeply who this One is that even the wind and the sea obey him” (pages 27-28).

“This theme, ‘Who is he?’ is perhaps Mark’s major concern throughout his book,” Hurtado writes. “Only God and the demons know the truth until Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection. Even the disciples, who see his power firsthand,” Hurtado continues, “cannot arrive at the full truth until then” (page 81).

I sometimes forget that the Gospel of Mark was written to be performed before a community of believers and seekers. As the story-teller paused for effect after the question, I can imagine some enthusiastic listener jumping up and saying, “I know! I know! He is the Messiah, the Son of God, the Lord and Savior of us all!” How I would love to have preached a few more messages that would elicit such a spontaneous outburst of testimony!

Perhaps the antidote to Christian cowardice is, first of all, remembering that Jesus really is always in the boat with us by the power of the Holy Spirit. And courageous Christianity is perhaps nothing more and nothing less than doing the next right thing, in this remembering, as we have the opportunity and the vocation. Perhaps it is the discipline of dogged dependence on the One who commands wind and wave and also rests in our hearts in love.

References and Resources

Bailey, James L. “Fifth and Sixth Sundays after Pentecost (Mark 4:35-41 and Mark 5:21-43).” Currents in Theology and Mission 44:4 (October 2017), pp. 25-30.

Basta, Pasquale, 2020. “From Despair to Faith: The Stilling of the Storm.” Roczniki Kulturoznawcze, Vol. XI, number 3. DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.18290/rkult20113-4.

Howard-Snyder, Daniel. “Markan Faith.” International Journal of the Philosophy of Religion (2017) 81:31-60. DOI 10.1007/s11153-016-9601-2.

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

Jacobsen, David Schnasa. https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/ordinary-12-2/commentary-on-mark-435-41-5.

Milinovich, Timothy. “The Parable of the Storm: Instruction and Demonstration in Mark 4:1-41.” Biblical Theology Bulletin Volume 45, Number 2, pages 88-98 (DOI: 10.1177/0146107915577098).

Skinner, Matt. https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/ordinary-12-2/commentary-on-mark-435-41-4.

Staszak, Jean-Francois. “Other/Otherness.” https://www.unige.ch/sciences-societe/geo/files/3214/4464/7634/OtherOtherness.pdf.

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

Tshehla, Maarman S. “There Were Other Boats Too: A Note on Mark 4:36’s Contribution to Jesus’ Identity in Mark’s Gospel.” Scriptura 116 (2017), pp. 1-12. http://dx.doi.org/10.7833/116-1-1338.

Tisby, Jemar. How to Fight Racism. Zondervan. Kindle Edition.

Wilson, A. I., 2021, “In the same boat? Jonah and Jesus as wave-beaten heralds.” In die Skriflig 55(1), a2679. https://doi.org/10/4102/ids.v55i1.2670.

Letters to Phil #5 — Philemon Fridays

Dear Phil,

I could almost hear you shouting from my study. “What the hell you do you mean – they used my letter to support enslavement! Can’t those people read a simple Greek sentence?” Well, first, they (we) read it (mostly) in English, not Greek. Second, they read what they wanted to hear, not necessarily what was on the page.

Phil, I should have gone into some detail on this. I apologize for just tossing in that throw-away line. You’re certainly entitled to wonder how later Christians could use your experience to justify a practice that you appear to reject. I’ll give you a well-known example of how Paul’s letter to you was used, and the responses that generated among enslaved audiences.

In 1833, an itinerant circuit-rider named Charles Colcock Jones preached on Paul’s letter to you to a congregation of enslaved Black people. He reported that in his sermon he “insisted on fidelity and obedience as Christian virtues in servants.” Jones “condemned the practice of running away,” he continued, “upon the authority of Paul.”

Photo by cottonbro on Pexels.com

In response to this message, Jones wrote, “one-half of my audience deliberately walked off with themselves; and those who remained looked anything but satisfied with the preacher or his doctrine.” I wonder if Jones was as understated in his preaching as he was in his reporting. I doubt it.

This incident, Phil, was not an exception. It was a typical Christian sermon delivered by a white clergy person to a Black, enslaved congregation. In fact, such preachers and writers referred to Paul’s letter to you as the “Pauline Mandate”.  This supposed mandate was used to support and underwrite our national laws that required the return of escaped enslaved persons, particularly the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850. 

Harboring escaped enslaved persons was a state and federal crime.  Your little letter is referenced specifically in political debates and legal documents of the time as a support for the institution of enslavement. The white preachers read in the text what served their interests and the interests of those white slaveholders who supported the preachers financially.

Many of those preachers were themselves slaveholders. They mined the texts of Christian and Hebrew scriptures for pro-enslavement nuggets. They used those nuggets to undergird their messages. Their messages underwrote the institutions and practices of the enslavement of Black people.

Jones’ listeners evaluated and analyzed the messages from their own locations and perspectives. He notes that of those who remained in the pews, “some solemnly declared that there was no such Epistle in the Bible.” Others in the crowd objected that what Jones declared was not the Gospel. Still others asserted that Jones “preached to please the masters.”

Some suggested that they did not care if they ever heard Jones preach again – a fact Jones apparently found quite surprising.

It was this collision of perspectives, Phil, that drove and continues to drive critical study of Paul’s letter to you. From the vantage of two millennia later, it is not crystal clear (at least to some) what Paul wanted you to do. That ambiguity left a gap in the text that pro-enslavement preachers and theologians have exploited for much of those two millennia.

It certainly doesn’t help that other letters attributed to Paul urge slaves to obey their masters and endure punishment. Other places in our Christian scriptures have similar words that seem to give aid and comfort to enslavers and white supremacists.

So, the burden of proof from Christian scriptures was typically on those who argued that enslavement was and is contrary to the Gospel. If we relied on the literal sense and sheer number of verses, then the case for enslavement seemed strong. Therefore, it was and is necessary to test the texts we have with a critical eye.

You can hear some of that critical perspective in the responses to Jones’ sermon. Half of the listeners voted with their feet. People are still doing that in our time and society. White Christian churches are still having a terrible time getting this “race” business right. People of all backgrounds are weary of this moral foot-dragging for the sake of preserving white supremacy and privilege in the Church and the society. So, they just leave.

The remainder of Jones’ congregation questioned the legitimacy of the text. We continue that debate as we try to read letters directed to the churches at Colossae and Ephesus. We’re uncertain whether those letters come directly from Paul or not. One of the arguments against Pauline authorship of those letters is their affirmations that enslaved persons should remain obedient to slaveholders. The argument is that such a perspective is certainly a degraded interpretation of Paul’s original preaching. Perhaps we can pursue that in the future.

Some of Jones’ listeners viewed the sermon through a particular interpretive lens. It just didn’t sound like Jesus to them. I think that’s right, and we continue to apply that interpretive lens in our own reading. But that puts us on a slippery slope of subjective interpretation which some find untenable. After all, in our time there are nearly as many interpretive “lenses,” nearly as many descriptions of the “real” Jesus as there are interpreters. Of course, that’s not news to you.

Still others analyzed the social position and economic interests of Jones and his sermon. He was beholden to the masters and was a master himself. His livelihood was tied to a particular interpretation and application of the text. This social, cultural, and economic analysis based on interests is a useful tool then and now. But it is sometimes associated with so-called radical politics and discounted for that reason.

I apologize for that digression. I am sure, my friend, that this must all seem like nonsense to you. After all, you know how things turned out. I am quite sure that Paul wanted you to release Onesimus from enslavement, and that you were compelled by the love of Christ to do precisely that.

Of course, dear Phil, you still haven’t told me directly that this is what happened. From our historical vantage, there is room to debate that outcome. That debate continues.

You might think we have more than enough words from blessed Paul to make up our minds. But, as you know, he could be infuriatingly indirect when he chose to be. For example, in his first letter to the Christians at Corinth, he speaks to enslaved persons in that church. I know it’s unlikely that you’ve read Paul’s Corinthian correspondence, so I’ll walk through a bit of it with you.

I failed to mention earlier the stuff about chapters and verses. For greater ease of reading and study, we’ve broken Paul’s letters (and our other Christian and Hebrew scriptures) into “chapters” and “verses.” Yes, even Paul’s letter to you is divided into twenty-five “verses” (too short, I guess, for multiple chapters).

At any rate, in verse twenty-one of chapter seven of the first letter to the Corinthians, Paul writes a sentence that has fueled centuries of scholarly debate. By the way, we would note that verse as “1 Corinthians 7:21,” just so I don’t confuse you.

This verse might give us some insight—if only translators could agree on what the verse says. “Were you a slave when called?” Paul asks, “Do not be concerned about it,” a translation called the “New Revised Standard Version,” (abbreviated as NRSV) continues. “Even if you can gain your freedom, make use of your present condition now more than ever.” What, precisely, does he mean by this statement? It is at least as ambiguous (to us) in the Greek as it is in English.

You certainly can see that it is possible to translate precisely the same words with a quite different meaning. For example, in a translation called the “English Standard Version” (abbreviated ESV) we read the verse this way: “Were you a bondservant when called? Do not be concerned about it. (But if you can gain your freedom, avail yourself of the opportunity.) A translation called “The New International Version” (abbreviated NIV) has a similar rendering.

Given the Greek grammar Paul uses, either translation is possible. Is Paul saying that enslaved persons should remain as they are? Or is Paul saying that enslaved persons should take their freedom if they can get it? Commentators have come to opposite conclusions based on the New Testament Greek behind the text.

In the NRSV translation, Paul seems to encourage enslaved persons to remain in their current situation. After all, Paul may be saying, the Lord Jesus is returning soon, so don’t bother with any big changes. Focus instead, he may be saying, on leading others into community with Christ and his church in the limited time left. This interpretation assumes that Paul puts everything into a brief time frame and assumes that the second coming of Christ is imminent.

However, many scholars and commentators these days believe that the alternative translation in, for example, the ESV and the NIV is the correct one. That would mean that Paul encourages enslaved Christians to escape from their enslavement if the opportunity prevents itself (presumably without doing violence or committing a crime).

Regardless of which translation we might believe is correct, it is still advice only to individual enslaved persons. Nowhere in his letters or in any other letters attributed to Paul is there a blanket condemnation of the institution and practice of human enslavement in general. Paul appears to encourage manumission and some forms of escape in individual cases. However, he is not in a position to advocate the overturn of the imperial domination system—at least not in this life.

Phil, that’s a lot of background in answer to a simple and justifiably indignant question. I want to pause to give you a chance to respond. Suffice it to say for now that there’s more in the Christian scriptures to create problems for the enslaved for centuries. I’ll be glad to share more of that with you if you have the interest.

I haven’t yet shared greetings with Lady Apphia and blessed Aristarchus and the other saints who gather in your house. Nor have I extended by prayers and best wishes to our brother, Onesimus. He is “our” brother, isn’t he? (Nudge, nudge)…

Yours in Christ,

Low

Knowing When To Listen

“Don’t talk,” wrote Jorge Luis Borges, “unless you can improve the silence.” Speaker of the United States House of Representatives, Nancy Pelosi, is probably wishing she had remembered that counsel.

“Thank you, George Floyd, for sacrificing your life for justice,” Pelosi said as she spoke during a news conference sponsored by the Congressional Black Caucus not long after the verdicts were announced. “For being there to call out to your mom, how heartbreaking was that,” Pelosi continued. “And because of you … your name will always be synonymous with justice.”

Many others have already taken Pelosi to task on her statement in direct and insightful ways. She tried to walk back and refocus her comments later in the day to repair some of the damage. But none of that talking has improved the silence.

Photo by Ksenia Chernaya on Pexels.com

Indeed, had she said nothing, she would have done far better for all of us (easy for me to say now, but still the case). Yet, we also know that “white silence is violence.” When we white folks are silent in the face of white supremacy, oppression, and racism, Black, Brown, Native, and AAPI people suffer and die. Saying nothing may be nearly as bad.

So, what shall we white people say?

Mark Charles had a compelling and incisive take on this in his “Second Cup of Coffee” talk on April 22, 2021. Charles, co-author with Soong-Chan Rah, of Unsettling Truths: The Ongoing Dehumanizing Legacy of the Doctrine of Discovery, and former presidential candidate, heard Pelosi’s words as obvious implicit racial bias.

That bias, he argued, is rooted in the ongoing project of “centering whiteness” in our culture, our legal system, our political process, our economic institutions, and our structures of thinking and perceiving as white people. Yes, that’s been said before. But clearly, some of us white people haven’t gotten the memo yet. More clearly, some of us have refused delivery.

Pelosi’s remarks portrayed Floyd’s death as a “sacrifice” for the sake of “justice.” This was, as should be obvious, a completely wrongheaded description of Floyd’s murder. Charles asserted that Pelosi’s remarks made Floyd an object, a commodity used to center, improve, and develop whiteness and the system that supports white supremacy.

Whites of a particular political stripe may put that system overtly front and center. Whites like Pelosi (and me) do our centering covertly and implicitly.

If that’s what we’re going to say – that somehow, everything really happens to center, improve, and develop whiteness and its supportive system – then we’d best just shut up. Pelosi could have stood quietly in the background as members of the Congressional Black Caucus spoke the truth.

She might have said with some art and eloquence – “That’s right. What they said.” That might have been closer to appropriate. That might have been closer to enough.

That wouldn’t have been satisfactory, however, for a system that centers whiteness. She would have been criticized for not using her own words. That’s the price of standing, rightly, in the background and waiting for other people to speak. That’s an appropriate silence for us white people. We can support the testimony of Black, Brown, Native, and AAPI leaders and citizens. And we should expect that support to cost us something, not to center, improve, and develop our power, privilege, and position.

Charles suggested in his talk, as he does in his writing, that we white folks can have plenty to say. Our first and most pressing task, if we are to be anti-racist allies, is to de-center whiteness. That runs counter to everything we have been taught and done.

Robin D’Angelo says that she often asks a question early in her anti-racism workshops. “What’s the best thing about being white?” She reports that the response on the part of white people is a lot of nervous throat-clearing and uncomfortable paper-shuffling. I took the chance to test this question in our anti-racism book study.

We were all noticeably quiet for a few moments. I felt embarrassed after asking the question – even after giving it a softening preface. One of the group members said what we were all thinking. All the best things about being white are things which now produce guilt and shame in the hearts and minds of the group members. All the best things about being white accrue to us at the expense of other people – who become objects for our manipulation, exploitation, and consumption.

The worst, best thing about being white is that we never have to think about race unless we choose to do so. We get to be the “non-adjective” people. There’s no “white history month,” as one group member points out. Every month is white history month. The same is true for theology and literature and entertainment and sports and…everything.

Some commentators believe this is precisely how it should be. Tucker Carlson rages that the verdicts in the Derek Chauvin trial are “the end of civilization.” If by “civilization” you mean “white civilization in America in the last four hundred years,” Carlson may be on to something (please, God, may it be so).

If, on the other hand, by “civilization” one means human activity and culture around the globe in the last ten thousand years, then the verdicts are not the end of anything.

Carlson’s assessment is reprehensible and disgusting. But, if Mark Charles is right (and I believe he is), that’s just the overt statement of the system that prompted Nancy Pelosi’s ill-considered remarks in a somewhat unguarded moment. The best thing about being white is that other people get to make sacrifices to sustain our favorite system.

“Systems of whiteness, like white supremacy itself, reward those who invest in what whiteness produces,” Kaitlin Curtice writes in Native, “the idea that anyone who isn’t white is less-than. Whiteness both forces people into assimilation and rewards those who stay assimilated” (p. xii).

Can we white people learn when to keep silent? I think so, to some extent. Can we white people “de-assimilate” ourselves and our institutions and our society? Maybe. James Baldwin, in “On Being White and Other Lies,” calls whiteness “a moral choice.” He doesn’t mean that it’s a good choice. He means it is a choice with profound moral implications. A choice can be unchosen.

Nell Irwin Painter calls “whiteness” an idea and not a reality. Many of us have come to understand that “race” in general is a social construction and not a biological or cultural given. An idea can be deconstructed and “un-thought.” That’s the kind of speaking we white people can and should do – mostly to one another. We can choose daily to de-center whiteness in ourselves and our institutions and our society. That requires choosing and acting – continually and consistently.

One part of the task of de-centering whiteness is to learn and incorporate the history of how whiteness has been centered in European history and, more specifically, in the historical narratives, and the legal and political systems of the United States. You can find an excellent and relatively brief historical overview of the development of “whiteness” in a recent article in the Guardian (linked here).

Charles, and his co-author, Soong-Chan Rah, uncover and explicate an American history of whiteness using the lens of the Doctrine of Discovery. “The problem of the Doctrine of Discovery,” they write in Unsettling Truths, “is that it affirms the perspective of a diseased social and theological imagination. It established the false notion,” they continue, “of a more ethnically pure, European Christian supremacy, and today it furthers the mythology of American exceptionalism, which is rooted in the blatant lie of a white racial supremacy” (page 37).

In this particular historical moment, it’s worth pursuing the history of policing in the United States and its predecessor political expressions. The connections between the systemic enslavement and eradication of Black, Brown, Native, and AAPI people and our modern police forces is instructive and distressing.

I have the luxury of time to read and listen to and discuss this history and how it is working out in our time and space. That’s why I try to share as much of it as I can in some of my posts. I listen to the witness of Curtice, and Charles, and Rah, and Jemar Tisby, and Kelly Brown Douglas, and Ibram X. Kendi, and Ijeoma Oluo, and Carol Anderson, and James Cone, and Heather McGhee, and Willie James Jennings, and Nell Irwin Painter, and James Baldwin, and W. E. B. DuBois, and Frederick Douglas and…I keep listening.

I participate in discussions where I can continue to learn and share. The primary purpose of those discussions is to work through at least some of our white bullshit so we are a little less dangerous when we interact with our Black, Brown, Native, AAPI, and Muslim siblings (that’s only a small part of the list of people for whom I am called to care by listening more). I’ve grown a little bit – mostly enough to see that I don’t even know all the questions yet, much less many answers.

We also try not to wait until we have it all “right” in our home before taking some action. We have committed, for example, to support the ministry of a local historically Black congregation in our community. I don’t know if we’ll ever participate in that community fully. That’s a conversation for a future time. We haven’t done nearly enough listening yet. But we know that when we support a Black church financially, the money will be used well (and not for further underwriting whiteness).

It’s some small beginning in personal efforts at repair. Because that’s the only talking we white people should be doing at this point. We should be talking about and doing relinquishment of power, repentance of wrongs, and repair of the injustice and inequity. And that talking either costs me some of my whiteness, or it’s better to keep quiet.

That’s more than enough talking for a lifetime for me. I hope that might improve the silence a bit.