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

Part Four – Politics in the Pulpit

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

References and Resources

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dealing with Demons: Shut Up and Go to Hell

Please read Mark 1:29-45 for background.

And [Jesus] cured many who were sick with various diseases, and cast out many demons; and he would not permit the demons to speak, because they knew him.” Mark 1:34 NRSV

Demons do their best work in the darkness. Demons crave anonymity. Demons seek to control and dominate others by outing them in some way. Demons isolate their victims, cutting them off from help, healing, and hope. Demons weaponize Otherness and make enemies out of neighbors. Demons show up even at times and in places we wish were safe and holy. Demons are parasites that can only live within human hearts in communities that sustain their presence with some combination of fear and allegiance. The more demons are tolerated and embraced, the more their power grows.

I think you can substitute “bullies” for “demons” in that paragraph, and little would change. I think you can substitute “white male supremacists” in that paragraph, and little would change. I think you can substitute “white nationalist cultural Christian republicans (WNCCRs)” in that paragraph, and little would change. I am not competent to label any bullies, white male supremacists, or WNCCRs as demons. That’s well above my pay grade. But I am certainly willing to suggest that such people are open to and under demonic influence.

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How does Jesus deal with demons? Jesus tells the demons to shut up and go to hell (Mark 1:25). Jesus does not allow the demons to hide in the dark. Jesus does not allow them to go unnamed. Jesus does not allow them to control and dominate him by saying his name. Jesus does not surrender to their attempts to make him Other and Odd and Out of bounds. Jesus is not surprised to find them in the synagogue on the Sabbath. Jesus cuts off their source of shape and sustenance. Jesus confronts and expels them.

Jesus does not engage the demons in theological dialogue. Jesus does not treat them as having one opinion among many in the crowd. Jesus does not permit any kind of equivalence between the work of the demons and his work of help, healing, and hope. Jesus does not give the demons a platform, a microphone, or a vote. The burden of proof is not on Jesus to show that the demons should shut up and go to hell. It’s either that, or people are in bondage. There is no compromise, no meeting of the minds, no mediation, or adjudication.

Be silent and come out of him!” (Mark 1:25). Shut up and go to hell.

The bullying behavior of WNCCRs infects a number of “mainline” white Christian congregations and denominations in the United States. Not only are these congregations infected with this ideology, many of the opinion leaders and elected leaders in such bodies now openly advocate for this ideology. The ideology is not new, but the visible nature of the debate is. It’s not that WNCCRs have suddenly found a voice. That’s never been the issue. Instead, what is new is that there are people in those congregations and denominations (and outside of them) who are now pushing against this centuries-old system of power.

For five centuries, for example, few people actively suggested in such places that white supremacy is a bad idea, bad religion, and bad politics. The system of power had no need to defend itself. Now that has changed a bit. And some leaders in congregations and denominations ask with a straight face, “What exactly do you have against white supremacy?” If we try to answer the question, we have immediately stepped out of bounds. That is simply not a legitimate question for Christians to ask. The only responsible reply is to order the questioner to shut up and…sit down (we’re generally not in the “go to hell” business these days).

That response will be met with gasps of horror and protests that this isn’t fair. Legal procedures are always the fallback position when the system of white male supremacy is under attack. I worked for some years with conflicted congregations. I learned that when someone approached me with a highlighted and annotated copy of a congregation’s constitution (especially the section labeled “Church Discipline”) that things were not going to end well for someone. Demonic power embraces legalism when it serves that power – and abandons it the moment it does not.

When someone asks, “Pastor, what exactly do you have against white supremacy?” the community must tell that person to be quiet. If the community will not do that, then it is time to wipe the dust off one’s feet and move on.

Now, some will protest that this is not pastoral. This response lacks compassion. This response does not allow for or believe in the possibility of repentance and amendment of life. The biblically alert will point to Jesus’ words in the parable about digging around the roots, adding some fertilizer, and seeing what happens in the next growing season.

This is a misapplication of Law and Gospel (in good Lutheran terms). Allowing more time for amendment and growth is appropriate in the presence of repentance and a desire for such amendment. That’s Gospel. Making a clear break with bad behavior (with the hope that such clarity might provoke real reflection and repentance) is appropriate in the presence of a commitment to continue on the current course. That’s Law.

Behaving as if systemic racism in a congregation or denomination is one theological option among many to be considered requires application of the Law.

We always risk the remedy of Bonhoeffer’s “cheap grace.” He knew well the price of appeasing the demons. “Cheap grace is the grace we bestow on ourselves. Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, Communion without confession,” he wrote, “Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate.”

Some will protest that the people in power need time to adjust to the new reality. Perhaps we can moderate our language or tone. Perhaps we can use vocabulary and categories that are less offensive and abrasive. Perhaps we can have dialogue, conversation, study, and even prayer, as we wait for the Holy Spirit to work on the hearts of those in need of conversion. If any of that would work in this case, one might think we would have seen some results over the last few centuries.

Ijeoma Oluo says it well. “How often have you heard the argument that we have to slowly implement gender and racial equality in order to not ‘shock’ society,” she asks in Mediocre: The Dangerous Legacy of White Male America. “Who is the ‘society’ that people are talking about? I can guarantee that women would be able to handle equal pay or a harassment-free work environment right now, with no ramp-up. I’m certain that people of color would be able to deal with equal political representation and economic opportunity if they were made available today. So,” she asks, “for whose benefit do we need to go so slowly?”

The answer to her question is obvious. The system of white male supremacy in our congregations, denominations, and country drags its feet in hopes of wearing out the opposition. The argument is that any other strategy will “shut down the conversation.” Oluo’s final question hits the bullseye. “How can white men be our born leaders,” she asks, “and at the same time be so fragile that they cannot handle social progress?” (pages 7-8).

When pleas for patience and process fail, the final refuge is the raw exercise of power. Someone may threaten to withhold offerings and starve out the pestilent pastor. There may be systematic campaigns of intimidation through emails, letters, rumors, and ugly meetings. Sometimes the intimidation is physical – in the form of death threats and physical confrontations. What we see writ large in our political system, as WNCCRs attempted a coup d’état on January 6, 2021, is writ small in numerous congregations every month.

Over the years I have participated in efforts to resist such power structures in our white, male, supremacist congregations. We’ve won a few and lost too many. In the few wins, one result was that the bullies went elsewhere and took their marbles with them. In the losses, one result was that the victims went elsewhere, or (much more often) simply went nowhere. In my experience there is no healthy solution that maintains the membership status quo of a congregation or a denomination.

Bullies must be outed, isolated, confronted, and corralled, or they must go. Demons must shut up and go to hell. I’m not optimistic that this will happen in most places. With James Baldwin, I fear that most of us have been white too long to be able to change. But I know that some white mainline Christian congregations and denominations are led by courageous and capable people who are at least up for the fight. And I will do what I can to help and support that fight.

No matter how it shakes out, we will see losses in membership, participation, and funding in such congregations and denominations. If I had to guess, I’d say the losses (if we make anti-racist progress) will run to about twenty percent. I suspect the losses will be the same if we double down on our white male supremacy. I make that estimate based on attitudes in the general population – attitudes that come with us to worship in our congregations.

I wish it weren’t so, but I fear that this is the bill outstanding for centuries of complicity. I have hopes that at least some in the Church are ready to pay up.

Relinquishing Rulers

Here are some things I’m learning about White Male supremacy – so far. This is an ongoing journey of the fish discovering the ocean, so this will be boring for lots of other folks. But I have lots to work out and repent. And this is where I’m doing it. In fact, I am making additional connections as I write.

White Male supremacy is not just hoods and burning crosses, not just lying and lynching, not just redlining and blue-lining. It’s all of those things and more. But at its heart, white Male supremacy is what the name states. “White” and “Male” are each supreme and together they are the “supremest.”

White Male supremacy is a cultural framework and system that makes the prototypical white man the canon and arbiter of all that is true and good and beautiful. Ijeoma Oluo describes White supremacy in these terms: “the ways our schoolrooms, politics, popular culture, boardrooms, and more all prioritize the white race over other races. Ours is a society where white culture is normalized and universalized,” she continues, “while cultures of color are demonized, exotified, or erased.” (Mediocre, page 3).

The White Male is the canon for our culture. A canon is literally a measuring stick. In English, oddly enough, we call such a standard measuring stick a “ruler”! That standard stick provides the rule or scale according to which things are measured. In the experience of some of us, such sticks were also used to enforce the rules on the behinds of small children. My rump reduced a number of such sticks to kindling over the years. But I digress…for now.

I have a small metal ruler that I carry with my journal. Mostly I use it as a straight-edge to divide sections of my writing. The ruler carries two different standards of linear measure – inches and centimeters. Six inches and fifteen centimeters describe about the same distance – or at least close enough for my journaling purposes.

I can see quite clearly on that metal ruler that inches translate or convert into centimeters and vice versa. But I almost always use inches – the “English” system – in my woodworking and carpentry. It’s the system under which I grew up and apprenticed. I can speak fluently the language of seven sixteenths and eleven thirty-seconds of an inch. I don’t need to translate those figures into any other scale.

I know that the English system is klutzy, clumsy, and slow when compared to the “metric” system. Multiplying and dividing by ten, adding and subtracting decimals, are both far easier than converting fractions. Yet Americans often scream bloody murder when the dimensions of a project are given in metric rather than English units.

I still see arguments online asserting that English fractional units are inherently superior to decimals – more accurate, more faithful to woodworking tradition, more…well, just prettier. There is a kind of English fraction supremacy at work that is ever so difficult to surrender. I am sometimes astonished at the creative and fanciful lengths to which some will go to “prove” that supremacy.

And then I remember how much I dislike using the metric system in my shop. Woodworkers, of all people, should know about the log in our own eyes versus the splinter in the eye of another. Safety glasses don’t protect against such metaphorical hazards.

Arguments regarding fractional supremacy, of course, are nonsense. Each measuring system has been constructed, and each has its history and heritage. But men like me who were formed in the fractional heritage still design most projects (at least for American consumers) and sell most lumber – at least in the U.S. So, inches, feet, and yards – divided into halves, quarters, eighths, and beyond – that’s the system. In addition, you must know the code – that a two by four is not really two inches by four inches, for example. That’s the canon. That’s the rule…and the rulers.

Why do I carve out this extended and somewhat tortured simile? White Male supremacy remains the canon for American culture. That’s changing, inch by inch (or perhaps centimeter by centimeter). We rulers are fighting the change every sixteenth of the way. But at least we have folks who now point out that other standards exist and are equally useful (often more so).

It’s no accident that I use the analogy of measurement for this conversation. White men measure things to decide if things matter and to determine their worth. White men measure what matters, and what matters gets measured – according to the canon of White Male Supremacy. A big part of the necessary change is relinquishing the cultural rulers altogether. We must let go of measuring. It makes me dizzy even to type those words, but that doesn’t change the truth of them.

I think about the ways that measuring is used to possess, control, and exploit people and things in our White Male culture. We have measured the “black blood” in people to determine their place in the cultural caste system. We have measured and managed black bodies at the slave auctions. We have measured miles of railroad right-of-way while stealing acre after acre of Native land that we said needed “development.” We have measured real estate for redlining and black and brown people for mortgage rejections. We measure voters and districts and manipulate the numbers to maintain legislative control. We measure money in order to hoard it for ourselves.

What I measure, I can manage. And if I also define and determine the standards, I control it all. If I am the Standard, then I have become god of the system. Willie James Jennings describes White Male Supremacy as “a way of being in the world that aspires to exhibit possession, mastery, and control of knowledge first, and of one’s self second, and if possible of one’s world.” (After Whiteness: Theological Education between the Times, Kindle Edition, Location 495).

Back to the simile of the ruler for a bit. Each system of measurement has its own story, its own utility, its own context and heritage. Wouldn’t it be grand if we could choose the best canon for the situation at hand? But that would require having multiple tools in our cultural toolbox, valuing each way of working for its own sake, and knowing how to use each of the tools appropriately.

White Male Supremacy is the cultural hammer that treats all other persons like nails – pounding them until they fit the system. Carpenters know you need the right tool for the right job. Willie James Jennings describes how this system enforces “hegemony” and “homogeneity.” He writes, ““Hegemony” and “homogeneity” are words that mean control and sameness, a control that aims for sameness and a sameness that imagines control. (After Whiteness: Theological Education between the Times, Kindle Edition, Location 156).

Doing things the White Male way might (for the sake of argument) be the right tool in a particular situation. But wouldn’t it be better to have a toolbox full of options for how to live our lives? Yet, there are White Male supremacy dangers even in this extended simile. The system of White Male supremacy can’t be made safe for the “users” or especially for the measured. Hegemony and homogeneity are not bugs in that system. They are unavoidable features.

What are some of these dangers? First, I can’t just pick the “tool” of another way of seeing and being, learn it and put it to work. That’s further colonialization, appropriation, and exploitation. That makes things worse. Second, doing things on my own is one of the limitations of the White Male Supremacy system. I don’t have to do life alone. I don’t have to be in charge of life. I don’t have to know everything. I need to step back and let others lead the way in their own ways.

It becomes clear to me that all this requires a change in the story of White Male Supremacy. In fact, it requires rejecting that story of being human altogether. The “supremacy” part must be removed, repented, and repaired. Seeing the White Male tool set as one option among many requires a revolution in seeing. It requires the “new eyes” that Proust mentions in his often-used quote. It requires relinquishing the ruler…and ruling.

A full toolbox for being human together requires that we White Males become multilingual and multicultural. We would need to learn new languages, new practices, new ways of thinking. We must violate one of the fundamental rules of the White Male canon and look at ourselves objectively and critically – from the outside and with an eye toward improvement. We must also violate a second fundamental rule of the White Male canon – that white men must possess, master, and control everything in the world. That has to go, even as many of us hold on with our last, dying breath.

“White male identity is not inborn,” writes Ijeoma Oluo. “it is built.” That means it can be deconstructed, if we White Males choose to cooperate in the demolition project. Part of the cost of White Male supremacy, Oluo notes, is the embrace of mediocrity as a way to protect the privilege of the wealthy and deceive the rest of us White Males (but that’s another story for now).

Suffice it to say that it is in the interest of us White Male mediocrities to help take the myth apart if we want to be fully flourishing human beings. We must disassemble ourselves and and our hegemony if we are to love our neighbors as Christ loves us.

This require relinquishing the rulers…and the ruling. I know it’s obvious to everyone else.

Mediocre by Ijeoma Oluo: I Resemble that Remark

Tom Tate was the relatively inexperienced and lightly trained sheriff of Monroe County, Alabama, when he and his deputies arrested Walter McMillian and charged him (ultimately) with the murder of Ronda Morrison. Tate was involved in falsifying evidence, coercing testimony, violating incarceration procedures, obstructing judicial processes, and depriving Walter McMillian of six years of his life spent on Alabama’s death row.

Tate was held responsible for his conduct to a limited degree through a civil suit, but the amount of the settlement was not commensurate with the misconduct. “Adding insult to injury,” Bryan Stevenson writes in Just Mercy, “Tate went on to be re-elected sheriff, and he remains in office today [at the time of the book’s publication]; he has been sheriff continuously,” Stevenson notes, “for more than twenty-five years.”

When members of our anti-racism book study group read this story, several asked the outraged question: “How could this happen?” In her book, Mediocre: The Dangerous Legacy of White Male America, Ijeoma Oluo offers this answer. “To be a white man – a straight, abled, cisgender white man – in public office means never having to say you’re sorry and still getting re-elected.” Sheriff Tate is one example among thousands to illustrate Oluo’s contention.

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I read Mediocre in the immediate aftermath of the attack on and attempted lynching at our nation’s capitol on January 6, 2021. Oluo begins the book with the realization that the domination of our systems of power by modestly functional white men is not a breakdown in the system. Instead, it means, as she notes, that the system “works according to design.” This is the case because the system has been designed by and for precisely those of us who are mediocre white men. We saw that system in full flower on January 6.

This is the first challenge of the book for me and my companion mediocrities – to be open to the critique and to look ourselves honestly in the face. The images and reports from the halls of Congress noting that grown men were stealing podiums, smearing feces on hallway floors, taking selfies in the Speaker’s chair, and expecting to go home and get back to work as if nothing happened – these were exhibits A through Z of Oluo’s thesis. As reprehensible as I find those actions, I must admit (if I am even a bit honest) that those fools and idiots look a lot like me.

“White men lead our ineffective government with almost guaranteed reelection. They lead our corrupt and violent criminal-justice system with little risk of facing justice themselves. And they run our increasingly polarized and misinforming media, winning awards for perpetrating the idea that things run best when white men are in charge. This is not a stroke of white male luck,” Oluo concludes, “this is how our white male supremacist systems have been designed to work.” Given the events of the last week or so, one is hard-pressed to dispute the point.

Oluo does not spend all or even most of her ink on this diagnosis, although it is central to the book. Instead, she works through an inventory of cultural institutions where whiteness, maleness, and white maleness are hallowed historically but leave a hollowed-out husk of personhood for those who are supposed to benefit most. She takes us from Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show to the frontlines of police violence, from working for social justice to working in American’s boardrooms, from Ivy League business schools to the NFL sidelines. All of these wobbly and dangerous systems have been designed by white men for the benefit of white men.

Works according to design.

I was grateful for Oluo’s clear, confronting, and concise guidance and challenge in So You Want to Talk About Race? I would recommend that book as well in a continuing pursuit of anti-racism education and reflection. Mediocre, however, is a superior work. Oluo writes with pissed-off passion and historical depth. She is delightfully sharp-tongued and has no tolerance for bullshit from anyone. While I (as an example of white, male, supremacy) am a subject of description and investigation in her work, never once did I feel hated.

That is perhaps what I found most remarkable. Oluo reports on the emails, letters, phone threats, and other assaults on her life and, potentially, her family. She notes that she has been victimized personally by mediocre white male supremacy every day of her life. She documents how this system works according to design to police and persecute, to limit and lynch, to exploit and exhaust women, Black people, Brown people, and especially Black and Brown women. She demonstrates and documents voluminous evidence to justify her disgust and contempt.

Yet, that’s not what I got. Outage and anger, judgment and demands for repair, clear-eyed descriptions of the utter and arrogant stupidity of the system of white male supremacy – yes, all of that is in these pages in abundance. But I also found a knowing acknowledgment that white men, stupid and selfish as we can be, suffer from this system as well. That’s not sympathy or excuse, but rather a simple description of the massive contradictions we white men enforce and endure in order to maintain our power, privilege and position.

“The system was set up to appear to serve the average white American man while simultaneously working against the best interests of the majority of Americans, regardless of race or gender,” she writes. “But even the pretense of representing the ‘average white man’ holds more appeal than political ideas offered up by those who aren’t white men, even when those ideas could better serve white men.” We mediocrities can’t even recognize the damage we do to ourselves in this system.

That being said, we mediocrities suffer so little and inflict so much suffering. We have forced Black migrants into ghettos, redlined them to keep them there, deprived them of credit and housing, and then blamed them for being poor. We have weaponized white fear to maintain political power to the point that the entire democratic system teeters on the brink of collapse. We have deprived ourselves of the skills and talents of two-thirds of the human population among us and then describe women as weak and Black and Brown people as lazy and dangerous.

We have restricted access to every positive program in the twentieth century — the GI Bill, VA benefits, FHA financing – among dozens of others to make sure that wealth was concentrated in fewer and fewer hands. The results have been twofold. White men are still one rung up on the socioeconomic ladder above the other groups. But we are all a thousand miles below the one percenters who continue to accrue and concentrate wealth and to distribute poverty.

We only allow women and Black and Brown people to be in charge of things that either don’t matter or are likely to fail. “Women and people of color are often only given the opportunity to steer the ship,” she notes, “that white men have already rammed into icebergs. Then, when the ship sinks,” Oluo concludes, “the media reports that women [and people of color] make bad captains.” The system of white male supremacy expects women to stay home and cook and people of color to clean toilets and play football.

But in the end, the system doesn’t really work according to design. Mediocre white men continue to fall further and further down the socioeconomic ladder. Oluo describes the white male rage that comes from this fall: “the expectation that many white men have that they should have to climb, shouldn’t have to struggle as others do. It’s the idea,” she writes, “not only that they think they have less than others, but that they were supposed to have so much more.”

The result of this rage goes in one of two directions. Some of us conclude that we are broken, failed, and useless. She points to the rising suicide rate among white men as an indicator of this result. In far more cases, some of us conclude that others are to blame and that we have somehow been robbed. “In a world where many people of many different races and genders are bullied, where many people feel left out and overlooked, it is white men who are choosing to turn that pain and fear into self-harm and murderous rage far more than almost anybody else in America.

This describes much of what we saw on January 6, 2021, in the nation’s capitol. In addition, Oluo described the weird harassment campaign she endured at one point in her work. Some trolls declared that since she was so “down on white men,” they’d show her. They would go ahead and kill themselves just to spite her! This is the textbook example of drinking poison and expecting the other person to die. Oluo is fairly sure that the threats were hoaxes, but they indicate the state of mind induced by the failure of the system of white male supremacy in the hands of mediocrity. “Nobody is more pessimistic about white men,” Oluo concludes, “than white men.”

I’m in no position to critique her work. I’m one of the subjects of it. I don’t take it personally, any more than I take a glance in the mirror personally. If I see something in the mirror, it must be there. And I have the choice to do something about it or not. I hope other mediocre white men will read and take seriously what she offers.

We can do better.