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

Part Four – Politics in the Pulpit

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

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

Photo by Julia Volk on Pexels.com

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

References and Resources

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Cross in the Middle of Everywhere — Throwback Thursday Books

The Superbowl ad sponsored by Jeep© and featuring Bruce Springsteen has generated thousands of words of commentary in its wake. Some have applauded it as a signpost on the path toward national reunion in the United States. Many have rightly pointed to its affinities with and symbolization of “Christian Nationalism.” The use of an overtly Christian worship space with a cross and heart nailed to a map of the United States is a pretty clear deployment of the iconography of Christian Nationalism.

The critiques are merited and well-taken. My question is this. How did the writers, producers, and owners of this ad miss the obvious subtext? Was it a case of creative tunnel vision, of being so excited about the “trees” of the ad that those responsible missed the “forest” of deeper meaning? I wish it would be that simple and naïve, but I don’t think so.

Photo by Felix Mittermeier on Pexels.com

It’s not that garden variety Christian Nationalism was slipped in under the radar in some insidious plot. Rather, the ideology of Christian Nationalism has been so taken for granted in the United States for so long that it is simply part of the expected background. The innovation is not that someone slipped in a narrow set of symbols to trumpet White Nationalist Cultural Christian Republicans. The novelty is that any white people noticed and complained.

This brings me to my Throwback Thursday book for this week. I want to lift up The Cross in Our Context, by Douglas John Hall. I have read and reread this book so many times that my highlighting has underlining, and my underlining has highlighting – all surrounded by marginal notes and questions in various colors of ink.

In this book Hall continues his project, begun in 1979 in Lighten Our Darkness, to uncover and describe an “indigenous theology of the cross” for Christians in North America. The book is a summary companion to his three-volume work on “Christian Theology in a North American Context.” The chapters were originally lectures delivered at Trinity Lutheran Seminary in 2002. They have that snappy and immediate character of oral presentation and Hall’s passion for the topic.

In this post, I want to focus on the unifying theme of the book and of Hall’s work. I think his work is one resource in understanding why the “Middle” Superbowl ad could slide so easily into mainstream awareness with nothing more than an approving smile and a small tear in our eyes. Christian Nationalism is, I would propose, nothing more or less than a militant expression of the dominant and underlying cultural framework for white Americans on this continent since the first colonialists set foot on its shores. No great revelation, but there it is.

The ideological heart of the North American project is cultural, political, economic, military, and ideological triumphalism. It has gone by several names over the centuries – the Monroe Doctrine, Manifest Destiny, The White Man’s Burden, American Exceptionalism, The Christian Century, Make America Great Again. In all these expressions there is the toxic combination of white male supremacy, Christian supersessionism and triumphalism, and western colonizing imperialism.

If one benefits from the privileges of that wicked cocktail (as I do), life is good indeed. If one lives outside that system, the consequences can be fatal. Hall writes, “the association of the Christian religion with white Western/Northern economic, military, and cultural imperialism constitutes possibly the single most insidious cause of global peril” (page 4). Before we recoil in disbelief, let us recall the role of the West in nuclear proliferation, climate change, debt colonization, proxy wars, covert assassinations, and global white supremacy. I’m sorry, Bruce, but that’s what the “Middle” looks like if you’re a person who lives on the Edge.

Western (primarily Calvinist Protestant) Christianity has served as the underlying ideological framework for the “Middle.” We live in a time when that ideology is being identified, outed, and challenged. That’s absolutely necessary for the long-term credibility, health, and even survival of Christianity in the West. “In short,” Hall writes, “it is the theological triumphalism of Christendom that must be altered if the Christian faith is to exist in the world of today and tomorrow as a force for life and not death” (page 5).

What the “Middle” really did was to center those systems which are killing us. We saw a lone, isolated, individual man in his pickup truck in the wide-open spaces. All that was missing from the image was the gun rack in the window and steel testicles hanging from the trailer hitch.

“Even for those who will never don a cowboy hat, the idea of a white man going it alone against the world has stuck,” writes Ijeoma Iluo in Mediocre: The Dangerous Legacy of White Male America. “It is one of the strongest identifiers of American culture and politics, where cooperation is weakness and others are the enemy–to be stolen from or conquered. The devastation that the mythological cowboy of the West has wreaked did not stop with the extermination of the buffalo,” she observes. “It may not stop until it has destroyed everything” (page 45).

The chapel at the heart of this triumphalist universe is not the home of an existing flesh and blood congregation but is a geographic landmark – the center of “everything.” It is not, however, even the center of the whole United States but rather only of the “lower 48.” So, it does not take into account people of color in Alaska and Hawaii, much less those in Puerto Rico or Guam. But then, why should it? And why bother with some messy and cantankerous congregation? After all, the American Middle is an ideal and ideology, not an actual community. What is to be centered is not an existing land but rather a conquering culture.

One of my points is that the creators, writers, producers, sponsors (and actor) may have missed the problem because triumphalist Christianity (in its most visible incarnation as Christian nationalism) is not a “bug” in the system. It is the system itself. And that is the problem. “So long as Christian faith is unable to distinguish itself at the level of foundational belief from the Western imperial peoples with which it has been inextricably linked,” Hall writes, “its actions and ethical claims will be ambiguous, even when they are inspired by apparently Christian motives” (page 4).

One would think that Hall had seen the “Middle” ad as he was writing his book. Of course, it antedates the commercial by twenty years. The ad is beautifully constructed and filmed. It hits all the right emotional buttons. There are values which one could admire – unity, empathy, compassion, community. But these values are so diluted by and polluted with the centering of white, male, evangelical, American Christianity, and so associated with the imperialist, colonialist, supremacist ideology of the West that the good stuff is drowning in the powers of death.

No matter how well-intentioned the ad might have been (for the sake of construing my neighbor’s actions in the kindest possible way), its actual message was counterproductive and contradictory at best. The ad’s association with the dominant ideology (which is, after the Ideology of Domination) conditions every element of the overt communication. That Ideology of Domination is readily associated with numerous causes and perspectives that reflect the Middle and reject the Edges.

Kristin Kobes Du Mez addresses this association at length in her award-winning book, Jesus and John Wayne: How White Evangelicals Corrupted a Faith and Fractured a Nation. I quote her at length:

Christian nationalism—the belief that America is God’s chosen nation and must be defended as such—serves as a powerful predictor of intolerance toward immigrants, racial minorities, and non-Christians. It is linked to opposition to gay rights and gun control, to support for harsher punishments for criminals, to justifications for the use of excessive force against black Americans in law enforcement situations, and to traditionalist gender ideology. (page 4).

This triumphalist ideology is so tightly stitched into most of the American Christian fabric that one hardly notices it any longer. And removing that lining from the American Christian garment is and will be difficult and painful.

I would plead, at least, that those of us who are heirs of the “theology of the cross” (aka historic Lutherans) might become familiar with what Hall and his colleagues describe as the “thin tradition.” It was Jurgen Moltmann who noted that this theology was known by at least some Christians but never much loved. After all, who wants to be part of a movement that embraces the sin and suffering, the despair and death, the frailties and failings of human beings – embraces all that with self-giving love and a trust that God works through our brokenness to give real life?

Obviously, not many –not even many Lutherans. “Historical Christianity – Christendom – has steadfastly avoided the theologia crucis because such a theology could only call into question the whole imperialistic bent of Christendom,” Hall writes. As long as triumphalist, imperialist, colonialist white Western Christianity was calling the shots, there was no need to change or even notice. Now is a time, Hall suggests, for a profound reconsideration.

“But now the possibility of such a reconsideration has become a grave necessity for there is no place in a world on the brink of self-destruction for a religion that is driven,” Hall concludes, “by the quest for power and glory, or even for survival” (page 7). Perhaps we Lutherans could become part of the solution rather than part of the problem by embracing this thin and little-loved tradition.

That means losing. That means relinquishing our privileged positions in the middle of everything. That means relinquishing power and property to those who have been cheated and robbed for so long (aka reparations). That means the cross is a real vocation rather than a cultural and political symbol. That means, Hall says, “the only way of saying yes to life in such a context is to discover, somehow, the courage that is needed to confront the culture’s repressed and therefore highly effective no. The theology of the cross is for Christians,” he asserts, “the most reliable expression of the Source of that courage.”

Sorry, Boss. The cross in the middle of everything isn’t in Kansas. It’s on a hill outside Jerusalem, in the hearts of people who love, and in the heart of the Creator of all.

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.

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

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.