The Common Sense of White Male Supremacy

I want to refer you to a January 14 article by Elana Schor for the Associated Press and carried by Religion News Service: “Anti-Semitism seen in Capitol attack raises alarms.” In the article Schor reports on the presence of anti-Semitic activists, symbols and expressions in the lynch mob that invaded the Capitol building on January 6, 2021. She notes that “the Miller Center for Community Protection and Resilience at Rutgers University-New Brunswick and the Network Contagion Research Institute released a report that identified at least half a dozen neo-Nazi or white supremacist groups involved in the insurrection.”

As I noted the presence of these groups, symbols and expressions of anti-Semitic hatred and violence during the January 6 attack, I knew that I needed to return to a seminal book for deeper understanding. Hitler’s Willing Executioners: Ordinary Germans and the Holocaust, by Daniel Jonah Goldhagen, details how ordinary Germans supported and participated in the Holocaust by choice rather than coercion. I will walk through that book in detail in my next “Throwback Thursday Books” post. For now, I want to look at just one aspect of Goldhagen’s work.

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From the beginning of the nineteenth century,” he writes, “antisemitism was ubiquitous in Germany. It was its ‘common sense’” (page 77). It is easy to forget that reality, if one ever knew it at all (although we Lutherans should never, ever forget it and our part in that). Antisemitism was a central organizing principle of German social and political life from the Middle Ages to the middle of the twentieth century. It morphed, as Goldhagen describes, from an assimilationist perspective to an “eliminationist” program in large part following the “emancipation” of Jews in Germany after 1848.

Assimilation was a sort of cultural elimination, since the idea was that Jews would gradually become European Christians and thus evaporate. “Built into emancipation itself—an emancipation that proceeded upon a cultural model of Jews derived from hostile Christianity—was the belief that Jews would disappear,” Goldhagen writes, “since Jews refused to do so, the false promises of emancipation created all but a structural guarantee that antisemitism would develop new virulence…” (page 78). When Jews refused to disappear “naturally,” the next step was to make them disappear systematically.

Elimination was just what it sounds like – programmatic extermination. This is what Goldhagen describes as the “common sense” of nineteenth and twentieth century German culture. It was unnecessary for the Nazis to invent German antisemitism or to infuse it with a genocidal impulse. It was only necessary for Hitler to energize and enact the common sense which was already there.

The intersection of Goldhagen’s book and the Capitol insurrection raises several terrifying thoughts for me.

The first is that antisemitism does not come and go. It hibernates. Goldhagen notes that the explicitly anti-Semitic political parties in Germany in the late 1800’s ceased to exist, not because antisemitism was rejected, but rather because it became a part of the mainstream political platforms. Thus, the fringe parties were no longer necessary. “Again, this meant not that antisemitism was dissipating,” Goldhagen notes, “but that it was merely less articulated and therefore partly disappeared from view. It would erupt again with great force only a few years hence” (page 76).

Who needs fringe political parties in our system when virulent racism walks into the halls of local, state and federal government on a daily basis?

Goldhagen’s work reminds me that antisemitism, like white male supremacy, is a dual process phenomenon. The “emancipation” of Jews (a stunning connection to America in the same period) was met with a virulent revival of antisemitic rhetoric, behavior, literature, politics, and violence. Modest moves toward toleration were met with the full development of eliminationist theory and practice. The primary reason that a full-blown genocide did not occur sooner was that Germans were distracted by the run-up to World War I.

Antisemitism was a dormant fuel needing only the right conditions to burst into full flame. Those conditions in Germany were the economic and social collapse following the First World War, and the rise of Nazi grievance culture in response to the defeat and devastation.

All that was needed was a bunch of angry white men who were sure they had been robbed of what was rightfully theirs. All it took was a culture certain that they were entitled to dominate and to root out the Other who stood in their way. All it took was an Other who could be blamed for all that was wrong in individual lives and in the lives of the aggrieved collective.

That’s all it took then…and now.

“It is thus incontestable that the fundamentals of Nazi antisemitism, the antisemitic brew that spawned Nazi thinking about the Jews, had deep roots in Germany, was part of the cultural cognitive model of German society, and was integral to German political culture,” Goldhagen concludes, “It is incontestable that racial antisemitism was the salient form of antisemitism in Germany and that it was broadly part of the public conversation of German society” (pages 74-75). It was not only common sense. To suggest any other way of looking at the world was to be a radical, a subversive, a communist(!), and an enemy of the Volk and the state.

We should be clear that this continues to be common sense for a number of our neighbors. Varieties and degrees of antisemitism participate in our Christian worship services weekly. Not only is antisemitism its own form of cultural cancer, but it also fits neatly into the larger framework of white male supremacy on display among us.

What leads a large number of people to find the violence of January 6 to be a credible, reasonable, and coherent set of actions, worthy of extended reflection and planning?

While there is plenty of the deranged, demented, and demonic in that crowd, that’s not sufficient for our understanding. For most Americans for most of our history, white male supremacy has been “common sense.” Hard as that might be for some of us white men to absorb, it is true. Identifying, resisting, and seeking to dismantle that common sense is the innovation. Suggesting that no one is entitled to power, privilege, and position simply based on gender and skin tone is the novelty. Common sense may slip below the surface at times, but all it takes is a combination of change and demagoguery for it to explode into potency.

We can diagnose this for antisemitism, in part, because everything old is new again. According to Schor’s report, “Eric Ward, executive director of the progressive anti-discrimination group Western States Center, linked the far-right conspiracy theory QAnon, adherents of which were at the forefront of the insurrection, to the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, the infamous 20th-century screed that falsely claimed Jews were colluding to take over the world.” This is the basis for a deranged white man attacking a New Jersey pizza parlor in search of Hillary Clinton and her ring of pedophiliacs a few years ago.

In much the same way, the white male supremacists at the heart of the January 6 lynch mob rely on the Turner Diaries as their bible and handbook for their own eliminationist fantasies. The Turner Diaries and related documents lead in the end to a worldwide campaign to eliminate every nonwhite human being from the planet in order to achieve “peace.” Goldhagen’s work provides the chilling German parallel. “Modern German anti-Semites,” he writes, “unlike their medieval forebears, could say that there would be no peace on earth until the Jews were destroyed” (page 77).

As a Christian, I must ask myself and my fellow Jesus followers, what do we regard as “common sense”? That takes work and help from outsiders, since most common sense is about as visible to us as the air we breathe. Jewish interpreters of Scripture help us to see that many of our founding documents and certainly our interpretations of them are profoundly antisemitic. There are some New Testament texts that I can no longer read in public worship for that reason and others which require extended explanation and caution if they are to be used.

That reticence is regarded by some Christians as heterodox, but I read somewhere that “you shall know them by their fruits.”

The natural and rightful hegemony of white, male Christianity is regarded as common sense. It’s obvious on the face of things that we continue to regard white male supremacy in and out of the church as “common sense.” Just try to challenge the assumptions of that view in most white Christian congregations, and the proof will be quick in appearing. In the best of times, we white Christians will talk about anything else – even politics, sex, or money – rather than to talk about racism and antiracism. In most places we can’t even call this conversation “antiracist” because that’s too confrontational.

Of course, during The Pandemic we have the perfect distraction to keep us from thinking about what it would mean to be Dr. King’s “Beloved Community.” We have the ideal excuse to focus obsessively on a whole series of white-privilege problems and to ignore a host of underlying issues. We assure ourselves that God is merely “with us” in our difficulties and ignore the possibility that God might be longing for us to repent and grow as a result of our struggles.

We treat the necessary connection between whiteness and Christianity as common sense. We treat the capitalist invisible hand of the market as common sense. We treat the potential for armed violence in order to stand our ground as common sense. We treat the right to take what we want from others and from the earth as common sense. Is it any wonder that moves toward justice, peace, sustainability, and equity are treated as subversive and “communist”?

I’ll have more on Goldhagen’s book in my post next Thursday. But this was too much on my heart and mind to wait for that.

If 1850 Comes Again, We’ll be Ready

Presidents of the six Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) seminaries have issued a statement rejecting Critical Race Theory (CRT) as antithetical to Baptist Christian faith and doctrine. The seminary leaders met together recently to affirm the doctrinal and confessional status of the “Baptist Faith and Message 2000,” a document that, according to the statement, “unites and defines Southern Baptist cooperation and establishes the confessional unity of our Convention.”

Notable in this statement was the direct and unequivocal rejection of “Critical Race Theory, Intersectionality and any version of Critical Theory” as “incompatible with the Baptist Faith & Message.” The report of the SBC house organ, Baptist Press, can be found here along with the full text of the statement. Particularly objectionable to at least some of the presidents was the association of CRT with Marxist analysis. The presidents associate Marxist analysis with atheism and rule it categorically out of bounds for Baptist Christians. Yonat Shimron reports for Religion News Service on the details of the statement.

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CRT developed out of critical legal studies and, most notably, the founding work of Derrick Bell. CRT has five “tenets”: counter-storytelling; the permanence of racism; Whiteness as property; interest conversion; and the critique of liberalism. I have found a series of youtube.com videos to be the most effective and concise description and application of CRT. The videos are entitled, “What is Critical Race Theory…Really?” Click on the title to get the first session and go from there.

The SBC presidents land, as do many other critics, on the last tenet as the most problematic. CRT offers a cogent and cutting critique of political liberalism (not to be confused with “liberal” in the current partisan sense) as a system that promotes hierarchy under the guise of equality of opportunity. More to the point, this critique calls into question the role of western capitalism as the source, partner, and beneficiary of race-based chattel slavery, beginning in the 1500’s. Marxist class analysis plays a role in this critique as a tool, but not as an ideology. So, for my money that criticism of CRT is a red herring.

Instead, we can apply the “white evangelical cultural tool kit,” as described by Robert P. Jones in White Too Long to the SBC statement for a clearer understanding. It’s helpful to rely on Jones for this since he grew up in the SBC and spends a large part of his book assessing the racist history, legacy and continuing policy of the denomination.

Jones relies on the work of Emerson and Smith (2000) for the identification and description of the white evangelical tool kit. “Specifically, Emerson and Smith discovered that the white evangelical cultural tool kit contained three main tools that are all interconnected by theology,” Jones writes, “freewill individualism, relationalism, and antistructuralism.” (page 97).

In sum, freewill individualism asserts that there are no structures and institutions, no larger social movements, no cultural or social constraints, nothing bigger which controls or influences individuals. People are responsible for their own situations and accountable for their own freely chosen actions. Relationalism builds on this by asserting that poor relationships between individuals are the root of all problems rather than any systems or institutions.

Antistructuralism, then, is the necessary result of the first two tools. It “denotes the deep suspicion with which white evangelicals view institutional explanations for social problems, principally because they believe invoking social structures shifts blame from where it belongs: with sinful individuals” (page 98).

CRT demonstrates the role that communal realities play in determining individual behaviors. It sees systems and institutions as embodying and underwriting racism in our society. It describes “whiteness” as a role people are trained to perform and then claim as inherent to themselves. And it sees the individualistic bent of liberalism as a tool for those in power to maintain their privilege and position. In Christian terms, we are in bondage to sin and cannot free ourselves.

What strikes me is that the SBC arguments have the same odor as theological pronouncements made at the founding of the denomination in the 1850’s. Jones describes that theological history in precise detail. The SBC was founded in the fervent belief that Christian theology supported and even required race-based chattel slavery. For the representatives of that denomination now to attack a theoretical framework that continues the anti-slavery fight is just too rich for words.

It’s so easy, for me as an ELCA Lutheran, to throw stones at the SBC folks. That’s not my biggest concern. Instead, I am deeply troubled by a sentence from White Too Long. “Over the last two decades,” Jones notes, “there is increasing evidence that this cultural tool kit, developed primarily in the context of white evangelicalism, has become embedded across white Christianity more generally” (page 98). He notes that the three parts of the white evangelical tool kit have become embedded in large parts of white American Christianity in general.

In the mid-1800’s, old line Protestant denominations in the North were, I think, quite content to allow their southern counterparts to do the theological heavy lifting when it came to the scriptural and doctrinal underpinnings of Christian white supremacy. This had the virtue of allowing the northerners to continue occupy the moral high ground without sacrificing any social, economic or political power. Even many abolitionists in the North were white supremacists in their social theory and theology.

That has not changed for 150 years. Northern white churches did not, for the most part, release attack dogs to keep blacks out of their buildings and services. But the effect was equally as powerful. The documentary, A Time for Burning, demonstrates how that worked among LCA Lutherans here in Omaha in the mid-1960’s. Lest you think I am again name-calling, ALC Lutherans were even less engaged in the issues.

After that time, white flight and de facto segregation solidified the process to the point that white Lutherans in most of the Omaha metro don’t have to think about race (or ethnicity or poverty or class) ever — unless it happens to pop up in unflattering terms in the local paper. Richard Rothstein’s The Color of Law is a powerful report on how that has worked out every in this country. It is, with notable exceptions in some of our east Omaha ELCA congregations, a chapter of history left unnoticed and un-discussed.

CRT challenges the assumptions of the white evangelical tool box. That’s a good thing. CRT is much closer to the analysis we find in the prophets and in the Sermon on the Mount than anything we might find in the Baptist Faith and Message or in most mission statements of ELCA congregations. It won’t happen, but I do wish that our denominational leadership would state publicly that CRT is not contrary to Lutheran theology and social teaching.

After all, if you want to find a critic of capitalism, you need look no further than Martin Luther. He was no friend of rich people and no naïve advocate for greed. Of course, that element of Luther’s writing is typically suppressed. I did not hear about it in my seminary training and was surprised to discover it later on in life. So, our Lutheran theological heritage has resources to analyze and critique modern (neo)liberalism, if only we put them to use in order to attack our own institutional racism and reject our capitalistic understandings of mission and service.

The alternative is to hope that 1850 comes around again. Because if it does, boy howdy, are we ever ready!

Reference: Jones, Robert P.. White Too Long: The Legacy of White Supremacy in American Christianity Simon & Schuster. Kindle Edition.