Letter 13 — Philemon Fridays

Dear Phil,

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

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

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

Photo by Vinu00edcius Vieira ft on Pexels.com

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yours in Christ,

Low


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

[ii] DiAngelo, p.42.

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

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

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

[vi] See Galatians 3:28.

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

[viii] McCaulley, p. 114.

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

[x] Alexander, p. 302.

[xi] Alexander, p. 303.

What Jesus is Not — Saturday Sermon from the Sidelines

7 Pentecost B 2021; read Mark 6:14-29.

Today’s gospel reading should come with a content warning. We have graphic and explicit violence. We have visual depictions of torture and decapitation. We have misogynistic stereotypes and bias. We have, according to some interpreters, strong sexual content, including the sexualization of a minor. We have the use of a minor in the commission of homicide. We have alcohol consumption and abuse. And those are the warnings you might expect.

More than that, we witness a performance of toxic masculinity. We have rampant abuse of political power. We have a detailed description of elitist privilege. We have manipulation, court intrigue, deception, and stupidity. Public perception of power and position is a higher value than the preservation of a human life. People simply are pawns in one another’s prestige games.

Photo by Sides Imagery on Pexels.com

We witness the cynical operations of the domination system that kept Galileans under the Imperial Roman thumb. We see leaders who are craven, crass, crude, criminal, and cruel.

In short, we observe business as usual in the world of power, privilege, position, and property.

We conclude the reading by declaring that “this is the Gospel of the Lord.” We respond, perhaps with some confusion if we’re actually present and listening, “Thanks be to God?”

Why in the world does the writer of Mark’s gospel include this text in the “Good News of Jesus Christ, the Son of God”? And why in the world do we read this text in our public worship?

Herod is everything Jesus is not. That’s the point the writer of Mark’s gospel wants to make here. And that’s the point of our reflection together today. Herod is everything Jesus is not.

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

Because this is the main point, the current message is Part One of a two-part reflection. I know it’s summer in the Church in the northern hemisphere. Thinking that people will be in worship two Sundays in a row and paying enough attention to connect two Sunday’s worth of reflection is asking a lot in some quarters. But that’s the deal in Mark’s gospel.

I don’t write it, as they say, I only report it (well, you know what I mean).

The “Herod” in this account is Herod Antipas, one of the sons of Herod the Great. The use of the dynastic name, “Herod,” can cause confusion among readers of the text. We are not talking about the terrible tyrant of Matthew’s infancy stories who tries to manipulate the Magi and who orders the Slaughter of the Innocents. No, the “Herod” in Mark’s account is Herod Antipas.

Antipas was the man who wanted to be king but never got the chance. Certainly, one of the reasons the writer of Mark’s gospel uses the title of “king” for Antipas is to do some historical nose-tweaking of Antipas and his successors. Of course, as readers of the gospel account, we also know who the real King of the Jews is, and we shall see how that plays out in the later chapters of the gospel of Mark.

Herod is everything Jesus is not.

In our reading, we see what a weak pretender to the throne looks like in comparison with Jesus, the real King. This comparison foreshadows a similar contrast between Jesus and Pilate in the passion account in the Gospel of Mark. We also see the depths of human cruelty expressed in the careless privilege of the elites and the real risks involved when one is perceived as a threat to that privilege.

Mark chapter 6 contains “The Tale of Two Tables.” In this week’s reading, we witness the bloody birthday banquet in the palace of Antipas. Next week we get the Feeding of the Five Thousand in the wilderness. Well, we don’t really get the whole feeding story next week, but we will need to refer to it.

In any event, these seem to be companion texts, designed for edifying comparison and contrast. Herod dines. John dies. End of story. Jesus dies. We dine. Beginning of story. I don’t think the writer of Mark’s gospel missed this theological opportunity.

The table where cruelty is the point is offset and opposed by the table where service is the center. John the Baptizer is served up as a sacrifice to the casual cruelty of the powerful, the privileged, and the positioned. The bloody platter is a meal where death triumphs once again. Jesus prepares us to come to the table where he serves us with himself that we might have life in abundance.

Herod is everything Jesus is not.

The writer of Mark’s gospel is challenging disciples – then and now – to discern under which table we are putting our feet, the banquet table of Herod Antipas or the table of abundant life where Jesus is both the host and the meal.

It should be clear from the text of Mark’s gospel that this will inevitably be a political choice. It will be a choice between kings – the pretender and the Messiah. That choice faced the first listeners to Mark’s gospel, and it faces us as well.

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

“How might Jesus’ words inform a theology of political witness of the church?” Esau McCauley asks in Reading While Black. “Jesus shows that those Christians who have called out injustice are following in the footsteps of Jesus” (page 57).

Politics in the pulpit is not an irritant or an option. Indeed, it is required. When we affirm our baptismal covenants in the Rite of Confirmation, we promise to “…live among God’s faithful people; hear the word of God and share in the Lord’s Supper; proclaim the good news of God in Christ through word and deed; serve all people following the example of Jesus; and strive for justice and peace in all the earth.”

Unfortunately, many ELCA Lutherans get to about the halfway point of these vows and decide that half a loaf is better than none. Too often we white Christians are pretty much everything that Jesus is not.

Perhaps the most troubling aspect of this text for us today is that some of us seem to celebrate Herod’s style of “leadership” as the image of a “real leader.” Herod is craven, crass, crude, criminal, and cruel. He wants to rule everyone but cannot even govern himself.

That sounds to me like a description of numerous public leaders in the United States today – many of whom are celebrated by certain sectors of the Christian tribe.

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

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

Herod is everything Jesus is not.

When Truth confronts Power, the response is violent rage. We can see that in the character of Herodias in our text. We can see that as well in the characters of the Jerusalem elites who make sure that Jesus is silenced after he calls out the charade going on in Jerusalem and in the Temple. Such Truth-speakers have, on average, relatively short life spans – especially in authoritarian regimes.

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

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

Herod is everything Jesus is not.

Perhaps this is part of why John’s execution is in Mark’s account in such exquisite detail. We can kill in order to sustain self-serving superstition, or we can die in opposition to it. There’s a topic for discipleship discernment, eh?

What we learn is that Jesus is the compassionate shepherd – not the wolf in sheep’s clothing. Stay tuned for more next week.

Letters to Phil #10 — Philemon Fridays

Dear Phil,

You are quite right when you protest that I am using standards of judgment in your case that convict me and my time with equal certainty. You point out that you were in the first generation of Christians do deal with the revolution in social relationships called forth by the Good News of Jesus. You note that Christians in my time have the benefit and burden of two millennia and still have worked out very little.

If anything, Phil, we western, post-Enlightenment Christians have made many of the dimensions and dynamics of human enslavement far worse than they were in your time. We can agree, I think, that enslavement was both pervasive and systemic in your culture, as it has been in mind. “Rome was a slaveholding empire,” Jennifer Glancy writes, “No one who lived in the empire could avoid participating in its slave-dependent economy.”[i]

I assume that you agree with this description. As a result, the imperial enslavement system must have been regarded as both normal and necessary. “Slavery was so basic a structure in the ancient world,” Glancy writes, “that challenging it might have seemed as odd as asking why water was wet or ice cold.”[ii]

Photo by William Fortunato on Pexels.com

Enslavement in the imperial system “was how things got done,” Tom Wright notes. “It was the electricity of the ancient world; try imagining,” Wright continues, “your home or your town without the ability to plug things in and switch them on, and you will realize how unthinkable it was to them that there should be no slaves.”[iii]

I know the force of Wright’s illustration may be lost on you, but I’m sure you get the gist of his point. Would you agree that human enslavement was regarded as a normal and necessary feature undergirding the Roman imperial system? That’s certainly how it appears from my vantage point.

I rehearse what you know far better than I to set up my next acknowledgment. Chattel slavery was regarded as normal and necessary in the American system as well. The economic necessity built into the system can be demonstrated with hard numbers. On the eve of our American Civil War, “the nearly four million enslaved people were by far the country’s most valuable economic asset,” writes Clint Smith, “valued at approximately $3.5 billion, they were worth more than all of the country’s manufacturing and railroads combined.”[iv]

So, the number of enslaved people in our country in 1860 was comparable to half the population of the Roman Empire in your era. We know that enslaved people made up nearly half the population of Italy in your time, but the percentage of the population in such bondage was lower in most of the provinces. Approximately one in eight people in the United States was enslaved in 1860. And the economic impact of the products of enslave labor was felt in every corner of the American economy, not just in the south.

Unlike you, Phil, I live with an historical memory that is designed to protect the moral innocence and purity of “white” people. We Northern Americans are desperate to believe that we and our forebears are on “the right side of history” (whatever that means). It was, we tell ourselves, those wicked Confederates who were the enslavers and rebels. My ancestors didn’t own slaves, we tell ourselves. Therefore, I am not guilty and should not be “unjustly” accused of complicity in the horrors perpetrated by those on “the wrong side of history” (whatever that means). And I certainly should be expected to pay any costs associated with setting that history right.

If only it were that simple. As with the Roman empire, our American economy was founded and sustained on the backs and the graves of enslaved people. In our case, they were all Black. The economic dependence on the wealth wrapped up in enslaved Black bodies was so entrenched that former “slave states” have, to this day, not recovered from the economic shock that the end of enslavement produced. Those states remain the most impoverished states in our nation.

Of course, that economic reality is also rooted in efforts to sustain the enslavement system long after it was formally outlawed in this country. Wealthy, white landowners created an economic system that maintain their dependence on and control of low-cost Black labor. That system established a share-cropping arrangement which was often enslavement under the cover of law.

And, there was – and is – our system of incarceration which (under the Thirteenth Amendment to our federal constitution) allows enslavement to be applied to those who have been convicted and sentenced by our judicial system. It may not surprise you to learn that the great majority of those caught up in this system of incarceration are Black men.

My point, Phil, is that we Americans spent a couple of centuries creating a political, economic, and cultural system that was utterly dependent on the coerced and uncompensated labor of enslaved Black people. When that system was firmly in place, it was then perceived and described as the normal and necessary order of things. Disrupting that system meant rupturing the social fabric that had been stitched firmly together with threads made of Black skin.

It may be that Paul was unwilling to advocate such a social disruption in the Roman imperial system. Or, it may be that he calculated that the nascent Christian community was incapable of fomenting and then surviving such a cultural revolution. It may be that he finally thought it wasn’t worth the bother in light of Jesus’ hoped-for imminent return. What do you think led Paul to refrain from attacking this issue?

It may be that you, Phil, feared the costs of such an upheaval in your own household and community. I can tell you that in our time a lot of well-meaning people are in favor of significant change until they become aware of the social and personal price tag of such change. Then, it seems, all bets are off. Perhaps you granted manumission to Onesimus. But it’s clear that Christians didn’t bring about the abolition of enslavement in the Roman system. If anything, we Christians enhanced and encouraged it.

In the American system, there is another element which continues to be regarded (at least covertly) as both normal and necessary. That element is white supremacy. At its core, the American system asserts the supremacy of wealthy, white, male, landowning citizens above all. Others are to be in the service of that privileged, powerful, and propertied class.

White supremacy requires racism – the assertion and belief that human worth and dignity are tied directly to skin tone. Racism produces “race” – the construction of inferior Others who are identified and evaluation solely on the basis of skin tone. Race makes possible chattel slavery, segregation, and the hierarchical system that still organizes American society today.

Phil, I know you dealt with your own artificial hierarchies of gender, class, ethnic origin, and religion. So, I suspect you have some understanding of what I have described. It is clear that you earlier Christians tackled the real divisions in your communities. It’s also clear that you made some real progress in welcoming Gentiles into those communities of faith. That was Paul’s real target, and he focused on that target with an archer’s intensity.

In fact, it is that history of overcoming the Jew/Gentile boundary that continues to give some of us later Christians hope, inspiration, and guidance. Despite our sorry history in the past two millennia, we have been some artificial human boundaries assaulted. And in some limited cases, those boundaries do fall.

Women have been (re)admitted to formal church leadership – something your generation embraced but which was retracted in the following generations. Language, gender orientation and identity, class – all these have been dismantled at some times and in some measure. After all, we know that God shows no partiality, even though we do.

Yet, as many of our writers note, for every step forward in the progress toward authentic human community, there is often an equal and opposite step back into oppression and exploitation. Blessed Paul reminded us that our battle really is against the principalities and powers that seek to take life and spread darkness. Thus, we have not “arrived” in the New Creation now any more than you did.

Thanks for indulging me in this wandering wondering, Phil. I look forward to your next note.

Yours in Christ,

Low


[i] Glancy, Slavery as Moral Problem, Kindle Location 15.

[ii] Ibid, Kindle Location 516.

[iii] Wright, Paul and the Faithfulness of God, page 32.

[iv] Clint Smith, The Word is Passed, Kindle Location 3116.

White Pastoral Poverty

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

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

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

Photo by Alex Green on Pexels.com

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

White Male Markers

Millions of Texans went without electricity, heat, and water for hours and sometimes for days over the past week. Half a million are still without utilities, and thirteen million people are under a water boil order for the near future. In the meantime, Texas energy companies are making big bucks. “This week is like hitting the jackpot with some of these incredible prices,” according to Comstock Resources, Inc. CEO, Roland Burns.

Comstock is owned by Dallas entrepreneur and sports team owner, Jerry Jones – poster boy for white, male power, privilege and position. Stock prices for energy companies have skyrocketed while government officials blame each other for the clear failures in policy and preparation that resulted in four dozen deaths, huge physical suffering, and likely billions in property damage.

Photo by Amir Esrafili on Pexels.com

During the worst hours of the disaster, Colorado City (Texas) mayor Tim Boyd took to Facebook to make his feelings known in a since-deleted post. Boyd declared that the government is not responsible for the welfare of people who are too lazy to take care of themselves. Socialist government and bad raising, according to Boyd, have conspired to produce the situation folks in Texas now face.

All that was missing from Boyd’s post was a quote from Ebenezer Scrooge, that the foolish freezing folks should hurry up and die to reduce the surplus population.

Later Boyd issued an apology and announced his resignation. Even though he composed the entire post, and it was quoted in its entirety by news sources, he protested that it was “taken out of context.” He wished that he had chosen “better wording” (whatever that might be for such an arrogant and disgusting screed) and thought more clearly about his comments. He complains that he and his family have suffered from anger and harassment as a result of the post. And he concludes by noting that he is now a private citizen and should just be left alone.

Finally, this week we learned of the death of Rush Limbaugh from cancer at age 70. Limbaugh was the first to take full advantage of the Reagan cancellation of the Fairness Doctrine and to turn cable news into cable bullshit. I use that term in the way that Harry Frankfurt uses it in his little book On Bullshit.

Limbaugh raised the disregard of truth to a high art. He was one of the first to realize that truth is not even relevant in most current conversations. Provocation is power. Facts are a waste of time. Limbaugh was offensive, abusive, misogynist, racist, and fascist in his comments. Worst of all, he simply did it for the money, not for any principles. I am not dancing on Limbaugh’s grave. I simply report what he himself said about himself on numerous occasions.

The cavalcade of white, male supremacy continues on, even if the Marmalade Misanthrope no longer occupies the White House or has his Twitter account. It’s not a man – it’s a system. It’s a system that produces so much idiocy that I can’t even get to the Ted Cruise to Cancun or the Terry Bumstead interview that continues to make me think that he has years of dementia already behind him. White male supremacy is an inexhaustible font of foolish hypocrisy and wealthy stupidity that would be hilarious if it didn’t kill people by the thousands daily.

As this all unfolds, I’ve been reading Native, by Kaitlin Curtice. It is, among other things, a poetic summary of the nature of Whiteness and thus a commentary on events every week – not just this one. So, for my own edification, I will share some of the necessary face-slaps I have received while reading.

What whiteness cannot enslave, whiteness erases. That is not a political or ideological or theological argument. It is rather, an historical observation. This observation is for me, of course, more in the category of the privileged white male fish discovering the ocean of whiteness and maleness and privilege in which he’s been swimming for a lifetime and more. I’m late to the game and will spend the rest of this life catching up.

“A thread runs through the history of America,” Kaitlin Curtice writes in Native,

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

And we see it in spoiled food, broken pipes, contaminated water, and the bodies of the homeless in the streets of Texas cities.

Whiteness enslaved Black people in order to crush the life out of them like grapes and sell the juice of their labor. When that was no longer the legal system, whiteness erased Black people from the political process, from the accumulation of wealth, from quality housing, from good schools, from white churches, from our stories, and from the pages of the history white people teach, remember, and celebrate. Whiteness continues that process of erasure daily.

“Whiteness is a culture that requires the erasure of all others,” Curtice continues later in her book,

considering them less-than. It is believing in that well-known metaphor of a melting pot that we so love to hold on to in America, but erasing the value of the lives of the “other” within the narrative and in the process presenting the idea of assimilation as virtue. But really, assimilation is about power, power that puts shackles on Black people, Indigenous people, and other people of color” (Native, page 45).

Whiteness has an ironic and contradictory relationship with all that is not white. On the one hand, whiteness removes all that which is not white and will not become white. On the other hand, whiteness needs the Other as the “Inferior” in order to fund what James Baldwin called the “White wage.” That wage is basically, “I may not be much, but at least I’m better than someone.” Domination in the end is a perverse dependency of Whiteness on all that is not white. That perversity harms all but the most privileged of white people along with all others.

Whiteness erases Indigenous people from the land, from power, from their stories, from their cultures, and from life. Indigenous people were not seen as “usable,” so they were then seen as “disposable.” A continent was “discovered.” Land was seen as “empty” – even if the first inhabitants had to be forcibly removed by genocide and trails of terror and tears. Culture was cut off along with hair, and language was forgotten along with oppression. The imperative was to clear out of the way, assimilate to whiteness and/or die.

White people are portrayed as adventurers and explorers who “discover” a place for the first time. The land is “uninhabited” and needs to be “developed.” In fact, white people are colonizers of spaces that must be stolen before they can be possessed. The environment must be rendered friendly to capitalist exploitation and white male supremacy. That re-formatting of the place is deadly for those who were there first. And it is highly profitable to those who continue to “own” what lies under the stolen land in places like Texas.

Land and plants and animals and people are commodities to be measured and mined, sliced and diced, packaged and sold. “We lose the ability to see things clearly when colonization sets in,” Curtice writes. “We are clouded with dreams of economy and market value, and we forget that the land is still speaking, that the forgotten are still here, and that white supremacy does not have the last word” (Native, page 33). But while it speaks, people still suffer and die.

Because this story is so familiar, so comfortable, and so well-designed for the desires of white, male supremacy, we who benefit most are privileged to believe and act as if the story describes “Reality.” We can tell ourselves stories about colonization and settling, about heroic pioneers and fantastic frontiers, about rugged individuals and bold entrepreneurs. In the telling we don’t notice (and don’t want to notice) the people who suffer and die as a result, the communities that are devastated and destroyed as a result, the planet that rebels at our irresponsibility as a result.

I wish that my Christianity had been part of the solution over the last five hundred years, but I know better. “Settler colonial Christianity is a religion that takes, that demeans the earth and the oppressed, and that holds people in these systems without regard for how Jesus treated people,” notes Kaitlin Curtice. “So to be part of a colonizing religion, I have to constantly ask, Who am I following?” (Native, pages 35-36).

As we prepare to read next Sunday about the cost of discipleship, that question faces us Christians with painful urgency.

Jesus “called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, ‘If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it. For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life? Indeed, what can they give in return for their life?” (Mark 8:34-37, NRSV).

White, male supremacy, using the tools of unfettered individualistic robber baron capitalism, is always trying to find out what it will “profit them.” In this Lenten season, we who desire to follow Jesus are challenged to actually try that path and see where the life really is.

More on Native in future posts, I’m sure.

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.

Photo by Francesco Ungaro on Pexels.com

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.

Poor Babies — Rich Fools

A rich young man came to Jesus, wanting to know how to be part of Jesus’ program. He protested his righteousness. He kept all the laws with vigor and precision. He was worthy of applause. Jesus looked at him and loved him, poor self-deluded soul. “You lack one thing,” Jesus said, “go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.” We read in Mark 10:22 that he went away bitterly disappointed, “for he had many possessions.

The news reports bring us the testimony of another aggrieved rich man. Billionaire hedge fund manager Leon Cooperman took to CNBC to complain about the GameStop short squeeze debacle. Cooperman is CEO of The Omega Advisors. According to the Daily Mail, he was convicted of insider trading in 2016. Cooperman was a guest on CNBC’s Fast Money: Halftime Report. He blasted a group of amateur investors that banded together, primarily through a group on Reddit, to buy and hold GameStop stock.

Photo by Suzy Hazelwood on Pexels.com

The result has been a combination of chaos and comeuppance for several hedge funds and their managers. According to Cooperman, it’s all the fault of those people who don’t belong in the halls of economic power and privilege. So, he vented his frustration to what he thought was a sympathetic audience. The bemused slap back online and in print was immediate.

“So yeah, the hedge fund managers are pissed and when they get pissed they rip out their Bloomberg terminals and throw them through the wall of their $27 million penthouses and then yell for their maids to come clean everything up and also to make them a sandwich,” Bess Levin writes in Vanity Fair. “Alternatively, they go on CNBC to complain that this is bullshit and unfair and not the way any of this is supposed to work.”

Levin quotes Cooperman’s concluding rant to demonstrate her point. “The reason the market is doing what it’s doing,” Cooperman yelled at the interviewer, “is people are sitting at home getting their checks from the government, okay, and this fair share is a bullshit concept.” One could have almost expected tears and a floor-rolling tantrum at this point. “It’s just a way of attacking wealthy people,” he shouted. “It’s inappropriate and we all gotta work together and pull together.”

Who, precisely, is this “we” of which Cooperman is a member?

This is another way into the system of White Male Supremacy – the power and privilege, the wealth and whining, that is foundational to this system. One of the essential marks of that system is the absolute imperative to keep the Insiders Club small, male, and white.

A fundamental part of this white identity is to limit the pool of the potentially privileged and to shrink that pool whenever possible. Any attempts to expand, to democratize, that pool is resisted and regarded as an alien invasion. The system that seeks to limit access to the arcana of the stock market is the same system that seeks to shrink voter rolls in order to sustain the power of the actually privileged.

Worse yet, what is exposed is the entitlement mentality of the white male insiders. Those giggling, goofy day traders on Reddit – they don’t “deserve” to be part of the system. They aren’t qualified and shouldn’t be allowed. They are part of the “unworthy poor” upon whom every system of privilege is built. The only thing that makes the poor unworthy is their poverty. So, the system, of necessity, must keep them poor to keep them unqualified to participate.

In her excellent book, Damnation Island, Stacy Horn quotes the journalist, Junius Henri Browne in 1869: “Poverty,” Browne wrote, “is the only crime society cannot forgive.” Now, it’s not that the GameStop gang were all eating out of dumpsters, but they were hardly in Cooperman’s class. They could not be forgiven their “not rich” status and committed the unforgivable sin of invading the provinces of the privileged.

When power is distributed, the privileged experience that equalized equity as loss. Thus we have this hilarious spectacle of aggrieved whining which Cooperman displayed on behalf of his class. One of the things revealed in this display is the infantile lack of resilience on the part of those coddled and swaddled in the receiving blankets of privilege and power. We see that same infantile behavior in the halls of Congress – whether on the part of insurrectionist invaders or on the part of the QAnon crazies.

We know that Junius Henri Browne was quite wrong in his itemizing of unforgivable crimes. In the system of White Male Supremacy, being Black, Brown, or Asian is also unforgivable and beyond repair. As those made “unworthy” by the system of White Male Supremacy have invaded the provinces of racial privilege, the response has always been swift and violent.

The real powers in this system are a small group of white men who, since the 1660’s, have persuaded impoverished white men that race is a more important marker of privilege than class. So, the actual privileged have used the potentially privileged to police the unworthy and prevent them from escaping bondage and accessing power.

When the unworthy find ways around the system – such as using the rules of the system to punish the powerful – the insiders cry foul. At such moments, the irrational stupidity of the system and its beneficiaries becomes transparent. Leon Cooperman was simply performing a role in that system. If he weren’t so godawful arrogant and willfully blind, one could almost feel a tiny bit sorry for him.

No, not really.

All of us beneficiaries of the system know how it works – especially we who are white, male, and “not poor.” We have pretended not to know for centuries, because it benefits us. Once in a while the blinders are lifted a bit. Now is one of those times.

Whether the GameStop incursion is entertainment, opportunism, or economic rebellion is not so important to me. It is another revelation that the system, as Ijeoma Oluo notes, “works according to design” – most of the time. When it doesn’t, there’s a lot of privileged squealing. The question is whether this peak behind the curtain will produce any real change in the system or the players.

We’ll see. But I’m not optimistic.

Neither is Jesus. “Children, how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God!” Jesus observes. “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.” I’m not all that worried about Mr. Cooperman’s eternal fate. I trust God for that. But I don’t expect him to have some personal epiphany in the next few days that might change anything in his world.

Yet, I’m hopeful against hope that the System can be resisted. “For mortals it is impossible, but not for God,” Jesus concludes in Mark 10:27, “for God all things are possible.

I don’t know what that means in this case, but I hope it’s true.

I don’t know what that means in this case, but I hope it’s true.

Weathering the Whitelash

Today I am grateful for my colleagues in congregational leadership who are bravely leading their congregations out of Jim Crow Christianity and into the light of real discipleship. The verdict has not yet been returned, of course, in many white Christian congregations. Which “JC” will we choose – Jim Crow, or Jesus Christ?

Dr. King noted that our Christian worship services represent the most segregated hours in American life. That was true when he said it sixty years ago, and it is still true now. In many parts of this country, that segregation has worsened rather than improved. We continue to harvest that bitter crop week in and week out as Christians remain divided by the color line.

Photo by Alex Conchillos on Pexels.com

“White Christian churches have not just been complacent; they have not only been complicit, writes Robert P. Jones in White Too Long, “rather, as the dominant cultural power in America, they have been responsible for constructing and sustaining a project to protect white supremacy and resist black equality. This project has framed the entire American story” (page 6). Jones wonders, as James Baldwin asserts, whether some of us Jim Crow Christians have been “white too long” to do anything different.

That’s not a matter for past history but rather for current policy and practice. “Even after the last white American who grew up in Jim Crow America has died, the legacy of white supremacy will survive because, after hundreds of years of nurturing and reinforcement, it has become part of our culture and institutions, Jones notes. “Sometimes it lies dormant, but until it is excised, it remains potentially active in overt and subtle ways” (page 224). This legacy is active and overt in the voice mail and email boxes of a number of white mainline parish pastors today.

I can hear between the words of sermons in the past few weeks (and sometimes quite clearly) that a number of mainline pastors have been hammered for expressing their honest scriptural and theological views of the events of January 6th, 2021, and related realities. They are experiencing what some writers now label as the “whitelash” – the aggressive response by the system of white, male, supremacy to any public challenge.

Some of my colleagues have been cancelled by local media and other platforms. Some have been threatened, covertly or overtly, with removal from their pulpits. Some have been accused of making their congregations and worship services “unsafe” for what is either veiled or open white supremacy.

This last bit is just the church-ified version of calls for political “unity” and for “moving on” from sedition. This “nothing to see here” perspective assumes that racial justice talk in the Church is new, suspect, and likely heretical. That is hardly the case. Mainline preachers know that many of us have censored ourselves for years, decades, centuries, in deference to a particular structure and expression of white, male, hegemony in our churches. The change is that some of our pastoral leaders can no longer keep silent.

Some white preachers have spent lifetimes of un-safety while the white, male, supremacists have ruled without question. I found that every week I needed to weigh something I would say against whether it would generate dissatisfaction that might lead to complaints and ultimately removal. I confess with shame that in most cases I excised or soft-pedaled or camouflaged the “objectionable” parts of the message so my voice mail and email would remain relatively untroubled. I am in some measure of awe at those active white preachers who choose the path of courage at this moment.

I can hear, as well, between the words of those who cannot or will not take the risk. There is the studied avoidance of any mention of racial justice, repentance, and repair. There is the focus on the disruptions caused by the pandemic. Those disruptions are very real for the vulnerable (most of whom are Black and people of color and women), but for many of us those disruptions are simply minor inconveniences. The Pandemic and the normal flow of everyday difficulties provide more than enough cover, however, for those of us who would really rather change the subject when it comes to race.

Many white preachers experience congregational ministry to some degree as a hostage situation. The hostage takers still seek to maintain control, but that control is slipping. So, they feel “unsafe.” For the privileged, however, equity always feels like a loss. For the privileged, however, sharing power always feels like a loss. For the privileged, however, equal protection and opportunity and access, always feels like a loss. The Good News of Jesus Christ always makes power, privilege, and position feel unsafe. You don’t get crucified by the state for being too nice to people.

Some members will leave our Jim Crow congregations as a result of honest and courageous preaching. Some of them will make a dramatic exit in order to punish the offending preacher. Those folks will find a “safe” space. There are lots of Jim Crow Christian congregations and preachers happy to embrace them and their money.

The Church has spent centuries underwriting white supremacy. In fact, we had a large hand in inventing it. Rejecting and abandoning that role will not be easy or pain-free. But we must be communities of conscience, not of comfort. “In short,” Jennifer Harvey writes in Dear White Christians, “transformation will come when white people hear well enough that we actually get it and realize that moving to anywhere new will require letting it cost us something” (page 236).

One protest will be that this is not a “loving” response. I think of the rich young man who comes to Jesus in Mark’s gospel. Jesus looks at him and loves him. Then Jesus tells him to sell all he has, give the money to the poor, and to come and follow Jesus. Then he will have treasure in heaven. The man goes away sad because he’s unwilling to part with his possessions. Jesus doesn’t stop him. And he doesn’t stop loving him. Those actions are not contradictory but rather are two sides of the same coin.

This is hard for some people, and some pastors, to take in. We mainline pastors have been “therapeutized” over the last fifty years or so. Our increasingly secular culture can’t figure what in the world we are good for as theologians. So, the culture has given us the only role that makes sense – spiritual counselor. We pastors have willingly accepted that role because it’s good to do something the world sees as useful.

As we have become more therapeutic, we have lost our public voices. People see us almost exclusively as comforters and counselors. When we step out of those roles, people are often confused. If counseling is our primary role – making people feel better about themselves and their lives – then every hard word is experienced as an error or a failure. In Lutheran terms, we have abandoned the “Law” part of the “Law/Gospel dialectic.” Unfortunately, when the Law goes, so does the Gospel.

The whitelash falls, in my estimation, disproportionately on mainline women pastors. By definition, these pastors are suspect in systems of white, male, supremacy. Add to that the demand that women always are to be nurturing, comforting and quiet. The white, male, supremacist stew becomes triply toxic. Many women pastors serve small to medium sized parishes. These are highly relational and easily dominated by a few families with money. Thus, the hostage-holding power of these households is multiplied and magnified.

When all else fails, in my estimation, there is the weaponizing of white women’s tears. If push comes to shove, one of the matriarchs shows up in my study to weep about how hard things are and how mean I am as a pastor. The males in that system are honor bound to defend the women and avenge the offense. It’s the trump card which is often played in church council and congregational meetings to devastating effect.

I don’t know if the white mainline churches will be able to weather the Whitelash of the present moment. When the whole armor of white, male, supremacy lands on a parish pastor, it’s often time to move on. If it happens enough times to enough pastors, they will find their way to early retirement and/or alternate employment. And the system of Jim Crow Christianity will be sustained and reinforced.

Abandoning our Jim Crow Christianity and embracing Jesus Christ requires self-examination and confession. It requires repentance and repair. That’s hard and painful work, but it beats going away sad and unchanged.

So, pastoral leaders, I’m praying for you today – for you to have energy and hope, courage and calm, perspective and perseverance. I’m grateful that you aren’t giving up. We need your leadership and love. And there are still thousands of knees unbowed to the Baal of Jim Crow Christianity (let the reader understand…).

Harvey, Jennifer. Dear White Christians (Prophetic Christianity Series (PC)). Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.. Kindle Edition.

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

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.