By Matthew Burdette
A cycle occurs whenever there is a significant event involving race in America. The most recent event is the violence that erupted in Charlottesville between those gathered for a white supremacist rally and counter-protesters. The cycle is as follows. There are op-ed pieces by notables like Michael Eric Dyson, and follow-up rallies for solidarity, largely comprising white liberals who are overcome by a sense of dismay, anger, fear, and doubt about what to do. A deluge of opinions appears on social media and blogs. The story dominates the 24-hour news cycle. If you are black, white friends will come to you with their concern, feelings of guilt and powerlessness, or hope for validation as a non-racist.
Some of this cycle is necessary, cathartic, and inoffensive. However, our goal must be to break free from this pattern of reaction. I believe the first step is to commit to long-term strategies, rather than have our actions dictated by the urgency of the moment. As Slavoj Žižek put it, it is time to think and not act. To that end, in no particular order, these are my thoughts about what it might take for Christians and the Church to break from this cycle.
- Recover a narrative of universal history and struggle
The Scriptures provide pedagogy in the truth that God is one and that everything else is his creature. When this pedagogy is explicitly political, it teaches us that the nations are preoccupied with becoming God, building monuments to their greatness and expanding their empires. The Scriptures teach us that every attempt to erect such false identities is violent and self-defeating, a failure from the start, because people will only find true humanity and identity in Israel and her Christ: “Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people” (1 Pet. 2:10).
Whiteness is a fictional identity. It does not exist. White is the identity some people invented for the citizens of their economic-military-cultural empire. Whiteness was invented by the slave-owning class to divide a working class against itself, offering one portion of the working class a delusion of superiority; it is rightly called “a protection racket.” The Scriptures teach that we must receive our identities from Christ alone. My suggestion — and I am not kidding — is that phenotypically white-skinned people stop identifying as white. Disavow white identity and its privileges. Take your place in the struggle and history of creation, not a market-military-culture empire.
- Observe and discipline speech, 1: Progress
Douglas Knight is right: the defining belief of the “modern” age is the belief that everyone who came before us was stupid. Especially regarding race, this belief is naïve and offensive. This belief looks like surprise when Trump fails to condemn white supremacy, or surprise when there is a gathering of white supremacists in Virginia. This belief sounds like, “How is this happening in 2017?”
The gospel of Jesus Christ promises no progress. The gospel promises trouble in this world, and the good news is that Jesus has “conquered the world” (John 16:33). Surprise at the worldliness of the world is unbelief. We must come to discipline our thoughts and speech to conform to the political-eschatological promises given to us in the gospel, not cultural assumptions about progress.
- Observe and discipline speech, 2: Who’s who
By baptism, we are joined to Christ and to one another, and only so can conflicts be resolved and true justice become possible. The Scriptures teach us that the nations are a drop in the bucket. The nations that now, in the interest of their power, resist the coming of God’s kingdom will soon be superseded by it. The Church alone welcomes the kingdom. “Do not put your trust in princes, in mortals, in whom there is no help” (Ps. 146:3).
Who is the we when someone says, “We must do something”? What is the our country in “This is not what our country is about”? I speak of American politics only in the third person, never the first-person plural: “Their election,” “Their president,” “The Americans,” and so on. The Episcopal Church’s recent document, “Becoming Beloved Community,” simply fails at this discipline; it espouses the baptismal covenant, but goes out of its way to blur the distinction between the community of the baptized and the rest of society, thereby undermining the entire basis of the covenant. The only we to hope in is the Church. The Church is not simply the place where racism can be addressed; the Church’s reality is the only solution.
- Observe and discipline speech, 3: “White supremacy,” not “racism”
Rod Dreher wrote an excellent blog post about the events in Charlottesville, but nevertheless maintained a false equivalence between the racism evident in Virginia and “left-wing racism,” which he said is important but ought to be addressed at another time. While I don’t have much investment in denying that there is racism against white people — though it certainly isn’t systemic — I do think the concept of racism is too vague to be useful, precisely because it allows for the sort of equivalence Dreher suggested.
Of all people, conservatives should have the easiest time with this problem, both conceptually and psychologically, since conservatism is generally characterized by historical consciousness. We are the heirs of 400 years of violent, deadly white supremacy. In the lifetimes of many people who are not that old, black people were considered too dirty to try on the same clothing at a store. A society and culture shaped by those beliefs for 400 years does not eradicate them in 50. The American preference, to call only groups like the KKK or neo-Nazis white supremacists, is symptomatic of white supremacy; it betrays white fragility, a fear of looking honestly at a situation for fear of what it might mean politically, economically, and existentially. Anyone who is actually serious about addressing the racial situation in America must muster the courage to be specific; use the actual name of the actual problem: white supremacy. White supremacy is not an attitude of hatred toward non-whites; it is the belief that whiteness is generic and normative, and therefore superior. A childhood friend, when once asked about someone’s race, responded, “Oh, she’s just regular.” That is white supremacy.
The Scriptures are not unfamiliar with pretensions to supremacy. The Christian need not fear using this scary phrase, for God resists the proud, and gives grace to the humble.
- Be theological
The Christian faith acknowledges no final difference between what is good and what is true. Consistently, the Scriptures teach us that the “all the gods of the nations … are but idols” (Ps. 96:5), that these idols “judge unjustly and show favor to the wicked” (Ps. 82:2). The Lord asserts himself and his will in distinction from idols. Obedience to the law and confession of the one God are two aspects of a single reality; following the way of Jesus is not something different than saying, “I believe in one God, the Father, the Almighty.”
Confronting white supremacy is too often left to non-theologically minded liberals, who are good-hearted but seem to know only how to moralize. This tendency gives the mistaken impression that white supremacy is a moral or political issue about which Christians may reasonably disagree, or one that a Christian may reasonably ignore, as though it is somehow peripheral to the Christian faith or the call of the gospel. Failure to see what is at stake theologically, that is, doctrinally, with white supremacy is a failure of imagination. Lasting and effective work to overcome white supremacy among the Church’s members requires robust doctrinal catechesis, which makes clear what it is to be a member of Christ.
- Yes, you know what to do: Read a book
People often say to me that they do not know what to do. I am too polite to ask them if they have gotten around to reading a book about white supremacy and theological responses to it. There are many such books, and many of them are worth reading. Many of the Christians with whom I have a lot in common theologically spend much of their political attention on matters like same-sex marriage, or assisted suicide, or transhumanism. Those things matter. But it is noteworthy that it is a widespread tendency among white, American, theologically educated Christians to ignore white supremacy and its history, even though it ranks among the most significant moral problems of their society. It is bizarre in the way that it would have been bizarre for 20th-century German theologians to put off thinking about Jews.
There has been a profound failure to grasp the cultural significance of white supremacy, and its theological import. Postmodern and the now-fashionable decolonial criticism that has come to dominate the academic left — the trickle-down version of which is the unreflective identity politics we constantly hear about — has instilled a fear in everyone to speak about experiences other than their own. All that I can say is that this fear must be overcome, and this anti-intellectual prohibition violated.
What book(s) would you recommend on theological responses to white supremacy?
Sorry for the delay. These books come to mind. I am partial to Cone, having spent several years studying his work.
James Cone, God of the Oppressed
Willie Jennings, The Christian Imagination
J. Kameron Carter, Race: A Theological Account
Brian Bantum, Redeeming Mulatto
James Perinkson, White Theology
Beverly Mitchell, Plantations and Death Camps
Cornel West, Prophesy Deliverance!
George Yancy, Black Bodies, White Gazes
Thank you. This is helpful. I did dust off my copy of God of the Oppressed (which I read about 20 years ago). It was a formative book for me in my early discernment of my priestly vocation. The rest of this list is good and helpful to me.
Thank you for the most helpful article, Matthew. Please do attach the reading list.
[…] and so I don’t wish to clear my throat too confidently in what follows. I also want to heed Matthew Burdette’s call to “to break free from this pattern of reaction” wherein we ritually rehearse our […]