#7 – Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America by Ibram X. Kendi (My Top Ten Reads of 2020)

This book is a brilliant work of history that challenges and changes what you think you know about race and racism. While I purchased this book prior to the national protest that has erupted after the murder of George Floyd, I started reading it right while the protests were heating up. Reading this book then turning on the news was jarring and disturbing because while Kendi is talking about racist ideas in our nation’s past, you can see the same racist ideas being promulgated right now.

This was less and less surprising as the story progressed. Its one thing to read of a racist idea back in the 1400s or 1800s. Its another to see the same ideas today.

Kendi shows there have always been three attitudes towards race: segregationist, assimilationist and anti-racist. The segregationists are easy to spot: we see them from the enslavers to defenders of the confederacy to advocates of Jim Crow and murderers posing for photos at lynching. The eye-opening idea in Kendi’s book comes when he discusses assimilationists because to be an assimilationist is often to be seen as one of the “good guys.” But to be an assimilationist is still to be racist, for the idea lifts one race above another. So assimilationists would look to ideas such as “uplift suasion” and see the solution to racism as black people essentially becoming more like white people: dressing a certain way, getting an education, speaking a certain way, etc. Kendi identifies the assimilationist ideas in people such as Martin Luther King Jr. and Barack Obama.

To be assimilationist is still to hold to the idea that one race is superior to another. The challenge is that segregationists are more obvious in their racism. Kendi shows how segregationists used science and “facts” (I put that in quotes because it is easy to forget that facts need interpretation) to promote their racist ideas. Assimilationists have been more likely to argue that slavery and segregation have made black people inferior and thus black people would be better off by becoming like white people. One illustration of this would be the Cosby Show which essentially told black people if you work really hard you can have the same sort of life that white people do.

Part of the problem with assimilationist ideas was that for segregationists, this all just reinforced that black people as a group were inferior. Sure, a few could rise above but they were seen as unique, as the exception. Not only then would white people look down on inferior blacks, but these exceptional blacks would also look down on the other blacks who have not risen above.

The third position is to be anti-racist: to oppose the idea and practice that one race is superior to another. Throughout the story we see that people are not easily divided into “anti-racist” and “assimilationist” groups. The same person can make anti-racist and assimilationist at points throughout their life or even in the same speech. Kendi ends the book with a few brief thoughts on how to be anti-racist. He argues that a few common tactics do not work: it does not work for white people to just give up privilege, nor does uplift suasion work. Education also does not work, for everyone already knows the truth.

This is one of the more disturbing parts of the book: you cannot educate away racism. From slavery to civil rights and everything around it, people acted in their own self-interest. Planters wanted cheap (free) labor, so they enslaved Africans and built up arguments of racism to justify their slavery. Reagan wanted a war on drugs so he built up arguments about drug use. Speaking of that point, over and over Kendi shows how as certain terms and policies were not allowed (the “n” word being spoken, Jim Crow) new policies and words were invented (“thug” as a replacement for the “n” word, mass incarceration). So even though blacks and whites use drugs at about the same rate, the war on drugs targeted black people and led to the disproportionate and unjust incarceration of black men. Then the assimilationists argue the problem with the black community is lack of fathers, ignoring the policies that took away public assistance (which white people receive as much of, it not more than, black people despite stereotypes) and targeted black men for prison.

There’s so much here…am I making side notes inside of tangents?

Overall, this makes me want to read Kendi’s book How to be an Anti-Racist. Like I said, he spends about 2-3 pages on this at the end. You can piece together what he thinks throughout the book, but this is more a work of history than a call for what to do now. That said, if you like history and want your eyes open to uncomfortable, troubling and necessary truths, read this book.

Or, if you want to learn but can’t take a 500 page tome, there is a Remixed version by Kendi and young adult authors (and one of my wife’s favorites) Jason Reynolds. Check that one out, she says its

Honorable MentionA More Beautiful and Terrible History: The Uses and Misuses of Civil Rights History by Jeanne Theoharis

You have probably heard some form of what Jeanne Theoharis calls “the fable.” It is the common story told of the Civil Rights movement that focuses mostly on the problems in the South and revolves around a few tremendous figures (Rosa Parks, MLK Jr.) who led the way in overcoming racism and putting America on the path to a post-racial future. In this fable, the primary figures arose out of seemingly nowhere, were mostly friendly as they called for some abstract dream of everyone getting along, and they mostly succeeded.

Theoharis shows how this fable is historically erroneous and does a disservice in the present as well. She shows how the Civil Rights movement was not just focused on the South, for racism was prevalent in the North as well. The media played a role in portraying it as a southern problem, and Theoharis spends a lot of time showing how the media downplayed the activism that was happening for years in the north. Then, when the North exploded in riots and protests, the media and politicians acted like this had come out of nowhere. The fact was, they were just ignoring it. Further, the North masked their school segregation through code words such as “busing” and “neighborhood schools.”

Just as activists in the North were working for years prior to being noticed, so too were they in the South. Perhaps the best part of this book is how it fills out Rosa Parks’ story. She was not just a tired woman who got fed up one day and unintentionally started a movement. She was an activist, part of groups planning for years, and she continued to work for years after. In this work she, like MLK, was mostly opposed throughout her life. This is because the Civil Rights movement was not just about all people getting along (the fuzzy, friendly part of King’s “I Have a Dream” speech) but was about economic equality, justice, accountability in policing and more.

Essentially, all the things Black Lives Matter is working on today.

Of course, we often hear today that BLM is too extreme. Because of the fable of the Civil Rights Movement, we hear that they are not advocating for the things King and Parks were. Except, they are advocating for exactly the same things, if we know a fuller and more accurate story of the movement. Theoharis shows how many of the criticisms of BLM today (they are too young, too extreme) were the same criticisms of King, Parks, and their peers.

Mentioning their peers is important, for another point she focuses on is that the movement was not just a few heavyweights. Instead, the movement was driven by dozens of activists who are mostly unknown. Included in this are many amazing women who were often pushed to the side then and still do not get their due today.

Overall, this is an important work of history. Theoharis gets a bit repetitive at times, but its worth it to get her point across. If you want to learn more of what the Civil Rights Movement was really about and if you want to learn to notice when and how it is mistaken and misused today, check this one out.

#8 – The Enchantments of Mammon: How Capitalism Became the Religion of Modernity by Eugene McCarraher (My Top Ten Reads of 2020)

This book is a brilliant work of history.

Let’s start with another book. Charles Taylor’s book A Secular Age is a brilliant story of how the western world moved from a premodern age of enchantment to our current secular age. Refuting the commonly told subtraction story (we learned science and got rid of religion), Taylor told a fuller and more nuanced and detailed story. In his telling, to live in a secular age is to live in an age of disenchantment: the cosmos was once enlivened with spirits and power, but now it is just a brute natural world (an immanent frame). At the same time, it is an age of authenticity in which many beliefs are possible: the religious person and the skeptic both recognize there are other options for belief or non belief.

You should read Taylor’s book too. McCarraher begins this book by arguing that one spot Taylor was wrong was in saying our culture has moved from one described as enchanted to one of disenchantment. Instead, McCarraher argues, we have become a culture enchanted by money, greed, business: capitalism (hence the title). He spends the next 600 pages demonstrating this shift, telling a story that covers the same ground as Taylor’s.

Its wrong to say McCarraher simply thinks Taylor is wrong. Taylor’s book covered philosophy and religion, this one is focused more on economics and religion. In other words, they cover the same historical time period but focus on different people (at least, I don’t remember many of the people McCarraher talks about appearing in Taylor’s book…but its been a while). Thus, McCarraher is adding clarity to merely one element of Taylor’s story.

McCarraher begins with the Puritans and there are some chilling passages in there about their views on not just money, but on African and Native Americans. If you are at all familiar with the “health and wealth” gospel today, you can see its roots in how he describes the Puritans understanding of money. From there he moves through the time period describing rise of Fordism and assembly lines and more, as well as the theories behind all this, the advertising that promoted it, and those who futilely resisted it. By the time he talks about Disney’ place in a culture enchanted by consumerism and advertising needing to tell a story to create a need, you’re both convinced and depressed.

I suppose I should say, I was essentially convinced going in. As a Christian, I remember Jesus’ words, “you cannot serve both God and money.” Young Christians are warned to beware pursuing money and wealth. Of course, we also demonstrated our Christian commitment in the late 90s by buying: Christian CDs, Christian t-shirts, Christian concerts, etc. Capitalism tamed Christianity.

Ultimately, capitalism has triumphed over Christianity. Most Christians in America see capitalism as a blessing from God and anything that even hints of socialism (or, 1950s era capitalism) is deemed Marxist and vigorously opposed. The Epilogue is worth the price of the book, as in these 15 pages he brings the story up to the present (the final chapter ends around 1975). The election of Trump reflects the lauding of businessmen as near gods and the unfettered marketplace of neoliberalism has so enchanted us that we cannot imagine any alternative.

Of course, McCarraher does speculate on what the future may hold. This is kind of grim, but he also ends on a hopeful note, referencing the imagination of a better world in someone like St. Francis as an ideal we may grasp on to. I hope we can imagine something more beautiful and beneficial than neoliberal capitalism.

All that to say, if you are into history or economics, read this book. It would be nice if there was a shorter version as it is quite tedious. Hopefully, like with Taylor’s work, smart people will come along to distill this for more of us. For now though, its a feast of history and economic history that is well worth it.

Honorable MentionSocial Democracy in the Making by Gary Dorrien.

In the minds of a whole lot of people, there is no real difference between socialism and communism. Its all synonymous with Russian gulags and mass murder and economic destruction. Yet this simplistic equivocation does not stand up to the least bit of historical scrutiny, for in reality, socialism and socialist ideas are quite diverse. Even more surprising might be that there is a long tradition of Christian socialism as Christians, seeking to apply the teachings and principles of Jesus, believed that some form of democratic socialism was the best way to make these teachings a reality.

Dorrien’s book presents the roots and history of Social Democracy, focusing on England and Germany. This book is filled with names and organizations and history from the mid 1800s to the mid 1900s. Its not a quick or a fun read and I found myself skimming portions of it. I was more interested in the general ideas than in the details of every specific writer and thinker in the period. That said, the details demonstrate the point that socialism cannot be reduced to “Marxism” or “communism” or “bad” as it is often in popular level discussion.

For me, being more interested in theology than economics, Dorrien’s discussion of the theologians was more interesting than the economists. Thus I most enjoyed his analysis of FD Maurice, Barth, Tillich and William Temple. Along with this, growing up in America, we are simply taught (indoctrinated) from a young age that unfettered capitalism is the best way to have an economy. You could say we are discipled into a way of life (to use a Christian term) and that capitalism itself is a liturgy (a worship) that forms us. We cannot imagine any different way of seeing the world. And when we already assume our consumer capitalist Christianity is the only right and good way, we easily lump any other way, such as social democracy, into the “evil” side of things. We don’t even realize how corrupted and syncretized our Christianity is by the capitalist gods. Dorrien’s book succeeds in showing that, not too long ago, there was a strong Christian tradition of social teaching (and there is today if we take time to see it).

In providing this detailed history, Dorrien’s book is a valuable contribution for Christians (such as myself) thinking through how Christianity relates to the public world and the realm of politics. It is not as engaging and exciting as McCarraher’s. If you are looking for a general summary of Christian social teaching (as I was) you might be disappointed (as I was, from time to time). But if you want a detailed history, which is essential, this book is for you. Even if you do not read every word and cannot remember every name, this book shows that reducing socialism to a mere cuss word is historically inaccurate and unhelpful.

#9 – Postcards from Babylon by Brian Zahnd (My Top Ten Reads 2020)

Brian Zahnd is one of my favorite contemporary authors. Everything he writes, from books to Tweets, deeply resonates with and challenges me.

Postcards from Babylon: The Church in American Exile might be his best book (at least my favorite of of the ones I’ve read). Nationalism has long been the greatest temptation for American Christians. That’s not necessarily fair to American Christians, for this has been the biggest temptation to Christians since the beginning (and probably before the beginning). Empires are seductive and have a lot to offer. Whether it is Babylon or Rome, Britain or Germany or America the lure of bowing at the foot of the nation strong.

I mean, who wouldn’t want to be on board with Empire? Strong military that keeps you safe by killing the bad guys (and we’re the good guys, right?). More goods to consume than you can imagine. An economy that never slows down and offers you, at least it says, all the money you can earn. Power and comfort and consumption…mmmm….

Jesus calls his followers to a totally different way of life. Yet it is patently obvious most of us who claim the name Christian have deeply compromised our faith, creating some sort of syncretization between Empire and Jesus. Of course, there can only be one god at the top and when we try to combine these two, the Empire always wins.

Zahnd’s book is challenging and honest and covers a good bit of scripture and history. He even ventures into the specifically American political by pointing out his distaste for Trump years and years ago. American evangelical support of Trump is just the end of decades of submitting their faith to Babylon.

As all of Zahnd’s books, this is one any and all Christians should read. Highly recommended.

Honorable Mention – The Autiobiography of Malcom X

I am trying to pair the “Honorable Mention” books with books that are similar, so why is Malcolm X’s autobiography paired with Brian Zahnd? Well, they both take honest unflinching looks at the brokenness of America. These looks come from different perspectives of course. But for Christians who might read someone like Zahnd, reading Malcolm X is also a good idea.

For some interesting background, I was assigned this book to read during an American Religions course way back in 1999. Honestly, I do not recall if I actually read it or not. I assume I read enough of it to pass the class. In the ensuing 20 years, I have always kept this book on my shelf even as I often donated some old books to used bookstores.

It seemed like a good time to finally read it. I was surprised to discover a slip of paper with notes jotted on it from throughout the book, so I guess I at least read most of it. As a side note, it was interesting to see what 19 year old me wrote.

Overall, this is a fascinating story of someone who I know I have had misconceptions about, and based on the way the Civil Rights movement is discussed, so have many, many other people. Malcolm X is sometimes seen as promoting the bad path, the violent path, in opposition to MLK Jr’s good nonviolent path. Malcolm does address his reputation as promoting violence in this story, and he does so by consistently pointing out the long history of white violence. Though it appeared by the end he developed a respect for leaders whose methods he disagreed with, he certainly had harsh words for those promoting integration. Yet, he’s way more complex, interesting and prophetic than how he is popularly portrayed as in discussion or media.

This is why I’d say this book is a must-read if you want to have an opinion about Malcolm X. I mean, you don’t need to have an opinion about him. But like any historical figure, when his name or ideas come up, its would be nice to admit ignorance or admit all our knowledge comes from people with an agenda rather than our knowledge coming from the source. In other words, learn about Malcolm X (and MLK Jr and any other historical figure) before we assume week now what they taught and stood for.

Finally, I thought Malcolm’s words about Christianity were near prophetic and as true today as they were in his day. Here’s just a taste:

“Well, if this is so. If the so called ‘Christianity’ now being practiced in America displays the best that world Christianity has left to offer – no one in his right mind should need any much greater proof that very close at hand is the end of Christianity”

“And what is the single greatest reason for this Christian church’s failure? It is its failure to contest racism. . . The Christian church sowed racism – blasphemously; now it reaps racism. . . I believe that God now is giving the world’s so-called ‘Christian ‘ white society its last opportunity to repent and atone for the crimes of exploiting and enslaving the world’s non-white peoples. It is exactly as it was when God gave Pharaoh a chance to repent. But Pharaoh persisted in his refusal to give justice to those whom he oppressed. And, we know, God finally destroyed Pharaoh.

The white America really sorry for her crimes against black people? DOes white America have the capacity to repent – and to atone? Does the capacity to repent, to atone, exist in a majority, in on-half, in even one-third of American white society?” (377).

Those are powerful words that it is only too clear that white American Christianity is still plagued by racism and has not repented of our racist past. Thus, Malcolm X’s words ring down through the decades.

#10 Julian of Norwich, Theology by Denys Turner (My Top Ten Reads for 2020)

The 14th century Christian mystic, nun and theologian Julian of Norwich is one of my favorite writers in the Church community. I have read her classic, Revelations of Divine Love, twice as part of my daily devotional reading.

This book, published in 2005 by Professor Deny Turner, is s a beautiful accomplishment as in it he concisely and masterfully summarizes Julian’s theology and in doing so demonstrates she is much more than just a “medieval mystic” but that she truly is a theologian. He places her in context, often comparing her ideas to those of contemporaries such as Dun Scotus, Dante and Aquinas, as well as connections to older writers like Augustine.

Turner shows how Julian’s theology revolves around two stories: the story sin tells and the story God tells. The story sin tells is false, which is how she can say sin is not real even though it certainly is experienced as real (honestly, this idea was better explained in this book than any other I have read). In terms of suffering and evil, we live in the middle of the story. Like any story, once we get to the end, everything in it will make sense. Living in it though, it is hard to see. It is in this context that she can have confidence and faith to declare “all shall be well”.

Overall, a great book. If you are interested in historical theology, then you should certainly read Julian and this book is a magnificent secondary source.

Honorable Mention – Cosmic Liturgy: The Universe According to Maximus the Confessor by Hans Urs von Balthaser.

Another of my favorite theologians whose work has been profound and enlightening to me is Maximus the Confessor, who lived in the 600s.

Maximus was someone we barely learned about in church history. I suspect this was because he lived a bit too late for the Early Church History class and too early for the Medieval class. Besides, Maximus lived and wrote in the East and the story of f church history we read here in the west is told from a Western perspective, Augustine was the culmination of the early church and anything after him was lesser. That said, I suspect Maximus has become more known in the past decade as eastern writers have gotten more reading by theologians and pastors in the west. At least that’s my experience, maybe I should email my professor from back in the day and ask.

Anyway, I know that for me, reading folks like Maximus has been almost paradigm shifting. The more I have read eastern writers from Athanasius, the Cappadocians, Pseudo-Dionysius and Maximus, the more I realize these guys were brilliant and vitally important. Don’t get me wrong, Augustine was also brilliant. But so much that was and is wrong with the western church (Catholic and Protestant) is rooted in the worst of Augustine. I mean, if Luther and Calvin had looked to people like Maximus, how much different would the Reformation have been?

I digress again. This book by the brilliant theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar, is a fantastic analysis and summary of Maximus’ work. Balthasar has a depth of understanding of the early church that is mind-boggling: he regularly cites Evagrius. the Cappadocians and others to place Maximus in his context.

The biggest point I learned in this book is that Maximus’ work is always rooted in the Council of Chalcedon’s declaration that in Jesus the human and divine are united “without confusion”. Through this, Maximus achieves a synthesis between East and West that is unique in the history of religion. Eastern thought focuses on the unity of all things in the one (think Hinduism or Buddhism where all of us are like drops being absorbed into the sea). Maximus works with this unity while at the same time, keeping the value on the individual which the West brings into play. Western thought, rooted in Greek philosophy (and Judaism) sees the value of the individual. Maximus sees these two truths (unity and individuality) as held together in Jesus. The incarnation reveals to us the One Unified God who is also Trinity. Through this, we humans are united to God but retain our individual personalities.

There is a lot more here. Maximus, following Dionysius, emphasizes we cannot ever fully know God. The language we use falls short. God is beyond all our understanding, even as God reveals to us. We cannot help but use words, though even these words fall short. In the face of the indescribable, all creation falls down in worship.

Maximus describes a God it is hard to imagine anyone not wanting to worship: a God from whom we call come and who is bringing us all back into relationship. A God who works all things to the Good, for God is Good. A God who is an outpouring of love, for God is love. A God bringing creation back. Within this, there are lots of questions Balthasar deals with which will give the reader a lot to think on (how Maximus is different from Origen plays a large role too, while Maximus also is a disciple of Origen). All that to say, if you like theology and want a feast, and want to learn from two brilliant writers (Maximus and Balthasar) then read this one.

The Moral Conundrum (Christianity, Nationalism and White Supremacy 5)

A recent article in The Atlantic is just the latest of many analyses that demonstrate the devil’s bargain white evangelicals have made in their unequivocal support of Donald Trump. White evangelicals gave up their moral high ground to get Supreme Court judges. Those who have made the bargain thought throwing their support behind a narcissistic arrogant prudish man was worth it if it led to some wins in the culture war. Countless younger Christians in the Millennial and Gen-Z generations have seen through the hypocrisy, concluding there is nothing unique about Christianity. Christians are just power-hungry, ends-justifies-the-means folks as anyone else.

As the article states:

For starters, by overlooking and excusing the president’s staggering array of personal and public corruptions, Trump’s evangelical supporters have forfeited the right to ever again argue that character counts in America’s political leaders. They might try, but if they do, they will be met with belly laughs. It’s not that their argument is invalidated; it is that because of their glaring hypocrisy, they have sabotaged their credibility in making the argument.

This has been my biggest problem with the Christian support of Trump since the very beginning. I recall my younger days, remembering the refrain “character matters” coming from Christians in my family, my local church and the larger evangelical subculture. As a naive 16 year old, I believed them.

I now wonder if they believed? It seems “character matters” when it is someone in the other party but not in our own party.

The hypocrisy is, as Christians appear to only hold their enemies to any sort of moral standard while shrugging shoulders at the indiscretions of their friends. Albert Mohler, president of a Baptist seminary, once stated that if he ever supported Trump he would need to apologize to what he said about Bill Clinton. He recently supported Trump and I’m pretty sure he hasn’t sent that apology Clinton’s way.

(I’m actually 100% sure as just yesterday he posted an article saying he wouldn’t be apologizing to Bill Clinton. Again, they hypocrisy is obvious.)

The problem is deeper than who we vote for. This post is not about voting for Biden, Trump or someone else. Voting is the symptom of deeper issues in the white American Christian heart and mind. The problem is that White American Christians are moral relativists. When I was a young Christian, working my way through campus ministry at a secular university then studying at a Christian seminary, much of what I read warned of the danger of moral relativism. While secular atheists, and even some Christians, fell into moral relativism, it was our duty as “Bible-believing Christians” to stand firm for moral objectivity. Yet after twenty years of observing the white evangelical Christian subculture, it appears those warning about moral relativism were not able to notice how they fell into themselves.

The danger of moral relativism is apparent in the theology formed by white evangelicals. For example, early on in the rise of Trump, another Christian university president, the now disgraced Jerry Falwell Jr, tweeted that Jesus never told Caesar how to run Rome. The implication is that our political views need not be influenced by the teachings of Jesus. More recently, the popular provocateur Matt Walsh admitted to ends-justifies-the-means mentality, saying he did not mind if Republicans worked by one set of principles a few years back and a totally different set now, because he wants to win the culture war!

The theology at work here is one that makes Jesus our personal savior whose function is to get us into heaven when we die. But once our sins are dealt with and our eternal bliss secured, we can lay Jesus to the side and get on with living in this world by other means. Jesus, in this way of thinking, has little to nothing to say to this-worldly realities. Plenty of theologians and pastors have noticed this deficiency in western Christianity and specifically American evangelicalism. Dallas Willard called it vampire Christianity because it wants Jesus for his blood to wash away sins, but not as a person to follow in all aspects of life. This view of Jesus is certainly rooted in the fundamentalist-modernist controversy, which ceded any effort to bring the kingdom of God on earth to mainline/liberal churches and focused solely on getting to heaven. By the time fundamentalists decided to renter public life, they did not change their view of Jesus. They just relegated Jesus to spiritual things and looked to, as Kristin Kobes Du Mez says, John Wayne for public things.

Perhaps it would be fairer to say white evangelical Christians do bring their faith to bear on public realities. But this public faith seems to be limited to making abortion illegal, defending the right to own guns and fighting for the right to fire people who might be gay. The form of faith brought to the public square seems more rooted in Christian Nationalism and conservative political ideology (and fear of the other) than anything distinctly Christ-like. The deeper problem here then simply who one votes for is that for the majority of white evangelical Christians, what they think is Christian ethics is actually not rooted in the teaching of Jesus or the testimony of the historic Christian church nor the contemporary global church.

More on that below. First, a side note on libertarianism.

I think we see the same basic theology in Christians who support libertarianism. Like many of those who support Trump, libertarianism appears to relegate Jesus to private matters. To their credit, most of my libertarian friends appear to be opposed to Trump and Christian support of Trump. At the same time, it seems they have arrived at libertarianism more through disillusionment with American politics than deep reflection on scripture. Or they bring their distaste of politics to scripture and read scripture in such a way to justify libertarian politics. Either way, I believe libertarianism relegates Jesus to merely a private savior in much the same way white evangelical Christianity does. When the sole emphasis is individuals putting faith in Jesus and then individuals following Jesus, there is no room for anything beyond the individual in libertarianism. Libertarianism does not make any effort to shape culture, government or the public life in a Christ-like way. To libertarians, the public or political sphere is the one place Jesus is apparently not sovereign.

The problem is, whether you relegate Jesus to private matters as a libertarian or as a Trump-supporting evangelical, either way you are submitting to some other god in the public sphere. It is not as if this sphere is neutral. For Christians to not let Jesus shape our public life is to let some other god (philosophy, ideology) to do so.

This is why I am not concerned with any sort of accusation that opposing Trump is to fully endorse the secular left. All I can say is that I have tried my hardest throughout my life to develop views on politics and public life that flow from my faith. In many cases – climate change, health care, taxation of the rich, benefits for those in need, limits of military – the specific positions I have come to line me up with the left. Yet I do not presume to be welcomed with open arms, for I cannot hide the fact my views are distinctly rooted in my faith.

The fact that it is surprising, to both Christians and non-Christians, that something other than conservative politics can be rooted in Christian faith is a problem. There is a long history of Christian socialism which all would do well to become more versed in.

Debating democratic socialism, libertarianism and conservatism is not the point of this post. I will admit, well-meaning, Jesus-loving Christians can end up on various points along this scale. The question I am interested in is why we come to the conclusions we do? Do we lean towards capitalism or democratic socialism or libertarianism because of our faith and its traditions? Or do we lean where we do due to the influences coming from elsewhere?

I think a large part of the reason so many Christians struggle to have public views rooted in faith is because we are being taught to root them in something else on a regular basis. We may spend a few hours in church each week, but the rest of our time we are being discipled by these other gods into other gospels. Rush Limbaugh has done more to disciple Christians in the past thirty years than any pastor, which is why American conservatism shapes many of us more than anything distinctly Christian. Rush is just one of many conservative talking heads who are not coming from a position of faith (at least, not historic Christian faith…they come at if from Christian Nationalist faith) who are tremendously influential.

How does this play out? Take the issue of guns for example. You’ll have a hard time defending the need for a gun for self-defense from a Christian perspective. Jesus does not seem at all interested in use of violence for personal safety. The first centuries of the early church were unified in opposing Christian involvement in war. Jesus calls his disciples to take up our cross and follow him, even to death, so to use violence against others to preserve our own lives goes directly against what we are called to do. Why then do so many conservative evangelicals see supporting the Second Amendment as central to their faith? The obvious answer is because their faith is more defined by American Christian Nationalism than the teachings of Jesus.

We are defined by American Christian Nationalism rather than the teaching of Jesus or historic Christian faith because we are shaped by other gods and gospels for our public and political life. James KA Smith calls these secular liturgies:

“Through a vast repertoire of secular liturgies we are quietly assimilate to the earthly city of disordered loves, governed by self-love, and pursuit of domination. So we toddle off to church or Bible study week after week, comforting ourselves that we’re devoted to ‘the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord ( Jer. 7:4), without realizing that we spend the rest of the week making bread for idols (Jer. 7:18) because we fail to appreciate the religious nature of these ‘secular’ practices. So we become the kind of people who are inclined to a sort of low-grade, socially acceptable greed that makes us remarkably tolerant of inequality and the exploitation of the (global) poor; or we take for granted a mobile, commuting way of life that exploits creation’s resources rather than stewards them. We might be passionately devoted to ending religious persecution without for a moment considering how our ‘normal’ way of life exploits children halfway around the globe, or we think it’s just ‘natural’ to turn a blind eye to the suffering of Christians in countries we bomb int he name of ‘freedom.’A way of life becomes habitual for us such that we pursue that way of life – we act in that way of life – without thinking about i because we’ve absorbed the habit us that is oriented to a corresponding vision of ‘the good life.’ Indeed, because this becomes sedimented into my background, I can’t even see the world otherwise; this way of seeing it just seems ‘obvious,’ and I don’t even feel the call to be otherwise. I fail to resist temptation, not because I’ve simply made a bad decision, but because I’ve failed to recognize that I’m being malformed by a constellation of cultural ‘disciplines’ that are disciplining me otherwise. And such rival discipleship is effected through the most banal practices…such liturgies are pedagogues of insignificance: they co-opt us to an ultimate vision by simply demanding what seems to be insignificant” (James KA Smith, Imagining the Kingdom, 142).

To refute Christian nationalism and white supremacy will require recognizing that we need to be shaped by what is distinctly Christian: the life and teaching of Jesus, the scripture, the historic Christian church that spans the globe. Of course, this itself is no easy task. Admittedly, Christian theology itself has often been compromised through the ages. The most important step any of us can take is to expand who we listen to and learn from. I believe we must look to the tradition of the church, especially prior to the 1500s, and the global church that is non-white and non-American. The uncomfortable reality we may find is that becoming disciples of Jesus and applying this to public life requires questioning the greatest and most powerful of all Western gods: Capitalism.

But more on that next time…

I Believe Systemic Racism Because of My Theology (Christianity, Nationalism and White Supremacy 4).

Growing up, I was always taught I was a wretched sinner.

Uplifting message for a four-year-old, right?

But there was good news. Though I was a sinner, there was forgiveness available in Jesus! Jesus had died on the cross for my sins and your sins and everyone’s sins. All we had to do was believe and invite Jesus into our heart and we would be saved. 

Of course, we still sinned everyday. None of us were perfect. By the time I became a teenager, this led to much confusion because there was the constant fear we weren’t really saved. Many of would get saved over and over just to make sure. Since then, I have heard plenty of stories saying my experience of fearing I could lose my salvation at any moment was not unique. 

Thankfully I developed a much better understanding of what salvation is and how it works which includes not needing to live in constant fear that we’ll accidentally step across some line, ending up on God’s naughty list, and become subject to eternal torment. I still adhere to the best of these early lessons: we ARE all sinful and we CAN be forgiven. Speaking of sin, on our best days, we still screw up. We’re a mess. Yet I believe we can grow and mature. Jesus invites us to follow him and we actually can become better people than we were before! We’re always loved and forgiven, we’re always able to get better and we’re always liable to screw up.

All this to say, humility and confession and repentance are a constant part of Christian discipleship.

This is why I am often confused at the resistance on the part of white American Christians to confess the sins in the history of our country or the brokenness in our systems right now. 

In other words, my theology of sin prepared me to easily believe in systemic racism. Just as individuals are sinful, so too is any institution or system built by humans. Sin is not merely an act you commit from time to time; sin is a force bigger than us that affects all of creation from nature to institutions to individuals.

So again, I struggle to understand why white American Christians are the primary group that resists admitting systemic racism is a sin (we just saw it last night with Mike Pence on the debate stage!). I suppose a large part of this is that white evangelical Christianity has heavily focused on individual sin and personal responsibility. These things are certainly a part of a full understanding of sin, but taken alone they are simply not enough. This emphasis on individual sin and personal choice is more influenced by modern culture and philosophy’s way of looking at humans than it is from Christian theology. When we look to theology rooted in the revelation of God through the Scripture, we find description of sin and the brokenness of creation that extends beyond just individual choice. Scripture gives us a picture of sin that extends to all creation and from this we recognize the reality that all of nature and all systems and institutions are also broken.

Recently CSFPA had a virtual fall retreat in partnership with Bridgebuilders, an organization in Chicago. We had visited Bridgebuilders on Spring Break 2019. They invite groups to Chicago to listen, learn, serve and return. Our retreat focused on the listen and learn part, though the hope is we would serve in our communities. One of the sessions at the retreat was about poverty. CW Allen, the teacher of the session, asked the question, “Why are people poor?” He ended up walking the students through three broad categories:

1. Personal Choice – People are poor because of bad choices.

2. No Choice – People are poor because of things like natural disasters.

3. Systemic – People are poor because of broken systems.

White conservative evangelicals focus almost exclusively on the first and second category. This is why when natural disasters occur, church groups are quick to help. But if we focus only on these categories, we do not take into consideration the reality of systemic racism and oppression. For what its worth, we could argue that some secular liberals focus exclusively on the third category. In this view, if we just fix the systems we will create utopia. White evangelical Christians are quite good at criticizing this view. But we must turn the criticism to the deficiencies of our own view as well.

A full Christian view, based in scripture, sees all three categories at play.

Recognizing the third category is only the first step. Once we recognize broken systems, we must then confess our benefit from them. 

White Christians built the system of slavery that built the economy in the south in antebellum America. White Christian preachers supported it with scripture. White Christians seceded from the union and fought a war to keep slavery. White Christians then put a system in place that kept black citizens oppressed. When black people across the country would start to reach equality, white Christians would lynch and riot to keep the status quo in place. During the Civil Rights movement, it was White Christians who were most opposed to equality. The white evangelical movement took off when the federal government forced Bob Jones university to integrate, angering evangelical leaders. 

There is more we could say. The point is – we must confess this history.

Confession is hard. Its uncomfortable to recognize we have benefited from this history. In the face of guilt from recognizing our benefits and complicity, its easier to retreat into the status quo then take steps to begin to make things right. 

And for the record, this is where I begin to run out of steam – I do not know what ‘making things right’ looks like. 

But I do know we must confess and repent.

Because its disingenuous to condemn riots we see now when historically white people rioted all the time to keep their power.

Because its disingenuous to assume white evangelicals are correct in our social views now when we have consistently been wrong in our history.

Because its disingenuous to assume we’d have opposed slavery or supported Civil Rights when the way we read the Bible is the same way our predecessors did as they supported slavery and opposed Civil Rights.

We need to confess. We need to repent. We need to stop putting ourselves in the center and learn to listen to and learn from our Christian brothers and sisters. We need to push white Jesus off the pedestal and see if we can find the real Jesus worshipped all over the globe by diverse Christians.

From all of this, we can begin to work for Shalom. This is another thing Bridgebuilders focused on with my students. They spoke of how sin broke relationships in four directions – with ourselves, others, God and nature. A holistic understanding of salvation is one that brings peace and wholeness (shalom) in all of these directions. We cannot ignore any of them as we work towards all of them.

May we learn what it looks like to confess, repent, be humble and work for shalom in our communities.

Self-Interested Evangelicals

The pic is from this article: http://lifewayresearch.com/2020/09/29/most-evangelicals-choose-trump-over-biden-but-clear-divides-exist/

When asked who we hope our vote benefits most, 41% said “people like me” and 20% said “me and my family.” That’s 61% of evangelical Christians putting ourselves first. To be honest, this is disappointing but not necessarily surprising. It goes directly against the entire basis of our faith – we follow a savior who demonstrated a life of self-sacrifice and called us to do the same.

Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others” – Philippians 2:13-14

The political nature of this is merely a symptom of something that goes much deeper. In reality, many of us who are Christians merely desire a savior to provide personal forgiveness and afterlife bliss. We’re no less self-centered than anyone else. Its almost like our faith makes little difference in our daily lives because the way we’ve formulated our faith casts Jesus as the Secretary of Afterlife Management and little else.

This self-interested attitude demonstrates the victory of self-interested capitalism over self-sacrificial Christianity. Adam Smith famously wrote, “It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own self-interest. We address ourselves not to their humanity but to their self-love, and never talk to them of our own necessities, but of their advantages.” Capitalism reduces people to nothing more than self-interested actors and Christianity has become amalgamated with that idea over the past centuries. In many locales, to imagine a Christianity apart from self-interested capitalism makes no sense. Yet the best syncretisms are the ones we do not notice.

This is why this goes much deeper than who you vote for next month, or than politics in general. Notice, the point here is not who we are voting for but what our motivations are in voting. Likewise, our motivations in votes are a microcosm of our motivations in all else. Do we work for the good of ourselves and those like us? Or do we work from a motivation for the good of others?

If we become people who work for the good of others (and admittedly, I generally fail at this, so I am not trying to sound self-righteous in this writing) it is going to affect everything we do in all phases of our life. We can dare imagine a culture of people working for the good of others above their own good. This utopian vision will never happen this side of eternity. But just because we can’t reach perfection, doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try.

What the Book of Revelation is Really All About (Christianity, Nationalism and White Supremacy Post 3)

This is the third post in a series. The first post was “The Dragon in the Room” and the second was “Are you a Christian or a Christian Nationalist?”

Growing up, I constantly feared the rapture would happen and I’d be Left Behind.

I had been a Christian as long as I could remember. But was I a real Christian? Had my latest sin (I was a teenager, my entire mind was filled with sin!) proved I was not saved? The fear was real and common among those of us who grew up in American evangelicalism. This fear and anxiety were rooted in what I had been taught about the end-times (as well as a lot of other bad theology I had ingested). We were living at the very end of history and Jesus would return any day (or so we were told). When Jesus returned, all the real and true Christians would be whisked away, leaving their clothes behind to the confusion of all those “left behind” who would now face seven years of horror as God would pour out punishment on the earth. 

It was all in the Book of Revelation!

Except it wasn’t.

As an anxious, confused teenager, when I read the book of Revelation, I had to admit to myself I did not see this future timeline. It did not make sense. But who was I to question this widely held belief? This was what everyone said Revelation meant. The Left Behind series was a runaway bestseller after all, and certainly not on its literary merits (even at fourteen I knew it was bad fiction). At some point I left the fear and anxiety behind, but as I studied the Bible and grew in my understanding of my faith, I mostly placed Revelation on the back burner, filing it as “confusing; best left alone.”

Then in 2004 I took a class studying the Book of Revelation. I do not like to often say that things “changed my life,” but this class changed my life. It changed my life because for the first time, the book of Revelation made some sort of sense. The key to understanding Revelation was not the latest newspaper headline but was the Old Testament and the first century context. John was not given the vision and called to write a message that would only have meaning millennia in the future; John was given a vision for his people in those days.

The entire idea of some sort of pre-tribulation rapture that whisked away Christians so they would avoid suffering? Absurd.

The feared Beast in Revelation was the powerful Roman Empire. Rome had the largest military, the strongest economy and all the pleasures and comforts anyone could want. To receive all the benefits of Rome, all you had to do was pledge your ultimate allegiance to the Roman Emperor and the Roman system. John, the author of Revelation, was the pastor for the Christians living in the seven churches in Asia Minor (Revelation 2-3) and in his vision he saw the curtain pulled back on the glory of Rome. Behind the outward beauty of the empire was a vicious Beast. Rome was fueled by the forces of evil and thus was a satanic force to be resisted. 

John offered a challenge to his churches: will you worship the Beast or the Lamb? Who would you serve? To worship the Lamb who was slain was to stand against all Rome had to offer. You might just lose your life. But to pledge allegiance to Rome was to affiliate with the beast and to lose your soul.

I said above the way I was taught to interpret Revelation “only” had meaning in the future. This new way certainly had application and meaning for the present. It was a much more uncomfortable meaning than one that just guessed dates. The meaning came in realizing that we lived in the largest most powerful modern-day Empire. If the temptation in John’s day was to blend the gospel of Jesus with the principles of Rome, then temptation in our day was to blend the gospel of Jesus with the principles of America. 

In other words, rather than being fearful of some future “The Antichrist”, we should examine the ways we had already comprised with the spirit of antichrist. 

This study of Revelation helped me understand the difference between patriotism and nationalism. To be a nationalist is to simply support your nation no matter what it does. Nationalism sees no higher reality than the nation. Thus, in nationalism, to question or criticize the nation is a crime. Christian Nationalism then is to see the nation as uniquely blessed by God. To criticize the nation here is not just a crime, its a sin against God.

Patriotism is to be proud of your nation for the good it does, but does not require seeing your nation as better than other nations. I would argue, form a Christian perspective, patriotism is to hold your nation to a higher standard, to recognize there is a law higher than that of the nation and to seek for your nation to live up to that standard. Where nationalism is blind to the failures of the nation, patriotism is honest.

We see this in the testimony of Christians throughout the early church. First we see it in scripture, for alongside Revelation 13 with its portrayal of Rome as a monstrous beast, we can set Romans 13 where the Roman state is generally a force for good. These two truths of the nation – its good and evil – must be held in tension. Second, we see Christians such as Tertullian, Origen and others saying things that seem almost contradictory. They recognize the good of Rome and are grateful that Rome exists to keep the barbarians at bay. We even see them arguing that the prayers of the Christians do more to keep Rome safe than the fighting of the military. (As a side note, prior to 300, Christians did not serve in the military, seeing the inherent idolatry and violence of the military as something Christians must avoid.) These Christians also were not afraid to call out the Roman government for its evil acts and tell them one day God would judge them for the way they have persecuted Christians. 

Once the Roman Empire became “Christian” after the time of Constantine, great shifts occurred in how the relationship to church and state functioned. Even in the ensuing centuries though, there was still some recognition that God stood above the nations. It was not until the collapse of Christendom that “nationalism” became a thing. But that history, though interesting and essential for a full understanding, is beyond our story here.

This interpretation of Revelation changed my life, because it pushed me to realize that whatever my identity was as an American, my commitment to Jesus must be far higher. Jesus, the Lamb who was slain, sits on the throne and any attempt to place any nation or person on that throne alongside Jesus is heresy. Rather than being cheerleaders for whatever our nation does, our call as Christians is to speak truth to power.

We must speak truth to Republicans in power even if we are Republican.

We must speak truth to Democrats in power even if we are Democrat.

We must condemn the use of torture when it is being employed by a Republican administration (which white conservative Christians failed to do not too long ago)

We must condemn drone strikes that kill innocents when they are being used by a Democrat administration (which white progressive Christians failed to do not too long ago).

What does the interpretation of Revelation have to do with Christian Nationalism and white supremacy? Christian Nationalism must regard the nation as perfect and leave little room for critique. In Nationalism, Christians fit comfortably in the nation. A solid understanding of Revelation helps us see that all nations, especially superpowers, stand in opposition to the God revealed in Jesus, the crucified lamb. Rather than whitewash our history, we name the injustice and evil for what it is.

Revelation is also known as the Apocalypse and apocalypse means “unveiling.” Like Toto in the Wizard of Oz, pulling back the curtain, Revelation unveils and reveals the sin at the heart of America. It helps us confess and condemn the history of white supremacy in our culture and own it as our history rather than saying it is only an evangelical problem (its not, its all white Christians) or only a problem for the other political party (its not, its both Republicans and democrats, conservatives and liberals). 

We live in an Empire. Were John alive today, I suspect his message would be the same: will we worship the Beast in the form of a Christian Nationalist faith that drapes Jesus in the flag and promises comfort and safety or will we worship the Lamb who was slain?

Are You a Christian or a Christian Nationalist? (Christianity, Nationalism and White Supremacy Part 2)

This is the second post in a series on Christianity, Nationalism and White Supremacy. You can read the first post here.

Growing up, we had American flags in the front of our church.

It wasn’t until years later that I saw something deeply wrong with that.

Looking back, what we were taught it meant to be a Christian was deeply entwined with what it meant to be an American. Jesus had died for our sins and the troops had died for our freedom. Being in the church was how we knew we were saved if we died and being in America meant we were in God’s last and final refuge for Christians just prior to the end times. America, after all, was God’s chosen and favored nation. How else do you explain our military might and booming economy other than an obvious result of God’s blessing? The world was divided between “good guys” and “bad guys.” American Christians were definitively on the side of good.

We sent out missionaries to convert the world and we sent out troops to keep the peace in the world.

It wasn’t until years later I realized that the form of Christianity I had imbibed was deeply influenced by nationalism. A variety of influences helped me see this: learning the history of the global church, engaging with Anabaptists who were always skeptical of national influence in churches, and reading Revelation in a way that didn’t relegate it to future predictions but placed it in a meaning for now where America was just the latest empire offering military might and consumerist comfort in exchange for our soul.

As I’ve moved through my adult years, I have believed that “nationalism” is the greatest sin facing the white American evangelical church. To be fair, this is not unique to America. Nationalism was the greatest sin facing many churches in many nations; German Christians int he 1930s come to mind (and that ended up rather poorly, we all can agree). My next post will actually discuss how my changing view of the book of Revelation put me on this path to rethinking everything. For today, I want to discuss Christian Nationalism.

Andrew Whitehead and Samuel Perry, in their book, Taking America Back for God: Christian Nationalism in the United States, define Christian nationalism as:

Christian nationalism is a cultural framework—a collection of myths, traditions, symbols, narratives, and value systems—that idealizes and advocates a fusion of Christianity with American civic life” (10).

Though holding the term “Christian”, Christian nationalism is not the same as religion: “the “Christianity” of Christian nationalism represents something more than religion. As we will show, it includes assumptions of nativism, white supremacy, patriarchy, and heteronormativity, along with divine sanction for authoritarian control and militarism. It is as ethnic and political as it is religious” (10).

The difference between being a Christian Nationalist and a Christian is, perhaps most simply put, in the story you believe about the history of America.

Story 1 – “I believe America was ordained by God and is a beacon on a hill for the rest of the world. God (the Christian God, by the way) inspired the writers of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, through this creating a Christian Nation. This nation is God’s instrument to work in the world, similar to Israel in the Old Testament. Throughout its history there have been some tough times for sure, but the country has constantly been getting better under the leadership of strong men. The nation almost broke in the Civil War, as honorable men like Robert E Lee and Stonewall Jackson fought for states rights in the face of arrogant northerners who didn’t understand most slave owners were kind and most slaves liked being slaves. Thankfully, the nation was put back together and built monuments to these great men fighting for their lost cause. This healing enabled America to be the beacon of hope throughout the 20th century, sending out missionaries and standing strong against evil.”

Story 2 – “Let’s be honest: America is a mixture of good and bad and too often only the good has been spoken of since the story has only been told from the perspective of white Americans. There has been injustice and evil in America right from the very beginning and while we can recognize the good the founders did, we ought not shy away from their flaws. Slavery was America’s original sin and too many of our heroes were okay with it. Leading up to the Civil War, white Christians did not reluctantly accept slavery but vigorously endorsed it from pulpits all across the south. The story of our country is not one of constant progress but is one of a few steps forward and a few back. Hope for a more equitable nation appeared during Reconstruction, but soon the federal troops left the south and white Christians reinforced their dominion. Black American Christians were enslaved again in all but name. The next decades were filled with institutional oppression that kept black people in their second class status. Anytime this institution was challenged, while people responded with lynchings and violent riots. White Christians supported all this, seeing no contradiction in attending church in the morning and lynchings in the afternoon. The Civil Rights movement was a huge step forward, but there is still a lot of work to do.”

Which of those two stories do you think is more accurate?

If you go with the first story, you are more Christian Nationalist than Christian. The Jesus of the first story becomes a cheerleader for America and is essentially “white Jesus.” White people are the primary movers and shakers in this story and are mostly good. Even if we can recognize their support of slavery as something to condemn, we can forgive that because they got the rest of their theology correct. Yet this “correct” theology focused on individual salvation where Jesus’ primary function is to ensure your entry into the afterlife. This Jesus has little to say about matters in this world such as war, slavery, the economy or much else.

To put it another way, the God of Christian Nationalism is a White American Jesus, draped in the flag and carrying a gun.

The second story places America alongside all other nations. We are not a special or unique country in human history. Rather, like Rome or Greece or Britain or Germany, we are merely the latest greatest power. Like those other countries, we are a mix of good and bad. As Christians, we recognize our commitment to the kingdom of God far outweighs our commitment to any nation. As Christians, we heed the call to speak truth to power because we know there is a higher and greater law. Thus, we name the sin and injustice in our nation’s past and seek to repent from it. Just as we do not pretend we have no personal or individual sin, so its fruitless to pretend we have no national sin.

White Christians in America have tried to blend faith in Jesus with faith in America. In missionary terms, this is syncretism: the combining or amalgamation of two different religions. One sign you might be a Christian Nationalist is that the very idea of separating your faith from your national citizenship may surprise you. James KA Smith writes on this in his book Desiring the Kingdom:

The fact that there seems to be little tension between Christianity and American nationalism is not a function of the generosity (let alone ‘Christianness’) of the American ideal, but rather a sign of a Christianity that has accommodated itself to the American ideals of battle, military sacrifice (which is very different from the Christian ideal of martyrdom), individual (negative) freedom, and prosperity through property” (Smith, Desiring the Kingdom, 107).

We have not combined Christianity and American ideals into one thing because they line up together so perfectly as to obviously be one and the same thing. Instead, Christianity has accommodated to America. When the teachings and way of Jesus clash with the principles and ideals of our nation, we have too quickly blunted the way of Jesus to better fit him in with our national ideals. And again, this is not new or unique with American Christians as the temptation to explain away and make easier the way of Jesus is about as old as Christianity itself. We can recall some of Jesus’ followers in John 6 declare, “this is a hard teaching and who can accept it?”

If we just want a Jesus as Savior who provides us forgiveness and a ticket to heaven, then Christian Nationalism is the way to go. We get the assurance of afterlife bliss while we can then move forward in this world utilizing whatever tools we feel are necessary to achieve power and comfort. We have Jesus to save our soul and John Wayne or William Wallace (of the movie Braveheart) to save our ass.*

Is that all Jesus is? A ticket to heaven with no relevance for now?

If I believed that, I would just stop being a Christian altogether. I desire a Jesus who challenges all my ways of thinking, both personal and public. I desire a God revealed in Jesus who does not just affirm whatever I, or my country, does but who challenges everything.

Which Jesus do we want? Which story of America do we believe?

Which story do you believe?

Who is our God: Jesus or the Nation? Because in the end, “Christian” cannot be merely an adjective. If we are Nationalists we are not truly Christians and if we are Christians we cannot be Nationalists.*

Which will we be?

*As I was working on this post, I discovered this website: Christians Against Christian Nationalism (https://www.christiansagainstchristiannationalism.org). Check it out.

*I got this quip from the fantastic book Jesus and John Wayne by Kristin Kobes Du Metz. Definitely worth a read!

*We cannot be Nationalists but we can be Patriotic, which I spoke of in the first post in this series.

The Dragon in the Room (Christianity, Nationalism and White Supremacy Part 1)

My kids have this book called There’s No Such Thing as a Dragon. Its about a boy who notices a small dragon in his house. He tells his mom about the dragon and she responds, “there’s no such thing as a dragon.” The dragon grows bigger. As the dragon grows, the boy becomes more concerned but his mom continues to deny its existence. Eventually the dragon’s body fills the house with arms and legs popping out of windows. The dragon runs the house down the street. Finally, the mother admits she sees the dragon and its shrinks back to its original, small size. 

The boy quips, “maybe it just wanted to be noticed.”

This book is fun for kids but profound for adults. We often have dragons in our lives that we try to ignore, hoping they go away. But this is not how problems are solved and as they are ignored, they grow bigger and bigger. 

White supremacy and Nationalism are the Dragon in the room of White Christianity in America.

I’ve been wrestling with this for years but I am writing now because the fever pitch this issue seems to be reaching in our culture. White supremacists have been emboldened in recent years and according and are considered the greatest terrorist threat our nation faces, according to the DHS. The intertwining of white supremacy with Christianity as well as the overwhelming support of Donald Trump from Christian nationalists is why it is so hard for Trump to unequivocally condemn white supremacists and white nationalism, as we saw at the recent debate. The truth is, as Rick Santorum noted after the debate, the president does not like to condemn his supporters. He knows a large portion of his support comes from white nationalist groups. With an “ends-justifies-the-means” mentality, he is unable to condemn these folks.

To be fair, it is likely many good-hearted white evangelicals who make up a large portion of the president’s support are uncomfortable with the violent white supremacy of their fellow Trump supporters. Yet the sad reality is that to ignore the dragon of white supremacy in the room is not possible any longer. The dragon has always been part of white Christian faith in America. From time to time it may grow larger or smaller, but its been there from the beginning. If white Christians fail to condemn it now, it will destroy the whole house.

We who are white Christians must have the courage to refute the evil of white supremacy and explicitly demonstrate it has no place in the Church.

Of course, white supremacy did not begin in America. That said, America is unique in that there has never really been Christianity without white supremacy. When Christianity came to these shores, white supremacy came along with it. The United States began as a nation by enshrining slavery in its founding documents.  All men may have been created equal, but this did not include black men (or women). By the time of the Civil War, every other Christian nation had made slavery illegal. In America alone, southern preachers taught the Bible obviously endorses slavery. White Christians in the south were not reluctant supporters of the Confederacy, but cheered it on with the Bible on their side. Historian Mark Noll’s book The Civil War as a Theological Crisis is highly informative on this subject. He demonstrates that American Christians were unique in using the Bible to support slavery:

Nonetheless, by the mid-nineteenth century, the force of the biblical proslavery argument had weakened everywhere except in the United States. There, however, it remained strong among Bible believers in the North as well as among Bible believers in the South. It was no coincidence that the biblical defense of slavery remained strongest in the United States, a place where democratic, antitraditional, and individualistic religion was also strongest. By the nineteenth century, it was an axiom of American public thought that free people should read, think, and reason for themselves. When such a populace, committed to republican and democratic principles, was also a Bible-reading populace, the proslavery biblical case never lacked for persuasive resources.” (Noll)

American Christianity was alone in disregarding all tradition and emphasizing individualism. From this, a surface reading of scripture which any person could employ easily found plenty of verses in support of slavery.

On the eve of the Civil War, interpretations of the Bible that made the most sense to the broadest public were those that incorporated the defining experiences ofAmerica into the hermeneutics used for interpreting what the infallible text actually meant. In this effort, those who. . . defended the legitimacy of slavery in the Bible had the easiest task. The procedure, which by 1860 had been repeated countless times, was uncomplicated. First, open the Scriptures and read, at say Leviticus 25:45, or, even better, at 1 Corinthians 7:20-21. Second, decide for yourself what these passages mean. Don’t wait for a bishop or a king or a president or a meddling Yankee to tell you what the passage means, but decide for yourself. Third, if anyone tries to convince you that you are not interpreting such passages in the natural, commonsensical, ordinary meaning of the words, look hard at what such a one believes with respect to other biblical doctrines. If you find in what he or she says about such doctrines the least hint of unorthodoxy, as inevitably you will, then you may rest assured that you are being asked to give up not only the plain meaning of Scripture, but also the entire trust in the Bible that made the country into such a great Christian civilization” (Noll)

We often hear stories of those Christians who went against the grain and fought for abolition. These folks certainly were heroic. But in their day, to be an abolitionist was seen to be on a slippery slope to liberalism. We must ask ourselves: do we celebrate those abolitionists while reading the Bible with the same methods the supporters of slavery did? Whose side would we really have been on?

One more quote from Noll is helpful to fill out this picture (its a long one, feel free to skip to the bottom if you like):

Explaining how a common trust in the one Bible led to such different conclusions gets further by referring to the broader social, cultural, and religious circumstances that shaped interpretations of Scripture. Four observations may be helpful. First, outside the United States, traditional orthodox Christianity was much more likely to be a- or antirepublican than Christianity in the United States; it was also more likely to be governed by inherited communities of interpretation and to be wary of claims for autonomous and freshly proposed understandings of the Gospel. Consequently, biblical interpretation outside the United States was more often a corporate exercise, which respected the developmental traditions of Christian communities more than the individual’s own grasp of Scripture. If that corporate consciousness condemned slavery, it could easily overrule what looked like individualistic or eccentric appeals to the Bible. 

Second, outside the United States, traditional orthodox Christianity was not particularly democratic. Thus it did not matter as much how self-selected individuals, whether populist or learned, interpreted the Scriptures compared to how the traditional churches interpreted the Bible. As in the United States, the Bible in Canada and Europe was foundational for Protestants. The contrast was that while prime contexts for interpreting Scripture were provided for these foreigners by history, tradition, and respect for formal learning, the prime American context was the interpretive will of the people. 

Third, outside the United States, antislavery was not linked to heterodox theology or to the rejection of Christianity. Whereas in America a noticeable connection existed between ardent abolitionism and a willingness to abandon the Bible, in Britain and on the European continent the strongest opponents of slavery usually came from the more evangelical or more orthodox segments of the religious community. . .

 Fourth, in Britain, both traditionalist and evangelical varieties of Christianity leaned against the literalist exegesis of Scripture that provided the greatest strength for biblical proslavery. In particular, British High Church and evangelical believers distrusted the principle that each and every Bible verse had a simple meaning to be extracted only by attending to just the words in that verse. . .

In sum, viewed from outside the United States, the issue of the Bible and slavery did not pose the difficulties that it did within. Trust in the Bible was virtually the same. But because trust in the people at large to interpret any part of the Bible by relying on republican and democratic common sense was much weaker abroad, foreign Protestant Bible believers easily turned aside the proslavery arguments that seemed so much stronger in the United States” (Noll).

Noll’s book strongly demonstrates the support of slavery by White American Christians was deeply rooted in the American experience and way of thinking. From this we can again see that white supremacy is intricately tied in with American Christianity. This is why slavery ended, as we know, not with Christians changing their minds due to their faith but with a bloody war. It is also why white supremacy persevered. White Christians built a system in the south that kept their higher status. Over the years, white Christians worshipped on Sunday mornings while attending KKK rallies and lynchings Sunday afternoons. White Christians supported a revisionist history of a glorious “Lost Cause” and a south where black people were better off as slaves, enjoying the kind patronage of genteel masters. White Christians opposed the Civil Rights movement. Perhaps we naively thought white supremacy was over, but the last few years have reminded us that the dragon is still in the room. 

Of course, our black Christian brothers and sisters have always known we have a dragon in our room. Black Christians also knew slavery was wrong and knew that white Christians had a deeply compromised faith. But white Christians had power and power tends not to listen to voices from beneath challenging the status quo. America was God’s chosen nation, after all, and if we’re already the greatest, any voice that challenges this is just being divisive. 

This brings us back to the original questions: why is it so hard for the president to condemn white supremacy? Why is it so hard for white Christians to admit our complicity in it and benefit from it? Why is it so easy to just ignore it and go about our days? 

Because its our heritage and our tradition. Its who we are. Jesus said if your hand causes you to sin, cut it off. And who wants to do that?

In the next few weeks, I am going to wrestle with these questions. I’ve read a lot over the years, though I make no claim to be an expert. I think I am pretty well versed in theology and know a good bit of history. When it comes to the specifics of politics, I recognize my relative ignorance, though when it comes to faith and politics I believe I have some wisdom. 

There is a lot to say and think about. Its uncomfortable to talk about. I am not sure if I have any answers beyond “confess and repent.” But we have to talk about it, as Christians. We have to ask if we are Christians or Christian nationalists? We have to ask if we have created a bastardized Americanized Jesus that fits our preconceived notions of who God is. We have to have the courage to allow the God revealed in Jesus to shape all our ideas of who God is and what our role in any nation ought to be.

As theologian David Bentley Hart says, Christianity never truly came to America.

But I believe there is hope for us still. I have to be hopeful or I will despair. For this hope to become reality, those of us living today naming the Dragon for what it is. We must do what our predecessors have mostly failed to do – provide a Christian faith not rooted in nationalism and the American experience, but rooted in the Trinitarian God revealed in Jesus of Nazareth. I believe it is the duty of white Christians to refute the white supremacy in white Christians and offer them a choice: Christianity or white supremacy.

Jesus says no one can serve two masters. Will we take up our cross and follow Jesus or take up our guns and defend white supremacy? You can’t be prepping for violence if you’re carrying a cross

*For further reading, in addition to Mark Noll’s Civil War as a Theological Crisis, I recommend Jemar Tisby’s Color of Compromise and Robert Jones’ White Too Long. James Cone’s The Cross and the Lynching Tree is also a phenomenal book.