Thank you Lord for asking me to be a pastor, and thank you for a church that expects me to be a pastor.
I can come to no other conclusion, no other possibility in this disorienting moment.
The presidential candidate of the Republican Party deserves non-partisan resistance from this country’s Christians. I’ve asked questions of Christians who support, or are considering supporting, this candidate. I’ve listened to, read about, and imagined the circumstances that would lead people – Christian people – to giving the candidate their support. And still I can come to no other conclusion, no other possibility in this disorienting moment: It’s time to resist.
The list that compels our Christian resistance is long. The early church grew in large part because of the honor granted to women including, radically for that time, single women with no intention to marry. Yet the candidate has shown himself chronically incapable of interacting with the women in his family or employment with anything close to respect, much less honor. Women, in this man’s gaze, are objects to be rated and commodities to be exploited. Or consider that the idolatrous nationalism that American Christians have come to expect from both political parties has grown through this man’s vision into full-blown xenophobia. It’s no longer enough to pay lip service to the troops, publicly salute the flag, and ignore all evidence of the nation’s inglorious past; patriotism now requires that other nations bear the violent weight of our scorn. The candidate has identified new scapegoats – living cultures of people – who deserve our wrath for making our lives less than we think they deserve to be. This development has to trouble a people whose allegiance to Jesus always puts us out of step with our rulers. And when we remember that the eucharistic blood we share with Mexican, Palestinian, and Chinese Christians is thicker than whatever is meant to bind us to other Americans… well, we must speak loudly on their behalf. Our reputations – those publicly maligned Christians and us – are one and the same. What sort of family would we be if we simply let the candidate slander our sisters and brothers?
But these reasons, among others that could be listed, are not enough. Every day it seems we hear of new Christian leaders – mostly of the so-called conservative or Evangelical variety – supporting the candidate. For some it’s a question of the lesser evil – a strange way to speak for those who actually believe in evil and its malevolent powers. For others the support is more enthusiastic; there are true believers among the Believers.
How is their support – however tepid or enthused – possible? I’ve been listening and trying to understand, as sympathetically as can be expected from one who thinks the candidate deserves only resistance from this country’s Christians. There are others, but I’ve heard three consistent reasons for Christian support of the candidate. The first has to do with a variety of social conservatism which believes, despite all evidence to the contrary from his life and career, that the candidate he will make policy decisions and judicial appointments aligned with the so-called religious right. Another reason for supporting the candidate has more to do with opposing, no matter what, the Democratic Party and, especially, its nominee. There is something deep and dark that is invoked by this woman’s presence among some of the candidate’s supporters, something that evolves into ugly sexism in the worst cases and in many is expressed by a profound distrust. Finally, and most interesting to me, are the supporters who see in the candidate some reason to hope that their economic depression will finally be addressed. J. D. Vance has told this story beautifully in his new memoir, Hillbilly Elegy, and there’s a lot here worth examining closely. For example, the generational poverty that is common to many white Appalachian and rust belt families has important points of contact with the experience of some Black Americans yet, as this political contest proves on a seemingly daily basis, race works to separate those who might otherwise find common cause with each other.
I recently sat across a table from a friend, a Latino pastor. We wrapped up our conversation about his church and ministry in Chicago and I asked, in my good-enough Spanish, what he thought about the candidate and all of the surrounding chatter. He smiled and laughed, told some stories about the jokes his family and church make about this moment. And then- I’m surprised, he said. Surprised that so many people will follow this man. Can’t they hear what he’s saying?
The rationale some Christians give for following the candidate are interesting to consider even as I find none of them weighty enough justify their support. Again, I’m writing as a Christian, so even if there were more substance to these reasons I would still be compelled to resistance. The reason has everything to do with that Latino pastor, a man who is my friend and brother – as we Christian people say and claim – in Christ.
The candidate’s racism is well known and extensively documented. (And now, as much as I’d prefer to maintain the blessed absence of this man’s name, I must finally write it in association with, what I believe to be, the primary cause of our Christian resistance.) Donald Trump is a racist. This is not, actually, an especially bold thing to say. Others have said it more persuasively than I will. And, obviously, I’m also a racist. The difference is not one of scale but simple acknowledgement: though the candidate and I breathe the same racist American air, I am repentant and he is not. I limp while he struts.
The candidate’s racism (race prejudice coupled with power) leaves a long, ugly trail: he refused to rent to Black people, he’s said that “laziness is a trait in blacks,” he’s retweeted self-identified white supremacists, he publicly demanded the execution of five wrongfully convicted Black men, and it goes on. As a white Christian hearing this man’s racist attacks, I must imagine that these are attacks on my family members. A white American obviously doesn’t have to be a Christian to find the candidate’s racism repugnant, but I’m writing consciously as a Christian who believes my lot to be bound with other Christians whose races, ethnicities, and cultures differs from mine.
The only way white Christians can get around the candidate’s racism is by claiming that he doesn’t actually mean it, that he’s simply being ironic in the way all of our political candidates must be in order to secure the necessary votes. David Foster Wallace wrote about this in 1993: “All U.S. irony is based on an implicit ‘I don’t really mean what I’m saying.’ So what does irony as a cultural norm mean to say? That it’s impossible to mean what you say? That maybe it’s too bad it’s impossible, but wake up and smell the coffee already? Most likely, I think, today’s irony ends up saying: ‘How totally banal of you to ask what I really mean.'” But while such irony may be the accepted assumption behind our culture’s political discourse, it can’t be justified away by people who are bound to tell the truth about all things, to the best of our ability. As such, a Christian would have to be willfully, vehemently blind to the candidate’s history to believe such nonsense about his inevitable transformation into someone less dehumanizing.
But this isn’t the worst of this ironic rationalization. What makes this a completely un-Christian argument – one that I’ve heard repeatedly – is the assumption that the person on the receiving end of the racism spouted by the candidate and some of his more vocal supporters is an untrustworthy narrator of their own experience. More baldly: The white Christian claims to know what’s better for the Black or Brown Christian than she or he knows for themselves.
That white Christians in this country can with a clear conscious support the candidate or, with mild distaste, privately disapprove of him seems to me another reminder of how divided our churches are. The plain fact is that very few white Christians are in a position to hear firsthand how one of their Black or Brown family members is experiencing this election. We will be more influenced by the media ideologues of our choice than by the sisters and brothers of our Faith.
And here we must say two things that should be obvious but are apparently not. First, of course there are some Black and Brown people who support the candidate. Their presence – especially as spokespeople – is held up by some white Christians as evidence that the candidate is in fact not a racist, merely misunderstood for all of his politically incorrect truth telling. But this is silly, an obvious exception proving the rule. Would that those white Christians be in a position to listen to communities of those who share their faith but not their race, that their ears could be filled with the stories and perspectives of flesh and blood unmitigated by pundits and screens.
Second, in listening to some white Christian supporters of the racist candidate it becomes unsettlingly evident that race, not faith, is the strongest lens through which the world and its dangers are viewed. “Why do so many white Evangelicals support him?” The question surprised me, coming from a Black friend as we left church. I stumbled and stuttered. This was around the time that two unarmed Black men were killed by police within the same week. I know the answers I’ve heard from his Christian supporters, but to the question behind my friend’s question – How can so many white Christians support a racist? – I’m left to admit that race exhibits an influence greater than faith. I want to be wrong about this. It’s an ugly thing to say. I’d like to be convinced of an alternative explanation, but one has yet to be presented with any persuasiveness.
And so, Christian resistance is what the moment requires. It’s necessary to say that this is a non-partisan resistance because our imaginations have been so diluted that we think only of our vote as a signal of support or opposition. But there are other ways. We might submit our vote to a person who has been the target of the candidate’s hate. We might devote our attention to local candidates whose decisions will impact classrooms and housing. We might, as some of are, begin to think about what resistance will look like after this election. There will be reasons to resist if the candidate is elected- he’s made no mystery of how his policies will ostracize and divide. And if he’s not, there will be a reinvigorated contingency of citizens who have been deputized in their bigotry. This too will require our Christian resistance.
There’s nothing about this I don’t like.
That’s a lot of books! Are you going to read all of them during your vacation? Of course not! One of the best things about reading is dipping in and out of books promiscuously with little concern about when any one of them will be finished.
Aren’t you going away for part of your vacation? Why not get an e-reader rather than lugging around all that codex? Shut your mouth! Next question.
Those are some serious looking titles. Is this your idea of light summer reading? Are they? I dunno. Have you ever read The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy? Not exactly highbrow stuff. Wonderfully silly, actually. That’s the entire 5-part series in that photo.
You’ve been droning on about Donald Trump on social media- I almost expected there to be a couple of take-downs in that stack of yours. I know, I know. I’m sorry. But not really. The J.D. Vance one is the closest to my grief about that guy and I’m hoping it’ll bring me a bit of knowledge and empathy.
Any of these you’re especially looking forward to? I’m loving the McPherson book about the Civil War. I think Ta-Nehisi Coates mentioned in a while back and it’s lived up to expectations. I didn’t know how stupid I was about that war. But of the ones I’ve not started I’m probably most excited about The Fire Next Time. I loved Jesmyn Ward’s last book and am intrigued with this edited collection of younger writers on race.
It’s kinda strange that you’re interviewing yourself, right? Hey, you’re the one asking the questions.
3 Observations from a Remarkable Woman.
I spent a few enjoyable hours this afternoon in the special collections at the University of Chicago looking over some of the Ida B. Wells collection. I’m working on a paper about her decision, along with Fredrick Douglass, to protest the 1893 World’s Colombian Exposition in Chicago. Not necessarily related to that project, here are a few things that stood out as I went through the papers:
- I held a business card-sized promotion soliciting votes for her election as a Republican delegate to the 1928 convention in Kansas City. One of the most radical, outspoken activists for civil rights wanted to be a delegate to the Republican convention. Things have changed a bit since 1928.
- On Friday, January 1, at one o’clock in the morning, Wells reflected on the watch night service from which she’d just returned: “I go forth on the renewed pilgrimage of this New Year with renewed hope, vigor, a remembrance of the glorious beginnings and humbly pray for wisdom, humility, success in my undertakings if it be My Father’s good pleasure, and a stronger Christianity that will make itself felt.” One of my pet peeves about the way historians often reflect on Wells (and her African American contemporaries) is how her Christianity is assumed and thus ignored. There can be a bit of historical and cultural prejudice that refuses to imagine that her faith was one of the things that allowed Wells to live such an extraordinarily brave and intelligent life. A letter like this pushes against those biases.
- One folder held a bunch of photos and this one made me stop for a minute. Here we see Wells with Mrs. Betty Moss and her two children. Moss was made a widow when her husband Tom, a good friend of Wells, was lynched in Memphis. I think this image hit me hard because last week, once again, we saw Black women standing in front of cameras because their men – boyfriend, son – had been murdered by state-sanctioned violence. It’s a sad and infuriating thing to consider- the script this nation so forcefully holds itself to.
I’ll continue to do my small part to make Wells more widely known. As I learn more about her remarkable life I’m increasingly sure that she’s the model we need to bravely face the traumas and fears of our day.
Will this be a moment for racial justice or a movement?
A glimmer of hope among the recent clouds of racial trauma and injustice has been the decision by some churches to respond publicly. I don’t mean, of course, those churches – usually African American – whose liturgies regularly and normally engage with racial prejudice and violence. Rather, I’ve noticed church leaders who’ve generally been silent or just barely audible choosing instead to lead, preach, and lament in direct response to the murders of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile. Many of these responses are safe and tepid, but I’m choosing to be thankful that small steps have been taken.
I fear, though, that as these stories fade so will any new-found courage to engage truthfully and Biblically with racial injustice. So here are two quick reasons that previously silent churches must make permanent their commitment to racial justice.
First, the New Testament does not imagine a person’s reconciliation to God that doesn’t also include her reconciliation with others. And while those others will include individual relationships, they also include those groups with whom her own people have experienced division, enmity, and prejudice. New Testament churches, as evidenced by their witness and cultural conflicts, expected to be communities made up of those who’d previously had nothing to do with one another.
Lest we think this relational reconciliation was like the inch deep diversity in many of our churches, consider the shift of power that was expected in these churches: women who led; slaves who became family; ethnic minorities who expected the authority to lead. In other words, there can’t be relational reconciliation without relational justice. And though the New Testament churches knew nothing of our racial constructs, we have to assume that our race-based segregation and inequity are exactly the kinds of divisions the gospel is meant to address.
Second, Professor Willie Jennings and others have shown that the racial constructs we take for granted today are rooted in heretical theology from the time of colonialism. Racism is birthed in a kind of supersessionist theology that replaced Jewish particularity with European witness. The devastating results are too many to list here, but they include the invention of racial hierarchies whose logic remains unquestioned in many of our churches. Though most church leaders will be quick to speak against racism, the priorities and assumptions of our missions and ministries make clear that we’re mostly ok with the racial constructs as they’ve existed for centuries.
Acknowledging the central role of Western Christianity in sustaining racial injustice and fostering its earliest beginnings is another reason why previously silent churches must commit to the long work of building just and reconciled communities. Repentance is ongoing and will lead to previously unconsidered and creative possibilities life together as the diverse, reconciled people of God.
It’s good that church leaders are choosing to respond to this moment of pronounced racial trauma. How much better to hear the invitation of this moment and begin to build a movement of racial justice that will bear witness to the God who is reconciling all things.
Photo by Kaleah Merriweather from our Sunday service.