Bigotry is Normal

Innocence and Forgetfulness in Trump’s America

On my way to meet a coworker for coffee I passed a flier taped to a light pole. The bright purple letters grabbed my eye: “BIGOTRY is NOT NORMAL.” I was running late but something about this apparently self-evident statement made me stop. The flier invited students from the nearby university to protest an event featuring the former campaign manager for the President of the United States. There are a few interesting things about this flier but my curiosity lies with its premise and, I assume, the rationale behind protesting the event in question.

I assume that only those who have not themselves experienced bigotry, at least not regularly, would think of such predictable human prejudice as abnormal. A person who has been on the receiving end of a bigot’s hate is likely to come from a family or social group with a long memory of  what bigotry feels like, of the havoc in causes, and, importantly, of how invisible it seems to be among those who aren’t themselves experiencing this hate. I can’t imagine that this person – the one who knows bigotry firsthand – could claim with any conviction that bigotry is not normal.

I assume the people who conceived this pithy call to action have been exempt by virtue of race, gender, and class from the prejudices that are common in this country. Maybe I’m wrong in this assumption, but if not then it lines up with a trend I’ve noticed since the election. Among those who were strongly – morally, even – opposed to the president’s election there have been two general and divergent reactions. The first is shock, a kind of wrecked disbelief that this person could be elected to the nation’s highest office. The second reaction can be summarized by a friend who, despite her convictions about this man’s moral and political bankruptcy, told me that once the election results were clear she turned off the TV and slept like a baby. The first reaction is elicited from those who believed their nation to be something other than it revealed itself to be on election day. Those who were disappointed but unsurprised by the results have always seen this nation for what it was and is. They rolled their eyes and went to bed on election night. The first group had mostly avoided this nation’s bigotry; the second have long known it firsthand.

The assumptions behind the flier and the shocked response to the election share in common a tame estimation of evil. This optimistic view of the world assumes an unstoppable move toward the good and just, an arc that bends, however slowly, inevitably toward justice. Bigotry, for the optimists, simply cannot be normal and neither can this president. These must be anomalies along what is otherwise an upward trajectory to a more perfect union.

(I’m being overly general in my descriptions and hopefully not unfair, but I’ve had enough of these sorts of conversations since the election that I have some confidence in these observations.)

In Donald Trump’s America the optimism proclaimed by that campus flier seems utterly naive, until one considers the alternative. There is, I think, a new and personal fear that many of those shocked by the election are currently experiencing. Ironically, this fear shares an important similarity with that of many of the people who voted for the president out of fear for the country’s future: each believes in an America which is inherently good. For those who support the president the call was to make America great again. Those who oppose him often share this conviction; for them the country is already great because, as the Clinton campaign proclaimed, it is already good, and getting better all the time. Bigotry is not normal. For all of their differences, the opposing camps share in common optimistic convictions about the nation, convictions that must be strongly held regardless of alternative evidence. They are, both groups, Americans first. What, then, would it mean if America was not good? If, for the more conservative, it was not founded in a goodness worth reclaiming? And what, for liberals, would it mean if the nation did not bend unstoppably toward goodness? It would imply, I think, something painful about ourselves, something pressing about evil that we’d rather leave unexamined.

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I write this during the Christian season of Lent. The beginning of these forty days of fasting and abstaining is marked by a somber service during which ashes are smeared on the foreheads of the congregants; we leave the service with dusty reminders of our mortality. “Remember,” the pastor says while applying the ashes, “you are dust, and to dust you shall return. Repent and believe the gospel.” More than once, glimpsing my reflection in a mirror, I’ve been shocked to stillness at the sight of that smudged cross on my forehead, an ancient countdown clock ticking relentlessly toward the hour of my death.

Remember and repent. I’m expected to look back over my sin, my complicity with evil while also looking ahead to my death. I’m dust and to dust I shall return.

In theory, this stark practice of remembrance and repentance should collide spectacularly with a culture that, at best, sanitizes the past, excuses our sins, and assumes the best about our intentions. Imagine, for example, a flier on that light pole which confessed: “Bigotry is normal and, what’s more, I’m a bigot.”

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In his most recent book, Tears We Cannot Stop, Michael Eric Dyson writes that, “one of the great perks of being white in America is the capacity to forget at will.” His words, penned after the election, are directed toward the chronic amnesia intrinsic to whiteness when it comes to facts and history which threaten one’s view of this country- this good, possibly great, country.

That most white Americans cannot understand ourselves apart from this country’s definition means that we apply our forgetfulness not only to the nation, but to ourselves as well. We become, in James Baldwin’s words in The Fire Next Time, “the innocents.” He writes to his young nephew:

Now, my dear namesake, these innocent and well-meaning people, your countrymen, have caused you to be born under conditions not very far removed from those described for us by Charles Dickens in the London of more than a hundred years ago. (I hear the chorus of the innocents screaming, “No! This is not true! How bitter you are!” – but I am writing this letter to you, to try to tell you something about how to handle them, for most of them do not yet really know that you exist.)

The innocence, in Baldwin’s precise description, scatters its malevolence: the damage is heaped upon the women and men who exist outside the bounds of whiteness, and yet those wounded bodies will not be seen or believed because, well, whiteness is innocence. Still, the facts remain and the wounds and bruises betray our protests, our appeals to our goodness. “It is not,” writes Baldwin, “permissible that the authors of devastation should also be innocent. It is the innocence which constitutes the crime.”

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There is one lens through which I can view the campus flier as resonant with the facts as Dyson and Baldwin express them, though I doubt it’s what the organizers had in mind. Christian people will say that bigotry shouldn’t be normal and, one day, won’t be. Hate was not present at creation nor will it cloud the new creation.

I expect, though, that both the make-America-great-again and the bigotry-is-not-normal crowds would ignore my lens for its painfully confessional nature. Because to say that bigotry was not God’s plan and will not be God’s future is also to say that it is our present experience, to which some of us contribute mightily, from the essence of our identities, despite whatever white noise of innocence has stopped up our ears. Through this lens America’s past greatness fades into something more ugly and complicated, the presidential administration’s bigotry is not dissimilar to my own prejudices, and the facade of innocence crumbles to reveal my complicity.

It’s one thing to have those cruciform ashes pressed onto my forehead once each year; it’s something else completely to look each day into a mirror and onto a country and know that our innocence was lost long ago.

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I’ve unspooled too much from that one flier and, honestly, I’m heartened to realize that bigotry, even when supported by the presidential office, will be identified and opposed by some. We can gladly say that, at the very least, the organizers of that protest were motivated to action by their optimistic view of the world. And what of my critique? Does this darker interpretation of our nation and its motives not lead to passivity, toward pious quietism or selfish isolation?

In a letter to his son, Ta-Nehisi Coates urges him to,

resist the common urge toward the comforting narrative of divine law, toward fairy tales that imply some irrepressible justice. The enslaved were not bricks in your road, and their lives were not chapters in your redemptive history. They were people turned to fuel for the American machine. Enslavement was not destined to end, and it is wrong to claim our present circumstance—no matter how improved—as the redemption for the lives of people who never asked for the posthumous, untouchable glory of dying for their children. Our triumphs can never redeem this. Perhaps our triumphs are not even the point. Perhaps struggle is all we have. So you must wake up every morning knowing that no natural promise is unbreakable, least of all the promise of waking up at all. This is not despair. These are the preferences of the universe itself: verbs over nouns, actions over states, struggle over hope.

Struggle over hope. Elsewhere I’ve heard Coates say that struggle is hope. And while he roots this stark definition of hope in a world devoid of God, I believe he has articulated a Christian vision of hope, one that has been liberated from the countless unkept promises of American optimism. Accounting soberly for evil and hate need not freeze us in fear or keep us from just action. Opening my eyes wide to the creeping shadow in our land and in my soul is cause for righteous struggle, one that for Christians is oriented to God’s righteous future. Despite the reputation we have among many, Christians have at our disposal a wealth of spiritual resources that compel us to tell unsavory truths – about everything, ourselves included! – and remain happy warriors in the struggle for our neighbors’ good.

Bigotry is normal and it cannot only be those whose personhood makes them targets of it who say so. Perhaps this moment will be dramatic enough to cause us to shed our innocent optimism, consider the evil we’d previously discounted, and finally enter the hopeful struggle.

The Blind Gaze

On seeing, and not, in America.

It takes fifteen Chicago blocks to read aloud the names of the women and men murdered in our city within the past twelve months. It might be done quicker under some circumstances, but not these: hundreds of us walked slowly down Michigan Avenue on New Years Eve, our pace restrained by the crowd, the tourists along the Magnificent Mile reaching into the street with their cameras, and the occasional pause while police officers cleared an intersection. Also, the crosses. They were heavier than I expected: hefty beams, the fresh sawdust pressed onto the shoulders of my black coat. A single man had cut and assembled each of the more than seven hundred crosses, affixed a plywood heart to the cross beam, and painted onto it the victim’s name and date of death. We carried the crosses and walked down the street and then back again, the weight of the wood but also something else slowing us down. The names were read through a bullhorn chronologically by date of death and, occasionally, from somewhere within the cruciform waves, someone would cry out in recognition. Otherwise it was quiet, the whole event like a distant kin to a graduation: quiet, names in order, the uncontrollable scream at everything the name has meant.

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As we moved I angled toward the curb, walking at the edge of the crowd so I could see the response of the unsuspecting shoppers and tourists. Many of the crosses had photos of the deceased attached, the black and brown faces matching the statistics of who gets killed in Chicago. The sidewalk faces varied in their reaction from puzzled to somber, from annoyed to grief-stricken. None, that I could see, joined our quiet march.

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The unexpected emails started arriving in the months before the presidential election. My correspondents were men who could have been my uncles or cousins, if I had a small collection of kind Christian relatives who believed I’d lost my way. My blunt opposition to the next man who would be the president provoked them to write with varying levels of concern and correction. They worried that my polemics missed greater truths about the other candidate, about their own self-consciously Christian support of Donald Trump.

I know these men. They are gentle and modest. They care for their country, but not in the chest-thumping, flag-waving, you-damn-well-better-stand-for-the-anthem way that is sometimes assumed of certain kinds of Christian men. They are authentically pious and God-fearing.

They are also white, though they might question the relevance of this particular fact.

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In an essay about his visit to the West Bank, Teju Cole asks, “How does one write about this place?”

Every sentence is open to dispute. Every place name is objected to by someone. Every barely stated fact seems familiar already, at once tiresome and necessary. Whatever is written is examined not only for what it includes but what it leaves out.

He’s thinking about the troubling relationship between Israel and the Palestinian Territories. The names of the places, people, wars, and sacred claims have become so common and heavy with assumptions of guilt and innocence that conversation becomes nearly impossible.

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Last February, on a rainy day in Israel, I sat in an idling bus with a group of clergy looking across an impressive wall into Palestinian land. The pastors, most of them, were impressed with the wall and sympathetic to its military architect who stood at the front of our bus explaining into the microphone why the separation was necessary. He told us that he hoped one day to lead the work to demolish the wall, once the people on the other side learned to police themselves.

Through the rain-streaked windows, across the border, we could see some houses, small and meager next to the impressive wall. I wondered about the people whose days began in those homes before making the slow walk through tangled border crossings to work on the other side.

Did you know, asked the architect, that some of your politicians have visited our wall to study how to build a similar one on your border?

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Seeing is hard. The stimuli enter my eyes and I register, somewhere, the scene as it unfolds. My eyes are exposed to experiences that exist beyond the limits of my body; I take them in as a passerby, sometimes as a confidant. But do I see?

It took a couple of weeks after this election to notice that I’d stopped posting photos of my sons to Facebook. The decision wasn’t deliberate; I’m proud of my sons and delight in sharing their smiles and adventures. I was aware, almost immediately, that there was nothing rational about my unconscious decision, but once it surfaced it became an unmovable fact, a thing I don’t do. The knowledge that many in my digital timeline voted for the man who has made himself a threat to my black and brown sons made posting their images seem, I don’t know, somehow inappropriate. As though I’d be aiding and abetting those who will not see my beautiful boys for who they are. These friends – and they are, still, I think – believe that what is best for my sons is to empower a man whose words and actions menace those who share what will be sons’ tenuous experience of this nation.

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There is a lot to which I am blind but, when the emails came, I could see what my correspondents saw. I know the concerns and hopes they feel. I can hear the sermons they nod along to each week. I imagine the dinner-table conversation or the commentary over the latest headline. I see them.

That’s not totally right. I know this; there’s so much that I miss and Jesus says this discomfiting thing about beams and motes that chastens any assumptions about how clearly I see. Still, I’m willing to say this: They can’t see, not really, the experiences I try to explain- the ones about my sons, our friends, this segregated country, the good things being led in our city by people whose race renders their stories uninteresting to those with the power to tell them. In America, seeing happens through tinted lenses. What is made visible by dint of proximity and friendship is rendered perilously opaque to those who lack these basics. Seeing accurately requires closeness and familiarity.

The choice, such as it was, to stop posting photos of my sons is probably misdirected. Silly even. But it’s instinctual, a spasm provoked by bad eyes. These eyes are blinded to the flesh and blood village in front of them as they look to the gleaming, reality-defining wall in the distance.

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In 1955, Mamie Till Mobley, upon hearing that the lynched and mutilated body of her 14-year-old son had been recovered from a Mississippi river, decided that Emmet would rest in an open casket during his Chicago funeral. About this decision, Claudia Rankine writes that “Mobley’s refusal to keep private grief private allowed a body that meant nothing to the criminal-justice system to stand as evidence.” Her decision, steeped in a courage I cannot grasp, was a mother’s demand to be seen. For her son to be seen. Photos were taken and articles written. But, as Rankine writes,

We live in a country where Americans assimilate corpses in their daily comings and going. Dead blacks are a part of life here. Dying in ship hulls, tossed into the Atlantic, hanging from trees, beaten, shot in churches, gunned down by the police, or warehoused in prisons: Historically, there is not quotidian without the enslaved, chained, or dead body to gaze upon or to hear about or to position a self against.

In this land, seeing demands more than an open casket and a mother’s deep resolve. We cannot be made to see. The white gaze blinks, even weeps at these moments – Emmet Till in the Tallahatchie River, Michael Brown on Canfield Drive, Tamir Rice at the Cuddle Recreation Center – but somewhere deep in the racialized reptilian subconscious is the anticipation of these scenes. This is the dark traumatic screen upon which whiteness has projected itself for centuries. We know the rituals and act them out; some will grieve and others will explain the violence away. But we do not see. We do not want to see.

It has long been this way. Sixty years before young Emmet’s funeral, Ida B. Wells published A Red Record, an account of American lynchings between 1892 and 1894. The book was “respectfully submitted to the Nineteenth Century civilization in ‘the Land of the Free and the Home of the Brave.'” It is a brave and gruesome book, the fruit of Well’s brilliance and incomparable will. Chapter after chapter documents the sad and brutal cases in which black bodies were desecrated and hung under the most speculative of pretenses. Then, toward the end, Wells describes a trip to England in support of her anti-lynching crusade. While there, Wells was asked about another American Christian, the Rev. Dwight L. Moody who was an internationally known evangelist and founder of a well known Bible college. Unlike Wells, he was white. Her English supporters were curious whether Rev. Moody had supported Wells’ efforts to stop the rampant lynching of black women and men. She replied, “Mr. Moody had never said a word against lynching in any of his trips to the South, or in the North either, so far as was known.”

In a forward to one of Wells’ previous books Frederick Douglass praised her work.

Brave woman! you have done your people and mine a service which can neither be weighed nor measured. If American conscience were only half alive, if the American church and clergy were only half christianized, if American moral sensibility were not hardened by persistent infliction of outrage and crime against colored people, a scream of horror, shame and indignation would rise to Heaven wherever you pamphlet shall be read.

But, as Rankine observes, the scream never comes. The white Christians indicted by Douglass cannot see, or rather, what horror they do see slides from consciences that were generations ago hardened to the violence inflicted upon black bodies. There is no whiteness without the juxtaposition of black bodies and, in America, those same bodies have always been interpreted through the lurking threat of state-dependent violence.

So the white gaze sees the unending assault but not the associated horror of any human encounter with violence. The suffering black body becomes black-ness, a disembodiment requiring no empathy or reflection, certainly no confession or repentance. The gaze can survey a ruined landscape, decimated by violence of its own making, and feel no complicity for the damage, no compassion for its victims. Within this devastation, Rankine writes, black citizens are asked, “What kind of savages are we?” But the legitimate question, she writes, the question grounded in truth and history, the question invisible to the white gaze, is different: “What kind of a country do we live in?”

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My sons are black and they are brown. The oldest can tell you what continents and countries his ancestors came from. How they came here and why is unfolding before him. They must learn to see clearly for the critical reason that they cannot expect the same from those whose hazy sight has not hindered their accumulation of tremendous power.

“Every sentence is open to dispute,” writes Cole, but it’s more than that. Vision itself is contested. The gaze renders specific bodies invisible; it replaces flesh and blood with specters of an ancient, terrified imagination.

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Our New Years Eve memorial ended about two hours after we first gathered in the December chill. Family members were invited to keep the crosses bearing the names and photos of their deceased. The rest of us placed ours near the trucks that had brought them; they would be delivered far from the Magnificent Mile, to an empty city lot as a larger version of the memorials that dot certain neighborhoods throughout the city. We left then, our ranks replaced by window shoppers and tourists ready to welcome a new year. Some looked over curiously, quickly. But mostly they walked on, their sight attracted to the shimmer and sparkle ahead.

Now, months later, I try to remember the name of the man whose cross I carried. I imagine it, scrawled across the plywood heart, but in my memory I see only a blank space where his name should be.

“If it’s not good enough for my child, then why are we putting any children in those schools?”

If you not already heard it, this Fresh Air interview with New York Times reporter Nikole Hannah-Jones about public school segregation is essential listening. A taste:

The original mission of public schools … is this understanding that no matter where you come from, you will go into the doors of a school and every child will receive the same education.

And no, my daughter is not going to get an education that she would get if I paid $40,000 a year in private-school tuition, but that’s kind of the whole point of public schools.

And I say this — and it always feels weird when I say it as a parent, because a lot of other parents look at you a little like you’re maybe not as good of a parent — I don’t think she’s deserving of more than other kids. I just don’t. I think that we can’t say “This school is not good enough for my child” and then sustain that system. I think that that’s just morally wrong. If it’s not good enough for my child, then why are we putting any children in those schools?

One more:

When I started what I kind of call the segregation beat about five years ago … I think we had stopped talking about this as a problem. If you look at No Child Left Behind, which comes out of the Bush administration, that was all about giving up on integration in schools and just saying, “We’re going to make these poor black and Latino schools equal to white schools by testing and accountability.”

So no one was discussing integration anymore. I think it’s because … we never really wanted this. … It’s always had to be forced, and as soon as … our elected officials and our courts lost the will to force it, most white Americans were just fine with that. …

One of the things that I really try to do with my work is show how racial segregation and racial inequality was intentionally created with a ton of resources. From the federal government, to the state, to city governments, to private citizens, we put so much effort into creating this segregation and inequality, and we’re willing to put almost no effort in fixing it, and that’s the problem.

The Repentant Resistance

What Saint Augustine teaches us about the key to Christian resistance.

I’ve been insistent – to a tiresome degree I’m sure – that American Christians are to resist the destructive and divisive ideology of our incoming president. It’s been heartening to hear others make this case from their own vantage points. Yet, because of my Christian orientation, I’m convinced that there’s a profoundly unglamorous posture that must characterize any Christian resistance to our next president. I was reminded of this as I’ve begun reading St. Augustine’s City of God.

Augustine, Bishop of Hippo, wrote his massive book during the years of Rome’s slow demise before the relentless barbarian invaders. He wrote at a unique religious moment: Christianity had been acceptable for a few generations but the old, pagan, practices were still recalled and occasionally practiced within the empire. All of this led to accusations that Rome’s weakened state could be traced to the spurned pagan gods. Perhaps, the understandably anxious logic went, Christianity was at fault for the incessant attacks and porous borders.

Augustine’s massive book was, in large part, a response to the crumbling empire and the critics it fostered. Early on, as he defends Christianity, he acknowledges a reasonable question about the suffering of believers.

What, then, have the Christians suffered in that calamitous period, which would not profit every one who duly and faithfully considered the following circumstances? 

Augustine admits that any observer would notice that Christians were not exempt from the suffering provoked by the invasions. It seemed that their faith in Christ hadn’t kept them from suffering alongside their fellow, pagan, citizens. He then responds with a theological rationale that I think should be held high by those of us who see opportunities for resistance and, possibly, suffering in the days ahead.

First of all, they must humbly consider those very sins which have provoked God to fill the world with such terrible disasters; for although they be far from the excesses of wicked, immoral, and ungodly men, yet they do not judge themselves so clean removed from all faults as to be too good to suffer for these even temporal ills.  For every man, however laudably he lives, yet yields in some points to the lust of the flesh.  Though he do not fall into gross enormity of wickedness, and abandoned viciousness, and abominable profanity, yet he slips into some sins, either rarely or so much the more frequently as the sins seem of less account… So that, although the conduct of wicked men is distasteful to the good, and therefore they do not fall with them into that damnation which in the next life awaits such persons, yet, because they spare their damnable sins through fear, therefore, even though their own sins be slight and venial, they are justly scourged with the wicked in this world, though in eternity they quite escape punishment.  Justly, when God afflicts them in common with the wicked, do they find this life bitter, through love of whose sweetness they declined to be bitter to these sinners. (Book 1, chapter 9.)

When reflecting on the sufferings experienced by Christians, Augustine says, basically, of course we suffer because we also sin. God’s judgment on sin, as advanced through “such terrible disasters” as the empire was currently undergoing, was bound to be felt by Christians along with their neighbors. Though he is quick to show the difference between the sins of Christians and those of the pagans – faith in Christ secures the faithful’s eternal security – he also shows that, by our very nature, Christians can expect to experience the same suffering as our neighbors. It’s the reason for our suffering that is important to Augustine: “they do not judge themselves so clean removed from all faults as to be too good to suffer for these even temporal ills.” This sobering knowledge, that our sin demands judgment, is what makes the Christian respond to suffering and calamity with humility, knowing that we have no high moral ground from which to judge.

This humility, born from a scathing appraisal of our sinfulness and complicity in the world’s suffering, is what must distinguish Christian resistance in the coming days. Our opposition to rhetoric and policies which damage and destroy will be flavored with a chastened view of our limited capacity along with a tangible sense of personal lament for how we’ve benefitted from and contributed to the world that gave rise to the president-elect.

None of this means we won’t resist when we see our neighbors threatened. Humility requires a quiet spirit but it can coexist nicely with loud resistance when necessary. In his own way, long-winded and brilliant, this is what Augustine was doing in his own anxious days as the established order came crumbling down. We’ll need to do the same in the days ahead: resist with courage, with one repentant eye always on our own sin and another on the redemptive move of God who alone is this world’s judge and savior.

A Discipleship of Resistance

What an 82-year-old letter from Dietrich Bonhoeffer can teach us about Christian faithfulness under a President Trump.

First, a caveat: It is pointless to compare our next president to any specific political strongman or tyrant of the past, including the most infamous one who will make an appearance below. Such blunt comparisons ignore important distinctions and claim a vantage point available only to our grandchildren. Even so, and despite our tendency to make false equivalencies, history remains our best teacher and so it’s worth revisiting the past with care and nuance.

And another: Those for whom our president-elect is a literal answer to prayer will probably find what follows to be misguided or, more likely, incomprehensible. I’m resigned to this but will still aim for as much coherence as possible.

Finally: I genuinely want to be wrong about the president-elect. I pray and hope that everything I’ve assumed about his presidency and its devastating impact on people I love will be totally wrong. Nothing would make me happier. But until then…

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In 1934 Dietrich Bonhoeffer was serving as a pastor to two German-speaking congregations in London. Hitler’s rise to power was almost complete: the first concentration camp in Dachau had opened the previous year and in 1935 he would announce himself the Führer of the Third Reich. Bonhoeffer watched the rapid changes in his country first from New York where he studied at Union Seminary and worshipped at Abyssinian Baptist Church under the leadership of Adam Clayton Powell and later from a poor section of Berlin as he taught confirmation classes to rowdy and easily distracted boys. Now, from London, the 28-year-old reflected on how quickly everything was changing and how blind most of the German church was to the encroaching evil.

In April he replied to a letter from Erwin Sutz, a Swiss friend from his days at Union. With the previously-stated caveats in mind, I think Bonhoeffer can provoke our imaginations as we face our own uncertain days.

London, April 28, 1934

My dear Sutz,

I have just destroyed the remains of a letter to you that I started more than four weeks ago and never finished. I hope this one will not meet the same fate!

What is going on in the church in Germany you probably know as well as I do. Nat. Socialism has brought about the end of the church in Germany and has pursued it single-mindedly. We can be grateful to them, in the way the Jews had to be grateful to Sennacherib. For me there can be no doubt that this is clearly the reality that we face. Naive, starry-eyed idealists like Niemöller still think they are the real Nat. Socialists —and perhaps it’s a benevolent Providence that keeps them under the spell of this delusion. Maybe it is even in the interest of the Church Struggle, for anyone who is still at all interested in this struggle.

The German church had, mostly, succumbed to the promises of National Socialism which included abandoning their Jewish neighbors to the new regime. A month after Bonhoeffer wrote to Sutz the Reich Church would add the swastika to its official crest. Some Christian leaders, like Martin Niemöller, thought the church could still be rescued if enough resisters joined the Nazi Party and changed it from within. Bonhoeffer knew such efforts were futile, that the struggle for the German church had been lost and could only be seriously engaged by “starry-eyed idealists” who hadn’t come to grips with the extent of its apostasy.

In the days since our presidential election there has been much handwringing about the overwhelming percentage of white Christians (Evangelicals especially, but not only) who voted for the now president-elect. They voted for him despite the sustained witness by African American and Latino Christians about his bigotry and fear-mongering. They voted for him despite his disdain for women. They voted for him despite the threat to religious freedom that begins with barely-veiled Islamophobia. And they voted for him despite his claiming Christian faith while disdaining the Biblical requirements of confession and forgiveness, a reworking of the faith that, at a very basic level, cannot seriously be considered orthodox Christianity.

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Erwin Sutz and Dietrich Bonhoeffer in Cuba for Christmas, 1930.

Bonhoeffer was sympathetic to those who fought for the soul of the German Church but could muster none of their energy. The day for that struggle had passed and he would direct his efforts elsewhere. Has that day arrived for us? The structures of white American Christianity have consistently made known their ignorance of and antipathy toward those Christians who exist outside the confines of whiteness. The recent election is only the latest evidence in a long and devastating case against white Christianity, a version of the faith that consistently chooses racial exclusivity over Christian solidarity. (The question of what exactly constitutes white Christianity deserves a full answer, but it would have to include the thorough disregard for the plainly stated concerns of black and brown believers, a disregard that has been undeniable these past months.)

The struggle now, for many of us, lies elsewhere.

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For some time it hasn’t even been about what it appears to be about; the lines have been drawn somewhere else entirely. And while I’m working with the church opposition with all my might, it’s perfectly clear to me that this opposition is only a very temporary transitional phase on the way to an opposition of a very different kind, and that very few of those involved in this preliminary skirmish are going to be there for that second struggle.

Bonhoeffer was looking ahead to life as a confessional Christian under the German regime. He predicted, rightly, that the initial struggle against nationalistic and racial ideologies would fade into a second, less popular, struggle. This one would be different from the first in at least two ways. First, the fight wouldn’t be for the German Church – that one had already been lost – but for faithful discipleship to Jesus despite the church’s failure. This would be a kind of discipleship in exile and it would later be enfleshed for Bonhoeffer in an alternative seminary at Finkenwalde focused on study, spiritual formation, and the common life. And second, Bonhoeffer assumed that in the second struggle many of his former co-belligerents would disappear into the new normal. Once the Nazi Party had completed its takeover and once the German Church fell in line, those who had initially resisted would find it harder to continue their struggle. The threat of marginalization, not to mention the persecution that was still a few years away, would be enough to silence many of Hitler’s Christian opponents. From London, peering into the murky days ahead, Bonhoeffer anticipated these lonely days of the second struggle.

In these post-election days, as much of white Christianity has made plain (again) its allegiance to racial ideology, the struggle is also shifting. The scenario is different by many degrees than the one faced by Bonhoeffer and other confessional Christians. For example, America has always known expressions of Christianity that have existed in faithful distinction and, at times, opposition to white Christianity. Many of my elders have long heritages in black churches and, while they are disappointed by the man the country elected for its next president, they are not especially surprised . They’ve long taken this country at its word – a word that cannot be understood apart from the white supremacist assumptions surrounding it. They face this moment as they have many other moments, as self-consciously Christian people who will continue a path of discipleship to Jesus which puts them at odds with this nation’s motives and ends.

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Ludwig Müller, Bishop of the Third Reich, 1934.

Despite differences such as this, we can learn from Bonhoeffer’s prescience and prepare ourselves for a second struggle. This will be discipleship struggle. As much of white Christianity moves on – mostly in celebration, some in resignation – we will need to prepare for a robust discipleship that forms us as members of Christ’s diverse and suffering Body. None of us are immune to this country’s idols and so this discipleship will prioritize repentance and forgiveness. We see how fear is stoked and monetized and so this discipleship will prioritize awe-inspiring worship, Fear-of-the-Lord worship. Those of us who grew up within the confines of white Christianity will submit ourselves to churches and leaders whose existence threatens the very assumptions of our old congregations. And the list goes on…

This will also be a discipleship that is aware of its resistance to much (most? all? time will tell.) of the new president’s agenda and underlying assumptions. There is, of course, nothing unique about Christian discipleship that intentionally resists corrupt and destructive authorities, but it’s a tradition that some of us have forgotten. We’ll need to remember. More complicated is how a discipleship of resistance will place Christians at odds with those white forms of Christianity that are even now moving ahead with business as usual, some with a conviction of God’s divine intervention and others with the temporary and small sadness that comes when one’s political party loses. Over time it will become clear that these forms of Christianity have very little to say to those engaged in a discipleship of resistance. This is cause for much grief, ongoing lament, and fervent prayer but maybe not much more.

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I believe that all of Christendom should be praying with us for the coming of resistance “to the point of shedding blood” and for the finding of people who can suffer it through. Simply suffering is what it will be about, not parries, blows, or thrusts such as may still be allowed and possible in the preliminary battles; the real struggle that perhaps lies ahead must be one of simply suffering through in faith. Then, perhaps then God will acknowledge his church again with his word, but until then a great deal must be believed, and prayed, and suffered.

Later, Bonhoeffer would join those who believed Hitler had to be opposed with violence. But here, when he writes about a blood-shedding resistance, he has in mind the suffering that lies ahead for those who resist the Nazi Party. For the young theologian, Christian resistance to oppressive and violent forces was a question of faith. Who, he seems to ask, would he choose to believe in this moment when all appeared lost? When demonic ideologies had won the day, would the church have eyes of faith to see an alternative ending? Would they have the courage to pray and act with faith?

Here the historical gap lessens. We don’t need to predict any particular suffering to take seriously the challenge of faith. The temptation to despair is strong. Equally strong is the temptation to take matters into our own hands, to find places and people where our control can be exerted. And then there will be the lasting temptation to acquiesce, to content ourselves with the glittering things this nation offers in exchange for our willingness to agree with the deception, to turn away from the destruction.

Our suffering, if it comes, will begin with our choice to place our bodies in front of the deception and destruction. It will come with our choice to tell the truth, occasionally with our mouths but mostly with lives that testify to our crucified Savior. It will come with our embodied solidarity with those whose bodies and histories mark them for harassment and trouble in the days ahead.

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You know, it is my belief—perhaps it will amaze you—that it is the Sermon on the Mount that has the deciding word on this whole affair… Please write and tell me sometime how you preach about the Sermon on the Mount. I’m currently trying to do so, to keep it infinitely plain and simple, but it always comes back to keeping the commandments and not trying to evade them. Following Christ—what that really is, I’d like to know—it is not exhausted by our concept of faith.

Bonhoeffer’s posture toward National Socialism and the church’s tepid response to Hitler was deeply rooted in the Bible. He regularly returned to the  Sermon on the Mount and his question to Sutz about how to preach this passage was probably very sincere. For all of Jesus’ impossible teaching in these famous verses, Bonhoeffer finds the primary question to be whether or not a Christian will obey Jesus. Such costly obedience cannot be evaded by claims of faith, by sincere-sounding appeals to the priority of right belief over Christ-like action. In 1937 Bonhoeffer would publish Discipleship, a book in which he would explore the Sermon on the Mount in depth and differentiate between costly discipleship and cheap grace. In this letter, as he thinks about returning to Germany with its many threats, Bonhoeffer reminds his friend that appealing to Christian faith cannot replace righteous action. The former, detached from the latter, cannot in any real way be considered discipleship to Jesus.

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Bonhoeffer at Finkenwalde.

We need to hear this unequivocal call to discipleship today. We have in this country a dominant form of Christianity that claims right belief and sincere faith and which has repeatedly and systematically ignored the appeals from other Christians for righteous action. It is appropriate to make this plain, with sadness. It is appropriate, in spite of the inevitable sharp and sarcastic responses, to reveal the pledge to cultural whiteness over ecclesiastical reconciliation. And it is crucial that we examine ourselves with the expectation that we too have made similar compromises. That is, this moment calls for direct appeals to costly discipleship in the way of Jesus and, precisely because it is Jesus’ way, the appeal will always begin with my own sinful heart.

From his London parish in 1934 Bonhoeffer could not fully imagine the years ahead, including his eventual imprisonment and execution by his government. But he saw enough to move forward with joyful courage. May God grant us similar companions, joyful in disposition and courageous in action, for the days ahead, whatever they may hold.

Chief Wahoo and Repentance

An offensive mascot demands more than critique.

Chief Wahoo, the mascot of the Cleveland Indians, is a racist depiction of Native Americans that never should have been used by the baseball team and certainly can’t be justified in 2016. There’s nothing complicated about this. The decision to keep the mascot (and, I would argue, the team’s name) is indefensible and made even more obviously offensive by the current desecration of Native American land in North Dakota.

During the World Series my social media feeds have been full of commentary in this vein. Well and good. But some of this critique has veered into familiar territory, where the critique itself absolves the critic. I’ve seen this critique expressed with sentiments by sports fans along the lines of, I could never be a fan of Cleveland because of their mascot.  I get the instinct – especially by a white person – to distance oneself from such blatant racism, but this move only gives the critic the appearance of purity. It’s a good thing to point out Chief Wahoo’s offensiveness, particularly to those who’ve somehow missed this painfully obvious fact. But this can’t be where we stop.

Consider the other team in the World Series. The owners of the Chicago Cubs support the Republican nominee for president and have contributed to his campaign. The team’s recent success is bound to expedite the gentrification that radiates from Wrigley Field, displacing those who can’t afford rising rents and property taxes. In a relatively direct way, a fan who buys tickets or merchandise is connected to a presidential candidate whose racism and sexism has been well-documented and to a neighborhood dynamic that impacts poor and working class people.

None of this is to say that people – and I’m thinking about Christians particularly – can’t root for the Cubs. (White Sox fans will debate this point.) It is, however, to question what we identify ourselves with – or distance ourselves from – as evidence that we are with it, that we’re not like those culturally insensitive, backward, racist people. Not being an Indians fan doesn’t place me above those who are. In fact, focusing only on a racially offensive mascot (politician, celebrity, pastor, etc.) can end up distracting me from the more subtle but no less destructive racial injustices associated with my own team (neighborhood, school, organization, etc.).

Granted, if I lived in Cleveland it’d be hard to get excited about their baseball team as long as they keep the name and that terrible mascot. But as a Christian, the injustice associated with that particular team deserves more than critique, it also requires personal reflection about how the logic that makes sense of Chief Wahoo has lodged itself within my own heart and mind as well.

OK, back to the game. And despite my south side pride… Go Cubs, Go!

 

Time to Resist

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.