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.

 

The Ida B. Wells Papers

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. Ida B Wells and Betty MossOne 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.

Traumatized and Human

It’s not just in your head. You’re not making too much of it. You shouldn’t easily get over it.

You’ve been traumatized. Your mind won’t stop even when your body does. It feels like you can’t quite pull enough air into your lungs. Your fingers fidget and your eyes glance quickly at the unexpected sounds that would generally go unnoticed. You’re simultaneously so very tried and completely – desperately – awake. You’ve lost count of the tears.

This is trauma. You saw the videos. Men whose skin solidified them to yours as a brother, cousin, son, and father were executed by those whose murderous ways are the summation of this country’s means and ends. You saw them die. You heard the woman’s cry. You heard another woman’s deathly calm voice, narrating in real time the death of her beloved. And the child. You can’t stop thinking of this beautiful child. Will it be her first memory?

Last night I sat next to a Black woman who said, “I remember Emmet Till. I remember the pictures.” This country proudly lynched your ancestors to terrorize those with Black bodies like yours. Newspapers printed the time and location of the upcoming attraction; postcards with the demonic scenes were sent around the country. The pictures, and now the videos, serve to terrorize and traumatize. The perpetrators of lynching did not fear the publicity of the newspapers and postcards. They knew the values of the state on whose behalf they acted. Is it any different now? The videos rush at you with brutal force, and to what end? Are the murderers punished? Are you made to feel safer, more human?

This is trauma and it’s real and it’s on purpose. Your Black body, in the depraved mind of this nation, has been marked for terror and trauma. It’s always been this way. It is true and unfathomably wrong.

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Please do what you can to quiet the voices of the liars, especially those who bluntly try to discredit your experience.  Ignore too, however rudely, those who use smart sounding deception to move quickly from your suffering to the phantoms of fevered white imagination – black on black crime, epidemics of fatherlessness, criminal pathologies. They are each lies and require none of your energy or time.

Nurture your faith. It’s not a luxury for you, not a Sunday state of mind. Your faith is what connects you to the truth about yourself. Your faith in your God, your people, and yourself is more true than 90% of what you will be told by our media.

Sink into your humanity, into your flesh, bone, muscles, and mind. You are a member of humanity, reflecting the image of God. Find reasons to laugh. Stream that movie this weekend. Cook something delicious. You have a large emotional capacity. You can and will feel tremendous grief and anger. But you can and will feel more than these and it’s OK to remind your body of this at times.

Remember that there are people who love you more than you can imagine in this moment. There are people who will fight for you. Some of us will die for you. Notice the difference in your routine between quiet and isolation; the former is necessary but the latter is this nation’s telos and it must be resisted no matter how vulnerable you feel. Be with people who get you, who require no explanations, you accept your everything at face value. Then be that person for someone else.

Meditate on the Christ, the lynched Son of God. There is no prescription about what you are supposed to feel about your faith in this moment. But these are the exact moments when our suffering can draw us to his, when our despair can bring us to his, when our screams into the apparent nothingness can join his.

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You’ve been traumatized but only humans can know trauma. So you, beloved human and creation of God, can know this deep evil without being overcome by it. Even in this place and in this time, you will express your humanity in ways that cannot be controlled, manipulated, or quenched.

Harriet Tubman and the White Man’s God

What does it mean when Egypt puts Moses on its currency?

Harriet Tubman“The white man’s dollar is his god.” So wrote Ida B. Wells in 1892 in Southern Horrors: Lynch Law in all its Phases. She writes this in a section about what “the Afro-American can do for himself” in the face of lynching, but her words reminded me of the conflict I felt over the news that Harriet Tubman’s likeness will soon be added to the twenty-dollar bill. As social media friends reminded me, the inclusion of an African-American woman on the country’s currency begins to address the lack of representation on something so ubiquitous and, supposedly, democratic.

But because I think Wells is right, it’s hard to share this optimism. Because American money is the white man’s god, its symbolism should be viewed from the perspective of those who regulate this sacred object. In her day, Tubman was viewed not as a symbol of the nation’s ideals but as the embodied threat to those ideals. Those in power didn’t follow her lead but understood their role in opposing her and her fellow revolutionaries by passing the Fugitive Slave Act in 1850.

There will be many ways that Tubman’s likeness on the currency can be interpreted and I, for one, will be glad to see her face rather than the bill’s current occupant. But there are fewer ways that we can interpret the decision to include her. Either the nation has changed to the extent that it recognizes Tubman’s ideals of freedom and full humanity for all of its citizens, or, as we’ve seen with so many other Black abolitionists and civil rights leaders, we are watching the blunting of this woman’s particular prophetic edge. By placing one of its fiercest critics on its most sacred symbol, the nation intends for us to believe that it has finally come to embrace all this woman represents. It’s a lie that can only be believed by those who choose not to see the continual oppression dealt by the state to its Black and Brown citizens.

For leading exoduses of enslaved people to freedom, Harriet Tubman became known to friends and enemies alike as Moses. So now the face of Moses will grace Egypt’s currency but it’s still Egypt’s prejudiced ideologies and unholy ends that will be served by the white man’s god.

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Postscript: I write all of the above as someone who sees my white male self everywhere I look. And while it’s impossible for me to genuinely know anything else, I can imagine how, despite some internal conflict, finally seeing a personal representation on something so visible and valuable would be worthy of great celebration.

“…white men have a vested interest in upholding the racial hierarchy…”

To people of color like me, the movement toward a more level playing field is occurring at a painfully glacial pace. But to many white men, the change is happening so fast and it all seems so painful!  Sociologists Henderson and Herring note that when white men begin to feel the effects of equality (e.g., they realize that they no longer receive preferential treatment or have power over others), it feels like discrimination to them. Being treated like everyone else is not discrimination (in fact, it is the textbook definition of equality). But when you’ve lived atop the racial hierarchy for your entire life and grown accustomed to preferential treatment and disproportionate amounts of power, it’s emotionally painful and destabilizing when they’re taken away. For this reason, many white men have a vested interest in upholding the racial hierarchy, even if they profess democratic ideals that suggest otherwise.

Trump, the White Man’s last gasp, and the Resurrection by Christena Cleveland. I wrote, less intelligently than Cleveland, about this perception by some (many?) white men that we’re being discriminated against back in 2011 after Newsweek had a cover story about “The Beached White Male.”

The View From Here

After the release of the video documenting Laquan McDonald’s murder by a Chicago police officer, some clergy friends and I worked to pull together a prayer vigil at police headquarters. It was amazing to see hundreds of faith leaders and community members come out on a rainy night to pray for justice. The top photo is my friend Pastor Chris Harris and below is Michelle Dodson, our church’s associate pastor who prayed a powerful lament over our city.

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More photos can be found online, as can some local media coverage. My friend Michael is reflecting more thoughtfully on this event that I currently have time for.

Keep us in prayer; there’s a lot more to be done.

Paris. Again.

I remember the days following September 11, 2001 more vividly than I do the infamous day itself. Or that’s how it seems to me now, a couple of days after the terrorist attacks in Paris. I read the columns and the memories and emotions of that other fall day come rushing back. I hear President François call the attacks an act of war, I hear him promise a merciless fight, and I can hear my own president then describing the attacks in Manhattan with similarly confident adjectives.

Photo credit: The Apex Archive
Photo credit: The Apex Archive

Tonight, waiting to board my flight just 48 hours after the Paris attacks, I read the first reports of the French warplanes that are now bombing Syrian villages. I remember watching the televised reports about my country’s similar retaliation in Afghanistan and wondering what I was supposed to feel as this ravaged country became the target of our collective wrath. I’m sitting on this plane, flying east over darkness broken regularly by small midwestern towns and I’m thinking about those warplanes, raining down fire on a similarly darkened landscape.

Right now. It’s happening right now.

In Lebanon families and friends are grieving their murdered loved ones, victims of a massive suicide attack the day before the attacks in Paris. There were not, as far as I can tell, any American skyscrapers or public monuments lit up in the colors of Lebanon’s flag in the days following the attack. Yet the French red, white, and blue were everywhere, a global response appropriate to our president’s assessment that the tragedy in Paris was an attack on the civilized world.  Lebanon, it would seem, is not civilized enough to warrant our sympathetic outpouring. Or, more likely, we don’t see the Lebanese women and men who now grieve as being like us; we believe them to be different enough that our emotional response is categorically different. We ignore them.

This too feels eerily familiar. Almost 15 years ago we began preparing for two wars -wars that have never really ceased – because the victims of the September attacks warranted an unequivocal and ruthless response. We may not have initially known it, but it became clear as time passed that we were willing for tens of thousands of Iraqis and Afghanis to die. For what? This has never been adequately explained to me.

Today, as in 2011, there are loud, powerful voices who demand vengeance. We are told that the only appropriate and honorable response is to make our enemies suffer. But can this be right? I’ve been to some funerals lately for young men in our city who were gunned down. At these funerals there are calls for justice and for peace, but there is something else too. There is grief, mourning, even wailing. There is lament and repentance for whatever role our own selfish apathy played in these horrible deaths.

A funeral deserve a dirge but it would appear that, once again, we’re opting for the drumbeat of war.