But whatever it may please you to do in a matter which concerns your crown, your soul, and your kingdom, we sons of the Church cannot wholly keep silence about the injuries done to our mother [church], and the way in which she is despised and trodden under foot; for we perceive that these evils, besides those which we lament piteously have already fallen upon her, are again partly inflicted afresh and partly threatened. We will certainly make a stand, and fight even to death, if need be, for our mother with the weapons allowed us, not with shield and sword, but with prayers and lamentations to God…
– Bernard of Clairvaux, “Letter to King Louis of France” (1142).
Was it easier for the church to see its injuries at the hand of the state in the middle ages? Is there a reason it’s so hard for much of the American church to see the wounds now being inflicted upon its multi-racial Body?
On election night last week I drove down to Mount Greenwood on the far south side of the city. The neighborhood is mostly Irish-Catholic and was the site of a recent police shooting. I went because I knew that a group of mostly Black protestors were gathering in response to the shooting. I needed to bear witness. What I saw and heard made my head spin: hundreds of the neighborhood’s residents screaming at the few Black protestors; slurs and stereotypes hurled with abandon; wink-and-nod interactions between police and neighbors; white teenagers and children mesmerized by the entire scene, phones held high to record the chaos before walking the block or so back to their homes.
This is when I knew Donald Trump could be the next president. Not because each of his voters is so openly hostile to African American people, but because a country that accepts the reasonableness of this horrifying scene will find little about this man that is unreasonable enough to keep him from the highest office in the land.
Black Atlantic Christianity comes into being with this painful truth. The Christianity it works with is necessary, powerful, and living but not very appealing. It lacks appeal because, enamored of the power and beauty of whiteness, this Christianity presents itself to no one but itself and tragically invites “nonwhite” peoples to do the same. An intellectual life formed in so unappealing a setting becomes crushingly insular… I am not dismissing the important parental legacy of Christianity in nurturing key intellectuals of the modern West, and especially intellectuals of the Black Atlantic. But we must not allow this legacy to blind us to the aching absence of a truly Christian intellectual community at the heart of church life in this world. Such a Christian community would reflect in its work the incarnate reality of the Son who has joined the divine life to our lives and invites us to deep abiding intellectual joining, not only of ideas but of problems, not only of concepts but of concerns, not only beliefs and practices but of common life, and all of it of the multitude of many tongues.
-Willie James Jennings, The Christian Imagination: Theology and the Origins of Race
Jennings captures something so innate to Western Christianity that it is mostly invisible, namely that its rootedness in whiteness leads to an intellectual life that is not particularly Christian. Consider, for example, current white Christian engagement with the Republican presidential nominee. On one side are the supporters who are blind to the threat this man poses to many within the diverse Christian family. On the other side are those who cannot imagine any scenario in which a Christian could support the nominee and yet whose opposition has little physical contact with the lives and concerns of Black and Brown Christians.
Jennings hints at an alternative in which white Christianity redirects its gaze and the seat of its authorities to “non-white” communities and concerns. There is a common life available but the conversion will be a kind of death for those whose experience of God was birthed in the insularity of whiteness.
All of our movies, the music we listened to, the books we read, the food that we ate—everything was a representation of Black American people and culture. I think that the first time I saw a picture of white Jesus was at a friend’s house; I remember thinking he was an entertainer or model, with his big blue eyes and blonde hair. At our house, a large picture of Martin Luther King Jr. was framed and hung up as if he were a member of the family, and I think the first time I used the word “handsome” was in reference to a print of Marvin Gaye we kept near the living room table.
– Jasmine Sanders, “Home on the State Street Corridor.” This entire essay is beautiful, a reflection on a part of the south side that looms large despite its demolition years ago.
Fall has arrived in Chicago.
Thank you Lord for asking me to be a pastor, and thank you for a church that expects me to be a pastor.
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.