On Sunday I began a preaching series called Thriving in Exile. The premise is simple: Much of the time in Scripture God’s people are experiencing exile – having been sent or kept away from their homeland – and must wrestle with the inevitable theological and practical questions of an exilic experience. While the exile’s desire is always to return home – or, for the Christian, to experience finally what Paul calls our citizenship in heaven (Philippians 3:20) – often God promises not a quick exit from exile but a flourishing life in exile. Jeremiah’s letter to the exiles in Babylon is probably the best-known example as seen in Jeremiah 29.
Preaching about the experience of exile in a multi-racial church provides an interesting challenge for the different ways members have experienced their place in this country. For many of us who are white, our general posture toward the USA has been hopeful. We have felt at home in the land of the free. Our experience of Christianity has usually done little to challenge our deep affinity with the country. If anything, certain types of white Christianity have, at different times, identified certain moral concerns as a means of describing our cultural marginalization. Public school desegregation, school prayer, and contraceptive mandates have each functioned as rallying cries for communities that perceive themselves to be besieged.
Then there are those in our congregation who’ve never once mistaken this country to be their homeland. More than once, mostly from black members but not only, I’ve heard laments about how this nation has communicated dangerous disdain toward certain of its citizens. The biblical description of exile – in the cries of the psalmists, the questions of the prophets, and the experiences of the early Christians – resonate with their own experiences in a land that has made of them permanent exiles in this world.
There’s a difference, then, in how we hear Jesus’ promise in John 15:18 that his followers will experience the same hate he knew. Those who’ve made this nation our home, despite its deadly treatment of those who share our faith but not our race, will be tempted to hear a vague spiritual threat to our individual rights or happiness. But to those who’ve known their exilic status in this place, Jesus’ warning holds the potential for great peace. The one who outlined our exile in this life was himself despised, rejected, and made to suffer. Those who’ve never been confused about their homeland are the guides to thriving in our exile, to identifying with the despised One who makes available to us the abundant life, even here and now.
Thinking this Babylon to be our home has led many of us to fight for power in ways that damage not only our Christian reputation but the very lives of our fellow Christians. Our long battle to Make America Great Again has been a mistake greater than many of us are willing to imagine much less one for which we will consider repenting. But time remains and friendship with the crucified Lord and his exiled children remains a possibility for all who will come to embrace exile.
Moore: You argue that our understanding of the judgment of God has become untethered to His love. Kindly unpack that some for us.
Rutledge: Well, I guess it’s pretty obvious that our culture despises “judgment” above all things. There is hardly any room for discernment or connoisseurship any more. If you love Bach more than you love crossover thrash, you’re an elitist and not worthy of a hearing. When you hear that a person is “judgmental” you know that’s a crushing judgment on that person (yes, the irony is deliberate). It’s not easy in today’s culture to show how the judgment that crushes is the judgment that heals and restores—not only restores, but indeed “makes all things new.” So preachers and teachers of the Christian faith must be tireless in illustrating how the necessary judgment of God upon evil is a facet of his all-embracing love and his conquest of all that is harmful to human flourishing. It’s not all that hard to illustrate if we work at looking for examples of how this works. Everyone knows, deep down, that there has to be some sort of judgment if there is to be justice.
White Christianity cannot be redeemed. It must be renounced, again.
Last December I wrote about a letter Dietrich Bonhoeffer sent to his friend Erwin Sutz in 1934 as the German church was succumbing to National Socialism and Hitler’s regime. In it, Bonhoeffer considered the struggle for the church against the forces of nationalism and ethnic purity.
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.
I’ve thought a lot about these sentences over the past year, about how Bonhoeffer remains prescient for this decisive moment faced by white Christians in this country. We too have entered a “second struggle” for our Christian witness and it must look different than the initial resistance to White Christianity’s support for Donald Trump and his policies. Before we can imagine the second struggle, I should explain what I mean by White Christianity.
In the appendix to the biography Frederick Douglass wrote in 1845 he described the differences between White Christianity – what he called “slaveholding religion” – and the “pure, peaceable, and impartial Christianity of Christ.” Because he loved the latter, Douglass hated “the corrupt, slaveholding, women-whipping, cradle-plundering, partial and hypocritical Christianity of this land.” He went on:
Dark and terrible as is this picture, I hold it to be strictly true of the overwhelming mass of professed Christians in America. They strain at a gnat, and swallow a camel. Could any thing be more true of our churches? They would be shocked at the proposition of fellowshipping with a sheep-stealer; and at the same time they hug to their communion a man-stealer, and brand me with being an infidel, if I find fault with them for it. They attend with Pharisaical strictness to the outward forms of religion, and at the same time neglect the weightier matters of the law, judgement, mercy, and faith. They are always ready to sacrifice, but seldom to show mercy. They are they who are represented as professing to love God whom they have not seen, whilst they hate their brother whom they have seen.
Douglass reminds us that the instinct by white Christians to ignore and distrust those who share their faith but not their race – a dynamic hideously displayed during last year’s presidential election – has a long and contemptible history.
We shouldn’t imagine White Christianity simply as every congregation comprised of white people; it is, rather, heir to the slaveholding religion Douglass so accurately described. The attributes of that deviant Christianity have been passed down through generations: White Christianity chooses its gate-keeping sins while, in practice, tolerating the destruction of People of Color and their communities; it is expert about intricate nuances of particular theologies while remaining ignorant of the lived realities of Christian neighbors who cannot or will not assimilate to whiteness; it organizes itself powerfully around partisan issues while ignoring its ongoing complicity in the oppression of its neighbors, including those who confess Christ from outside the bounds of whiteness. White Christianity is grotesquely displayed when its adherents trust their preferred media more than the testimonies of racially diverse saints. White Christianity is the legitimate decedent of Douglass’ slaveholding religion precisely because it finds its ultimate authority and identity in whiteness rather than Christianity.
This malicious distortion of Christian faith centers on, in theologian Kelly Brown Douglas’ words, “the White Christ” who, “allowed for (1) the justification of slavery, (2) Christians to be slaves, and (3) the compatibility of Christianity with the extreme cruelty of slavery.” In truth, this anti-Christ has never been unveiled and rejected by the recipients of that old slaveholding religion and so his blinding influence continues unabated with disastrous effect.
That white Christians continues to support a president who is claimed by white nationalists, supremacists, and nazis should be all the evidence anyone needs that White Christianity places racial solidarity far above ecclesial unity. Time and again its spokesmen excuse the president’s sinful rhetoric and oppressive policies while simultaneously discounting the fears and suffering of other Christians: Native Americans whose lands continue to be stolen, who are killed by police as often as are African Americans; immigrants from the Middle East, Mexico and Central America who are profiled for harassment and deportation in ever more frightening ways; black communities targeted for unaccountable and militarized policing, disenfranchised from voting yet again; Americans of Asian descent whose cultural and ethnic particularities are rendered invisible to a gaze that sees only perpetual foreignness. White Christianity is willfully blind to those who suffer under the president about whom they believe, as one of its leaders has said, that “God’s hand intervened… to stop the godless, atheistic progressive agenda from taking control of our country.”
But the vulgarities of this past year could obscure something important about White Christianity which is that it is possible to forcefully oppose this presidency and its increasingly visible instances of white supremacy and still fit comfortably within its boundaries. There are forms of White Christianity which protest the most obvious expressions of racism while quietly benefitting from the racial hierarchy. It’s possible, likely even, that one can fiercely resist this presidential administration – self-consciously as a Christian – while tacitly contributing to public school segregation, community displacement, income inequality, and a skyrocketing racial wealth gap- each a symptom of a racial caste system that, regardless of one’s enlightened politics, advances the aims of this nation’s ancient slaveholding religion. By some measures progressive white denominations are even more segregated than the Evangelical ones most associated with our racist president. As an inoculation, liberal Christianity is far too weak for this hereditary sickness.
White Christianity cannot be contained by denominations or ideologies; it is rampant wherever majorities of white Christians of all theological persuasions and partisan perspectives are found.
White Christianity, then, is any expression of Christianity which, in practice, places fidelity to the aims and assumptions of whiteness above solidarity to the Body of Christ. And because whiteness disguises itself as the country’s neutral foundation, to renounce White Christianity white congregations must explicitly proclaim that Jesus is Lord and that whiteness is not. And, because white supremacy is woven into this nation’s systems and psychology, white Christians must work out their salvation with fear and trembling by disavowing our illegitimate inheritance of power, wealth, and – by every possible metric – supremacy.
Bonhoeffer wrote his letter to Sutz believing the struggle for the German church had been lost. It wasn’t that the church was no longer worth fighting for; neither did he walk away from his faith as some American Christians have been tempted to do this year. If anything, the coming years would show how far the young theologian was willing to go to prepare the church for a future devoted to Jesus alone as Lord, a seemingly impossible task that was fueled by his restless faith. But the German church was lost to Bonhoeffer and he would no longer fight to save it. The swastika would soon be added to the German church’s symbols and the aryan paragraph barred any Jewish person from a position of authority in the churches. Church leaders were lining up in support of the Nazi regime and its charismatic leader. There was, in Bonhoeffer’s view, nothing within those corrupted ecclesiastical paradigms worth contending for. In hindsight the decision seems obvious but to most of his contemporaries there was nothing predetermined about Bonhoeffer’s trajectory. In the slow boil to crisis, his response was the exception.
A similarly pivotal moment has arrived for white Christians. In the past it was possible – if not truthful – for many of us to gloss over our tendencies toward nationalism, the inaccuracies we embrace about this country’s history of racial inequity and white supremacy, our partisan priorities that always held racist underpinnings, the schools we founded to separate our children from public (integrated) ones, and the missionary priorities which sent people around the world while ignoring – or, as Douglass’ contemporary Ida B. Wells pointed out, lynching – our African American neighbors. But this president has made it impossible to excuse these actions as having been acceptable within their times. Because those times are now our times and it is clear that the underlying ideology of supremacy and racial hierarchy remains as deeply entrenched now as it was then.
The struggle for White Christianity must be abandoned. The president has embraced white nationalism as his god and White Christianity has supported him at every step and tweet. As long at its countless representatives will not renounce their primary racial allegiance there is no reason to expend time or energy within its sanctuaries, seminaries, conferences, publishing houses, or anywhere else its presence overwhelms all others.
This doesn’t mean that White Christianity can be ignored. When compared with Frederick Douglass’ “pure, peaceable, and impartial Christianity of Christ,” this deviant form of the faith has amassed immeasurable wealth and cultural power. Black churches, for example, have long known that interacting with White Christianity and its representatives is an inevitable part of existence in this country. Especially for those of us who are white, interacting skillfully with white Christian culture and institutions is perhaps one of the roles we play for our sisters and brothers who’ve long suffered its malevolence. A friend of mine, a white pastor, says he continues to show up in these spaces not with any hope of rescuing White Christianity but to do his best to mitigate the damage it inflicts on those he serves. This, I think, is exactly the right posture. We struggle not to save White Christianity but to blunt its violence.
If, as Bonhoeffer did with the German church, we concede the irreparable status of White Christianity – something many American Christians did a long time ago – where then is our second struggle? For Bonhoeffer, this struggle would be characterized by suffering.
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.
Suffering, through unblinking obedience to the commands of Christ as found in the Sermon on the Mount, is what Bonhoeffer anticipated after the struggle for the German church was abandoned. If we are willing to consider it, this form of suffering – induced by discipleship to the crucified Jesus – may provide a lens through which to reckon our coming struggle. I can’t pretend to know how this second, suffering struggle will be experienced by those who accept its invitation, but I can imagine some possibilities.
A person who awakens to her place within White Christianity must choose between regressing to its destructive lie or stating her opposition. The latter is surprisingly difficult. This past year I’ve watched many white pastors and Christian leaders voice their opposition to the racism latent within their churches and organizations only to withdraw to vague spiritual truisms upon being reprimanded by this president’s Christian supporters. I’m sympathetic to their decision, yet we need to be clear about their decisions: They have placed the comfort of their fellow white Christians over the well-being of the Body of Christ. I’ve been there and can testify that this is one of White Christianity’s powers, the pressure to grant racial whiteness superiority over shared eucharistic fellowship across race and ethnicity. I’ve retreated more often that I care to admit.
But the decision to publicly renounce White Christianity is necessary because one’s silence will always be interpreted as acceptance. This moment, and the long and peculiar history behind it, has left us no neutral ground. If white Christians are going to reject White Christianity for the good of the Body of Christ, it will come with the instinctive cost exacted by a defensive dominant system. The betrayal will provoke varying levels of opposition, suffering even. It won’t be the severity of suffering we have inflicted on others of course. I imagine, instead, Jesus’ sobering promise to his followers in Luke 12 that discipleship to him will lead to painful divisions, “father against son and son against father, mother against daughter and daughter against mother, mother-in-law against daughter-in-law and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law.” We shouldn’t search out such painful divisions but they will become increasingly inevitable in spite of our attempts to live peaceful lives. After all, the peace pursued by the political and cultural allies of White Christianity is one that exacts a wicked cost upon the psyches and flesh of Christians of color. Those who reject this false peace will themselves be rejected.
The second struggle will be one in which white Christians who have been discipled into a racialized stupor come to identify with the suffering Christ and their suffering ecclesial family. Theologian James Cone, in The Cross and the Lynching Tree, points out that many American Christians, accustomed to suffering this nation’s scorn, have always known that “white Christianity was fraudulent.”
I and other blacks knew that the Christian identity of whites was not a true expression of what it meant to follow Jesus. Nothing their theologians and preachers could say would convince us otherwise. We wondered how whites could lie with their hypocrisy – such a blatant contradiction of the man from Nazareth. (I am still wondering about that!) White conservative Christianity’s blatant endorsement of lynching as part of its religion, and white liberal Christians’ silence about lynching placed both on the outside of Christian identity.
Like Frederick Douglass and Ida B. Wells before him, Cone argues that because White Christianity worships the “White Christ” it cannot be identified with the historic, suffering Jesus. The indictment cuts through religious conservatives and liberals alike. Any expression of the faith that places race above fellowship with Christ’s Body must be abandoned by those who willfully enter this second, suffering struggle. The white Christians who do so are not making a unique or prophetic claim; we are very simply aligning with sisters and brothers who’ve always understood the heretical nature of White Christianity.
“Whites today,” writes Cone, “cannot separate themselves from the culture that lynched blacks, unless they confront their history and expose the sin of white supremacy.” This is where our struggle lies, along the repenting road where we finally confess our ancestral sin. Here we find a company of saints who’ve never been deluded by White Christianity’s strange promise that faith can be built on plunder and exploitation. Within this company we encounter the crucified Christ.
Claiming, as I’ve done, that white Christians must choose between White Christianity or the Body of Christ is not unique. Neither is it especially insightful. As long as there has been a United States there have been those like Wells and Douglass who have made this case courageously. The Reverend Francis J. Grimke is another. In 1898, as lynching and Jim Crow laws terrorized African American citizens in the south, he preached a sermon from his Washington D.C. pulpit, “The Negro Will Never Acquiesce As Long As He Lives.” In it he lamented that, despite these well-known acts of terrorism, in white churches “the pulpits of the land are silent on these great wrongs.” He went on:
This is the charge which I make against the Anglo American pulpit today; its silence has been interpreted as an approval of these horrible outrages. Bad men have been encouraged to continue in their acts of lawlessness and brutality. As long as the pulpits are silent on these wrongs it is in vain to expect the people to do any better than they are doing.
Despite the plain truth spoken by countless women and men like Rev. Grimke, White Christianity has hurtled forward, unabated in its perverse disregard for most of the church. When given the choice to renounce racial idolatry for genuine fellowship, white Christians have almost always chosen the former. But now, in the form of our demagogue-like president and the white supremacy churned up in his wake, we are being offered the choice again. Yet despite the bleak light of the moment, the likelihood of some kind of suffering will compel most of us to return to our blindness. Some will find theologically twisted ways to acquiesce to – if not support – the political forces exacerbating and exploiting racial segregation and oppression. Others of us will find comfort in our loud ideological opposition to the president and his policies while continuing to benefit from the status quo.
If there is anything at all distinct about my argument it is simply this: White Christianity cannot be redeemed. It must be renounced. This is the painful but necessary aim of the struggle for those who, having been stirred from slumber, refuse to close their eyes. I fear this suffering struggle, fraught with tender divisions and uncertain futures, will prove to be a bridge too far and that, as Bonhoeffer wrote to his friend, “very few of those involved in this preliminary skirmish are going to be there for that second struggle.”
Even so, the choice remains and despite our long history of selfish and destructive decisions, our responses have not been determined for us. The suffering Christ and his prevailing church remain open to all who disavow false gods, including the racial idols and ideologies that have poisoned our hearts for as long as we’ve imagined ourselves to be white.
Ta-Nehisi Coates is more Christian about hope than are many American Christians.
I wrote the following for our church newsletter.
One of my favorite authors, Ta-Nehisi Coates, has a new collection of essays out this week, We Were Eight Years in Power: An American Tragedy, about the years during the Obama Presidency and their connection to our current political tumult. On Monday Coates was a guest on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert and the last two minutes of their conversation caught my attention. Click the video below and begin watching at 5:06 to see the exchange.
“Do you have any hope tonight?” is what Colbert wants to know and Coates is blunt: “No.” I’ve been reading him long enough to have heard Coates asked some variation of this question many different times. His writing is stark and his vision of the country and its history is bleak. He is one of our most truthful contemporary writers. His interviewers, generally white, want to know if this harsh view of our reality contains within it any space for hope.
In his previous book, Between the World and Me, the author warns his son about this country’s blindness towards the devastating truths about ourselves:
The mettle that it takes to look away from the horror of our prison system, from police forces transformed into armies, from the long war against the black body, is not forged overnight. This is the practiced habit of jabbing out one’s eyes and forgetting the work of one’s hands. To acknowledge these horrors means turning away from the brightly rendered version of your country as it has always declared itself and turning toward something murkier and unknown. It is still too difficult for most Americans to do this. But that is your work.
It’s not surprising, I suppose, that many Americans would read a passage like this and wonder if there is room for hope. We’ve been formed to think about this country more positively than this. On the political right we hear the voices calling us to return the U.S.A. to its mythic glory. On the left are those who believe the arc of justice to be long, but eventually inevitable. Coates’ vision is different. For him the evils we face are histories that cannot be easily overcome nor are they contemporary glitches to an otherwise functional society. The wickedness of the nation is endemic to it. To take but one horrifying example, about the enslavement of African people Coates recently wrote, “Enslavement provided not merely the foundation of white economic prosperity, but the foundation of white social equality, and thus the foundation of American democracy.” The evil of slavery, in other words, is not exceptional to what the country is but is a glimpse at its foundational logic.
You don’t have to share Coates’ perspective about this country – though I largely do – to understand why he refuses to offer his interviewers and readers assurances of hope. He is not a hopeful person and his writing provides more than enough rationale. He will not tell his readers that everything will be all right. It’s one of the things I most admire about Ta-Nehisi Coates and his bracing vision of this country.
This country and, if we’re honest, many of its expressions of Christianity, are addicted to optimism. We take our personal experiences of happiness, no matter how brief, as evidence that we are ok, that the direction our lives are heading will end well. For some of us this is especially true when it comes to race. It’s not a surprise to me that many of those interrogating Coates about hope are white. This country works to convince those of us who are – and those to whom whiteness extends its treacherous bargains – that the white supremacy, native genocide, and anti-black racism that lay at the nation’s roots can be transcended. We’re told that we shouldn’t remain bound to these ugly realities. With enough work – some reading, a few diverse friendships, a couple of hard-hitting documentaries, a church racial reconciliation workshop – we can move on to other concerns.
I say we are addicted to optimism because Christian hope is something else entirely, something more akin to the experience Coates describes in much of his writing. Hope, for the Christian is eschatological, which is simply to say that our hope is anchored in the God who will one day make final Christ’s victory on the cross. Such hope does not engender complacency, rather we “labor and strive.” (1 Timothy 4:10) This hope is not dependent on circumstances or the American pursuit of happiness, in fact such visible, transient hope is “no hope at all.” (Romans 8:24) I once heard Coates say something like, hope is struggle, a rather different perspective than the one which leads to our nation’s sanitized and deceptive story about manifest destiny and the like. This too hints at our Christian hope: “we also glory in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope.” (Romans 5:3-4) To be hopeful in Christ is to dive headlong into the struggle with wickedness and injustice, a struggle which includes suffering but also perseverance, character, and genuine hope.
Optimism is not enough for this generation. We are are hard-pressed on every side: gun violence in our city and beyond; ecological disasters; the rise of blatant white supremacy; sex-selective abortions; nuclear threats and news of genocide from around the world. We could go on. There are also our countless private struggles. Optimism isn’t enough. We need hope.
Maybe the most well-known Christian language about hope is found in Hebrews 11:1. “Now faith is confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see.” It’s not that we don’t want to see the expressions of our hope, the righteousness of the Kingdom of God in all of its fullness. It’s just that we don’t have to see it now to still struggle for it. We aren’t optimists because we don’t require experience or even evidence to throw ourselves into the struggle. Our faith is in the One who allowed evil to roll over his head, who allowed wickedness and oppression to crash upon his body, who was lynched for the sins of the world. Our faith in him is what anchors us now, eyes wide open to all that is wrong, and right. We don’t have to lie about ourselves, and we certainly don’t have to lie about this nation. Our hope is found elsewhere.
The saints who’ve gone before us testify to the trustworthiness of this sort of hope. Though all else is torn away, Christ remains- victorious in the past, glorious in the future. Christian hope will not always appear hopeful to people raised on optimism. But try it. Test it. Repent from the lies this nation has told about itself and about you. Repent from the empty promises of guaranteed happiness and easy optimism. Instead, let us “put our hope in the living God, who is the Savior of all people, and especially of those who believe.” (1 Timothy 4:10) More often than not our hope will appear to the world like nothing so much as struggle. But we who struggle – who hope – will come to find in this hopeful struggle the fullness of life, heaven reaching into earth as a sign pointing toward the day when all will be made new and we no longer need to hope.
The ambivalence about climate change by many white Christians isn’t only about money and scientific skepticism.
This afternoon the president announced that he is withdrawing the nation from the Paris Climate Accord. Many who oppose this move – like me – will see the motivation by the president and his supporters to walk away from the commitment to reduce climate change to be about two things: the economy and/or a disregard for science. Mostly what we hear from those who disregard climate change is that it is either a fiction or, slightly more benevolently, that we must prioritize our economy while, eventually, addressing environmental concerns. There’s another lens through which to view this decision, and its one made most visible by the support by so many white Christians of this president and his environmentally-destructive agenda.
The Bible is full of imagery and metaphors taken from creation. The biblical narrative begins in a garden and ends with a return to Eden, this time within God’s Holy City. We’re told that the creation groans for redemption and humanity’s vocation from the beginning was to work with God to care for the earth and all of its inhabitants. So why the enthusiastic support by Christians for a presidential administration that so blatantly disregards basic Christian beliefs about creation?
Greed and scientific skepticism are not enough to explain this strange phenomenon. For this we need to recognize the power of white supremacy as a guiding, if generally invisible and unacknowledged, force when it comes to how many white Christians see the environment and their role in caring for it. The history of white supremacy as the beginning of the construct of race and racial hierarchies that we experience today is rooted in a moment that combined the colonialist enterprise with a supersessionist theology which detached Christianity from its Jewish roots.
In his important book, The Christian Imagination, tracing this historical development, Willie Jennings writes that the “earth itself was barred from being a constant signifier of identity. Europeans defined Africans and all others apart from the earth even as they separated them from their lands.” Rather than viewing the new cultures and peoples through the lens of creation, the colonialists began viewing people through a racial gaze. He goes on: “They saw themselves as those ordained to enact providential transition. In doing so they positioned themselves as those first conditioning their world rather than being conditioned by it.” [Emphasis mine.] In other words, as Europeans began understanding themselves as racially white, they no longer viewed themselves as being formed by God’s creation; now they were the ones with the racially-sanctioned ability to categorize, form, and exploit those with whom they came in contact, as well as the lands these cultures had long inhabited.
When white Christians forsake the clear biblical mandate to care for God’s creation and cheer for the president’s call to put our economy first while ignoring the obvious threats to this earth and its vulnerable inhabitants we are simply exhibiting the logic of white supremacy. In accepting our detachment from creation and claiming a god-like place of “conditioning” the world through our racialized gaze we have closed our eyes and stopped up our ears to the plight of this world.
When white Christians applaud policies that will further our planet’s destruction we might rightly feel many things, but surprise can’t be one of them.
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.