Raising My White Son In A Racist Age

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The Republicans’ nearly unanimous opposition today to the restoration of the Voting Rights Act hit me hard. It called to mind a more idealistic time in my own life and in that of the nation, and reminded me of how far we have descended in the 9 short years of my oldest son’s life. Let me explain.

My son was born early in 2010. In the years before my son’s birth, galvanized by my relationship with my new wife and new experiences living on the west side of Chicago, I had experienced a racial awakening. As a good evangelical Christian, I had long ago had a conversion experience. But this was a second conversion, in many respects more thoroughgoing than the first. I began to face my racism and reorder my commitments.

I read John Lewis’s autobiography during that awakening. I remember crying. I didn’t approach it as a historian or a critic. Any subtleties or faults of this frail human being were lost on me. I felt as though I was encountering a modern-day saint. Here was a man who nearly gave his life for the right to vote. Here was a man who never wavered in his principles, who returned love for hatred, and bore in his body the evidence of his commitment.

When our first-born son arrived, we could think of nothing better to do than name him John Lewis. It was a fit of youthful presumption and idealism, I now admit. But I don’t regret it at all. It was true to who we were at that time. And it seemed to me to match the tenor of the moment. I found President Obama to be an inspirational and steady leader, and I looked forward to positive changes ahead.

I hoped that my son would grow up to be a man of courage and love in the cause of his own time, as Lewis was in his. I didn’t expect voting rights to be a cause of my son’s time too! But when my son was 3, the Supreme Court struck down the heart of the Voting Rights Act. It quickly became apparent that the Republican Party that had reauthorized the Act as recently as 2006 no longer existed. The ensuing years have given us a wave of new voting restrictions, suppression, and gerrymandering as the GOP turned to overt racism as a tool to gain power.

My son lived his early years at an inflection point in American life. The post-civil rights era, a time too ambiguous to have a proper name, was ending. A new era of racism and anti-racist activism was beginning. When my son was 2, George Zimmerman shot Trayvon Martin in Sanford, Florida, and protests and vigils spread across the country. We were living in Akron, Ohio, at the time. One Saturday morning I buckled John Lewis into his car seat and headed down to the courthouse. I felt I needed to be there, and in some sort of cosmic way beyond memory, I felt it was important for my boy to be there too.

The ensuing years saw the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement, which exploded to national attention during the summer of my son’s 4th year. “Where are you going, daddy?” I stop at the door. “I’m going to a protest, son.” He ponders. “What’s a protest?” How do I explain it? How do I teach him to live in a racist society when I don’t even know myself?

We bought the March books. He liked them but found them confusing. We sent him off to school where, year after year, he is the lone white face in his grade. Does it matter? Does it accomplish anything beyond making me feel that I am doing something?

Some of you might think this all sounds like a lot of pressure for a little boy. White parents with unresolved racial guilt using their son as a guinea pig. Ok.

But there’s another pressure out there, greater because invisible: growing up as a normal white kid in a normal white neighborhood. How are those kids going to resist the evil of our age?

My son will set his own course in life. We rarely talk about where his name came from anymore. But the ambitions behind it linger. A long time ago, Dr. King said that white people are sick. It’s still true. And what parent doesn’t want their children to grow up to be healthy? He will have to be loving and courageous to escape the sickness permeating our time.

During his short life, the racism of the Republican Party has become so much worse and more entrenched. We don’t know where the bottom is, but we know it’s going to affect his life, and even more so the lives of his friends and classmates in our working class black neighborhood.

But there’s no need for despair. As John Lewis puts it, “We must continue to speak up & stand up, to find a way to get in the way to build the Beloved Community.” Whatever path my son takes, I think he’s going to find a way to make some #goodtrouble.

Thoughts for Sunday

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The father of the prodigal son gives himself totally to the joy that his returning son brings him. I have to learn from that. I have to learn to “steal” all the real joy there is to steal and lift it up for others to see…

This is a real discipline. It requires choosing for the light even when there is much darkness to frighten me, choosing for life even when the forces of death are so visible, and choosing for the truth even when I am surrounded with lies. I am tempted to be so impressed by the obvious sadness of the human condition that I no longer claim the joy manifesting itself in many small but very real ways. The reward of choosing joy is joy itself. Living among people with mental disabilities has convinced me of that. There is so much rejection, pain, and woundedness among us, but once you choose to claim the joy hidden in the midst of all suffering, life becomes celebration. Joy never denies the sadness, but transforms it to a fertile soil for more joy.

Surely I will be called naive, unrealistic, and sentimental, and I will be accused of ignoring the “real” problems, the structural evils that underlies much of human misery. But God rejoices when one repentant sinner returns…

For me it is amazing to experience daily the radical difference between cynicism and joy. Cynics seek darkness wherever they go. They point always to approaching dangers, impure motives, and hidden schemes. They call trust naive, care romantic, and forgiveness sentimental. They sneer at enthusiasm, ridicule spiritual fervor, and despise charismatic behavior. They consider themselves realists who see reality for what it truly is and who are not deceived by “escapist emotions.” But in belittling God’s joy, their darkness only calls forth more darkness.

People who have come to know the joy of God do not deny the darkness, but they choose not live in it. They claim that the light that shines in the darkness can be trusted more than the darkness itself and that a little bit of light can dispel a lot of darkness…

Henri Nouwen, The Return of the Prodigal Son

What Propaganda Looks Like

Here’s a roundup of the top headlines on some news sites this morning, from the Washington Post, New York Times, CNN, CBS, BBC, and Wall Street Journal:

Reuters and the AP are leading with international news this morning. As you can see in these screenshots, most of the major news organizations are treating Ambassador Taylor’s testimony as an important news event. Most of the front pages briefly describe Taylor’s central claim and offer an easily accessible link to his testimony if readers want to see it for themselves.

A reader at these sites could click through these articles and quickly understand that a longtime civil servant claims the Trump administration tried to leverage foreign policy for political gain, and that his testimony corroborates other evidence that has come to light, such as the whistle-blower’s report and the phone call readout.

And now here’s the Fox News home page as of 7am:

It’s an alternative universe. The headline is an inscrutable mashup about the Trump Administration’s possible vendetta against John Brennan. A reader might scroll down and see the little link at the bottom describing what Taylor said, but that is beneath the much more prominent “TESTIMONY ‘DESTROYED'” headline. That headline, in turn, is merely a quote from Kevin McCarthy, a congressman with a history of false statements.

The visitor to Fox News would have a much harder time figuring out what actually happened yesterday, what Taylor said, and what context is relevant for understanding his claims. Instead of seeing the latest news, the visitor to Fox News has been given the party line. That, my friends, is what propaganda looks like.

John Fea Is Right About Evangelical Fear

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John Wilson doesn’t like John Fea’s argument in Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump. Fea argues that fear is the essential through-line in the story of evangelical political engagement. Wilson says, c’mon, isn’t everybody afraid these days?

Fea’s response is very good:

Am I afraid of the legacy that Donald Trump and the court evangelicals will leave for the nation and the church?  Yes.  I am very afraid.  But I also realize that I cannot dwell in this fear and, through the spiritual disciplines of my faith, respond to such fears with hope.  In other words, I need to trust God more.  As the writer Marilynne Robinson once said, “fear is not a Christian habit of mind.”

But I should also add that any fear I might have about Trump, the court evangelical agenda, and their legacy is based on truth and facts.  This is different from the fear I see among many of Trump’s evangelical supporters.

Most evangelical fear is built upon endless lies. These include the false idea that America was founded as a Christian nation and needs to be reclaimed, the straw man that all Democrats are socialists, Marxists, and atheists trying to undermine American liberty, the idea that impeachment will lead to a civil war, the belief that immigrants will kill us if they get too close, or the conviction that abortion will end if we just overturn Roe v. Wade.   The overwhelming majority of conservative evangelical Christians who I know and talk to on a regular basis believe one or more of these false claims.  They get their talking points from Fox News and then read the Bible to make it fit with these talking points.  They believe that there is a deep state–an illuminati working to undermine God’s anointed president.  They are so afraid of Hillary Clinton that they think she should be locked-up.  They believe that demonic forces are unraveling America.  And if anyone offers an alternative view to these beliefs they will be castigated as a purveyor of “fake news.”  Again, I have spoken at length to evangelical family members, readers of this blog, and members of my church who believe one or more of these things.  I get their nasty e-mails, social media messages, and multi-part voice messages.

John Wilson–you need to get out more. The fearful people I am writing about here do not read back issues of Books & Culture or attend the Calvin College Festival of Faith and Writing.  They do not talk theology in the coffee shops of Wheaton, Illinois.  There is an entire world of evangelical Christians out there who you have not yet met. They are very afraid.  They seek comfort in strongmen of both the political and religious variety.  Donald Trump and the court evangelicals are exploiting their fears for political gain.

This is very good. There are elite evangelicals who try to claim that the rarefied spaces they occupy are the real evangelical spaces. I don’t think that’s an intellectually or morally serious posture. Fea has his hand on the pulse of the evangelical mainstream, while Wilson appears to be in denial.

But we also ought to be more specific than Fea is here. I’d ask Fea, for example, what is the demographic profile of these evangelicals he is hearing from? Are they white? Are they male? How old are they? The unqualified use of “evangelicals,” which appears at times in Fea’s book too, strikes me as problematic.

We need to be specific, because when we say evangelicals are afraid, it can come across as almost exculpatory. “Hey, they mean no harm, they’re just afraid.” In contrast, what I mean when I say white evangelicals are afraid is that their fear is directly connected to unchristian investments in power and hierarchy.

Thinking about the relationship between proximity to power and fear about losing power helps us to cut through the noise about whether some white evangelical fears are well-founded. The point is that regardless of how legitimate these fears are, lunging for power in the form of Donald Trump is a ridiculous response for which there is no excuse. It’s a response emanating from a place of power and privilege, a response from people who have learned to rely on these advantages (even if only psychological) to feel at peace in the world. The idea of being thrown back on their faith alone is terrifying.

Black evangelicals, in the face of a society far more hostile than anything white evangelicals have known, somehow have managed to avoid investing their political hopes in a Christ-hating demagogue. Imagine that.

Thoughts for Sunday

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Rembrandt, The Return of the Prodigal Son.

At issue here is the question: ‘To whom do I belong? To God or to the world?’ Many of my daily preoccupations suggest that I belong more to the world than to God. A little criticism makes me angry, and a little rejection makes me depressed. A little praise raises my spirits and a little success excites me. It takes very little to raise me up or thrust me down. Often I am like a small boat on the ocean, completely at the mercy of its waves. All the time and energy I spend in keeping some kind of balance and preventing myself from being tipped over and drowning shows that my life is mostly a struggle for survival: not a holy struggle, but an anxious struggle resulting from the mistaken idea that it is the world that defines me…

‘Addiction’ might be the best word to explain the lostness that so deeply permeates contemporary society. Our addictions make us cling to what the world proclaims as the keys to self-fulfillment: accumulation of wealth and power, attainment of status and admiration; lavish consumption of food and drink, and sexual gratification without distinguishing between lust and love. These addictions create expectations that cannot but fail to satisfy our deepest needs. As long as we live within the world’s delusions, our addictions condemn us to futile quests in the ‘distant’ country,’ leaving us to face an endless series of disillusionments while our sense of self remains unfulfilled. In these days of increasing addictions, we have wandered far away from our Father’s home. The addicted life can aptly be designated a life lived in ‘a distant country.’ It is from there that our cry for deliverance rises up.

Henri Nouwen, The Return of the Prodigal Son

What Has Happened To Evangelicalism? The History of Church Growth Offers A Clue

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In recent days an evangelical twitter tempest has reemerged, this time over the question of whether Jerry Falwell, Jr. is an evangelical leader. This is a more specific variation on the perennial question of who is an evangelical, and the Trump-era twist on it: what has happened to evangelicalism?

On one side are some evangelical elites and evangelical scholars who continue to insist on a theologically-defined evangelicalism rooted in David Bebbington’s work. The upshot of this definition is that you can make a distinction between “real” evangelicals and evangelicals in name only.

But other scholars, including sizable numbers of evangelicals, have come to see this theological definition as analytically unhelpful. To some critics, it smacks of contemporary movement boundary policing more than serious historical inquiry.

Among the more notable examples of this critique in recent years is Timothy Gloege’s 2018 Religion Dispatches piece, “Being Evangelical Means Never Having To Say You’re Sorry.” Basically, if a so-called evangelical is behaving badly, you can just write them out of the movement and rebrand it. Sorry, not sorry.

When Gloege’s article resurfaced this week, Baylor historian Paul Putz replied,

Calvin College historian Kristen Kobes Du Mez added this important question:

In a small and suggestive way, I’d like to take up Du Mez’s question. My argument is that we need to think more carefully about how whiteness has structured the evangelical ecclesial experience. I’m going to focus on this simple proposition, with the understanding that reality is not so simple. For one thing, we should not pretend that the shaping effect goes in one direction. If we need to think more carefully about white evangelicalism, we definitely need to give more attention to evangelical whiteness.

At a glance, it might seem that historian Seth Dowland tackled this last year. In a great piece on “American Evangelicalism and the Politics of Whiteness,” Dowland wrote:

Over the course of the 20th century, the evangelical coalition entwined theology, whiteness, and conservative politics. The histories we tell about that movement demand attention to all three aspects. By using theological markers to define evangelicalism, we miss the ways cultural and political forces have shaped the movement. To identify as evangelical in the early 21st century signals commitments to gun rights, the abolition of legal abortion, and low taxes. It’s next to impossible to understand these commitments through the prism of theology alone. But when we understand evangelical as an identity forged in the contexts of Jim Crow segregation, a struggle against second-wave feminism, and fears of a tyrannical federal government, the origin of these commitments becomes clearer.

Evangelicals are not any whiter, demographically, than mainliners or Mormons. But they have rallied around Trump to defend a white Protestant nation. They have proven to be loyal foot soldiers in the battle against undocumented immigrants and Muslims. The triumph of gay rights, the persistence of legal abortion, and the election of Barack Obama signaled to them a need to fight for the America they once knew. The history of American evangelicalism shows us a group of believers who find the most in common when it comes to race and politics.

Notice that though Dowland is paying attention to whiteness, the mechanism by which the ecclesial and political may be related is not at all clear. In other words, Du Mez’s outstanding question remains: what is the connection between devotional life and practice, identity, and these “hot-button” issues?

To offer a suggestive answer to this question, I offer this proposition: what if we think about whiteness in ecclesial contexts as crucial religio-racial grounding for the attitudes, ideas, and behaviors that we commonly recognize as political? What if evangelicals learn whiteness in their churches and then enact it politically?

Here I would like to submit a brief for the importance of my work on the Church Growth Movement (article forthcoming in Religion & American Culture, January 2020!).

The CGM taught quite explicitly that racial integration was a threat to church growth. More broadly, the CGM was a distillation of an evangelical mainstream that often equated success with faithfulness. But what does it mean to be successful in a racist society? What does it mean to grow your church in an era of white flight and racial reaction? When major white evangelical leaders deliberately launched their churches in fast-growing wealthy suburbs, they weren’t just expressing their faith in the power of the gospel. They were making a solid investment in the advantages of whiteness.

In 1991, a Christianity Today cover story described the Church Growth Movement’s successful conquest of evangelicalism. If by the 1990s it no longer seemed to have the institutional heft of its heyday, that was because its basic ideas had become so widely diffused and adopted. It took a while, CT explained, for evangelicals to “become comfortable with success.” But the CGM had helped evangelicals become part of the “successful mainstream,” and they were now getting used to it. “Outright critics,” CT said, “are now hard to find.”

They had become comfortable with success, and critics were hard to find. The first claim was true; the second was false; the phenomenon linking them both was race. For decades, black evangelicals criticized the CGM, and the evangelical mainstream writ large, for pursuing success at the expense of racial justice and racial reconciliation. Critics were not hard to find. It’s just that they were black.

For our purposes, what’s crucial about these black critiques is that they came from an ecclesial context. The problem, as many black evangelicals saw it, wasn’t necessarily political conservatism as such. The problem was the overt investment in whiteness within churches and other evangelical institutions. At the height of the Church Growth Movement’s influence, John Perkins blasted the evangelical mainstream for “not bothering with breaking down racial barriers, since that would only distract us from ‘church growth.’ And so the most segregated, racist institution in America, the evangelical church, racks up the numbers, declaring itself ‘successful,’ oblivious to the…dismemberment of the Body of Christ…” This was theological and ecclesial critique, not a hit against the Christian Right.

And similar critiques have continued ever since. In Bryan Lorrit’s 2018 book, Insider Outsider: My Journey as a Stranger in White Evangelicalism and My Hope for Us All, he writes:

To maintain its seat at the head of the table, white evangelicalism must be in control; it needs power. If white evangelicals are not in power, they won’t choose to be present in any substantive measures. They won’t join our churches or go to conferences historically attended by different ethnicities. They must be in power.

I can’t emphasize this enough: Loritts is talking about the dynamics within evangelical spaces. He’s talking about ecclesiology. A movement that lives or dies on success, and that has been unwilling to divest itself of power within the church, has not responded well to losing cultural and political power outside the church. The white evangelical movement acts politically as its historical ecclesial behavior has conditioned it to act.

Historian Steven Miller has argued that the late-20th century saw America’s “born again years,” a time when evangelicalism successfully entered the mainstream. But as my suggestive little story is meant to illustrate, this was a story of white evangelical church success. A movement that put so much stock in outward signs of success seemed to be thriving as long as the broader cultural and political environment was trending in its direction.

But the new millennium brought the gay rights revolution, rapid racial change, declining church attendance, and all the other hot button issues we talk about in our politics. These put white evangelicals back into a defensive posture. Their moment of success seemed suddenly brief. With shocking speed they found themselves again an embattled minority against a hostile culture.

The urge to lash out and grasp for power, the urge we see embodied in a figure like Jerry Fawell, Jr., is not a case of politics getting the better of white evangelicals’ theological commitments. It’s an expression of the movement’s ethos and history as it has been structured by investments in church growth and mainstream success. This is white evangelicalism. This is evangelical whiteness.

What Does It Mean To Invest In Whiteness?

While working on my dissertation this afternoon I was wrestling with a little question in the back of my mind and I realized I had written something years ago that addressed it. When I went back to find it, I was surprised at how well it held up. So, here it is in it’s entirety, from November 28, 2014.


What is The Investment in Whiteness?

A few days ago I posted this on Facebook:

Where are the White Christians who will join me in confessing our investment in whiteness? Who will join me in repentance? Who will seek to learn more if these questions confuse you?

Well, some have kindly asked questions seeking to learn more.

What in the world do I mean by the phrase “investment in whiteness”?

For me, this phrase has become a useful shorthand to sum up the problem that White people face in American society. I think the phrase emerged for me from Cheryl Harris’s 1993 Harvard Law Review article, “Whiteness as Property,” and more directly from George Lipsitz’s 1998 book, The Possessive Investment In Whiteness.

To have an investment in something means that we have a stake in it. If we make a business investment, we expect to get a monetary return. We “invest” in relationships, and hope to receive companionship and support as a result. We invest in our children, expecting them to grow up to be responsible adults. In a very similar way, most White Americans have an investment in Whiteness.

It is important to understand that this investment in Whiteness is almost always unconscious. That might sound strange at first, but when we think about it, we realize that unconscious investments are quite normal. I, for example, claim that my identity is rooted in my relation to Jesus Christ. Yet I have gradually begun to realize that I unconsciously use my daily work as a way to make myself feel like a worthwhile person. If I haven’t performed a lot of tasks in a given day, I subconsciously feel less valuable as a human being. This is a deep and harmful “investment” in work that has only gradually begun to become conscious to me. As Christians we can all relate to the times we’ve been convicted of putting our faith and hope and identity in things that we should not. And at the moment of conviction we might say, “Wow, why couldn’t I see it before?”

Our investment in Whiteness works a lot like that.

Ok, so we’ve gotten this far: people have all sorts of “investments,” it is quite normal for some of these investments to be unconscious, and some of them are harmful. It remains to be seen what this investment in Whiteness consists of. The most basic thing about the investment in Whiteness is that Whiteness is seen as neutral and normative, and thereby protects the advantages White people have by making it appear that these advantages have nothing to do with being White. For example:

It often blinds us to the limitations and quirks of our own point of view. Instead of realizing that our views are just as biased, particular, and racial as those of other groups, we often subconsciously think that the White view is not White at all, but is actually just normal, neutral, or obvious.

It prevents us from seeing that our theology is not a neutral restatement of Christianity or a simple adherence to biblical teaching. It is shaped by our culture. It is White theology.This theology is extremely individualistic. We often think this is because the Bible is individualistic, but White theology goes far beyond the Bible’s insistence that every individual needs the salvation of Jesus. White theology adds on a radical American individualism that insists individuals are basically innocent of the corporate and collective sins around them. White theology focuses on individual improvement, and changing the world “one heart at a time.” The Old Testament vision of shalom and the New Testament vision of the Kingdom of God go against this radical individualism, but White theology consistently downplays or even ignores the communal and systemic aspects of sin and redemption that the Bible emphasizes.

Our investment in Whiteness causes us to insist on racial innocence and individualized racism. Because White theology downplays the biblical view of sin as both personal and corporate, individual and systemic, we tend to assume that racism is a personal sin, and therefore one that we have nothing to do with. The investment in Whiteness causes us to insist that we can’t possibly be racist. We feel a deep need to not be racist. This need comes not from the humility of Christianity that would cause us to assume that we probably do share the sin of the society around us. It comes from the pride of our culture that doesn’t really believe that human beings are depraved.

The investment in Whiteness causes us to evade personal responsibility for the systemic racial oppression that is constant in American society. Because we are protecting our own innocence, we feel compelled to blame other people or things for the suffering and oppression racial minorities experience. Some blame the “culture” of the disadvantaged group or emphasize family breakdown; others focus on the damage of government welfare programs. These views downplay or even ignore the severity and scale of racial oppression past and present, but they accomplish something important: they make the individual White person innocent. Often, when discussing racial controversies, Whites reveal their investment when they focus not on questions of how best to remove injustice against racial minorities, but rather on defending things such as political conservatism, small government, American patriotism, or radical individualism. Others focus on the importance of civil discussion and even-handedness, not realizing that their Whiteness makes it easy to focus on these comparatively trivial qualities since they don’t have to bear the brunt of racial oppression.

Indeed, one of the most obvious aspects of investment in Whiteness that I should have mentioned by now is that most White Americans do not know basic facts about American history and American society. Many Whites don’t know that the United States was founded as a White supremacist state, and that for much of our history being White was a qualification for being an American citizen. Many don’t know that racial oppression was a vital part of the creation of the modern American middle class after World War Two. This basic ignorance of American history and of the reality of the present oppression by the United States is very important to those who are invested in Whiteness. (My purpose here is not to prove the racial oppression of the American past and present. The burden of proof is on those who deny it. They need to find some evidence to support their position. I’m happy to provide reading lists for anyone who’d like to learn more about the reality of American history).

Acknowledging the facts of American history is extremely threatening to those who are invested in Whiteness. Many of us have ancestors who have passed wealth down to us. When we realize that this wealth was produced from opportunities that the American state deliberately provided only to White people, we are disturbed. It doesn’t reflect poorly on our ancestors. They were just normal human beings. They, like us, often had no idea they were benefiting from injustice. When we realize what has actually occurred, there is no getting around the fact that much of our success owes itself to our identity as White people. It is even more disturbing when we realize that in the present day the oppression is ongoing. We begin to realize that the White environments many of us are in (White neighborhoods, White schools, White churches) are not natural or accidental outcomes, but are the result of our deliberate choices–choices that have protected our investment in Whiteness. As Christians, we begin to realize that the simple acts of our daily lives as we go along with the flow of American society inevitably entrap us in the sinful systems of a broken world.

What, then, am I repenting for?

This is where people get especially confused. We can’t grasp the repentance part without remembering that a radical, unbiblical individualism is a part of our investment in Whiteness. So let’s do our best not to bring that individualism to our repentance. We’re not wringing our hands with a sense of White liberal guilt. We’re not pretending we’re to blame for everything that’s wrong with the world. We’re not pretending that we ever wanted our society to be broken like this. We’re not even repenting of being racists.

We’re simply confessing our participation in systems of racial oppression. We’re confessing our blindness. We’re humbly acknowledging that one of the key reasons we live where we do, have the jobs we do, send our kids to the school we do, is because we are White. We’re confessing that we hadn’t realized it before. We’re humbly admitting that the oppressed know more about their oppression and how best to respond to it than we do. We’re repenting of going along with systems of racial oppression and accepting them as normal. From now on, we will begin to try to figure out what it will mean to be people that weaken those systems rather than being just another cog in them.

Hopefully some of this makes sense. In the end, it is impossible to know how strong the investment in Whiteness is until you’ve actually begun to go against it.

Thoughts for Sunday

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I’ve been slowly reading some of the church fathers in recent months. I come out of an evangelical tradition that had little use for the historic church. It has been fascinating and enriching for me to discover these ancients texts beyond the Bible. Here are a few lines from Augustine’s Confessions:

Who will enable me to find rest in you? Who will grant me that you come to my heart and intoxicate it, so that I forget my evils and embrace my one and only good, yourself? …

The house of my soul is too small for you to come to it. May it be enlarged by you. It is in ruins; restore it. In your eyes it has offensive features. I admit it; I know it; but who will clean it up? Or to whom shall I cry other than you?

Questions To Ask Before Saying, “He Was A Man of His Time.”

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“Don’t mess with Woodrow!” says area man.

This morning someone found out I am a historian and it took about 2 minutes for the conversation to go off the rails. I was informed that Woodrow Wilson was a “man of his time” and can’t be judged by today’s standards. I was also informed that people agitating to rename buildings are “erasing history.”

I didn’t bring up any of this, I promise! Who knew that people are so invested in the memory of Woodrow Wilson?

I can hold my tongue. It wasn’t the time or place to try to add nuance to this person’s views. It obviously didn’t occur to him that I, as a historian, might have some considered thoughts about these matters. But I’ll speak up here. Before you say, “He was a man of his time” (and it’s almost always a he, isn’t it?) here are some questions to ask yourself:

How well do I know the “time” of which I speak? How do I know what it was actually like?

Who disagreed with this “man of his time”? Why did they disagree?

What was the range of views on the subject at the time?

What ideas and choices were available to this individual that he chose to reject?

Why did other similarly situated people make different choices at the time?

It is ahistorical, and arguably unjust, to judge people of the past by standards they could not possibly conceive of. But when we actually become acquainted with past eras, we tend to find that people were well aware of alternatives, but chose to reject them.

Woodrow Wilson didn’t segregate the federal government because he was a man of his time. He did it because he didn’t agree with those who thought black people should be on an equal footing in the American polity. His actions were criticized. He rejected the criticism. It’s perverse to honor the people who were on the wrong side of a consequential debate at the time. When we put a new name on the building we’re not getting up on a high horse claiming to be better than people in the past. We’re honoring the people who got it right at the time.

The “man of his time” argument is most often used in the context of debates about monuments and memorialization. This is odd because it’s in this context that the argument so obviously falls flat. The idea is that these guys were normal human beings, with faults like we all have, so we shouldn’t judge them too harshly. Ok, fine, let’s treat them like other normal people! Am I going to get my name on a building for being a replacement level human? Or should we reserve those places of honor for people who actually did really courageous and commendable things?

It is not hard to understand the difference between honoring and remembering. When you get a street named after you, it’s an honor. When you’re in a museum, you’re being remembered, but it might not be an honor. Sorry folks, Wilson is better museum material than street material.

White Evangelicals Are Afraid

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White evangelicals are afraid. In their fear we ought to hear echoes of the darkest moments of modern history.

The Great Terror, 1937

Krystallnacht, 1938

The Cultural Revolution, 1966

Rwanda, 1994

Myanmar, 2017

I am not comparing the conditions of the United States today to these monstrous crimes (not yet…). But the psychology is remarkably similar.

It’s a psychology of fear. It involves a sense of threat out of all proportion to real events. In each case, key segments of society resort to lies and euphemism in a conscious bid to construct a fictive reality.

Here’s what I think people really don’t understand about the psychology of mass murder: It’s not “I hate you.” It’s “You’ve left me with no choice.”

I wish I had time this morning to rustle up some compelling quotes and examples from these eras. I think any historian of these periods can testify to the ubiquity of feelings of fear and victimization on the part of the killers.

It involves the sense that a certain group or groups are a fundamental threat to the nation or the governing ideological project. A contamination. Therefore, how we treat those groups is excusable. As the historian Timothy Snyder recently wrote, we should always be concerned when zones of lawlessness, however limited, are carved out. They allow the domain of the excusable to grow.

[I]n what conditions would I or my compatriots do things that, in normal life, would be deemed unacceptable? It is here that we should ask where working in legally gray places like our detention centers leads. They are not the entirely lawless zones of the concentration camps, but they have routinized obvious abuses of human rights and are demoralizing some of our fellow Americans, or at least putting them into situations where their worst impulses can thrive. Some of these men, for instance, seem to think that our elected representatives should be raped. Apart from anything else, this is an early sign of how lawless action within a confined zone encourages lawlessness as a way of seeing the world.

I can’t emphasize this enough: a society will go all the way to mass murder saying all the while to the victims, “You made me do it.”

The conditions of mass murder are not here (yet). The psychology is. I don’t know how to tell the truth in our age without sounding shrill. So I will tell the truth and let it fall where it may. I know that most Americans don’t understand how thin, how fungible, is the line between “send her back” and “eliminate her kind.” I know people don’t understand, and fear keeps them from understanding, because they couldn’t bear consciously to support such evil.

What we saw at the Trump rally last night was evil. It was dangerous. White evangelicals, you might be able to get a sense of how you ought to feel about it if you imagine a crowd of Democrats enthusiastically chanting, “Kill the babies! Kill the babies!” It’s like that, ok? It’s a murderous psychology.

The future memory of this moment plays out in one of two ways. In scenario one, Trumpism is defeated over the next 20 years or so, and future generations will learn about last night’s rally like we learn today about the American Nazi party at Madison Square Garden. In that scenario, white evangelical Trumpists, your grandkids will ask you what you did when such evil ran rampant in the land, and you will want to lie. But in the second scenario, white evangelical Trumpists, you win. Last night’s rally is celebrated as a marker of the rise of a white Christian state ruled by a strong leader. Interracial democracy and pluralism was tried, but it was weak and it didn’t work.

White evangelicals, is this really what you want? How has fear blinded you so thoroughly to truth, to love, to Jesus himself? I know you have no understanding of the disgrace you’ve brought to his name. I know, because I know you, and I know that you don’t want to do that. Yet you make your heart hard. When you are afraid, you cannot love. I feel like I must say, as Stephen did to his own people, you always resist the Holy Spirit!

And what of all the white evangelicals who know Trumpism is wrong and are afraid to say so? I pray for their courage. I do not pretend they are in an easy position. If they say the truth, if they follow Jesus, they could lose their entire social network and spiritual support system. Many pastors cannot obey their consciences without losing their jobs. I am not here to judge them. But I pray that God will give them courage. The stakes are higher than most of us realize.