Is President Trump Patriotic?

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There is a bizarre assumption at work in our politics today. Many people have got the idea in their heads that the President of the United States is patriotic. Ordinarily, this is such a safe assumption that we don’t really have to think about it. Yes, Ronald Reagan was patriotic. So was Barack Obama. All but the most rabid partisans will acknowledge that.

But when we extend the same presumption to Donald Trump, we’re actually reading against the evidence. Of course we’d like to believe the president of the United States is patriotic. But in this case there isn’t really any reason to think so.

In an interesting item today, Jonathan Chait calls Trump the “most unpatriotic president ever.” This isn’t true. That honor belongs to Andrew Johnson, who believed that people who had lately been killing as many United States soldiers as possible deserved more sympathy than citizens who remained loyal to the United States. Trump does appear to clear the low bar that Johnson set, so you can at least say that for him.

As Chait notes, the case that Trump is unpatriotic does not rest on asserting that one brand of patriotism is the only “real” patriotism. You can have Obama’s “more perfect union” kind of patriotism, or the “my country right or wrong” sort, or even Johnson’s execrable brand of patriotism explicitly premised on white supremacy. All of these sorts of patriotism, even if loathsome, can coherently reflect a genuine pride in one’s idea of a national community.

But profiteering at the public’s expense seems hard to square with any brand of patriotism we know of. It would be really odd for a patriotic person to use the office of the presidency to enrich himself at the risk of damaging the country. But of course, this is exactly what Trump does. Maybe the simple answer is the right one: he just doesn’t care about the country because he only cares about himself.

As Chait mentions, Trump also regularly insults the United States in terms that would make conservatives apoplectic if uttered by a Democratic President. Maybe—and I’m just spitballing here—he insults the country because that’s how he really feels about it. And maybe, just maybe, his lack of patriotism is part of the reason he hates Americans who demonstrate a sincere desire to improve their country.

Thoughts on “This is America”

Here is the music video for Childish Gambino’s (aka Donald Glover’s) new song, “This Is America”:

The great thing about a provocative music video is that it’s open to multiple interpretations. At a glance, I’ve seen a few takes that describe this as a video about guns, riots, policing, and the like. Here’s my two cents: this is a video about black men in the American imagination on the one hand, and the experience of being a black man in America on the other.

In both of those dimensions, it is a video about fear.

In the opening minute or so, Glover alternately embodies the primary ways we have of seeing black men. He is an entertainer one moment, and a threat the next. But when he embodies the entertainer he is not empowered. He is a minstrel character; he is Jim Crow himself:

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And then suddenly he transforms into a hyper-masculine, violent, threatening other.

In the final moments of the video, we glimpse the irony in all of this. Black men, objects of fear in the American imagination, have ample reason to be afraid. The theme that most stood out to me in Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me was fear. White Americans spend a lot of time being afraid of black people. We’re left with little room in our imaginations for how fearful the experience of being black in America can be.

When I think about the fears I have for my children—how I get angry at even the suspicion that they are being mistreated, that an adult might not be judging them as individuals—and then consider what it means to be a black parent…I am overwhelmed by all the extra work every black parent is doing to keep themselves and their children on an even keel.

I’ve now strayed a bit away from the song. But these are some rough thoughts inspired by it.

Another White Evangelical Self-Critique, And Its Limits

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The crushed body of Reverend Bruce Klunder lies in the mud, April 1964

It is common to make distinctions between northern and southern white evangelicals during the civil rights era. Northerners are cast as more moderate, while southerners are assumed to be more reactionary. Even if this interpretation captures a truth about the overall posture of these regional groupings, it definitely undersells the extent to which segregationist theology had made inroads among white evangelicals nationwide.

In June, 1964, an editorial in Eternity critiqued white evangelicals as a group with little regional distinctiveness:

Let’s face it. Most evangelicals, whether they are from the North, South, East or West, are supporters of the status quo, and consequently tend to be segregationists. They would rather not discuss the matter at all, but if you press them, they will spout almost the same defensive arguments as the most reactionary Southerner, whose white-dominated world really is threatened. They speak bitterly against the liberals who, they say, substitute social action for the gospel of redemption.”

This is another remarkable critique of white evangelicals from white evangelicals. I find these sorts of documents fascinating in part because it helps us to see how the intra-evangelical debates of today are very old. We’ve seen this movie before. In the age of black lives matter and Donald Trump, the claims and counterclaims and misunderstanding among fellow evangelicals feels very, very familiar.

In that same 1964 editorial, the authors described themselves as “editors of an evangelical magazine that has suffered for taking a position on the racial issue.” Perhaps a dig at the wishy-washy cowardice of Christianity Today is implied there.

Yet even Eternity placed sharp limits on its support for black aspirations. The moment protestors turned to violence the editors were prepared to condemn their behavior with particular venom. After a civil rights protest in Cleveland left a white pastor dead and black protestors attacked the driver of the bulldozer who had inadvertently crushed the man, Eternity described the “animal-like fury” of their assault and condemned “demonic” efforts to “whip up the passions of the crowd.” These descriptions betray a visceral horror lacking in their criticisms of white violence of the same period.

White Evangelical Self-Criticism in the Civil Rights Era

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1963 was a pivotal year for the civil rights movement, and white evangelicals increasingly took notice. As Eternity magazine put it in August, “Let’s not kid ourselves…this is a revolution. And before it is over it will affect your family, your community and your church.” Amid a climate of protest all over the country, evangelical media commented on high-profile events such as the Birmingham Campaign in the spring, followed by the March on Washington at the end of the summer, and the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church weeks later. But while mainstream media debated the prospects of a civil rights bill in congress, white evangelicals debated the responsibilities of the church.

An August 1963 editorial appearing in Eternity magazine is revealing of the way evangelical self-criticism could be at once hard-hitting—brooking no excuses from white evangelicals who supported the status quo—and yet blind to its own theological paternalism.

The magazine criticized white evangelicals for being “ostrich-like with our heads in the sand” while a revolution swirled around them. “For too long we’ve contented ourselves with platitudes,” when decisive action was needed. What would it look like to move beyond platitudes? It would look like local, church-based activism. “[I]f there are Negroes living in your community, these Negroes are as much the spiritual responsibility of the church as the whites are.” And white evangelicals’ responsibility extended beyond the church walls. If a black family moved into a white neighborhood, white evangelicals must love them.

To those who did not want to upset the norms of a segregated church, the editorial pointed to 1 John 3:14: the Bible said that those who did not love their fellow human beings “abideth in death.”* This was an explosive context in which to raise this biblical interpretation, for it implied that white evangelicals who supported Jim Crow had not actually experienced a saving faith and were thus on the path to eternal damnation.

In an evangelical context, this was the equivalent of going nuclear. In the broader setting of American political debate, there was nothing quite like it. Perhaps the closest analogy would be calling an American citizen unpatriotic or traitorous, a claim that casts one’s opponent outside the community of belonging. For some white evangelicals, the stakes involved in their community’s response to the civil rights revolution were eternal.

For all the hard-hitting criticism the editorial contained, it interpreted white evangelical failure through the lens of theological paternalism. The main reason white evangelicals’ ambivalent posture toward African Americans was so sinful was because black people would be without the gospel if white evangelicals did not reach out to them. The editorial assumed that the gospel was somehow something that white evangelicals—despite their failures—had possession of, in contrast to the gospel void in the black community.

The editorial rhetorically asked its readers if they were trying to reach out to African Americans, or were they forcing them into “a Negro ghetto where they have neither the chance nor the inclination to hear the saving gospel of Jesus Christ?” Combining assumptions about the inadequacy of the black church and the evils of the city, the absence of Christian witness in the ghetto was so obvious to Eternity that it could be assumed. In conclusion, the editorial said the gospel was “hid to the ten per cent of the American citizenry who happen to have colored skins. And we are doing the hiding.” This only made sense if the gospel was the property of white Christians.


*The editorial quoted 1 John 3:14 in the King James Version. The entire verse and the one immediately following it reveal the intensity of Eternity’s criticism: “We know that we have passed from death unto life, because we love the brethren. He that loveth not his brother abideth in death. Whosoever hateth his brother is a murderer: and ye know that no murderer hath eternal life abiding in him.”

 

Chosen Nation: A Conversation with Benjamin W. Goossen

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Benjamin W. Goossen is the author of Chosen Nation: Mennonites and Germany in A Global Era (Princeton, 2017). He is also the co-founder, along with Devin Manzullo-Thomas, of the Anabaptist Historians blog. In a recent email exchange, I asked Goossen a few questions about his excellent book.

What is the argument of Chosen Nation?

My book is an exploration of the relationship between Mennonites and German nationalism over the past two centuries. When members of the general public think about Mennonites, they probably think of two things right away: 1) Mennonites are German, and 2) Mennonites are pacifists. Chosen Nation describes how, in fact, neither of these assumptions is necessarily true. Prior to about 1850, few to no Mennonites worldwide thought of themselves as German (that’s a self-identity that came later), while since about 1990, most Mennonites worldwide are people of color. Perhaps even more surprising, by the end of the First World War, most Mennonites in Europe had given up pacifism, and during World War II, thousands fought for the Nazis.

I use these stories in Chosen Nation to make a larger point about the relationship between religion and nationalism. As a case study, Mennonite history demonstrates that religious and national identities are not necessarily distinct. Rather, they are often quite fluid and can even be swapped in and out with each other.

Why is it important for American Mennonites to read this book? 

Chosen Nation tells a story of Mennonites’ involvement with Nazism and the Holocaust that, until now, has not been widely known. At the height of the Second World War, about a fourth of the denomination lived in Hitler’s Third Reich, and Mennonites in Europe disproportionately benefited from racism and genocide. After the war, church organizations on both sides of the Atlantic helped to cover up that story, arguing that those Mennonites involved had been peaceful anti-fascists who suffered like Jews. It’s important that Mennonites talk about this history and think critically about how we as a peace church can and should respond.

More generally, I hope that Chosen Nation can help many people – Mennonites, but also others – recognize that many of the identities we inhabit have unexpected histories, and that often, the beliefs we hold are not as clear-cut as we might think. What does it mean to be an American or a Christian or a Mennonite or a pacifist? These are some of the questions that I hope readers will come away thinking about for themselves.

One of the really striking things about your book is the way you describe historical narratives (or myths) being constructed and contested in efforts to define who Mennonites were and where they belonged. It seems to me that in the act of describing and analyzing this, you are becoming a participant in it. Did you consciously set out to give Mennonites new usable pasts? Or is the sustenance religious communities want from historical memory hopelessly separated from what academic historians are prepared to provide?

Historians have for decades been uncovering how the stories that groups tell themselves about their pasts are frequently “invented traditions.” This doesn’t necessarily mean that such stories are fabrications (although some are), but more often that the way they’re told reveals a carefully curated process of selection, and that such tales are intended to advance certain political or ideological objectives. A classic example would be the mythology that we in the US have built up around the American Revolution and our “founding fathers.” Early colonists had many things on their minds – such as military expansion and slavery – but a lot of that gets lost in, say, stories about chopping down cherry trees, sewing the star-spangled banner, or sharing the first Thanksgiving.

My point is that the stories we as communities tell about the past – whether as Americans, Mennonites, or anyone else – are at once deeply political and also vitally important. Chosen Nation offers an account of Anabaptist history that is factually grounded in extensive archival research and through dialogue with previous historical scholarship. But to the extent that all historians must make choices about which stories they tell and what elements of those stories to emphasize, I have very intentionally tried to construct a history that pushes Mennonites to be the best church that we can be. We should be honest about the dark parts of our past, and we should constantly strive to recognize and alleviate injustice in the world around us. That’s a project shared by a great number of other historians of Christianity, including my wonderful fellow contributors at Anabaptist Historians.

Writing academically about a religious community to which you have a personal connection can be complicated, to say the least. How have you navigated that tension?

Being Mennonite is actually what got me interested in history. Many historians learn about their subjects through the research process, so in some ways I did it the other way around. Chosen Nation began as a way for me to learn about and think through some of the incongruities I felt between my religious tradition and my theological faith. For example: why did I grow up thinking about myself as a member of a persecuted minority when I am in fact a white Christian male – someone with about as much privilege as it is possible to get? Why did I grow up in an ethnically exclusionary community proud of being “German” when in church every Sunday I heard preaching about the value of humility and the universality of God’s love?

As a historian working within the broader social sciences, I’m lucky to be part of an academic tradition that has considered extensively how scholars can and should interact with the communities that they study. There are many schools of thought here, but I’d like to highlight a distinction made by Kim TallBear, a professor of Native Studies at the University of Alberta. Rather than “giving back” to the indigenous communities she writes about, TallBear prefers to think about her scholarship and advocacy as “standing with” those people. For me, similarly, the Mennonite church is not a separate entity, but a community with which I am entangled; our futures develop together.

How does your book help scholars of other religious and national communities to think more carefully about the intersection/fluidity of religious and national identities?

My hope is that other scholars who read Chosen Nation and who read it in light of their own research projects will come away with a desire to think about religion and nationalism together. Instead of separating them into distinct categories, it’s important to acknowledge that religious and national factors, strategies, and ways of being often influence each other. Too many scholars, not to mention members of the general public, still think about religious and national history as being separate from each other – but I don’t think it’s possible to tell the full story of, say, American Christianity without thinking long and hard about how that first part – “American” – is modifying “Christianity,” and vice versa.

The second idea is that the fundamental practices and beliefs espoused by religious and national communities can and frequently do change dramatically over time. I don’t think it makes sense to talk about “Mennonites” or “Germans” (or any other group, such as, say, “Buddhists” or “Brazilians”) as having stable, eternal essences or identities. It’s worth differentiating exactly what these labels mean to individual practitioners as well as how they develop in particular moments and spaces. At the same time, it’s important not to get lost in debates about tiny differences between branches of otherwise similar groups. We should keep in mind larger pictures of how group narratives and myths cohere. As often as not, disunity and discontinuity are in fact critical to how collective identities are both formed and articulated.

Thanks Dr. Goossen!

A Must-Read White Evangelical Self-Critique

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If white evangelicalism is ever to become a force for good in the world (you may disagree with the premise but I take it as axiomatic that it is not that now) it must confront its history and tell it anew. It must realize that the story of an evangelicalism that held fast to the faith while the modernists betrayed it is a self-serving myth.

In reality, the white evangelical mainstream in the 20th century was generally a heresy. Instead of carrying the undiluted good news faithfully through the choppy waters of modernity, it bowed down to the most insidious gods of the age—race, nationalism, materialism. White evangelicalism was often the opposite of good news. It was not, to put it in evangelical lingo, a saving faith. It was not news worth sharing.

As both a historian and an evangelical, I reject the idea that the bleak picture sketched above is the whole picture. There were moments of redemption, places of good news, people of noble faith. But when white evangelicals turn this happy story into the whole story they don’t just obscure the darker side, they actively reinforce the hubris of a religious community seeking to avoid repentance.

We won’t act righteously in the present without rebuilding our story from the ground up. The task at hand is not to hold true to the faith of our ancestors as much as to recognize and repent of the sins—their and ours—that have formed us.

At a recent meeting of evangelical leaders at Wheaton College, Dr. Mark Labberton, the President of Fuller Seminary, gave a speech showing what this can look like. The speech is remarkable for its honesty, moral clarity, and historical consciousness. There’s very little excuse-making here. Instead, in a spirit of humility, he reckons not only with what white evangelicalism has become, but with what it has long been:

This is not a recent crisis but a historic one.  We face a haunting specter with a shadow that reaches back further than the 2016 election—a history that helps define the depth of the sorrow, fear, anger, anxiety, and injustice around us. Today’s egregious collusion between evangelicals and worldly power is problematic enough: more painful and revealing is that such collusion has been our historic habit. Today’s collusion bears astonishing—and tragic—continuity with the past.

Right alongside the rich history of gospel faithfulness that evangelicalism has affirmed, there lies a destructive complicity with dominant cultural and racial power. Despite deep gospel confidence and rhetoric, evangelicalism has been long-wedded to a devastating social self-interest that defends the dominant culture over and against that of the gospel’s command to love the “other” as ourselves.  We are not naïve in our doctrine of sin that prefers self over all, but we have failed to recognize our own guilt in it.

Our professed trust in Jesus has not led evangelicals to die to ourselves, but often to justify our own self-assertion—even when that means complicity in the suffering and death of others. The scandal associated today with the evangelical gospel is not the scandal of the Cross of Christ, crucified for the salvation of the world.  Rather it is the scandal of our own arrogance, unconfessed before the Cross, revealing a hypocritical superiority that we dare to associate with the God who died to save the weak and the lost.

Labberton goes on to identify “the top four arenas in which this violation of spiritual and moral character has shown itself.” He names power, race, nationalism, and economics. Here he is on the question of race:

The Bible knows all people to be fully human, fearfully and wonderfully made in God’s image, knit together in our mother’s womb. All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God, not just those who arrive as poor, hard-working immigrants fleeing violence or those wasting away in private prisons.  All are dead and in Christ made alive, and the evidence of the resurrection is that the peculiar body of God’s people, a new humanity of Jew and Greek, slave and free, male and female, are to be the evidence of a resurrected God. This is the glory of creation and new creation.

Those of us who are white evangelicals must acknowledge that our story is intertwined with, and often responsible for, much of the violence and oppression around racial injustice in our American story.  The stories of Native American, African American, Latino/a, or Asian peoples in the history of the United States cannot be told truthfully without naming the role of white evangelicals who testified to a God of redemption but whose theological, political, social, and economic choices contributed to suffering and injustice.  Stories of devastation are often absent from a happier white evangelical narrative of promised-land life, or buried in a sanitized story that claims that past injustice is not relevant for people of color today—despite the fact that nearly all people of color experience racism and its implications every day around the nation, including those in this room today.

This unreckoned-with reality of white evangelical racism permeates American life, and its tinderbox was lit on fire by the rhetoric of our national life in recent years—whether in reference to Ferguson, or Charlottesville, or “shithole countries” deemed without value. White history narrates the story of America’s heroes, and white evangelical history views those “good guys” as the providence of a good and faithful God.  When some white evangelicals triumphantly pronounce that we now have “the best president the religious right ever had,” the crisis it underscores to millions of people of color is not an indictment of our President as much as it is an indictment of white evangelicalism and a racist gospel.

Read the whole thing. Note the lack of defensiveness and simple honesty. Insofar as his views represent the kind of training seminary students are receiving at Fuller, will these future pastors be able to get jobs in the white evangelical mainstream? I don’t know, but it’s encouraging to see such careful Christian thinking from a white evangelical leader. If only the average white evangelical cared even a little bit about Christian thinking.

You Can’t Talk About American Poverty Without Talking About Race and Housing

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The view from my childhood home. Photo Credit: Jonathan Curtis

Americans like to talk about poverty without talking about race. It’s more comfortable to talk about the generic poor. But the reality is that Americans experience poverty in very different ways, and race is one of the key variables. Even though there are more poor white Americans than poor black or Hispanic Americans, white poverty tends to be more dispersed. Black poverty tends to be more concentrated.

This matters because scholars have found that when it comes to life outcomes, the important thing is not just how poor you are, but how poor your neighbors are. Poor kids in low poverty communities do better than poor kids in high poverty communities. Partly because banks, real estate companies, and the federal government created separate housing markets—a discriminatory one for blacks and a subsidized one for whites—poor African American kids are much more likely to grow up surrounded by poverty than are poor white kids.

Alvin Chang has a good overview of this today, drawing in part of Patrick Sharkey’s important book. As I was reading about how different white and black poverty are, it occurred to me that my own travels illustrate the difference quite well.

I grew up in a white community that was fairly poor. Its unemployment levels were consistently higher than the national average and its income rates were consistently lower. Now I live in a black community that is fairly poor. In fact, according the Census Bureau’s American Community Survey* the per capita income of my childhood neighborhood and my current neighborhood are very similar. But dig a little beneath the surface and you’ll see big differences.

Most obviously, my hometown was a rural area and my current community is an urban one:

This makes the experience of poverty different and indicates that the headline per capita income similarity is misleading because the cost of living is significantly higher in Philadelphia than in my hometown.

It gets more interesting. Consider the chart below. Despite similar incomes, my childhood neighborhood and my current neighborhood are actually dramatically different:

Data Where I grew up Where I live now
Per Capita Income $23,611 $23,435
Poverty Rate 13.4% 30.2%
Owner occupied housing units 73% 33%
Median value of owner occupied units $175,600 $64,600

As you can see, these two communities illustrate the racially distinct poverty dynamic described above. Poverty in my current community is concentrated. Most residents cannot afford to own homes. And there isn’t much value in those homes anyway. In contrast, where I grew up, even though incomes are relatively low, poverty is not particularly high, and most people own their homes and have significant wealth in them.

This, by the way, is part of what people are talking about when they use the word privilege. They’re not trolling you, dear white reader, or telling you you’re a bad person or that you don’t work hard. They’re just telling you facts of life that you didn’t set up or ask for. But you do have a choice to try to keep it this way or work against it.


* The Census data at the tract level comes with a high margin of error. Consider all these numbers rough estimates. They tell us a story in broad outlines but are not suitable for making fine-grained distinctions.

Martin Luther King 50 Years Later

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King at the front of a march that descended into violence. Memphis, March 28, 1968

In his last Sunday sermon before he died, Dr. King said this:

It is an unhappy truth that racism is a way of life for the vast majority of white Americans, spoken and unspoken, acknowledged and denied, subtle and sometimes not so subtle—the disease of racism permeates and poisons a whole body politic. And I can see nothing more urgent than for America to work passionately and unrelentingly—to get rid of the disease of racism.

In the final months of his life, Dr. King wasn’t beating around the bush. White Americans, he said, embraced racism as a way of life. One way to honor him half a century after his death is to speak in similarly blunt terms. Racism is not just acceptable among white Americans in 2018, it is often honored. Racism is honored every time someone proudly tells you they support the President.

This reversal of norms against public racism is a tragedy. It’s a tragedy when the President of the United States speaks in proto-genocidal language and the American people don’t even realize it. It’s a double-tragedy because it is harmful all by itself while also inflicting wounds by distraction. Many of us (myself very much included) have withdrawn our attention from the ongoing crises of poverty, segregation, incarceration and police brutality. Instead, we focus on the lowest of low-hanging fruit: critiquing the racism of Donald Trump and his supporters.

It’s as if Martin Luther King had spent a lot of time and mental energy trying to convince white people that, actually, George Wallace really was racist. You almost laugh out loud at the thought of it. Of course he didn’t bother with that. King kept his focus on the bigger picture.

50 years after his death, we’re reluctant to face the man who appeared in the Spring of 1968 as a despised and declining figure. Heckled by black power advocates and hated by white conservatives, King struggled to stay relevant in a society that seemed to be coming apart at the seams. The left increasingly saw his program of militant nonviolent activism as irrelevant, while the right looked on it as a profoundly cynical method of extortion.

We honor him now, but 50 years ago most Americans just wanted him to admit defeat and go away. When he died, some white evangelical leaders implied he had only reaped what he sowed.

In our time, American across the political spectrum find their way toward admiration of Dr. King by erasing key parts of his theology and agenda. Much of the left doesn’t want to learn from King about the moral and strategic imperative of nonviolence. To them, King’s Christian activism reeks of respectability politics. The right doesn’t want to learn from King’s radical challenge to the American economy and way of life.

Plenty of people are happy to think of King as a Christian or as a radical. It is harder for us to grasp that there was no or for Dr. King. He was both. Switch the order of the words and you get slightly different connotations—radical Christian, Christian radical—but both connotations work for King.

King’s Christian activism has much to teach us. Among the lessons are these:

The ends don’t justify the means. Your goals don’t make you righteous. Your actions do.

Love is not a sentimental abstraction. It is what enables oppressed people to pursue justice without the struggle devolving into zero-sum score settling.

Formal equality is hollow without economic empowerment.

The purpose of economic empowerment of the poor is not to expand the debt-addled money-worshiping middle class. It is to promote the dignity and worth of every human being. Economic justice for the poor is not possible without a spiritual assault on the lies of materialism. People are more important than things. And people will not have their deepest needs satisfied by things. A materialistic society can try to buy off the poor with charity, but it cannot do justice to the poor because materialism causes us to treat human beings as disposable.

Nonviolence is not merely a tactic. It is a way of life that rebukes everything from the violence of American policing to our obsession with guns to our militaristic foreign policy around the world.

Nonviolence does not mean acceptance of double-standards or treating all violence as equal. King rejected violence, but refused to put all violence in the same category. With black neighborhoods engaged in a series of deadly uprisings in the 1960s, King refused to provide the condemnation the white media craved. The violent selfishness of the oppressor is of a different kind and magnitude than the violent groans of the oppressed. King kept the focus where it belonged and rebuked the real purveyors of violence.

Nonviolence does not mean passivity or accepting the premises of your opponent. King bluntly called most white Americans “racist” and “sick.” They saw this as deeply unfair and mean-spirited. But if you limit yourself to discourse within the boundaries of the oppressor’s epistemology you can’t be truthful.

With these lessons in mind we can begin to see why at the end of his life King was talking about the need to fight the interrelated problems of racism, materialism, and militarism. All three are dehumanizing forces. All three are alive and well today. 50 years after Dr. King’s death, we have so much work to do.

Evangelical Theology Can Be Anti-Racist

This is a follow-up to the last post. The Times mentioned a sermon Pastor Robert Morris preached last October. Here is that sermon:

You probably don’t have the time or inclination to watch it so I’ll try to make my comments intelligible whether you’ve watched it or not. Then I’ll compare it to a talk from another white evangelical figure, Timothy Keller.

Morris’s sermon is a fascinating mixture of provocation (he says he’s talking to “ignorant white people”), folk beliefs (races come from Noah’s sons), and inspiring one-liners (you have to take the time to see things from others’ perspectives). He wraps it all up in familiar evangelical tropes about the need for revival.

Morris seems to have given little thought to what race is. As best I can tell, in Morris’s schema race = skin color. And those skin colors/races came from Noah’s sons. One was black, one was white, and one was brown. We know this, Morris says, because of the meanings of their names. Ham, he says, “means hot and black.” No, it doesn’t.

From there he turns to a bizarre discussion about how “a dark skinned person does better in a hotter climate.” This was one of the major points apologists for African slavery made. In all of this, he appears to be completely unaware that he is brushing up against centuries of white supremacist and pro-slavery thought. He is not advocating the so-called “curse of Ham” defense of slavery here, but he’s coming far closer to it than he probably realizes. His adoption of erroneous centuries-old etymological assumptions about the meaning of “Ham” combined with a literal interpretation of Noah’s descendants as the origin of race seems to lead unavoidably to the conclusion that black people were in fact cursed. I’d like to hear him talk about this more. I doubt he’s aware of the implications of his words.

Morris goes on to try to shock his audience with the idea that Adam and Eve were brown and there are black people in the Bible. This is the Christian parallel for the worst sort of Black History Month celebrations, where we locate random “contributions” from black people without dealing with the bigger picture.

One might have hoped that Morris would bring real theological reflection to his task and explain how an evangelical interpretation of scripture is brought to bear on racism in our time and place. Instead, specificity of any kind is Morris’s greatest enemy. He wants to speak as broadly as possible, so as to appear to say a lot while saying very little. So of his seven points we get things like, “racism is evil.”

And you can forget application. We need things like “healing” and “understanding” and “revival.” Everything was interpersonal. You won’t hear anything about power. If anyone in that church walked out knowing what they were actually supposed to do they’re much better mind-readers than I.

I believe Morris was well-meaning. Does that make it better or worse?

Now, in contrast, here’s Tim Keller giving a talk on “Racism and Corporate Evil.”

I won’t dwell on this at any length. But the contrasts are huge, and it’s not just because Keller is actually engaging with serious people who have thought about these issues (he discusses Michelle Alexander and William Stuntz). The bigger contrast is that Keller is being more evangelical than Morris. It’s very hard to find in Morris’s sermon a robust sense of the gospel and how it shapes Christian understanding of race. For Keller, that’s the whole point.

In Keller’s talk, whether you agree with it or not, you have to reckon with it as a serious attempt to think about racism in the context of an evangelical reformed view of the gospel. As Keller builds his case, he shows how it is precisely his evangelical view of sin and grace that compels him to think in terms of corporate responsibility. Thus the Christian who claims to believe that “in Adam all died” but then turns around and says “I never owned slaves, why do I have any responsibility?” is not connecting the gospel to American life.

From a cultural and political point of view, Morris is the true evangelical figure in this comparison. But from a theological perspective, Keller’s more sophisticated argument is also the more evangelical one. Where Morris offers vague tropes infused with lingering assumptions of southern white culture, Keller shows that taking responsibility for systemic injustice is a logical consequence of his evangelical theology.

We don’t need to try to convert congregations like Pastor Morris’s to political liberalism. That’s not the point. But maybe we can try to persuade them to take Christianity more seriously.

The “Quiet Exodus” from White Evangelical Churches

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Pastor Robert Morris, Gateway Church, Dallas. Ilana Panich-Linsman, NYT.

The New York Times has an interesting read today on the “quiet exodus” of African Americans out of predominantly white evangelical churches. It’s an anecdotal piece, but it comes with this dynamite quote from Michael Emerson:

“Everything we tried is not working,” said Michael Emerson, the author of “Divided by Faith,” a seminal work on race relations within the evangelical church. “The election itself was the single most harmful event to the whole movement of reconciliation in at least the past 30 years,” he said. “It’s about to completely break apart.”

Anyone who’s interested in the intersection of evangelicalism and race has at least heard of Divided by Faith. It’s a great book. Emerson’s opinion carries real weight. Let’s assume for a moment that he’s right. It raises some questions.

On what were the movements for reconciliation and integrated churches really based? A movement that can be shattered by an election clearly wasn’t as robust as people thought.

What did leaders of these movements think they were doing?

What did laypeople in the pews think they were doing?

What did white Christians think was happening? What did black Christians think was happening?

How do these nominally integrated churches continue to make white racists feel comfortable?

Are there consistent differences between the sorts of black Christians who join predominantly white churches and those who do not?

How did white evangelicals cover up their past, and how conscious were they about the coverup? The links between the white supremacist Christians of prior generations and the leading pastors of today are not just ideological or theological; they’re tangible and personal!

Just as surely as southern white evangelicals now know that God is colorblind, they knew 60 years ago that he had established the races and did not want them to mix. How exactly did one unchristian folk theology replace the other?

How much of the “reconciliation” movement has been cynical? In the post-civil rights movement era, diversity is a consumable experience. People like a little color in their religion. Even white evangelicals can see that.

White evangelicals’ vote for Trump revealed that the racial reconciliation movement was a) really small, and/or b) not actually anti-racist. I’d say both. The article tells us about how Robert Morris, pastor of a megachurch in Texas, dealt with racism after the 2016 election. It perfectly captures the selfishness and arrogance of the white evangelical mainstream:

As a tumultuous 2017 unfolded, Pastor Morris understood that some wanted him to address race directly.

“As I prayed about it as I talked with black pastor friends of mine, I realized I don’t really understand the depth of the pain they feel,” he said. “This is personal to them — it was history to me. I would talk to my friend and it was personal to him because it was his great-grandfather.”

In October 2017, he preached a message entitled “A Lack of Understanding.” Addressing “all the ignorant white people,” and acknowledging his own past grappling with prejudice, the pastor listed reasons that racism was evil — among them that it was an affront to God’s creation, given that Adam and Eve were probably brown-skinned. A video played of a black pastor talking of the racism he experienced as a child in East St. Louis in the 1960s. Pastor Morris concluded by urging people of color in the congregation to spread out and pray with whites in small groups.

The response, Pastor Morris said, was “overwhelmingly positive,” and indeed the reaction on Facebook suggests as much. Pastor Lewis remembers a black woman weeping in her seat, and was thankful that he finally had an answer for black worshipers questioning how their church truly felt about racism…

The message was not better received among the black worshipers who had already left the church. It did not, several said, address the enduring structural legacy of racism, instead adhering to the usual evangelical focus on individual prejudice. Most significantly, they said, it gave no sense that Pastor Morris had ever wrestled with his support of Donald Trump.

“I wasn’t wrestling,” Pastor Morris said of his feelings in 2016, going on to explain that he was not wrestling now, either. “We were electing what we felt was the person who held the values that the church loves dearly the most. That doesn’t mean that he’s perfect. But I do believe after spending time with him that he really wants to learn, that he really wants to do a good job for all Americans. I really do.”

There are larger racial injustices in the country, he said, and those injustices need to be fixed — though not in ways that would enable dependence, he clarified, but rather to “give people a hand up, not a handout.” He noted the low black unemployment rate under Mr. Trump. The answer to racism lies primarily in the church, not the government, he said, and now that white pastors are waking up to the pain that black people have felt, it is in many ways a hopeful time.

“I think that there’s an anger and a hurt right now, and a fear,” he said, “and I think that people are going to get past that.”

A few thoughts:

–No real plans. No restitution. No redistribution. No change in power. No theological change. People are somehow “going to get past” the “anger” and “hurt” and that’s all that matters. Once the black people calm down the white people can be comfortable again.

–Yes, it’s personal to your “black pastor friends.” Why isn’t it personal to you? You’ve got all sorts of advantages because you’re white, you’re seeing people around you being dehumanized and you’re a Christian pastor, and somehow it’s “history” to you.

–That sermon put an awful burden on people of color in the congregation. Many no doubt handled it with grace. Some probably enjoyed it. But the method seems burdensome, and misses the point.

–He titled the sermon “A Lack of Understanding,” and now turns around and wants to clarify that he doesn’t regret voting for Trump or encouraging his congregation to vote for Trump. They were merely “electing what we felt was the person who held the values that the church loves dearly the most.” He condemns himself. I bet Mr. Morris imagines that he has a “pro-life” outlook on things.

–He reveals himself as either a liar or a fool. He says, “I do believe after spending time with [Trump] that he really wants to learn, that he really wants to do a good job for all Americans. I really do.” In other words, my sermon was about trying to understand how black people feel, but I did not mean that my thinking should change. My opinion is the only one that really matters.

–Then he lays out a politics of church supremacy. The church will somehow solve racism. It’s not the government’s job. (I will respect that position as soon as you hold to it on more than one issue).

I’ve continued to hope against hope that the church will move against racism. It certainly won’t do so under the leadership of people like Pastor Morris. All of this would look different if there was a legitimate debate to be had about Trump’s racism. Since it is a known quantity, those who deny it, like Pastor Morris, are twisting a knife into their fellow Christians. Megachurch pastors don’t get to plead ignorance. People like this should not be in any position of church leadership.