The Church, America, and White Supremacy

I’ve been thinking about this a lot the last few days.  I wholeheartedly believe that to remain silent in the face of evil is to remain complicit in that evil.   I recently tweeted my initial thoughts on white power politics in the aftermath of Charlottesville, naturally hoping that would be enough.

It wasn’t enough.  A friend asked what I meant.  I thought about responding, but it would have been far too long, so this post is my response.  This is what I mean by that.

I don’t really like to get involved in all of this stuff.  I prefer to just preach the gospel, but what is becoming more and more apparent to me is that to effectively preach the gospel we need to talk about what it means right here and right now.

Let me say a couple of things before I address the real purpose of this post.

First of all I am intimately aware of how the national media twists and manipulates things in order to gain viewership. 

I used to live in an area regularly hit by hurricanes.  I have personally sat on a deck on a beautiful evening a couple of nights before a hurricane was scheduled to hit.  The stars were out, it was cool and there was a wonderful breeze in the air.  I was sitting on that covered porch watching a certain national cable channel that focuses on weather.  Being broadcast live was a reporter less than a mile away from me speaking loudly into the camera whipping people into a frenzy as he talked about how you could absolutely see conditions worsening.  I couldn’t see it and I was there.  There are a million stories I could tell you about this exact same thing happening with hurricane coverage that I was experiencing while those not in the affected area would have thought I was dead.

I also live in Bismarck where we recently had our own protests.  I watched the national media twist, distort and blow out of proportion everything happening here during the DAPL Protests.

So I wouldn’t be surprised if there were a handful of angry, racist, jerks protesting in Charlottesville (one of them being a murderer) and a thousand honest and good citizens who simply wanted to keep the statue they were used to.

Those racist jerks should be confronted for their hate and their words should be condemned.  The murderer should never again see sunlight.  And we should say so without hesitation or fear of “being liberal.”  But these are a minority and shouldn’t get to define the conversation.  So I will leave them and move on.

Let me also say I was raised in the south.  I am a “Lee.”  There is a long history in my family of assuming we are related to the General who led the civil war.  There is a long history in my family of admiring certain aspects of his character.  A history that I’m not entirely sure I am ready to let go of.  But I will get to that.

Let me add that nearly everyone we admire from the past has had some personal issues of not seeing the world exactly right.  Some were wife beaters, racists, philanderers, gamblers, liars and manipulators.  For instance, as an historian I truly believe that John Kennedy saved the world from nuclear annihilation, but I feel terribly sorry for the things poor Jacquelyn had to put up with.  I am still glad he was president when he was.

The same can be said of Abraham Lincoln, who was an excellent leader but also a racist.  Or Jonathan Edwards, possibly the greatest mind to ever be born in North America, a respected preacher, and a slave owner.  Even Martin Luther King had his shortcomings.

No one is perfect.  We need to admit that off the bat.

Let me also say that in the history of the world, I actually do believe that America is an exceptional nation.

Out of a history of consolidated power our founders created a system where power would be held by the people and for the people.  This really is remarkably different from many other systems of government before, and frankly I think has lasted longer than any of them expected.

But now, we need to admit a few things about that.  Those people who were “for the people,” and believed in certain “inalienable rights granted by the creator” also encoded into law things like counting slaves as 3/5ths of a person.  They believed in the right to happiness, but also made sure certain human beings had a right to be sold.

As I said, no one is perfect, and that is pretty stinking far from perfect.  But can we admit that they were a product of their times?  If Lincoln, the great emancipator, can get a free pass for being racist, surely we can admit that those who went before him didn’t know any better.

They did indeed bring a great nation up out of the revolutionary war, but they did so on the backs of African slaves, indentured servants, and white male power.

Let me also be really clear about this gospel I mentioned.  I believe that Jesus Christ was a real person.  I believe he entered into the world from a virgin birth because of the power of the Holy Spirit.  He lived in a culture of oppression from a foreign empire.  He died because he claimed to be a king who would level Rome and all other empires because he was ushering in a new kingdom that he called the Kingdom of God.

All kingdoms are built on power, authority, and strength.  The strongest one always wins.

If we can’t admit that the strongest “one” in the history of America has been white men, then we have a problem with intellectual honesty.

So here we are.  

We live in a culture where first of all, the historic caucasian majority is shrinking.  We recently elected a president who in many ways campaigned on his somewhat slightly implicit promise to restore power to that caucasian majority.  And if the protests and fighting in our country are any sort of indication, that is not sitting well with a lot of people.  Sure some (like those white supremacists in Charlottesville) have been emboldened by his election, but this won’t stand with the majority of Americans.  I don’t even believe that a majority of the people who would like to see Robert E. Lee’s statue stay up are actually white supremacists.  And I think a majority of those people would love to see a statue of Martin Luther King Jr. right beside it.

So this is the situation in our country.  Fighting over statues, fear over loss of historically significant events, and power politics.  All of this boils down essentially to a fear over losing or not gaining political power.

How should the church respond?

We should be more concerned about the kingdom of God than the Kingdom of the United States.

One close example is our sitting president.  I didn’t vote for him, but I completely understand why some of my brothers and sisters did.  He has already made one Supreme Court appointment that makes his tenure tolerable to me.  His most recent position on things like abortion made him a candidate I can understand some of my brothers and sisters preferring.  But let’s be honest here.  The values he espouses are primarily not Christian values.  If you are a follower of Jesus Christ, there had better be at least one thing you can say directly to President Trump that would likely not be well received.  Maybe the way he talks about women, journalists, his daughter, immigrants, his political opposition, the way he’s made his money, or simply the tone he takes at times.  If there isn’t at least something you can say to challenge him, you are not taking your faith seriously enough.

So on this issue.

Yes, the civil war is a part of our history.  Yes, in some ways Robert E. Lee was an admirable man.  He espoused a certain level of faithfulness to Christ and His Church.  Given the general worldview of his day, his racism is understandable even if it’s not forgivable.  He desired to stand up for the rights of his home state over his nation.  His loyalty was clear.  Sadly the issue creating the war was chattel slavery.

We should all be able to say he was a sinner.  We should all be able to say that he was made in the image of God and he reflected certain attributes of God.  We should all be able to say he participated in a culture that made slaves of other image bearers and punished them harshly and brutally.  On these things we should be able to agree.

So what do we do now?  As the church?  

We should ask this question: what response furthers the gospel and creates the kingdom of God in myself and in my world?

The kingdom of God will always demand sacrifice.  He who loses his life will find it.

If you wish to see the statues stay, make your reasons clear and then let go of them.  They are only marble and granite.  If you wish to see them go, say why and then leave it to policy makers, those are only symbols of another country.

We are not citizens of the United States, and certainly not the confederacy.  Together, we the church are citizens of another land.  The governments we live under will sin.  They will participate in mass extinction.  They will exploit the poor and underprivileged.  They will be corrupt.  They will sin even when their intentions are the best of all possible intentions.  Because they are broken, they are insufficient and they are the product of messed up people like Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, Robert E. Lee, Barack Obama, Donald Trump, you and I.

We, the church belong to another country.  A far country.  A country promised to Abraham, Moses, Rahab, Isaac, David, and a host of others.  In search of this kingdom these people lost property, possessions, respect, and even their lives.  But that kingdom is still coming.  The coming of Jesus by the virgin was the inbreaking of that kingdom into our world. He will return to establish that kingdom in it’s entirety.

Until he comes our job is not to bolster the old kingdoms, or establish our own power in the ones we live in.  Our job as the church is to live the values of the kingdom he is bringing.  The values of a kingdom whose king laid down his life rather than taking up arms.

We follow a king who was a lamb to the slaughter rather than a parading victor.  Are we willing to live like that until he returns victorious? We will lay down our lives until the lamb that was slain becomes the lion?  Or do we simply want our way with this old world’s statues?

Church, I beg you, let go of your idols and hope in another kingdom.