Sunday, April 11, 2021

On the Christianity of White People

It’s fashionable nowadays — at least in some circles in the media and social media — to talk about America’s “racial reckoning,” triggered by the death in police custody of George Floyd. Maybe there is and maybe there isn’t a “racial reckoning” happening in America. I know a lot of black people are saying this “feels” different. Most white people don’t really even understand what that means. This feels “different” than what?

In my history classes, I taught my students that America has actually had at least three prior “racial reckonings.” It’s happened before. And before, it’s never ended up really fixing the fundamental problem of American racism. The three prior “racial reckonings” were: 1) the American Revolution, 2) the Civil War and Reconstruction period, and 3) the Civil Rights Movement. These were all moments in history when significant numbers of white people “woke up” to the significance of racism: not just what it meant for black people, but what it meant for our democracy and what it meant for our basic humanity as a people. Significant numbers of us, if not all of us, recognized the stakes. But in every prior moment of “racial reckoning,” we white folks failed to act in such a way as to bring about a permanent reversal of racist injustice and inequality. The history of America is largely a history of white people periodically waking up to racism, only to fall asleep again a few years later. Maybe we will make good this time. Anyone really calculating the odds with a knowledge of our history wouldn’t bet on it. But, the remarkable thing about human history is it all boils down to agency. We can choose to make good on the promise of America if we decide to get serious about it.

When I taught American history, it was from the perspective of American religious experience. And as a student of American history I can say that before racism was a political or social crisis in America, it was a profoundly spiritual crisis. That is so because European Americans by their own admission knew that slavery was contrary to their Christianity, and in order to make room for slavery, they had to apostatize. That’s a fancy word that means they had to abandon their faith. Out of that abandonment of our faith, “whiteness” was born, and “racism” became the way of preserving and defending whiteness.

There are many examples we can draw on from American history to show that European American Christians apostatized by choosing slavery and racism over basic tenets of the Gospel. One of the earliest examples came from early in the history of American slavery, in the form of a debate over whether African slaves could or should be baptized. Early American Christians believed that their faith made it unlawful for a Christian to hold another Christian in bondage. In other words, baptizing the slaves would make them unfit for slavery. On the one hand, the Gospel taught Christians to “make disciples of all nations,” to “preach the gospel and baptize all nations in the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost.” In other words, our faith demanded that the slaves be baptized. On the other hand, there was the economic loss of giving up slaves once they converted. In the face of this moral dilemma, slave owners refused to allow their slaves to hear the Gospel preached, and they refused to let them be baptized. Some Christian preachers, thinking there was some inherent benefit in baptismal water that somehow justified the demerit and dehumanization of slavery proposed a compromise: pass a law that prohibits a person from being emancipated just by virtue of being a Christian. Virginia was the first British American colony to pass such a law in 1667, and these laws quickly spread to other states throughout the American South. Thus began the first in a long series of compromises with their faith that white Christians made in order to rationalize their inhumanity. “Compromise” is a nice euphemism for “apostasy.”

My own people, the Latter-day Saints, have a history of such compromises as well. Most early Latter-day Saints hated slavery and saw it as fundamentally incompatible with the Gospel. Joseph Smith bucked contemporary trends that tended to force African Americans into separate, segregated Christian communities, by ordaining black men like Elijah Abel and Walker Lewis to the priesthood, and by integrating African Saints into the Church along with everyone else. When the Saints began to settle in Missouri, a strongly pro-slavery state, their abolitionist views got them in trouble with the local populace. It was one of the primary reasons Missourians began to fear the growth of the “Mormon” population in the state, and one reason why Latter-day Saints were persecuted and lynched and ultimately driven out of the state under threat of an extermination order in 1839. But after the prophet Joseph Smith was himself lynched at the hands of an angry mob in 1843, the leadership of the Church passed to Brigham Young. Brother Brigham was less comfortable with a racially integrated Church. In 1849, then President Young banned individuals of African descent from holding the priesthood or receiving temple endowments or sealings. He flirted with the idea of joining the Confederacy during the Civil War. Latter-day Saints began to preach against the evils of miscegenation. Utah began to practice both legal and extra-legal forms of segregation. And Latter-day Saints began to promulgate theologies that justified unequal treatment, such as the notorious teaching that the spirits of unfaithful children of God were sent to be born into families with African ancestry. This was a theology that Pres. Dallin H. Oaks officially declared to be false (i.e., apostate) in this talk at the 40th anniversary celebration of the 1978 revelation ending exclusion of individuals of African descent from the priesthood and temple.

All of us hold beliefs that are contrary to the Gospel. It’s part of the human condition, I think, to live only partly in the light. It is the nature of the Restoration of the Gospel to, line upon line, precept upon precept, dispel the darkness and to walk more and more in the light. The process of freeing ourselves from falsehood and living in harmony with the truth is by its very nature an arduous process filled with missteps. Sometimes rationalization of sin wins out over recognition of the truth and repentance. God still loves us. The gospel teaches that God loved us while we were yet sinners. But it doesn’t change the fact of our being sinners. It doesn’t negate the necessity of making inconvenient choices as part of the process of redeeming ourselves.

But there is another basic Gospel principle that I have learned myself the hard way. It is that sinning against the light plunges us into darkness much more quickly and more dangerously than sinning in ignorance. When we engage in a process of preferring our rationalizations to the light, we soon become incapable of hearing the Spirit. We can only fail a test so many times before our spiritual bondage becomes irreversible. The cries of our African-American brothers and sisters are ascending to the throne of God. The blood of the martyrs is crying up to God as well. If we want to be aligned with God, we need to hear those cries too. We need to act. We need to bring about real change. Our salvation literally hangs in the balance, not just spiritual salvation but physical and political and social salvation too. To paraphrase Abraham Lincoln, our democracy can’t survive if we let racism thrive.

There are at least three prior moments in our history as a nation when this test was placed before us in a way that we saw it and understood it clearly. And we collectively failed the test at least three times. One of the lies that has time and time again perpetuated apostasy in relation to this issue has been that a one-time fix would somehow be good enough. From the vantage point of his second inaugural address, Lincoln saw clearly that God‘s judgment had been upon us. Lincoln believed that God might, by the sword, extract of white Americans every drop of blood drawn from their slaves with the slave master’s lash. Americans acted by enacting the 13th, 14th and 15th amendments to the constitution of the United States, formally ending slavery, giving black Americans the right to vote, and denying states the ability to abrogate those rights. But once that had been done, white Americans satisfied ourselves that our work was done, and we allowed states to pass “Jim Crow” laws stopped black Americans from voting, even as they still had the formal right. We allowed economic inequality to lapse into slavery without formality, but in substance. We largely acquiesced in the lie that simply declaring the slaves free was enough even if they didn’t have an economic foundation for real freedom. We engineered a society where white folks mostly don’t have to interact with black folks if we don’t want to, though few black folks have the same privilege. That social separation, that social distancing, has made and continues to make it easier for us to blind ourselves to the very real human misery that continues to exist under racist social norms and structures, the unexorcized ghosts of American slavery.

One aspect of apostasy is eyes that are unable to see, ears that are unable to hear, hearts that are hardened and impenetrable. When we are starting to feel defensive, starting to feel attacked In these kinds of conversations, it’s a sign of hardened hearts. There’s freedom for us in letting go of our defensiveness and listening and letting what we hear sink in. There is hope in opening our eyes and seeing, the way we saw when that terrifying video of George Floyd’s murder was posted all over the Internet.

God is merciful. He’s giving us as a nation a fourth moment. He’s giving us a choice again. We need to ask ourselves a very serious question. And the question is, “what do we need to do differently this time to make sure that reform doesn’t turn into backsliding? What are the specific covenants we must make to ensure that as a nation we cease to be black and white, bond and free, male and female, in which we can become of one heart and one mind and dwell together in righteousness?” As in every similar juncture in our history there are critical choices before us related to practical issues such as: How do we ensure that our justice system is just for everyone? How do we ensure access of all to our political process? How do we ensure that economic inequality doesn’t undermine social and political equality? How do we deal with organized terror perpetrated by white supremacist organizations and philosophies? These questions have been with us for over 200 years and they will continue to be with us until we get them right.

I don’t know if we will get them right but what I do know is that it is within our power. Our agency, God‘s greatest gift to us, is all that we need to fix this, just as it is all that we need to fix anything in our lives. We exercise agency. God bestows grace. God’s grace opens greater possibilities for agency. We use greater agency for right and God bestows grace upon grace. That possibility fills me with hope.

I pray for that light filled, hope filled future, in the name of Jesus Christ. Amen.

And then we get up off our knees and work for God‘s will to be done on earth as it is in heaven.

1 comment:

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