The repulsive white racism spewing from the White House this week is part of a larger torrent of abuse and hate flowing over the land like a gigantic mudslide besmirching everything in its path. The onslaught is not only offensive and polluting; it is also spiritually numbing. Naomi Klein mapped out the strategy in her best-selling book The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism (Henry Holt and Company, 2007). While the general public reacts in fits of outrage and rushes about trying to respond in some manner to the deluge of daily abuse, the administration and its enablers and allies are busy subverting the independent judiciary, discrediting what is left of the independent press, degrading national monuments, eviscerating the EPA and other watchdog agencies, vacating international agreements when possible, and reducing support of the United Nations. Understandably the president's opponents have changed his moniker from "Make America Great Again" to "Make America White Again." This level of political depravity is not new, but it is disheartening.
I do not deny that the power brokers who are advancing the above agenda are guilty of malice, which the American Heritage Dictionary defines as: "The desire to harm others, to see others suffer." But malice alone does not account for everyone's motives. I submit that some members of the cadre that C. Wright Mills called The Power Ellite (Oxford University Press, 1956), may be partially motivated by a desire to defend Western (Christian) civilization. They are acting with a theological warrant that they may neither know nor claim. If my assessment is accurate, then those of us who are white, as I am, and who identify with liberal/progressive Christianity, as I do, must deconstruct this theological foundation and create a new one.
What is at stake for Christianity is whether or not the gospel is truly good news for people who have their back against the wall. White Christians in the West can no longer speak "for" "the least of these," to use a terribly awkward phrase from the Gospel of Matthew (25:40). Either we will stand with people pushed to the margins of society and into the economic shadows of corporate-state capitalism, or we will not.
Theologically speaking, the good news of the gospel is not "ours" to bring to "them." Rather, let us understand that God is active in the world. Let us also recognize that many of the world's poor are not Christian and do not wish to become Christian. And, let us admit that many liberal white Christians are happy to do "for" others, but less eager to stand in deep solidarity with others. Lastly, let us acknowledge that the realities of poverty and religious pluralism are not new, but the challenges these realities bring us are new because our historical context is new.
Edward W. Said examined key aspects of our context in Orientalism (Vintage Books, 1979). In the Preface to the 25th Anniversary Edition, Said wrote that the concepts of the "Orient" and the "West" are "supreme fictions" that can be used for the "mobilization of fear, hatred, disgust, and resurgent self-pride and arrogance" (xviii). He said: "A white middle-class Westerner [schooled in Orientalism] believes it is his [sic] human prerogative not only to manage the nonwhite world but also to own it, just because by definition 'it' is not quite as human as 'we' are" (1979: 108). He argued that this belief is grounded in a biblical framework and fueled by a religious impulse. Yet today, what we are witnessing, is "the diminishment of Western suzerainty over the rest of the world" (1979:257). White racism and its theological warrant must be understood in this context.
Since the founding of the Jamestown Colony, Anglo-Christians have asserted that they have a divine mandate to civilize and Christianize non-Christians--especially Indigenous Peoples. The biblical Exodus-Sinai-Promised Land narrative served to legitimate this settler theology. In my book Native Americans, the Mainline Church, and the Quest for Interracial Justice (Chalice Press, 2017), I argue that the overarching theme of this narrative is promise-covenant-obedience-fulfillment. The identity of the Exodus people is tied to their covenant with God and an ethic of obedience. Anglo-Christian settlers also identified themselves as people of the covenant and, therefore, the model of true humanity. I suggest that this framework of promise-covenant-obedience-fulfillment, in both its religious and laicized form, was and remains yet today the theological warrant for white racism. In this context what is important about People of Color, people of Africa, people of Haiti, Indigenous Peoples of the Americas and beyond, what is important about all of these people is that "they" are not "us." Their presence simply confirms the need for faithful obedience on the part of white settlers.
Railing against white racism may make those of us who are liberal feel good, and public protest may be necessary--indeed I think it is. But until those of us who are white liberal/progressive Christians deconstruct the promise-fulfillment paradigm, enduring change will be illusive and perhaps only an illusion.
If we want to overturn white racism, those of us who are white and who identify with the liberal/progressive Christian movement must create a new theological paradigm. I argue in my book that the new narrative must be shaped by the paradigm of social structure and social struggle; not the paradigm of promise-obedience-fulfillment. If we want to experience the presence of God most fully, we go must and stand with our neighbor whose back is against the wall.
David P. Hansen, Ph. D.
Author: Native Americans, the Mainline Church, and the Quest for Interracial Justice