What happened this weekend in Charlottesville, Virginia, is certainly shocking. Each refreshing of my Twitter feed over the last few days has brought a new spate of horrors as I learned more about what was happening in this central Virginian town where former President and slave owner Thomas Jefferson once lived. However, what happened could hardly seem surprising to anyone with a cursory knowledge of American history or to anyone paying the slightest bit of attention to the racist rumblings that have gotten progressively louder in recent years, which are now impossible to ignore. While we like to believe that the founding principle of America is something like freedom or democracy or liberty and justice for all, it is undoubtedly white supremacy. We are a nation that gained its land due to the genocide of Native Americans and only became an economic power because of the unpaid and forced labor of slaves, unwillingly taken from their home continent of Africa. The foundation of America is inseparable from the subjugation and murder of people of color – a systemic subjugation and stealing of life that continues to the present day with no signs of abating.
As people of faith, we are often unsure how to address such societal ills. We tend to worry that getting involved in the political, inevitably taking sides against another opposing group, is to sully ourselves, to dirty the purity of our religious views, to somehow harm our connection with the divine. This worry obscures the stark reality that being apolitical in a time such as ours is truly impossible. If you are silent about the racism in our world, then you tacitly, even if unintentionally, give support to the powers and principalities that we as Christians must fight against. James Cone, the father of Black Liberation Theology, wrote that in situations such as this, nonpartisan theology is a fantasy, an illusion: “Theology is always identified with a particular community. It is either identified with those who inflict oppression or those who are its victims.” Indeed, if we do not stand in solidarity with those oppressed masses, we will have failed to heed the words of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., when he wrote from a Birmingham jail, that it is not enough to repent “for the hateful words and actions of the bad people” as we must also atone “for the appalling silence of the good people.”
I have no doubt that many of the white supremacists who gathered around Thomas Jefferson’s statue on Friday night, chanting “White lives matter!” claim to be Christians, that they are people we sit by in the pew on Sunday morning, praying and worshipping together. How is this possible? How can one hold such abhorrent views, believing that prizing one race and ethnicity over another is compatible with their faith? The sad truth is that it is largely our own fault for not showing how clearly and absolutely the Christian faith must stand against Empire and against all that attempts to deal death towards any oppressed group. It is the fault of all religious leaders and laypersons who have become content with the way things currently are, refusing to see the liberative core of scripture, failing to condemn injustice as stridently as we should, while concomitantly failing to passionately advocate for justice.
We see this liberative streak that yearns for justice throughout scripture, perhaps nowhere more beautifully and poignantly than in the Prophetic literature. To name just two examples, in the first chapter of Isaiah, he writes of God hiding God’s eyes from Israel in spite of their prayers, refusing to listen for their “hands are full of blood.” How are they to make themselves clean before God? They are to “Cease to do evil; learn to do good; seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow.” Today, if we are not seeking justice, and the rescue of the oppressed, we too can be sure that God implores us to do so before we can be truly clean. Similarly, in Amos 5, the prophet speaks of God despising the Israelites’ worship, taking no delight in their solemn assemblies, and refusing to accept their sacrifices. Instead of offering such things, God makes clear what God really desires: for justice to “roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.” Echoing Isaiah and Amos, we need prophetic words coming from our pulpits and our parishioners, not platitudes. To quote Dr. King’s Letter again, we must not “stand on the sideline and mouth pious irrelevancies and sanctimonious trivialities,” but be “extremists for love” and the “extension of justice.”
Jesus was not crucified by Rome because they were interested in helping fulfill a preexistent divine plan, nor because Jesus told some nice parables and invoked his followers to love their enemies. Rather, Jesus was executed in the most violent way in order to make an example of him, because his teachings and actions were a threat to the Empire, to the status quo. Jesus was not merely a sage who spoke about compassion and the need to love God and neighbor. He was also a man who threw the money changers out of the temple and who violently accused his enemies of hypocrisy and being white-washed tombs that appear lovely, but contain nothing but the bones of the dead. His whole life was a stand against the totalizing impulses of Empire, against all that brings death instead of life, in the hopes of establishing the Kingdom of Heaven where all are welcome, where the poor are blessed and the hungry satisfied. In this hour, perhaps it is standing against Empire in all its manifestations – capitalism, white supremacy, authoritarianism, and patriarchy, amongst all too many others – that most fully allows us to follow in Jesus’ footsteps. Those of us who are people of faith are not called to stand on the sidelines, offering empty gestures and slogans of goodwill, but to fight for justice, standing in solidarity with the oppressed wherever they are to be found. May we fulfill our call.
Latest posts by Micah Wimmer (see all)
- A Review of Mindfulness and Christianity by Tim Stead - October 6, 2017
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- Charlottesville and Christianity: Our Complicity and Its Challenge - August 15, 2017