Social Justice isn’t as Dangerous for Evangelicalism as White Guys

Maybe you’ve seen that there is a conference scheduled for Birmingham. A bunch of white guys are going to talk about “Dangers of Social Justice for Evangelicalism.”

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Maybe you remember Mormon white guy Glenn Beck saying that social justice was a perversion of the gospel, and that you should leave your church if they used that phrase.

Maybe you remember white guy Supreme Court Justice Powell, before he was a Supreme Court Justice, writing a memo in 1971 to prominent white guys in business. Among other things, he told them that they needed to wise up to the threat posed by social justice preached from pulpits.

Maybe you are aware that for fifty years, coalitions of mostly white guys have been trying to root out social justice from mainline denominations, or destroy them from within if they cannot.

All of these white guys are right. Social justice IS a threat to evangelicalism.

Of course,  #Not all white evangelicals. Some, I assume, are good people.*

The danger of social justice to evangelicalism is that people might begin to see clearly that white evangelicals do not speak for Jesus. Or Christianity. Or God.

That people might begin to see the connection between a violent atonement theology and violent systems of oppression.

That people might see that the doctrine of hell, and the notion that we all deserve it, gives those in power an excuse to inflict hell on others, either personally or through policy.

That people might begin to realize that a great theological starting point to subjugating a continent, enslaving people, and committing genocide, is defining sin as rebellion.

That white guys might lose something.

Yes, unless white evangelicalism can reckon honestly with its past and define itself as something other than a tool of white supremacy, social justice is a danger to evangelicalism.

Or perhaps the real danger to evangelicalism is white guys. 


*The defensiveness around these statistics is interesting. Several evangelical authors try to spin these numbers in a positive direction. Christianity Today says that white evangelicals saved the day in Alabama’s senate election by not showing up, effectively giving credit to white evangelicals that should go to black women. The authors at CT and The Gospel Coalition object to the framing that 80% of white evangelicals voted for Donald Trump. It isn’t true, all of these authors argue, that 80% of white evangelicals voted for these candidates, only that 80% of voters who identified as white evangelicals and showed up at the polls did. Yet nearly-identical percentages voted for both Moore and Trump, and in surveys, 70% continue to view Trump favorably. So while it may be true to say “not all white evangelicals,” it misses the point that there is something specifically about being white and evangelical in this historical moment that only white evangelicals can deal with.

If they actually cared about abortion…

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If Alabama politicians and preachers really cared about preventing abortion, we’d have comprehensive, medically accurate sex education in schools. This new bill criminalizing abortion is entirely about controlling sexual behavior and taking away bodily autonomy.

A few years ago, some conservative clergy proposed a resolution in our local denominational body about defunding Planned Parenthood. The resolution was tabled until we could talk through it. I offered to meet with its authors to see if we could craft a resolution we could agree on.

None of them showed up for the first meeting.

Since they chose not to participate, those of us who did show up kept the goal of the original resolution—reducing or preventing abortion—but chose to focus on a policy that actually applied to our state: comprehensive, medically-accurate sex education in schools.

That got their attention. They showed up to the second meeting to oppose this change. They would not even consider a resolution that included comprehensive sex education. Abstinence was the only choice. The only compromise we reached was withdrawing the resolution.

I asked if any of the authors had met with the people at Planned Parenthood whose jobs they were trying to defund. They had not. I offered to facilitate a meeting between representatives of Planned Parenthood and the clergy who drafted the resolution. They declined.

I don’t know how they could have made it any clearer: They didn’t care about preventing abortion. Nor did they care about even hearing from the other side.

Alabama politicians likewise have made their goals and values clear: In addition to rejecting exceptions in cases of rape or incest, they are entertaining a bill which makes false accusation of rape a felony. This is intended to intimidate women in light of the #metoo movement. All of these policies taken together are about subjugating women.

I support the right to an abortion, and see religious justification for restricting that right as a failure of empathy and imagination. Ethics requires us to imagine situations in which we have to apply our norms or policies—to put ourselves in someone else’s place, to “do to others as you would have them do to you.” If we create a rule or law, we have to imagine what it would be like to be subject to it.

I believe there are people of good faith who disagree with me about public policy, and are sincere in their desire to reduce or prevent abortion. I just haven’t met many yet.

National Memorial for Peace and Justice

So on Saturday, I’m at the National Memorial for Peace and Justice with a couple of other families. My friend’s six-year-old child asks me to read one of the placards to him. It’s about lynching.

There are some big words, and if I read them he starts getting bored, so I choose to paraphrase—very carefully, aware that there is also an audience of adults listening in to a white man talking to a black child about lynching. I’m trying to summarize without sanitizing. I explain that black men and women were being executed by white crowds for made-up reasons. He asks,

“You mean like Jesus?”

Through tears, I said, yes, like Jesus. It was like James Cone was standing over there, nodding.

Upper Millstones and the Debt Trap

Deuteronomy 24:6 forbids taking “an upper millstone” in pledge for a debt. The idea is that taking away someone’s ability to make money, to trap them in a deepening cycle of poverty, is immoral. Both states and private businesses (especially payday lenders) collude to make money off the most powerless: the poor. This court victory in Tennessee, which restores driver’s licenses to those who have had them revoked for being too poor to pay fines, is a huge win, and it illustrates the importance of the federal judiciary, from top to bottom.

On “Zero Tolerance”

“Zero tolerance.” Let’s talk about that concept a minute. What does that actually mean?

Does it mean denying due process? Setting bail so high for a misdemeanor that you can’t pay, so that you’d plead guilty in order to get out and keep your job? Because that’s what has happened to countless poor people.

Instead of cash bail, this administration has decided to use family separation in the same way: coercing folks to plead guilty rather than being separated from their kids.

Also: recognize this is what the cash bail system does to poor people all the time: it holds families hostage. If someone is not dangerous, and flight is not a serious risk, they should not be kept in jail. People plead guilty on a regular basis in order to avoid losing their jobs, homes, and kids.

“Zero tolerance” is a myth. We all want due process. That’s why we have courts in the first place: because circumstances matter.

Some thoughts on flags, protest, and symbols

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• I always looked forward to being on the color guard in Boy Scouts. Learning the flag code and participating in ceremonies with the scouts made me aware that we were part of a bigger American story, even if we were just kids playing steal the bacon and learning how to cook over a fire.

• One of my favorite memories of South Korea was encountering an elderly man on the subway, who asked us, “American?” We said yes, and he spent the rest of the trip smiling and nodding at us. When we reached our destination, he stood up with tears in his eyes, took an American-flag handkerchief out of his pocket and waved it to us, saying, “Good-bye, friends!” It occurred to us that he had probably lived through the devastation of the Korean War, and was still grateful that he was not in a prison camp. The flag meant something to him. 

• In the present controversy over kneeling during the anthem in protest, people often claim that this behavior is disrespectful to the military and veterans. This is a red herring. The American flag is not only the flag of the military—it is the flag of the whole United States. It is the flag of women suffragists no less than the Army, and the flag of Japanese internment camp survivors no less than the Air Force. That’s the thing about the flag—nobody gets to own it, because we all own it. This country is run by its people, not a junta. The sacrifice and suffering of soldiers does not trump the sacrifice and suffering of black men lynched for having the courage to register to vote. It is not elevated to some higher or more sacred platform than the brave sacrifice of ordinary citizens whose homes were bombed for protesting injustice.

• The Armed Forces of the United States of America is not a priesthood, though it is often elevated to that position by chickenhawk civilians. While the military (and its various branches) has its own culture, codes, and customs, its purpose is to serve the nation—not the other way around. The veterans I know from every branch who have served proudly are deeply philosophical about their service. They know their colleagues and the people they command(ed) are human beings—siblings, parents, children—who all have hopes and dreams. They are from all different economic levels, races, and backgrounds, and all have their own struggles. The leaders among them think strategically and understand the value of diversity, the importance of outcome-based measurement, how to set clear goals, and how to discern leadership potential. They also understand that life is complicated. They are not politically homogenous. They are people I am proud to know.

• The flag, and the nation it represents, is far younger than slavery, which existed in this land before our nation did, and the effects of which continue to be ignored, redacted, and downplayed by many white Americans. Citizens owe nothing to the flag that they do not also owe to their ancestors. Again, without slaves, Native Americans, women suffragists, civil rights protesters, abolitionists, immigrants, and organizers, there is no American history, and the flag stands for nothing worth respecting. If one does not know something of this history, one does not know the flag, and any gestures toward this multivalent symbol are worthless.

• MLK repeatedly made the point that protest is not palatable to people in power or to those comfortable with the status quo. He pointed out that Daniel, Shadrach, Meshach, Abednego, and the early Christians were protesters who faced public shaming and death. The people who threw Christians and Jews to the lions also claimed that these people were trouble-makers, ungrateful to Rome (or Babylon), disrespectful, and generally individuals of low moral character. People who protest would not have to protest if everyone agreed with them!

• Nobody’s inferences of disrespect get to have more weight in the public moral universe than someone else’s clearly stated purposes for their actions. Continuing to claim that kneeling is “disrespectful” is an arbitrary judgment. Actions have many meanings: for example, according to the flag code, burning the flag is an acceptable way to dispose of a damaged flag; burning at a protest has a different meaning. If someone chooses to be offended by the proper burning of the flag, or by kneeling at its display, I suppose that is their business. Technically, you are not supposed to applaud at the end of the national anthem, but people do anyway. Nobody storms out of the stadium because people have shown disrespect by applauding. The meaning you attribute to someone else’s behavior is really more about you than about them.

• The commodification of the flag, its use as a bumper sticker, and its appropriation by white nationalists bothers me far more than professional athletes kneeling in front of it. Just as it grieves me that the language of my faith has been appropriated by people like Roy Moore to justify bigotry, it grieves me that the flag has been appropriated by people for the purpose of silencing protest and advancing white supremacy. Those who take the cross and flag as symbols for their tribalism have missed the point of each, and created a national religion that is more about the worship of Molech and Baal than of the God of Jesus Christ, and a patriotism that is more about white supremacy than about civic engagement or support for our shared values.

On Statues and Idols

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The museums of Egypt are not like the museums here. Here, there is so much empty space and clean lines.

In Egypt, giant statues are packed so close together you wonder how the building can hold them all. Four- and five-thousand year-old artifacts are stacked nearly on top of each other. Gods, kings, and queens stare down at you from impressive heights. The weight of history feels overwhelming.

I wonder: “What would it have been like to be a Hebrew slave, looking up at these images?”

Biblical history and archeological history have some fuzziness regarding this point, but humor me for a minute. Imagine being surrounded by these gods and kings all the time and being reminded of your second class status. The gods, you see, look like Pharaoh—not you. The gods put Pharaoh in charge. You? Your life doesn’t matter.

When those Hebrew slaves escaped Egypt, they made their way to Mount Sinai, the story goes, and God told them, “Don’t make any images of gods. I don’t need your statuary.”

Why didn’t the Hebrew God need statues? God didn’t want to be tied to the political leaders. God didn’t want to be remade in the image of the ruling class. After all, according to the Hebrew story, all human beings—regardless of gender—were made in the image of God. Therefore, if you want to see God, look at your neighbor.

It was radically egalitarian. That’s the ethic of people who know the bitterness of oppression and the sweetness of freedom.

In spite of what white supremacists, neo-Nazis, modern would-be-confederates and their enablers say, most public statues are not and have never been about “history.” They are expressions of power and the propagation of myth. It can be a myth about history, sure. But it ain’t history. That’s why Pharaohs had a tendency to tear down old ones and put up new ones of themselves. Roman Emperors had a similar approach.

Outside the Jefferson County Courthouse, there is a memorial to fallen police officers. It is a statue of a fallen gladiator.

Let that sink in a moment. It is not a statue of a police officer. It is not a statue of Blind Justice (which would be far more appropriate). It’s a gladiator. What history is it teaching? What does it say about criminal justice?

Downtown, there is a Confederate Memorial. You do not see groups of school children gather around it to learn history. It has no teaching function. And this year, the Alabama legislature imposed a penalty if our city decides to take it down. What lesson is it intended to teach?

This is not about history. This is about power. Specifically, white power, and the power of the majority-white state legislature to tell cities what they cannot do. It is the power of the 1901 Alabama Constitution, the goal of which its architects explicitly said was to “establish white supremacy in this state.” It is an idol to a Southern myth that there was something noble and virtuous about the Civil War, that “defending our way of life” or “defending states rights” meant something other than championing white supremacy and devaluing black lives.

These statues and memorials are monuments to Pharaoh and Caesar. They are monuments to the divine right of white supremacy.

“So take them down and put them in a museum,” some people say. Fine. Let them gather dust somewhere, along with the other idols to petty tyrant gods and egocentric rulers. Let children on field trips pass by them and wonder what spiritual power they had over those who created it. Or let the statues be melted down and made into liberty bells, and let the history be taught to children by well-compensated teachers in well-funded schools.

And let those children know that they are made in God’s image, and that no Pharaoh or Caesar can take their freedom from them.