Condemning White Supremacy

While I’m encouraged to see more white clergy naming the sin of white supremacy, I just want to point out to the church that speaking out against mass shootings is a really low #$%!! bar.

Trace the sin and the language of white supremacy back further; it is in the criminalization of black and brown people, in the incarceration and deportation of black and brown bodies, in excuses made for vigilante executions and lynchings through “stand your ground” laws, in the leaders we elect and the dog-whistles they use, in functional apartheid through redlining and gentrification, in anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim rhetoric, in white apathy over disproportionately dismal health and economic statistics for black and brown people, in our collective shrug whenever we think or say, “that’s just the way things are.”

White supremacy is simply the formal doctrine of the folk religion of whiteness. It’s the church you automatically join when you are born white (or passing) in this country. You may not attend regularly, but you have been tithing to it and enjoying its blessings your whole life.

Mass shootings, like lynchings, are a white sacrament: the visual representation of our invisible policies. It’s the sacrifice our religion requires. It is what our inaction looks like when it becomes action.

So yes, preachers, please condemn white supremacy for the heresy and idolatry that it is. And please go ALL the way in.

What Christians Do

It’s interesting to me that there are few descriptions of what early church worship was actually like. We have fragments, sure: they met in homes and broke bread with glad and generous hearts (Acts 2:46), sometimes discussion dragged on so long that someone fell asleep and fell out of a window (20:9). But the book of Acts doesn’t spend a lot of time detailing what the order of worship was.

Most of the action happens outside of worship. The apostles get dragged before religious and city officials (Acts 4 & 5) and they speak boldly and get killed for it (7). Philip proselytizes an Ethiopian eunuch (8), Peter extends the reach of the church to Gentiles (10), and so on. If Acts is the story of the early church, most of that story is not worship.

I want to be careful here: As Will Willimon has said, there is a tendency to downplay worship, as if the real activity of the church happens outside of worship, as if the important work of the church is whatever those outside of the church deem worthy. I happen to think worship orders the life of the church. Worship is central. When Paul sends greetings in his letters, he sends them to the church that meets in Nympha’s house or Prisca and Aquila’s house. Apparently meeting together for worship was a regular feature of life for the early church. We just don’t know much about what actually took place there.

The public life of the church, the stuff that Acts records, is about disciples doing the kinds of things that Jesus did: meeting with the wrong sorts of people, scandalizing religious and political leaders, getting in trouble, and seeing God do amazing things.

I am struck by the discrepancy in what Acts describes and what church professionals describe. For most of my ministry, I’ve listened to church professionals talk about how to get more people into a sanctuary and how to get more people involved with the stuff the church organization is doing. I just don’t see that emphasis in Acts. I don’t see mega-churches; I see micro-churches. I don’t see programs; I see practices. There are a few situations in which the apostles speak to large crowds, but those are usually tense situations where they are as likely to be killed as to be celebrated. Most of the situations that are recorded in Acts are meetings with just two or a handful of people. Most of the activity of the church is in the streets and around tables.

Framing Hoover’s History

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Several folks have asked for the manuscript of my portion of the presentation on Tuesday night. I will be updating this manuscript with links and notes to the research I conducted. As usual, the words below don’t entirely match what I said, but they are pretty close:

December 4, 2018

Questions White People Are Afraid to Ask: Historical Frame

The proverbial tip of the iceberg is the 10% of a situation that is visible, while the 90% remains invisible, below the surface. The killing of EJ Bradford is the very tiniest tip of a pattern of violence that is invisible to most white folks who live in predominantly white communities. What happened on Thanksgiving night was the outcome of decades and centuries of intentional policy and strategy. What we’re going to do in the next 30 minutes is frame these events historically, culturally, and spiritually. William Faulkner said, “The past isn’t dead. It isn’t even the past.” The past is the present. So I’m going to share with you a bit about everything that led up to the killing of EJ Bradford. (Recent reporting on the protests is available here.)

William Hoover’s family were bigwigs in Jefferson County. There are a couple of things he is remembered for. He was an advocate of traffic safety. He coined the slogan, “Drive carefully; the life you save may be your own.” He was president of The Club, which sits on top of Red Mountain and looks down on Birmingham, literally and figuratively. And he was also known for being a militant segregationist. He founded the American States Rights Association which opposed integration. He published Neo-Nazi propaganda. He also founded Hoover Academy in 1963 so white kids wouldn’t have to integrate in West End. In the 1950’s he bought lots of land along Highway 31 and planned a new city for whites only.


William H. Hoover, Sr.

The first attempt to incorporate the city of Hoover happened in 1964, the same year the Civil Rights Act was signed. They succeeded in 1967. (More history of Hoover is available here and here, and be sure to check out John Archibald’s article here.)

People who don’t understand how history works might say, “well that was over 50 years ago. A lot has changed since then.” Sure, a lot has changed. And a lot has not.

In 1974, Hoover built its own shopping mall, its first major retail attraction. In the 1990’s it got a significant upgrade at the Riverchase Galleria. Today,. Costco is its largest tax revenue generator. Macy’s is number 10. The median household income in Hoover is nearly 80,000 per year, compared with Birmingham, which is 32,000, less than half that. The median property value in Hoover is over a quarter million dollars; in Birmingham it is 80,000. In Hoover poverty rate is only 6%. In Birmingham, the poverty rate is about 30%. (Economic data sourced here and here.)

Why such a discrepancy? We’ve coined a term for what happened in the following decades after Hoover was founded. We call it “white flight.” But let’s call what it actually was: wealth extraction. How many folks have heard the term “redlining?” Redlining began in the 1930’s, and it was the practice of banks to surround certain neighborhoods with a red line and describe them as “undesirable” because they were predominantly black. Banks refused to give government-backed FHA mortgages to people in those areas. So, for decades, white folks could get a government-subsidized handout to build wealth, while black folks could not. As white folks built suburbs and government built big roads to access those suburbs and subsidized big cars so white folks could get back and forth to work, many black people were stuck in a Great Depression that never ended. A study by the National Community Reinvestment Coalition found that the effects of redlining are still being felt today, because those neighborhoods have never recovered. Redlining and white flight, or wealth extraction, is a large part of what is responsible today for the “Racial wealth gap,” which means that white families have an average of 10 times the net worth of black families. The number one redlined community in the 1930’s was Macon, Georgia. Number two? Birmingham, Alabama. Folks, that’s why Jefferson county has more than 30 different municipal governments, most of which were created through white flight. If you’re white, the government has been backing your family’s mortgages and city development for nearly 100 years. You have been the recipient of a huge government handout that was not given to black families. Yet today, many white folks blame the people in poor neighborhoods for their own persistent poverty.

As a clergy person and a church planter, I also need to point out that churches are complicit. New churches were planted in these growing white suburbs, and when they grew to be megachuches with wealthy givers, white pastors said, “Look how God has blessed us.”

But let’s not just pick on Hoover. Let’s take an even longer and wider view. Because in 1901, a group of wealthy white landowners—former plantation owners—gathered to write our state’s constitution. The president of the convention stated their mission on the second day in his opening speech. Now this is a verbatim quote from the transcript, which you can find online: “What is it that we want to do? Why, it is within the limits imposed by the Federal Constitution, to establish white supremacy in this State.” To establish white supremacy in this state. His own words, in the transcripts, which are available online. (The full transcript is available here. Knox’s quote is on Day Two.)

To establish white supremacy, they debated the merits of public education, and worried that public education would allow black folks to rise above white folks. They debated various ways to disenfranchise voters, and tried to figure out how they could maximize the impact on black voters while minimizing the impact on white voters; all without ever making the law explicitly about race.

Let me quote just a snippet from Delegate Coleman from Greene county at the 1901 Convention. They were debating how much property someone needed in order to vote, and he was worried that white folks in the black belt would be disfranchised along with black folks. This is what he said, and let me remind you that this is in the transcripts:

“It was never intended by saying that $300 worth of personal property of real estate, to prescribe qualifications which would enable a man to vote. The real purpose was to disable certain parties from voting in this State. Now we have been willing to concede to the white people of Alabama any provision that they could frame, and we are willing to do it now.

…If there is anything here by which any white man is disfranchised. I would like to see it pointed out. We thought we had them all in. Some gentleman said yesterday that we could not go on the stump [go out in public] and defend it, as it was. Why, fellow delegates, you cannot defend many things if you take the whole people into consideration, but you can defend it and satisfactorily when it is understood that by this provision, the ignorant and venal vote will be eliminated, and the white man continued in dominion in this State.” 

Translation: We can’t defend this as policy about race, but with a nudge and a wink we can make it acceptable, as long as it doesn’t disfranchise too many poor white folks as well.

Now, look, we all know Alabama has a racist and white supremacist history. You don’t need me to tell you that. But what I want to illustrate is that the people who worked to establish white supremacy in this state and in our cities were very strategic in their thinking. In these transcripts you can can see the architecture that would guarantee white supremacy for the next century.

And the whole point of these policies is to create plausible deniability, to be able to say, “Look, this isn’t about RACE — it’s about economics. It’s about local control of education. It’s about state’s rights. It’s about crime. It’s about drug policy.” All of that is a lie. 

Another way they ensure white supremacy was to make sure that property taxes were low and sales taxes were high. The reason is that the wealth of white landowners was tied up in their land. And by using sales tax, the burden of funding government could be shifted to poor people. These delegates from 1901 ensured that our public coffers would never be full enough to fund programs of social uplift. You see every year in the news that Alabama is too broke to fund education, too broke to fund state parks, too broke to fund medicaid expansion, too broke to keep voter registration sites open. You see how this works. Folks, this is not an accident. This is by design.

The architects of white supremacy were strategic in their thinking. They set up a system that would outlast them and continue to deprive black folks of resources and give them to white folks. After they died, they could pull the levers of state and city governance from beyond the grave. They left a legacy that outlasted them, and they’ve continued to out-organize us for decades. How many of us are organizing to leave a legacy of justice for our children?

And unless you are directly affected by these policies, they are invisible to you. That’s the whole point. 

Hoover in 2016 rezoned large chunks of the city so they could deal with, what was called euphemistically, “the apartment problem.” The zoning and planning commission saw this as a way to prevent more apartment dwellers, namely black and Latino folks, from coming to Hoover for the quality education. Just as several years before they tried to end bus service to make it more difficult for apartment dwellers to send their kids to school.

And of course, all of this is rooted in the widespread belief among white people that black people are inferior. Oh not in so many words. Just that they are more prone to crime. That’s why we invented the phrase “black on black crime.” That they are not good parents or are not involved in their kids education. That they are “riff raff.” The implicit bias we live with has not changed in 50, or 100, or 150 years. And many of the the policies and systems which were set up to disenfranchise and disempower black folks have not changed. So even if you, in your heart, don’t consciously hate black people, it doesn’t matter—we have to change the implicit unconscious bias we live with AND we have to change systems and policies that are designed to oppress.

Let me say a few kind words about Mr. Hoover, who died back in the 70’s. He wasn’t an evil person. After all, he was concerned about traffic safety. He was a successful businessman who “gave back to the community.” I’m sure he loved him Mama and Daddy. He was, in many ways, like many of our friends, neighbors, and family. “Not a racist bone in his body,” at least not in terms of the people he actually had relationships with. Just as I’m sure Mr. Knox, the president of the constitutional convention who said white supremacy was the purpose of our state, I’m sure he loved his family and his neighbors. He was a pillar of the community. He’d probably give you the shirt off of his back.

But let me remind you of the words of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount: If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? And if you welcome only your own family, what more are you doing than anyone else?

The measure of our faith and our justice is how much we are willing to love and extend hospitality to people who are not our tribe. It’s how much we are willing to think about someone else’s history and their experience. And for that I turn the next portion over to Cat Goodrich.

Never Say This Phrase Again

“Black-on-black crime.”

White people, banish this phrase from your mind. Wash it out of your mouth. If you type it without scare quotes, cut off your fingers and cast them from you, for it is better for you to lose your fingers than for your whole body to be thrown into hell.

Let us state the social issue before us: Black men are being killed by police and vigilantes because they are presumed to be criminals. They can follow police instructions and still be killed, like Philando Castile. They can be killed for playing in a park, like Tamir Rice. They can be killed for wearing a hoodie and buying skittles, like Trayvon Martin. They can be killed for  exercising their second-amendment rights, like EJ Bradford. In all of these cases, the victims were presumed to be criminals by those doing the shooting.

They can be killed without consequence because the assumption is that black men are dangerous. Did the police officer / vigilante fear for their life? Of course they did: the victim was a black man, and everyone of us has been programmed to believe that black men are dangerous.

So when a black man is killed (again), and people protest his killing, some white folks (and a few black folks) respond with this dismissive, distracting rhetoric which reinforces the stereotype: “What about black-on-black crime?” “Why don’t you protest that?”

The genius of this evil turn of phrase is that it allows someone to sound concerned while they reassert one of the central premises of white supremacy: black people are defective. In some ontological, primordial way, their blackness is a signifier of their wickedness. They are prone to criminality. They are violent. So we need to address “black-on-black crime” before we can take seriously the idea that our black siblings are being killed without cause. According to this logic, ANY GIVEN KILLING of an unarmed or innocent black man is justified. Just like lynchings, modern vigilante justice will never be uncalled-for. Using the phrase “black-on-black crime” is a way of saying, “Black people brought this on themselves.” 

There are, of course, many other reasons this phrase is nonsensical. As others have pointed out, we do not refer to mass shootings, anti-semitic hate crimes, or white-collar insider trading as “white-on-white” crime.

Kulturgeschichte / Religionsgeschichte / Juden / 19. Jh.

An anti-semitic riot in 1819, an example of “white-on-white” crime.

But the phrase “black-on-black crime” is abhorrent because it is intentionally used to dismiss white supremacist violence against black bodies. It obscures the violence while it justifies bullets fired, blood lost, parents bereaved, and children orphaned. It is a euphemism, a slightly-more polite way of using the N-word.

Take those words out of your mouth. Throw them away. Never, ever, ever use them again.

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.

Screwtape’s Constitution: The Demonic 1901 Alabama Convention

In The Screwtape Letters, C.S. Lewis takes on the persona of a demon writing to his nephew. Part of the fun of the book is that it is so well-written. Screwtape is not a cartoon villain or an Exorcist horror-show devil. He is a sophisticated gentleman. He’s able to wrap his evil in beautiful language.

Screwtape is who I think of when I read the arguments of John Knox, president of the Alabama Constitutional Convention of 1901, on the cause of the Civil War, his assessment of race hypocrisy in the North, and his justifications for literacy tests and poll taxes.

John KnoxHe was a smart guy, well versed both in law and in the Bible. He was also a white supremacist, and if you read his words, you will recognize much of the same rhetoric used today by pundits on Fox News, in the alt-right, and from politicians in Alabama and elsewhere. There have always been ways to engineer racist policy in a way that does not directly mention race (like the “War on Drugs,” and the “Crime Bill” and reform that vilifies “welfare queens“). White supremacists still try to maintain plausible deniability when charged with racism.

The transcripts for the 1901 Alabama Constitutional Convention are available online (here is a link). They should be required reading for every concerned citizen of Alabama. Here are a few choice quotations:

In my judgment, the people of Alabama have been called upon to face no more important situation than now confronts us, unless it be when they, in 1861, stirred by the momentous issue of impending conflict between the North and the South, were forced to decide whether they would remain in or withdraw from the Union. Then, as now, the negro was the prominent factor in the issue.

Mr. Knox demonstrates that it was well known, thirty-five years after the war, that the war was over slavery. He goes on to decry both the hypocrisy of Northern attitudes toward black people and their “interference” in the (white) self-government of the South. What Alabama is doing, he says, is only what every other state in the union wants to do to black people:

…One has studied the history of recent events to very little purpose who has failed to discover that race prejudice exists at the North in as pronounced a form as at the South, and that the question of negro domination, when brought home, will arouse the same opposition in either section. And what is it that we want to do? Why it is within the limits imposed by the Federal Constitution, to establish white supremacy in this State.

Mr. Knox goes on to praise the idea of poll taxes as a way to prevent black people from voting yet still maintain the facade that this is not racial discrimination. He makes it clear that he believes this is justified because black folks are more likely to be criminal, are not as intelligent, and that the right to vote should not be universal:

These provisions are justified in law and in morals, because it is said that the negro is not discriminated against on account of his race, but on account of his intellectual and moral condition. There is a difference, it is claimed with great force, between the uneducated white man and the ignorant negro. There is in the white man an inherited capacity for government, which is wholly wanting in the negro. Before the art of reading and writing was known, the ancestors of the Anglo-Saxon had established an orderly system of government, the basis in fact of the one under which we now live. That the negro on the other hand, is descended from a race lowest in intelligence and moral preceptitions of all the races of men.

Knox asserts that white Anglo-Saxon European civilization is historically and inherently superior to African ones. Sound familiar?

Check out these other arguments he makes for voter disenfranchisement. The first is from a Supreme Court case (Williams vs. Mississippi), and the second is an interesting example of proof texting from the Bible:

As stated by Judge Cooley, the right of suffrage is not a natural right, because it exists where it is allowed to be exercised only for the good of the State–to say that those whose participation in the affairs of the State would endanger and imperil the good of the State have nevertheless, the right to participate, is not only folly in itself, but it is to set the individual above the State.

The principle of inherited capacity is recognized even by the inspired Apostle, for you remember that Paul, in his epistle to Timothy, whom he was preparing to preach the glorious Gospel, refers to it even in the matter of faith, for he says: “I am persuaded that the unfeigned faith which dwelt in they grandmother Lois and in thy mother Eunice dwells also in thee.”

(There is a wonderful documentary called Open Secret which uses the transcripts of the 1901 Convention to tell its story. Another documentary, It’s a Thick Book, addresses some of the sordid history and its consequences.)

Besides disenfranchising black people, there were two other goals of the 1901 Constitution. The first was to preserve the inherited wealth and power of the “Big Mules” by keeping property taxes (and all taxes) low for the wealthy, and instead fund the government on the backs of the poor through sales taxes. The second was to abolish home rule, so that all important local decisions would have to go through the racist and classist legislature.

The resulting system of government was a century-long train wreck. The Alabama Constitution has been amended so often it is the longest in the world. Although Knox claimed that it was important to establish white supremacy “not by force or fraud,” its ratification was obviously fraudulent. Corruption is woven into its very fabric. It’s no wonder that Alabama is plagued by bribery and corruption at every single level of government.

The Constitution of Alabama is illegitimate. The government it upholds is illegitimate, from its governor to its legislature to its supreme court to its local officials. The only justification for its continued existence is the fact that anarchy is only slightly less desirable. In truth, anarchy might be an improvement: the 1901 Constitution is why Alabama’s quality of life measures are the same as many developing world countries. It is why Alabama is a failed state.  The underlying structure of the 1901 Constitution is not only racist, it is demonic.

Screwtape would be so proud.

Easter 2018

On Easter morning
I’m gonna imagine
Stephon Clark
gets back up.
I’m gonna imagine
he’s one of many.

I’m gonna imagine
fear and great joy.

I’m gonna imagine
the powers that be
quaking in their boots
when they realize
they were wrong
when they thought
they could bury
the truth.




Gladius, from Wikimedia Commons

Then Jesus said to him, “Put your sword back into its place; for all who take the sword will perish by the sword.” (Matthew 26:52)

Actually Jesus
in the first place

this proverb
applies to mercenaries and criminals
not regular normal
law-abiding men like me
who make their living in legal ways.
We know the only way to stop a bad guy with a sword
is a good guy with a sword.
And obviously
I’m a good guy.

You don’t understand context.

In the second place

what is a sword anyway?
How is it different from a long dagger?
People can kill
with sharpened sticks,
bows and slings, poison and flames.
Do you know the difference
between a gladius and a rapier?
And if you don’t know the difference
and if you can’t speak with expertise
about tangs and weight ratios
or the finer points of pommels and hilts
or the art of flaying a man’s skin
or piercing a woman’s belly
or cleaving a child’s skull
then who are you to talk to me about swords?

You lack the authority.

In the third place Jesus

what would a world be
without swords?
Will you use a plowshare to fight the Romans
when they come to take your sword?
Will you use a pruning hook
when the bad men come
to rape your wife
and kill your children?
Jesus, if we beat our swords into farm implements,
how will we defend our homes and farms
from the bad men with swords?
Will we be men at all?

You don’t understand the way the world works.

In the fourth place Jesus

who are you
to take that tone with us?
A real messiah would say
“Take up your sword”
not “take up your cross.”
It’s easy for you
Son of God
who can just pop up from the grave
when death isn’t convenient.
For the rest of us worm food
death is permanent.
So don’t you dare lecture us
about obsessing over the length of swords
when we’re down here facing the tyrrany
of tiny men
with big swords.

You lack humility.

In conclusion Jesus
you should have said
“all who
do not
take up the sword
will die by the sword.”
All that Sunday school stuff
about peace on earth
about a little child leading them—
nobody down here believes it.
Real Christians believe the opposite.
And if they do believe you
they are just victims
waiting for us powerful men
who understand the way the world works
to defend them
or exploit them

So go ahead and heal
all the ears
of all the victims of violence you want
Because those of us who matter
aren’t listening to you.

Matthew 26:47-56
Luke 22:47-53
Micah 4:3-4
Isaiah 11:6-9

The Ethics of Killer Bots

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Still from “Slaughterbots,” a Youtube video by

Here are two linked videos. This one is fake and terrifying. The other is real and gee-whiz cool. It is possible for the same reality to be cool and terrifying at the same time.

I believe this technology is inevitable. We need to be planning for how to control it, defend against it, and hold people accountable for its abuse. Killer bots have already been used in law enforcement. Integrating AI into the use of killer bots is as predictable as self-driving cars.

We even know how it will be sold: tired of police shooting unarmed black men? Let robots make the decisions instead.

Of course, you can hear that last sentence several different ways.

I know that there are plenty of public conversations about ethics we’re not having, because we are overwhelmed with the kleptocrat-in-chief’s rejection of all previous norms. But technological progress isn’t stopping for humanity to have remedial lessons on conflicts of interest, consent, nepotism, and civil behavior. It is scary to think of him having access to nuclear weapons. It is scarier to think of people like him using this technology.

Autonomous killer bots should also figure into debates about the second amendment. Should private citizens have access to swarming armed drones? Why not?

It is almost quaint how apologists for the NRA think they will be able to stave off next-generation tyrants with their guns. Ballots, not bullets, are the way we fight tyranny. It requires us to have a prophetic imagination that allows us to think beyond the next election cycle, and to see how our technology affects our behavior over decades. It requires us to make decisions as a community and to recognize that there are some things we have to address for the common good.

Killer bots already exist. Our moral imagination has to catch up.

[edit]: I remain in awe of how Star Trek predicted so many technologies and the social questions they would raise. Remember this episode?