White Fog

CN: Racial Terrorism

Say their names.” Yes, world, say their names. Rage against the injustice. Celebrate who they were. And mourn all the gardens they will never tend, the phone calls with parents they will never make, the paintings they will never paint, the runs they will never take in the gorgeous spring air, the babies they will never cuddle. It’s so important to lift them up, and to give THEM attention, instead of their killers, to recognize that they had a life that was more than the label “victim,” that one of the cruelest parts of racial terror is the way it steals the individuality of these individuals.

But let me talk to my white friends a minute:

While our black neighbors relive this never-ending monotonous generational trauma which is, by definition, a kind of hell, we need to say some different names among ourselves.

Because Gregory and Travis McMichael believed—and still believe—they can get away with it. Because George Zimmerman did. Because Amber Guyger did. Because Daniel Pantaleo did.

George Zimmerman chased and picked a fight with a teenager who went out his door to buy Skittles. When George Zimmerman started losing the fight that George Zimmerman instigated, he used his gun, because the law told him he could. He killed a teenager. A boy. My son’s age. We need to say the murderer’s name: George Zimmerman. He’s still among us. Free.

So I put Travis McMichael and Gregory McMichael and George Zimmerman together. I put their names in the list with Amber Guyger, who may or may not have been cognizant when she killed her neighbor. So Travis and Gregory and George and Amber. I put their names in the list with Daniel Pantaleo, who choked a man to death while he begged for his life on a New York sidewalk. Travis McMichael and Gregory McMichael and George Zimmerman and Amber Guyger and Daniel Pantaleo.

I started trying to make a list of killers, of dream-destroyers, of people who robbed the world of gardeners and painters and teachers and children and siblings and parents.  I started making a list of people who think of themselves as moral, upstanding individuals, who killed because the law said they could, who said “oops” afterwards and got forgiveness, or something deceptively like it, because it’s perfectly understandable to white people when a white person kills a black person out of fear.

But when I got to the unknown killers who killed Sandra Bland and Freddie Gray, I realized there are so many killers whose names we will never know, because there is no video. And would video be enough, even if we had it? We don’t know the names of the gloaters and mockers and normal white people in the black-and-white photographs of public lynchings from decades past. Time and intentional forgetfulness have erased their names.

Our white history teaches that there are two ways to get away with lynching: hide your motivation, or hide your identity. You can even hide in public if you hide in a crowd, like in the lynching photographs. It’s what Gregory and Travis are hoping to do: hide in the crowd. They believe a white crowd will protect them. They may still be right.

Sometimes we allow newspaper headlines to hide identities with passive voice: “Suspected burglar slain,” as though someone didn’t hold the gun and pull the trigger, as though the suspicions were just floating through the air and not in some particular brain in some particular white man’s head, as though it’s nobody’s fault that the implicit bias in his head resulted in pressure on his finger, pressure which was transferred to a trigger.

Sometimes we allow legislators to hide the motivations of vigilantes with the laws they write. “Stand your ground” is one such example, because all you need to commit a lynching murder is 1) a gun and 2) fear. They have even written laws to excuse vigilante motorists for killing protesters with their cars. (While the law did not protect James Alex Fields, he was enabled by these legislators when he mowed down Heather Heyer. She was white. I hate to think that if she had not been, he would have had a greater chance of going free.)

Occasionally someone will be brought to something approximating justice, like Dylan Roof, but those names are the “bad apples” among the white crowd that allow us to make the fine distinction between murderers and vigilantes, between the those who wear hoods and those of whom it is said there are “good people on both sides.” The main difference between murderers and vigilantes is that the latter are convinced, when they put their hands on a gun, they can take for themselves the righteous authority to kill another human being, and that they will be excused by a white crowd.

I am sick of white murderers pretending they are Batman, that they can vanish in smoke, blending into a white fog of misunderstood intentions, of headlines that erase their identity, of well-meaning we-don’t-know-what-was-in-his-heart-and-we-are-all-sinners-so-we-should-forgive Christianese. I am sick of them being able to hide behind the well-crafted language of legislators, of racist stand-your-ground laws, of anti-protest laws, written by the same hands that gerrymander voting districts.

I am tired, as a white man, of having to see myself in these damned lynching photographs, because so many of my white neighbors want to hide behind our shared whiteness. The word “damned” seems tame and cliché, because these photographs really do seem like snapshots of hell, a moment of gleeful hatred and terror preserved for eternity. The identities are erased, even though their faces are preserved. What seeps out of those photographs is whiteness in all its poisonous anonymity, this breathtaking confidence that the white crowd protects them, that they can hide in a white fog.

No. I am going to write down the names of the killers. I am going to say them out loud and remind white people about them. I am going to tell what I saw: You put holes in a human being and poured human blood on the ground. You choked the life out of a divine soul. You broke the neck of a child of God. You hanged a woman for being uppity. Then you hid the evidence, you excused your intentions, you made it look like a suicide, and you tried to disappear into the crowd.

And you tried to make me an accessory to your crime by relying on my whiteness to protect you.

Cain, Cain, the Lord is walking in the garden, calling for you. Your brother’s blood is crying out from the ground. I will not allow you to hide within a white fog. I will not be a silent onlooker in your lynching photograph.

Deals With the Devil

In the classic stories, people who make deals with the devil get exactly what they want, but find out later that it’s actually a curse. Midas gets the golden touch but finds out he can’t eat gold. Faust gets the girl but destroys his chance at happiness with her.

This is how it is with oppression. People are fighting to build walls and maintain their positions of privilege in systems of oppression because they have bought into the lie that they have a good deal, as if they are winning something. Like it’s worth ingesting your daily dose of toxic masculinity so you can not go to the doctor and die earlier of heart disease? So you can have fewer friends than the women in your life do? Like it’s worth sucking down your daily dose of white supremacy so you can live in the prison capital of the world? So you can pay billions of dollars a year to disenfranchise people of their vote and maintain de facto segregation? Like it’s worth maintaining sex-negativity and purity culture in order to make LGBTQIA people feel like 2nd-class citizens? As if that’s not going to have an impact on straight folks’ ability to have intimacy and authentic relationships?

There is a cost to maintaining oppression for those who “benefit.” I am deeply suspicious of narratives that make it sound like oppressors are getting what they really want.

They are not. Most of those who think they are thriving are simply succeeding at distracting themselves from the poverty of the hell they are building for themselves. Sure, they may enjoy their net worth, their McVacations, their ability to get praise for mediocrity, and the constant simmer of jealousy or suspicion that someone, somewhere, is getting away with more than they have.

I am not a hellfire and brimstone preacher, but I do think hell is real, and I think a lot of people would prefer it to a heaven they had to share with those they’ve spent a lifetime avoiding or oppressing.

Only those who see through the lie can be free.

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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detail of panel from event page

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.