There is a part of my brain that never rests. During all my waking hours, it is observing and cataloging patterns, wondering what they mean, hypothesizing about how they may interact with one another, weighing the impact they have on human flourishing, and making plans for how to name, describe, and eradicate the patterns in me, my family, and my community that don’t make us better. If it sounds exhausting, it is—to me and everyone around me.
As a therapist trained systemically, I use this part of me to understand people in relationship, from individual dyads—a wife and her partner, a parent and his child—to the larger human webs that are formed when those partnerships are joined with others around them. I’ve spent a long time trying to make sense of the little world I’ve lived in–my family, my church, or my school. But over the last few years, my brain has been focused on trying to understand, with what feels like very limited success, Evangelical Christianity. I have never been so confused by a group I actually belong to, and consequently, I have no inkling how anyone on the outside has any idea what to make of us either.
I have needed more sleep during coronavirus than I have in a long time. Though there are many reasons for this I am sure, one of them has to be the significant energy I have invested in trying to fathom the conservative response. I have done my best to move internally into curious space when I have the urge to judge, and to ask myself questions about what might be driving it. Before I could even start writing about all the biblical concepts I had started to piece together could be at play, George Floyd was murdered.
Though I have seen fairly widespread support for George Floyd and his family coming specifically from conservative Evangelical Christians, I have also seen a concerning amount of white silence. As I wonder about this pattern, my mind is consistently drawn to the words of people of color.
Austin Channing Brown first introduced me to the concept of reading the Bible from the underside. In all my power and privilege, I had never quite connected that the Bible was written from the underside of power. I have an entire bachelor’s degree in Bible. I was trained we cannot interpret the Bible correctly until we understand its original context and analyze what it meant to the original writer and the original hearers. Never in my training did it become clear to me that the issue of power is critical to the context. “You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies” means something entirely different if spoken by the oppressed than by the oppressor.
But I didn’t know, because I was a person of privilege taught about the Bible almost exclusively by white, cisgender, straight, men–and power is not central to the narrative for people who have it. For the privileged, power is the invisible subplot that drives the story outside our conscious awareness—it’s what the whole story is about and we don’t know it, until someone says to us, “I see dead people.” And from that moment, we can’t see anything else.
The way we saw the story before no longer makes sense.
In contrast, those on the margins have always known the story is about power. They have read this story about an oppressed people fighting for the dream of a peaceful space to be themselves, living for a future hope while dying under the oppression of exile, occupation, and slavery, and they have seen themselves in it.
I always feel so humbled when a person of color invests the emotional energy to invite me into a conversation about race. Not too long ago, one of my black friends, Derrick, asked me if I had considered why the enslaved Africans would have adopted the religion of their oppressors. I had not, but I immediately wondered why I hadn’t. I suppose, I just unconsciously and naively assumed anyone can know truth when presented with it, and they believed it because it’s true.
“Because we knew it was actually for us,” he said, and it hit me square between the eyes.
This has never been my story, at least not in the way I have always been taught. In other words, one of the primary roles of the biblical narrative for me as a white, upper-middle class, graduate-level educated, cisgender, straight woman is to teach me how to hold all that privilege without becoming a Roman Empire.
Derrick has helped me see that I read the Bible through the lens of my whiteness, as did white colonizers throughout our nation’s history. Blinded by privilege from even seeing the true narrative, slavers thought the Bible was on their side. Thinking they were teaching a religion that reinforced the merits of black captivity, they taught Christianity to the enslaved.
The story of God’s people–enslaved, occupied, and exiled–fighting again and again for their liberation with God on their side. A story in which Jesus, when face-to-face with religious leaders who also used their power to exploit other human beings for their own gain, literally flipped tables.
Just when I think about how stupid they would have had to have been, I remember what my own whiteness has read right into the text, and what obvious stories I too have missed.
JimBear Jacobs, a member of the Stockbridge-Munsee Mohican Nation who has helped shape my understanding of my relationship with the story of God, introduced me to the reality that the Bible is an indigenous text. It is written by an oppressed people as an alternative to, and in radical opposition to, the dominant narrative of the majority. Reflecting on the phenomenon of “missions” within the church, he observed that white Christians have been taking the biblical text to people of color to tell them what it means, when in reality, we should be there to ask them what it means, because it’s the story they live, in their bodies, day in and day out.
As I have pondered this paradigm shift, one that took far too long for me to make, I have begun to wonder how the white Evangelical church in America has come to believe the story of liberation is actually for us in the way that we have? How have we, in all our comfort and economic privilege, come to find ourselves in the story of the marginalized?
In a sickening and systemic act of wild cultural appropriation, we made ourselves into victims. To make the gospel ours, we twisted ourselves into the position of the oppressed, shackled by the chains of plain red Starbucks cups, public school science curriculums, wishes of “Happy Holidays,” other people’s decisions about who to love, and the liberal “agenda.”
For years, we have positioned ourselves as fighting a “culture war,” always creating the impression amongst ourselves that we are still losing. In fact, if you ask the average Evangelical, despite the literal billions that have been spent and the unfathomable amount of energy invested, we’ve only continued to lose ground. We cannot point to a single fight won because we have been left bloody on the battlefields of gay marriage and abortion alike.
The most interesting part is that the “culture” is not at war. The average nonreligious person in America has no idea about this alleged power struggle and is doing nothing to prevent most any Christian from fully practicing our faith.
So, we created an imaginary war, that we can never win, and made ourselves into an oppressed people, in our own minds at least, to make the gospel about us.
In fact, this may be one of the enemy’s most deceptive lies. Instead, the religious right is one of the most powerful forces in American politics—Trump would not occupy our White House without them.
Let me be clear. Having our personal religious beliefs removed from the disposable cup from which we drink our coffee is not oppression. Having our children hear a narrative we do not agree with while being perfectly free to teach them alternative perspectives at home is not subjugation. And walking past two gay lovers holding hands on the street is not discrimination.
To compare and catastrophize these events, as if they are alike at all to the experiences of minorities, is to dismiss and invalidate the very suffering white Christians so often passively support.
Children in cages, separated from their parents and left to die alone on concrete, is oppression. Borders closed to black and brown bodies in desperate need of asylum is oppression. Reopening an economy too soon, willingly accepting that more people of color than white bodies will die as a result, is oppression. Forcing sovereign nations to open their borders during a pandemic that is taking their lives at alarmingly higher rates is oppression. And black bodies dead on pavement at the hands of officers who are sworn to protect is oppression.
Participating in these travesties, both actively and passively, with our money, our voices, and our vote is empire.
It is time to reposition ourselves in the story, and it is time repent. Though the work of Jesus on earth was to make the Gospel into everyone’s story, we have taken up space in the story that doesn’t belong to us.
We have identified ourselves as the people of Israel when, in fact, we are the empire.
We don’t have to be the kind of Egypt where sons are safer in wicker baskets on the river than at home, but we have been.
We don’t have to be the kind of Babylon that forces entire nations off their own land, but we have been.
We don’t have to be the kind of Rome where innocent men are executed in police custody, but we have been.
Change is long overdue.
It’s time to make it right.
It’s time to listen.
Voices of color have a story to tell us.
None of us can flourish until we hear it.