I’m fed up.
I’ve absolutely had it.
And no, despite being both black and Christian (but not American – although of course I can identify somewhat), I’m not talking about what happened in Charleston. That’s serious, but enough rage has been evinced.
And obviously I’m not talking about the fact that the family members of the victims (themselves victims, of course) chose to speak words of forgiveness in court when they faced the murderer himself (Dylann Roof). That was almost a relief in the sense (and I am fully aware of how cynical this may sound) that all parties kept to the New Testament ‘party line’ in keeping with their declared status as Christians. [Can you imagine what would have happened if any of them had said words along the lines of “I’ll never forgive you as long as I live?!?”]
Over 15 years ago, I had begun a journey of thought in which I had begun to seriously question the bourgeois values that I had inherited as part of my own neo-colonial heritage. That in turn forced me to examine certain aspects of that same (neo-colonial) heritage, and hit the ‘reject’ button (relations in my family have never been the same since, I’ll add that for free). I began to dream of doing a PhD in sociology, becoming a major voice in race relations work and destabilising the (white) establishment from the inside by hitting the entire Anglo-Euro world over the head for its multiple failures towards my race. Problem: I was a baptised Christian and as such I had a duty to the Kingdom of God first, and the black community second (at least, that was what I’d understood from my own Bible studies).
But this view was clearly not standard. Years later I would learn about people like James Cone and about things like ‘black theology’ and I would learn far more about the darkness of racism that has permeated the entire Christian world without exceptions – a circumstance that partially contributed to the eventual existence of black theology and also things such as ‘liberation theology.’
But before all those things came into my life, I knew that Christians – and church members (sadly not synonyms) were just as capable of racism as secular people. And on ALL sides of the race/culture divide. It was all very well aspiring to be a ‘black public intellectual’ like Anthony Giddens or Henry Louis Gates, Jr – but was that really what I wanted?
That particular process of self-examination ended with my sure-fire recognition that this sort of vocational existence could never truly bring fulfilment. To be associated with ‘race’ in that way would be to box myself off from being able to truly contribute to other issues that by necessity require one to operate right across racial and cultural boundaries (this statement needs a caveat and this is it). And as I now look at the way/s in which the generation after mine is responding to these issues, I am glad I walked away from that.
The darkness of the circumstances in which these nine church members lost their lives is breath-taking in the extreme. It would be one thing if the shooter had entered a black church as a white person and been routinely ignored and then opened fire (in some big churches on a worshipping day, the fuller the church, the greater the risk of a stranger being ignored). Certain secular media outlets would have had a field day with that narrative. But as it was, it was a ‘small group meeting’ and the evidence suggests that the shooter was made welcome by those guys. I defy some of the church members I know who constantly bleat and moan about aspects of the faith being made unnecessarily complicated to offer a ‘simple’ answer for this tragedy that actually brings comfort to the bereaved. Imagine if one of those black people had suffered racial abuse and had not yet worked through the angry feelings, but when Dylann showed up and asked to join their prayer meeting, they realised that they could not possibly tar all white people with the same brush and went through several gears to be able to smile at him and mean it – only to then be gunned down in cold blood?!
Whatever your racial/cultural identity and religious (or otherwise) identity, just think about that for a second.
Think about what it would mean to open your heart to a stranger who then pulls a gun on you. Can you imagine the sheer, blind, unverbalised terror that the fifth, sixth, seventh, eighth and ninth victims must have felt? What would their last words – and thoughts – have been? Would anyone have had time to pray?! Stands to reason that the last victims would have had more time than the others…
…so you are running for your life inside your own church building, praying to God to protect you from an evil gunman who you welcomed just as you were told you should – and He (God) lets you die like a stuck pig. HOW is that evidence for any kind of God, much less a ‘good’ God?!?
I do not care what religious platitudes a Christian spouts in the aftermath of such a tragedy. I don’t care how sincere those platitudes are (Christians have over-valued sincerity in the church and under-valued it in the world from time immemorial). My sister died, and because my family and I refused to talk about the details of her death in a public way, we had to endure all sorts of terrible, salacious speculations from people who were supposed to be our fellow church members and brethren.That was extremely hard to forgive. But my sister was not murdered. And I remember thanking God for that, because I realised that I wasn’t sure if I would ever have been able to forgive her murderer. But I have seen how, in public, church people are desperate to say the right thing. This is the ‘making-God-look-good’ syndrome, and it is an absolute cancer.
True forgiveness is not possible until one has adequately processed the real extent of one’s emotions. The bereaved know that God is calling them to forgive and their language and psyches are set up for that. And it is certainly to be hoped that those who have declared that they have forgiven Dylann Roof do actually mean what they have said (if so, this is nothing but wonderful). But certain dimensions of this tragedy are in the gravest danger of being trivialised (and in all directions). Why anyone has any time to argue about whether this should be called an act of terrorism is both fully comprehended and yet totally beyond me – simultaneously.
[Do NOT misunderstand me: I have long argued that no matter where a white person finds themselves, the consequences of ‘hegemony’ mean that such a person may never really understand what it means to be in an ‘ethnic minority’ as constructed by the West – and so I agree that somehow ‘terrorism’ only seems to apply to non-white people killing white people – but that is so far away from being an important matter in this situation it is ludicrous.]
Have the bereaved really forgiven? Or is this forgiveness itself a public ritual which creates space for certain apposite narratives that can be penned by whosoever wills, while they now retreat behind closed doors and begin to work through the shocking implications of this whole debacle, with whatever ‘back-stories’ that are not ours to know? They may also have to search within themselves to see if they can truly forgive God for allowing this to happen to them. [For those who think I’m being unhelpfully cynical – especially my fellow Christians – if you are an adult believer and you have not yet experienced major hypocrisy in both others and yourself, you may not have advanced sufficiently in your faith journey to understand why only the truly naive would easily accept such statements at face value without the possibility for questioning their verity. And you are of course entitled to your opinion.]
But in this moment, the philosophers are the first to argue that cold, dry, technical narratives of the identity of God and His goodness can never do the trick. We need poesis – we need metaphor, allegory, and (as Aquinas said) analogy. And perhaps the best way in which this next point can be made is to quote a line from a very misunderstood book in some circles – The Shack by W. Paul Young:
Mackenzie was not loved because she was protected. She was protected because she was loved.
Yes, Jesus was cruelly killed and without doing anything wrong – and in order to complete the task of our redemption, He had to remember rationally-cognitively who His Father was, and who He Himself was. And despite the strongest possible emotive reasons to give up, His love for us as human beings (including those not yet born) and for His Father and the Holy Spirit meant that He was willing to do whatever it took to not only redeem us (a cheap word in the mouths of far too many Christians who give the faith a bad name) but also to ensure that sin itself could be terminally destroyed one day.
I said that I was fed up. I’ve already touched on several things, but I’m going to identify two that have gotten me madder than the proverbial hornet:
a) For the longest while, Christians have undertaken ‘evangelism’ in ways that basically present the gospel as effectively nothing more than a lifestyle choice. Are you sick? Depressed? Divorced? Unemployed? Single? [okay, ignore that one as I’m being facetious…] If so, you need JESUS! And…they’re off. A person comes into a Christian lifestyle and becomes better off. But some new converts eventually they stop praying, and then stop reading the Bible, and then stop church, and then renege on their entire Christian lifestyle. And the church members wring their hands – actually, no, I lie. They sigh resignedly and deny that they are at fault in any way (again, an over-generalisation to make the point). They rarely stop to consider the fact that their rampant materialism masquerading as spirituality is as great an embodiment of the emperor’s new clothes as you might expect to see.
In short, they negotiate their understanding of God’s blessings by the material, the physical, and the extrinsic.
This is Biblically and theologically corrupt and now we are paying the price for what I have long called ‘a transmogrified version of the prosperity gospel’ in which we still believe that doing the right thing in Jesus’ Name brings the right result. Here’s the darkness of this point: didn’t Jesus die so that these bad things don’t have to happen? No?! So what was the point of His death in the first place if the world is STILL a place of rampant dissolution and at-times-unspeakable evil? A world where babies are raped and corrupt politicians steal foreign aid while their own people starve… …and where gun laws are such that if you want to get hold of a machine with the power to take life, you can – and then, you can – just like Dylann Roof and a host of others?
Secular people have a right to question the verity and efficacy of the Christian message in light of our capacity to ask these questions because of the reality of history. What the church tends to offer through its members has no teeth to persuade anyone to take God seriously. And that’s a problem.
b) Barack Obama – as a mixed-race American who is only ‘African-American’ as opposed to a ‘mixed-race’ American because of an arcane Supreme Court judgement of 1898 – has now made my next point by failing to offer a response to this situation that actually speaks to the heart of why race relations have collapsed to historic depths of a type not ever expected since the USA actually instituted Martin Luther King Day and in the aftermath of Brown vs. Board established ‘affirmative action.’ In the name of progress he has espoused a liberal theological standpoint that has expressly been designed to ramp up his credentials with ‘theistic America’ but keep him on-side with the agnostics and atheists as well. His response features the need to re-think the USA’s gun laws, but not on the need to interrogate the circumstances that have led to the sad demise of Dr. King’s dream. Dr. King said that he could see the promised land, and that he might not get there himself.
I once began to read a book of Dr. King’s most important sermons, arranged chronologically. I was very interested to see what he had been preaching in the early days of his ministry. Guess what I found?
I once toyed with the idea of buying another book on black preaching. The author had a list of criteria, the first being that it had to be Biblical. That’s hysterically amusing to me for all sorts of reasons, but now the point: Dr King’s sermons were oustanding motivational material. To a certain extent they could also be described as homiletic material. But the biggest shock for me was that (with some exceptions) they certainly were not Biblical in any rigorous sense! They evoked (and invoked) Scriptural references in all sorts of ways, but they were not models of ‘expository preaching,’ and I was not sure how useful they would be in pointing a listener to the person and work of Jesus Christ as the alpha solution for all human problems (although in ‘general’ gospel terms, some of them had plenty to offer).
So exactly what DID Dr. King have in mind as the ‘promised land?’ Fine, rhetorical question…but then again, a non-rhetorical question: does this promised land exist? Is there the potential for it to come into existence?
I’m not sure that it does. I’m not sure that Dr. King’s dream will ever be realised this side of heaven. If I were to put my theologian’s hat on, I would say that it is in part based on a type of (mis)reading of both major and minor prophets of the Hebrew Scriptures (especially minor prophets such as Joel and Habbakuk). Gettysburg and the Emancipation Proclamation cost Lincoln his life. Dr. King’s spiritual life was in even greater danger than his physical life due to his desperately unfortunate infidelity. And the twist? His philosophy of peacful resistance came from the exact same plane of secular spirituality as Gandhi and Mandela – neither of whom you could ever call a Christian in any true sense of the word (despite their appropriation of essential Christian moral paradigms). America is a society that exists on a history of violence and conquest and exploitation of the native AmerIndians whilst bespeaking religious freedom.
This is not a valid foundation for a society that will get to the place where all men are understood as equal – and the USA has grotesquely abused its own constitution more than once to its own detriment.
Agnosticism is theoretically viable, but useless as a rule for life. We didn’t need Pascal to tell us that we either live as if God is, or we live as if He is not. America is the land of the free – where you are free to do this young man did. It is a land where the citizens are spectacularly duped by the inane conception that the ‘rugged individualism’ of Calvin Coolidge that encapsulates the so-called American dream like nothing else can be ruthlessly pursued because the society will naturally come together to protect anyone and everyone against negativity and exploitation. The social constructions promote an ideological agenda that puts ‘me first’ but somehow then protects us from people’s selfishness if that should ever become violent towards us…
What Christians call ‘sin’ is the result of ‘rugged individualism’ writ large. America wanted to exploit Native Americans but not be subjected to terrorism. Recently it has meddled with Afghanistan and Iraq. As a country, it comes first. It’s people come first. It has facilitated a terribly easy alliance with Christianity and capitalism. It has supported a system with ‘haves’ and ‘have-nots.’ Secular morality is a busted flush. Obama’s liberal theology is toothless. All political ideology is powerless to handle the types of cognitive, emotive and spiritual breakdown that took place when Dylann Roof took that gun out of his pocket and started shooting.
And still the church members spout cheap, trite clichés or dubious theodicy arguments when asked to account for a good God in a world where evil exists. At some point, theists and non-theists will need to accept their conceptual (and linguistic) limitations and point to a reality beyond language.
A reality that is the opposite of rage.
A reality that is of vital significance beyond constructions of race.
A reality that transcends the church…
…and the limitations of culture, which bedevil both Christians and non-Christians.
Martin Luther King’s dream is dead. Perhaps it never was. But the dream of Jesus of Nazareth? He is alive, so maybe we need to take His dream more seriously. Jesus’ death does not impugn our capacity for volition. Bad things happen sometimes to good people. But we are not loved BECAUSE we are protected. We are protected because we are loved.
What happened to those poor church members in Charleston now means that black Christians may become more afraid of white strangers. However, the phenomenal miracle of God’s grace alone will enable them – and all of us – to move beyond rage, race, church and culture – and find the reality of God for ourselves.