By Ric Hudgens (Quarentine Essay #89)
The violence that conservative Christianity embraces is not its only problem. “Guns, God, and Guts” may be their cry, but their reality is also linked to white body supremacy. Violence, racism, and religion, that unholy trinity, are as American as apple pie.
Throughout these essays, I’ve addressed the abiding racial injustice underlying and pervading this crisis. Our health inequalities mirror our socio-economic inequalities, and all of them rest upon a foundation of institutional white racism. Racism is America’s original sin, and white supremacy is woven into the warp and woof of our national fabric.
The events of January 6, 2021, will become one of those moments we look back on (like the 1965 march in Selma) when America’s racist reality was stripped bare for everyone to see. The battle cry from the Capitol steps to “take back our country” is an anguished cry. It is the cry of White Christian Americans fearful of their freedom to remain dominant over all other Americans who are neither White nor Christian.
American Christianity has always been allied with white supremacy. In “White Too Long: The Legacy of White Supremacy in American Christianity” (Simon & Schuster, 2020), Robert P. Jones, the head of the Public Religion Research Institute, a nonpartisan polling, and research organization, writes that “the more racist attitudes a person holds, the more likely he or she is to identify as a white Christian.”
This is true for white evangelicals, white mainline Protestants, and white Catholics. The primary determiner of whether the white person in front of you is a white supremacist is whether or not they go to church. Jones continues: “If you were recruiting for a white supremacist cause on a Sunday morning, you’d likely have more success hanging out in the parking lot of an average white Christian church—evangelical Protestant, mainline Protestant, or Catholic—than approaching whites sitting out services at the local coffee shop.
This deadly reality is why it’s always essential for me each year to honor Martin Luther King Day – a week from today on January 18. It is a partial antidote to the virulent strains of racism that run through our national veins. There are different kinds of faith, Abrahamic (Jewish, Christian, Muslim) and many more. But the American dream that King reconceived finds room for them all – as long as they remain tolerant, democratic, and nonviolent.
July 17, 2020, saw the passing of John Lewis, one of those called into the Freedom Movement by Dr. King. In the Georgia elections last week, Lewis’s pastor, Raphael Warnock, and Jon Ossoff, who had interned with Lewis, were elected to the Senate: Georgia’s first Black Senator and first Jewish Senator, respectively. The dream marches on.
I am so grateful for that hard-earned victory, which revives hope of reversing the course of recent years. Van Jones on CNN summed up those elections as “black joy won over white rage in Georgia”: “You have Black genius and grassroots genius on display. And Black joy. Some of the tactics that were used on the ground to get people together: food, music, culture; this is Black joy versus a certain kind of White rage. And Black joy won.”
So when I honor King next Monday, I’m not just honoring the man (and yes, he had flaws, as someone always wants to point out); but I am honoring the movement. I am honoring those who seek an insurrection of the heart.
Politics was not foreign to King’s message because the God he believed in was the God of all of life. Linking politics to faith in God both relativized politics and underlined it’s crucial importance. The things that we struggle with in our lives are impacted by the decisions that politicians make. Black and brown bodies struggle even more in a country where decisions are made by white body politicians, and the structures of government preserve and protect that dominance.
In a July 13, 1966 article in Christian Century Magazine, Dr. King wrote, “I do not think of political power as an end. Neither do I think of economic power as an end. They are ingredients in the objective that we seek in life. And I think that end of that objective is … the creation of the beloved community.”
James Lawson said of King that to truly understand what he was about one had to understand Jesus. This is to say that Jesus is the interpretive key to King. Dr. King contextualized the message of Jesus in the American context: a context pervaded then and now by racism, violence, and misdirected religion (read again King’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail”).
But this was not the blond-haired, blue-eyed Jesus of white supremacy. It was not Jesus with well-developed pecs and an artillery belt slung over one shoulder. It was not Jesus leading the violent overthrow of a democratically elected government.
Dr. King was an insurrectionist. But what King sought was an insurrection of the heart. An insurrection of all those racist institutional structures that clog and calcify our hearts and the heart of this nation. “Love is the only force capable of transforming an enemy into a friend,” he said.
The situation is unavoidable, regardless of your faith. You must choose.