By Tommy Airey, exclusively for RadicalDiscipleship.Net
This summer, Lindsay and I maneuvered a ministry of migration. We pivoted between and beyond the Kirkridge Retreat Center in the Poconos of northeast Pennsylvania, a studio apartment two blocks from the Deschutes River in Central Oregon and a wide stretch of beach on the Pacific Ocean on Acjachemen land in Southern California. I spent some of this time working on a book that lays out a biblical spirituality for white folks and middle-class people breaking rank from the default narratives of dominant culture. Those of us navigating the wilderness that borders both fundamentalism and liberalism need a spiritual training program for the ultra-marathon race of recognizing and resisting the supremacy stories scripted by whiteness, hetero-patriarchy, the profit motive, the penal system and patriotism.
My friend Sarah Nahar says this kind of inner work is like shedding colonial codes of conduct. Rev. Lynice Pinkard compares it to learning another language: speaking treason fluently. I like breaking rank because it sounds so subversive—what spirituality should be. Break rank with supremacy stories and you’ll gain your soul—and lose your social respectability. Try calling out capitalism at your church potluck. It sounds like a conspiracy, which in Latin means “to breathe with.” To grow our souls, us middle-class folk need mouth-to-mouth resuscitation. Because our hearts have stopped. But here’s the rub: we can only get CPR from those chronically oppressed by supremacy stories. So we start breathing with those who are Black and Brown, Indigenous and Immigrant, women and working poor.
Believe it or not, I am advocating for bible study to enhance our capacity to break rank. Because it is a collection of episodes and epiphanies written by oppressed peoples. Many of these are “texts of terror,” soaked in a Solomon god of glory, guns and guilt. However, there’s a minority report that second-guesses the supremacy, tracking a Sabbath God who bubbles up from below, always in solidarity with widows, immigrants, orphans and other vulnerable people. I am convinced that when we center these prophetic texts, a sustained and critical reading of the Hebrew and Christian scriptures will challenge and inspire people with a semblance of privilege to breathe with the meek, merciful, poor, peace-pursuers, pure in heart and the persecuted—those blessed ones in the
kingdom conspiracy of God.
This summer, the fire of my writing was stoked by a few authors who unknowingly accompanied me. It started on the Solstice, during a weight workout on our Poconos back porch. I was listening to a podcast interview with Dr. Willie Jennings, professor of theology at Yale Divinity School. Jennings published a book last Fall called After Whiteness: An Education in Belonging. About 15 minutes into the conversation, I pressed pause and ordered it online. I now consider it a primary text. Jennings jolts the reader by unveiling the reality of theological education in North America. From day one, it has prepared Christian leaders to perform what he calls white self-sufficient masculinity. The model for this enterprise was (and is) the Southern plantation which cultivated white men who moved on mastery, possession and control.
White self-sufficient masculinity is not first a person or a people; it is a way of organizing life with ideas and forming a persona that distorts identity and strangles the possibilities of dense life together. In this regard, my use of the term “whiteness” does not refer to people of European descent but to a way of being in the world and seeing the world that forms cognitive and affective structures able to seduce people into its habitation and its meaning making.
This paradigm can possess anyone. Not just white men. Jennings says that women, queer folk and people of color get easily caught in the hooks of this norm too. Because the pedagogy of the plantation still sustains every institution in America, including the school system, the corporate world, the non-profit industrial complex and, yes, faith communities. Diversity, equity and inclusion raises up leaders who do not look like white men. But they lead like it.
However, the diagnosis, for Jennings, is not focused on the individual person. The plantation is perpetuated by what he calls an “institutional unconscious.” The classroom, the church, the organization cannot break the business-like approach to people, who are utilized by leaders as tools for production—so the ship can keep running, at all costs. This profound insight brought me back to Bill Wylie-Kellermann, who has thoroughly helped me connect everything to what the bible calls “principalities and powers.”
Wylie-Kellermann, a long-time Detroit-based pastor and activist, came out with a book this year called Celebrant’s Flame. It’s about the priest, poet, prophet and activist Dan Berrigan—a white man who broke rank with supremacy stories that shimmer on self-sufficient white masculinity. Wylie-Kellermann draws on letters, memories and other sources, including some of the fifty books that Berrigan wrote. The different roles Berrigan played—from priest to prophet to contemplative to activist—are inspiring, challenging or heart-warming (sometimes all three at the same time). Wylie-Kellermann is an engaged journalist, inserting himself in the story in ways that humanize Berrigan while beckoning readers to get in touch with their own humanity too.
Back in the early 1970’s, Berrigan participated in a “hit and stay” operation. Nine radical Christians raided a Vietnam War draft board and burned cards in the parking lot. It was what Wylie-Kellermann calls “liturgical direct action.” The lawyer and lay theologian William Stringfellow called it a “politically-informed exorcism.” I call it breaking rank. After a couple years in prison, Berrigan joined the faculty at Union Theological Seminary in New York, where Wylie-Kellermann was his student. It was more than a theological education. It was a conversion experience. As he recounts:
I got knocked off my horse. A tidy worldview crumbled. I do not exaggerate: I was struck nearly dumb and wandered the seminary for a time more than a little lost. Berrigan noticed and one day called my name down a long basement hallway. Would I come up for Irish coffee? By and by: did I pray?
Before then, most of what Bill believed was “little more than sociology.”
In the “prophet” chapter, which was my favorite, Wylie-Kellermann homes in on Berrigan’s overlooked commentaries on the Hebrew Bible, especially the prophets. Berrigan passed along a posture and practice that took the bible “with life and death seriousness.” The Berrigan method was not so much a formula. It was about falling in love. He engages with the historical criticism of the academy, but he is never confined to it. He refuses to be above-the-fray objective or get stuck in the past. Bible study is for personal transformation and political action. Just as it was from the beginning.
Bible study birthed what Berrigan called “an ethic of the guts.” It was a way-of-life that brought the prophetic biblical narrative to life, gutting supremacy stories with diatribes, direct action and daring others, like Wylie-Kellermann, to join him. Evangelism mattered, but it was a positive externality that overflowed from a lifestyle focused on faithfulness, not effectiveness.
The faithfulness of Dan Berrigan went beyond the passive nouns of white liberalism with its acceptance, diversity, equity and inclusion. His form of worship was fundamentally a conspiracy, animating active verbs like breaking rank and breathing with. Celebrant’s Flame was inspiring, but one thing kept nagging me as I read. His academic credentials, his celibacy, his criminal record and the fame that inevitably came (no matter how much he resisted it) make Berrigan a character that radical disciples in dominant culture struggle to relate with. Don’t get me wrong. We can glean so much from his compelling life. But I think we need more ordinary models that mirror the mundane details of our modern days.
This is where the daughter of Bill Wylie-Kellermann drops in to make our summer reading list a little more accessible. In The Sandbox Revolution, Lydia Wylie-Kellermann compiles a collection of essays written by parents committed to cultivating children who conspire for justice. This is a work that many of those who we minister to in the mainstream have been asking for. How do we break rank from supremacy stories with kids in tow? These essays tackle race, class, climate, education, ableism, gender, sexuality and spirituality by curating community, creativity and vulnerability. Authors offer alternative models of marriage and family as new wineskins that can hold the intoxicating concoction of a conspiracy.
Highlights include the opening chapter “conceived” by Rev. Dr. Nick Peterson, a pastor and scholar in Atlanta, who differentiates between fertility (reproducing life) and fecundity (nurturing life), while advocating for radical forms of kinship like fostering and adoption. Kate Foran, a freelance writer in Connecticut who is mentoring her two daughters in self-directed learning, surveys different forms of alternative education, in and out of the school system. Jenny Castro, director of programs at the Martinez Street Women’s Center in San Antonio, animates a family that expresses grace, emotional expressiveness, collaboration and vulnerability to break rank from models obsessed with the stuff of self-sufficient white masculinity: strength, control, steeled emotions and having all the solutions and answers.
Jennifer Harvey, a professor at Drake University, raises anti-racist white kids by decentering the white experience and breaking the white silence of color blindness, vague abstractions and saccharine teachings. Marcia Lee and en sawyer, marriage partners building beloved community on the Eastside of Detroit, write that their own inner work aids and expands the whole: “the degree to which we work through childhood and ancestral beliefs and traumas is the degree to which we can be in loving and healthy community with others.” Lydia Wylie-Kellermann offers two essays that bookend the project. In her conclusion, she writes about how she and her partner Erinn take cues from their firstborn Isaac:
His many desires will force us to make hard choices and increase our daily work. But if we as a family do let his prodding heart change us, the empowerment he feels will give him courage and strength for the rest of his life. He will know that he, as a child, has power and that children are whole members of our community. And beyond that, as an adult when the myths are thrown in his face arguing that something is “too hard” or “impossible,” he will forever know that it is possible to shift the patterns of life for the sake of justice. Perhaps the most powerful act of parenting I can do is to let him guide me.
I am not a parent, but I am in the process of learning how to be an uncle who beckons my white nieces and nephews to break rank with me and Aunt Lindsay. These essays expanded my imagination for what this might look like. They also flipped the script of the supremacy stories: no doubt, these little ones will lead us in the revolution against the plantation mentality of self-sufficient white masculinity, mired in mastery, possession and control.
These three summer reads are wonderful additions to my own conspiracy curriculum. Jennings provides the paradigm, the clear analysis of what we are breaking rank with. Bill Wylie-Kellermann offers the pyrotechnics, straight from the belly of Berrigan. Lydia Wylie-Kellermann animates the basic patterns of a different kind of life. All three, each in their own unique way, are compelling reminders that we will successfully subvert the supremacy stories only by learning how to breathe with those whose survival is soaked in radical belonging.
Tommy Airey is a retired high school teacher and coach from Southern California now committed to a ministry of migration. He is a post-Evangelical pastor and the author of Descending Like a Dove: Adventures in Decolonizing Evangelical Christianity (2018).