By Tommy Airey
“The possessive investment in whiteness can’t be rectified by learning ‘how to be more antiracist.’ It requires a radical divestment in the project of whiteness and a redistribution of wealth and resources. It requires abolition, the abolition of the carceral world, the abolition of capitalism. What is required is a remaking of the social order, and nothing short of that is going to make a difference.”—Saidiya Hartmann
Fifty years before George Floyd moved to Minneapolis, Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. got arrested in Birmingham. Dr. King, whose national holiday we now celebrate every January, was one of the greatest Americans who ever lived. However, like love itself, Dr. King has been sanitized. White folks and middle-class people have molded him into a meek and mild Black man devoted to a watered-down dream of politeness and patriotism. The real MLK took his cues from a bold biblical brand of love that beckoned him to break rank from a cozy and counterfeit middle-class life built on injustice and oppression.
During his short life, Dr. King was arrested 19 times—the same number of trips that Harriet Tubman made back to the South after she escaped to freedom. While King was in that Birmingham jail cell, he wrote a long letter to white pastors on the margins of a newspaper and smuggled it out to get it published. It is one of the greatest documents ever produced in American history. In it, Dr. King articulated a profound spiritual conviction that serves as the basis for a biblical conspiracy—a life built on belovedness and belongingness.
In that cell, Dr. King let out the bible’s little love secret:
It really boils down to this: that all life is interrelated. We are all caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied together into a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.
Dr. King’s letter challenged white pastors and their congregations to break rank with the counterfeit story, the split screen sensibility that their white friends, families and faith communities were scripted into—a disconnected worldview of personal piety and individual salvation, personal responsibility and individual rights, that has nothing whatsoever to do with love.
Dr. King knew that white America had never collectively identified itself as being caught up in a network of mutuality. White America held onto in a high view hierarchy. The country was divided—not between Republicans and Democrats—but between the overwhelmingly white dominant culture and what King would later call “the other America.” The ones who believe that they deserve everything they get—their degree, their job, their home, their health care, their vacation–versus the ones who Langston Hughes spirited up in his classic poem thirty years earlier: poor white people, Black folk, Native people and Immigrants. These are the folks “finding only the same old stupid plan, of dog eat dog, of mighty crush the weak.”
Dr. King’s letter was a lamentation. In white churches, the belovedness and belonging of the inescapable network of mutuality had been shelved for personal salvation in heaven, creating a uniquely American religion, a word that comes from a Latin root meaning “to be bound.” King knew full well that white Christians were bound by the project of whiteness, a system of intergenerational wealth, power and supremacy—sometimes called the American Dream or the middle-class life—centering the needs and desires of white people by keeping the focus on their faith, family, country, career, resume, mortgage, social respectability, stock portfolio—and the policies, police and prisons that protect and serve it.
The project of whiteness is a world designed for white folk and middle-class people of color who commit to blending in. Like a melting pot of privilege and power. It is the loan you are likely to get. It is the police who will never pull you over. It is always being given the benefit of the doubt and taking it for granted. Success in the project of whiteness is tied to obedience, to staying silent or ignorant about its myths and lies. In fact, those who unfollow the project of whiteness are dismissed as eccentric, unrealistic, lazy, selfish, foolish, outcasts, traitors, haters, dipshits, rebels or vagabonds.
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The project of whiteness trashes the inescapable network of mutuality for a belief in individual rights and personal success. One problem with the project of whiteness is that it is sustained by incessantly extracting from the Earth, and either excluding or exploiting Black folk, Native and Immigrant people, dark-skinned countries and poor white people. Another problem is that the powerful institutions that organize American society—both major political parties, the mainstream media, the school system, faith communities, corporations—consistently pound the pavement for the project of whiteness.
One often overlooked problem is that those who commit their lives to the project of whiteness, casting a blind eye to its death and destruction, suffocate spiritually. “What will it profit the [white] man,” Jesus said, “if he gains the whole world and loses his soul?” The project of whiteness is sustained by stripping our souls of what we need most: intimacy, vulnerability, presence, playfulness, tenderness, trust, transparency, nurture, mutuality, mystery, wonder, awe, accountability, awareness, appreciation, curiosity, compassion, open-heartedness and emotional expressiveness.
In the project of whiteness, privileged people are entitled to coping with their pain and trauma in counterfeit ways. Especially their anger. White folks are allowed to be assholes because they have been wounded. Here’s how it works for me. Something happens and I am triggered. I feel alone, unknown, disrespected, overlooked. I repress my feelings and go into functioning mode. I hustle hard to get recognition and value. When I don’t get it, I go away. I pout. I get pissed off. The rage and resentment seep out. I’ve learned from Dr. Bruce Rogers-Vaughn that the neoliberal project of whiteness has trained me up to be perfect, self-sufficient, self-promoting and competitive. I believe that my response is justified. Because people suck. The focus stays on other people’s bullshit. Not the pain and trauma behind it.
The poet Dominique Christina says that our wounds are not in our handwriting, but our healing is. Each of us is called to keep writing our own Lazarus story, to come out of the tomb of empire and unbind ourselves. The biblical alternative to the project of whiteness is the kingdom of God—what I call the conspiracy of God. It proclaims that I am inherently beloved and that I belong to everyone else. I am never alone. Caught up in a network of mutuality, made up of several species bound by a Spirit of love and justice. Even though it doesn’t always seem like it, God actively conspires with me. I am, in fact, an extension of the divine, called to love much because I have been forgiven much, released from the guilt, shame and anger that drive my counterfeit copings. Free to cultivate compassion and love people, every one of them—like me—deeply wounded.
In God’s conspiracy, accountability is crucial. Bad behavior necessitates boundaries, something that some of our family and friends with unresolved hurt will not honor. As a result, some relationships will remain stuck in the mud. Not safe. Not mutual. Not worth it. This includes many of those Dr. King called the protectors of the status quo, those ruthlessly committed to the project of whiteness, no matter what. However, if I must move on, I will cultivate love and compassion by paying attention to their pain, not their counterfeit copings. I will put the focus on grieving the price paid for pledging allegiance to the project of whiteness. This is how I will learn to love myself and others. This is the healing path of love that I intend to tread.
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In his last book published before he was assassinated, Dr. King continued his lamentation. He wrote that white people are “not even psychologically organized to close the gap” on racial justice. The obliviousness and indifference to massive Black and Brown suffering has malformed the souls of white people. The Oglala Sioux have a word for white people and others who join in their project. Wasichu. The people who take the fat. For centuries, the project of whiteness has trained its citizens to take, take, take, take, take and take some more. The Sioux say it is possible to be white and not a Wasichu—or to be a Wasichu and not white. However, the overwhelming masses of white people are Wasichu because that’s what we’ve been trained to do.
America’s official religion—the project of whiteness—has long been scaffolded by a plantation perspective and sanctified by a popular and powerful brand of Christianity that I call “the cult of the white Jesus.” The project of whiteness is the cake, the moist substance of success and security, comfort and convenience. The cult, offering both conservative and liberal flavors, is the icing that sweetens the deal with personal salvation in heaven and membership to a spiritual club catering to white middle-class interests and agendas. The white leaders of the cult—virtually all of them male pastors, priests, professors and presidents—have turned Jesus into a respectable, spiritual white savior action figure.
The cult of the white Jesus is comprised of a right-wing and a left-wing caught up in a culture war of white folk and middle-class people—decent people who are upholding an indecent system. These wings form a highly dysfunctional family that argues over all sorts of theological and political matters, including the bible, gender and sexuality, heaven and hell, abortion, gun control, tax policy, healthcare, immigration and more.
Really, the right-wing and the left-wing are covenanted to this culture war. They sincerely disagree on these important issues, but both wings, by and large, have always steadfastly agreed on the conditions that undergird the project of whiteness:
The white Jesus. The primacy of the nuclear family. The sustainability of suburbia. The military-industrial-complex. The police. The war on drugs. The corporate-funded two-party system. A strong military. A segregated school system funded by property taxes. An economy primed by the profit motive and privatization. Values like hard work, entrepreneurship and competition. An allegiance to the myth of America’s innocence and greatness.
The cult of the white Jesus will include those who are Black and Brown, Indigenous and Immigrant—but only if they remain bound by these terms. Bring me your tired, your poor and huddled masses, but don’t bring your Black Jesus, abolitionist fervor, socialism, reminders of slavery and genocide, or consistent critiques of America’s ongoing addiction to racism, materialism and militarism. The white Jesus will tolerate all sorts of flags—Rainbow, Black Lives Matter, Trump, Confederate—but only if one waves the Stars And Stripes too.
The white Jesus, in his liberal form, is nice, neutral, non-judgmental, accepting and tolerant, unwilling to ruffle feathers by exposing the injustice and oppression attached to the project of whiteness. However, in bible studies and church sermons and summer camps and contemporary Christian music, the conservative white Jesus taught the adolescent version of me to fear a triumphant male god too holy for sinful humans—a divinity who demanded to be appeased by a blood sacrifice. This enthroned god in heaven sent down his son to die for the sins of the world. Well, not the whole world. Just those who believed in their heart and confessed with their mouth that Jesus Christ is Lord. Everyone else was destined for hell. Not just for a short time. For eternity.
The cult of the white Jesus calls this “the gospel.” The real good news, however, is that the gospel is a contested concept. My post-adolescent pilgrimage led me to biblical scholarship and lived witness that exposed the counterfeit gospel created to prop up the project of whiteness. Yes, at a predominantly white evangelical seminary, I ventured beyond the required reading list and discovered that the real gospel was the bold proclamation that if Jesus is lord then Caesar is not. This is bad news for the project of whiteness—but only if white folks and middle-class people of faith and conscience actively bear witness to its death and destruction and break rank with it. No matter the cost.
Tommy Airey is a retired high school teacher and coach from Southern California now committed to a ministry of soul accompaniment through radical friendship, intentional gathering and the written word. He is a post-Evangelical pastor and the author of Descending Like a Dove: Adventures in Decolonizing Evangelical Christianity (2018). He is currently working on his second book Conspiracy: A biblical Spirituality for Breaking Rank.