The feeling is cliché now: exhaustion, caused by the onslaught of news, all of it bad. The power button on your device of choice may as well come with a trigger warning. There may be no shortage of good news to report, but the bad news really is bad.
Institutions are crumbling. Climate-fueled disaster is growing. Perhaps most troubling, white Christian nationalism keeps getting bolder. Despite their disturbing, even demonic, histories, both white supremacy and nationalism are back. Now they are fused with Christian zeal, a mixture that has only ever been – and will only ever be – toxic. And this deadly combination is flaunted in public.
Vice President Mike Pence recently toured one South Texas border detention camp and saw a cage crammed with 400 men. They were locked in so tightly as to be unable to lie down. The stench was – and is – so strong that the prison guards wear face masks. The Very Serious Leader, the great white hope of Christian fundamentalism, later said very seriously, “This is tough stuff.” Despite the faith he proclaims, Pence and the white communities he represents continue to unleash violence upon vulnerable people across the continent and around the world. They use their positions of power to ensure that their crimes are done with impunity.
“We are not living in the ‘end times’ (which is not a real thing), but rather in a time of revelation.”
The temptation, in the midst of this acute crisis of white Christian nationalism, is to assume that the condition of American society is getting worse. The relentless news cycle and the constant presence of social media easily lead one to think that we are descending into chaos at the hands of angry white men. Some of these men dress in tactical gear, armed up to their tattooed necks. Others dress in suits and sit behind important desks and do violence with ink and paper.
The world is, in fact, tough. Always has been. It seems now to be more sinister, designed for death and cruelty. Whether the trajectory has changed is up for debate, though. The writer Adrienne Maree Brown (she prefers “adrienne maree brown”) has an idea about this. She says, “things are not getting worse, they are getting uncovered.”
I’ve been pondering her statement lately while reading the last book of the New Testament. Revelation, I learned to call it as a child memorizing the books of the Bible. You might also call it The Apocalypse of John, the enigmatic and sometimes frightening writing that concludes the scriptures. I’ve been struck, reading again, how an imagination informed by solidarity with the poor and oppressed – which is to say, informed by a Christian politic, by an imagination capable of seeing those 400 men in cages as humans made in the image of God – makes the drama of the book a little clearer.
“Apocalypse” simply means “an unveiling.” Behind the veil, there is not a secret formula for the way the world ends, but a clear description of the conflict and resolution that happens always again while humans bear the mortal wounds of rule by domination (13:12). In times of Empire, folks have to take sides in the unfolding drama of the world. There is no third way. No lukewarm moderation is possible (3:16). You have to choose: stand with Pence on the outside, or Jesus on the inside.
Media reports have spurred renewed attention to a 2018 Pew Research Center study of views about America’s responsibility for admitting refugees. To what extent does the U.S. have a responsibility to accept refugees, the Pew Center asked. The responses, broken down by various demographic groupings, were as distressing as they were unsurprising. Those most willing to reject the claims of asylum seekers at the nation’s borders are white Christians. White evangelicals are especially unlikely to feel any burden toward letting refugees into the country, with more than two-thirds of respondents holding that view. But white mainline Christians were not far behind, with at least half of them subscribing to the same belief.
“Those most willing to reject the claims of asylum seekers at the nation’s borders are white Christians.”
Such data is but one example of what is getting uncovered: among white Christians, whiteness is more determinative of our habits of thought and action than Christian faith is. Though most would deny this, our discipleship shows otherwise.
From the beginning, the Bible commends, even commands, the welcoming of strangers. The foreigner in need deserves special regard, according to the Torah. And Jesus, the central figure of Christian faith, was himself a refugee. Without the hospitality of Egypt, there would have been no triumphal entry, nor an empty tomb, only another life snuffed out by a cruel emperor. And yet, white Protestants across classes continue to stand against the claims that Jesus, through his own life, makes on their lives.
That white Christians chose – and keep choosing – the narrative of whiteness over the story of Jesus is one of the things getting uncovered. Other people could see it all along, but now white folks can see it too. The veil is off, and the evidence in front of our eyes keeps building up: the cruelties inflicted at the border; the ongoing plunder of black communities through gentrification; the inability to carry on a disciplined, informed conversation about reparations; the deepening climate crisis. These choices continue despite the fact that the monetary profits of all of those decisions rarely filter into any but the wealthiest white families.
“That white Christians chose – and keep choosing – the narrative of whiteness over the story of Jesus is one of the things getting uncovered.”
Those who enact the brutality and suffer the destruction of their souls wrought by ripping babies from their mothers’ arms mostly work for poverty-scale wages. Their clear financial interests are bound with the poor who find violent policies to meet them where they came looking for work and safety. But race blinds those white workers to their common humanity with those they oppress. And race blinds them to their common enemy – those who hold the capital, who are already coming for their health insurance, who are indenturing them to student loans, who remove mountaintops and topsoil and every good thing from the fecund land that is our common wealth.
To those who organize for destruction, who ally themselves with the powers and principalities of this world – for those of us who think we are “white” – the spirit speaks as to the church at Sardis: “you have a name of being alive, but you are dead” (3:1).
There is an ancient drama being worked out in our land now, a drama whose twists and turns we already know, whose characters are familiar to us. We are not living in the “end times” (which is not a real thing), but rather in a time of revelation. Things are getting clear. The Apocalypse of John is always revealing those who oppress, and revealing that the way of destruction will finally end. It shows us how to read the times where “bodies lay in the streets of great cities” (11:8) and where those who “utter haughty and blasphemous words” remain in authority (13:5).
Revelation is good news, though it is hard to learn that we have believed the lies of the Beast (13:14). But knowing leads to the opportunity for repentance. And repentance means leaving the ways of the falling Babylon (14:8) that is crumbling around us now.
Beyond our repentance, rising out of the ashes of Babylon, there is the sound of singing. John’s Apocalypse is filled with singing. The lifting of the veil sets free the voices of God’s beloved – the poor, the lowly, those who are abused and cast down. They lead the way into the streets of gold. And marching along, the saints are singing the songs of freedom.
The Scripture ends with their songs, the great benediction of the world. The sounds of Heaven on earth are like them: Out of the desert, “God will guide the saints to springs of the water of life, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.” Oh, but to be in that number, when they go marching on.