President Donald Trump insists he is not racist. He is, but he’s also “biblical.”
There has been a national uproar about his repeated attacks on four congresswomen of color through Twitter comments and public remarks. It began with the president’s tweet suggesting these four elected representatives “go back and help fix the totally broken and crime infested places from which they came.” It’s longhand for the widely recognized racist quip, “Why don’t you just go back where you came from?”
“Just like the temple goers of Amos’s day, many white evangelicals are nodding their heads in agreement, if merely in their reticent support for Trump or their complicit silence.”
That phrase, in one form or another, has a large place in American racism. It has shown up again and again, addressed to whatever group of people are the current scapegoats for our problems. In this case, I use “our” to refer primarily to white, Protestant, American men such as myself. Historians point to the ways it has been used by white preachers and politicians to urge black people to go back to Africa, as well as to drive out Asians, Hispanics, Jews, Catholics and others.
The racist phrase, “go back where you came from,” has been set on repeat in our country since its beginnings. But this kind of thinking is not original to America.
The prophet Amos traveled from his home in Judea to Bethel, the religious and political capital of Israel at the time. He was a nobody from nowhere, but he had eyes to see and words to speak. He stood at the center of Israel’s political and worshiping life, decrying the injustices of his day. The rich and powerful were accumulating more and more wealth at the expense of the most vulnerable. “They sell the righteous for silver, and the needy for a pair of sandals – they trample the head of the poor into the dust of the earth and push the afflicted out of the way,” Amos shouted (2:6). On and on he went about all the economic injustices of Israel.
Of course, Amos knew his audience didn’t want to listen. “They hate the one who reproves in the gate, and they abhor the one who speaks the truth.” You know, like the ones who dare speak the truth about racial, economic and ecological justice on the floor of Congress. “They” hate that sort of thing, “because [they] trample on the poor” (5:10-11).
It’s never just the political leaders who hate to hear uncomfortable truths. So do religious leaders. Amos has a word for them too. Thus, says the Lord, “I hate your worship services, and your fat animal offerings, and all the noise of your worship bands and pipe organs. But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream” (5:21-24).
Amos, as you can imagine, created an uproar. His words were a threat to national security, the national economy and the mega-national church of his day. So, Amaziah, the priest at Bethel and probably the most famous religious leader of the time, pulled out a familiar line for the irksome prophet: Why don’t you go back where you came from?
“Flee back to the land of Judah, and prophesy there; but never again prophesy at Bethel, for it is the king’s sanctuary, and it is a temple of the kingdom” (7:12-13). It’s a telling line about who is and isn’t being worshiped. It’s the sentiment white pastors had toward black slaves in the 19th century and that the president of the United States exhibits today toward non-white women elected to Congress (among many other targets). “This is our country. This is our church. Never mind what God, Jesus or the Bible might think or say.” And, just like the temple goers of Amos’s day, many white evangelicals are nodding their heads in agreement, if merely in their reticent support for Trump or their complicit silence.
“Echoes of Trump’s racist rhetoric and behavior show up in the New Testament too, but they are more nuanced.”
Like I said, Trump is “biblical.” His tweet was as close to Amos 7:12-13 as Eugene Peterson’s paraphrase: “Get out of here and go back to… where you came from!” (The Message).
But Trump’s racist voice can be heard elsewhere in scripture. It’s also in Ezra.
Ezra comes from a different biblical period but exhibits an attitude similar to Amaziah’s. It’s the time following the Exile, when the king of Persia allows the Jewish leaders to return to Judea and rebuild their homeland. Ezra goes on a “Make Jerusalem Great Again” campaign, only to find that the Israelites’ “holy seed has mixed itself with the peoples of the lands” (Ezra 9:2). It’s the kind of thing that creates a crisis for any racist. Ezra is despondent that such a thing is happening. He tears his clothes and rips hair from his head and beard. I can only imagine Hitler doing the same at news that “the holy seed” of the Arian race was being defiled.
The answer that comes to Ezra is so simple and familiar it makes the stomach churn. “Send all those foreign wives and their children back where they came from” (Ezra 10:3). To be clear, these marriages may have been decades old. The children may have been grown adults with their own children. No matter; they didn’t belong.
The people agreed. They identified every mixed marriage. Then all the foreign women and their half-breed children were sent packing, banished to the wilderness. This was nothing less than ethnic cleansing. The women and children wouldn’t survive long in the wilderness, but it was seen as an unfortunate necessity. How else would Ezra get God’s blessing and “Make Jerusalem Great Again”?
Echoes of Trump’s racist rhetoric and behavior show up in the New Testament too, but they are more nuanced. After Jesus started his public ministry, he came back to Nazareth. In the synagogue, he was invited to read from scripture. He unrolled the scroll and read from the prophet Isaiah, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor” (Luke 4:18-19, Isaiah 61:1-2).
This may have been good news for the poor, oppressed and imprisoned of Isaiah and Jesus’ day, but rarely has it been welcomed by the rich and powerful. Those of us who are white American Christians need to be honest with ourselves. This is not good news if you’re benefiting from the power systems as they are.
That’s what the congregation listening to Jesus discovered. They began to mumble, “Isn’t this Joseph’s son?” (Luke 4:22). We can hear this question one of two ways. It could be understood as, “Look, he’s one of us! Isn’t it great to have a hometown preacher?” Or it could be, “Who does this kid think he is? We know where he’s from. He needs to remember his place.” The verses just before and after the question seem to contradict each other, which makes me assume it’s some of both.
“The Bible is a powerful mirror. It has an amazing ability to help us see the truth about ourselves and the world around us.”
The crowd may have been divided initially, but not for long. Jesus starts talking about all the ways that God seems to care about Israel’s enemies as much as God’s chosen people. “Remember how God sent Elijah to a widow in Sidon, even when Israel was in a famine? Remember how Elisha healed Naaman, the general of the Syrian army that invaded us?” It was a startling critique of their own religiously propped-up nationalism, and it stung.
It’s soon evident that the question, “Isn’t this Joseph’s son,” becomes something more akin to “you need to remember where you came from, son!” The crowd gets so worked up that they try to throw Jesus off a cliff.
It’s a common pattern when power is critiqued, unjust systems are scrutinized and those on the outside are lifted up as equally important to the insiders who share in the dominant group identity. “Remember where you come from, or we’ll help you remember! Ashes to ashes, dust to dust.”
The Bible is a powerful mirror. It has an amazing ability to help us see the truth about ourselves and the world around us. Those who claim a biblical faith need to make the connections. Let’s open the scripture and be honest with ourselves.
The emperor has no clothes. The president is a racist who readily uses xenophobic and white nationalist rhetoric of biblical proportions. It is past time for the American church, Republican and Democrats alike, to speak out with a singular voice and tell the truth.
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