What does following Jesus mean in the United States of America, especially for white, “evangelical Christians”? The question is always relevant, but current and recent events throw this question into stark relief. Consider a few examples.
President Donald Trump has intensified his appeals to white nationalism. On Sunday, July 14, Trump stated on Twitter that four women of color who are liberation-minded members of Congress should “go back and help fix the totally broken and crime infested places from which they came.”
These congresswomen, elected in 2018 to Congress as Democratic Party candidates, are citizens of the United States. They couldn’t have been elected to serve otherwise. Three of the four (Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, Ayanna Pressley of Massachusetts and Rashida Tlaib of Michigan) were born in the U.S. In fact, Ocasio-Cortez was born in New York City less than 30 miles from Trump’s birthplace. Omar was born in Somalia, came to the U.S. with her parents to flee war in that country, and became a US citizen in 2010.
“White Americans who profess to follow Jesus should understand the dangers and damage being done to people in the name of white supremacy and religious nationalism.”
President Trump seems determined to find a way to conduct a citizen headcount despite a Supreme Court decision that struck down plans to include a question on citizenship in the 2020 census which many people believe was designed to discourage Latino persons from participating in the census.
The Trump administration continues to separate children from their parents who are seeking asylum in the U.S.
Men, women and children are being mistreated, abused and otherwise oppressed in “detention facilities” that are unsanitary and inhumane. As my brother observed to our family recently in a message, “If we find cattle, dogs, any livestock going without basic daily nourishment (food, water), it’s reported. The guilty party is fined, and the animals are placed … where they have these basic needs. However, when it comes to taking care of humans, especially those of color or less fortunate, nothing is getting done. These people deserve better, no matter the cost.”
Earlier this month Trump presided over a circus-like Fourth of July event at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C., that included military hardware as props for his speech that praised American “exceptionalism” and military power.
Several weeks ago, Albert Mohler, president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky, rejected appeals to meet with Kevin Cosby, president of historically-black Simmons College in Louisville, to discuss how the seminary could begin a process of reparation for more than 150 years of racism and racial injustice toward black people.
Jack Graham, pastor of Prestonwood Baptist Church in Plano, Texas, and a former president of the Southern Baptist Convention, declared in a recent sermon that “No one serious about their Christian faith can be serious about socialism.” The sermon did not include similar criticisms of capitalism.
During the week of July 4, many churches placed American flags on their lawns. That’s hardly surprising since the flag is a permanent fixture in the sanctuaries of most of those congregations, including churches that claim a Baptist heritage.
Why do Christians who profess that God has demonstrated love for all humanity by the life and ministry of Jesus post the flag of a nation that has violated the teachings of Jesus from its inception and is blatantly doing so now in so many ways? Do Christians who believe that capitalism and Christianity are compatible; who oppose granting asylum to people fleeing war, famine and violence; and who cheer claims of American “exceptionalism” and military power realize they are associating the religion of Jesus with devotion to U.S. notions of empire?
During his Fourth of July speech, President Trump called the United States an exceptional nation, praised the Founding Fathers, boasted of the “righteous American spirit that forged our glorious Constitution” and spoke of “love and unity … [that] held together the first pilgrims [and] forged communities on the Great Plains.”
Are white Christians drunk on that Kool-Aid?
“Being the most feared bully isn’t proof that a person or society is right.”
Have white Christians forgotten that the Great Plains were stolen from the indigenous first people of this land?
Have they forgotten how the wealth of the nation was created by the sins of land theft, chattel slavery and other injustices?
Have white Christians forgotten that the “glorious Constitution” Trump mentioned in his speech deliberately excluded all women, all black people, all indigenous people and all un-wealthy white men from the promise of “a more perfect union”?
White Americans who profess to follow Jesus should understand the dangers and damage being done to people in the name of white supremacy and religious nationalism. From ancient times until now, the idea that “might makes right” has been the calling card and insane delusion of every person or society that boasts of having superior strength. Long before we knew anything about killer satellites, Stealth bombers, F-35 fighter planes, submarines with nuclear missiles and soldiers and marines with laser-sighted weapons, thugs with clubs claimed that superior physical strength made them right.
There is nothing “exceptional” about believing one is “right” because one has the latest and most deadly version of a club, whether military power (militarism) or money (capitalism). Having the greatest arsenal of the latest and most deadly clubs isn’t a sign of being “right,” a sign of being “great” or a sign of being “exceptional.” It simply proves that one has placed ultimate faith in the ability to get one’s way by massing the power to bully others.
Being the most feared bully isn’t proof that a person or society is right. It only marks that person or society as the most dangerous version of a thug.
There is nothing “exceptional” about a thuggish people claiming the power to be an empire. The Egyptian, Assyrian, Persian, Greek, Roman, French, Spanish, British, Japanese, Italian, German and Soviet empires occurred in different places and across different periods. Yet history teaches that the same blind belief that doomed the other exercises in domination – the notion that military and monetary power are what make a nation “right” and “strong” and “free” – will disappoint the U.S. Empire the same way it disappointed other attempts at world domination.
There is nothing “exceptional” about being proud and vain. Hubris marks people – and nations – as fools, not wise.
“Perhaps white Christians, including many of my fellow Baptists, don’t know better.”
If you are wondering why this matters, remember that the German Christian community cooperated with and endorsed “patriotic” Adolf Hitler and the Nazi movement Hitler led in 1933 – despite all its racist and nationalist aspects – the same way so-called “evangelical Christians” are cooperating with, endorsing and cheering anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim and anti-people of color policies of the Trump administration today.
Remember that German pastors and church leaders were silent, or even cheered, as Hitler demonized Jews, Catholics, persons of color, immigrants and LGBTQ persons.
The complacency and complicity of German Christians in the heresies of ultra-nationalism, racism and ethnocentrism and faux patriotism seem very similar to what one sees, reads and hears today from many so-called evangelical Christians in the United States. Recall that 81 percent of the people who self-identified as evangelical Christians voted for Trump in 2016. Trump is courting that voting bloc in his 2020 reelection campaign.
Do white Christians in America realize the stark difference between the extravagant generosity and scandalous hospitality of God demonstrated by the life and ministry of Jesus and Trump’s blatant appeals to racism, sexism (including patriarchy, homophobia and transphobia), militarism, oppressive capitalism, ethnocentrism and white religious nationalism? If so, why are they behaving as if devotion to God involves support for white religious nationalism?
Perhaps white Christians, including many of my fellow Baptists, don’t know better. Perhaps they are so morally and spiritually confused they don’t recognize heresy and idolatry when they involve appeals to white supremacy, oppressive capitalism and religious nationalism. That is a sobering thought, but it isn’t the most chilling. No, the most chilling thought is that this is what many white Christians truly believe because white Christians in America have always believed it. Perhaps the reason the national flag is prominently displayed in churches is because what is called “discipleship” in those congregations is merely white religious nationalism, racism, sexism, militarism, xenophobia and self-righteous capitalism.
Don’t get it twisted. Despite what those Christians and churches apparently believe, following Jesus is incompatible with being a bully. Following Jesus involves using power to do justice, love mercy and live humbly in oneness with God and others. All Christians should condemn and denounce white supremacy and religious nationalism in the name of Jesus, not validate them.
How are you doing that?