The Choice is Yours
I am currently running a program called Grace at the Circle where we meet once a month to examine the theme of poverty in the Bible. Last night, I asked participants to brainstorm what Jesus said about poverty (or the poor) or wealth (or the rich) and we worked together to come up with some ideas. One of the bible verses most people were familiar with is Matthew 6:24, when Jesus says, “No one can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth.”
The translation of this text in the King James Version says, “You cannot serve God and Mammon” – Most versions of the bible interpret that word mammon to mean wealth, but I also found discussions of mammon to include things like “any unjust gain” or “any false object of worship or devotion”. Upon reflection, I believe that the “Mammon” that those of us in the predominately white progressive Christian church spaces choose to serve is white supremacy.
As I do my day job as an administrative support person in an Episcopal church, I try to nurture my growth as an independent scholar by writing and participating in conferences. I spent the greater part of September working on a chapter in an edited volume on Misogyny – my chapter was about Misogyny in health and medicine. During the first stage of revisions, the editor wanted me to “say more” about misogyny as control of women’s bodies – especially their reproductive health in slavery – because she wanted her readers to understand the intersections between racism and sexism. In my effort to add some context to the discussion, I came across a date I had seen many a time – 1619 – the year the first Africans were brought to America as slaves. 1619. I knew about this date, but it struck me I think for the first time just how long Africans in America and white Americans have been coexisting.
By 1662, Virginia passed the first law stating that the status of the child follows the status of the mother. So, that meant that children born from the union of white slave owners and enslaved Black women would be considered slaves. Slaves who could be used for their labor, rented, leased or sold. One author said that although slave owners did not exclusively sexually assault women for financial gain, all benefitted from Black women’s reproductive abilities. Very early in our nation’s history a Master/Slave ideology was woven into the fabric of who we are. Many local, state and federal laws were written in the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries that had language which inscribed Africans in America to a permanent subordinate class.
As I worked on my revisions a strange thought occurred to me. I started to believe that part of the reason there is such high emotion within white Americans in regard to African Americans is because there is so much intimacy between us. Intimacy seems like an odd word to use to describe four and a half centuries of racism; however, it seems appropriate. African Americans and white Americans have a long history and a shared ancestry; we are connected through our blood.
After the end of formal slavery in 1865, it becomes apparent that the need to have African Americans as a permanent underclass is more than just economic. The need is deeply emotional. The Ku Klux Klan formed almost immediately after emancipation causing a reign of terror on segregated Black communities and targeting especially those men and women who seemed proud or were becoming economically independent. Religion reinforced white supremacy as white religious leaders sought to justify slavery and later segregation and the exclusion of Black people from their religious spaces even as they read New Testament scripture about Jesus as a liberator and Paul’s letters about us all being of one body. Therefore, they decided that blacks were simply not human beings. After slavery, southern pastors wrote about being deeply hurt as African Americans began to leave their churches in a mass exodus to create their own worship spaces where they could have autonomy, dignity and formal leadership roles. Many churches in the north stayed silent about these issues including lynching, segregation and racism.
In our contemporary situation, the presidential campaign of Donald Trump opened up the wounds of division and lifted up the cause of white supremacy. Occasionally, Trump will surround himself with Christian evangelical leaders both white and black who feel a strong need to endorse him. The Mammon of white supremacy being so much a part of American Christianity that these leaders would ignore his racist and sexist rhetoric and antics just in case he or some of his wealthy friends might show them some favor.
I consume news almost 24 hours a day. And, I sleep when I can. The thing everyone in the Liberal and Progressive news seems to agree upon is that President Trump did a better job of reaching a group they refer to as “the base”. The base represents white, working-class Americans who are disillusioned because they have fewer job possibilities and cannot fulfill the American dream that their children will do better than they did – the forgotten man and woman. My new least favorite situation I find myself in is being confronted by wealthy white men in the church who yell at me for not being nicer to cops and poor, white men – even as I have said nothing and done no such thing. The Rev. Dominique Atchison explained to me that my presence connotes a one-woman #BlackLivesMatters protest. Perhaps. Their frustration with me – and my group – is that we simply do not understand what these working-class people are going through. Again, I don’t say anything in these settings, but if I were to say something I would explain that I DO understand these people – perhaps even more than you do – because we shop together at the same ALDI’s, I see them when I go to Walmart and Dollar Tree, we ride the bus together, we get public assistance together. These wealthy white men have begun to feel an allegiance to a working-class white man, who they had never thought of before. They, like many leaders in varied institutions, were frustrated with their inability to reach members of this demographic as well as a rich, New York City, real estate mogul turned reality star was able to do.
I’d seen this misplaced passion during interviews on the news as well. And, I didn’t understand it until Ta Nahesi Coates talked about his article in the Atlantic which describes Trump as the first white president. In the interview, Coates explained that white working class Americans are not worse off than working class people of color – who have been suffering for a very long time economically. The issue is that because of whiteness or white supremacy the white working class people believe they are entitled to better things. In her 1996 book, The Color of Privilege, Aida Hurtado explains that working class white men and white women of all classes are seduced into whiteness by wealthy white men who have both class and racial privilege. They oppress others on behalf of white men for inclusion into ‘whiteness’.
Many who want to address white supremacy and racism often try to use rational thinking, reason, facts or information when feelings of superiority are based on insecurity and self-loathing. How would our strategies look if we understood white racism to be a soul crying out for true connection? What if we worked towards serving God instead of serving Mammon – in all its forms?
Kudos to those of you within religious communities who are doing the work of anti-racism. I believe that religious institutions can and do have a real impact.
I want to end by reading a reworking of the Beatitudes from a book called Small Is Beautiful: A Study Of Economics As If People Mattered by E.F. Schumacher
Let us pray…
“How blessed are those who know they are poor; the kingdom of Heaven is theirs.
How blessed are the sorrowful; They shall find consolation.
How blessed are those of a gentle spirit; They shall have the earth for their possession.
How blessed are those who hunger and thirst to see right prevail; They shall be satisfied.
How blessed are the peacemakers; God shall call them God’s children.
~ E.F. Schumacher