August 10, 2011 / Theology
William Cavanaugh responds to Stephen Webb’s critique.
October 31, 2016
At the Republican National Convention, Senator Lindsey Graham noted the shifting national demographics and commented, “We’re not generating enough angry white guys to stay in business for the long term.”1
Graham said this at the 2012 convention.
Hundreds of pieces will be published as a postmortem on those Americans, particularly evangelicals, who supported Donald Trump in the 2016 presidential election. Robert P. Jones has recently referred to them as “nostalgia voters . . . culturally and economically disaffected voters that are anxious to hold on to a white conservative Christian culture that’s passing from the scene.” Rod Dreher says this bloc holds the paradoxical view that the future is rightfully theirs and that the space for them in the United States is shrinking. This “dispossession,” as Dreher calls it, is “psychologically traumatic to certain whites who expected the world to work in a different way—a way that favored them.”2 Trump and his ilk offer a temporary balm to the damaged psyche of the dispossessed by making them feel good about who they are (i.e., real Americans) and what they could be (i.e., great again), all of which is tied directly to who they are not (i.e., immigrants, Muslims, etc.).
Marquez Ball further complicates things by suggesting that the term evangelical evokes racist undertones, saying, “Very few African American Christians would consider themselves to be evangelical, because for many the term often implies a white racist. . . . The 2016 presidential campaign of Donald Trump is challenging white evangelicals to prove that evangelical is not a code word for ‘white racist.’” As Michael Horton says, “many who call themselves evangelicals today find their ultimate loyalty in preserving or regaining a lost socio-political and cultural, perhaps even racial, hegemony.”3 Both Ball and Horton identify the significant baggage of the term evangelical, now reinforced by those who support Trump’s candidacy, which is simply an undercurrent of what evangelicalism has always been in America. If white evangelicals wish to be reconciled with people of color, then they should confess precisely how they have been possessed by something other than the faith they proclaim, irrespective of the repercussions that will befall the penitent and their structures of power.
In describing the ways in which American evangelicalism is the product and reflection of racial division—and not the faith white evangelicals proclaim—J. Carter notes that this division created the “critical leverage” for a recapitulation of evangelicalism in the black church. The result, he suggests, was a tradition that would eventually judge the social status quo imposed by white evangelicals. Carter says the black church
saw in its discourse of the sacrifice of Christ, at the point of his death and resurrection, a different political economy and thus a different locus of agency and identity. Because life and freedom were the twin modes of existence marking Christ’s divine economy of sacrifice or death, it opened up a new subject position for blacks, one that could challenge, at the site of evangelicalism itself, the American political economy.4
Carter adds that black Christians transformed the politics of death by embracing the crucified Christ, and this vision of Christ invigorated the black sociopolitical self, thereby rewriting “the ‘death contract’ that founds Western politics and life.”5
Yet it is clear many white evangelicals have neither the ability to articulate seasons of disappointment in theological terms nor the necessary resilience that black and Hispanic faith communities have cultivated in response to a nation that has, at times, only begrudgingly suffered their presence. These particular whites have no counternarrative to the prevailing one of dispossession, which is to say, their pending sociopolitical death. In order to develop theological reservoirs of hope, untethered to political or cultural power, white evangelicals must learn hermeneutics formed in, or inspired by, hopeful resiliency. And we must, most importantly, call our demons by name.6
Jesus’s encounter with the Gerasene demoniac in the Gospel of Mark provides a biblical example of how Christians can aid those possessed by manifestations of powers and principalities. In particular, it points us toward understanding our own racism and its varied manifestations as a kind of spiritual and socioeconomic possession. The Gerasene demoniac was left alone with the dead, cutting himself night and day (5:5). His humanity had diminished to the point that his community could no longer suffer his presence. His impurity is imposed upon him, implied by the fact that he lived in tombs and was bound by chains due to the threat he posed to others.
The possessed man notices Jesus coming “from a distance” (5:6 NRSV), a king coming to reclaim his territory. Roman occupation plagues this space, evidenced by the demon’s name “Legion,” a conflation of regional occupation and possession of the man. Obery Hendricks says that when Jesus calls the demon to come out he is prophetically calling “the Roman military presence in Israel exactly what it has proven to be to his people: a destructive, demonic, unclean presence.”7 Fittingly, Jesus drives the demon into the swine, another clear signal of these occupiers’ uncleanliness. The demon’s cry “not to send them out of the area” (5:10) reveals that the Legion feels its kingdom slipping from its possession.
Jesus is here to heal and reclaim what belongs to God. Earlier in Mark’s account, Jesus preaches in the synagogue, and when he is confronted by another possessed man, he also drives the impure spirits from that man (1:23f). Jesus says to the teachers of the law that he is binding the strong man in order to plunder his house (3:27), proclaiming himself to be stronger than the powers, whether those powers are the Jewish ruling class or the Roman Empire.8 Simply put, Jesus is with us and for us.
Howard Thurman offers a resilient witness in the brutal era prior to the civil rights movement through his work Jesus and the Disinherited. In his book he names the oppressive forces that are against his people while also claiming that the presence of Jesus is with them. Jesus identifies with “the poor, the disinherited, the dispossessed,” and Thurman follows this assertion with an apt question for us today: “What does our religion say to them?” Thurman describes the psychic toll segregation exacted upon African Americans: the status quo between the races was one of “contact without fellowship” and “an abundance of sentimentality masquerading under the cloak of fellowship.”9 Thurman’s prescience for our time comes into focus when he names the demonic forces, those “hounds of hell,” that possess people of color and threaten to alter their humanity.
The first hound was fear, and it existed deep in his people’s bones and blood as they trained their bodies to avoid or reduce the unchecked violence visited upon them by whites. This habituated shielding became necessary to withstand the physical and psychological warfare routinely employed against them by local powers, and it resulted in a cataclysmic resignation that resembled self-hatred. Likewise, the white supremacy loosed by white fear proved to be a suicide-pact that killed everyone in its radius, including whites, due to their complicity or silence. Lynchings became so common that NAACP director James Weldon Johnson called the problem one of “saving black America’s body and white America’s soul.”10
Thurman warned of a second hell hound, hypocrisy. Thurman feared that as the disinherited practiced deception—for example, lying in order to survive—this hypocrisy threatened to undermine the moral superiority of their resistance to oppression.11 He thought that the habits of lying and deceiving could too easily turn to self-deception. Perhaps Thurman noticed that such self-deception had been used as a tool by whites to build and maintain the nation, seeking mastery over and destruction of peoples of color while purporting to offer a land of opportunity.
Ta-Nehisi Coates refers to this phenomenon as a creation of the “Dreamers,” those who by democratic will routinely authorize abuse in the name of their own safety and security, all the while baptizing brutality in the name of God. For this reason, Coates cautions his son to not “arrange your life around them and the small chance of the Dreamers coming into consciousness. Our moment is too brief. Our bodies are too precious.” Coates’s skepticism is well-earned, for the Dreamers have made a habit of “forgetting” their own brutality.12 Consider, for instance, how the phrase law and order evokes differing responses depending upon whether one has been the recipient of law and order’s benefits or the object of its control. Hence, law and order is a benign truism to whites, a necessary component of civil society, but for some people of color, it represents the shorthand sloganizing of local control and a means of labeling some individuals as intruders. Here, “forgetting” is revealed to be a normative function of the powers. This is also reflected in the Gospel of Mark, in that the writer never reveals the possessed man’s name, only his possessor; the man’s birth name has been forgotten, buried just like the company he keeps in the tombs. Our attention is drawn instead to the identity of the demon Legion and the totalizing dehumanization that has happened to this Gerasene exile.
Thurman’s final hell hound—hate—posed an internal threat to its victims. Hatred was “born out of great bitterness . . . made possible by sustained resentment which is bottled up until it distills an essence of vitality, giving to the individual in whom this is happening a radical and fundamental basis for self-realization.” Yet hatred and bitterness is not stable ground for an identity. It overtakes us so that “ill will, when dramatized in a human being, becomes hatred walking on the earth.”13 Thurman knew that hatred possessed whites and held the power to do the same to the disinherited.
Make no mistake, when the nuclear dust settles from this apocalyptic election, the temptation to hate will not magically disappear. In fact, both sides—victors and vanquished—might resolve to destroy the other. When we have become “hatred walking on earth,” we surely need the healing power of Christ, not merely to awaken us to the abstract injustices of the world but to the very specific destruction we have wrought. That said, for whites to simply be awakened to these realities does not mean there will be easy days ahead. Consider the plight of the demoniac detailed in the third act of this passage, after the swine have dived off the bank:
The herdsmen fled and told it in the city and in the country. And people came to see what it was that had happened. And they came to Jesus and saw the demon-possessed man, the one who had had the legion, sitting there, clothed and in his right mind, and they were afraid. (5:14–15)
The demoniac, clothed and in his right mind, freed from his possession, terrifies his people. They are so frightened by the man that they beg Jesus to leave them (5:17). And the demoniac—still not mentioned by name, only by affliction—begs to come with Jesus (5:18). Instead, he is instructed to “go home to your friends and tell them how much the Lord has done for you” (5:19). And herein lies the difficult calling for racially healed white people: you might have to stay home to help exorcise a few demons.
The white Baptist activist Will Campbell describes the kind of passive racism that infects white southerners in this way: “It’s something we intuitively do—it’s not something we consciously do. . . . It’s just in our genes, our bones. . . . It’s a disease.”14 And so if we are to treat the disease, we must examine our bones. We must examine the practices that we have learned and now perform without reflection. We must be willing to reveal the communities that shape us, as well as the stories that possess us. Although racism can certainly be a passive result of our social location, education, or family, fighting white supremacy must be an active pursuit for which we marshal all of the tools at our disposal. For whites, this is a risky proposition because to be awakened, healed, and in our “right mind” might just alienate us from our tribe, whom we will terrify.15
This newfound liminality for concerned whites might be understood by turning to Thurman’s reading of Paul. Thurman’s grandmother, who was born a slave, often asked him to read the Bible, but she was never comfortable with the Pauline epistles, which had often been used by slave owners to forward the master-slave narrative. Yet Thurman details a rather empathetic understanding of Paul, referring to him as a man who was never quite accepted by either the original disciples or by the powers of Rome: “A desert and a sea were placed between his status in the empire and that of his fellow Jews. . . . He was of a minority but with majority privileges.”16 Perhaps being between “a desert and a sea” led Paul to embark on a mission that transformed the church. It is impossible to divest oneself of whiteness, and to presume to do so only heightens the problems whiteness helps create and sustain—an inextricable, long-held reality of societal power and an extant privilege. Given that, a very particular mission is called for, one which could result in a kind of “entombment.”17
We evangelicals have enjoyed the benefits of empire; it is our demon that has twisted us. Lingering within Saturday’s mystery, in a state of entombment, means there is time for our vision to be restored in isolation, so that when the cracks of light break into the once-sealed tomb, resurrection can be seen for what it truly is: the kingdom breaking into this world. Perhaps white evangelicals can emerge from entombment as new creatures. Perhaps entombment will be for the disciple as entombment was for Jesus: an extension of living faithfully in service to God’s will. After all, prophetically telling fellow white evangelicals that they have misunderstood Jesus and his mission means one might be cast out into a kind of entombment.
Even still, we must not stop pursuing the dispossessed, regardless of the voices of Legions with which they speak or the curses they might hurl at us. If the dispossessed have indeed made, as Ross Douthat suggested during the Trump campaign, “an alliance of convenience with a strongman,” drawn in by a “nationalistic, prosperity-worshipping, by turns apocalyptic and success-obsessed”18 theology, then our role is to preach and teach that the strongman (3:27) has already been bound by Jesus Christ. This will require a reimagining of evangelism as well as the location of our social ministries.19 Lastly, and perhaps most difficult for Christians actively working toward racial reconciliation, it will require an outreach to those who want “to make America great (or white) again.” These dispossessed people are the very ones who most need an emissary of the king to cross boundaries to be with them, offer a way to heal their demons, and welcome them into the kingdom.
Justin Randall Phillips
Justin Randall Phillips lives in Knoxville, Tennessee, and holds a PhD in Christian ethics from Fuller Theological Seminary.