I was struck by a certain criticism of my “I Can’t Wait for Christian America to Die” blog post. The person specified that this is the same kind of speech hailing from churches affiliated with individuals like Jeremiah Wright, and which white liberals assent to in order to feel good about themselves. I appreciate the person’s clear criticism and will make use of it to develop further reflections on the subject.
In view of my recent post, I don’t think white liberals would necessarily like what I have to say about our nation’s history and present dealings with those of African American descent. While they may approve it in principle, white liberals didn’t and don’t always practice what they preach, just like many white conservative Christians such as myself. Liberal Portland, Oregon, where I teach, is very tolerant, but not very good at addressing racism in its historic or contemporary forms. Speaking of history, take Thomas Jefferson as a further example. As a liberal Christian or deist, he espoused the grand ideal of liberty for all, and yet mastered slaves. By the way, many conservative Christians of the past – evangelicals of the Civil War era – would have affirmed the claim in the article in question: America was and is not Christian enough. Many early abolitionists in America were evangelicals and fervently petitioned politicians like President Lincoln to abolish slavery. If anything, I would prefer that the evangelical movement today engage racialized structures with as much fervor and intentionality as our Civil War era evangelical predecessors. While some may agree in principle to challenging racialized structures, we are often not willing to make the personal sacrifices that are the logical and necessary responses to the situations at hand based on our convictions.
By and large, we evangelicals were nowhere to be found when Dr. King marched during the Civil Rights era, though we have made some progress in the march for freedom today. The Christian Community Development Association, co-founded by Dr. John M. Perkins, is one stellar example of a key initiative addressing racialized structures in our society. My own denomination, the Evangelical Covenant Church, is also very intentional in this sphere. Such evangelical mega church pastors as Bill Hybels are also engaged in addressing the subject of racism today. For more on the subject of American evangelicalism’s struggle with addressing racism and racialization, see the important work of Michael Emerson and Christian Smith, Divided By Faith: Evangelical Religion and the Problem of Race in America (New York: Oxford University Press, 2001), and the literature that hails from their volume.
One of the claims I often find present among conservative Christians is that any and all such criticisms of our country are unpatriotic. Another claim I come across is that wanting Christian America to die is unchristian. I beg to differ on both counts. I will first deal with the charge that all criticisms of our country are unpatriotic and will reference the African American church tradition in its prophetic calling in this regard. While I do not claim to defend Rev. Wright on his vast pronouncements issued in public or the rhetoric in his speech that fueled the controversy during President Obama’s first run for the Presidency, Reverend Wright could very well have intended his statements decrying America in that controversial speech to read as a prophetic challenge to America in the prophetic tradition of the African American church so that America might repent of its indifference and institutionalized racism so as to receive the blessing of God. The African American church has always had a prophetic role in addressing such widespread problems as racism and discrimination from slavery to segregation to the present in order to call America forth to true greatness that includes its redemption from participation in oppressive systems as individuals and entire communities. If we assume Rev. Wright’s statements were intended virtuously, which I believe we should, then it is likely the case that he meant his statements to be read from within this overarching context. It is also worth noting that Reverend Wright served our country admirably during the Vietnam War in military service with the Marine Corps and the Navy, even serving on the medical team that cared for President Johnson at a point when he was in the hospital.
Regardless of whether or not we place Reverend Wright’s controversial statements in the context of the African American church tradition of prophetic preaching and whether or not we account for his patriotic service to our great nation, I doubt many white liberals would have favored President Obama during the Democratic Primaries of his first bid for the White House if he had championed Reverend Wright’s claims. They would have likely supported Senator Hillary Clinton, if then Senator Obama had defended Rev. Wright for his challenges concerning the United States. After all, for all of us – liberals and conservatives alike, it is very hard to challenge structures that cater to our own forms of privilege, including white privilege. Going further, in liberal and conservative Christian communities, Christian values are often confused with rights and privileges, but values are not rights and privileges. Rather, values are those core convictions for which we are willing to sacrifice rights and privileges in order for our values to take shape, as a friend of mine claimed. An African American pastor who had marched with Dr. King recently told me that President Obama is a politician, not a prophet. He himself did not think that President Obama had spoken out forcefully enough on the subject of racism in America following Rev. Wright’s claims during President Obama’s first bid for the White House; if President Obama had, he may very well have lost the election. White privilege is no respecter of conservative or liberal Americans, including Christians. We who are white, especially white males, all struggle with it.
Regardless of what one makes of Rv. Jeremiah Wright, Jeremiah of old was seen as unpatriotic by many of his contemporaries, but he was supremely patriotic in calling Judah and Jerusalem back to the Torah. Unlike America, Israel was founded as a theocracy and it was right for Jeremiah to call on Judah to return to the religion of Israel’s founding fathers – Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, as well as the lawgiver Moses. Jeremiah was imprisoned and threatened with death by political powers in Judah for being unpatriotic. But if anything, he was a patriot for calling on Judah to return to God. Their idolatrous nationalism, not honorable patriotism, and their failure to obey God in such matters as ceasing to oppress the poor, as made known by the prophets, stood in the way of their nation’s survival. By failing to return to the God of the Patriarchs and the Pentateuch, the royal officials and false prophets brought destruction on themselves and the nation. By failing to heed Jeremiah’s prophecies that they should submit to God’s judgment and submit to the Babylonians, they failed to save themselves and their country from devastation at the hands of the Babylonians. In all this, Jeremiah loved his people, Jerusalem, and Judah. He remained with them to the end. He was not a politically correct nationalist who believed the nation was right even when it was wrong, but was rather a true patriot who loved his country enough to challenge it in view of God’s Word even if it brought him harm (See for example Jeremiah 1:4-19 and 32:1-40:6).
While I do not believe it is the church’s job to promote and produce a Christian America, I do believe we are to live and share the good news of Jesus Christ with America. If we are truly patriotic, we will call Americans, especially the American church, to live in view of Jesus’ kingdom that transcends and intersects all kingdoms, calling them and us to account on such evils as idolatry and racism and oppression of the poor, in view of his righteous rule that will never end. Only then are Christians in America truly patriotic and prophetic in the tradition of Jeremiah and other prophets of old.