My mother is 73 years old. Her memory is not as sharp as it used to be, which means my experiences with her are changing. She occasionally she repeats stories multiple times. She loses her train of thought and often forgets where she places things. She takes more naps now. However, one thing that has remained constant, is her assessment of America, white people, and white evangelical Christians.
She and my grandmother always taught me to look at America with both eyes open, that there are two sides to every story. She was very concerned years ago when I joined InterVarsity Christian Fellowship, as she thought it was a cult (she actually staged an intervention). To my knowledge, my mother has never set foot in a church with a predominately white congregation or with a white pastor. As individuals, she has a list of white people she adores and has celebrity crushes on. However, collectively, she has an underlying mistrust of the dominant culture in the United States, namely, because while her short-term memory is fading, her long-term memory is solid. She isn’t avoiding those places. She has a keen awareness of them.
She remembers hoses, dogs, Klan rallies, racist police officers, Emmett Tills, Fannie Lou Hamers, and the Recy Taylors America ignored, forgot, and never gave true justice. She doesn’t remember a turning point when America and the church admitted these egregious acts of the past and committed to never committing them again—because that period in history never happened. America became older and discovered new ways to hide its racism. We changed the laws but not the hearts and moved slaves to segregated to communities and eventually prisons. I didn’t learn about Emmett, Fannie, or Recy from history books. I learned about mentors of color, people who taught me the America on display and the America at home are two very different nations.
I can travel anywhere in the United States and if I am speaking to a mostly white audience—Academic, Christian, and/or secular—I can get the audience to shut down in the first five minutes. Without defining the words or giving a context, if I mention slavery, white supremacy, or reparations, I’ve lost most of the people in the audience. What are daily realities for my context, the mere mention of their names can shut down an entire room of the perceived elite.
A couple of years ago, I got a trainer at 24 Hour Fitness. When she started testing my strength, she told me I was “freakishly strong” for someone my size. Then she started to probe deeper on my workout regiment. I told her I work out my chest and back, arms and legs. She was horrified to learn I never worked out my neck, shoulders, hips, or ankles. She told me, “Sean, your visible muscles are strong. Your invisible muscles are weak. If we don’t work on your invisible muscles, not only will you not grow healthily, you could seriously injure yourself.” America and her church have avoided the invisible muscles we called marginalized people from her inception. The free land and free labor that laid the economic foundation of this nation and her church still has not been confessed and repented of. Mr. Trump and his supporters are the result of that avoidance. As James Baldwin said, “You don’t know what’s happening on the other side of town because you don’t want to know.”
Systemic racism affords you the option to avoid certain things that the margins cannot. My 73-year-old mother was not surprised by Donald Trump, and neither should we.
In addition to avoiding the issues, we have a perpetual ignorance of reality. Winston Churchill said, “The history books will be kind to me for I intend to write them.” Beyond history, theology, ethics, entertainment—they all center on whiteness. Not white people, but “whiteness,” the superiority of one race of people. It is the DNA of America. American History tells us it was founded on these incredible ideals of truth, justice, and democracy, but ignores the graves of Indigenous Peoples and kidnapped slaves. The history, the theology that was and is told in America is that America is a great nation that was founded on hard work.
There are two things that should not surprise us about Donald J. Trump. First, that in his 71 years of being in the United States, he is who is. Trump never had learn the truth about America, just a pleasant white-centered version of it. He was never displaced, never challenged to think about anyone but himself, and was reared to see people as a means to acquiring more money and power. This is the foundation of America. Our nation has never truly valued people. We value money, fame, power, and the subjugation of the margins (i.e. people of color, women, and immigrants). Trump doesn’t just speak about these things, he embodies them. It is what has contributed to his success. America’s too.
What happens when you combine a privileged life of contextual avoidance and selected history? Well, we get the perpetuation of the ideal of America: racism. Shedrach Rowry said it best a few weeks ago at church when illustrating the distracting tactic of stating NFL Protests were actually against America and not police brutality against people of color. “Is it possible that racism and America are so synonymous that to protest one is to protest the other? That if I take a knee to state that police are unjustly targeting people of color, then I am speaking against America?”
One month into 2018, we have seen on full display the racism of America and her president, and the apathy of her church. Many of the Latino Diaspora have a target on their back from this administration (i.e. Mexico and the Wall, deporting El Salvadorians, lack of resources to Puerto Rico), and of course, yesterday’s broad comments on a few nations paint a portrait of a racist president.
These two worlds, one where my mom lives and one where Trump lives have been converging.
In both worlds, I have found two groups of people: people of color and white people. People of color are mostly walking around like Bruce Banner—practicing meditation and community with friends but are always angry. There are a couple of Black and Brown people who are tokens in the “sunken place,” but that’s another post for another time. As people of color delve deeper into unity, there is a fracturing intensifying in the white community. Some white people are done with evangelicalism altogether and are running to the margins for life. Some are doubling-down trying to invite reconciliation conversations and learning opportunities, not realizing they are advocating for integration into a burning building. But the overwhelming majority of white evangelical Christians…support Mr. Trump. It’s almost like they have made him the Pope or the third part of the Trinity. He can say no wrong, do no wrong. If he defends Nazis, grabs women, incites potential wars on social media, or refers to impoverished nations as “shitholes” (we WON’T overlook part of his wealth and America’s wealth came from the export of resources and people from those impoverished nations), most White evangelical Christians support him.
Which means Trump’s America is their America. Trump’s Jesus(?) is one that is not building the kingdom of God, but a National Identity—also known as an empire.
Clearing the Air
Dr. Mimi Haddad is one of my new and favorite mentors. The first day I met her, she said to a class of students, “Mycelium. It is the largest organism in the United States and one of the largest in the world. It is a fungus that grows underground and goes mostly undetected. It takes nutrients from all surrounding soil and prevents anything from growing above it. The only way to eradicate it is to uncover it and uproot it. That’s the definition of mycelium and patriarchy and white supremacy.”
America will never heal until the air that Donald Trump has inhaled is changed. He needs to meet my mom at the foot of the cross of Christ. The margins knew this man was sexist, racist, narcissistic, xenophobic, and unqualified to be president. But he was rich, white, and male. Now, not just his ignorance and incompetence, but the moral and intellectual immaturity of the United States and her church is on full display.
The margins will survive Donald Trump. We never trusted him and saw this maelstrom coming when he came down that escalator insulting the Mexican community. Immigrant and churches led by people of color are thriving. We breathe an air not of avoidance, ignorance, and racism, but of awareness, intentionality, and restoration. We are not debating the problems. We are trying to live into the solution: the kingdom of God. We have retired from trying to integrate into the burning building of American Evangelicalism. It is dying and it needs to die in order to be born again.
None of what is happening should have surprised us. This is the air of America.
And it stinks.