This is what it feels like to be amidst a crumbling empire. It feels like a gaping hole where your sense of security should be. It feels like the realization that it is not a “few bad apples” but the whole rancid orchard. It feels like being told to remain “nice” to protect someone’s fragility while they kick you in the groin. In short, it sucks. And as with any empire’s collapse, after the pain of implosion, something must fill its place. As I watch the latest shift in the stolen earth beneath the wobbly edifice of the White (man’s) House, I am reminded of an earlier time in history when a reviled and much feared fringe movement stepped in to fill the vacuum left by a another collapsing empire. That empire was Rome and the fringe movement was Christianity. What are we supposed to do if white supremacy is our current empire’s Christianity? What if the President-Elect is a modern Roman Emperor Constantine (the first Christian Emperor and the one who legalized Christianity in Rome) and what if he has normalized white supremacy, not just as a legal or systemic framework, but as a spiritual ideology?
We are a spiritually skittish culture, and we are not equipped to fight that kind of battle…the one where white identity functions like religion. There is a specific reason I am willing to float the difficult comparison of the evolution of white supremacy with the history of Christianity. In our current society, we have no legal recourse against a “religion” based on whiteness yet the current environment is ripe for exactly that kind of movement to take flight. As ISIS has coopted the space of Islam among radicals, so might white identity step in where Christianity has come up short for white supremacists. Some would argue that this scenario already exists and that what we are seeing is just the same old monster of Christian-sanctioned bigotry rearing its head again. There is significant scholarship on the Christian justification of oppression of non-whites (the Pauline epistles say a lot about slaves obeying masters). But I disagree that this is a cycle. I think Christianity may have helped shape white supremacy and white identity, but I do not believe they are inherently synonymous; nor do I believe that Christianity or any religion is inherently evil. What we are seeing is an evolution of white supremacy beyond Christian roots and more extreme than the most doomsday oriented theologian’s imagination. This is a spiritual nuclear weapon.
In order to fully understand my point about evolution and Christianity, one must first consider the history. Christianity answered the thousands-year-old prophecies set out in ancient Judaism. The post-crucifixion, proto-Christianity then simmered for 300 years before the Edict of Milan. In that time it developed structure and sacred text and saints and a complex hierarchy of belief/non-belief that engaged Christians from around the Mediterranean/North Africa as it grew. Christianity didn’t just spring to life one bright day in A.D. 313. There were great ebbs and flows of its strength and weakness then there was a tipping point that came with Christianity’s endorsement by a powerful ruler.
Now consider that the concept of ethnic supremacy is older than the United States, but it took the creation of “race science” in the 17th and 18th century to give it a name and a specific target: non-whites. You might say that the enslavement of Blacks and genocide of Native Americans was the white supremacy “Jesus moment”. While the noble anti-oppression struggles of the 19th and 20th centuries say a great deal about the resilience of the non-whites and their allies, racists didn’t just go away after slavery and Jim Crow. With the language of “race” becoming a global standard, they would always have a tool for future use in an emergency. Over time, some white supremacists suppressed their own beliefs. Others have obviously found like minds with which to organize and to make the occasional public statement in a society built on the social covenant of free speech. Unfortunately, the benevolent tolerance of the magnanimous operating system called the US Constitution has allowed white supremacy to run like a piece of malware in the background. It could now be our total undoing.
Human beings seek grounding. Even without religious community, or explicit “spiritual” expression, people across the globe seek meaning in their world. They find it in like minded companions and expressions of life that help them make sense of challenges and joys, birth and death. What we call spirituality is one way that we make sense of our lived context. Champions of white mono-culture are seeking grounding and it stands to reason then that if white identity is the center of their context it will become the primary means through which they will wish to see the world.
I am not sure what to do with this analysis today. I do know, however, that it will be important in the coming time to understand the increasingly aggressive acts of white supremacy as expression of a spiritual nature. They will require entirely new ways of looking at human motivation and what we call “spiritual” grounding. Answering them will stretch our concepts of “pastoral” care. We may find personal comfort in our traditional religious frameworks (including Christianity), but they will be useless to influence an ideology that sees racial identity as a surrogate for God.