By: Brett Gershon
Within the last year, we have witnessed a tremendously significant political upheaval in the United States that has been galvanized by the emergence of a strong white identity-politics. A recent article published in the Huffington Post discusses how while the past several decades have been characterized by a white majority who has operated largely unaware of its whiteness, a strong sense of white identity has been slowly building as people perceive the dominant status of whiteness to be threatened. Those who now occupy seats of power have expertly manipulated the fears of the average white person to believe that their collective interests are at odds not with the upper-crust of capitalist society, but instead with racial and ethnic minorities.
Simultaneously, as the white middle-class retreats more deeply into the insularity of white identity-politics, a growing Christian culture that views the Trump presidency as a means to “bring heaven to earth,” is becoming increasingly intertwined with whiteness and its compulsion to fear the racialized other. As people of color continue to fight for their very lives, it is whiteness that impels us to perceive Black struggle to be an affront to our own existence and cling to whatever political foothold we have to preserve ourselves. This is as true of the so called “Alt-Right,” supporters of the Trump presidency, and other conservative leaning White folks as it is of the White liberal who proud of their “open-mindedness” and "commitment to diversity" is quite comfortable in their existence at the center of our social world and when challenged as such will often dive into histrionic fits of White fragility to shield themselves. But what does the Gospel of Jesus Christ have to say to us as we are tempted to strengthen our borders and embolden the social and political lines that have been drawn around us? To answer this question, I pause amidst this Lenten season to reflect upon the central story of Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness and ask what this story has to say to the construct of race as it is being employed in the service of power today.
In their book Racecraft: the Soul of Inequality in American Life, Karen and Barbara Fields draw on an extended metaphor between the ritual practices of witchcraft and the ideological formations of race in USAmerican society to interrogate how concepts of race which are widely known to be fictitious are continuously reproduced in this country through social practices. Their account breaks down the ways in which race has been historically built and is contemporarily reproduced as a social construct with economic functions. Racism is not a product of “race” as such, but rather race is a product of racism which seeks to define the “self” against the “other” as a perceived threat to ones positioning within social hierarchy. By deploying the false logic of biological difference, racecraft justifies the exploitation and “natural” subjugation of one group of people by another. It is through these logics that the entire stratification system is maintained.
Put another way, racecraft is one of modern capitalism’s greatest defense mechanisms. Like a piece of armor that capitalism wears over its most vital organs, racecraft deflects the scorn of the discontented and starving masses back upon themselves. The constant reproduction of whiteness in our society protects inequality and impoverishes even those (white) who it promises to protect within its boundaries. Racecraft blinds us to these contradictions so that instead of targeting our corrupt and rotten social system as the source of our discontent, we construct “racial differences” as primary sources of our instability. Thus, capitalism and racecraft divide us to conquer and exploit us. By giving those identified as white a modicum of power to cling to, we become easily manipulated as foot soldiers of its conquest. But when we recognize that it is our very identities which shield this system of death, the Gospel of Jesus provides us a clear strategy to penetrate that armor and allow God’s transformative peace through.
In the fourth chapter of the book of Luke we find Jesus beginning his journey of ministry in an extended period of wilderness wandering that mirrors Israel’s own exodus journey out of Egypt. It is this story of Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness that is at the heart of the Lenten liturgical season and which sets the stage for the whole of the Gospel story to follow. But how does the temptation story speak to our own discipleship journey following Jesus today?
Fasting in the wilderness, Jesus comes into direct confrontation with Satan who tempts him to claim economic, political, and religious power as means to ensure his own safety over and above his vocation of brining God’s restorative power into the world. Ched Myers describes how each of these temptations is directly related to the reproduction of poverty and inequality in Judean society. Counterposed to temptations of power is the underlying vision of a Sabbath economy put in place by God to ward against the social hierarchies that arise when God’s people turn from abundance to their own devices amidst the illusion of scarcity created by Empire.1 Power seduces, whether appearing as Satan to Jesus in the wilderness or as whiteness in the sphere of political economy today, it is this seductive power that has plunged this world into darkness and which we must struggle against if we are to be a part of the restoration that God is daily working out.
Weary and hungry from his fasting, Jesus is forced to confront that within him which strives towards self-preservation over and against reliance on the bountiful provision of the creator God. Satan throws down the gauntlet and challenges Jesus: “command the stone to become bread if you are the son of God.” Playing on the same old anxieties that caused the liberated Hebrews to long for the days of bondage in Egypt where their bellies were full, Satan sees an opportunity to sink his claws in Jesus. It is this same anxiety which tempted the powerful of Rome under the promise of security to hoard their surplus—extracted from the labor of the poor—in their imperial grain stores. It is this same anxiety that is ripping an ever widening gulf between the rich and poor today. As white people perceive themselves to be receiving a shrinking piece of a shrinking pie, it is this same anxiety that causes the inward turn of White-identity and its compulsion to cast the racialized other on the margins of society to preserve its own position (think of the sentiments “immigrants are taking our jobs,” and “Black people are getting rich off welfare from our tax dollars”). The temptation of bread is thus simply put, to store up, and to secure ones own portion at the behest of the marginalized and exploited. But Jesus counters these anxieties saying “Man shall not live on bread alone.“ It is not bread or money which has given us life, but the Lord God who has given life to all.
Next, showing him all the kingdoms of the world in one moment, Satan offers Jesus a claim to the authority and glory they offer. “These have been delivered to me, and are mine to give,” claims Satan, “worship me and they will be yours.” The temptation to secure ones interests through centralized political power—no matter how well intentioned—can bring no peace. The gospel account positions the kingdoms of this world as belonging to Satan. The peace and prosperity offered to those who pledge allegiance to and seek to secure their own self interests through this power is a false peace that brings only bondage. It is this false peace that is at the heart of the political project that is white-identity which grasps at power in the political sphere. “Strengthen our border, fear the immigrant, build up our arsenal, use our nukes,” are the expressions of these anxieties today, but Jesus would have us remember a different and contradicting command: “You shall worship the Lord your God, and him only shall you serve.” Not the worship of Satan, nor white-identity that the command of political power requires will take God’s place as Lord of all.
Lastly, Satan takes Jesus to the top of the temple in Jerusalem and challenges him saying: “Throw yourself down from here” and then quoting from scripture, “He will command his angels concerning you, to guard you.” As the central edifice of power in Jerusalem, the Temple and its system of commerce was a highly profitable enterprise for the Priesthood class in Jesus’ day. The temptation to invest faith in the temple system which offers safety and security to the Temple elite whose position was predicated on the exploitation of the landless poor, was for Jesus a real temptation as his knowledge of scripture and rabbinic gifts would have easily gained him access to the wealth and privilege of temple priesthood. Just as the priesthood in Jesus’ day twisted the law of scripture in order to secure their own position within the social order, the religious tradition of Christianity today is frequently twisted to justify all manner of imperial conquest, violence, oppression, and economic domination. Religious power in White America serves only capitalism, white-supremacy, and patriarchy. The White church weaves elaborate apologetics for its complicity in our violent and filthy rotten system. It domesticates God and constructs Jesus as a cosmic Christ concerned only with eternal souls and apathetic to the dirt of this world. But Satan too can quote scripture. Speaking from the wilderness, Jesus reminds us: “You shall not put the Lord your God to the test.” We cannot control God with scripture, nor by evoking God’s name. S/he is wild and free and takes no part in our grand designs.
Having rejected the temptations to claim wealth and power Jesus returns to his hometown of Nazareth refreshed by the liberating spirit of God. He begins to preach with the voice of the Hebrew prophets before him and lays out with great clarity his messianic vocation:
18“The Spirit of the Lord is on me,
Jesus’ vocation is good news to the poor for he has rejected the claim to economic power and has been anointed to challenge and dismantle the systems that keep the poor impoverished. It is freedom for the prisoner for he has rejected all political power which builds and populates prisons and has been readied to bring total abolition. It is recovery of sight for the blind for he has refused participation in the institutions of religious elitism that have plunged the world into darkness and prop up the status quo. He has been prepared to tear the temple wall down stone by stone that none—blind nor lame—are excluded from seeing the face of God.2 Jesus’ vocation is the liberation of all oppressed.
Yet not even the liberation of all oppressed fully encapsulates Jesus’ God ordained mission. It is in proclaiming the “year of the Lord’s favor” that the messianic vocation of Jesus is brought full circle. Jesus invokes the year of Jubilee which was in essence a Levitical ordinance which routinized the redistribution of wealth and property. In this final proclamation, Jesus calls for the utter transformation of the social order to be built on reciprocity and mutuality rather than accumulation, coercion, and manipulation. Thus, Jesus links the endless cycles of accumulation and all forms of oppression and social exclusion into a single social totality. While Jesus was explicit about his work as being one of undoing oppression, it was in the context of visioning a new society in which the power of money and wealth accumulation were abolished.
Today in the context of USAmerican society, just as in Palestine in the first century, all manner of oppressions are intertwined with and reproduced by our system of wealth accumulation. The construct of whiteness may be unique to modern society, but the ways in which it is used to draw circles to define social and economic inclusion and exclusion mirror the social practices of the domination system that Jesus confronted in his day. As the illusion of scarcity produced under the rule of Empire tempts us to grasp for any and all forms of power within our reach, the Lenten wilderness story speaks warning to those of us whose whiteness can always be played as trump suit to secure tricks for our hand. Cashing in on the power that the system has invested us with access to leads only to the annihilation of racialized communities and our further subordination to the system which annihilates. Discipleship in the way of Jesus on the other hand calls us to let go of that which divides us from God and neighbor.
As James Come wrote in his book Black Theology of Liberation “Knowing God means being on the side of the oppressed, becoming one with them and participating in the goal of liberation. We must become Black with God!” If the God of the Bible, whose work is and always has been liberation is moving in the context of USAmerican life, it is in the working out of Black liberation as fundamental to transforming an entire social system that dehumanizes and destroys. As the subtle workings of racecraft and White identity construction move to further consolidate power, whiteness is there dangling power before us and tempting us to claim it. Jesus on the other hand is in the wilderness, inviting us to join him and reject these things. If we want to be a part of God’s work in this world and specifically in this historical moment, we must recognize our own identity in whiteness as something not worth saving at all. We must be unsettled in our position at the center if we ever want to be where God is—"participating in the goal of liberation".
…and anyone who does not take up their cross and follow Me is not worthy of Me. Whoever finds their life will lose it, and whoever loses their life for My sake will find it. —Jesus, Matthew 10:38 and 39
Brett Gershon is an editor at Jesus Radicals and a member of the Bloomington Christian Radical Catholic Worker where he lives with his wife, Sarah, and two small children, Alasdair, and Iver.
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