By: Joanna Shenk
Editor's Note: This article is Part One of a three-part series of Jesus Radicals contributors responding to the 2016 election. Part Two, "Can You Hear Us Now?" and Part Three, "Despair Is Not A Weapon."
Here we are. It’s been another week. Another normal week in the United States of America. Hate is rearing its ugly head. People committed to justice are resisting and embodying a way of being that honors and protects those most vulnerable.
To this end, caravans are headed to Standing Rock from all over the country. People are making phone calls to elected officials, electoral college voters, and the Army Corp. of Engineers. San Francisco (where I live) passed a resolution reaffirming its commitment to being a sanctuary city. Oodles of articles are available, offering analysis of why hate and arrogance now have such a terrifyingly large and loud platform. And many people are woke and willing to act for justice in courageous ways.
There is so much that could be said. And I know that whatever I add could be said better.
On November 20 the lectionary theme was “the reign of Christ” and Psalm 46 was one of the texts.
46:1 God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble.
46:2 Therefore we will not fear, though the earth should change, though the mountains shake in the heart of the sea;
46:3 though its waters roar and foam, though the mountains tremble with its tumult.
46:6 The nations are in an uproar, the kingdoms totter; at God’s voice, the earth melts.
46:7 The LORD of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our refuge.
For some people the last few weeks have felt like the earth changing, mountains falling into the sea and a lot of uproar. For others it has been an unsurprising affirmation of their lived experience.
The injustice and hate of this country is carried in bodies. For people who have been victimized and who are most susceptible to attack, one’s own body is always at risk.
Others are experiencing vulnerability, fear and grief in new ways. The lack of vulnerability in the past is due to “privileges” granted by having a white body, but especially one that is presumably straight and male. One friend with a white body talked about it as if there are bullets that are hitting lots of people but whizzing right by him. It’s one thing to have our assumptions about this country shattered and it’s a whole other thing to have our actual bodies shattered, or to live with the daily threat of that happening. We are not all experiencing the same thing, in other words.
For groups that are made up of a majority of white people (like my congregation in San Francisco) it’s important that our acting does not center whiteness. One of the things I’ve been thinking about is how to name and dismantle white supremacy without centering whiteness. I’m grateful to friends of color who have helped me make sense of this.
So what do I mean by “centering whiteness?” In response to this election whiteness is centered by exceptionalizing the suffering of white people while normalizing or assuming the oppression of people of color. For example, the pain of the white working class has been front and center (and it is real), while it seems like it’s just assumed that Black and Brown workers are used to the pain?! If any workers have a right to feel disenfranchised it’s people of color in this country. Enslaved Africans worked for hundreds of year without pay, and that was only the beginning of the oppression…
Or, another example of centering white experience: Maybe some of you saw the Saturday Night Live sketch on Nov. 12 with Dave Chapelle and Chris Rock. It was the election watch-party spoof. Halfway through the election results one of the white women says “Oh my God, I think America is racist.” And Dave Chapelle sarcastically responds, “Oh. My. God. I think my grandfather told me something like that. But he was like a slave or something… I don’t know.”
Later, when it’s announced that Trump wins, a white guy, looking shocked and angry says, “God, this is the most shameful thing America has ever done!!” And the two black men pause, look at each other, and laugh uproariously. And that’s the end of the sketch.
It is important that lots of white people have been woke by this election. But feeling pain and being more empathetic are not the ends. For those of us, including myself, who are still protected from the intensifying hate, it’s time to step up. We still get to choose to put our bodies on the line, whereas others of us put our bodies on the line when we walk out the door every morning.
46:5 God is in the midst of the city; it shall not be moved; God will help it when the morning dawns.
46:9 YHWH makes wars cease to the end of the earth; God breaks the bow, and shatters the spear; the Divine burns the shields with fire.
46:10 "Be still, and know that I am God! I am exalted among the nations, I am exalted in the earth."
46:11 The LORD of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our refuge.
“Be still and know that I am God,” sounds a little contrary to what I just said about stepping up to action. But rather than calling us to quiet reflection, the meaning of “be still” is actually closer to “let go” or “forsake.” A more apt translation would be “forsake what has gone before and know that YHWH is God.” Forsake your fear… forsake your trust in your own strength.
Many biblical scholars say that this psalm was written in response to the defeat of the Assyrian army in 701 B.C., a story told in the book of Isaiah. The Assyrian army was sieging Jerusalem and the Assyrians were powerful. The people inside the city knew they were no match for this imperial adversary. Miraculously an angel of God visited one night and struck down 185,000 of the Assyrian force, which resulted in their retreat.
So the Psalmist was reminding the people that their power is not in their weapons, which God destroys anyway, but in their relationship with the Divine who protects them.
But what does it mean for us to forsake what has gone before and recognize the power of God? I think in our context it means forsaking white supremacy in all its forms. Part of that involves getting personal.
Over the past couple months I’ve had opportunity to look at how this white supremacy manifests in my life. It’s been heart-wrenching to recognize my arrogance, my need to be better than others and my ability to do harm. It was painful to realize how my arrogance keeps me from right relationship. It was painful to realize that my arrogance is a direct result of my insecurity.
The catalyst for this learning came through a conversation I had with my partner. During the conversation I was a real jerk. I actually observed myself being a jerk in the conversation and still wasn’t able to stop. It was gross and I felt terrible afterward.
How could I, (stated with feigned disbelief) being the loving, mature and pastoral person that I am, be so mean to this person I say I love? I’m not mean. I’m not angry. But it turns out, I can be. For so long I projected those parts of myself onto others. My insecurity demanded that. “I’m not like those other people… I’m better than them.”
So when I was running on the Thursday morning after the election, I had this thought. I am Donald Trump. So many of the terrible things he represents are things that I have thought or said at some point in my life. I have perpetuated racism in many ways, beginning by not recognizing how white supremacy infects our society and myself. I have internalized sexism by looking down on women and wishing I was a man (because men have power).
In the past, I have had countless arguments about how homosexuality is wrong and have discounted the experiences of people who are gay because I couldn't relate to it. I have questioned why immigrants would come here without documents and have judged them for not fitting in. I have also believed that Islam is a violent religion and that being a Christian is the only right way to know God.
So when I look at Trump, I see insecurity on blast. His arrogance is a reflection and magnification of my own ability to arrogantly stomp on anyone who I can't control or who is different than me. Arrogance is insecurity... they are the same. White supremacy is insecurity with lethal consequences.
So I can't pretend that Trump is just some crazy guy "out there." He's providing an opportunity for white, privileged Christians to look in the mirror. He’s the exaggerated shadow that white supremacy has conditioned in me, and that is normalized in this country. Even if you’ve not held the views that I used to hold, I invite you to consider where the arrogance of being better than “those people” might be lodged in you.
The Psalmist writes, forsake what has gone before… forsake your arrogance… forsake white supremacy… trust in the power of God.
And what is the power of God? Within the Christian tradition we worship a god who was crucified. We worship a god who chose the way of humility rather than arrogance. We worship a god who died resisting empire, who put their very body on the line. And the power of this godly life did not end in the grave. As a Christian community we believe that resurrection is possible. We believe it is possible to be reborn into a new way of life.
The early Anabaptists called it regeneration by the Holy Spirit. In community they supported each other and held each other accountable to this regenerated way of being. They were not concerned about being at odds with the powers that be. They expected that. They knew following in the way of Jesus meant putting their bodies on the line. They are a great cloud of witnesses for us in these times.
Our call today is to outward action and inner transformation. Katerina Friesen writes:
At Standing Rock, Indigenous peoples reminded our Mennonite delegation that their tribes were here before the U.S. was even a country. That despite all the trauma of genocide, forced removals, assimilation and loss of land, they are survivors, and will be here long after the U.S. as we know it.
There are incredible movements for healing and restoration of people and land happening on Turtle Island, movements that reach to the roots of the racism and injustices that have been perpetrated under every presidency in U.S. history.
Time to roll up our sleeves, organize our communities, put our bodies on the line for the sacred Earth, follow the deep teachings in our traditions, listen to our elders, and seek new paths for the sake of life.
So may we forsake what has gone before and claim the power of God for our transformation and the transformation of our world.
*A version of this article was first preached at First Mennonite Church of San Francisco on Sunday, Nov. 20, 2016.
Joanna Shenk (at left, pictured with her friend Zephyr) is associate pastor at First Mennonite Church of San Francisco. She is a co-organizer of Jesus Radicals and co-producer of the Iconocast podcast. She is author of Widening the Circle: Experiments in Christian Discipleship and has also written for Geez Magazine, Sojourners, The Christian Century and The Mennonite. She spends her time living in an intentional community, reading local history, running, acting up, riding her bike around the Bay Area and kicking it in Reno with her partner.
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