Newton, Boston, and the Martyrology of Whiteness

April 17, 2013Greg Williams

Post image for Newton, Boston, and the Martyrology of Whiteness

“Lord God, merciful God, our Father, shall we keep silent, or shall we speak? And if we speak, what shall we say?” – Dorothy Day, January 1942


This is going to be a very difficult piece to write and, in all honesty, I do not know if I am going to do a very good job.  The region where I live has, in the past few months, witnessed two very heinous acts of violence that were prominently covered in the mainstream media.  On December 14 of last year, twenty children and six teachers were gunned down in a school shooting in Newton, CT.  Yesterday, three people were killed and 126 wounded when two bombs exploded at the finish line of the Boston Marathon.

Both of these events are horrific and inexcusable.  As followers in Jesus’ way of peacemaking and justice-seeking, I do believe that we are called to “weep with those who weep” (Romans 12:15) and to “persevere in prayer” (12:8).  In this light, how could we, the Church, not respond to tragedies like these by holding services of commemoration to mourn the loss of life involved in these events?  How can we not pray for the dead, the injured and those still in harm’s way?  These are, on one level, profoundly understandable responses.

Yet, speaking only for myself, I see something else in the response to both of these events in communities to which I belong that I find a lot more troubling.

We are not only commemorating these events, we are collectivizing them.  We are going beyond saying that the Newtown school shooting and the Boston marathon bombing are traumas—which they are—to the point of saying that they are our traumas.  Facebook memes are abounding encouraging people to hug their kids or drop f-bombs about the levels of evil in the world and the like—things that one would normally do not to sympathize with another person but rather to express grief for one’s own loss.  In Church, we are singing songs like “I Want Jesus to Walk with me” and “How Can I Keep from Singing?” songs that express a personal sense of grief and loss.

This isn’t compassion or solidarity.  This isn’t reaching out in love to others who are suffering.  So what is it?

Many people on the radical left—where I locate myself—want to respond to these events in one of two ways.  One thing that they will do is to point out the underreporting of other tragedies.  After Newtown, friends and authors justifiably asked “why isn’t there this much media coverage when young, low income people of color are killed by gun violence in Newhallville or Dixwell,” neighborhoods in my city like other neighborhoods across the United States where racism, income inequality, police brutality and the criminal injustice system are conspiring to gun down children every day.  Many of the same folks are now encouraging us to remember that, on the same day as the Boston bombing, explosions also tore apart limbs and lives in Iraq and Syria.

The other response among radicals is to point to systemic causes.  Within an hour of Newtown hitting the media, memes were circulating on facebook calling for stricter gun controls.  Somewhat braver souls are now venturing to point out that, if the Boston marathon bombing was a terrorist attack (and, as I write this, it is not yet clear that it was), that it is the inevitable response of some to an ongoing (and infinitely deadlier) campaign of terrorism being carried out by the American state.

For the sake of full disclosure, I will confess that this is the direction that I was first tempted to move in.  My first response, upon hearing the news, was to remember what Rev. Jeremiah Wright told us after 11 September: “now we are indignant because the stuff we have done overseas is going on in our own front yards . . . Violence begets violence, hatred begets hatred and terrorism begets terrorism!”

These are good ways to start to think through what is going on, but they are inadequate, in my view, precisely because they do not address the difference between commemorating and collectivizing trauma.  It is all too easy to fall into either a cheap radicalism of “my tragedy is worse than your tragedy” or an easy liberalism that simply takes the existing news coverage, adds a coma and inserts other issues and events.

None of this addresses the issue that I am trying to raise here: if Newtown and Boston are not only traumas but OUR TRAUMAS, who is the “we” or the “us” in this equation?


I want to raise the difficult and frightening idea that the “we or “us” to whom tragedies like Newtown and Boston are deemed to be communal traumas is the collective “we” of white America.

In the case of Newtown this process was somewhat more apparent, first of all because the shooting occurred at a relatively affluent and predominantly white school.  Of the twenty children killed in the shooting, nineteen where white.  But even the internet memes and news coverage of the Boston bombing has focused largely on white suffering.  On the other side of the equation, almost nothing was made of the race of Adam Lanza, the Newtown Shooter.  Much was made of the possibility that he was mentally ill.  No such discourse has surrounded the man being held in connection with the attack on the Boston Marathon.  In the news, he is only described as “a 20 year old Saudi man,” emphasizing the fact of his race.

As a dear friend of mine remarked today, “when white people commit acts of violence, they are crazy.  When brown people commit acts of violence they are terrorists.”

I do not have space here, nor do I think it would be helpful, to systematically go through the news coverage generated in the last twenty four hours, or several months ago, and do an academic analysis.  What I am putting down on paper here is a set of personal observations, not something I make any claim to have systematically proven.  But here it is, in a nutshell.

I believe that the victims of the Newtown School Shooting and the Boston Marathon Bombing are being set up by our collectivization of the trauma of these events as martyrs to white identity and white privilege.

In collectivizing the trauma of these events, we have set up an “us” that I believe is implicitly coded as being white in a number of ways.  There is, first, the focus on events that primarily affect white people.  But there are also subtler dynamics too.  One of the biggest is the way that these particular victims are conceived of as “innocent” and the violence as “senseless.”  Have you ever noticed how, when a white person of a certain age is killed, that person is referred to as a “child” (read: innocent) but when a person of color of the same age is killed, that person is referred to as a “youth” (read: reckless, irresponsible, living on the edge)?

Our collectivization of grief and trauma also sets up an implicitly racialized, threatening “them.”  If these particular acts of violence are not only tragic but against US, then we are called to feel threatened by “crazy, senseless” people (read people of color) against whom we have to defend ourselves.  Whenever a Newtown or a Boston happens, the President always pledges to “hunt down” the guilty party.

Sometimes, this collective energy is leveraged in relatively positive ways.  After Newtown, it was used to push for stricter gun control laws that will probably save lives.  But it is also extremely dangerous, precisely because, in setting up a pure, innocent, martyred, collectively traumatized and implicitly white “us,” we create the conditions necessary for extreme violence against the senseless, raging, violent, collectively othered and implicitly black or brown “them.”  We saw after September 11, 2001, a frighteningly quick move from “we are all New Yorkers” to a “crusade” that has lasted more than ten years and killed, in its first few days, more civilians than were killed in the violence to which it was purportedly responding.

Given that the Boston Bombing is being described as an act of terrorism, I am deeply worried that our collectivization of grief and trauma—and the racial dichotomy that it sets up—will create the conditions necessary for more and more extreme acts of violence.

This is not something that I feel comfortable saying and I expect that this article will get many negative reactions.  But as a white person myself, I feel that it is my responsibility to name these dynamics, even if they are uncomfortable for me to say or for others to hear.


I am inspired by the example of Dorothy Day who, in the article that I quoted at the beginning of this piece, was also struggling to respond to an inexcusable act of violence that was being turned into a collective trauma and therefore being used to “move our country from undeclared to declared war” with Germany, Italy and Japan.  Day wrote in circumstances far more dire than those we find ourselves in.  The violent rage that was consuming the American psyche as she wrote would eventually consume millions of lives and help justify the production and use of nuclear weapons.  In that sense it is a violence that still lives with us.

Day also struggled for the words to speak in the face of very real tragedy on the one hand and the publicly constructed collective trauma that would lead to war on the other.  In the end, she had no direct answers and neither do I.  I cannot shut off the media or stop the explosion of memes on facebook.  Realistically, I cannot even stop my own clergy from aiding in the process by expressing what they legitimately feel is a necessary form of pastoral care.

Like Day, however, we can continue to preach the Gospel—the same Gospel that we preached yesterday and the same Gospel that we will preach tomorrow—the Gospel of Peace and Liberation in Christ Jesus, Crucified and Risen.

We are still pacifists. Our manifesto is the Sermon on the Mount, which means that we will try to be peacemakers. Speaking for many of our conscientious objectors, we will not participate in armed warfare or in making munitions, or by buying government bonds to prosecute the war, or in urging others to these efforts.

We may not be able to stop the construction of whiteness through the collectivization of trauma.  But we can preach love, which means, in part, preaching racial justice.  We may not be able to stop the Church from participating in this process.  But we can ask—and should ask—why, if these traumas are “injuries to us all” our first response should not be to remind ourselves and one another that the love we show our enemies (real or imagined) is the yardstick by which the Church measures its love for God.

To the very real tragedies of this world, to the myths of Empire by which those tragedies are turned into excuses to murder other people’s children, we can only preach love.  We can do nothing but continue in works of justice and mercy, in prayer and in the faithful reading and preaching of the word and ministration of the sacraments.  We can, in short, do nothing but continue to follow Jesus to the Cross, the place that absorbs all tragedy and all imperial violence, in the radical and possibly foolish hope that this journey will ultimately lead to resurrection.  Amen.

  • rdhudgens

    Be assured Gregory that you have done a very good job. Bless you.

  • Christine

    I’ve never commented on any article online anywhere — ever — but I am so grateful to you for this. It’s exactly the thoughtful, candid, compassionate, clear, and striving voice I didn’t know I needed so desperately to hear.

  • Wes Howard-Brook

    Excellent reflections, and so needed. Thank you so much. I will share this piece immediately.

  • Sue Ablao

    Excellent piece! Putting words to my thoughts and feelings. Thanks.

  • Joel Eaton

    Thank you, Greg.

  • Peter Gallagher

    This really is a fantastic piece. Thank you. As you said, it’s far too easy to merely lament that other tragedies that affect poor POC are underreported: the difficult work lies in acknowledging that they are underreported precisely because I (along with many others) feel a greater affinity for persecuted people that happen to be privileged or white.

    For me, the challenge is this: in order to be fully in solidarity with the poor and marginalized-that is, in order to be faithful to Jesus-I must be willing to move past the initial stirrings of “compassion” and “empathy” into a fuller, more nuanced and ultimately more liberating understanding of suffering, crucifixion, and resurrection in modern times.

  • Phil Lazo

    Greg, I appreciate you writing on a difficult subject but I must say, I believe what you wrote is a huge bunch of gobble-dee-guk. The victims are being set up as martyrs to white privilege? Come on! Where do you come up with this? I’m white but not once have I thought about some sort of revenge or call to action to defend myself and other people because we are white. I resent that notion. It doesn’t matter what color the victims were, it’s awful that somebody would set bombs off to kill anyone on a marathon route. You claim to want justice. So do I. I want the people or persons responsible to be captured and jailed. I want to live in a society that’s safe. I’m sure you do too. Unfortunately, there is evil in this world that keeps showing it’s ugly head. I find it tragic that you and others always feel there is a racial component to everything that happens and that somehow, the United States is to blame for every act of terror. Remember, man is sinful all over the world and only the return of Christ will vanquish evil from this earth. This journey will lead ultimately to resurrection, but not before then. Man certainly cannot make life on this planet perfect and without problems. It is silly to think he can. The history of man proves this point. Jesus said in John 10:10 that the there is a thief, and thief comes to steal, kill, and destroy. We need to be ready to defend ourselves and fight back because that thief is out there. I don’t believe Jesus’ mission was to come and teach man how to all get along here on earth, it was to redeem mankind so he could be in harmony with God the Father. He knew sinful man would never be able to get along. Again, history proves this correct. I’m afraid if Dorothy Day was in charge in 1942 we would have sat back and watched Japan destroy our west coast cities and Germany destroy our east coast cities. Freedom doesn’t just happen, it must be fought for, and we must fight to keep it. Otherwise, you wind up subject to tyranny. I believe that we need to see ourselves as Americans building a society where we can all live together. Not African-Amercans, not Asian-Americans, not Hispanic-Amerians. Just Americans. I do think the media has made this impossible. They are constantly pointing out the differences.

    • Chris Petruzzi

      Please consider these questions:
      1. every day about 3,000 Africans die of starvation. Is each of those deaths in any way less important than the couple dozen deaths in Newtown and Boston? If not, then why is so much media attention focused on relatively small American tragedies?
      2. Would Germany and Japan have wanted to declare war on the US if we were a pacifist nation? (Germany never declared war on Switzerland, for example, even though that nation was adjacent to Germany)
      3. Why did Christianity grow (to about half the population of the Roman Empire) when it had no support or protection from the state?

      • Socrates Bastard


        1. I know it’s very sad that the continual struggle for daily life Africans face is lost on most Americans. Most people don’t think about such issues in their daily lives and the media knows it is not interesting to cover. “Bombs in Boston” is a lot sexier than the starvation in Africa we have known for decades and most people have a defeatist attitude toward solving it. But the typical left-wing knee-jerk response to make this into a race thing is just silly, most people are apathetic to African suffering for the reasons above. Really as a self-described Christian Anarchist I find the far left’s obsession with this line of thought to be embarrassing, it’s like how the right sees everything as “really due to the decline in traditional family values and gender roles.” No doubt the demon of prejudice will always haunt mankind but “it’s really about the innate superiority complex of most whites” is just a very myopic view of the world and a kaleidoscopic the left likes to see it through.

        2,Germany didn’t invade Switzerland because it was too damn hard. Switzerland is covered in mountains where one man with a rifle could practically hold down a whole regiment. This same logic goes for why Afghanistan has rarely been conquered for long periods of time, Switzerland’s official neutrality only served to make it less worth taking. Germany had no qualms in invading the officially neutral Belgium in WW1 so to say the Nazi regime (which had broken several treaties and agreements by that point anyway) would not invade a pacifist country is to live in Anarchist fantasy land where utopia is just one act of worker solidarity away. Honestly if what happened in Spain tells us anything, most nations would line up to immediately put down a communal pacifistic society.

        3. No real argument there but I think your numbers are skewed :/ however I haven’t refreshed myself on church history. To my knowledge even when Constantine legalized Christianity it only composed about 10% of the population.

        • Chris Petruzzi


          1. Why is the suffering in Africa (and in other parts of the third world) so uninteresting that journalists do not write about it? I think that it is nationalism as much as racism. I am not sure that racism is worse than nationalism.

          2. Please look at a history of Switzerland. Prior to the 19th century, it was the victim of many invasions. The topography did not change. What changed was that Switzerland adopted a constitution which severely restricted Swiss military involvement outside of the Swiss borders.

          3. Regarding the population of Christians at the time of Constantine’s alleged conversion: estimates of that population were around 10% in the mid-third century, but much higher later. A constant growth rate in Christianity would have meant that Christians were only about 15% in 274 AD but well over 50% by 310AD. This could be important in explaining why Constantine eventually said that he was a Christian. He wanted to be the same religion as the majority. The point is that Christians do not need the state to protect them. Conversely, the state needs the support of Christians.

          • Socrates Bastard

            Hey Chris thanks for the response,

            1. I think you have a point about nationalism as being a part of the problem, inasmuch that nowadays with our political situation as it is most peope belive we should “take care of America’s problems first.” Obviously as Chrisitans we both disagree with this but I’m just describing the spirit of the times. The media is partialy in the job of entertainment and releating the goings on of your particular neck of the woods. People don’t think of Africa because they don’t encounter that in their daily experience, they simply just don’t pause to think about it as they are wrapped in their own situation. When they do think about it they become apathetic because they think there is no solution and the problem as another ocean away. People become concerned about things like what happened in Boston because it seems to hit closer to home and, unlike inner city violence, there seems to be a solution by catching the perpetraitor of whatever. Yet again I’m not in agreement with this per se but I think it is a more accurate description of people’s psychology rather than making it into a race issue. There may be an “us” and “them” mentality but it is not the prime mover here.

            2.I never said Switzerland was impregnable, but the topography still factors into it being difficult to conquer. I don’t mean to be terse here but are you honestly going to tell me that the becuase of of its declared neutrality and small millitary that Adolf Hitler would have left Switzerland alone if he was not fighting a two front war? Hitler had broken many agreements before and the Nazis apparently had plans to take Switzerland anyway (operation Tannenbaum). But I’m not a WWII history buff so maybe you know something I don’t, nevertheless Nazi Germany’s policy was clearly expansionist, specifically towards Germanic nations. That does not mean I support war but lets be honest that non-interventionist foreign policy is not a sure fire way to prevent agression, it only helps. As for what would happen if America stayed neutral that is a question I am not qualified to answer.

            3. Interesting numbers, now I know more. And yes Christianity does not need a state to exist, which I’m sure is a surprising revelation to people who frequent this site! ;)

      • Phil Lazo

        Chris, I’m with you on the poor African people who are starving. I feel for those people. I’d like to help them. What should we do? We need to ask ‘why are they poor, why can’t they grow the food they need, what is holding them back?’ If we are honest, can’t we say that very poor economic conditions in their countries drastically contribute to the situation. Well, how do we fix that? We can’t just give them some money. Soon it will be spent and then they will need more. Can’t we try to help them improve overall conditions in country? What if the leaders of these countries are dictators and they won’t allow foreigners coming in and helping. Then, what do we do? Our media likes to cover events in our own country. They could start running stories on the poor conditions there every week. That could get they attention of the world community. I’m all for it. Eventually, you need to replace the leadership and put in place leaders who will foster conditions that will encourage better farming, teach people how to dig wells for villages, etc. What if they bad leaders won’t leave? Do we force them out? Not if you are a pacifist. Yes, economic sanctions can help but conditions in these countries are already poor. Most of these dictators won’t leave. The reason the United States grew to such a powerful nation both militarily and economically was a system that allowed people freedom to build a business, manage a farm, reap the benefits of your labor. When you can keep what you earn, you will work harder. Ultimately, this helps everyone because the farmer then can sell his goods at market to people who need food, the businessman sells his product to people who need it, etc. Do people get rich doing this? Yes, that’s part of it, but I argue that’s ok. I argue that we need rich people. We need generous rich people and there are lots of them. Generous rich people give to charities, thus helping thousands. It was a generous rich man who took the crucified body of our Lord Jesus and buried him in his own tomb. We need these kinds of people. Socialism or communism entraps people in poor conditions. Look at the Soviet Union, East Germany, North Korea, Cuba. These places restrict economic freedom, thus producing poverty and very little joy in the people who live there.

        Japan attacked us because they knew that we would stand in their way of empire. The Japanese did HORRIBLE things to the nations they subjugated. HORRIBLE. Should we have done nothing and let evil triumph? That’s what would have happened if we did not respond. Japan would have taken over all of Eastern Asia and the Pacific, probably Australia as well. Is it not noble to stand up to evil?

        • Chris Petruzzi

          I am in basic agreement with your description of the sources of economic problems in Africa, but I would take it a step further. The problem is spiritual. Many of the tribes and other groups of Africans want the other tribes and groups to starve. There is only one solution: Christ. Replacing governments and leaders would have no good effect if the spiritual problem is not solved.
          Consequently, participating in long-term missions to Africa (as opposed to 10 day evangelvacations) and supporting those missions is an important task for American Christians.

          • Phil Lazo

            I’d agree in the need for Christ. He is the only true solution to the problems of man. Sin has mad man selfish and domineering. Changed hearts is the only thing that will work.

        • mountainguy

          And there you have another good christian (i dont doubt Mr Lazo is a good man) taking his

          misunderstanding of this article (which I may or may not agree at all) into some story of how is that economic problems will be solved by amurrikans because the have god on their side (or something).

          “We can’t just give them some money. Soon it will be spent and then they will need more. Can’t we try to help them improve overall conditions in country?”

          A good start. Certainly we may have different ideas as to how to fix this, but at least we agree about understanding their ocnditions, their historical context, etc.

          “What if the leaders of these countries are dictators and they won’t allow foreigners coming in and helping. Then, what do we do?”

          Or what if the leaders of these countries are dictators and they WILL ALLOW foreginers coming in and…, well, “not helping”? Dont get me wrong; I think there are many countries that simply close borders and anything happening inside (probably horrible things) remains unknown. But part of why Africa (and well, the so called third world) is the way it is because of foreigners going in and out, and in and out, and taking resources, and sucking them, and all that.

          “What if they bad leaders won’t leave? Do we force them out?”

          Ohh, but take a little read at your own country’s recent history. Your leaders really helped into making bad leaders leave… and replacing them with even worse ones.

          “The reason the United States grew to such a powerful nation both militarily and economically was a system that allowed people freedom to build a business, manage a farm, reap the benefits of your labor.”

          Probably not the only nation, where you could do this, but I admit my answer is more fueled by my resentment against any idea of American Exceptionalism than by actual knowledge (help here!!!)

          ” We need generous rich people and there are lots of them. Generous rich people give to charities, thus helping thousands.”

          I Ithought we were on the road of “we can’t just give them some money”.

          I’m with you on pointing out the HORRIBLE things Japan did during the 30′s-40′s. My contention is that it seems that Japan didn’t have the right to expand while the western nations had did so for centuries, including forcing Japan to open its own borders by the threat of war (Comodore Perry in the bay of Nagasaki).

          • Phil Lazo

            Mountainguy, I don’t claim to have all the answers for those poor people in Africa, I definitely don’t believe that Americans have all the answers “because we have god” as you say. Many of my questions were open ended. My comment about giving money was more geared toward the futility of that option. If we just give money without knowing how it will be spent is probably not a good idea. My comments on generous rich people indicates that there ARE rich people who do want to use their wealth to help the world. Maybe it’s through registered charities or churches or the UN. At one church I attended we raised money to build a well in an African village so they could get clean water and drastically reduce disease for those people, so money can help, but the money went to an organization that had a relationship with the govt. of that nation and they had access. We can make a difference. Lot’s of my questions, though, are begging answers. What do we (Christians, Americans, anybody) when we want to help somewhere and that particular govt won’t let us? I’ll agree on your point that many African nations were pillaged but some just have bad governments and not enough modern technology to help with water or farming, etc.

            I regards to the US system, you’re right, we’re not the only nation where entrepreneurship is possible. We might be the biggest, though, and at one time offered the most opportunity. That’s just my opinion. Our economy is so messed up now but it wasn’t always. That’s why we had one of, if not, the most powerful economies in the world at one point. It’s how the US dollar became the world’s reserve currency. We led the world in medical advances that save lives. I guess I just feel that if we have the means to help someplace, we should. We’re not perfect but I totally reject this notion written about in the article of white privilege and “construction of whiteness through the collectivization of trauma.” This nonsense that the US is somehow responsible for all troubles in the world. I don’t hear people complaining about the evils of the Roman Empire or the Greek Empire, or the Babylonians, or Ghengis Kahn and all he did. Those folks were around a long time before us.

          • mountainguy

            We certainly come from different countries, cultures and backgrounds. And we really have diferent opinions. I think it is good for you to note what kind of website is this, and all the ideas behind that, most of them shared by the most of people who comment here. I agree many help for Africa (and other places) come from private charities, but I really like how you put an emphasis in knowing what happens with economic help (instead of just putting some money around; wether it is from state or private sector).

    • Adam Clark

      Hi Phil,

      Whilst I understand your sentiments, I can’t agree with them. You may find my views too radical and/or foolhardy but as I understand it, Jesus urged us to love our enemies even at the risk of death.

      To illustrate my point, Alexandre Christoyannopoulos offers the following Christian response to terrorism:

      The path shown by Jesus is a difficult one that can only be trod by true martyrs. A “martyr,” etymologically, is he who makes himself a witness to his faith. And it is the ultimate testimony to one’s faith to be ready to put it to practice even when one’s very life is threatened. But the life to be sacrificed, it should be noted, is not the enemy’s life, but the martyr’s own life — killing others is not a testimony of love, but of anger, fear, or hatred. For Tolstoy, therefore, a true martyr to Jesus’ message would neither punish nor resist (or at least not use violence to resist), but would strive to act from love, however hard, whatever the likelihood of being crucified. He would patiently learn to forgive and turn the other cheek, even at the risk of death. Such would be the only way to eventually win the hearts and minds of the other camp and open up the possibilities for reconciliation in the “war on terror.”

  • RtRDH

    Excellent article, keep up the good work.

  • mountainguy

    I get the idea that white privilege is still alive, but are you really suggesting that the news coverage of both the Newton massacre and the Boston bombing are being deliberately set up to defend such notion (that is, the notion of white privilege)?

  • Lee Karl Palo

    Profound and challenging! It reminds me a lot of what I learned studying social-psychology. By Greg writing the piece, it can help people to see more clearly what is going on, and THAT may end up helping to change things.

  • erin rich

    This is heavy on rhetoric and light on fact. Seems like another attempt by “radical” liberal white folks to ease their white guilt by assuring everyone that they see The Truth about racism. Try not to break your arm as you pat yourself on the back for recognizing your white privilege. I doubt Jesus’s response to a tragedy would be to whine about how their isn’t more coverage of other tragedies.

    • Reed

      Hi Erin,
      I think that the point of this article is not to complain about a lack of broader coverage, or to show off personal sensitivity to racism, but rather to invite (especially white) people to see the perpetuation of racism through selective collectivizing. If you think that this form of racism is so obvious that it doesn’t even bear commenting on (i.e. it’s just a pat on the back), then I must disagree. The vast majority of people do not recognize this form of racism.

  • Martin Hetfeld

    Is Christian anarchism just code for identity politics and pacifism? I’m also wondering if the focus on the sermon on the mount is a bit like the way right wing Christians focus on biblical stories of personal morality and obedience.

    • markvans

      Is that a serious question? Most Christian anarchists I know are pacifists, but not all. And calling something “identity politics” often is code for “I’m not going to do work thinking about the intersection of various oppressions.” I’m not going to comment on the Sermon on the Mount statement, because, well, it seems snarky.

      • Martin hetfeld

        Not intended to be snarky, markvans. Simply wondering if the author of this article is representative of the Christian anarchist movement. If so it would seem that pacifism and identity politics(which many including myself do not use pejoratively by the way) are core values of Christian anarchists, or at least many Jesus Radicals.

  • Chris Petruzzi

    Hi Socrates,

    Thanks for your responses. I am sending this (I believe) as a personal message to you rather than a public comment. Maybe there is something which I do not understand about the latter part of your moniker (Bastard), but you should be aware if you are not already that this term is offensive to some people, particularly people of illegitimate birth. It can hurt someone to be reminded that the name for the circumstances under which he was born is used as a perjorative term. Just as blacks are offended by use of the “n” word, people whose parents were unmarried are often offended by your term.
    Thanks for thinking about this issue.

  • J2P29910

    Thank you for your brave and thoughtful contribution. Many decades ago I remember learning in a linguistics class that there is really such a thing as “an inscribed ideology” in language which is expressed in the words we choose, the phrases we construct and the narratives we tell. The media unconsciously create and recreate the same ideologically biased messaging especially in difficult and ambiguous situations. The members of the media through whom these events are filtered naturally speak the social, economic and racial ideology incarnated in their lives.
    Questions and insights you struggle with here are the beginning of deconstructing and rethinking the reality which lies beneath the narrativse we are handed. There are systems of analysis that can help us to understand. The Rev. Jeremiah Wright didn’t just intuitively come to the conclusions he tried to communicate to an uncomprehending world and he was demonized for having the temerity to suggest the national narrative we had been fed by the government and the media was possibly false.
    While indeed continuing to proclaim Jesus and following him as Lord we also need to speak the truth, like Dorothy Day, humbly but also PERSISTENTLY.

  • Ephemera Robertson

    Greg, I’ve been wondering how we can get beyond trite comments of sympathy, like “our hearts go out” and “our thoughts and prayers are with,” to talk about what role tragedy takes in “our” very sheltered society. This article is an interesting and challenging addition to my internal dialogue.

    Re: collectivizing. It’s interesting that the second half of your piece does go back to defining an Us; “We are still pacifists.” This isn’t an Us defined by race or class, but it seems that it times of insecurity, there is an instinct to find a firm centre and sense of belonging. But can there be an Us that doesn’t need a Them?

    Your other response is to preach. I had to smile at that, because preaching is clearly your vocation and your impulse to do more of it under insecure circumstances speaks to your core identity. What about people whose gift is not teaching?

    Thank you for taking on these difficult issues.

    • Gregory Williams

      Comrade Robertson! I’m actually going to break my own rule and comment on this even though I don’t participate in comments discussions for reason of not wanting to get entangled discussing whether Switzerland was geographically impregnable during WWII.

      First off, yes, I do think that there is an us that can exist without exclusion. There are many. Just to clarify, the “us” to which I refer in “we are still pacifists” is the Church itself and, more specifically, that section within it that is committed to the preferential option for the poor and the marginalized as the hermeneutic norm of its lived theology. The “us” I refer to here has as its “firm centre and sense of belonging” the Crucified and Risen Christ as a positive alternative to forms of identity based on exclusion and privilege.

      Second, I think that we need to broaden the definition of preaching just a smidge. While you are right that preaching in the literal sense is part of my vocation, and that this is why I use it as a dominant image, I do not think that it is the only form of public witness. “Preach the Gospel at all times, using words only when necessary,” says Francis. These would be words that we should heed.

  • Jennifer Galicinski

    Well done Greg! Fascinating, insightful, and challenging perspective. Sharing now.

  • paul munn

    As it turns out, the Boston bombers seem to be white, from Chechnya (literally Caucasians). And Muslim, which the media is already highlighting. Does it make any difference to this analysis if the “Us”/”Them” identity being reinforced is not about race but religion?

    • Gregory Williams

      Hi Paul, this is a much bigger discussion and a full treatment of it would require many many more articles. Suffice it to say that I think that race and religion are co-constituted in the American context. Whiteness is tied to a certain kind of Protestant Christianity and Islam is coded as being racially “other” much as Roman Catholicism once was.

      Beyond this, though, I also think that the collectivization-of-trauma model works either way. The victims of these tragedies are coded as white even when they are not (for example, its really fascinating to look at the pictures that they chose of the only child of color killed at Newtown – they chose a picture of her in full light under flash photography to the point where she looked far “whiter” than she likely did in real life). We need to watch for assumed whiteness in words like “innocence” etc. that are tied to bigger narratives about race.
      Hope that that helps, though I realize that it is not an adequate treatment of the question.

      • paul munn

        It sounds like you’re talking about “whiteness” as not necessarily referring to actual race or skin color, but a certain culture/religion/ideal, which sees itself very positively (“innocent,” for example) and you see as harmful. Is that right?

        I guess I find it problematic that you (or others) would choose to use a race-based term for this collective criticism, rather than a term that indicates a culture or ideology (or even religion). Race cannot be changed or chosen. Which is part of the reason racism is so unfair and harmful. When you challenge “whiteness,” what are you asking of white people–to be less white? To denounce an ideology or culture or religion, on the other hand, speaks more directly to something a person has embraced and can perhaps renounce, if they choose.

        • Phil Lazo

          I agree paul. Good point.

        • Gregory Williams

          Paul, good questions/critiques. I would respond by questioning the assumption of a dychotymy between things like “race” (to which we might add “sex” and certain notions of “sexuality”) are biological and unchosen and things like “culture” or “ideology” (to which we might add classical definitions of “gender” and certain other notions of “sexuality”). Race, as I’m sure you already know IS socially (materially) and culturally (discursively) constructed. It is built by housing and employment patterns, income distribution, cultural stereotypes and representations on tv. It is constantly being built, both ideologically and structurally. While, therefore, it is not a choice and I cannot choose to be “less white” it IS a system that we can challenge. Part of what I am arguing in this article is that the portrayal of these tragedies in the media and, particularly, the way that they have been identified as collective traumas, is actively constructing (or, to use technical marxist terminology for those who care, “reproducing”) whiteness.

          In terms of what we do, I think that, as white people, we need to collectively discern how our whiteness is constructed. We need to historicize it, to learn its origin in the eighteenth and nineteenth century, and to examine how, through our incarceration and immigration systems it is continuing to be produced and how, through cultural discourses like the one I am writing about here, it is reproduced. Then, we need to do the long and hard work of conducting this reflection in the context of relationship building with low inccome communities and communities of color (yes I am assuming that, like religion, race is also co-constituted with class) so that we can organize to challenge these systems.

          Ultimately, the goal of white activists should be to destroy whiteness and white privilege. But that’s a long way off. Some theologically minded people might call it eschatological. Right now, the most urgent thing is that we name the water in which we are swimming so that we can begin to change its composition.

          • paul munn

            Thanks for the clarification, Greg. It sounds like you are saying that “whiteness” is determined by society. Yet a term like “whiteness” seems to indicate an innate quality in people who are white, which cannot be changed. I cannot be not white. Which suggests that society determines who I am, and I can only change that by working to change society (a slow process that leaves me stuck in this lamentable “whiteness” for the foreseeable future). Am I hearing you right?

            This seems to me to clash with Jesus’ call to repentance and becoming a new creation. Being given a new identity determined by God, not society. Is this possible concerning “whiteness”?

            And Jesus’ call to repentance and new life sounds to me like something offered right now (“the time is fulfilled, the kingdom of God is at hand”) not far off in the future, when (or if) society as a whole changes.

          • Gregory Williams

            Thanks, Paul. I absolutely do NOT mean by calling the end of whiteness escatological to say that we should not work for racial justice now. The whole point about historicizing and contextualizing whiteness is precisely to say that it is NOT the way that things always have been and always must be. We CAN in fact have a different schema. White privilege was constructed in this country over the nineteenth century as the power structure sought to adjust to European immigration and Reconstruction after slavery by replacing a privileged “anglo-saxon” identity with a broader category of whiteness that could command the loyalties of at least some members of the working poor and prevent the kind of cross-racial organizing that the Populist party represented.
            Whiteness as an ideology and as an institution (because let’s remember that this isn’t just in our heads – people are being deported, sent to prison, bombed and discriminated against in this enterprise) is a structural sin of which we must repent. Saying “I have white privilege” is very much a matter of confessing before God and Neighbor our complicity in a system of violence and committing our lives to challenging that system. We may not ever see the completion of that struggle until the Resurrection but we are called to live into Resurrection now.

          • paul munn

            It sounds to me that the usage of the term “whiteness” is still being connected with something innate, unchosen and effectively unchangeable, rather than just an ideology or institution which can be renounced.

            For example, you say “Saying ‘I have white privilege’ is very much a matter of confessing before God and Neighbor our complicity in a system of violence and committing our lives to challenging that system.” But white privilege, as I understand it, is an aspect of our society, something we are born into and which we cannot significantly change (at least not in any immediate way, and perhaps not in our lifetime). You suggest we can confess our complicity, but nevertheless white privilege will remain for now, and we will remain white in this society, benefiting from white privilege, unable to remove ourselves from this “structural sin.” Or is that mistaken?

            I hear Jesus calling us not just to continual repentance (of a sin we cannot get free from), but to actual freedom from sin. And not just in some far distant future, either. It seems to me that the ideology of “structural sin” (and the guilt that necessarily accompanies it) diverges significantly from Jesus’ preaching about sin and the real freedom he offers.

          • Gregory Williams

            Innate? No, because its socially and culturally constructed and is a human creation. Unchosen? Yes, sort of. We can never stop being white so long as white privilege exists. But we can and should CHOOSE to work towards dismantling systems of white privilege. My one choice right now will not change my whiteness. But many choices of many people to work together to resist the oppressive structures at work in our society can ultimately destroy white privilege.

            “You suggest we can confess our complicity, but nevertheless white privilege will remain for now, and we will remain white in this society, benefiting from white privilege, unable to remove ourselves from this “structural sin.” Or is that mistaken?”
            Yes. That is the good friday news. Its true, but its not the end of the story. This being said, we need to get to good friday to even begin the story. We need to confess to God and Neighbor that we are caught up in a sinful system and that until we “create a world in which it is easier to be good,” that is, until the Kingdom comes on earth as it already is in heaven, we are helpless in our sinful condition.
            And this is where Jesus comes in.
            If white privilege is a power, a principality, a ruler, an authority, then Jesus defeats it. The Reign of God in which there are no borders, no prisons, no slum housing, no free trade laws is the same Reign of God in which you and I are made free from sin – individual and structural – and given a chance to live truly human lives.
            This Reign of God has been accomplished by the cross and resurrection of Jesus Christ, but it has not come in fulness yet. We do, however, see hints of it, empowered by the Holy Spirit, through which we are being day by day transformed into the image and likeness of Christ. The Church is called to be the first fruits of the new humanity, to embody and testify to the world about the Reign of God by praising God in worship, by knowing God in Word, by experiencing God in the sacramental community, by serving God in concrete works of justice and mercy and by proclaiming God by announcing to the highest rulers and authorities that their power has been cut short, their dominion defeated.
            The freedom in Christ that you speak of I see in the Sacramental Church, the Church that does not and cannot mirror precisely the Reign of God but which can point at and hint to it through the Sanctification of its Daily Life, accomplished in the manner I describe here.
            Your theology of freedom in Christ might be different from mine. This is the theological underpinning of my critique of white privilege.

          • paul munn

            But how is this “freedom in Christ” experienced in lived reality? You speak of resisting oppressive systems, and I agree that may indeed be a manifestation of freedom in Christ. But despite these efforts, white privilege will continue for some time in our society, and we will continue to benefit from it (by “virtue” of being white). So does that continue to make us complicit? Part of the oppressive “whiteness” as long as it exists? As you put it, “We can never stop being white so long as white privilege exists.”

            Must we just continue to confess this “structural sin,” or is there the possibility, now, of being delivered from it in any real way?

            From what I hear you (and others) saying, the answer is unavoidably no. Though perhaps we can experience “hints” of freedom? That doesn’t sound like the good news of Jesus’ preaching to me. Or his lived example, and he lived as a Jewish male, privileged in a society that oppressed women and Samaritans.

            I like what you say about the reign of God. I just don’t see it being compatible with the ideology of “structural sin” that you also seem to be preaching.

          • Gregory Williams

            I think what we are running into here is the tension between the already and the not yet of the Reign of God, both of which are intrinsic parts of the gospel. Saying “its just that bad and there is nothing we can do about it” is to deny Christ’s redemptive, liberating power. But saying “freedom in Christ!” and leaving it at that denies the very real human suffering and oppression we still live with, suffering and oppression that undeniably has its roots in systems (“structures”) that are larger than any one person. Racism and White Privilege (two sides of the same structure) are among the most harmful of these.
            If the first option denies the Resurrection, the second denies the Cross. The New Testament witness will not allow us to forget either reality.
            “You, Lord, are both lamb and shepherd, you, Lord are both Prince and Slave
            You, peacemaker and swordbringer, by the way you took and gave
            You the everlasting instant, you whom we both scorn and crave
            “You who walk each day before us sit enthroned at God’s right side
            You who preach a way that’s narrow offer a love that reaches wide
            You the everlasting instant, you who are our pilgrim Guide

            “Worthy is our earthly Jesus, worthy is our Cosmic Christ
            Worthy your defeat and victory, worthy still your peace and strife
            You the everlasting instant, you who are our death and life.”

          • paul munn

            “Freedom in Christ!” does not deny the Cross, because Jesus’ going to the cross was a free choice, an act of love. It is perhaps the ultimate example of freedom in the midst of death-dealing Empire. And the Resurrection is proof that the freedom Jesus claimed was no lie or self-delusion.

            So it is to the Cross that we should look to understand what freedom might mean when we encounter racism/white privilege. This is an attempt by a group of people, a society, to control our identity and behavior (whatever skin tone we might have). Jesus demonstrated what it looks like to be controlled only by God, no matter what the intensity of social pressure, even to the point of death. This is freedom. And it is God who promises this freedom to us.

            So I feel pretty strongly when you (or anyone) defines “whiteness” as you have, and then says “we can never stop being white so long as white privilege exists.” If whiteness is merely a construct of society, then in Christ it has no power over me. Society doesn’t define or control me. And you don’t have to be defined or controlled by it either.

          • Gregory Williams

            I think that the picture of the Cross as being “freely chosen” is unrealistic, damaging to our communities, and theologically impoverishing.

            It is unrealistic because it tends to romanticize a bloody, painful exercise in torture. Torture. Like what the CIA does at black sites around the world and by renditioning people. Like waterboarding and electrodes to the genitals. Did I mention torture?

            It is harmful because it encourages people who suffer violence to think that this is redemptive and that their duty is to freely accept violence in order to imitate Christ. This is a perversion of the gospel of liberation. Jesus Radicals did an excellent story on abuse and the lord’s supper a while back covering this issue
            Finally, it is theologically impoverishing for two reasons. It reduces Jesus’ humanity, making him an aloof demegogue instead of the torture victim crying out “my God my God why have you forsaken me?” and it reduces his capacity to identify specifically with the oppressed humanity. Most Crosses in our world are not freely chosen. They are the consequence either of resistance to empire or, more often, of simply being someone that empire finds it useful to crucify. Jesus the freely redemptively suffering demagogue bears little resemblance to the person who dies crossing the US-Mexico border or the person locked up or locked out by our criminal injustice system or the child who dies in a US drone strike.
            The Jesus I know looks a lot more like that. The Jesus I know freely chose not to suffer, but to identify with oppressed humanity – immigrant humanity, black humanity, queer humanity, woman-identified humanity, poor humanity – out of love. The Jesus I know chose this in becoming incarnate in a rural backwater ethnic enclave of the most powerful empire of the world. The Jesus i know also chose this by daily acts of solidarity, of preaching, healing, working to repair the world that had become his own. The Jesus I know did not choose to suffer and never affirms suffering, even his own, but was willing to risk suffering as a consequence of solidarity because He loved oppressed humanity and because He had faith in God’s power to bring about resurrection in the face of death.
            This cross – the cross that is in no way good or redemptive but is the consequence of good and redemptive acts – is the cross of which I speak. It unmasks for us the reality of sin and evil in our world. To focus on the crucified one is to focus on the suffering and death in our own world which Empire teaches us to live in denail of – including the suffering that is an inherent part of the structures that privilege us as white people. The cross convicts a crucifying world. What the new testament teaches us is that this is the very same cross that is our only way to liberation. It is only after we (the privileged) peel away the layers of denial, only after we stand fully convicted as torturers and murderers and realize that “surely this man was the son of God” that we can recieve the grace of God. The cross is not the place of redemption because it is pleasant or good. Quite the opposite. It is a “contrary sign” under which God’s love is proclaimed. It is precisely the unexpected, rediculous proposition that it is in the cross that we see redemption that is the great scandal (and joy) of our faith. To say that the cross is somehow good is to cheapen the resurrection, to make it a nice comfortable story that will enable us to go back to our television sets and forget the real world of suffering and death that empire would like us to remain oblivious to. It makes Christianity comfortable news for the affluent and irrelevant for those who are still starving and dying.
            The whole point is that redemption comes via a torture victim, in the one space where it is impossible to deny that ours is “a system that makes people torture and imprison innocent people.”
            Now I’m rambling. I think that this difference might be irresolvable since we seem to have very different base theological frameworks. However, I will also let you get the last word here if you want it.

          • paul munn

            You seem to be reading a lot into a few words of mine. And you can dismiss me as a characterization if you wish. But I agree with most of what you say about Jesus. And I see most of the “romanticizing” you describe as the work of theologians, as tools of Empire.

            I don’t think Jesus chose to suffer. He chose to obey God, and people chose to make him suffer. I do think he knew people would make him suffer if he obeyed God rather than society’s demands, and he chose to obey God anyway. That’s the freedom I’m talking about, the freedom also available to us. That is relevant to all of us, but especially to those who are facing oppressive forces.

            What is redemptive about the cross is that it demonstrates that freedom is possible, no matter what the societal forces that come against us. The cross undermines the power of society, of empire. The ideology of “structural sin,” conversely, reinforces the power of society over us.

          • Mi_Fe

            To chose to obey God: That’s something I can identify with.

          • RIC HUDGENS

            Greg, it seems to me that you and Paul are missing each other around the definition of “whiteness”. Your understanding of “whiteness” is in keeping with how it’s being discussed in the field of race theory. I agree with it and have found it very useful. Paul’s understanding seems to be the more popular non-academic definition and his conclusions are consistent with that.

            James Baldwin’s famous quote was that as long as you think you’re white there’s no hope for you. According to “whiteness studies” it IS possible to non-identify as white by seeking to end one’s alliance with racist social structures and ways of perceiving and to realign oneself in opposition to those structures. It seems to me that that is similar to what Jesus was in fact calling for on a much broader scale and that it could be incorporated under the term “repentance”. It is both eschatological and immediate in that the eschatology of Jesus is what theologians call a “realized eschatology” which begins immediately.

          • Gregory Williams

            Indeed, Ric, this is part of what “eschatology” means to me. Its a final hope but it absolutely needs to transform the way that we live now. I’m just cautious about who gets to make the judgement as to whether a community has “non-identified.” For me, like “ally” and “solidarity” this term is not one that I can use but has to be developed in cross-racial communities of common struggle that prioritize the voices of low income folks and folks of color.

          • RIC HUDGENS

            I agree. Thanks again for an insightful and provocative essay.

          • Groucho

            Comrade Williams, might it be your Marxist allegiance that’s the true source of your call for conversion?

          • Gregory Williams

            Hard to tell, since Marxism and Christianity have almost exactly the same things to say about most social issues.

          • Noam

            Exactly!! I’ve always thought of Lennin, Stalin and Mao as the true Christian leaders of the 20th century.

          • Gregory Williams

            Try marxist leaders like dorothy day and oscor romero…oh wait, they were also alligned with marxist movements!

          • Groucho

            What do you think about anarchism since your article is on an anarchist site?

          • Groucho

            Agreed comrade, and I would add that the movement to privilege and empower those who are marginalized and victimized needs voices from the academy such as your own,along with a strong organizational structure … Such as the church. My concern is that many anarchists are not willing to do the ground work that is necessary if we are to further the movement. If we have learned anything from history it is that privilege is never given up voluntarily. As Marxists and Christians it is our calling to convert those who are privileged and welcome them as fellow workers in the factory of peace and justice. Organize comrades for the day of The Lord is at hand!

        • Gregory Williams

          Here’s a shorter version. “It sounds like you’re talking about “whiteness” as not necessarily referring to actual race or skin color, but a certain culture/religion/ideal.” Yes. Moreover I am contending that that is ALL whiteness is and that it has no basis in biology.

          • paul munn

            I suppose that answer might make sense in an academic context, where everyone may understand how you’re redefining words. But outside academia, many of us assume that “whiteness” has something to do with being white…

          • Chris Grataski

            Paul, this response is bull. You know just as well as anyone that definitions and categories that “we common folk” accept have often been “carefully taught” to us by “principalities and powers.” Yes, academic discourse is being engaged, but clearly in an attempt to break free of understandings of race and racism that are too narrow and that would allow for racism to persist in people and society incognito.

          • paul munn

            From my experience in academia, it’s very much a part of the “principalities and powers” and isn’t going to help anyone break free in any real way. The ideology of “structural sin” being discussed below is a good example. Academics cultivate the belief in it quite well, but can offer no real way out.

          • Gregory Williams

            Paul, I will absolutely own the class implications of the academic industrial complex. This being said, “structural sin” is actually an idea that originates with liberation theologians involved in on-the-ground social change work with low income communities in the Global South and, more recently, activists in the north. It is a thoroughly pragmatic concept because it allows us to do moral thinking about the things in our world that are bigger than two or even three people. It very much gets at the same problem as the concept of powers and principalities.

          • paul munn

            I suspect the idea has had quite a working over by academia since its perhaps well-intentioned origins. Yes, I’m aware of its influence among activists, its widespread acceptance and application. Which is part of why I see it as an idea worth opposing.

            Pragmatic, yes I agree. I’m not challenging the ideology of “structural sin” because it is abstract or impractical, quite the opposite. I’ve seen what it does to my friends who believe it. A guilt that is continually imposed on us by a structure that we did not create and did not choose and cannot change and cannot escape, that’s quite something to deal with.

            It may inspire activism (with the limited and piecemeal freedoms that the political struggle can achieve) but it does so by denying the present and complete freedom that Jesus offers us. How can we ever be set free from an ongoing “sin” that we don’t intend or commit? Guilt can inspire a lot of practical action, but that’s not the same as the truly free action inspired by love.

          • Gregory Williams

            Fair enough that “structural sin” has been thoroughly examined by theologians, but so has the idea of individual sin, slash sin generally. As a matter of fact I’m pretty sure that there isn’t a single area of Christian life and theology that hasn’t been worked over in this way. That academics have had an influence in shaping some piece of theology is no reason to reject it, otherwise we would have very little left.
            I also think that the idea of Guilt needs to be challenged. I don’t actually think that Guilt is productive of good activism. Its a selfish emotion and tends to paralyze people in cycles of self-satisfying masochistic angst rather than empowering them to real action.
            There is a difference between guilt and repentance. Guilt is selfish and paralyzing. Repentance is other-oriented and action-centered. When we repent of our complicity in white privilege, we do not claim to no longer be white or to have ended our complicity with the system from which we are benefiting, but that recognition is not a guilty one. Rather, it is motivated by a genuine desire for authentic relationship with God and other people, relationship that white privilege makes difficult if not impossible, and foundational for concrete actions of self-education, community-building and works of solidarity designed to help create the conditions necessary for that relationship. Repentant people certainly talk about sin (individual and structural) a lot, but they do not let that define them. Rather, they are able to talk about sin and take concrete steps to act in love because they believe that they are defined by the Love of God.

          • paul munn

            I’m not saying the idea of “structural sin” has just been looked at, but that it has been well developed. Developed in a way that seems to serve “the powers,” trying to make us believe that we are all complicit with the evils of society in a way that we cannot escape. No matter what our personal intention or choice might be. Only society decides when it’s over.

            Yes, I understand no one likes guilt or wants to admit to it. But how do you admit continued “complicity with the system” and deny guilt in the same breath? Are you using a new definition of complicity?

            Guilt, by the way, is an effective motivator. Not a good one, I agree. But effective. I see activists using it all the time to pressure people to act.

            I completely agree that what is desired is “to act in love because we believe we are defined by God.” That just seems to me completely incompatible with “complicity with the system.”

          • Gregory Williams

            Again, I think that almost every theological concept under the sun in western Christianity (and especially western Protestantism) has been thoroughly worked over and developed by the academy, which, again, I’ll totally own is in service to the powers (so, too, though are certain populist anti-intellectual narratives).
            At the end of the day, here is my very un-academic argument for structural sin: have you looked at the world lately?
            I do not deny that guilt can be the initial result of a new awareness of structural sin. This is the power of the world working to reinforce white privilege. But if you ever go to an anti-racist (or gender equality or for that matter any other kind of anti-oppression) workshop, one of the first things that the facilitator will tell people at this point is “don’t get guilty; get sad, get angry, get something, anything that is oriented towards others and the world rather than yourself.”

          • Mi_Fe

            Greg, I’m very much ignorant. Can you tell me what is structural sin? I thankyou in advance.

          • Gregory Williams

            Not at all, Mi_Fe. Structural Sin is the idea that, because human life occurs not only in the context of individual thoughts, feelings and actions (which can be sinful) but also in the context of social structures that are bigger than any one person but are still of human origin (like the state, the market economy, etc) that we need a way of talking about the sinfulness of these structures as well. Its not just my own intellect, memory and will that needs to be brought under the sanctifying influence of faith, hope and love, but also a violent, oppressive and exploitative society that needs to be brought under the sanctifying influnece of nonviolence, relationality and the redistribution of wealth.

          • Mi_Fe

            Thanks. So, is it fair to say that has nothing to do with original sin? Or is original sin a type of structural sin?

          • paul munn

            I think Greg has had enough, but this is an insightful question worthy of an answer. (If Greg does want to answer this, though, I apologize for speaking first.)

            It seems to me that the doctrine of original sin shares many similarities with the modern doctrine of “structural sin.” Both state that everyone is born into this sin. Both state that we bear this sin not because of anything we actually did or thought or intended, but as a condition of being part of the group we were born into. In the doctrine of original sin, this group is all humanity. In the doctrine of “structural sin” the groups are smaller, but it still ends up applying to everyone.

            I think the doctrine of “structural sin,” though, is more oppressive than original sin in one important aspect. Original sin, we are told, can be removed by forgiveness through the church, if we repent. Not so with “structural sin.” This remains as long as the evils of the society we live in still remain. We can repent all we want, but as long as we are connected to society (through economics, consumption, citizenship, race, etc.) we are connected to and complicit with its evils. And it is impossible to not be connected to society in some way. Thus this “sin” cannot be removed from us, at least not in this life. I am not surprised that this seems to cause an unquenchable guilt in people I know who believe it.

            How about some examples of how the doctrine of “structural sin” is commonly applied these days. This essay addresses racism and “whiteness.” Not everyone is born into this sin, just those who are the same race as the dominant group in an oppressive society (in American society, this is white people). Certainly there are many, the majority, of white people who actively support and participate in this evil. But the doctrine of “structural sin” tells us that even those white people who disagree and even oppose racism are still guilty of this sin, complicit in this evil, because they benefit from the oppression by being given advantages as white people in this society (“white privilege”). This guilt remains for white people, according to this doctrine, until “white privilege” no longer exists in our society. For us, that probably means all our life.

            In a recent essay concerning vegetarianism, the doctrine of “structural sin” undergirded the argument that we are all complicit in the suffering caused by the food industry. The author was encouraging us to minimize that suffering by not eating meat. But because of his belief in the doctrine of “structural sin” he had to admit that even vegetarians caused suffering because of the food they consumed, because everyone did (“even Christ,” he said). Even the food needed for survival makes us complicit in this oppressive and destructive industrial structure, since we pay money for our food and that money is passed along to others, and that supports a system that causes serious suffering (and I agree it definitely does cause suffering). While we could possibly disconnect from the food industry by growing all our own food, we would still be guilty of the “structural sin” of all the other industries we buy things from. Thus for effectively everyone in our society, there is no way to get free from this “sin.” Even if we repent and repent and even fight against oppressive industries, we are still guilty as long as we buy.

            And I’ve seen other essays here that apply the doctrine of “structural sin” to our status as American citizens. Since this is a democracy, we are responsible for the actions of our elected leaders, since they act “in our name.” Thus the doctrine of “structural sin” says that we are complicit with the evils perpetrated by our government and the military, even when they are done far away from us, ordered by officials we did not choose, even when try to stop it. Because we are citizens. Though we did not choose this, we gain many advantages from citizenship, and if we accept them then we are part of this national society and share the guilt of its evils. We could renounce citizenship and go elsewhere. But citizenship anywhere would make us complicit in the evils of that nation, and there is no nation I know of that is not oppressive. So, again, it is a “sin” that we cannot stop doing.

            I may not have gotten all these details exactly right, and I’m willing to be corrected. But I think the overall implications of the doctrine of “structural sin” are accurately presented. It seems to me clearly a more damning doctrine than original sin, because, effectively, there’s no possible release from it.

            Both these doctrines are false, though, in my opinion. They seem to both be inventions of institutional theologians, serving (consciously or unconsciously) to reinforce the power and control of society over us. In that, I see them both as opposed to the freedom that Jesus offers us.

          • Gregory Williams

            I need to strongly disagree with Paul’s definition (not trying to start things again, simply saying that my definition is different). Original Sin describes the fallen condition of the entire cosmos. It is what it means to say that “all creation groans” (Romans 8:22). Sin is everywhere. Its in you, its in me, its in the created order itself which God created and called Good.

            Structural Sin is just one aspect of the broader doctrine of Sin. It means that if human beings are sinful then so are human social structures. We live in a sinful world – a broken world, a world that is groaning and in pain, crying out for the Liberation of God. To talk about structural sin is to name a particular aspect of this that our traditional, individualistic theologies have tended to underplay. Augustine told us to locate sin within ourselves and the Protestant Reformers compounded this. Contemporary liberation theologians are telling us to keep on looking for sin in ourselves, but also to look for sin in our society as well. Sin is a psychological phenomenon, a matter of the human memory, intellect and will, but it is also a sociological, political and economic phenomenon.

            This being said, structural sin is, apart from its location, no different from any other kind of sin. Its just sin. This is where Paul and I are working with different definitions. From my point of view (and the point of view of pretty much any other liberation theologian) anything that you say about Sin generally you say about structural sin. If you are a Calvinist and think that original sin can never be eliminated because human beings are “totally depraved” and that Grace is simply God deeming us righteous, then you think that about both individuals and social structures (incidentally this is why Calvinists tend to be the most politically conservative of our sisters and brothers in Christ, since they do not believe that either individuals or social structures are perfectible). If you are an Armenian (as I suspect Paul is) and believe in human perfectibility (a high doctrine of sanctification) then you will think that both individual and structural sin can be eliminated and that Christ offers, to quote him, “immediate, perfect freedom.”

            To me, as someone with Catholic leanings, both of these options are inadequate. The Calvinist conception of Sin (“total depravity” from which we are saved only by “unconditional election” which is another way of saying that God arbitrarily picks some people to not damn to hell) is politically problematic for obvious reason. Moreover, I think that it is blasphemous, since it makes God’s Good creation evil. See Acts 10:15 – “what God has made clean, you must not call profane.”

            At the same time, I consider the Armenian definition of Sin to be too weak, to the point of being an idolatrous exultation of human beings that, in my view, duplicates the denial of very real suffering and death in the world we actually live in. I simply do not think that the lived experiences of incarceration, deportation, poverty, racism, rape culture, displacement and genocide – the experiences of “the least of these” in whom we are called to love and serve Christ (Matthew 25:31-46) will allow us to take the attitude that “everything is getting better.” The world is still deeply sinful.

            To me, Calvinists deny the Resurrection and Armenians deny the Cross. The trick of a good theology is to hold these two realities in tension, to say that we do live and God has entered into a Cruciform space, a space defined by structural and individual sin and that, at the same time, we are also living in a Redeemed space, a space defined by the Resurrection, by the ultimate defeat of all forms of Sin and Death, by a New Creation and a new way of being Human.

            I’m straying a bit.

            Suffice it to say that this entire debate takes place simultaneously on both the individual and the structural levels. If you say that individuals are affected by original sin, then structures are as well. Original Sin is nothing more and nothing less than the admission that we live in a broken world. Where, when and how that brokenness gets resolved is another question.

            Does that help?

          • paul munn

            Mommmmm! Greg called me an Armenian!

          • Mi_Fe

            Thank you both. I now know that structural sin and original sin are not the same thing and my question has been answered. Thanks

          • Mi_Fe

            Promise, one last question! See below

          • paul munn

            Yes, looking at the world definitely provides convincing evidence of sin. But conceiving it as “structural sin” requires a framework and belief system that does not come from merely looking at the world. Nor does it come from Jesus, as far as I can tell.

            I hear Jesus describing sin as intimately personal and intentional (even if we do not actually act on that intention). The evidence of an enslaved human will. Perhaps enslaved by the pressures of society, which is unquestionably oppressive and racist. But, for Jesus, the sin is always in the person, in us (not in some structure external to us). And a person can always be changed by God’s power, freed from slavery, when they are willing to be set free. Not when society is willing to change (which, from what I see, is never) but when the person is. Do you understand Jesus’ teaching and example differently?

          • Gregory Williams

            Paul, suffice it to say that yes, I understand Jesus’ teaching and example very differently. I do not beleive that he taught that the solution was to be found in the individual will. “The Kingdom of God is within You” is collective, not individual. For a fuller description of my beliefs about Jesus’ teachings and example see below. See also my caping my participation in this conversation, since we have moved decidedly away from the original topic of the article to a deeper theological difference that we are not going to resolve here. Its been fun.

          • paul munn

            I can’t see the difference in what you say below. But feel free to let it go. I agree about “the kingdom of God,” though I prefer the translation “among you.”

            I appreciate your willingness to defend and elaborate on what you’re saying here. Peace.

          • Mi_Fe

            Can society (or only individual people) also be changed by God’s power?

          • Jason Winton

            “don’t get guilty; get sad, get angry, get something, anything that is
            oriented towards others and the world rather than yourself.”

            This sounds like good advice. If for nothing else, it will help folks to not be “in their head” with guilt. I’ve experienced some real freedom similar to that by making amends for serious wrongs I’ve done in the past. Still, there seems to be much more at stake when you believe yourself to be continually in sin and cannot (apart from societal change) do anything substantial about it.

            Dealing with guilt and laboring unselfishly for others can inspire and add to the good already being done. But the Apostle Paul seems to point us to grace as well: “where the Spirit of Lord is, there is freedom,” reminding the Corinthian church that they were “being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another.” To live in the Spirit’s freedom might mean that we emphasize stories of change, like Jin S. Kim did in his iconocast episode, saying what it can look like to be free from the “logic” of white supremacy in our society.

            Of course, the key is to live out that freedom. But it would be useless, in terms of loving others, to wait for the Spirit’s freedom until the racist world chooses to embrace the kind of love they hated in the first place.

          • Chris Grataski

            Of course academic institutions are principalities, and the spirit of academia is also, but nobody here is looking for it to offer a way out. You seem to have an allergy to anything other than “plain readings” of the bible as well as anything other than “what Jesus did”– but you continually refuse to acknowledge how such a hermeneutic (whether applied to texts, ethics, or ecclesiology) itself grows on socio-political rootstock and how it often can and does get used to reinforce agendas that may be adversarial to the reign of God.
            I’m also wondering if you could expound on precisely how jesus offers “present and complete freedom” to the victims of history. I often struggle to believe this, so your confidence on the matter makes me ask (in addition to causing my own allergies to act up).

          • paul munn

            No allergies here… except cats.

            I don’t quite know what you mean by “how Jesus offers….” I’m insisting that Jesus did and does offer “present and complete freedom” (in contrast to the very limited and piecemeal freedoms achieved by political struggle). I’m insisting that Jesus offers real freedom now, in the midst of Empire, not just in some far off future.

            If you’re asking what this looks like, I usually point to Jesus’ life on earth. But I thought of a more recent example that might be helpful as well. It’s the story of Maximilian Kolbe:

            Tadeusz Joachimowski, clerk of Auschwitz Block 14A:

            In the summer of 1941, most probably on the last day of July, the camp siren announced that there had been an escape. At the evening roll-call of the same day we, i.e. Block 14A, were formed up in the street between the buildings of Blocks 14 and 17. After some delay we were joined by a group of the Landwirtschafts-Kommando. During the count it was found that three prisoners from this Kommando had escaped: one from our Block and the two others from other Blocks. Lagerfuhrer Fritzsch announced that on account of the escape of the three prisoners, ten prisoners would be picked in reprisal from the blocks in which the fugitives had lived and would be assigned to the Bunker (the underground starvation cell).

            Jan Jakub Zegidewicz takes up the story from there:

            After the group of doomed men had already been selected, a prisoner stepped out from the ranks of one of the Blocks. I recognized Fr Kolbe. Owing to my poor knowledge of German I did not understand what they talked about, nor do I remember whether Fr Kolbe spoke directly to Fritzsch. When making his request, Fr Kolbe stood at attention and pointed at a former non-commissioned officer known to me from the camp. It could be inferred from the expression on Fritzsch’s face that he was surprised at Fr Kolbe’s action. As the sign was given, Fr Kolbe joined the ranks of the doomed and the non-commissioned officer left the ranks of the doomed. Fritzsch had consented to the exchange. A little later, the doomed men were marched off in the direction of Block 13, the death Block.

            (If you’re interested, the rest of the story can be found here)

  • Mike Rogers

    I agree whole heartedly with Rev. Wright’s statement and have made similar statements myself, both in conversation and in print. But I will not allow myself to feel guilty about being born white any more than Rev. Wright feels guilty about being born black or gays being born gay. It’s not a matter of race or sex. The topics in this article are matters of the heart as was starting to be revealed in point 2. “Whiteness” is not a disease. Greed by white people is a disease. Greed by corporations and banks and politicians who are white is a disease. Oh, let’s just call it what it really is . . . greed is sin. And white people sin, and probably sin more because they have more opportunity to sin with access to the things they are most greedy for: money, sex and authority. But that is only because those who have the most power in America are white. Yet we need to remember that a primary cause for starving people in Africa is the greed or money, sex and authority by non-whites in those nations. The starvation presently going on in North Korea, as well as the brutal oppression in Eastern Europe in the 80′s-90′s were/are caused by the same greed.

    As a white Christian Anarchist I will continue to actively stand against any form of empirical injustice that I can, knowing that there are many that I cannot. But that will not discourage me nor stop me from living and advancing the kingdom of God in the midst of the white American empire.

  • rdhudgens

    A really fascinating illustration of this occurred on Fox News yesterday. The reporters were insisting that the two Chechnyan bombers were NOT caucausian. On the one hand this was humorous in that Chechnya is literally in the Caucasus Mountains! But the deeper point I suspect is that they could NOT be “white” because they were Muslim. This is how “whiteness” is about far more than just pigmentation. It is about, as this essay rightly insists, who is “us” and who is “them”.

    A few years ago David Hollinger coined a phrase that has become a favorite of mine: “the circle of the we”. Looking at how big that circle is can tell us quite a bit about how we structure our own identity and about whose pain will be allowed to affect our own.

  • Marisa Werner

    Hi Greg, Thanks for calling attention to and coherently describing an important and concerning dynamic that is occurring and possibly evolving. I have not seen/heard it mentioned elsewhere, but what you have written here makes a lot of sense to me.

  • Mi_Fe

    Is American Nonviolence Possible? –> From teh New York Times, a well balanced article about nonviolence

  • Michael

    When you’re a hammer, every problem looks like a nail.

    Nothing you’ve written here has anything to do with Newton nor Boston. You are simply expressing the prejudices you had before the tragedies and claiming that they are somehow justified by public’s reaction to these tragedies.

    In a forum such as this one with so many like-minded people, you will get many compliments. Please do not less this mislead you.

    You lack both intellect and empathy. For the love of God please do not go into ministry. You will only hurt vulnerable people.

  • Mi_Fe

    “If you’re born Caucasian, male and middle class in the United States, your job is to check the manifestations of the entitlement bred into you by your native culture” –>

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