Rock! Paper! Scissors!
Tools for anarchist + Christian thought and action
Vol 1. No. 1
The Movement Makes Us Human
The Movement Makes Us Human
Editor: Joanna Shenk
By: David Brazil
A call to Christians to know the difference between those in this world who are nailing people to crosses, and those who are being nailed, and to stand unapologetically with the latter.
Toward the beginning of Lent in this year of our Lord 2018, I found myself in the departure terminal of Los Angeles airport. I was bound home to Oakland after a week in Christian community at the Bartimaeus Institute [link] in Oak View, California, followed by a weekend with friends in LA. As I waited for the plane I noticed that one of my fellow passengers wore a baseball cap with a stark black-and-white American flag – an icon that has grown increasingly ominous in the upswing of explicit white supremacy and racist vigilantism following the presidential election of 2016.
When I looked closer at the design I saw that at the bottom right of this flag was embroidered the profile of a helmeted skull – the unmistakable emblem of Hitler’s SS, adopted in our own time and place by the Nazis and white supremacists among us. This guy was a Nazi, and he was getting on my plane, on a Sunday night flight from LA to Oakland.
It’s 2018, and, folks, there are Nazis on our plane.
Lent 2018 began on an Ash Wednesday that was also Valentine’s Day. That was the day that Nikolas Cruz murdered seventeen people in a school in Parkland, Florida – one more in a series of apparently unmotivated spree killings with assault weapons that have cursed our life together for decades now. Although these crimes are almost invariably perpetrated by white men – the same class of people who are becoming racist vigilantes – we have little shared language or analysis about the causes underlying these sorrowful atrocities.
But they form a pattern. And phenomena which form patterns are susceptible of analysis. And I’m afraid that the analysis most relevant to the crises I’ve described – racist vigilantes and apparently motiveless mass murders – is all too well known to the Black community and other communities of color, and to so many others.
Its name is white terror.
It is the founding principle of European presence in this hemisphere, it underwrites all our activities of dispossession, expropriation and violence from 1492 to the present, and it is casting forth its poisonous fruit in our own time, as it has in every generation. This comes as a surprise to no one except those who, like me, are the beneficiaries of white supremacy, and who sometimes appear almost professionally innocent of what their privilege costs for everyone who is not them.
We live in the reign of white terror. Its presence in our time is but our generational inheritance of that original unrighteousness of European presence here. Those of us who are of European descent receive the benefit of white supremacy through the color of our skin, whether we elect to or not. And we must understand that in the political and spiritual crisis through which we are now living, this privilege of skin color has been weaponized by those who would seek to make it the basis of an ethnic state. That goes for both those whose hands are presently moving the levers of governmental power, as well as the paramilitary forces which form their unofficial complement, and with which they are acting in concert – a pattern all too familiar as the prelude to authoritarian and fascist dictatorships.
Unless European-descent people of conscience draw a clear line distinguishing us from those who have made whiteness a weapon (and “whiteness” was fashioned in the first place as a weapon and an instrument of colonial rule through dividing and conquering poor people), we will be treated as silently consenting to the racist projects presently underway. We will indeed be the “good Germans” everybody talks about. But then again, who needs to point to “good Germans” when there are plenty of “good Americans” readily to hand in our own history? What about all the people who sat on the sidelines during the struggle for Black liberation in the 1960s and beyond? Maybe they even had the right views, but who knows? From the perspective of history they just look like some more white folks who couldn’t be bothered.
Will we look like some more white folks who couldn’t be bothered?
A line that sticks with me from King’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” is: "I have been gravely disappointed by the white moderate." It’s hard to read this as a Christian and fail to consider the son of man’s warning to the church of the Laodiceans: I know thy works, that thou art neither cold not hot: I would thou wert cold or hot. So then because thou art lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I will spue thee out of my mouth.
But the scripture I’ve really been living with through the Lent of 2018 comes from Paul’s letter to the church at Rome. In the seventh chapter he writes: O wretched man that I am! Who shall deliver me from the body of this death?
Who indeed? The body of this death is what cuts us off in sin from the law of love proclaimed by Christ. In an epoch defined by weaponized white supremacy, whiteness is the body of this death.
At a direct action in San Francisco taken in solidarity with our undocumented neighbors who have been targeted by ICE as part of the racist xenophobia of the present regime, I stood with dozens of other protestors according to the witness of scripture, which says in the Hebrew Bible you shall not vex the stranger, and in the Greek Bible what you have done for the least of these you have done for me.
While we blocked access to the ICE building we were filmed by individuals from a group of about a dozen white supremacist vigilantes, one of whom wore a patch declaring “Death Dealer” – the title of a memoir written by a commandant of Auschwitz. Nazis and racist vigilantes make these recordings in order to identify and intimidate activists through “doxxing” (publicly sharing a person’s home address and other personal information on internet message-boards frequented by racist vigilantes). This is where the “troll army” meets the so-called “lone wolf” – widely circulated incitements to harassment which become a green light for political violence. Who shall save me from the body of this death?
Driving through East Oakland with a colleague we noticed that a decal in the rear window of a pick-up truck’s cab depicted the black-and-white American flag with – yes – an SS skull beneath it. This was weeks after my airport encounter – an unrelated incident, you might say, except that nothing’s unrelated now. In 2018, Nazis are explicitly flaunting their regalia in Oakland. Who will save me from the body of this death?
We who are Christians know in our own souls Who it is that will save us, and if we’re versed in the scripture we recall that the despairing cry of Romans 7 is answered by Paul’s declaration of freedom in Romans 8: for the law of the spirit of life in Christ Jesus hath made me free from the law of sin and death. But if we believe, as I do, that in our time whiteness itself is sin, how will we act, how will we change, if we have learned that we are indeed set free? The apostle also writes, in a scripture from Galatians so familiar that we are apt to forget how radical is its proclamation: there is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female, for ye are all one in Christ Jesus.
Had Paul been writing in America, in 2018, he surely would have added: there is neither black nor white. But what does it mean to assert these things not cheaply, but according to the costliness of the cross? If I am set free from the body of death of whiteness how will I become different in this world, in my practice, in my prophetic witness? Certainly I must take up the call of scripture’s declaration: they will know you are Christians by your love.
When Christ says to Pilate, I am the truth, one of the things he means is: I, a dark-skinned, colonized subject, unjustly brutalized by a military police and unrighteously condemned by a racist system of laws, am the truth of your society. Stephon Clark, a Black man shot twenty times by Sacramento police who said they thought his cell phone was a gun, is the truth of our society. If that fact feels unpalatable to you, I ask you to sincerely consider what you mean when you say that you are a Christian.
If you can’t speak up when our imperial society re-crucifies Christ, aren’t you just one of the number calling out for Barabbas instead? Or maybe you just need some time to think it over, while the centurions are driving our Lord to the place of the skull. Who will save me from the body of this death?
In our community church in Oakland we’ve been studying Exodus, and learning together that when we read about an empire that is holding a subject population in slavery in order to economically exploit them, we’re reading about ourselves. White America isn’t Israel in this story; it’s Egypt. And Moses, because of his complex origins, can get away with playing both sides of the fence, Egyptian and Israelite – for a while, anyway. Right up until the moment when he strikes and kills the Egyptian who is beating an Israelite. That’s the moment he irrevocably decides, and casts his lot with the beaten of this world rather than those administering the beating.
As a Christian, it’s my job to know the difference between those in this world who are nailing people to crosses, and those who are being nailed, and to stand unapologetically with the latter. Forgiveness and redemption are indeed available to the former, but forgiveness comes only with contrition and atonement. You can’t offer contrition if you are still nailing people to crosses, and white America has not yet ceased its nailing. Ask the family of Stephon Clark.
People of European descent have to make a choice, like the choice that Moses made: to be white or to be a human being. Sooner or later life will bring us to a moment that won’t let us not choose. To be white is to cling to the body of this death. To be a human being is to accept the grace of Christ that breaks down the dividing wall of hostility, and to walk thereafter in the way of this costly love.
A mentor of mine said that Jesus Christ came to earth in solidarity with the human race; and another teacher shared that Christ makes family wherever He goes. Let us who have received this grace even while we were dead in our trespasses of white supremacy take on the costly solidarity and family-making way of a risen Lord who destroys the body of sin forever. And let us remember in so doing that, as Theresa of Avila taught, Christ has now no body but our own.
In preparing this Easter Monday to preach on Exodus 10 I found that Paul’s scripture that had so preoccupied me over Lent was anticipated in the evening’s chapter. During the plague of locusts Pharaoh implores Moses: Forgive my offense just this once and plead with the Lord your God that he but remove this death from me. The Hebrew is ha-mavet ha-zeh – this death. In his own desperate extremity the proverbially hard-hearted Pharaoh acknowledges the Lord’s sovereignty and begs his prophet to remove “this death”.
Did Paul, who knew himself to be a sinner in need of Christ’s grace, and even an ethnic partisan in need of an insight into the divine power that heals all division, consciously recall the words of this wicked master in thinking through his own situation? Do we, who know ourselves to be sinners, dare to echo this call in a contrition for our personal sins of white supremacy, in an atonement for the corporate sins that we inherit, and in a reparation that will call us into a currently unimaginable relationship with our neighbors and our God? I hope we may dare, for those who lose their life shall gain it – and this is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory, forever and ever, amen.
Rock! Paper! Scissors! is a tri-annual, topic-focused, web-publication exploring the intersections of anarchist politics and Christian faith. Through following the way of Jesus in the shadow of empire, we seek to undermine systems of oppression and creatively explore possibilities for liberation from an anarchist or radical christian perspective.