The Subtle Catechesis of White Supremacy
“Ahmaud Arbery”….. “Two God-fearing men.”
“Ahmaud Arbery”…. “Two God-fearing men.”
“Ahmaud Arbery”…. “Two God-fearing men.”
Some words will not let you go. I’ve spent the better part of the last week repeating those words and wondering what one phrase has to do with the other. On February 23, 2020, Ahmaud Arbery, a black man jogging in a largely white neighborhood in Brunswick, Georgia, was murdered by two white men, Gregory and Travis McMichael. Only after a rampant rise in public fervor over two months later were the McMichaels arrested. A fundraising website to seek “justice” for the McMichaels described them as “two, God-fearing men.”
“Ahmaud Arbery”…. “Two God-fearing men.”
As I’ve tried to think of some way to honor Arbery that didn’t seem arbitrary, shallow, and short-lived, I’ve kept coming back to those two phrases. I’ve wondered to myself, “On what planet can those two men be called ‘God-fearing?’ Which God do they worship? Not mine!!!” And yet, the more I thought about it, White Supremacy is a sort of religion in our day, a toxic stew of worldview, identity, practices, and mythology that provides ultimate meaning for many. What is that if not a religion in and of itself?
I don’t think the McMichael’s woke up that morning and thought, “Let’s go kill someone,” but I do know they live in the same country I do. And I’ve been reminded again of the pervasive ways in which White Supremacy continues to shape the logos, pathos, and ethos of this country. You can call it “conditioning.” You can call it “training” or “teaching.” But since we’re using divine language, I prefer to call it “catechesis.” The shaping of the soul. The teaching of a macro-narrative that gives meaning to our micro-lives. The god of White Supremacy trains people to see the world through the lens of the white gaze. He is often worshipped at the altar of patriotism. He seeks to dominate and terrify through power and control, and sometimes, even commands. When he has his way, the result is white exaltation and black degradation. His priests are politicians, preachers, and pundits who proclaim liturgies of white superiority and black expendability, often in coded language.
The same white gaze that looked upon Ahmaud Arbery and saw him as someone suspicious and “lesser,” is the same white gaze that looks upon schools that are predominately black and call them suspicious and “bad.” It’s the same gaze that looks upon black neighborhoods and calls them “ghettos.” It’s the same gaze that looks upon the black working poor and calls them “welfare queens.” We are fooling ourselves if we don’t see these demeaning phrases as liturgies sung at the altar of white supremacy, spoken in the hopes of receiving the white “AMEN.” These words condition people, and these untruths create fantasies that are no more than utter fictions, but fixed and unalterable realities in some people’s minds. The reality behind our eyes shapes the reality we see before them. It’s the subtle catechism of white supremacy.
The same white gaze that looked upon Ahmaud Arbery and saw him as someone “suspicious” is the same white gaze that cloaks the criminalization of being black with the jargon of a “war on drugs.” If slavery was an unjust institution, then what shall we say about a criminal justice system that has imprisoned more black men today than were enslaved at the beginning of the civil war, the vast majority of them for non-violent offenses? And if one is morally opposed to lynchings, how can one support Capital Punishment when one overlays the map of lynchings with the map of states that continue to support Capital Punishment? (Let me save you some work, they are essentially the exact same map. Think there’s some correlation?) The demonstrable racial bias that exists should render Capital Punishment unjust and immoral, even if one isn’t convinced of its immorality at an existential level. Our criminal justice system, at nearly every level, is stacked against black lives. It’s the subtle catechism of white supremacy.
Those who have been taught well at the foot of white supremacy can’t hear the words “Black Lives Matter” without reflexually responding with “All Lives Matter,” thereby erasing the uniquely black experience in this country. The catechized ones are those who say “I don’t see color,” and are often baffled when someone brings up race saying, “What does this have to do with race? Nothing!” Catechesis has been completed when its graduates are so immersed in its doctrine that they can’t even see it any longer.
The liturgy of White Supremacy keeps telling the “bootstrap myth,” which convinces people that we are only what we make of ourselves. In this view, wealth is always a virtue and poverty intrinsically a vice. Of course, this myth ignores the long years in our country’s history when cotton production made us the wealthiest nation on earth. Who did the work and who profited the money in those days? Who pulled the bootstraps and who got the boots? Did the labor market have anything to do with that illimitable surplus? White Supremacy rolls its eyes at any talk of reparations today, a proper form of repentance, because it can’t summon enough truthfulness to see the need for it. The bootstrap myth provides proper cover. This worldview also feeds the prevailing notion today that, if Arbery was somehow stealing something or trespassing, it merited his death, as if white property was of more value than black lives.
The conditioning of White Supremacy shrugs at the reality that black people receive unjustly disproportionate health care in this country. Any attempt to remedy that injustice is met with the all-too-predictable charge of “socialism” or “communism”, a charge leveled against Martin Luther King, Jr. himself. The priests of White Supremacy teach that any notion of “the common good” is communism in disguise and to be avoided at all costs. They teach that life happens in a strictly individualistic manner, which then frees them to blame black people for the struggles of blackness. Rugged individualism is the distorted altar on which black struggle is sacrificed to ease the pain of white guilt.
The sanctuary of white supremacy is lined with statues of its saints, heroes of the Confederacy that dot the city squares all over the south. Every day, black Americans walk by these monuments. To question the appropriateness of the monuments is sacrosanct indeed, because doing so threatens to unveil the propaganda of our past and the falsities that seek to shape our future. You can tell a great deal about a people by the saints they esteem and seek to emulate.
White Supremacy seeks to silence black voices that would contradict and oppose the monopoly of its message. This is why many people vocally spoke out against Colin Kaepernick peacefully kneeling when the national anthem was played in protest of police violence, but had nothing to say about armed white supremacists marching through the Michigan state capitol just last week. The god of White Supremacy calls his followers to care more about the symbolic accoutrements of liberty and democracy than the reality for which they stand.
Even more recently, we have elected officials with irrefutably and unrepentant racist pasts to some of the highest offices in this land. In turn, they surround themselves with unabashed White Supremacists who believe this nation would be better off as a racial monolith and are seeking to create just that. White Supremacists are the kind of people who can question the first black President’s nationality on no grounds of truth whatsoever, and when the narrative is proven false, it is only parroted even more. White Supremacists are the sort of people who feel like they can tell non-white politicians to “go back to where they came from” even though they came from here! From the lens of White Supremacy, the real America is a white America and anyone else who lives here does so at the privilege and behest of white approval. There better be gratitude. There better be allegiance. There better be quietism. Because, ultimately, in the religion of White Supremacy, it’s whiteness that determines identity in America. White isn’t a color; it’s just reality, that which gives meaning to all other colors.
The god of White Supremacy is well supported in this country. He does not lack for resources, temples, and shrines. People will give their lives for him, even at the expense of the other gods they name. People will bow before his throne because he makes their lives easier. He eases their discomfort. He provides them a worldview in which they are simultaneously the hero and the victim of a country amidst dramatic demographic transition. He conditions thoughts and behaviors, and he provides a well-oiled system of belief. His fingerprints are on all the walls of power in this land. Many people fear him more than any other god. Many people love him more than any other god. He is white, rich, and male, and therefore he sanctions a world that bends towards the white and rich and the male. You don’t have to seek his traditions and ways; they will seek you. In fact, they have been the default catechesis in this country for nearly three centuries. Oftentimes, this god is the one actually worshipped in Christian churches, who vocally called God by a different name altogether.
But this is not the God I worship. I worship a God who cares about justice; not just the kind of justice that asks, “How can this be punished,” but who asks “How can this be prevented and healed?” I worship a God who tells the truth about things and calls us to do no less, as best as our feeble minds can. I worship a God who is no respecter of persons. I worship a God who calls us to a peace that blesses ALL people, not just a quietism that benefits a select few. I worship a God who, when defining the word neighbor, reached for the farthest “other” imaginable, essentially saying of a Samaritan, “This one is your neighbor.” I worship a God who doesn’t just summon disembodied souls to heaven, but who commands embodied people to help bring heaven to earth. I worship a God who provides a radically different meta-narrative than White Supremacy to bring meaning to our lives. I worship a God who stands in solidarity with the pain of others and calls us to do the same, maybe even in such proximity to them that we suffer whatever they suffer, as illustrated by the cross. I worship a God before whom all nations will give account, including our own. I worship a God who summons us all to repentance from gross injustice, which means correcting our ways, not just expressing sorrow for them. This is the God I’ve tried to follow all my life and this is the God about whom I proclaim with intense regularity. This is the God whom I want to shape my country’s soul, my church’s soul, and the souls of my children. This is the God I want to resemble in the deepest parts of my being.
Last week, I ran my 2.23 miles in honor of Ahmaud Arbery, and I prayed my way through my disillusion and disgust. But this day calls me- and maybe you- to something more. We become what we adore. Therefore, I will tend to the liturgies that shape me and the liturgies that I’m responsible for in the shaping of the church and other people. I will tend to the words I speak and the words I allow myself to hear. I will try to be a good steward of the catechesis that shapes my views of God, the world, and myself as a white man. So long as black people are on the wrong end of white peoples’ policies, programs, worldviews, histories, and theology, we shouldn’t be surprised when black people are on the wrong end of our guns. And if so, we will be on the wrong side of the cross, primarily because we’ve been carefully taught to worship the wrong god all along. To change our worship, to change our catechesis, is to change our world. May it be so.
Then, maybe the next time a black name is mentioned in connection with the phrase “God-fearing,” it will have something to do with LIFE and not death.