My Struggle with the Bullied God

            It is not a wise thing to share struggles one has with one’s religion or one’s God, especially if one is an ordained minister, and yet, that is where I am.

            My stomach turns when I hear people say, “The Bible says…” or “Scripture says…” I find myself scowling and thinking, “Which Bible are you speaking of?” I have watched throughout my life people quoting scripture and at the same time showing hatred and disrespect for fellow human beings. It has always made my blood boil, but more now.

            I was repulsed when people who stormed the United States Capitol on January 6, 2021, stopped to pray, lift up holy hands, and call on “the Lord Jesus.” Again, the question for me was, “whose Jesus?” Certainly not the Jesus of the Gospel, the Jesus who taught that we should love our neighbors as ourselves, the Jesus who reached out to include the marginalized and ignored. So, to whom, exactly, were they referring?

            It was probably the same Jesus that Sam Bowers, who was the co-founder and the first Imperial Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan worshiped. Bowers shared that he had a Damascus Road experience where God told him to save white supremacy. That was to be his ministry. Bowers was a church-going man who gathered murderers-in-training for prayer and fasting before they would go on their sprees to intimidate, terrorize, and murder Black people, Jews, and those whom he believed were Communists.

Bowers was convicted and sentenced to life in prison for murdering Vernon Dahmer, a Black man who registered Black people to vote, but before that, he had spent six years in federal prison for the murders of James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner. He apparently loved “the Lord Jesus.”

            God, it seems, has been remarkably amenable to being manipulated. White nationalists manipulate the deity, as do members of other dominant groups, and God seemingly is OK with it. There is no one group of people that is less likely to manipulate God. It seems that the powerful are the ones who not only define society, its rules, mores, and customs, but also God and what is required to be “holy” in the sight of their God. They make their power their god.

            The subjugation of people is not unique or new; white nationalists are part of a bloodline of those who oppress people, using violence, in order to hold onto power. Walter Wink notes in Engaging the Powers: “The Romans subjugated the Jews and attempted to destroy the Christian church. In the Middle Ages, the Catholic church fought and subjugated the Gnostics, inquisitors subjugated witches, the Germans murdered the Jews and the Jews, who suffered so hideously at the hands of Hitler, now subjugate and murder the Palestinians.” That’s not a popular thing to say, but it is true.  Again according to Wink, Marc Ellis, a Jewish writer, wrote, “The tragedy of the Holocaust is indelibly ingrained in our consciousness. Contemporary Jewish theology helps us to come to grips with our suffering; it hardly recognizes that today we are powerful. It holds in tension Holocaust and the need for empowerment. Consequently, it speaks eloquently for the victims of Treblinka and Auschwitz yet can ignore Sabra and Shatila.” (pp. 200-201)

            What we worship is power and money, not God; that means that money and power are, for us, God. And it is maddening. It seems that those with power and money bully God into submission, and God acquiesces! God, the Creator of all, is silent in the face of horrendous suffering. Those who worship money and power credit God for the murderous actions they take against people who threaten or challenge them; they say God is the source of the suffering of human beings who are accosted, afflicted, and assaulted by, again, human beings. God brought Hurricane Katrina, they say, to punish members of the LGBTQIA community; God is the force behind the abject poverty of Haiti because its Black leaders dared to fight against white oppression and win. God is the author of segregation and not only created but approved of slavery. The power people say all of that and more and God, the bullied God, says and does nothing.

            The God of the powerful is not a deity that believes in mercy and love and forgiveness. No, their God is one who sanctions those who judge others based on human definitions of wickedness and sin. The Jesus of the Gospel, who said to the woman caught in the act of adultery “Go and sin no more” is absent for the powerbrokers. That Jesus is not the Jesus people in power refer to or respect. 

            The Bible doesn’t help. The Bible was written by men in power, and in this so-called sacred text, we see misogyny, sexism, toxic masculinity, racism, classism, and far too much violence. And while so many refer to the Bible as the go-to text for all they say and do, it is a tainted text that has been manipulated to support power. The Negro Bible, also called The Slave Bible was written by white people who wanted to keep enslaved Black people in their place and not get the idea that God was a deity who supported their quest for freedom and equity. Whole books of the Bible were taken out of this special text created especially for the enslaved.

            And so I struggle. The god of white nationalists is not the God of the Bible, but the Bible isn’t all that sacred, seeing as how people have willfully distorted, changed, and manipulated the words contained within its pages at will. There is a flagrant and blatant disregard of the Great Commandment – that we love the Lord our God with all our hearts, all our minds, and all our souls, and our neighbors as ourselves – and there is little fear that ignoring that command will result in any consequences.  The bullied God says and does nothing, and the powers and principalities continue doing exactly what they want.

            In 1953, Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King warned against the “false God of nationalism.” It is that god that is running the politics of this country, or that is at least being quiet as this country continues to run roughshod over “the least of these.” 

            “The least of these” need some victories, victories that cannot and will not be overturned by political operatives, including the US Supreme Court. Even as human beings deride, disrespect, and disregard the rights and needs of so many people, the Creator God of us all really needs to stand up and stay up and fight the good fight against those who have made bullying God their favorite pastime.

In Spite of Jesus, Racism

            I made an observation this week that this country is addicted to its belief in and adherence to white supremacy. It is an addiction that displays as do all addictions; the desire for the power of white supremacy is part of the political circulatory system of this country, and because of that, the country cannot just declare that they are over it. America needs to be detoxed of its poisonous, destructive tumor.

            There have been spates of time in our history where there has been a kind of remission. Following the horrifically toxic years following Reconstruction, Black Americans, and women for that matter, were allowed into the political system.

            But Black political and economic progress has almost always been followed by a white backlash. It’s the addiction, made evident. Once a person is addicted to a substance, his/her body needs it and their body is forever challenged and threatened by that need re-emerging. The blessing or evidence of healing is revelatory when the addicted person’s physiology and spirituality have risen above raw desire. America’s addiction to white supremacy is no different; when it comes to white supremacy, she simply does not want to let it go. And so she has not.

            This addiction to white supremacy exists in spite of the historical Jesus, his teachings. Some white supremacists have declared that Jesus’ mission was really to minister to and save the most wealthy, not those who suffer from political, economic, and social oppression. (https://www.salon.com/2022/02/27/jelani-cobb-on-the-anti-crt-campaigns-high-stakes-and-the-deep-roots-of-fascism-in-america/) Historian Anthea Butler says: 

White Christianity is a Christianity that is based on the following: Jesus is white. Jesus privileges white culture and white supremacy, and the political aspirations of whiteness over and against everything else. White Christianity assumes that everybody should be subsumed under whiteness in terms of culture and society.

White Christianity assumes that it does not have to look at poverty. We see this in the form of the so-called prosperity gospel, and that any blessing you get from God is because God favors you. If anybody else is out of favor, let’s say some poor kid in Northwest Philadelphia who doesn’t have enough to eat, well, that’s just too bad because they’re not blessed of God.

            If you grew up in a home where the Gospel was taught, this remaking of Jesus as the champion of white supremacy is puzzling, confusing, and troubling, but in all truth, the only way to understand what is going on, and the role of Christianity in all of it, is to understand the ethos of white Christianity – a belief system that exists North, South, East, and West.

            What, then, do Christians who believe in the Biblical Jesus, the Jesus of the Gospel, do to effectively combat a nation that is addicted to white supremacy and that justifies its actions on their re-make of Jesus and Jesus’ purposes? How does one fight a group of people who have effectively de-defied the Biblical Jesus and God, the parent of Jesus? 

It is scary, watching what is going on, but it is also a fact that a re-made Jesus has been used to justify racist violence and terror throughout our history. “The Left” has been too silent, while those who burn crosses and use fire and fear to maintain control have continued to pursue their goal to keep America white.

In the name of the historical Jesus, we should say, simply, “no.”

A candid observation…

How Do the Faithful Oppressed Pray?

            As many people, Black and white, but especially Black, are watching the trial of ex-Minneapolis Police Officer Derek Chauvin, it is safe to say that many are waiting with bated breath. The instances of white officers getting away with shooting and killing Black people have been too many; even in cases where videos have captured the actions of the accused officers, making many believe that the justice system would have no choice but to arrest, indict, and convict the accused, they have been acquitted or exonerated before even having to go to trial.

            It is not a sure thing that Chauvin will be convicted. If he is not, I was asked, what will happen?

            I don’t know, but I do know that internalized pain eventually erupts; one can only take so many hits to his or her concept of and need for justice before the pus that forms from the untreated wound caused by injustice pushes its way out.

            What, then, or how …do the faithful oppressed pray? What types of prayers are pastors of Black congregations offering to and sharing with their members? Or are they praying about it at all? Are they avoiding the elephant in the room because, frankly, they do not know what to say or how to say it?

            There has been a frustration that many Black pastors, theologians and scholars have grappled with for generations. William R. Jones wrote, Is God a White Racist? James Cone tackled the problem of a God whom the Bible says is no respecter of persons, but who has not interceded and stopped white supremacy – which supports the dehumanization and criminalization of Black people. Cone’s answer was the development of Black Liberation Theology. Black people  have wondered where God is and why, if and since God shows no favoritism, hasn’t God stopped the insanity called white supremacy?

            The frustration with God by leaders of oppressed people shows up in the Bible. Moses, pegged by Yahweh to lead the Israelites from Egyptian captivity to freedom, expresses the frustration in Exodus 5:22-23, saying, “Then Moses turned again to the Lord and said, “O Lord, why have you mistreated this people? Why did you ever send me? Since I first came to Pharaoh to speak in your name, he has mistreated this people and you have done nothing at all to deliver your people. (italics mine.) 

            Many Black faith leaders feel Moses’ frustration. God has, in fact, been manipulated to act as a protector and supporter of white supremacy. Throughout American history, white Christians – in both the North and the South – believed and preached that God was in favor of segregation and against the mixing of the races in any fashion, including education and burial, thus, they preached the rightness not only of segregation but of lynching as well. Many white Christian hailed their God as one who supported and ordained their cultural leanings.

            God looked the other way, it seems, during the violence carried out by whites against Black people during the Civil Rights Movement. In history, God has certainly either looked the other way or refused to see – and stop – the violent desecration and ruination of entire black communities perpetrated by white people who believed Black people did not and should not have the right to vote. “Good Christian” white people resonated with the words of one Colonel Alfred Moore Waddell, who said, as he riled up white people to violent insurrection against black people and the government in Wilmington, North Carolina because the whites resented the power of the Black voting bloc and their considerable presence in state government, “Here in the most quiet and conservative of the original 13 states…we are reduced to the pitiful necessity of choosing whether we will live under the domination of Negroes…” (David Zucchino, The Wilmington Lie, p. 147) Whites in Wilmington did, in fact, succeed in murdering hundreds of Black people in that 1898 insurrection, destroyed Black homes, churches, and communities, and were successful in driving Black people out of office – and keeping them out until the early 1970s.

            As the Black residents of Wilmington saw what was going on, the religious leaders urged them to pray, assuring them that God would hear their prayer and stop the murderous rage of their white brothers, but to no avail. The riot and insurrection went on as planned – and in the end, the whites revised the story to read that it was Black people who had instigated the riot and that they had only retaliated to save their lives and the lives of their families.

            There are many accounts of Black people praying against those who oppressed them, but in spite of the prayers, the attacks and the oppression that is a part of an Empire run by white supremacists have continued.

            What, then, do the oppressed pray? How do the faithful oppressed have conversations with God and what is the desired outcome?

            It spite of the prayers of Black and other oppressed people, white supremacy has not disappeared and is not in danger of doing so. Do we pray for the ability to hold on? Do we pray for new vision and new tactics? Do we pray for new leaders? We have done all of that; we have held on and the nonviolent direct action taught by the Rev. James Lawson and practiced by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., is probably the reason more Black people have not been killed by white supremacists with guns.

            But at the end of the day, what should be the corporate prayer of the faithful oppressed? What should we be praying now, in light of the quest for justice for George Floyd and unprecedented voter suppression laws being created? ? How do faith leaders train their people to handle their hurt, frustration, disappointment and anger over racial oppression that never ceases?

            Surely, there must be an answer and some specific words that can be codified and shared with us all as we wait, with bated breath, to see if a murderous police officer will be punished for what he has done.

Black Faith: A “Pythian Madness”

            James Cone, in his book The Cross and the Lynching Tree, quotes AME Bishop Bishop Daniel Payne who wrote in 1839,

“Sometimes, it seems as though some wild beast had plunged his fangs into my heart, and was squeezing out its life blood. Then I began to question the existence of God and to say, “If he does exist, is he just? If so, why does he suffer one race to oppress the enslave another, to rob them by unrighteous enactments of rights, which they hold most dear and sacred?…Is there no God?”

            Cone writes that W.E.B. DuBois “called black faith a “pythian madness” and “a demonic possession.” In a country where Black people are marginalized and cast aside, many white evangelicals call on their God, which seems quite different from the God on whom Black people have had to call and lean on in order to survive the poisonous fangs of white supremacy.

            This struggle with understanding God’s role and place in helping marginalized people is not new; indeed, Moses questioned God in the same way, challenging God in Exodus 5:22-23:

Then Moses turned again to the Lord and said, “O Lord, why have you mistreated this people? Why did you ever send me? Since I first came to Pharaoh to speak in your name, he has mistreated this people, and you have done nothing at all to deliver your people.”

In spite of that complaint and the pain he was as he wrestled with the “whereness of God,” Moses continued his assignment of leading the Israelites out of captivity, but it was a journey fraught with questions that could not be answered. His faith was, as WEB DuBois would say generations later, a “pythian madness and a demonic possession.”

            Many of us try to pretend that everything is all right when so often, it is not. We cannot see. We cannot hear or even feel “the way” from chaos to peace, from confusion to clarity, from pain to peace. Some of us wail and call out the name of God, but others of us temper our crying to God so that it is a faint whisper. We know the testimonies of others; we have heard them say that when they have looked back, they have seen that God was with them, and so they sip on the memory that brings brief moments of numbing from the pain of not feeling God in their here and now.

            Rep. Adam Kinzinger, who broke from the ranks of the Republican Party to vote for the conviction of the former president, got a letter from his family that said that because he had spoken and acted like he did, he had disappointed his family …and God. The sentence stopped me cold. The God of his family was a God who apparently was all right with the uprising at the Capitol, yes, but was also all right with the white supremacist mind-set and beliefs that were the foundation of that uprising. The God of Kinzinger’s family is, apparently, a God is is not only all right with white supremacy but perhaps created it. 

            It is because of the practice of a religion by some that having faith in this country has a peculiar quality. How can we believe in one who has done “nothing,” as Moses said, “to deliver” the marginalized people in this country? What has been done has been done under pressure and duress, and many who follow the God of Kinzinger’s family would probably say that it would be OK to take away what gains marginalized people have made.

            Cone says that “black people’s struggle with God in white America …left a deep and lasting wound.” Black people have had to “trust and cultivate their own theological imagination,” he says, because the God of the majority of culture did not seem to have the desire to reach out to the marginalized, although God had created them as well.

            Tomorrow begins the season of Lent, a time where we have an opportunity to examine ourselves, including our souls, to see what we must work to get rid of – not just for 40 days but for the rest of our lives – in order to get closer to God. For some of us, that with which we will have to struggle is a troubled faith that is tinged with anger and anxiety because of the toxicity of white supremacy which is ever before us, and which is ever saturating everything that happens in this country.

            We would do well to be honest with God during these 40 days, laying before Her our faith in a way that exposes its tears and shredded seams. We will have to hold onto our faith, in spite of our questions and complaints against it, as did our ancestors, because our faith is the only thing that has kept and will keep us together as we will in a country that refuses to love us, as Doc Rivers said, God notwithstanding.

            Amen and amen.

When What Is Broken Cannot Be Fixed

Sometimes, something is so broken that it cannot be fixed; it must be replaced.

Not long ago, I got into my car and tried to start it up. Nothing happened. So, I figured my battery was dead – puzzling to me because it was fairly new – but that’s the only reason I could figure out why it would not start. I called AAA and the tech tested the battery and said it was fine. Something else was wrong.

He tinkered around a bit and finally figured out that the gear shift wasn’t completely locked in the “Park” position. He was able to move it to “Neutral” and the car started. He said something was wrong but that as long as when I was driving it I kept it in “neutral,” even when I parked it, it would be OK.

I was comforted, because I had a lot to do, and one of the things I was doing at that time was driving Uber. I had lost a couple of clients because of the car, but once I found out what was wrong, I was on my way. I picked up a group of college kids on their way to Central America. We talked and laughed and when we got to the airport, I did what I always did: I put the car in “Park.”

As soon as I did it I knew I was in trouble. I couldn’t move it to “neutral.” Whatever that AAA tech had done (he had finagled something) I could not do. And so I was there, stuck in the airport. I called AAA and they couldn’t do whatever they had done before. I had to have the car towed.  I had been sitting in that space for two hours waiting for the tow truck, only to be told they could do nothing.

I took the car to a mechanic recommended to me by a friend. I had purchased a new gear shift component since that’s what the first AAA person had said was defective. But when the new part was put into the car, it was still impossible to put the car into gear.

The mechanic was puzzled, and so he asked me to give him some time to explore and see what was going on. Several hours later, he called and said, “The gear shift parts are being held together by zip ties,” he said, “and it looks like one of them got loose.”

Zip ties? This was a 2006 car. I had never had any problems, so this was major, but zip ties? The mechanic said that this problem had probably occurred before and it was decided to “fix” it with zip ties.

The part was not fixable, he said. He replaced the old zip ties with new ones and said I should be OK, but I was rattled. The idea that something so vital for the life and operation of the car was being held together with zip ties was scary. The part was not fixable, and a new part was more expensive than the car was worth, and so I had to get a new car.

Sometimes, things that are broken are not fixable. As this nation grapples with the explosion of rage and anger and hurt and grief that is spilling onto our streets and around the world, I keep hearing people say, “we need to heal.”

Yes, we do, but we cannot heal with the toxic, broken system that is the legacy of America still in place. We have been applying zip ties to issues of human rights and human decency since the inception of this country. The zip ties re-worn; we cannot shift ourselves back into “normalcy.” Our foundation needs to be replaced, and only then when the possibility of the same poisonous, degrading, oppressive behaviors and practices never being thrust before us again can we begin to talk about healing. The wounds doled out by the oppressive system have taken all the band-aids, all of the “zip ties” they can handle, and now the oozing of pain will not stop. The system needs to be “done over” so that the glorious words of freedom and justice and liberty for all can be realized.

Nobody ever wants to start over. It is cheaper to “fix” than it is to “replace,” but when replacement is due, it is due. Fixing will no longer work.

Perhaps someone will understand that this nation and its people are at a crisis point that is going to demand more than conversations and task forces and the changing of offensive African American images on syrup bottles and boxes of rice to images that do not remind everyone of the knee that white supremacist practices have had on the necks of all of us – white as well as black – since the Founders put together the Constitution.

The Rev. Dr. James Forbes said, in a recent interview with Bill Moyers, that white people do not even realize all they are missing by refusing to be in community with African Americans, but he said the question must be asked of them, “Haven’t you had enough? Isn’t 400 years of you sucking the lifeblood out of us enough?”

Hopefully, the answer is yes. Hopefully, we can take the zip ties out of the gut of our nation and work to become a nation where all people are valued.

A candid observation …

(c) Susan K Smith