On the Question of America’s “Soul”

            We are consistently hearing politicians and pundits talk about how work is being done to save America’s soul. Biden said it (https://www.whitehouse.gov/briefing-room/speeches-remarks/2022/09/01/remarks-by-president-bidenon-the-continued-battle-for-the-soul-of-the-nation/), the former president has said and continues to say it (https://www.nytimes.com/2020/10/17/us/biden-trump-soul-nation-country.html).

            The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King said it, saying that the saving of community was key to saving this country’s soul (https://reformedjournal.com/to-save-the-soul-of-america-martin-luther-king-jr-and-the-renewal-of-america-today/) Historian Jon Meacham wrote a book about it: (https://www.npr.org/2018/05/02/607704116/soul-of-america-makes-sense-of-americas-present-by-examining-its-past)

            And yet, in spite of lofty words and ambitions to save what we call “democracy,” America’s soul is revealing itself as a spiritual sore that cannot be healed because the toxic cells that were released at the founding of this country have metastasized to the point where nothing can be done. America’s soul is terminally ill.

            Some would argue. Those on the right who see the takeover by people who believe in Fascism and who do not want democracy to survive, say that things will be all right if America goes back to “what she was.”

            What was that, exactly?

            It was a country that sanctioned the enslavement of Black people from the beginning, using Black labor to build it into an economic behemoth. It was a country where law enforcement was formed primarily to dissuade enslaved Africans from fleeing their enslavement. (see Carol Anderson’s book, The Second: Race and Guns in a Fatally Unequal America). It was a country where even presidents enslaved people, and pastors preached in support of it. 

            It was a country where the concept of “liberty and justice for all” was a farce from the beginning; the founders and those who came after them never believed that all people deserved liberty, justice, or full American citizenship with the rights that citizenship required.

            It was a country where patriarchy was the rule and where white women were minimalized while Black women were brutalized, with white men using the excuse that their violence against Black men was justified based on their belief that Black men raped white women, while the fact was that the white men were raping Black women and getting away with it.

            It was a country where white settlers thought it just and right to exterminate the lives of Indigenous Americans whose land this was – so that they could make this a country for white people; it was a land where the whites who killed others believed they were doing the work and the will of God.

            It was a country where “law and order” have most often meant keeping Black people “in their place,” forbidding them by law to learn to read and write or even to visit libraries, and it was a country where little Black children seldom finished school or enjoyed full days in class because the law said they could only go to school a few hours a day – less in planting and harvesting seasons – so they could work the fields and thus help white people live comfortably while they were forced into abject poverty.

            It was a country where the laws caused and supported the creation of Black ghettos,(see Richard Rothstein’s The Color of Law) a country where Black people who had served in the military were denied access to loans that white soldiers received upon completion of their time of service that helped them purchase homes. It was a country where “the law” often looked the other way as Black soldiers came home and were immediately attacked and killed – while still in uniform – by white men who wanted them to never forget who this country said they were.

            It was a country where medical experiments were carried out on Black people – without their consent and often without anesthesia – to perfect instruments and treatments that would later serve masses of white people. (https://www.npr.org/sections/thetwo-way/2018/04/17/603163394/-father-of-gynecology-who-experimented-on-slaves-no-longer-on-pedestal-in-nyc) (https://eji.org/news/remembering-black-veterans-and-racial-terror-lynchings/)

            So, America’s “soul” was infected by a deadly virus called white supremacy while it was still in the womb; the country was born with a terminal disease. Those who believe being terminally ill is not the case – because they do not believe that white supremacy is a dreaded social disease but is, rather, the preferred way to live, believe that the “soul” of America will be safe once all of the work done to protect the lives of all people has been undone.

            America’s division is so complete that even the definition and understanding of her “soul” cannot be agreed upon.

            America’s “soul” as defined by both sides is non-existent. With that in mind, it is unclear how it can be “saved.”

Look What They’ve Done to Christianity

            I wrote before that I get a bad feeling when I hear people say “Christian.” 

The Christianity I was taught in Sunday School is nothing like I have seen Christianity being practiced – now or even in history.

            I have been singing, for some reason, “Look What They’ve Done to my Song.” The words are sticking with me: 

Look what they’ve done to my song, ma
Look at what they’ve done to my song, ma
It was the only thing I could do half right
And it’s turning out all wrong, ma, look
What they’ve done to my song

            Those who have been calling themselves “Christian” have for the longest time been assaulting the religion of the Christ. While they brag about being “Christian,” their actions tell of allegiance to a force that has nothing to do with the lessons of Jesus the Christ.

            We had grown used to it in primarily white, conservative, evangelical denominations and congregations, but now those who call themselves “Christian” nationalists have come front and center stage.

These people have a religion – i.e., they have a set of beliefs to which they adhere – and they believe in and worship a superhuman controlling power, as those who practice religion must do. But their “superhuman controlling powers are money and power. They believe in the power of individuals, not communities. They believe in a militant and muscular God, a God who apparently supports the “isms” of this world, including racism and sexism, militarism and materialism and extremism. They believe in and support the “phobias” so many people relate to – including Islamophobia, Transphobia and homophobia. The nationalists are not devoid of beliefs and it is important to note that, but though many worship in church buildings and are in “Christian” denominations, their beliefs bear little resemblance to the religion I have come to know as “Christianity.”

            To be honest, a study of Christianity shows that it has been far away from the fundamental beliefs taught by Jesus for some time. God the parent and Jesus the son were made to be the proponents of conquest and domination, not liberation, justice, and freedom for all whom God created. The religion of Jesus was about community and relationship building between people who would naturally not communicate with each other, but those values were a minimized component of the religion that evolved from Jesus’ time.

            Central to this alternate view of Christianity is the need for violence; this violence has been central to the foundation of Christianity as we know it for thousands of years. The belief is that Christianity was set up as the army of God, sent by God to conquer nations and peoples. Neither the scope nor the depth of the brutality meted out to people seemed to bother those who aligned themselves with the belief that it was God’s will that they dominate all people and all nations. Walter Wink noted that violence “is the first resort in conflicts.” Ironically, he said, “we learned to trust the Bomb to grant us peace.” This violence is good, they believe. It is called “redemptive violence.”

            The ideology of this religion (nationalism) of conquest has been damaging and painful to so many people who have flocked to churches looking for a good, kind, accepting, forgiving God. On the contrary, they have found – in the most devout church-going people – hatred, prejudice, judgment, and a belief in the “rightness” of their tendency to tear people down. In their quest for domination, using violence as a means to get it, they are doing God’s will. All of us have received lessons of the oppressor’s religion; all of us, or maybe many of us, grew up singing, “Onward Christian Soldiers,” and have not given those lyrics a second thought. As long as the masses of people have not thought about the theology they’ve been taught and the implications of it as well as its contradiction of what Jesus taught, they have practiced their religion with little difficulty. It did not, or has not, bothered them that their practice of religion has turned many people off and away from God and from church. Those who continued to go to churches that adhered to this kind of bigoted, violence-based religion, suffered and struggled with their questions; those who did not believe as they did simply stayed away.

            But now there’s a move on for there to be “one religion” for this country – that of the religious nationalists. As they work to erode the rights of nearly everyone, there is little pushback against what they are doing. There is a feeling of self-righteousness as they, for example, push for “prayer” in schools – but what they’re not saying is that it is highly unlikely that the “prayers” of any religion other than that of the nationalists will be acceptable. They have said that there needs to be one religion in this country and that religion is nationalism. (https://www.cnn.com/2021/11/15/politics/michael-flynn-one-religion/index.html)

            The religion of Jesus was one that liberated people, one that taught people that God, their creator, wanted them to be free from laws that were unjust and oppressive and one that taught them that they were loved, regardless of who they were, what they had done, or their social class or race. Jesus’ power was what it was because his religion was one that embraced all people, including “the least of these.” His teachings taught that all whom God created were precious in God’s sight and worthy of being treated as such.

            But the religion of the nationalists, and actually the Christianity that has historically upheld and practiced bigotry, hatred, racism, sexism, and all other forms of judgment against certain people, contradicts what Jesus taught. Nationalists seek power and control, and they worship capitalism more than they honor and respect God. Their greed cancels out their capacity for grace, and their arrogance makes them unable to have “eyes that see” that Jesus said we should all strive to have.

            I cannot see where the Jesus of the Bible would condone the hatred and violence, and the elevation of the former president to the status of a god, more important than the lives of the masses of people in this country and their well-being. They should stop using “Christian” to describe their religion, because in principle and by Jesus’ own tenets, their religion is not what Jesus came to earth to bring.

            Better that we are honest and call nationalism what it is: a religion that has as its core beliefs violence, domination, and control. That is not the religion of Jesus the Christ.

© Susan K Smith

What Are We Celebrating?

            I wonder what we are really celebrating this July 4 holiday weekend.

            My stomach turned this morning as I caught a whiff of Ray Charles singing, “America the Beautiful.” 

America, America

God shed His grace on thee!

And crown thy good with brotherhood

From sea to shining sea!

            What “good” are we talking about? What was it in the past and what is it now? Is the “good” government – including its highest court – taking away the rights of American citizens? Yes, the overturn of Roe v Wade happened, taking away the right of a woman to carry or terminate a pregnancy. Women are not safe; if they spontaneously abort a fetus, they may be accused of murder and have to stand trial. If they are raped, the government – supported by the high court – will insist that they have that baby. There’s so much that is wrong with this ruling. I found myself last evening praying that my daughter, who has not yet been pregnant, does not end up having an ectopic pregnancy, or some other life-threatening condition – because this government has ruled that she cannot do anything that would save her life. It made me shudder …

            But this is not new. In the 19th century and going into the 20th, abortions were illegal and those who died trying to abort their fetuses were labeled criminals. (https://www.newyorker.com/culture/personal-history/my-grandmothers-desperate-choice)

The whole situation is so scary that I can hardly think about it.

            But there’s more. The erosion of voting rights – again – is equally as painful. Voter suppression laws promise to make voting more difficult than ever for a large swath of the population. The right of women to vote may soon be attacked in this assault on the most primary right of American citizenship; some say women “may not need the right to vote.” (https://www.news-leader.com/story/news/politics/2021/10/22/ann-coulter-says-women-shouldnt-have-right-vote-19th-amendment-missouri-state-university/8528256002/)  That sentiment was expressed by John Adams in the aftermath of the writing of the Constitution. (https://shec.ashp.cuny.edu/items/show/1646) , and historically, many men felt that women “were not made to vote.” (https://www.theatlantic.com/science/archive/2019/07/womens-suffrage-nineteenth-amendment-pseudoscience/593710/)

The Court ruled that those not read their Miranda rights upon arrest cannot sue law enforcement for damages. ( https://www.sacbee.com/opinion/editorials/article263028058.html)

The Court ruled that people have the right to carry weapons in public, striking down a law in New York that forbade people from carrying weapons outside of their homes. That ruling comes even as many lawmakers are calling for teachers to be armed following the latest mass shooting that occurred in Uvalde, Texas. Some say that teachers should be armed and that students should be trained in gun use as a graduation requirement. (https://www.firstcoastnews.com/article/news/regional/florida/politician-wants-marksmanship-to-be-a-required-class-in-every-florida-public-high-school/77-a721adbe-a0d0-4e08-b747-4f92631e6b11). (https://www.nytimes.com/2022/06/23/us/supreme-court-ny-open-carry-gun-law.html)  

The right to peacefully assemble is being attacked in Ohio. (https://chroniclet.com/news/281560/gop-bill-would-target-ohio-protesters-with-terrorism-law/) The separation between church and state was weakened by a ruling by the Court that said private religious schools can receive public funding – a victory for those who formed private and religious schools to avoid having to comply with the ruling that separate but equal is unconstitutional in the 1954 Brown v Board of Education case. (https://www.csmonitor.com/USA/Justice/2022/0621/Supreme-Court-ruling-Maine-s-religious-schools-can-get-public-money)

So, what are we doing? What are we celebrating? The rights of all of us are being attacked, eroded, and taken away. People fought in wars to protect the rights of Americans. Admittedly, those rights were never fully intended for Black and Brown and Jewish people, not for immigrants or Muslims or Jews – but the fact is, people in all of those categories fought in America’s wars because they believed in the principles of the US Constitution.

Who is going into this holiday feeling good and safe and secure about being an American in America? What is being celebrated? The country is moving into a fascist state, and that move is supported by a lot of people who do not yet realize that they, too, will eventually be affected by this erosion of rights. If all of us are not free, none of us are free, as Emma Lazarus noted in 1883, a statement quoted over and over again by people including Maya Angelou, Fannie Lou Hamer, and the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

This is a strange time for everyone – even for those who do not yet realize it.

And that’s a sad and true reality.

The Day Before Thanksgiving, 2021

            It is the day before Thanksgiving, and Black people, not only in the United States but all over the world, are holding a vigil, praying for justice in the killing of Ahmaud Arbery.

            Arbery is the 25-year-old unarmed Black man who was followed, harassed, and shot to death by three white men who decided they didn’t like it that he was running in a predominantly white neighborhood in 2020.

            The jury deciding their fate is made up of 11 white people, and one Black. (https://www.usatoday.com/in-depth/news/nation/2021/11/07/ahmaud-arbery-trial-jury-what-we-know/6269841001/)

            And this trial is happening in Georgia.

            In a trial that ended last week, Black people were not surprised that Kyle Rittenhouse, the young white teen who traveled to Kenosha, Wisconsin because he heard about protests going on in response to the shooting of Jacob Blake by police officers was completely exonerated. From the outset of that trial, as the judge ruled that the two men who were killed – white men, mind you – could not be called victims, Black people knew we were on the battlefield on injustice once again. The judge seemed unimpressed and was unmoved by the fact that Rittenhouse had traveled to this city, with his gun, and according to reports was the aggressor of the two men he killed. They had guns, but they did not attempt to shoot Rittenhouse. It was Rittenhouse who opened fire and then walked through the streets carrying his AR-47, unbothered by police.

            He said he was defending himself. That is always the go-to defense. All a white person has to say is “I was in fear for my life” and he/she generally gets off. In this case, it wasn’t Black people who were posing a threat, but white sympathizers, and that fact apparently gave the court justification for Rittenhouse’ actions. From what reports I read, one of the victims used a skateboard to try to knock the gun out of Rittenhouse’s hand as he aimed it at them.

            It seems that the now-dead were trying to defend and protect themselves.

            But we knew. We knew from the spirit of that trial. We knew because of the rancidly racist spirit of this country that Rittenhouse would get off.  He was released and is being hailed as a hero. The former president called him a “nice young man,” and several Republican members of Congress are supposedly considering him a good candidate to be a congressional intern.

            As we awaited that verdict, we exhaled. We swallowed the all-too-familiar lump in our throats that comes every time a Black person is shot and killed and the justice system – supported by a community of white people – does not care. Rittenhouse’s victims were white, but they were on the wrong side of the racial divide.

            But here we are, not a full week later, waiting to see what this jury will do. In spite of a brilliant case argued by the prosecution, the attorneys for the three white men have played the race card unashamedly. They have gone so far as to claim that their clients have been intimidated by the presence of Black pastors sitting in the courtroom in support of Arbery’s family. (https://www.cnn.com/2021/11/11/us/ahmaud-arbery-trial-defense-attorney-black-pastors/index.html)

            The message is clear: the attorneys for the white men who killed the unarmed Black man are the victims. It is a message that will resonate with a huge swath of the white community.

            When we as Black people have yet another one of these cases floating around, the years of internalized trauma caused both by racialized violence and a lack of justice take their toll. The stress is almost unbearable, as is the pre-verdict anxiety. We pray- certainly we pray because that is all we have been able to do as we challenge the systemic injustice of this country which is a part of “who we are” in spite of people saying that the history of our racial rot and the stench from it is not who we are. We pray, but we wonder about the presence of God. We, like Gideon about whom we read in the Hebrew scriptures, wonder where God is and to the statement that some will offer that “God is good,” we lean toward asking God to clarify what God’s “goodness” looks like for Black people.

            Meanwhile, we learn that for many whites, God is not about justice for all people, but is concerned about justice for people in power. God, and God’s son Jesus, are “strongmen,” and as such have little time for the whimpering of people against whom power wields its power. Many believe that “Jesus didn’t come to take sides. Jesus came to take over.” ( Jeff Sharlet. The Family) Therefore, their Jesus approved of the attempt to take down the government, and Jesus is in support of a justice system which protects the rights of the wealthy and powerful and does all he can to keep them there.

            So it is against powers and principalities which do not care one iota about the injustice that we wrestle with as we wait for this verdict. Those who feast on their belief in their right to take down Black people and who do so with impunity because they know the chances of them being held accountable are slim to none are waiting for an acquittal so they can wave their Confederate flags honoring another white supremacist victory. They do not care that a Black mother is grieving, that a Black community is sitting on edge, and that Black children are understanding – again – that being Black in America makes one a hated and easy target.

            So yes, on this day before Thanksgiving, we are holding vigil. We are muttering prayers and softly humming hymns that bring some relief from the stress of being Black in this country. According to Sharlet, the so-called Christians who lift up the name of Jesus do so as an acknowledgement of Jesus being one of the first “strongmen” in this country. They believe he was a capitalist and that he sought to push capitalism as the principle we ought all to follow. Their Jesus, or what Sharlet calls “the American Jesus,” is not concerned with the cries of people who have never known justice, fairness, or full rights as American citizens. 

            This Jesus is no more concerned about justice for Ahmaud Arbery than were the pilgrims who landed here in the 1600s and decided that it was their godly duty to take out Indigenous Americans, who were here long before white people stepped out of their ships.

            We hold vigil, and we pray. It is what we have had to do – and have to do, still, in order to survive in a country that is content to use us but remains totally uninterested in treating us as human beings who desire justice like any white person.

            A candid observation…

Will Racism in this Country Ever be Gone?

Someone asked me recently if racism will ever be gone from this country.

After pausing, I said, “I doubt it.”

I have watched the venom called racism bubble up and spill over into every aspect of our lives over the past four years. It was always there; its bubbling up just indicated that there had been enough holes made in the veneer of respectability and tolerance for the venom to spill out.

It has been awful and will get even worse. Those who have lived in their own quiet halls and hells stuffed with their resentment of Black people have come out. Some are calling for civil war. One teacher said to her class that if it weren’t for the U.S. Constitution, Black students would be her “field slaves. (https://www.nbcnews.com/news/us-news/north-carolina-teacher-accused-telling-black-students-they-could-be-n1281164). White parents see nothing wrong with their children calling Black children “nigger,” and worry instead that if their children are taught too much Black history, it will teach them to hate their white skin. (https://www.chalkbeat.org/2021/5/18/22441106/critical-race-theory-teaching-about-racism). They put their complaints within the arguments against teaching children Critical Race Theory – which is a course taught in college – saying that they don’t want anything taught that makes white people look bad; it is divisive, they say. (https://www.brookings.edu/blog/fixgov/2021/07/02/why-are-states-banning-critical-race-theory/).

Meanwhile, we who are Black continue to struggle against oppressive practices and policies that have always been a barrier for us to enjoy full American citizenship.

It is difficult to accept or even to listen to these complaints; it is infuriating to hear white parents talk about how they don’t want even the story of Ruby Bridges, who integrated the William Frantz Elementary School in 1959 and was made to sit in a classroom by herself for a year – just because she was Black, or to read Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” that he wrote during the Civil Rights Movement of the 60s.

They don’t want their children to learn about how “law enforcement” lynched Black people just because they could; they don’t want their children to learn how Black people built this country; they don’t want their children to learn how Black men who fought in this country’s wars were ineligible for many of the veteran benefits afforded to white men – just because they were Black.

They have concocted a god who supports white supremacy, a god who will not condemn them for what their race has done. Many of their preachers uphold the belief that white supremacy is of god and from god, and some argued during the 60s that to fight for the civil (and human) rights of Black people was to put their own salvation in jeopardy.

Despite using the name “Christian” in their goings-on, the truth is nothing that many of these people practice and ascribe to is in alignment with what Jesus the Christ taught. Jesus’ strength, or a big part of it, was his capacity to include and embrace all people. His message was that God wanted community, not chaos, and that all people were worthy of being in community. Racism and the support of white supremacy – which includes not only racism but sexism as well – was not a part of his message, not a part of the “Good News,” so when I hear rabid racists declare that they are Christian, my very soul recoils. The late Rev. CT Vivian said it best, “You cannot be a racist and be a Christian.”

Using the name of God to rubber-stamp hatred and bigotry, and to effect policies that are so detrimental to so many people, is offensive to me. It feels like a violation of the commandment, “Thou shall not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain.” Using the name of Jesus to justify racial hatred is like spreading a deadly rumor.

What I see is a group of people who are disgruntled with their own privilege; though they bristle when it is mentioned that they have privilege, the truth is that they feel like their privilege has been affected and compromised by too many Black people “getting too much.” Instead of hearts filled with the type of agape love preached by the Christ, their hearts seem to be filled with this resentment, which feeds their hatred for and paranoia about the progress that Black people have made in spite of everything that has put in place to prevent it. Their belief in their superiority has kept them afloat even when they have internally known that that claim is bogus; what they have always been able to do is fall back on their go-to “blessed assurance,” “at least I’m not Black.”

Jesus the Christ says to love those who persecute you. And forgive them. Those lessons have probably kept Black people alive in spite of the heinous treatment they/we have endured because the people who hate us have had access to friendly and biased courts, police departments, and policies. They have had – and have used – weapons of mass social destruction. Black people have held on and remained on the battlefield because the lessons of love and forgiveness work; they replace feelings of hatred with the spirit of God that the world did not give and which the world cannot take away.

But this fight is exhausting. White people want a civil war; I would guess that many want Black people – and all of the immigrants of color whom they do not like – to be put “in their place” and thus, “Make America great again.” We as Black people move and live knowing that there is no entity that protects us – not the police, not the lawmakers (who are actually lawbreakers), and certainly not the courts. We move and love knowing that the only peg on which to hang our hope is the belief that Jesus the Christ hears us and will continue to strengthen us. Our refusal to run and crumble will only feed the rabid anger and resentment of white people, whose privilege is not enough to make them whole.

Belief in their supremacy because of their race has damaged their spirits, but they are not willing to admit it and therefore, will not be healed. A problem cannot be fixed unless and until it is acknowledged, and our white brothers and sisters are unwilling to do neither.

Racism in this country will not end, then, because that unwillingness to admit the problems is blocking the healing. The whole world knows about America’s illness and has used it to get into our lives and interfere with our government. It is happening now.

And it will not end well.

A candid observation …