The White Man’s Religion
On Friday September 30, 2016, my neighbor Reginald “J.R.” Thomas was killed in a police encounter. He was a young black man who struggled with mental illness. Those that were close to the incident say that J.R. called 911 afraid that he might hurt himself. The news reported that a family member called 911 for help because J.R. was having a mental break.
Eight police officers were dispatched in response to the 911 call. When they arrived, J.R. is reported to have had a knife in one hand and a fire extinguisher in the other. The officers tasered him, bound him, and beat him to death.
I spent the following Sunday morning on my living room couch arguing with myself. I was scheduled to lead the music at a predominantly white church in a politically conservative town just a few miles east of my place. “I can’t do this today,” I kept repeating to myself looked up at the ceiling.
I knew that my neighbor’s death was unlikely to be mentioned in any way. Even if it were I would probably not be satisfied with it because, when I had been at that very same church on the Sunday after Dylan Roof walked into Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, SC and massacred those gathered for worship there,the pastor at my church tried to talk about how the “deeper” issue — the real issue — was that “this kid gave himself over the evil.”
I was tired of hearing white Christians balk at the chance to name racism, terror, and injustice when they had clearly seen it. It had become clear to me, as I lay on my couch, reviewing the many conversations I’d had that year, that much of the white evangelical church in America is generally not eager to be an ally for racial justice.
At that moment, I began to seriously consider what had been said to me by white evangelical ministers and congregants: that the gospel does not include relief from social pain or political violence, that racism is not a priority to God, that God’s primary concern is the soul and so God is not likely to save people from “earthly” trouble. I began to consider that maybe these white Christians were right.
Perhaps God would not get involved. If that were true, I thought, then it could only be because there is no God. It would be too convenient for God to be both real and to only care about the things that white people are care about. If the Christian “God” only shared the concerns of white people, then white people must have invented Him.
My heart sank as I continued to add it all up: that those who shipped my ancestors to the Caribbean as cargo claimed to do so — in part — in the service of God. That one of the first slave ships was named “Jesus.” That those who lynched their black neighbors cited religious reasons for for doing so. That my neighbors today are telling me that their religion excuses them from seeking justice for their black neighbors. The most obvious sum of these reflections was that Christianity is for white people.
The clock was still ticking. I knew that if I were to make it to church on time that I had better get off the couch. But I was paralyzed at the thought that the faith I had loved for so long could possibly be for whites only.
Who is this LORD?
The Pharaoh that Moses confronts was not the same king from the beginning of Exodus who initially enslaved the Hebrews. This Pharaoh was heir to that king who built the slave system. He was part of a new generation of leadership, conserving the oppressive social arrangement they inherited from the previous regime.
The word translated into English as “LORD” is a personal name: YHWH. (It’s ok. You’re not supposed to pronounce it. But you can replace it with “One-Who-Is” if you like) Before Moses returned to Egypt, not even the Hebrewswould have recognized this name.
…God spoke to Moses, telling him, “I am YHWH. I appeared to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob as God Almighty [El-Shaddai], but I did not reveal My name YHWH to them” (Exodus 6:3).
This name was so revered that it was taboo for ancient Hebrews to pronounce. Only ancient priests are said to have been allowed to pronounce it and — even then — they only did so when a certain prayer was recited in the Temple. One ancient rabbi even wrote that a person who utters God’s name “has no share in The World to Come .”
YHWH speaks of this name as a secret — not a nickname, but a designation that only those in a certain kind of relationship with God are privy to. God gives that special name to the ghetto children. So it’s not surprising that the king of Egypt would have to ask, “Who is this YHWH [that you speak of]?”
I’ve mentioned before that in ancient Egyptian culture pharaohs were often closely associated with the gods. They sometimes would receive a new name at their coronation by incorporating the name of a patron Egyptian deity into their own. Ancient Egyptian art often portrays the royals among the gods, and sometimes they are depicted in divine attire . Basically, many ancient Egyptians imagined that “God” was a member of the Egyptian elite.
As members of the elite, the Egyptian gods were thought to have shared elite interests and to have sponsored a social order that conveniently and disproportionately benefited the powerful. As far as Pharaoh was concerned,there was no divine representative for the Hebrews their pantheon. Later in this story, YHWH will eventually show that all of those so-called gods — who were so conveniently invested in the empire — must have been invented by the empire.
They Know His Special Name
In hindsight, I can see clearly the wall that I had run up against that Sunday when I almost lost my faith. It is as journalist Megan Kelly once stated on live television: “Jesus is a white man.” Many white evangelicals imagine Jesus in that way. That is not a new habit of imagination. The men that ferried my ancestors to the Caribbean imagined that Jesus looked like one of them, that God was basically a bigger version of one of them — a divine sponsor of human trafficking, torture, and genocide.
If you don’t think imagining God as one of the privileged is a problem, seriously consider: Do you think that those men would have named their slave ship “Jesus” if they had imagined that Jesus was African?
The color of Jesus’ skin is not the point. The point is that imagining God as one of the privileged — whatever the marks of privilege may be — often leads to the suffering of the unprivileged. Perhaps that is why God does not identify with the privileged throughout scripture.
When God appears in this story, it is not among the elite and powerful. God is not even found within the borders of Egypt’s great society in this story. Instead, God is living out in the desert — the margins of the margins — with the hebrews of Hebrews. God boasts about friendships with nomads and vagrants like Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. God shares God’s secrets with the children of the ghetto. They know God’s special name, while the powerful have never even heard of Him.
Like the Israelites must have related to the Egyptian gods, it seems that many white American Christians worship a different “God” than I do. It is less obvious for some to see the distinction since we use the same names and titles: God, Jesus, Lord, Father, etc. Our prayers, expectations, and conversations — however — suggest that we are not imagining the same Person when we address “God.”
I do not believe in the God who is “not concerned” with politics when those politics hurt God’s children — when those politics include racial profiling, police brutality, mass incarceration, and more. I have no interest in knowing the God that would have appreciated seeing “Jesus” on the side of a slave ship. I have no desire to know the God that slave owners offered their captives: the God who demanded the imprisoned submit to abuse but never called their abusers to repent.
If America’s “God” is too American to critique the nation’s leaders and condemn national injustices, then there’s a good chance that we have an idol on our hands. Any “God” who always shares our interests, values, and priorities should be suspect. That could not possibly be the same God that revealed Godself to the Hebrews in Goshen’s ghetto.
I was able to reconcile myself to the faith that morning on my couch by recognizing that the God described in this story — the God that calls kings to repent and advocates for the margin-dwellers — is the only God that I know. But when Black Americans talk about this God, too many white evangelicals echo Pharaoh’s question: “Who is this Lord?”
Please feel free to share this article. Want to make sure you don’t miss an entry in this series? Get the latest delivered directly to your inbox by clicking here.
- On God’s Name: Jacobs, Louis. The Jewish Religion: A Companion. Oxford University Press, 1995.
- On the role of Egyptian kings in ancient Egyptian civic life: Mieroop, Marc Van de. “Chapter 2: Ideological Foundations of the New State.” A History of Ancient Egypt, Wiley-Blackwell, 2011, p. 36.
For Further Exploration:
- On Jesus the Slave Ark: “Jesus of Lubeck” the First Slave Ship Sent to South America
- On White Jesus: Christianity Today Explores the Consequences of How We Picture Jesus