Tuesday, March 18, 2008
Chauncey Devega Says: Yes Virginia, there is a White Church
When I was a younger respectable negro I served as the commentary editor for my college newspaper. There, I had the chance to write all manner of provocative articles in an effort to (and I just learned the phrase at the time) "speak truth to power." I took particular pleasure in upsetting the white students at my small liberal arts institution. I would make them cry, enrage them to the point where I received death threats, and play on their liberal guilt--it was there that I learned about the many erotic possibilities which would potentially come to a racial messiah from the hot and flustered college co-eds who loved their local black radical. Ultimately, I simply enjoyed being the center of attention every Friday when the school paper was published...and attention would indeed come, and it often came when I least expected it.
In one of my more tame pieces I made a simple allusion, a throwaway really, to the fact that Jesus was "black." Here, I meant Jesus was "black" politically--he fought for the little guy, challenged State power, was politically progressive, and defended the weak against the strong. I also meant the historical Jesus, the man, was certainly not white. These were simple facts, written without much preamble or embellishment. Predictably, the reaction to these claims was so powerful and so immediate one would think that I had publicly lambasted the Pope and then killed his dog. I was threatened, verbally abused, and greeted by tears. Even my allies, my sincere supporters didn't understand why I would bring "race" into it. I responded with confusion. How did I bring race into anything? Race and racism are simple facts of life in America, I didn't introduce race to a situation where it wasn't already meaningful and relevant. The "anything" in this case was religion. The anything was the mere idea that I would state a fact in contrary to a fantasy, a deeply held fantasy that religion and faith are somehow immune from these questions of race and justice. I was befuddled, these normally rational, smart, reflective people lost all capacity for common sense when I dared to bring up an inconvenient truth.
It was then that I adopted my mantra to not mix religion and politics, never in my personal life, not in my relationships, and certainly never in my academic work because matters of religion often make rational, intelligent people act like total fools.
Now the Barack-Wright affair--and yes, this is how I believe history books will refer to this most untidy matter--has forced me to break my rule.
During the last week Fox News has transformed itself into the 24 Hour Black Religion Network where every second of every day offers some new morsel of information about Obama and Reverend Wright. Fox News has become so fixated on this issue that I am soon expecting TD Jakes, Reverend Ike, or Creflo Dollar to appear accompanied by praise dancers and interludes from Mahalia Jackson. However, if they could play some of this brother from the ATLAH Church I would be particularly pleased:
What is troubling, but hardly surprising in this matter, is how black folks are once more marked as the "other." The subtext (isn't it even a subtext anymore?) is that the black church is the center for some type of radical politics, that black people are bad citizens and ultimately, Obama is really one of "those blacks" and his mainstream appeal was the result of a sham, an effort to pull the proverbial negro wool over the eyes of "mainstream," i.e. good, white, patriotic Americans. Also, and the black church bears responsibility here as well, this fascination with black churches (which is cultivated by "cultural tours" of black churches like those offered by Trinity in Chicago) reeks of a type of racial voyeurism where black people are the subject of a particularly pernicious type of white spectatorship: look at the black people? Aren't they interesting? How they pray is so "animated"? Isn't the music amazing?...Maybe they will get the spirit and speak in tongues!
This effort by the right-wing to "blacken" Obama ignores some key facts and proceeds from a number of false assumptions. First, we must ask just how unpatriotic, disloyal, out of the "mainstream," or "crazy" are Pastor Wright's positions? Here, this divide speaks to the ways how (some) black people and (many) white people view the world through profoundly different lenses. While we may no longer exist in two worlds "separate, hostile, and unequal," we certainly are often worlds apart.
Let's offer a quick summary:
Not too much crazy there, no? The U.S. has supported authoritarian regimes which committed acts of terror and atrocities against their own people. Why is the idea of "blowback" or as Malcolm X said, "of the chickens coming home to roost" so troubling? On this point, I am reminded of Oprah Winfrey's 9-11 episode where experts explained to soccer moms everywhere that America has enemies, and that America often behaves like an international gangster who is long overdue for retaliation from elements abroad (I guess this is news to some). America has been stained by slavery, Jim Crow, support for state sponsored racial inequality, and continues to have an atrocious record in regards to the justice claims of poor people and people of color. Why is this so controversial? Katrina was a national embarrassment and from a religiously informed perspective that looks to the Bible as providing examples for how righteous societies ought to treat its citizens, and how societies which fail to do so will be punished by God, what is so unsettling or unpatriotic about the idea of divine retribution? How frightening is it that God may "damn" America? How absurd is this notion when one seeks, from a religiously informed perspective, to explain our declining position in the world?
This controversy also speaks to how the black church is a deeply political space, and that black liberation theology is an effort to speak to the particular needs of black people in America. We are not all the same, and any effort to mask how race informs our varied life experiences is naive at best and disingenuous at worst. Moreover, it is a perspective often advanced by those who do not have to deal with the "inconvenience" of racism. The irony in this debacle is that the black church is deeply conservative and supports positions that most political Conservatives, if they were actually honest about their own racial politics and deep animus towards black people, would support. The proposition that black folk can do for ourselves, or perhaps see value in black spaces of community and support, spaces that are not prefaced on assimilation and integration, troubles the Right:
These efforts at self-reliance are then translated into racial separatism. By extension and association, Obama is tarred and feathered--stained by his association with these "radicals," when in reality the positions held by Pastor Wright (and others) are not all too radical. Moreover, why isn't truth seeking the cornerstone of patriotism? Must we lie to ourselves and our children about America and our shared history lest we be castigated as traitors and subversives?
As much as the black church is made the object of spectacle, it is also an opportunity to turn the table. As has often been observed, the hour of prayer remains the most segregated time of the week. If the black church is "political" or "separatist" to any degree, the "white church" exhibits those same traits, and does so in a far more negative fashion. This is scary to some white folk, this challenge to the assumption that "normal" equals "white" and that "whiteness" ought not to be interrogated. But, it is one of the basic perks of white privilege, a type of convenient myopia where one does not have to see the painful or inconvenient.
For example, in America the white church has supported slavery, Jim Crow, the KKK, racial violence, and the political disempowerment of people of color. Yet, we tremble at speaking this truth. At present, the white Church is deeply political. The alliance of the Republican Party and Christian Evangelicals has given us the Bush administration and the Iraq War. The white church, with its Christian Fascism, conflates love of country and God with love of the regime and patriotism:
As further evidence of the political double standard present in the Barack-Wright affair, where is the clarion call against McCain and his affiliation with Pastor John Hagee who called Catholicism a cult?
Why hasn't Bush been called to task for speaking at Bob Jones university, a racist institution that prohibited inter-racial dating?
And black preachers don't have a monopoly on "incendiary" or "crazy" speech as Pat Robertson provides ample evidence:
Along with (reformed racist) Jerry Falwell:
As a secularist, and as a respectable negro American, I am deeply disturbed by this perilous turn in the presidential campaign. Obama, in his stirring speech today didn't throw Pastor Wright under the proverbial bus, but he did do some necessary dancing around the issue. The right-wing will predictably stay on message with attacks on Obama's character and loyalty. Predictably,their loyal sheep will march in lockstep behind these conservative demagogues. Some critics and observers have echoed my concerns about the hypocrisy surrounding the Wright-Obama affair, but unfortunately it has not (yet) become a groundswell.
Sadly, this moment reminds me of Winston Churchill's quote, "never was so much owed by so many to so few." But unfortunately, it is a vocal few on conservative talk radio and Fox News who in their unbridled vitriol, prejudice, and political hostility, have through their attacks on Obama further poisoned our political discourse and potentially hurt so many.