The Baptist theologian James William McClendon once reported a story about Clarence Jordan, the founder of an interracial community called Koinonia Farm. Jordan, who described his community as a “demonstration plot” for the Kingdom of God, asked his brother, Robert, to assist him in the struggle against the racial injustices of the Jim Crow South. Robert was keenly aware of the community’s hardships: Local citizens boycotted the farm, the Ku Klux Klan bombed the produce stands, and ominous letters flooded the mailbox. The cost weighed heavily on him.
“Clarence, I can’t do that,” Robert said, declining his brother’s request. “I follow Jesus, Clarence, up to a point.”
“Could that point by any chance be—the cross?” Clarence replied.
“That’s right. I follow him to the cross, but not on the cross. I’m not getting myself crucified.”
Today we find ourselves in the cleft between Clarence’s invitation and Robert’s refusal. White Christianity in America is mounting a breach that’s too wide to straddle. A house that sits on a fault line will crumble, forcing those who have lived in it to leap the gap to one side or the other.
This predicament is common to the entire cosmos, a certain theological reading would have it—this is the stage on which God’s apocalyptic incursion births a new Adam. And this cosmic dualism—old age/new age, old Adam/new Adam—gives rise to an ethical dualism. Either we participate in the suffering service of Jesus Christ, our tradition tells us, or we don’t. Either we’ll follow him on the cross, or we won’t. At this juncture of the ages, resurrection life is hidden and revealed in our cruciform service to the least of these, and everything else is in league with Sin and Death. There is no third way. There is no straddling the chasm.
The election of Donald Trump to the presidency of the United States is a moment of reckoning for white Christianity. According to the exit polls, approximately 81 percent of white evangelicals voted for a man whose campaign was fueled by demagoguery, Islamaphobia, the exploitation of racial animus, and the criminalization of his political opponent.
Trump has incited violence at his rallies, expressed desire to commit war crimes, and re-inserted coded racial language into the social lexicon (“law and order”). He denies the reality of climate change, flirts with the idea of forcing Muslims to register, plans to deport undocumented immigrants by the millions, and picked a running mate whose hostility toward the LGBTQ community is stunning. He effectively promised to hand over “all these kingdoms” if evangelicals fell down and worshipped him, and they chose a mighty lion over the peaceable lamb whose power is manifested in weakness.
Back in July, episcopal priest and theologian Fleming Rutledge claimed that the status confessionis was upon us. She was right. This Latin term, often associated with the Confessing Church’s opposition to the Third Reich, describes a moment during which the essence of the Gospel is at stake.
It declares that the mistreatment of aliens is an affront to divine precepts, and that building walls interferes with the baptismal communion that transcends borders. Racial provocation is antithetical to the new humanity created in the flesh of Christ, and the principality of whiteness should be resisted with the full armor of God. Love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control are among the fruits of the Spirit, but what we find in Donald Trump are works of the flesh: sexual immorality, licentiousness, strife, jealousy, anger, quarrels, and envy. Most troubling of all, the president-elect and his cabinet pose a threat to the most vulnerable among us—the ones we’re called to serve: the widow, the orphan, the hungry, the naked, the prisoner and the stranger.
Despite claims to the contrary, the ascension of Donald Trump is not an American aberration, but a particular iteration of empire’s loathsome cruelty. Indeed, “Trumpism” is not a phenomenon unto itself, nor is it merely a symptom of party ideology, cultural polarization, or the implosion of establishment politics. Rather, it’s an extraction of a deep-seated desire that has been at the core of the American experiment all along—namely, the mastery of black, brown, and indigenous bodies. This quest for mastery is often manifested in ways that make it difficult to locate, embedding itself in systems of class and economics and even geography, which illustrates the insidious nature of white supremacy.
But when white nationalists and members of the KKK are galvanized by the racially tinged rhetoric of an autocrat who wins the presidential election, that’s a good indication that the implicit logic of American imperialism are becoming explicit. This beast is rising out of the sea for all to behold.
His number is 666.
He has always been there. He finds covert ways to carry out his mission, but there are times when the beast steps fully into the light, making it easier to discern allegiances. These moments accentuate the vast chasm between a theology of the cross and a theology of glory, and it is our responsibility to expose the latter’s deceit.
A theology of glory, said Martin Luther, calls evil good and good evil. It prefers strength to weakness and wisdom to folly, and it orchestrates a grand collusion between Christianity and the powers of darkness. It gets into bed with the strongman rather than plundering his house, and it uses the Lord’s name in vain every time it ascends the pulpit. In Donald Trump’s America, a theology of glory is bad news for immigrants, Muslims, people of color, women, the disabled, and members of the LGBTQ community. It is not good news. It is not the Gospel.
If the status confessionis is truly upon us, then a theology of the cross must be proclaimed with greater urgency than has ever been required in many of our lifetimes. It will require, at minimum, a public repudiation of the false gospels that bolster violence, racism, ableism, misogyny, Islamophobia, homophobia and transphobia. Preachers must do the work of unmasking the principalities and powers that animate these false gospels, and the church must embody an alternative social reality that counters the perception that this election was a referendum on the character and integrity of God’s people.
Quite possibly, bearing the cross might mean opening our homes to immigrants, confronting our racist uncles at Thanksgiving dinner, taking to the streets, and putting our bodies on the line. Following Jesus to the cross won’t cut it. We must follow him on the cross.
As McClendon tells the story, Robert’s denial of crucifixion elicited a candid response from his brother:
Then I don’t believe you’re a disciple. You’re an admirer of Jesus, but not a disciple of his. I think you ought to go back to the church you belong to, and tell them you’re an admirer, not a disciple.
“Well now,” Robert replied, “if everyone who felt like I do did that, we wouldn’t have a church, would we?”
“The question,” Clarence said, “is, ‘Do you have a church?’”
Do we have a church?