The Year in Religion: A Ray of Hope Amid the Usual Fecklessness

Taking my cue from the revised pater noster commended by His Holiness, I begin by asking that God not let me fall into the powerful temptation to superimpose my own characteristic gloom on the news at hand. It’s always a challenge for me not to play Diogenes, but I must try. At the very least, I will end this piece on a hopeful note.

I can’t avoid beginning with a huge problem, however: one that has to do with the widespread religious misreading of the historical moment we face. It seems to me that too many well-meaning faith leaders do not see, or cannot see, that Trumpism amounts to an epiphenomenon. The underlying phenomenon here is patriarchal white supremacy joined to economic violence from above: a toxic combination that has tainted American soil, drenching it in the blood of innocents, from the time the European colonial project was first launched. What some call the Trumpocalypse simply reveals more fully the cancer that was already there, that was always there, and that is always and ever metastasizing.

How so many of today’s religious progressives still treat Trumpism as something altogether unprecedented doesn’t augur well in respect to their possible usefulness in forging a different future. A reasonable test for usefulness: Would they be pumped up and ready to fight the powers and principalities if, say, John Kasich were now in the Oval Office? Or Marco Rubio? Or Hillary Clinton? Methinks that they would stand down and console themselves that, despite various unresolved wrinkles in American political culture, the ethical foundations of the Republic remain sound.

Patriarchal white supremacy is plainly not a malignancy that will be cured by hashtags, by rhetorical resistance, or by symbolic protests that basically amount to saying “Not My President.” Yet a great many of our progressive religious leaders have offered a much-too-thin rhetorical response during the year now ending — a response much too fixated on the epiphenomenon, as though today’s naked expressions of white nationalism can somehow be separated from the longer career of white supremacy.

Making a show of their ethical colors, liberal faith leaders have organized and participated in routinized rituals of personal purification that do absolutely nothing to make the slightest dent in structural oppression. Not all, of course: to say that would be unfair. But far too many figures in what I will persist in calling the Religion-Industrial Complex have set the bar for “prophetic resistance” at an embarrassingly low level.

To be sure, scads of liberal faith leaders have readily signed on to efforts to curb gun violence and to call out the bigotry in Trump’s travel ban and his deportation/wall-building schemes. But this is a mostly symbolic “me too” response (no offense here to a powerful #MeToo movement that arose with zero help from the religious quarter). The same with campaigns on climate change, homophobia, and sustained effective work against our thoroughly racist criminal in-justice system: banners waving, the religious platoon comes late to the march and is never on the front lines.

In my view it’s not possible to be in any way prophetic without directing critical insight to the links between race and gender oppressions and the overall political economy we inhabit. For anyone with a liberated faith consciousness, there can legitimately be no shrinking from the existential fight against corporate domination of our politics at every level: the plutocratic agenda.

Without a deeper systemic critique, progressive faith-rooted activism remains ineffective and episodic. To take a current example, it has been heartening to see some faith groups rally at the 11th hour against the horrific tax bill that the 1 percent’s legislative cupbearers have just rammed through the Congress. But it would be so much better if more than a handful of religious leaders could see clearly how the Republicans’ smash-and-grab legislation is much more than just an unseemly display of organized money’s power in the time of Trump: if they could see how such a coddle-the-wealthiest tax “reform” bill also reveals this nation’s long-established operational religion of acquisitive individualism and (worse) exposes the depth of apostasy in an American Christianity that sincerely believes members of the monied overclass are more worthy in God’s eyes than struggling working people (note Sen. Grassley’s comment to this effect on the estate tax issue)?

You will say I am unrealistic to expect any fearless head-on engagement with the greater evils that assail us. You might say that I am willfully ignoring the reality that religious blocs everywhere on the globe tend to enter public policy from the right. And you would have a point. Because for U.S. faith leaders to achieve this level of forward engagement would also require them to acknowledge how deeply American religion itself has been colonized and deformed by white supremacy, imperial ideology, and the brutal logic of laissez faire capitalism. That white American Christianity was so compromised and contaminated from the very start is by now an open secret, thanks to pathbreaking scholarship by Willie James Jennings, Yolanda Pierce, Mark Lewis Taylor, Kelly Brown Douglas, Khalil Gibran Muhammad, and many others — never forgetting the noble pioneering truthtellers: W.E.B. Du Bois, James Baldwin, Harriet Tubman, Howard Thurman, et al.

Interestingly, this is precisely where some good news arrives in 2017’s inner religious life.

It goes without saying that what the bold new scholarship yields is a dangerous knowledge: dangerous to the powers and principalities, certainly, but dangerous as well to those whose ignorance (I won’t say innocence) slowly gives way to the painful recognition of what Prof. Jennings calls the “diseased social imagination” of a Western Christianity shaped and dominated by the godless will-to-power of white men.

For those now awakening from their slumber, whether as a consequence of this new scholarship or the fearless truthtelling of the Movement for Black Lives, there can be no turning back from the element of danger. As you awaken you will necessarily become an enemy of the white supremacist state. You will also become the enemy of complacency and apostasy within your own faith community. You will accept that conflict, that disturbing the peace of Zion, is no small part of your calling.

Accepting that danger means stepping up to an inevitable conflict with unjust power and with any whose complicity enables it; it also means stepping out to apply one’s energies in mixed configurations of struggle taking shape away from the safe and sleepy precincts of “religion” as generally understood.

Theologian Mark Lewis Taylor observes that faith-grounded activists are most likely to discover a vital liberatory politics outside of their formal religious structures and circuits: in on-fire liminal spaces where secular activists and artists usually take the lead in creating and sustaining woke communities of struggle and celebration. These spaces aren’t hard to find, and the God who has left the church building in disgust will always be found in the midst of them.

For any awakening Christian, stepping out and thereby gaining perspective on one’s own colonized faith is liberating and life-giving. It parallels what Dr. King seems to have felt in writing his powerful letter from a Birmingham jail: not just deep dismay over the cowardice and corruption of the white church but also an absolute and joy-filled conviction that God is driving the Black freedom struggle forward despite it all.

Today, as in King’s day, there is widespread dereliction of duty among the self-proclaimed faithful, but there is also a rising righteous remnant. There are hundreds of younger activists out there, primarily activists of color and many of them queer, who are walking courageously in faith even though they will tell you clearly and convincingly why their faith has nothing to do with the poisoned religion of the white dominators.

Here I find a real glimmer of good news. Moreover, some of the younger activists are connecting themselves to awakening conscientious leaders within the recognized religious sphere: i.e., the national denominations, para-church public justice groups, and faith-based community organizing networks. We will all see more evidence of this fruitful connection during the crucial organizing year ahead. One might say that the younger activists are converting some of the long-time faithful to accept their proper calling, dangers notwithstanding.

I also find good news in the fact that more and more white people, young and old alike, seem now able to see and even say that white privilege is a curse and a burden to them and not just to those who suffer its worst effects. It’s too early to predict where this might go, but there is an opening — a crack under the door — from which some real light may yet come pouring in. When enough white people get to the breakthrough moment where they see — really see — how racism and patriarchy and a soulless planet-destroying capitalism are joined at the hip, there is indeed hope for a different kind of future.

I began this assessment by lamenting insipidity and lack of focus among Religious Left leaders, and there is plenty of that to be sure. Dereliction of duty is nothing new, and there’s no point in sugarcoating the bad news. But I also give thanks at year’s end for the righteous remnant. I give thanks for all those who are able to join a liberatory theology and a revolutionary economic critique together on the side of the freedom struggle.

Never mind the trifling derelicts. Let them do what they do. Pay attention to the woke and ready.