“White Privilege” can be a helpful meme but a dangerous filter.
Because of when, where and how I grew up I was never under the impression that skin color didn’t matter in America. I always knew you could be pulled over if you were black for driving in the wrong neighborhood. There are many many ways to illustrate racial inequality that endures in the United States when it comes to wealth, access to jobs and treatment by law enforcement. When I first heard the term “white privilege” and saw it being used I thought “yeah, that’s a very quick and easy way of naming a dynamic that is enduring, real and pervasive in our culture.” That’s pretty much the definition of a “meme“.
By virtue of where and how I grew up and have spent most of my adult life I also knew that “white privilege” was contextual.
Just like my black elders of Northside Chapel in the 70s might be pulled over visiting their white brothers and sisters in Christ for church meetings in North Haledon, I also knew that my white biological sister could be pulled over in our own neighborhood in Paterson in the 80s by the police under the suspicion of looking for crack.
I knew what it felt like to be a racial minority in a racially charged context both in US inner city and the black, brown and white tensions of a place like Haitian communities in the Dominican Republic.
While binary filters bring some dynamics into stark relief they also tend to obscure the greater complexities that are common to humanity. As human beings there are many many hierarchies beyond skin color by which human beings derive, maintain and defend status and inequalities.
From “White Privilege” to Intersectionality
Just like we’ve recently developed a meme (“white privilege”) to snapshot racial status in America we’ve now got one that tries to snapshot the reality of multiple hierarchies in conversation and sometimes competition with one another. That meme is called “intersectionality”.
It recognizes that race is not the only game in play in terms of status, there is also wealth, beauty, weight, attractiveness, sex, hair color and type, and so much more. Because human beings have such complex social interactions and value systems there are many many aspect by which we achieve and identify status between us. Because these status systems do not live in isolation from each other they form incredibly complex and powerful forces within our relationships and societal structures. If your goal is equality there are a near limitless numbers of threat to that by virtue of all these hierarchy systems and games.
This is in fact not difficult to illustrate. While many of my black friends who have money and status and can dress and speak well easily participate in the social and economic communities that surround me in Sacramento my homeless or mentally ill friends who bear some physical aspects similar to the homeless but who are white males, supposedly bearing that “privilege” can’t sit in a coffee shop and enjoy a legally purchased cup of coffee without being harassed by a security guard or kicked out. In other words there are no more “whites only” signs up but there are plenty of barriers up for many people beyond race.
Race of course doesn’t disappear in these dynamics. A security guard in Starbucks might kick out a disabled white man who looks homeless more quickly than he would a black woman because given our memes and conversations on race he might feel pressured to avoid the stigma or an accusation of racism.
There are numerous possibilities for cross-pressures in this way and these kinds of things have long been know once you get past the facile binaries of black and white. Listen to this young woman’s reflections of beauty standards within a non-white community. Race continues to be a factor but as you add in beauty, beauty standards, sex appeal, and the fact that “race” is not simply “white and black” the dynamics and the potential for offence increase exponentially.
The Ascendant Morality of the Greatest Negative Privilege
The meme of “White Privilege” has reached the heights of self-evident assumptive moral discourse in North America and has in many ways become a “defeater belief” or a sort of a trump card in moral posturing. You can use it as a way to silence or discredit an opponent. If they are white or if their argument can be associated with whiteness it can be instantly dismissed as racist and therefore your argument position wins.
Many are asserting charges of “white privilege” against their rivals and adversaries while also trotting out the new moral hotness “intersectionality” without realizing that the second complicates the first. This creates a rather strange anti-status/victim race to the bottom where the very dark skinned blind-trans-woman with cancer in a wheel chair is the moral master of all she can manage to survey. This gets further complicated by those who appoint themselves as her “allies” in their own mind champion her cause while actually possessing none of her status-liabilities. They are free to run roughshod over individuals lesser-privileged than themselves in the name of this new ascendant morality.
One of my favorite examples of this is a cis-white male senator mansplaining a woman, correcting her, talking over her, silencing her all for the sake of his creed.
According to the rules of this game men, in the name of being an ally, assert a new privilege by not listening to women, by interrupting women, by silencing women, and doing so either intentionally or unintentionally. Normally according to the rules of gender privilege men should be called out for this behavior because it exposes their privilege and reinforces sexual inequality. Yet in this video a liberal senator talks over, interrupts, harasses a conservative female judicial appointee because he fears that her Christian commitments might interfere with her ability to be a judge.
(As I was typing this sermon I just saw the news that Franken apologized for groping and kissing. He might not have sufficiently owned his privilege after all. )
This new system of identity privilege tracking is supposed to right historic wrongs by no longer allowing reason or other moral systems to assert themselves. Ironically it itself becomes yet another moral system asserting itself and therefore not changing the game at all. Embracing that system of course within that group affords status to those who embrace it and demotes all who fail to embrace it or dare to resist its claims. It tries to denounce and trump every traditional system of morality and in fact all moral systems but it can’t do so without simply becoming another.
Apparently asserting white male privilege in the defense of the ascendant morality is no vice.
Ironies of Promoting a Melanin Based System of Moral Hierarchy
It’s not difficult to see that a system which arose during the period of European colonial expansion ranking people based on the oxidation of an amino acid is a social construct. One irony of the “white privilege” meme is that it both exposes and perpetuates this colonial system at the same time.
This kind of dynamic happens with people all the time. A group wanted to reduce suicide in a community so they raised money to put up billboards with a suicide hotline number. What happened? Suicides increased. Contrary to popular conception awareness campaigns not only don’t work but can be counter productive.
When Barack Obama spoke about race recruitment for white supremacist groups increased. When he spoke about guns gun sales increased. When the Klan marches through a town donations to anti-hate-group causes rise. Shining a light on one thing for people often creates the opposite of what you’re trying to do.
There have been few authors more eloquent recently as Ta-Nehisi Coates about the struggle for equality of black American, but the more you focus on whiteness the more you give whiteness power.
This summer, I spent an hour on the phone with Richard Spencer. It was an exchange that left me feeling physically sickened. Toward the end of the interview, he said one thing that I still think about often. He referred to the all-encompassing sense of white power so many liberals now also attribute to whiteness as a profound opportunity. “This is the photographic negative of a white supremacist,” he told me gleefully. “This is why I’m actually very confident, because maybe those leftists will be the easiest ones to flip.”
However far-fetched that may sound, what identitarians like Mr. Spencer have grasped, and what ostensibly anti-racist thinkers like Mr. Coates have lost sight of, is the fact that so long as we fetishize race, we ensure that we will never be rid of the hierarchies it imposes. We will all be doomed to stalk our separate paths.
The War of Northern Aggression Circa 9th Century BC
As a church we’ve been going through the book of Kings. We’re in a section of the book where we meet Elisha doing a lot of miracles. As I mentioned last week we have real issues with miracles because we have issues with God. This week’s story is probably the most famous Elisha stories of the Bible, where he heals a man with leprosy from the nation of Syria or Aram.
It’s important to remember that at this moment in time Aram is an economic rival of the northern kingdom of Israel and there is an enduring struggle for supremacy in trade and economics. As was common in that era part of the struggle was played out by raiding parties who would sweep into the region of the other to grab goods, kill men and take women and children as slaves. This is alarming and strange to those of us who live in the affluent, secure west but it has been the majority situation of world history practice in North America all the way up to the colonialization of the United States into the West.
2 Kings 5:1 (NIV)
1 Now Naaman was commander of the army of the king of Aram. He was a great man in the sight of his master and highly regarded, because through him the Lord had given victory to Aram. He was a valiant soldier, but he had leprosy.
In one verse this master story teller tells us a ton. When we read this we imagine Naaman as General Grant or maybe Lee commanding a formal army. It’s probably more Naaman as a leader of a successful raiding party. The alarming statement in verse one that you might skip over is “the LORD had given him victory.”
Huh? Is God supporting the leader of raiding parties against his own people?
Now on one hand we should understand how the Bible talks about things like this. The LORD in the Bible is not a flat character with a simplistic morality. God works in this world sometimes giving success, sometimes combined with enormous suffering, to some very reprehensible people. If you read the Old Testament God brings the northern empires of Assyria and Babylon down on his chosen people bring great death and suffering. This ties into CS Lewis’ point about the experiential mixed blessing of being God’s “chosen people”.
If verse one of the chapter troubled you what comes next won’t give you much relief.
2 Kings 5:2–3 (NIV)
2 Now bands of raiders from Aram had gone out and had taken captive a young girl from Israel, and she served Naaman’s wife. 3 She said to her mistress, “If only my master would see the prophet who is in Samaria! He would cure him of his leprosy.”
So a slave girl from Israel who was taken in a raid is now serving in Naaman’s house. What does that say about Naaman’s morality?! We might be a bit comforted that she seems to be serving Naaman’s wife and not being put to use in Naaman’s bed as far as we know. But in any case instead of silently fomenting resistance to slavery she’s offering advice to her master on how he can deal with his leprosy.
Now we might ignore this and say “well they were so accustomed to being enslaved that they didn’t think it was wrong.” We’ll check that thought later in the story.
Now the leprosy referred to here is not the same as what we call leprosy. It’s a defiling skin disease that is a social calamity to its victims. Naaman has this so he now has a problem that his military prowess and political connections cannot resolve. The Israelite servant girl knows of Elisha and is offering a possible solution.
2 Kings 5:4–6 (NIV)
4 Naaman went to his master and told him what the girl from Israel had said. 5 “By all means, go,” the king of Aram replied. “I will send a letter to the king of Israel.” So Naaman left, taking with him ten talents of silver, six thousand shekels of gold and ten sets of clothing. 6 The letter that he took to the king of Israel read: “With this letter I am sending my servant Naaman to you so that you may cure him of his leprosy.”
Now here’s something interesting. The idea of this captured Israelite servant girl is now moving the conflicted politics between two kingdoms. She proposes and idea and the kings get working.
The king of Aram does not want to lose his productive raider who God seems to be blessing with success raiding God’s chosen people so he sends a letter to the king of Israel asking for help and sends with Naaman and enormous amount of wealth. This is not, however, welcome news to the king of Israel.
2 Kings 5:7 (NIV)
7 As soon as the king of Israel read the letter, he tore his robes and said, “Am I God? Can I kill and bring back to life? Why does this fellow send someone to me to be cured of his leprosy? See how he is trying to pick a quarrel with me!”
The king of Israel knows about power. He immediately suspects that this is simply another ploy to enrich Aram at Israel’s expense and so he tears his robes as a public expression of the calamity he expects.
Enter Elisha, Calm and Collected
2 Kings 5:7–8 (NIV)
7 As soon as the king of Israel read the letter, he tore his robes and said, “Am I God? Can I kill and bring back to life? Why does this fellow send someone to me to be cured of his leprosy? See how he is trying to pick a quarrel with me!” 8 When Elisha the man of God heard that the king of Israel had torn his robes, he sent him this message: “Why have you torn your robes? Have the man come to me and he will know that there is a prophet in Israel.”
Pay attention to representation and character development. The kings in this story are pawns of their own fears and even their own slaves. The king of Aram for fear of losing out on a valuable asset submits to the idea of an enslaved Israelite girl captured in a raid. The king of Israel, whose relations with Elisha have been far from simple is fraught with fear and needs Elisha to bail him out, so Naaman goes to the home of Elisha. What will happen next? How will Elisha be before this raider of Israel?
In the strange estuary where the church and politics play, we like to talk about “the prophetic”. We read Amos and Jeremiah and Isaiah and we want to imitate these prophets “speaking truth to power”. Maybe what we’re hoping is that Elisha will be “prophetic” and say something like “well you’ve been raiding and killing and capturing and enslaving. Now you’ve got leprosy. Hah! Justice! This is God’s judgment on your sorry raider skin. No healing for you today!”
What will Elisha do?
2 Kings 5:9–10 (NIV)
9 So Naaman went with his horses and chariots and stopped at the door of Elisha’s house. 10 Elisha sent a messenger to say to him, “Go, wash yourself seven times in the Jordan, and your flesh will be restored and you will be cleansed.”
Now pay attention to the details here. Naaman came to Israel with his horses and chariots. This would be like driving your tank. Can you see why the king of Israel panicked? Should we expect Elisha to get all prophetic and justicey on Naaman? Maybe Elisha would be tempted to tremble in fear and simply give in.
What Elisha signals is that he is well aware of this entire game of power and status that is in play here. He is not afraid of Naaman’s status or reputation and expresses no offense or denunciation about them. He is neither deferential nor hostile towards him. He sends a messenger out to him with a simple remedy for his medical and social calamity. “Go wash seven times in the Jordan.”
Up until this point Naaman has been a bit of a cipher. For Biblical story tellers first words are important and we’re about to get his. Now pay attention that the first words in this story were actually spoken by an Israelite girl enslaved by a raiding party. She has spoken first and her words have been those that have animated the entire narrative. This should give you pause if you’re overly committed to a narrative that the Bible simplistically perpetuates a narrative of patriarchy and sexism.
So what will be Naaman’s first words?
2 Kings 5:11–12 (NIV)
11 But Naaman went away angry and said, “I thought that he would surely come out to me and stand and call on the name of the Lord his God, wave his hand over the spot and cure me of my leprosy. 12 Are not Abana and Pharpar, the rivers of Damascus, better than all the waters of Israel? Couldn’t I wash in them and be cleansed?” So he turned and went off in a rage.
Hmmm. Now we have some insight into Naaman and how Elisha has played him. What were Naaman’s assumptions of privilege? He’s an important man, a powerful man, a wealthy man. Who is this prophet of a subjugated rival who dares to defy his horses and chariots and won’t even come to see him. Doesn’t Elisha know the cultural script for prophets? Prophets are religious sycophants who work for kings and warlords and wealthy patrons. Prophets are running a con of sorts giving people the opiate of the masses and the rulers they desire. Elisha, if he has anything at all to offer should have come out and at least put on a show and if he was able to produce results he would have been handsomely rewarded. This is the script and Elisha broke it.
To add insult to injury in an idolatrous sacramental way Elisha tells Naaman to wash in the Jordan. Talk about slumming it. If it’s therapy he’s offering the Jordan looks like drugs from a third world pharmacy not the kind of respectable treatment available in his home country.
Now pay attention to the emotions of the characters involved in this story.
- A captured Israelite slave girl expresses love and concern for the perpetrator and perpetuator of her literal bondage
- The king of Israel loses his head in anger and fear assuming Naaman’s calamity is a ploy setting up more Israelite calamity.
- Elisha is on control of himself and seemingly in control of the narrative
- Naaman is revealed to be petty and seemingly unlike his slave not in control of himself or his ego. He’s playing the part of the entitled, privileged tyrant. He’s Leona Helmsley of the Syrian raiding scene.
Another slave speaks up
2 Kings 5:13–14 (NIV)
13 Naaman’s servants went to him and said, “My father, if the prophet had told you to do some great thing, would you not have done it? How much more, then, when he tells you, ‘Wash and be cleansed’!”
Notice how kind and deferential these servants/slaves are to their master. They call him “father”. They give him a “what can it hurt to try since you are out of options” argument and to his credit he at least can go this far.
Now again, what is this story saying status, slavery and behavior. Should these slaves have relished the misery of their master? Should they have been plotting the downfall of the one who held their chains?
Another Offensive Miracle
2 Kings 5:14 (NIV)
14 So he went down and dipped himself in the Jordan seven times, as the man of God had told him, and his flesh was restored and became clean like that of a young boy.
So we might chalk up the deference and even love shown to Naaman by his slaves to Stockholm Syndrome but surely surely God and Elisha should be above all of this. Is there no one in the story who is keeping the moral scorecard and is ready to denounce slavery, violence, raid culture and all the evils that Naaman represents? Is there no one to shine a bright moral light on this whole situation?
What About the Theological Score Card?
2 Kings 5:15–19 (NIV)
15 Then Naaman and all his attendants went back to the man of God. He stood before him and said, “Now I know that there is no God in all the world except in Israel. So please accept a gift from your servant.” 16 The prophet answered, “As surely as the Lord lives, whom I serve, I will not accept a thing.” And even though Naaman urged him, he refused. 17 “If you will not,” said Naaman, “please let me, your servant, be given as much earth as a pair of mules can carry, for your servant will never again make burnt offerings and sacrifices to any other god but the Lord. 18 But may the Lord forgive your servant for this one thing: When my master enters the temple of Rimmon to bow down and he is leaning on my arm and I have to bow there also—when I bow down in the temple of Rimmon, may the Lord forgive your servant for this.” 19 “Go in peace,” Elisha said.
What we have here is clearly some kind of conversion story. Naaman, by virtue of this miracle has now entered the tribe of Yhwh-ists. The God of Israel has healed him so he will be loyal.
Now one of the things we’ve known about Naaman has been his capacity for loyalty. He was a good and loyal servant to his king, now he promises to be a good and loyal servant to his new God.
He wants to offer Elisha payment for what he has offered. Gone is the elitist entitled anger with which he left his home before. Now he wants to offer gifts of gratitude.
Elisha won’t take it. Elisha, who we know has on other occasions accepted the gifts of patrons (the Shunammite) refuses to accept anything here. He’s clearly doing a bit of retraining and differentiation. Naaman knows how the prophet business works and Elisha wants to make a clear statement that the God of Israel does not work with this type of transactionality. God did not heal Naaman because Naaman deserved it. God did not recognize Naaman’s status or wealth and God’s servant won’t either. God healed Naaman for reasons of His own.
Even if Elisha has not been keeping score like some would like him to other are watching and paying attention. Elisha’s act of healing an imperial overlord’s hatchet man did not go unnoticed. In fact it was so noticed that Israel’s near perpetual vassal class under the heel of imperial powers impacted conversations about this story for hundreds of years to follow. Jesus himself pays attention to this as the wave of opinion turned at his sermon given in Nazareth.
Luke 4:27 (NIV)
27 And there were many in Israel with leprosy in the time of Elisha the prophet, yet not one of them was cleansed—only Naaman the Syrian.”
Any good Israelite who knew their Torah would understand that Elisha had no power to heal Naaman, only the LORD did, and if we’re keeping moral score correlating the deserving with the underclass we should assume that in the line of those who we might imagine deserve healing more than Naaman we can assume there were plenty. Many lepers in Israel needed a miracle, Naaman, the commander who raided and enslaved God’s chosen people got one.
Is there no one who will speak up for justice here? Someone should take away Elisha’s “prophet” card.
To make matters worse even now converted Naaman will live a life of compromise. There are not Zacchean promises of turning his slaves free or no longer being complicit in the raid culture. To make matters worse he’ll perpetuate the culture of geographic tribal deity culture by imagining that somehow Yhwh is controlled and relates to the dirt of Israel. Even as we’ve been denouncing the kings of Israel for doing as Jereboam has done in setting up their own shrines now Naaman is going to do it in Syrian. He also is fully aware that he’ll be complicit not only in raiding Israel but also in bowing his knee to a foreign God, something on Israelite would be given a pass to do, and Elisha just waves the whole thing off.
In other words not only has Elisha seemed to cave on the social justice end of the prophet business but now he’s waiving it on the idolatry end as well. Will no one take a stand here?
Enter Gehazi, Prophet in Training
2 Kings 5:19–20 (NIV)
After Naaman had traveled some distance, 20 Gehazi, the servant of Elisha the man of God, said to himself, “My master was too easy on Naaman, this Aramean, by not accepting from him what he brought. As surely as the Lord lives, I will run after him and get something from him.”
In this entire story it seems only Gehazi, the servant of Elisha has the kind of moral scruples the ascendant morality of our culture can respect.
We should pay attention to the fact that there is a lineage thing going on here. Elisha was Elijah’s servant. Now Gehazi is Elisha’s servant. He’s next in line to lead the company of prophets and to be the moral and religious watchman over Israel’s slow slide towards destruction.
Gehazi has been watching his master and have second thoughts about the whole thing. He knows who Naaman is. He knows what Naaman has been doing. In his moral calculation Naaman has gotten off too easily and at a bare minimum should have been forced to give at least a financial contribution in recompense for the great blessing he has received. If neither God not Elisha will hold the line Gehazi will.
2 Kings 5:21–24 (NIV)
21 So Gehazi hurried after Naaman. When Naaman saw him running toward him, he got down from the chariot to meet him. “Is everything all right?” he asked. 22 “Everything is all right,” Gehazi answered. “My master sent me to say, ‘Two young men from the company of the prophets have just come to me from the hill country of Ephraim. Please give them a talent of silver and two sets of clothing.’ ” 23 “By all means, take two talents,” said Naaman. He urged Gehazi to accept them, and then tied up the two talents of silver in two bags, with two sets of clothing. He gave them to two of his servants, and they carried them ahead of Gehazi. 24 When Gehazi came to the hill, he took the things from the servants and put them away in the house. He sent the men away and they left.
The Definition of Privilege
I think I’ve most often assumed Gehazi’s motives was simple greed, but all this consciousness raising we’ve been doing has prompted me to be more aware of the socio-economic dynamics in play within this story. How would Gehazi understand Naaman given the conflict their nations were in? How would the filters of race and nationality have colored Gehazi’s feelings about Naaman’s miracle? It would not have surprised me if Gehazi hadn’t secretly hoped that Naaman would drown in the Jordan rather than be cleansed. Naaman’s miracle was unearned. It was privilege.
In 2014 as the new moral vocabulary was forming people began to look back at where these new words and this new framework were coming from. Apparently it was a white woman who taught at Wellesley College who defined and propagated the meme.
“Privilege” is defined as unearned and largely unacknowledged social or economic advantages.
The irony of this idea is that itself becomes part of the moral economy of status. If you recognize that your white skin offers you an unearned social or economic benefit then your darker skin while giving you a social or economic liability also offers you an unearned moral advantage in the privilege economy. Sure you might have a tougher time getting a job if your name is blithely associated with a “black name” but now in the new moral economy of privilege doesn’t your victim status give you a moral advantage over your social and economic adversaries?
We are all Gehazi. We are all determined and compulsive moral accountants looking to call out and denounce someone who is getting something for nothing. Naaman with all his Syrian privilege and slave-holding-wealth-stealing status has somehow received an unearned astounding possibly even unjust miracle and Elisha has done nothing about it. Gehazi has seen this injustice and will make Naaman pay, quite literally.
Elisha sees this too
2 Kings 5:25–27 (NIV)
25 When he went in and stood before his master, Elisha asked him, “Where have you been, Gehazi?” “Your servant didn’t go anywhere,” Gehazi answered. 26 But Elisha said to him, “Was not my spirit with you when the man got down from his chariot to meet you? Is this the time to take money or to accept clothes—or olive groves and vineyards, or flocks and herds, or male and female slaves? 27 Naaman’s leprosy will cling to you and to your descendants forever.” Then Gehazi went from Elisha’s presence and his skin was leprous—it had become as white as snow.
What is Elisha saying here? What does this mean?
I don’t think Elisha is saying that the prophets must live outside the moral economy of this world and even participate in it. How could they? Elisha had undoubtedly been living off of the gifts of others, including the Shunammite woman. Would it have been wrong for Elisha to receive a gift from Naaman? In Elisha’s estimation it would have even though in terms of the moral calculus of his day, which Gehazi was paying close attention to.
Elisha was making a point about God’s sovereignty and his grace. When I was a boy I was taught the acronym of grace: “God’s Riches At Christ’s Expense”. This episode was all about Naaman’s riches at Israel’s expense and Gehazi wanted to even the score.
The reason why “white privilege” is a handy meme but a dangerous filter is that all of us are walking around with “unearned and unacknowledged social and economic advantages.” Moral chips quickly become social and political and the game goes round and round. We all have dirty hands and dirty hearts in these moral, social and economic games and the idea that somehow if I say I “own” just a tiny fraction of all of this THEN I have some status that I can use to justify what I think, say or do against others. It’s all one game and if we, like Gehazi major as accountants in this game and enforcers we simply perpetuate it.
What then is the point of Gehazi being stricken by Naaman’s disease? It was that Gehazi and Naaman were the same. Gehazi wanted to assert moral privilege over Naaman by virtue of Naaman’s crimes but he could not do it without entering into the game and attempting to extract just a bit of justice out of the deal in the form of compensation. Elisha’s point in not taking any money from Naaman was that there was NO COMPENSATION appropriate to what he has received. It was a gift, period. Naaman actually responded appropriately with gratitude even within the confines of his own twisted theological tradition. He knew he needed to make a religious conversion in response to what had happened and Elisha wanted to keep the focus there. Gehazi in what he did illustrated that he and old leprous Naaman shared the same disease.
This was the point Jesus made to the synagogue in Nazareth and this was the point the Apostle Paul made in opening his letter to the Romans. Jews look down on Romans as lecherous imperial tyrants who destroy the world and have ravaged God’s holy land and his holy people. Paul then in chapter 2 turns the tables and notes that the Jews themselves fail to keep the law. Chapter 3 then makes the point that as we stand before God all have sinned and fallen short of the glory he intended for us from creation. How can we be clean not only of a defiling skin disease but of the moral accounting that dominates our moral imaginations?
We’ve noted before that in many ways Elisha is a pre-echo of Jesus. Jesus comes into the moral food fight of this world and makes no one happy. Jews want him to hate the Romans. Herod wants him to do parlor tricks. Pilate wants him to justify himself. He dies the victim of all. He, like the slaves of 2 Kings 5 blesses those who chain and beat him and gives them undeserved grace.
The Christian story tells us his ways that seem foolish in this world were vindicated in his resurrection that this victim of our obsessive filthy moral accounting himself rises to rule over a newly reconciled and renewed heaven and earth.
Our culture war bids us to take sides. The options available on the menu are not all that new. Our culture loves to indulge in facile, low-resolution image posturing so we grab at figures who seem to be promoting “justice” or “liberty” or whatever meme catches our momentary fancy.
This episode of recognizing the strange relationship of racial politics has happened before. Too few people read history. Malcolm X is looked up to as a leader in the struggle for racial justice, and he was, but his life was quite complex and chapter in his life, especially his promotion of black nationalism brought him, and the Nation of Islam into what seemed like strange company.
In its early years, the American Nazi Party’s literature routinely described African Americans as “niggers,” morally and mentally inferior to whites. However, once Rockwell learned of the Nation of Islam’s anti-integrationist positions, he became fascinated by the concept of a white supremacist-black nationalist united front. He even praised the NOI to his followers, arguing that Elijah Muhammad had “gathered millions of the dirty, immoral, drunken, filthy-mouthed, lazy and repulsive people sneeringly called ‘niggers’ and inspired them to the point where they are clean, sober, honest, hard-working, dignified, dedicated and admirable human beings in spite of their color.”
At some time in early 1961, Rockwell’s group had talks with Muhammad and several top aides in Chicago; Rockwell and Muhammad may even have met privately to work out an “agreement of mutual assistance.” The main concession that Rockwell wrung from Muhammad was permission to bring his Nazi storm troopers into NOI rallies, which he knew would provoke press coverage. For Muhammad, the attention carried greater risk, but he believed that it was outweighed by the opportunity to put on display the true nature of the white man. Rockwell’s group may have been at the fringe, but Muhammad saw its racial hatred and anti-Semitism as an honest representation of white America’s core beliefs. But there was another reason for the pairing: the authoritarianism of the NOI was in harmony with the racist authoritarianism of the white supremacists. Both groups, after all, dreamed of a segregated world in which interracial marriages were outlawed and the races dwelled in separate states.
Marable, Manning. Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention (Kindle Locations 4002-4015). Penguin Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
The observations of Richard Spencer are not original.
Jesus commands us to love our enemies in this world where enemies are quite consequential. Figuring out how to actually do this is never simple or simplistic. What we can say is that this kind of love is always costly and often controversial because it dares to try to step away from the moral accounting we practice in the name of justice but often to our own advantage.
If the over-arching narrative of the Bible is the reconciliation of heaven and earth then the incarnation of Jesus was the most radical and costly act of integration the has ever seen. It resulted in an imperial sponsored murder. That murder led to his resurrections and Christians are to embody this story in their lives and in their communities. What it means is that guilty people are can’t finally nor fully recognize their own privilege because life itself is unearned and the gift of forgiveness can never fully be compensated for.
What this should result in, as we saw even in Naaman’s imperfect steps, is rebirth into a new life, even if in the moment we are painfully unaware of all that it entails.