On Valentine's Day, the state of Oregon celebrated its 157th birthday. As a fairly recent transplant to Portland, I’ve quickly learned the state’s history and believe in its promise. Especially its promise for creative, inclusive life together.
There’s so much to love about our new home. Our beloved city of roses, where our neighbors care about curating the good life; the Columbia River Gorge, with its postcard-perfect river lines; the high desert of the east; and a Pacific coastline that in a windswept sunset looks like the very beautiful ends of the earth.
And I haven’t even mentioned the soccer, the beer, the food trucks, the vinyl and the bicycle lanes.
The problem with Oregon, though, hits embarrassingly and painfully close to the bone: Its birth in white supremacy still tempts and haunts.
On our birthday, The Oregonian/OregonLive.com ran a wonderful slideshow of historic Oregon photos from years long since past.
There were photos of first settlers on the Willamette River. Statues being delivered on barges or being erected at important buildings. Images from the 1905 Lewis & Clark expedition, important founding fathers, and the first football game featuring the Oregon Ducks.
Not featured however, were other important and vivid photos. Like when the KKK came to town, when African American neighbors were forced out of their homes due to city policies, and the natural disaster of the 1948 Vanport flood that led to an unnatural economic disaster for everyday poor and working families, disproportionally folks of color.
Did you know that Oregon was founded as place for white people only?
Yes. Yes, it was.
In a complicated twisting political tale of pre-Civil War American history, enshrined in my state’s constitution were explicit and clear black exclusion laws.
Matt Novak has covered Oregon’s troubling history in an eye-opening Gizmodo piece, Oregon Was Founded As A Racist Utopia. I urge you to read it, and to explore the work of Walida Imarisha, whose even more convicting scholarship certainly demands the question, “Why aren’t there more black people in Oregon?”
I’m a pastor trying to do my best to lead a community that would be concerned about the things we think Jesus would be concerned about: Especially matters of inclusion, equality, and the common good.
As someone who thinks Jesus’ work and vision leads to an open, active, and inclusive view of the world and work for humanity, the fight for anti-racism is paramount. Especially in our country.
White Supremacy is the thing
I like to think I am not racist. I have black friends, read black books, listen to black music, and voted for a black president. I have done hard, intentional work to dismantle racism in the church and in the communities in which I’ve lived. My wife has been a champion of urban education for over a decade.
We aren’t racist.
But we benefit from white supremacy.
That’s the word. Say it with me: White supremacy.
We think of this word as belonging to fringe people in the South or on the internet. We don’t think of this as applying to those of us who Feel the Bern or hope for Hillary. We believe white supremacists wear white hoods and fly Confederate flags in their pickup trucks — they don’t wear skinny jeans and have serious conversations about the artistic merits of the latest Kanye West album.
But let’s get real.
There’s this incredible American theologian named James Cone, who for years has been teaching students from his seminary in NYC about the importance of Black Theology. If you’re looking for some important bedside reading or morning Lenten devotions, pick up his recent The Cross and the Lynching Tree. The title speaks for itself.
In a nearly 10-year-old interview with the excellent Jesuit / Catholic magazine America, Cone talks about black suffering and the silence of white churchmen.
Just as Ralph Ellison wrote in the 1950’s about black invisibility in The Invisible Man, black suffering today still remains invisible to many whites. We bond with like-minded people of the same racial group, which is natural because we may live in the same apartment buildings, go to the same schools and churches and have similar values and histories. It is easy to make that kind of social and political bond. But when people look different, it is harder to make. But that is what the Gospel of Jesus is all about — making a human bond with the least of these.
To believe in the Gospel means creating solidarity with the oppressed. Jesus’ cross is God’s solidarity with the weak and the lost. When we follow Jesus into the ghetto, it always creates conflict in a racially divided society. White theologians do not speak out against white supremacy because such speaking will surely make them unpopular in their group. Of all the evils that exist in society, racism is one of the most intractable, because it is so difficult to name and so easy to deny.
It’s important for us to talk about unpopular things.
America’s Original Sin: So what does repentance look like?
As a pastor, I try to look at the words and life of Jesus, who, I think, models a way to see the Divine.
In the Bible, Jesus is noted for resisting temptation. I was originally taught that this was all about the mighty moral exemplar Jesus who could resist all the taboo sins of the world.
There he is, in the desert for 40 days and nights, shadowboxing the devil so we don’t have to. Or, maybe, in ways we never could.
Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness, where for forty days he was tempted by the devil. He ate nothing at all during those days, and when they were over, he was famished. The devil said to him, ‘If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become a loaf of bread.’ Jesus answered him, ‘It is written, “One does not live by bread alone.” ’
Then the devil led him up and showed him in an instant all the kingdoms of the world. And the devil said to him, ‘To you I will give their glory and all this authority; for it has been given over to me, and I give it to anyone I please. If you, then, will worship me, it will all be yours.’ Jesus answered him, ‘It is written,“Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.” ’
Then the devil took him to Jerusalem, and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, saying to him, ‘If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from here, for it is written, “He will command his angels concerning you, to protect you”, and “On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.” ’
Jesus answered him, ‘It is said, “Do not put the Lord your God to the test.” ’ When the devil had finished every test, he departed from him until an opportune time. — Luke 4:1–13
There are three temptations here specifically, according to the Gospel of Luke:
1. Turn the stone into a loaf of bread — he’s hungry, man!
2. Worship the devil and all the kingdoms of the world will be his — you gotta broker deals with unsavory characters to make things right!
3. Jump off the pinnacle of the temple — angels will catch you, no sweat!
Here’s the thing. I’ve come to see this story as not so much about the hero superman Jesus who is better than all of us resisting the devil at every turn. I don’t think that’s even how Jesus would want it to be seen (which, let’s be honest, is an audacious claim — as if I know what Jesus wants, as I sip my craft brew and listen to Mumford & Sons while I write this from Portland).
But, seriously: We miss the boat when we make Jesus a moral exemplar whom we could never touch.
The point of Jesus resisting temptation in the desert is more about how we might live than anything else.
We find Jesus not taking any short cuts. We see Jesus not looking out for his own creature comforts above all else. We are invited into a story in which the son of God (or carpenter’s son, whichever your convictions) proclaims in word and deed that to test God is to put his own interests above all else.
I’ll speak for myself: The temptation for me is to take short cuts and not ask hard questions and live a privileged life.
To use a sportsball term: To believe I hit a triple, when in fact I woke up on third base.
I have benefitted from white supremacy. No bones about it.
White supremacy isn’t simply about white hoods and burning crosses. That’s too easy. White supremacy is about me living my white, male, heterosexual Christian life as if it is primary. As if it is normative.
White supremacy is about relegating Black History Month to 28 days.
White supremacy is doing nothing about the prison-industrial complex and staggeringly imbalanced incarceration rates.
White supremacy is about the small things. I enjoy my neighborhood’s bike lanes. They’re literally the talk of the nation. And yet, in order to make it easier for me to ride my bike to work or coffee or the grocery store, the city pushed through decisions that effected my African American neighbors. One friend who has lived here for years gently told me that the bike lanes meant his grandma had nowhere to park her car for Sunday morning church service. Yes, bike lanes are about race and equality, too.
You see, in the end, we’re tempted to think that white supremacy is about white hoods and blatant disgustingly racist things. Like the shooting at Mother Emmanuel AME church. Or Nazi Germany.
But white supremacy isn’t simply about disgusting words or horrific actions. White supremacy is also about insidious, simple acts of legislation.
Like Oregon’s state constitution.
Like prison policy.
Like bike lanes.
White supremacy is more about the perpetual extension of white privilege than anything else.
A friend and mentor to me, Jim Wallis of Sojourners, writes in his new book America’s Original Sin: Racism, White Privilege, and the Bridge to a New America about these matters:
If we are willing to go deeper, we will see that white privilege is the legacy of white supremacy. White privilege is the assumption of racial entitlement and the normality of whiteness, something that most of those of us who are white still fail to recognize or resist. The only redemption of the sin of June 17 [the senseless racist murders at Mother Emmanuel] is to name the sin of racism and to ask ourselves what true repentance means. As the Bible teaches, repentance is much more than saying we are brokenhearted and sorry; it means turning in a totally new direction.
What might it look like to turn in a totally new direction? I’m hoping for help in doing that.