THIS SPRING I sat with former President Jimmy Carter and 150 others to talk about human rights.
Women and men from Pakistan, Iran, Israel, Palestine, DR Congo, Indonesia, South Africa, Mexico, Colombia, Nigeria, Syria, Iraq, Russia, Ukraine, the U.S., and other nations attended the Carter Center’s #FreedomfromFear Human Rights Defenders Forum in Atlanta in the midst of a year marked by increased attacks on human rights and on the people who defend them.
Yuri Dzhibladze, president of the Moscow-based Center for the Development of Democracy and Human Rights, shared what he had learned about authoritarian leaders by defending human rights in Putin’s Russia. “For authoritarian leaders to take power,” Dzhibladze said, “they must propagate the belief that they are the protectors of their countries. They must cast multiple actors as imminent threats.”
Donald Trump’s campaign declaration rang in my ears: “I alone can fix it,” Trump said at the GOP national convention. Inside the Beltway those words sounded insane, but, according to Dzhibladze, Trump was simply reading from the authoritarian leaders’ handbook 101. “In authoritarian regimes,” Dzhibladze said, “propaganda dehumanizes scapegoats. Meanwhile, devious enemies are always plotting against us.”
THEY CAME TO the front and waited to speak with me. They were weeping.
The day before, I sat in the front seat of a packed car. Five beautiful black women, including one of the women now in tears, rolled toward Marion, Ind.—the site of the last public lynching in the North.
On the sweltering summer night of Aug. 7, 1930, three African-American teenagers—Thomas Shipp, Abram Smith, and James Cameron—sat huddled in their jail cells in Marion. Thousands of white men, women, and children gathered outside the jailhouse, screaming and jeering—demanding blood. The three were charged with the ultimate sin against whiteness—killing a white man and raping a white woman. They were dragged from the jailhouse, beaten, and strung up on a low-hanging tree branch a block away on the courthouse square, in the center of town. For some reason, Cameron was spared. The other two were not.
The town photographer captured the moment: The mob congregated like lions around mangled prey. Lips licked, satisfied grins splayed across the faces of young women and old women, young men and old men. Floral dresses, white shirts with buckled pants, and hats atop straight-backed heads covered bursting egos as they reveled in victory. One man pointed to their ritual sacrifice, and that moment became an iconic illustration of American lynching.
I HAIL FROM a theological tradition that places the highest value on epistemology, the study of how we think about God, yet tends to invest little energy on ethics, the study of how we are called to interact in the world.
Likewise, many in my theological tradition place ultimate value on one’s capacity for faith in particular sets of beliefs—and tend to demonstrate hostility toward historical, anthropological, philosophical, and scientific methods to shape those beliefs, unless those methods happen to support the tradition’s faith-born premises. Think: climate-change denial. This article of faith is partially rooted in profound belief in a particular reading of Genesis 1:26 and human dominion. It is not rooted in science.
Perhaps this reveals one reason why so much of the white evangelical community saw no red flags when Donald Trump refused to show his tax returns. They believed in him. They did not need to see evidence.
Perhaps this is the reason it does not faze many white evangelicals that Trump trafficked in fake news, conspiracy theory, and innuendo to win the presidency and continues the practices in the aftermath. Trump’s relationship to fact may mirror their own. It almost seems as if life in this world and the hard facts that govern life have nothing to do with anything. I’m thinking of the fold-over tracts or Facebook posts that fly through evangelical circles during every presidential election cycle. They claim the Democratic candidate is the Antichrist and warn of the horrors if she or he is elected. It doesn’t matter if the Democrat or the Republican promises to protect the poor. All that matters is which one assures the voter’s stature in the afterlife. And who wants to go to hell because they voted for the Antichrist? Not me.
FAMINE CRACKED the earth, causing children’s bellies to swell. Mouths opened wide, babies’ heads hung limp over their mothers’ arms. For three years no rain fell. Well water became a distant memory for the people of Israel.
David asked God why suffering was overcoming his people. God said: “There is bloodguilt on Saul and on his house, because he put the Gibeonites to death.”
Saul was the previous king who tried to wipe out the Gibeonites during his reign—even though Israel had sworn to spare them. What comes next in 2 Samuel 21:1-14 takes my breath away. David calls the Gibeonites to the court and speaks with them directly. He asks them: “What shall I do for you? How shall I make expiation, that you may bless the heritage of the Lord?” (verse 3).
America’s 45th president will be held responsible for the decisions made during his administration. But also the physical health of our land and people will reflect the measure to which President-elect Trump faces and corrects his own sins as well as those that past presidents have perpetrated against our citizens and our global neighbors.
David asks the Gibeonites: “What do you say that I should do for you?” Could we imagine our next president calling together a conference of African-American leaders or Native American leaders or Latinx leaders and asking them: “What do you say that we should do for you?” Can you imagine putting that level of power in the hands of the oppressed—power to set the framework for repair?
THE NATION'S FIRST blockbuster television miniseries, Roots, shocked the nation when it started airing on Jan. 23, 1977. Based on Alex Haley’s research on his own family’s story and adapted for television from Haley’s novel, Roots offered the world its first cinematic depiction of Africa and Africans unfiltered through the conduit of Hollywood’s racialized imagination. White Tarzan and Jane were nowhere to be found in Juffure, Gambia. Kunta Kinte was the leading man. Fanta was his ingénue—black ... and beautiful.
For eight nights the Kinte family unfolded from generation to generation, focused on individual family members’ struggles against generations of evil white slave masters.
But the 2016 “reimagined” version of Roots places the snatched descendants of Omoro and Binta Kinte squarely within the unyielding machine of the international slave trade—an economic system that, fundamentally, sought the well-being of European nations at the expense of the rest of the world.
In 380 B.C.E., Plato articulated a grand idea in his treatise The Republic. There is this thing called “race,” he posited. Race is determined by the kind of metal a person is made of, he said: silver, gold, iron, or copper. A person’s race determines how that person serves society.
The transatlantic slave trade took Plato’s notion and expanded the “republic” to encompass the world. Guided by Western philosophers’ notions of human hierarchy, Western popes and monarchs declared the right of Europeans to enslave “uncivilized” peoples for the benefit of the crown. It didn’t take long for Plato’s copper and gold to morph into Virginia judicial law that delineated between slaves and servants based on skin color. Colonial “races” became white, black, and red.
THE ROAD WAS bumpy—full of deep holes and harrowing possibilities for slippage down a roadside slope. My heart raced as I considered the possible headline back home: Bus tumbles down Israeli slope—50 Americans killed by Palestinians. Yes, that would likely be the headline, but it wouldn’t tell the story.
As our bus rolled through this stretch southwest of Bethlehem, my heart raced as Amal Nassar explained that the area had been declared property of the Israeli state decades ago. Since then, Israel built smooth roads, but we weren’t allowed on them. To the right of our bouncing bus was an adjacent highway reserved for Israelis—Palestinians are restricted from driving on these Israeli highways, relegated to the old dirt roads.
Our bus wound around sharp corners, up a hill until it came to a stop. There didn’t seem to be any building structures in sight so I wondered why we’d stopped. Nassar explained that the Israeli government had set large boulders in the middle of the road to block traffic from reaching her family’s farm, so we would have to hike the rest of the way.
We stepped off the bus and onto a dirt road strewn with rocks and trash—old tires, plastic bags, plastic bottles. When the Israeli government claimed the land, it ceased basic services such as trash pick-up, electricity, and running water to Palestinians in the area. It was an effort to make life so difficult that the Palestinians would choose to leave—in modern human rights terms, the world calls this ethnic cleansing. Nassar explained that many families have chosen to leave. Once they are gone for three years, the Israeli government claims that their property has been abandoned and that the state then has legal grounds to claim the power of eminent domain over the land.
A MILLION YEARS ago, when I was 23 years old, I sat in a lecture hall, flanked by college students who tutored at the youth program where I worked. They had invited me to their campus ministry’s worship service. An Asian-American woman named Susan Cho—young (about my age), tall, straight-backed, clear-voiced, and refreshingly funny—stepped to the podium and began preaching.
I sat transfixed. She dove into the scripture and it came alive! She explained what was going on in the world of the biblical characters in a way that made it feel as if they were living today. I felt like I knew them—I understood them. And then she brought home the meaning of the text for our lives in Los Angeles, months after the 1992 riots. This woman gave one of the most dynamic and biblically accurate sermons I had ever heard.
But then a familiar thought came into my head: “This is heresy,” it whispered.
You see, in college I was part of an evangelical ministry in which women could lead behind the scenes and share their testimony during worship services, but we could not preach or, for that matter, teach the scripture—especially to men. Ideas of male dominance were never taught outright, but they were observed like tenets of the faith.
If Facebook feeds are any measure of anxiety levels, then we’re reaching a new high. Friends’ posts share news of overt hatred and violence, the likes of which we haven’t seen in decades:
- A seemingly unending onslaught of police killings of unarmed black people.
- White supremacists shooting people as they pray, setting fire to churches, and shooting into crowds of multiethnic protesters.
- More than 1,000 mass shootings in the U.S. since the 2012 massacre of children at Sandy Hook.
- Millions of Syrian and African refugees flowing into Europe—the greatest movement of people across Europe since the Holocaust.
- The so-called Islamic State ushering in what looks to be a new world war.
- Oh, and the climate is changing at an alarming rate.
It feels like the world is unraveling.
But what if it is? What if we are, in fact, witnessing the end of the world as we know it? Would that be so bad?
Think about it. The world order, as we know it, rests on deep foundations built by worldwide colonization, imperialism, slavery, patriarchy, exploitation, and ecological consumption. Most of the violence listed above traces back to economic and social systems of dominance—one group over another or humanity’s domination of the rest of creation. White supremacists feel threatened because people of color are finally rising up and saying “No more!”
While 16 mass shootings occurred between 1995 and 2005, there were 38 from 2005 to 2015, according to a recent report by Mother Jones. In recent years, people have pushed against the gun lobby with all their might, but the NRA seemed invincible.
POPE FRANCIS called our country to honor the sacredness of all human life. He called on Congress to embrace a consistent ethic of life—to abolish the death penalty. The state killed no one while Francis walked among us. But three days after his departure, blood flowed.
Six people in five states were scheduled to be executed in the U.S. within one week of each other in the beginning of October:
Wednesday, Sept. 30. Kelly Gissendaner, convicted for the orchestration of the 1997 murder of her husband, converted to Christianity while on death row in Georgia. Gissendaner, a respected student of theology, was put to death after three failed Supreme Court appeals.
Wednesday, Sept. 30. Richard Glossip, who is widely believed to be innocent of the 1997 murder-for-hire for which he was convicted, was scheduled to be executed in Oklahoma, but Gov. Mary Fallin issued a stay of execution. Fallin offered the stay not because she believed that Glossip was innocent, but rather because of questions over whether the state possessed the legal drug protocol to put him to death.
Thursday, Oct. 1. Alfredo Prieto was executed in Virginia for the rape and murder of a woman and her boyfriend in 1988. Prieto was believed to be a serial murderer with an IQ below 70, according to Amnesty International. Prieto had an appeal pending when the state killed him.
Friday, Oct. 2. Kimber Edwards was convicted of the murder-for-hire of his ex-wife in 2000, but another man recently confessed to having acted alone. Edwards, who has autism, originally confessed to the crime, but at his trial and ever since he has said he was innocent. His death sentence was commuted to life in prison by Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon.
EVEN AS SOUTHERN states—and GOP candidates—jumped through hoops to distance themselves from the Confederate flag, a backlash erupted among those claiming the flag was merely a symbol of “heritage.” Battle-flag waving Southerners (and Confederacy sympathizers) seemed to leap at the opportunity to wave their banner high.
But what about the rest of us? One of the most profound statements I’ve heard recently came from Rev. Jin Kim, founding pastor of Church of All Nations in Minnesota. This Korean-born pastor stood at the podium of the Sojourners Summit and said with conviction: “I am a white supremacist.”
How can this man, a person of color who’s dedicated his life to ethnic and cultural reconciliation, be a white supremacist? The same way any of us can. After all, at its heart white supremacy is not about white hoods, battle flags, and burning crosses. Those symbols are what we call explicit bias. People know when they are practicing it.
But most often white supremacy is about implicit bias that favors whiteness. It’s about the unconscious associations we make in our minds before we even know we’ve done it. White? Rich. Black? Poor. White? Good. Black? Bad. White? Trustworthy. Black? Scary. You get the idea.
These are the unconscious biases that shape the way we order our lives; the communities we live in, the places we shop, the churches we attend, the leadership from others we accept (or reject), and the policies we support (or don’t).
It’s not hard to fume at the thought of the killer of Mother Emanuel’s Nine. And it feels good to click “like” and share posts calling for the removal of Confederate flags.
But if we stop there, bias beats us. It is the unconscious biases of the masses that keep us from moving forward, not the explicit biases of the few. So, check out this tongue-in-cheek list of four easy ways to be a white supremacist (regardless of your own race).
1. Plan a conference on church planting with a speaker lineup so white it would make Honey Boo Boo blush. And if you want to increase your “diversity,” have one speaker of color (even if he is from India), an Asian emcee, and maybe a black worship leader.