Nice-Jewish-boy thoughts on the battle for the soul of American Christianity
South Africa's apartheid regime championed "Christian Nationalism", like today's US right. But a Christian liberation theology helped bring down apartheid. Could it help democratize America, too?
Onward Christian soldiers, marching as to war…
(Screen shot from New Yorker Video)
The most extraordinary moment, in New Yorker reporter Luke Mogelson’s extraordinary account and accompanying video of the January 6 raid on the U.S. Capitol came when the rioters prayed in the Senate chamber. The clownish Jacob Chansley removes his Halloween headgear, and declares, “Jesus Christ, we invoke, your name, Amen!” His fellow insurrectionists bow their heads in reverence or raise their arms to the heavens. His prayer thanks God for providing this opportunity “to send a message to all the tyrants, the communists, and the globalists, that this is our nation, not theirs, and that we will not allow the American way of the United States to go down. Thank you, divine, omniscient, omnipotent and omnipresent Creator for shining your white light and love with your white light of harmony. Thank you for filling this chamber with patriots that love you, Lord. And love Christ… and for blessing each and everyone of us here.” Etc.
It’s easy to laugh at the delusions of divinity of a crowd of angry white people leveraging their racist privilege to storm the legislature to demand power in the name of a grotesquely twisted Christianity of their movement’s own invention. But laughing it off would be dangerous. Because though their hateful ideology’s claim to Christian legitimacy may be spurious, it plays a vital role in emboldening them to act, with deadly consequences.
Christian nationalism may be a white-supremacist ideology falsely claiming to bear Christian witness, but it is a powerful, widely held worldview among Evangelical Christians in the United States. And, as a number of scholars, activists and progressive faith leaders (I highly recommend this piece by Poor People’s Movement co-chair Liz Theoharis of Union Theological Seminary) have pointed out, challenging the Christian credentials of “Christian Nationalism” is vital to the project of rolling back Trumpism, which empowered that ideology as never before.
I’m neither a theologian nor a believer, but it seems obvious to me that the antidote to the virus that is Christian Nationalism lies in Christianity itself, by reaffirming it as a faith grounded not on tribalism and hate, but on universal love, justice, solidarity and inclusion. The week in which America sterilizes the revolutionary meaning of the life of Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. seems a good time to think these thoughts.
What does a nice Jewish boy know from Jesus?
More than a bit, actually — and not simply because of an identification with the Jewish revolutionary of Pasolini’s marvelous Gospel According to St. Matthew (above, you can watch the whole thing on YouTube!) or the anti-occupation insurgent of Resa Aslan’s historical reading in Zealot. Nor even by a literary appreciation of the Portuguese communist Nobel literature laureate Jose Saramago’s materialist (in the metaphysics sense) Gospel According to Jesus Christ.
All of that cosmopolitan stuff came later. Being defined as white at birth in apartheid South Africa, Christianity — well, actually, Christian Nationalism — was literally core curriculum, even for those of us from homes where parents still spoke Yiddish to our grandparents.
Apartheid South Africa was rooted in a settler-colonial social order designed to viciously exploit a Black working class forced by their dispossession and systematic racist denial of their rights to toil for pittance in white South Africa’s mines, factories, farms and homes. The racism was blatant, violent, inescapable, with Black people denied the right even to live in cities unless their labor was required by white-owned industry, commerce or even households. At age 11, I remember seeing horrific photographs in the daily newspapers (there was no TV in SA back then, and this was 20 years before the Internet) of Black families being loaded onto trucks and forcibly deported to rural wastelands because apartheid laws deemed their presence in the city illegal. Every aspect of life was strictly segregated; the only Black people we white kids ever saw in our homes, our schools, our neighborhoods and public places, were those who were there to work in menial jobs.
But racists don’t like to think of themselves as bad people whose actions are immoral and harm others. A system of oppression works only if those implementing it believe in its virtue and their own; they need a moral code that sanctifies the cruelty they uphold and enact every day — an ontology that legitimizes their oppressive power. And in South Africa, that came in the form of the Calvinism of the Dutch Reformed Church, which sanctified apartheid as God’s will, offering Biblical “justification” for structural racism. Pretty much every security policeman who ever tortured a Black prisoner to death, every farmer holding a whip, every bureaucrat condemning poor Black people to poverty and misery, every teacher who taught us young white kids that this was all a natural, intractable and yes, God-willed state of affairs, was a believer. Not just in the tribal ideology of the ruling party, but in the twisted Christian theology that underwrote it.
Christian National Education was the title of school curriculum applied nationwide to all white children. Its purpose was to teach a white-supremacist world view as Christian gospel, and of course, love of the apartheid state as the protector of that white supremacy and as the bulwark against “godless communism” and its ideologies of racial equality.
At school, that meant literally sitting through a church service in the assembly hall every single day — one day in English, the next day in Afrikaans, and it all sank in even if my inclination to support the other side meant I never embraced any of the meanings.
I can recite the Lord’s Prayer from memory in both languages, not that I ever prayed, and the lyrics plenty of hymns have stuck in my head, too — from the innocence of “We Plough the Fields and Scatter” and “All Things Bright and Beautiful” in elementary school, to more menacing broadswords-for-Christ Crusader stuff like “Stand Up for Jesus” and “Onward Christian Soldiers” in high school.
As if that wasn’t enough, we had to endure two hours a week of “Religious Instruction” in class, basic theology for young white supremacists. As a Jew (with rapidly evolving “godless-communist” inclinations, i.e. a belief in racial equality and democratic majority rule) I wasn’t required to participate, but had to sit in the class for the two hours of the lesson. And so, yeah, I have a working knowledge, by osmosis, of many of the fables in the St. James Bible, though I’ve never read it — mercifully, I was spared the fate suffered by some of my friends in my later activist years of solitary confinement in the regime’s cells with only a Bible to read, which prompted many a Marxist interpretation scribbled into the margins.
The regime’s enforcers believed — truly believed — they were doing God’s work when they were shooting, torturing and imprisoning Black people (and the handful of white comrades who fought alongside them) who dared to challenge the apartheid order. God ordained this, just as he had the Boer settlers’ victory over the Zulu army of Dingane at Blood River on December 16, 1838 — a day we were given as a public holiday every year — Day of the Covenant — to celebrate the settlers’ pact with God.
And it’s plain to see how the same phenomenon has been at play in sanctifying white-supremacism in the United States. Does any of the preachers in the video below actually believe that Donald Trump “believes in the power of prayer”? And does it matter to them that he probably doesn’t, if they believe he was God’s chosen instrument?
Apartheid America — like Apartheid South Africa did — relies for its enforcement on the moral warding created by a nationalist ideology packaged in Christian lexicon. Many of the rioters who stormed the Capitol said in the moment, or on being arrested after, that they had acted with God’s blessing. But does the Christianity of the Trump base also present an opportunity?
Chatting it back rude
“If you want to keep people subjugated, the last thing you place in their hands is a Bible. There's nothing more radical, nothing more revolutionary, nothing more subversive against injustice and oppression than the Bible.” — Archbishop Desmond Tutu
“They give us their Bible, but we chat it back rude…” — Jamaican proverb (whose authenticity I can’t vouch for) shared with me by an old Scottish Rasta-phile friend
Working-class culture is nothing like library-left Marxists imagine it should be. Even when working class people act collectively as the subject of history to challenge capitalism and autocracy, the idiom of that struggle is often not to be found in the textbook-revolutionary glossary. (I’m reminded, here, of an idiotic screed by Terry Eagleton denouncing football as an opiate of the masses and insisting that “Nobody serious about political change can shirk the fact that the game has to be abolished.” And also of debates inside various communist parties a century ago about whether religion was acceptable among the party faithful.)
I remember, as a young activist, at one of the earliest mass meetings I ever attended in a Black squatter camp on the edge of Cape Town, being struck by a local construction worker seeking to rally his community to fight against forced removals by denouncing the apartheid regime as “Herod!” And the more speakers I heard that afternoon, and on many others, it became clear to me — per Tutu’s point — that the ability of Black working class people to locate themselves and their plight in the Bible’s stories denouncing oppression and tyranny was playing a vital part in building and legitimizing resistance to the regime among South Africa’s Black working class.
Reverend Howard Marawu (simply “Rev” to the comrades) was a veteran of the then-banned ANC from its earlier days of legal mass work, and he built trade union organization at the factory gates in wearing his priestly dog collar. Once asked what Church he was part of, Rev answered with a twinkle, “You know in the union movement we have registered (state) and unregistered (independent) unions? My church is the unregistered church.”
Mass meetings in African working class communities were always heavy with prayers and hymns of struggle — many of them literally church songs whose lyrics had been altered — creating the cadences of worship and the collective invocation of God, and the solidarity and communion that communal singing creates. Our struggle national anthem asked God - in Xhosa and in Sotho - to bless Africa and hear our prayers. Such singing, which we white lefties felt privileged to join, often felt as if it were conjuring a better world into being, inspiring and emboldening a growing mass of South Africans to face down the regime. (Footnote: To my American friends, I’ll humbly suggest that it’s a lot easier to find inspiration and succor for the spirit of justice, never mind rhythm and stamina marching down a street to something like this than to dry chants of “whose streets? our streets” or “this is what democracy looks like”.)
And, of course, many of those leading the mass movement for liberation in South Africa’s townships and cities where priests — not only the high-profile figures like Tutu and Alan Boesak, but the disciplined movement leaders like Frank Chikane, Smangaliso Mkatshwa, Barney Pityana and Beyers Naude — and the militant grassroots priests like Chris Nissen, Sid Luckett, Michael Lapsley, Paul Verryn and my dear friend Michael Weeder. Those, and so, so many, many more.
And then there were the Christian activists inside secular organizations, building the movement at every level, making immense sacrifices and taking huge risks, having come through the rigorous activist training and discipline of the Christian left: Steeped in the traditions of the Catholic Worker Movement and the liberation theology of Latin America, mindful always that the Jesus of the Gospels had announced himself as the revolutionary bearer of “good news for the poor”, and of the idea that building God’s Kingdom on earth meant organizing and empowering the poor to fight for justice. These comrades were zealots in the tradition of Reza Aslan’s Jesus of Nazareth, and of the likes of Camilo Torres, the Dominican friar Frei Betto (whose conversations with Fidel Castro on Marxism and Christianity could usually be found on their bookshelves), the Salvadoran martyr Bishop Oscar Romero, and the Nicaraguan revolutionary priest Ernesto Cardenal — clerics for whom there was no contradiction between Christianity and socialist ideas; on the contrary, the revolutionary fire of Jesus’ example burned bright in their own hearts and fueled an unparalleled degree of dedication and commitment in their activism among the poor and oppressed.
Some of the most impressive comrades I had the privilege to work alongside in the anti-apartheid struggle had come through the Christian Left, and I was in awe of their discipline and commitment. (Sometimes I still trot out their leftie interpretations of Biblical tales, like when Jesus fed the multitudes with just five loaves and two fishes, what actually happened, they told me, was that his small offering prompted everyone to share what food they had brought, and that way, every mouth was fed — which, by way of a musical digression, is how Jamaica’s mighty poet I-Roy melodiously defined socialism.)
So, where suffering through the twisted Christianity of the regime every day at school assembly was my lot until age 18, soon after my activist life exposed me to an alternative Christianity. Not for any religious reasons, but simply by virtue of the venues used for most of our movement meetings and rallies in Black working class neighborhoods, I spent more of my adult life in churches than I ever did in synagogues.
Just as racist oppression in America has always claimed divine sanction, so has resistance to that oppression also carried a strong and visible sense of bearing Christian witness. The sermons of the Rev. William Barber and the Poor People’s Movement he leads alongside Liz Theoharis, are an urgent and vital inspiration:
Today’s progressive leadership in Congress features voices like Reverend Raphael Warnock and even Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who is comfortable going into a Church and preaching about Christ and social justice. The Church plays a central role in progressive organization in Georgia and other Southern states, organizing and empowering Black working class people.
It’s a complex and challenging terrain, as we know, but a vital one to which we should all be paying far more attention.
In apartheid South Africa, Christian discourse also provided an off-ramp for some of the regime’s supporters to stand down, to accept the sinfulness of their system, reconcile themselves with equality and ask forgiveness — in the common discourse they shared with the moral underwriters of the liberation project: Such epiphanies were common among individual high profile white Christian figures before the end of apartheid, and the narrative of Truth and Reconciliation Commission headed by Bishop Tutu — for all its limitations and faults — exemplified this idea and possibility, that Christianity creates a pathway for weakening, disabling and dismantling white nationalism. Not by itself, of course, not absent intense social-justice struggles on other fronts. But Christian witness against apartheid played a role in unraveling the ideological conviction that sustained the system’s enforcers in South Africa. And I have a feeling that the social-justice project in America may need to create pathways, also, for at least some of the adherents of “Christian Nationalism” to find their way back to a Christianity based on justice and equality. Curious to hear your thoughts.
Sanitizing America’s Socialist Anthem
It was lovely, as ever, to hear This Land is Your Land being sung at the Biden-Harris inauguration, because that song is a heartfelt hymn to the socialist spirit of justice and inclusion in America. And of course, just as our “official” memory of Martin Luther King erases the radicalism of his challenge to American inequality, so is the “official” version of Woodie Guthrie’s iconic song — the version sung by J-Lo at the inauguration, for example — usually delivered with a few edits to neutralize the song’s radical meaning. (Woodie was a communist, remember, and as his fellow communist and friend Pete Seeger makes clear in the clip above, the sanitizing is accomplished by excising a few of the, uh, class-struggle verses…)
Pete Seeger, in the video above, points out that this Woodie Guthrie verse has been excised from the schoolbooks:
In the square of the city
In the shadow of the steeple
By the welfare office
I saw my people
As they stood there hungry, I stood there whistling
This Land Was Made for You and Me
That verse seems quite relevant to today’s America, no? And I can imagine that many thousands of Amazon workers might feel their plight captured in this (excised) verse:
Maybe you've been working as hard as you're able,
But you've just got crumbs from the rich man's table,
And maybe you're thinking, was it truth or fable,
That this land was made for you and me.
Woodie Guthrie celebrated the beauty and possibility of America and its people, and invited all of us to think beyond neoliberalism:
Was a great high wall there that tried stop me
Was a great big sign there, said Private Property
But on the other side it didn’t say nothing
This land was made for you and me
Red Dawn-ing the Capitol Raid
So, a couple of weeks ago, I offered some thoughts on Red Dawn and Cold War liberalism’s search for new foreign perils around which to organize the US national security state. And then last weekend, I saw this silliness from Ben Rhodes.
Kyle Griffin @kylegriffin1Breaking Politico: The FBI is investigating evidence that a woman who entered the Capitol on Jan. 6 stole a laptop or hard drive from Speaker Nancy Pelosi's office and intended to sell it to Russians. https://t.co/4OcIYFTV2E
Ben, you’re a clever chap, so why are you mirroring the deranged Trumpist conspiracy theory about an election stolen in a joint Russian-Chinese-Iranian-Venezuelan-North Korean cyber op by asking us to imagine the hidden hand of Beijing or Moscow at work in what was a very American riot? Maybe you think painting the white nationalist insurgency as serving Chinese or Russian goals is going to help stabilize the US political order around a new phantom menace? Puhleeze, look how well Russiagate worked out. And if you really think Moscow needs to break windows and purloin hardware to find out what’s on Nancy Pelosi’s laptop, you really haven’t been paying attention. Leave the Cold War fantasies to the Blob — that term of art you so archly coined to describe the DC foreign policy establishment. The threat to American democracy is as American as Diet Coke.