Healing from white supremacy as I approach the cross
When we went to Mexico City in February I was looking forward to visiting churches that were not awash in whiteness. Christianity in America, at least in the way it is communicated through its cultural presence, political allegiance, and its most powerful institutions, often feels allied to white supremacy. I’m not talking about bedsheets and burning crosses; I’m talking about the casual assumption in conversations about Christianity in America that whiteness is the measure of all things.
I’m over this assumption, for obvious reasons. For years it put a wedge between me and the Lord because it was hard for me to imagine myself as fully belonging in the presence of God when I felt alienated from his people. The majority-white churches and ministries that shaped my early faith nurtured me in profound ways, but they also led me to confuse aspects of whiteness for forms of Christian piety. As I’ve traveled in adulthood, I’ve treated time abroad as temporary relief from the confusions I often feel at home in the American church.
Mexico City didn’t give me the kind of satisfaction I wanted. I was hoping to find the peace I experienced in Taichung when I heard prayers spoken in Taiwanese, and saw the endurance of Christian faith outside the forces of colonialism. Mexico City was more complicated than I had anticipated - the legacies of whiteness and colonialism were everywhere visibly entangled with the church. There was the Metropolitan Cathedral built atop the ruins of the Templo Mayor, the colorism ubiquitous as the city’s religious iconography, the inescapable themes of colonization and genocide and religious identity that shaped much of the artwork we looked at during our visit. I was so grieved. I think my hunger to travel is in part a hunger for exculpation from the sins of the American church.
I’d like to find a church that hasn’t compromised its belief in the Genesis narrative of people being created in the image of God. I’m looking for church communities that haven’t despised the revelation of Christ that was intended to be delivered through their particular culture and language. On some level I think I was looking for churches characterized by indigenousness because I associated indigenousness with wholeness and authenticity, and I wanted someone to teach me how to be whole in my faith, in my own skin. In Mexico City I had to admit to myself that the kind of church I was searching for, innocent of colonialism or enslavement or any sin against the image of God in his creation, probably doesn’t exist. This is because blameless people don’t exist, and churches are made up of people. I already knew this, but I wanted to search anyway.
The Metropolitan Cathedral was built by Spanish conquistadors atop a Mexica holy site. The Mexica were their own empire, conducting their own conquests before the Spanish arrived. Before the Mexica were the Toltecs, and I suppose if I trace this line all the way back I will find Cain murdering his brother, taking the life of another human being in hopes of enriching his own. White or not, indigenous or not, woke or not, whatever categories you want to place people in - blamelessness doesn’t exist.
This line of thinking can get a little dark, but I have found it relieving. The Book of Hebrews refers to the Word of God as a sword, and the Proverbs say the wounds of a friend can be trusted. The Scriptural reality of human brokenness and the need for a savior feels like a truth inflicted upon me, but it also feels like a surgeon’s cut, skillfully and gently administered to facilitate a deeper healing.
In the twelve years since I first read Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man I’ve returned multiple times to its concept of plunging outside history. At eighteen I didn’t know why the idea gripped me in the way it did; as I approach thirty I realize that it summarized what I’ve always wanted my faith to do for me. I was looking for an escape chute from the mistakes of the past and a future shaped by its consequences, and I imagined I would find it in the presence of people so transformed by their faith that they would show me a way out. In the years that followed I did meet admirable people who instructed me through their love for God and for the world, but in the end no one could offer the entirety of what I wanted. At the end of this search there is only Jesus, and again, I find that he is sufficient.
If the history I struggle to escape is defined by human pride justifying the subjugation of one human being or an entire people group for the enrichment of another, the path to plunging outside history is the path leading to and from the cross. More and more I understand why Jesus’ response to human sinfulness was to be silent before his accusers, and to cry out in the course of his public execution “Father forgive them, for they know not what they do.” Nothing could make him complicit in the human impulses toward self-preservation, self-aggrandizement, or self-seeking, which I believe are the roots of all human brokenness from the first act of murder to all the acts of enslavement and exploitation that have followed. The message of his earthly ministry was “repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand,” and as he approached the cross he demonstrated the nature of that Kingdom with a quiet and gentle spirit in the face of earthly power, and with a tender heart which, while being reviled, did not revile in return.
Jesus, the Son of God, who had more right than anyone to demand our deference showed his holiness, his complete otherness, by living and dying as the servant of all. If the history I feel so burdened by is the fruit of relentless self-seeking, his loving servitude is its most effective rebuke and truest antidote.
For years I’ve wanted someone, a church or a person, to show me the way out of a Christian culture that can seem indistinguishable from the dominant culture that houses it. Yet here is another painful truth that is revealed through the cross, both afflicting and healing me — Jesus, in his wisdom and compassion, also chose the cross because he knew we could never pay the debts we owe to him and to one another.
I hate the racist theologies I was taught as a child. I hate how white supremacy has blinded entire swathes of the American church. And yet who do I expect to apologize to me, or to undo the hurts of the past? Another truth of the cross is that earthly power means nothing in the Kingdom; in the eyes of God greatness is humility, kingship is servitude; even if a group of people seem powerful in the eyes of the world, without the redemptive love of God they are still emotionally and spiritually bankrupt. A wrong may be committed against me, but more often than not, the wrongdoer does not have what is needed to heal me.
At the cross all these truths converge: We have proven, again and again, our need for a savior. There is only one way out of the cycle of human brokenness and that is through Jesus’ path of love and self-sacrifice, even unto death. Because we have incurred more debts than we can afford to pay, all that we owe to one another and to God can only be accounted for through the forgiveness Jesus administers at the cross. These truths lead to a final revelation, which Jesus alluded to each time he foretold his death to disciples and followers who expected him to triumph over their disappointments in a way they could recognize - in the Kingdom of God, the path that seems to lead to death is the only path that leads to life.
Did it feel like death for Jesus to wash the feet of the disciple who would deliver him to his enemies? Did it feel like death when he chose to heal the soldier sent to take him captive? How easy it would have been to curse Judas or to let the injured soldier bleed, but each time Jesus, in mercy and compassion, extended his hand. On the Sea of Galilee he revealed himself to be peace in the midst of a storm, and I picture him approaching his death with the same authority he brought to calm the waters.
There is a storm all around him, the kind that has always moved humanity to anger and self-defense, but in the clamor of voices accusing him, the mob jeering at him, the hands grasping for him, he is still. In his final moments he ministers to the criminal being crucified at his side. He makes intercession for those who have betrayed him. As he dies the veil separating people from the Holy of Holies is torn in two, and when he is resurrected three days later I imagine him standing over the empty tomb the way he stood over the seas he quieted.
His death and resurrection are mysteries I believe in and only partially understand, but I understand enough to see them as the doorways out of human history and into the Kingdom that he preached.
But Jesus called them to him and said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. It shall not be so among you. But whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be your slave, even as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”