White American Christianity’s Tribal Flaw

“Indeed, an hour is coming when those who kill you will think that by doing so they are offering worship to God.”
— John 16:2

When your icon of the enemy is complete
you will be able to kill without guilt,
slaughter without shame.
The thing you destroy will have become
merely an enemy of God, an impediment
to the sacred dialectic of history.

— Sam Keen (Faces of the Enemy)

I can’t stop thinking about the pastor (here in North Texas) who called for gay people to be shot. (I shall not name him, or his church, and I certainly hope you don’t visit his website…)
I can’t help thinking about the thirty one White Supremacists, arrested near a Pride celebration in Idaho.

One of them was from the same town as that North Texas preacher.
Did he go to that church?
Had he heard the message of that church?

I don’t know. But I know it doesn’t really matter. Because White American Christianity is in the air. It’s in the culture. And it plays a key role in theologizing, in giving permission, to all manner of homophobia, racism, and real and potential violence. It was in the action of Dylan Roof. And it’s in the words of this “preachers” from North Texas. It’s being loosed and given permission time and again in our present day.

Last Sunday in church, we read this chilling line of scripture in the Gospel reading:

“Indeed, an hour is coming when those who kill you will think that by doing so they are offering worship to God.”

That is a line that horrifically describes the heart of White American Christian theology….except much of White American Christianity has no idea that it’s a line about THEM.

But make no mistake: killing, threatening, harassing, abusing others is the complete opposite of Jesus’ stated mission as Messiah. Paradoxically, Jesus wanted to destroy the idea of “The Enemy” or “The Other,” not give it oxygen and new life for two thousand more years.

Jesus very clearly teaches that we’re to love our neighbor as ourselves…and that our neighbor is the one we think is our enemy. Jesus meant for his words to push and challenge everyone in every age. And in our age, no one more than White Christians, themselves.

But time and again, in our day, the Church fails to see how those words apply to the Church itself.

Time and again, instead of understanding the challenging call that Jesus gave us to us, the Church itself becomes inward-looking, racist, homophobic, xenophobic.

This is not a flaw in Christianity.
I mean, it IS. But it’s not just a flaw of just Christianity.

This is because of a flaw in the human animal.
And we see this illustrated in the very first time Jesus preaches in the Gospel of Luke.

I come back to this story time and again, and I am sure the good people of my Church are sick of me reminding them about it. But, to me, it matters deeply because it sets the tone for everything else that happens in the Gospels. It helps us see that Jesus’ life was in danger…from the very beginning of his ministry…and for a very clear, and specific reason.

We present-day Christians would do well to unpack the reason. To ask WHY that crowd suddenly wants to kill Jesus that day.
And we would do well to see that, more often than not, WE have become the “crowd” today.

Did the crowd went to kill Jesus because they refused to recognize him as “Their personal Lord and Savior?”
(This is common, false interpretation: “They were unsaved Jews…they resisted him as Messiah…”)

No, it’s clearly not that. In point of fact, their initial reaction to him as Messiah is SUPER POSITIVE.

Jesus reads them a passage from Isaiah, and says “today, this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.”

They’re SUPER excited.
They’re SO PROUD of their hometown prophet.

But a moment later, he adds an important clarification. The great prophets, Jesus reminds his hometown friends, were called to love and serve all people…even foreigners.

And at this exact moment, the text says, the the crowd turns from ADORATION to RAGE.
They literally go from idealizing Jesus to wanting to kill him.

We must again be clear about this: This is not because of some flaw in the Jewish people of his hometown. This is because of a flaw in the human animal itself.

We are, all of us, deeply tribal in our bones. We defend our tribes with irrational zeal. We “Otherize” those we deem on the outside.

Much of White American Christianity is built on from a foundation of Otherizing entire groups of humans: African-Americans, the LGBTQ community, Immigrants, Foreigners.

This is where Sam Keen’s powerful poem comes in. One of the most important books in my life as been Sam Keen’s “Faces of the Enemy.”

Keen unpacks the hard truth of how the human species creates “The Other.” The book does so by analyzing war propaganda posters from the past 100 or so years. (He looks at how propaganda posters portray OUR tribe…and how they portray the “Other”)

Keen’s thesis is that it’s actually quite hard to train-up humans to kill each other at scale. That’s why armies work so hard to “train” soldiers, because the natural human inclination is to not kill other humans at scale.
(And, it’s why some soldiers have a hard time with “re-entry” into every-day life…)

Theology has an important part in this enemy-making process. (All theology, of all religions, btw, not just White American Christianity…)

Theology provides the final, horrific step; where the “Other” becomes not just a sub-human animal…but literally “the enemy of God.” It is when an enemy becomes a subhuman enemy of God that the tribal-switch flips and our tribe suddenly feels the freedom to kill your tribe.

Which gets us back to Jesus’ hometown crowd, wanting to kill him…and then, later, the chilling line in the Gospel of John:

“Indeed, an hour is coming when those who kill you will think that by doing so they are offering worship to God.”

By the time the Jesus of John’s Gospel says this, he’s well aware of the tribal nature of the human animal, and the all-too human threat to his life. So, he turns to his Disciples and delivers this bone chilling warning.

As always, theology matters. Different theologies get you to very different understandings of how we should treat other human beings. Every major world religion has myriads of theological “schools” and views that result in quite different outcome in terms of real-world ethics and morality.

For example, “Atonement Theologies” —theologies that suggests God somehow intentionally sent Jesus into the world to be crucified and die— let humanity off the hook, and put God on it. The over-emphasis, present in almost all atonement theologies, on the cross being “cosmically necessary” in order for God to “save” humanity, allows humanity to look away from the truth:

Humans killed Jesus, not God. (Execution at the hands of the State…)
Some humans were out to kill him from the first time he spoke.
And all this is because of humanity’s deeply tribal core, not because God requires cosmic sacrifice.

In every age, Jesus’ true message of radical inclusion —turning away from the process of enemy making altogether— is a threat to the tribal lizard brain deep inside of us all.

White American Christians have a special responsibility to acknowledge the continuing harm White American Christianity does to people of color, the LGBTQ community and others.

Two of my theological heroes, Brian McLaren and Nadia Bolz-Weber, have written eloquently about the lethal “innocence” that many White Christians have about their faith, its history, and its practice. I think they are spot on about this. Our pretended “innocence” as White People…our willingness to excuse white Supremacist Christian theologies as “not like us” is unhelpful, dangerous actually, today.

To our dear LGBTQ community, I say:
I am sorry you must contend with the homophobic actions of so many wrong-headed Christians. Please know, during Pride Month and every month, that we love you and support you….without reservation or hidden agenda. And that we do so because Jesus calls us to love and serve all humans, with no preconditions.

To other White Christians: I invite you on the journey of unpacking the harmful theology of our “tribe.”

I invite you to unpack that horrific line of scripture from the Gospel of John.

In our time, in our culture, those who kill, and believe they are “offering worship to God,” very often claim to be Christian.

The scripture also implicitly reminds us that standing up to White American Christianity will not be a journey without cost.

As Jesus knew from his very first sermon, when we stand up to our own tribe, that is the time when we are most at risk, most at danger.

But it’s the true calling of Jesus.

And if Christianity is to have any real meaning at all, it’s a journey you will take.

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Eric Folkerth is a minister, musician, author and blogger. He is Senior Pastor of Kessler Park UMC United Methodist Church in Dallas, Texas. Previously, he was pastor at Northaven UMC in Dallas for seventeen years. Eric loves to write on topics of spirituality, social justice, music/art and politics. The entries on this blog reflect that diversity of interests. His passion for social justice goes beyond mere words. He’s been arrested at the White House, defending immigrants and “The Dreamers,” and he’s officiated at same sex weddings in his churches, in defiance of what some believe is Methodist teaching. Eric is an avid blogger and published author, and 2017 recipient of the prestigeous Kuchling Humanitarian Award from Dallas’ Black Tie Dinner. (Human Rights Campaign) Eric has led or co-led hundreds of persons on mission trips around the globe, to places such as Mexico, Haiti, Russia, and Nepal. He has worked with lay persons to build ten homes, and one Community Center, in partnership with Habitat for Humanity of Dallas. He’s a popular preacher, and often tackles challenging issues of social justice in his writings and sermons. His wife, Judge Dennise Garcia, is a State District Judge for Dallas, County. As judge of the 303rd Family District Court, she consistently gets high ratings from area lawyers, and was named “best judge” by The Dallas Observer. First elected in 2004, she was the first Latina ever elected to a county-wide bench in Dallas County, and is currently the longest service district judge in that district. She was re-elected for a fourth term in 2018. They have the world’s best daughter, Maria, and an incredible dog, Daisy. Find links to Eric’s music-related websites, at the top of this site’s navigation menu.

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