If the Victors Write History Where is the Authentic History of the Losers Called Christians?

While it may be hard to trace the survival of the fullness of the gospel in particular periods of church history, to assume that it is fully traceable historically or institutionally would seem to be a category mistake. It would be to assume that the victors are capable of writing a history of losers (those who take up the cross). At the same time, to presume Constantine or the Dark Ages or American Evangelicalism wiped out any trace of the authentic gospel, presumes Roman Catholicism, Eastern Orthodoxy, or Protestantism, with their various institutions and formulations, are the sole purveyors of the gospel. I am not suggesting the gospel is to be found in a retreat to human interiority or individuality, though interiority is not excluded, but I assume that the word of the cross is, as Paul describes it, a suspension of the symbolic order in which the law and its oppressive force is rendered inactive. The symbolic order is that place where things are thought to endure, where history is written, where people make their mark, where institutions reign, and it is where order is maintained through an established hierarchy (the arche of this world), but this is precisely what the gospel is not.

The symbolic order or the law cannot be reduced to commands or instructions but includes, in various N.T. illustrations, the institutions and history of Israel but institutions in general (the institution of marriage, ethnicity, social class, etc.). Paul will equate the human struggle on both the cosmic and the individual psychological level as a struggle with the law or the symbolic. In short, the symbolic order is an order of reality which the gospel challenges. This may seem to be an implausible statement, which I want to show to be the case, but then I want to suggest that given this truth, the history of the church will have to be written and read from beneath this suspension of the “given” order of reality. In the case of the American church, this place beneath is exemplified by black experience under the prevailing “white” symbolic order.

 Jesus (in Luke 13:7) uses the same word as Paul in suggesting that the fig tree, representing Israel or the institutions of Israel, should be cut down or rendered inactive (καταργέω). Paul uses a gentler image in depicting childhood as suspended or rendered inactive by maturity (I Cor. 13:11) but he depicts the suspension of the law as on the order of the suspension of a marriage due to death (Ro. 7:2). One order of life, childhood or married life, may hover behind or overhead but it is suspended in the past or in midair by another order. The constraints of childhood or marriage, the limitations – inclusive of rules but also pertaining to vision and capacity, are lifted.

 Paul uses a different expression that gets at the same idea, in suggesting that the Christian identity should not be tied to marriage or society but one participates in these things “as if not” (I Cor. 7). The law is an all-inclusive category for Paul, but it is not the law per se that is the problem, any more than it is marriage or singleness or slave or free that is the problem. It is the arche or principalities and powers of this world which stand behind the symbolic structures, and it is the constraint or oppression which the arche deploy through the symbolic order that is suspended. Paul says that for the Christian these things are rendered powerless (I Cor. 2:6) through the wisdom of God. One cannot escape law and language any more than one can escape marital status or social status but the point is not escape but suspension of the oppressive hold these things can have.

 Ironically, Luther aggravates the problem of the power behind the law by conflating the law with this power and creating a religion that would empty itself of any remnant of law – thus creating the law of no law – or the empty faith in faith of modern Protestantism. The point is not to obliterate or destroy any of these categories but to not let them bind identity. One is not primarily a law keeper or a law breaker (circumcised or uncircumcised), married or single, Jew or Greek, male or female, Eastern Orthodox or Roman Catholic, Protestant or Anabaptist. None of these categories can bear the weight of prime identity and when they are made to bear that weight, they deal out death in the same manner as those who crucified Jesus (I Cor. 2:8). The Lutheran reaction to the Anabaptists (slaughtering them) makes the point – where the law is the thing, death reigns. Pharisees, no matter if they are of the Lutheran, Baptist, Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, or American brand always make the mistake of identifying the sign, the law, or the symbolic order, with the thing itself. This consistently proves deadly.

The “as if not” identity and lifestyle does not concern itself with dispensing with this order, it simply sidesteps its power (through Christ) and does not let it play a determinative role. This suspension of the law, the cessation of its continual condemnation, is as broad and all-inclusive as the symbolic order itself, but now this order no longer oppresses and condemns. The N.T. exposes the pursuit of power as being possessed by power, the pursuit of wealth as an idolatrous succumbing to a poverty of spirit, the attempt to control chaos as being out of control. Or as Paul will depict it, the attempt to conquer the agonistic struggle within is the origin of this struggle. Jesus models a relinquishing of power and control in his lifestyle of poverty, of turning the other cheek, and ultimately in submitting to crucifixion.

Key, in both the N.T. and in the radical reformation, is the presumption that Jesus models the peaceful, suspended sort of life. It is his choice of identifying with the poor that imparts wealth to those who follow him (2 Cor. 8:9) and it is his disempowering cruciform identity which Mary’s song proclaims, “has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty'” (Luke 1:52-3). Jesus can walk through the barriers put up by the symbolic order as easily as walking through doors or as permanently as being raised from the dead. One can move through this matrix with him, something like Neo, as it is only binding upon those who imagine it is absolute. The resurrection life-style of “as if not” suspension is captured in a series of images in the N. T. but I presume they are all focused on the same experience of peace, freedom, and unity, which breaks down the walls of hostility definitive of the symbolic order that enslaves and deals out death.

The Hutterites will refer to this experience as Gelassenheit, a term carried over from mysticism which means “having-let-go-ness.” As with Paul’s “as if not” there is an abandonment of self-concern or self-affirmation and a relinquishing of the desire to be in charge or to rule over things.[1] It directly correlates with the situation in Corinthians in which Paul is dealing with rivalries among members at the same time as the church is submitting to the authoritarian super-apostles, who seem to be literally slapping them around. These leaders would extract obedience through shaming or public humiliation and Paul is offering a counter to this illegitimate authority. The Corinthians have yet to completely extract themselves from the illegitimate authority of their culture and Paul is both demonstrating in his own life and telling the Christians that coercive authority is illegitimate. To secure oneself through these coercive principles and powers (arche) is the natural human disposition and Paul is putting into place anarchic Christian communities of those who would resist the powers or arche.

With this understanding in place, that there is both the symbolic order with its all-inclusive structures and there is the gospel’s suspension of the condemnation of this symbolic order, the question is raised as to how to find the church and how to understand its history? Is the Constantinian shift and the empowerment of popes, bishops, and councils to be identified with the church or with its near disappearance? Is the Protestant Reformation a recovery of what was lost? Or as I stated above, while it may be hard to trace the survival of the fullness of the gospel in particular periods of church history, is it a category mistake to assume that it is traceable through “normal” historical and institutional channels?

As I have previously shown, the Protestant Reformation normalized the Constantinian ethic (e.g. just war), the Constantinian relation of church and state (the sword of the prince protects and decides for the church), the Constantinian sense of history (God is at work through the principalities and powers), and the Constantinian ethos (the dualism(s) aligning church and state in the same goal from different directions – the left hand and right hand of God). Prior to the Protestant Reformation there was a concession to Constantinianism which, nonetheless, left intact, at least among the majority of common people, the sense that killing is sinful and the understanding that the core of the church is a realm apart from the violent and oppressive necessities enacted primarily by those at the upper level of society. Though we mainly know of the top of the hierarchy from those who would tell this story as if a singular thing is happening (from their view as enforcers of the symbolic order), if the story could be told from the bottom, or from within the place of the gospel suspension of power, I presume that tales of popes and councils, bishops and kings, would hardly figure into the history at all.

This is the sort of narrative that we encounter throughout the Bible. The history of a people of no consequence culminating in a tale of a crucified carpenter’s son, is meant to cause us to identify with the dispossessed and outcasts, just as Jesus did.  If we read reality and history from the biblical perspective, we understand that the rise and fall of earthly kings, or of the presumed people of importance, are only blinders to the real story culminating in the cross. Perhaps due to pervasive Constantinianism we have trouble discerning the biblical perspective in our own context.

In the American experience it is not Jew/Gentile or male/female so much as white/black which grounds the symbolic order. As James Baldwin describes it, “I was also able to see that the principles governing the rites and customs of the churches in which I grew up did not differ from the principles governing the rites and customs of other churches, white. The principles were Blindness, Loneliness, and Terror, the first principle necessarily and actively cultivated in order to deny the two others.”[2] The dominance of the value system of the ruling culture emptied the gospel for Baldwin. “I would love to believe that the principles were Faith, Hope, and Charity, but this is clearly not so for most Christians, or for what we call the Christian world.” Baldwin describes a Christianity that “has operated with an unmitigated arrogance and cruelty” as it has identified itself with “the realm of power.” He describes this Constantinian form of the faith as “more deeply concerned about the soul than it is about the body, to which fact the flesh (and the corpses) of countless infidels bears witness.”[3]

Baldwin is left under the crushing weight of the symbolic order thrust upon him, but James Cone describes the cross as enabling the lifting of the anger and pain entailed in black oppression. “The more I read about and looked at what whites did to powerless blacks, the angrier I became. Paradoxically, anger soon gave way to a profound feeling of liberation. Being able to write about lynching liberated me from being confined by it. The cross helped me to deal with the brutal legacy of the lynching tree, and the lynching tree helped me to understand the tragic meaning of the cross.”[4] The countless acts of violence enacted on black bodies in lynching and murder brought Cone to a definitive choice: “Either God is identified with the oppressed to the point that their experience becomes God’s experience, or God is a God of racism.” We must accept, according to Cone, “that God is known where human beings experience humiliation and suffering” and that He identifies with the oppressed and suffering. [5] I believe the liberation Cone describes is not unlike the suspension of the law, the “as if not,” or Gelassenheit in which oppression can be thwarted and freedom and peace realized in the face of death through the work of the cross.

In this understanding, the true history of Christianity can only be written or told by those rendered invisible by the symbolic order. This is not the invisibility Augustine proposed, an otherworldly and indiscernible group of the chosen. This is a form of symbolic blindness in which the suffering are invisible to those who are stepping on their necks. The cross is a means of erasure, a means of rendering insignificant, so that if the history of those who take up the cross is to be written, by definition it cannot be authored by those who crucify. Those who exercise power and violence, whether that of the state or church, may speak with the loudest voices, but they cannot speak for those who witness to an order suspended by the cross.

This history has yet to be written, and perhaps it can never be written, but it is a perspective that must presume the blindness of church history revolving around power and a present church experience that presumes the powerful determine significance.

[1] John Howard Yoder, Christian Attitudes to War, Peace, and Revolution (p. 198). Baker Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

[2] James Baldwin. The Fire Next Time (Kindle Locations 247-250). Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

[3] Baldwin, 376-380

[4] James Cone, The Cross and the Lynching Tree (p. 16). Orbis Books. Kindle Edition.

[5] James Cone, A Black Theology of Liberation, 63-64

Are There White Christians?

The mode of doing identity through difference (Jew versus Gentile, free versus slave, male versus female) is, according to Paul, set aside in Christ. At one level the provenance and end of these categories is uncomplicated (oppression, discrimination, inequality, are to end) but at another level, considering all that is included in Paul’s categories (ethnicity, religion, biology, social class, economics, culture, behavior, gender, sex, etc.), setting aside these categories entirely will not be possible and negotiating around them so as to make Christ the prime identity will be no easy task. Most every element of what is normally considered as constituting humanness will have to be reconstituted, deconstructed, reoriented, recreated, and so, a great deal of Paul’s effort will be spent in explaining how oneness in Christ is to be implemented. Jews and Gentiles will have to renegotiate nearly every element of their life – how and what to eat and the role of ethnic and religious identity. Men and women cannot simply continue to identify themselves through the gender and sex roles of the surrounding culture. Slaves and free will have to undergo a radical reevaluation in their relationship, as now they are of the same family in the body of Christ.

Identity will no longer be through oppositional difference but will be “in Christ.” However, what needs to be obliterated and what needs to be preserved and reconstituted would seem to work out differently in each of the opposed pairs. “Master Christians” and “slave Christians” resonates very differently than “male Christians” and “female Christians.” The slave/master relationship is undone in that in Christ all become the slaves, or at least the servants, of one another. The same principle, of relinquishing self-interest, applies in gender roles but Paul specifically warns the Corinthians against a unisexuality. So, there are some things which need to be obliterated – there are no master Christians – while there are other things that are changed up and yet preserved. Jewishness, for example, is preserved but changed. It is not simply assimilated into the dominate Gentile mode but neither does it maintain its segregated stance. Clearly all must relinquish the self-interest which is the prime force in privileging one half of the pair.

The precise thing that is obliterated between the opposed pairs is the “hostility” or the alienating force or the principalities and powers which divide and darken. The dualisms that divide – Jew/Gentile, slave/free, male/female/, or most recently and most clearly white/black, all gain meaning (political, religious, ethnic, or gendered meaning) through an interdependent difference. The difference cannot be absolute or there would be no point of comparison, but to describe the difference as necessarily inhering in the pairs creates an instability. There is no essence in either of the parts; there are no masters without slaves, no men without women, no Jews without Gentiles, no white without black.

James Baldwin captures this in his description of the American invention of whiteness. He claims, in fact, that there is no white community. Whiteness is a false construct created by shedding Irish, Italian, German, English, and Jewish identity but this becomes a unified identity over and against what it is not. “No one was white before he/she came to America. It took generations, and a vast amount of coercion, before this became a white country.” It became a white country on the basis of what was done to “red,” “brown,” and black humanity. “White men—from Norway, for example, where they were Norwegians—became white: by slaughtering the cattle, poisoning the wells, torching the houses, massacring Native Americans, raping Black women.” America became white on the basis of subjugation of people of color. “No community can be based on such a principle—or, in other words, no community can be established on so genocidal a lie.”[1]

Whiteness describes a relationship of power. To the degree that people depend upon this power, to the degree they live off this power, to the degree that this power defines, to that degree their identity is dependent on the genocidal form out of which this identity emerges. This genocidal hermeneutic, in Willie Jennings description, continues to center “the good, the beautiful, the intelligent, and the noble” around whiteness, creating a regime of whiteness. This whiteness “disciplines fantasies of becoming (becoming human, mature, cultured, civilized, authoritative,)” such that whiteness continues to colonize through these ongoing effects. Jennings refers to it as Caucasia’s capital.[2]

He raises the question, “Can white people be saved?” The question, as he explains does not pertain to the efficacy of salvation in regard to a category of people. The point is that whiteness is a way of being in the world that stands opposed to the Christian way of being in the world. Whiteness, he explains, is “a deformed building project aimed at bringing the world to its full maturity.” It is conceived as part of the idea of progress as Europeans colonize(d) the world. This new world is not allowed a voice but is named in reference to the colonizers. “These Europeans answered the question without the voice or vision of the peoples of the new worlds. They self-designated.” And they designated a vast variety of peoples in reference to their self-designation. They began to “suture different peoples, clans, and tribes into racial categories. They, the Europeans, were white, and the others were almost white, not quite white, or nonwhite, or almost black, not quite black, or black.” Metaphorical and literal genocide began with denying these “non-white” people a voice, so that whiteness was projected into their world as an order of meaning, very often in the name of Christ and missions. “Death expanded its reach by designating peoples and the earth in reductive categories, isolating lives into fragments in order to make them useful, turning everything into commodities.” Christian conversion became an event toward whiteness “as a formation toward maturity.”[3]

So, whiteness does not pertain to birth or biology but it refers to a particular form of agency and subjectivity by which progress is gauged. To merge Christian with whiteness is to reverse the valuation system of the former: being an owner rather than owned, being a citizen of the first world rather than a stranger, and gauging the departure from darkness by being seen as white. Whiteness can be equated with ownership and having a voice, whereas to be non-white amounts to literally being owned or being material in the production process. To be a citizen of Caucasia meant taming the wilderness, subjugating native inhabitants, and by this means establishing an identity in the new nation. Citizenship in nationalism is a pure construct, not grounded in the land but taking ownership and control of the land, rather than being integrated into the land and its controls. The labor of whites took on a different order of meaning than the labor of blacks in that it was a labor of ownership and control to establish whiteness and citizenship. Native and black, in Jennings description, were perceived as “closer to nature and its raw condition of unproductivity.”[4] In this understanding, whiteness is a condition of lostness: one is lost due to a misplaced notion of ownership and control, a misplaced citizenship, and a misplaced value system.

In a similar but differently articulated vein, James Cone maintains that God is not the God of all people as he is against the oppressor and is the God of the oppressed. He concludes, “So-called Christianity, as commonly practiced in the United States, is actually the racist Antichrist.” This “false Christianity . . . of the oppressor must be replaced by an authentic Christianity fully identified with the poor and oppressed.” In other words, to claim to be a white Christian is to miss the oppressive genealogy of this identity.

In Paul’s depiction, the principalities and powers exercise this alienating force through the dualisms that divide. The full weight of the Christian Gospel is aimed at defeating this division, this mystery that has us entrapped. The mystery of division is one we naturally inhabit in the way we organize ourselves in dualistic identities. The mystery divides and confounds our thinking. It is a mystery concerning the relationship between creation and Creator in which the one (the created order) is idolatrously pitted against the other. The idolater self-designates, imagining all else is relative to his created image, and imagining oneself as his own father-creator. Paul depicts passage from out of this mindset as the opening of this obscurity that darkens every mind.  The passage from “once hidden” to “now revealed” marks a new historical consciousness.

According to Ephesians, it pertains to “things in heaven” and “things on earth” and to God’s predetermined purposes for all things. No longer should we posit a gap between God and creation, heaven and earth, Jew and Gentile. Christ has bridged the gap. Paul will refer to the broad sweep of history in Romans 9-11 as the unfolding of this mystery and he will refer to the breaking down of the “dividing wall” between Jews and Gentiles as pertaining to a fulfilled cosmic order previously hidden (Eph 2:14). People are reconstituted as a singular family in which their personhood involves a new consciousness – holistic and personal. Given this insight, all divisions are exposed as a false order of identity.

To be Christian is to break out of the division of whiteness as an identity, a value system, or a form of citizenship. Perhaps all we can expect is to gradually learn to be something other than white, something on the order of citizens of a different sort of kingdom. This begins, in Paul’s description, through a different order of embodiment – finding ourselves embodied in Christ. This is not an abstraction but a real-world connection to other people as a means to receiving grace and gifts of the Spirit. This is not identity by segregation but a preservation of unity provided by Christ. “There is one body and one Spirit, just as also you were called in one hope of your calling; one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all who is over all and through all and in all” (Eph. 4:4).

To be Christian is to give up on ownership and first-world citizenship so as to identify with a different citizenry, dispossessed and poor in this world. The space Christians are to occupy is neither coveted nor contested as it is outside the city, where doing life together is the singular economy and value. As Jennings puts it, we must be saved “from being or becoming white people.” As we relinquish white capital we can begin to enjoy “the gifts from on high.” “But to each one of us grace was given according to the measure of Christ’s gift” (Eph 4:7). This is capital enough.

[1] James Baldwin, “On Being White and Other Lies,” https://bannekerinstitute.fas.harvard.edu/files/bannekerinstitute/files/on_being_white.and_other_lies_baldwin_0.pdf

[2] Willie Jennings, “Caucasia’s Capital: The Ordinary Presence of Whiteness,” https://divinity.duke.edu/sites/divinity.duke.edu/files/documents/faculty/Jennings-Caucasias-Capital.pdf

[3] Willie Jennings, “European Christian missionaries and their false sense of progress” in The Christian Century, (October 31,2018). https://www.christiancentury.org/article/critical-essay/european-christian-missionaries-and-their-false-sense-progress

[4] Ibid.