We WHITE AMERICAN CHRISTIANS are being robbed. It is identity theft, theft of our futures, and theft of our security. And who is doing this to us? Other white American Christians, that’s who! Since identity theft is at the root of this whole larceny, I propose we consider what we can do about it.
I’m a white American Christian and I’m angry as hell about what’s happening. “White American Christian” has become an identity that trumps all other characteristics. Here’s how it works: if one is a white American Christian and one feels insecure about life at the moment, it is (1) either because the white American Christian life to which we are entitled and which “is the principle on which the USA was founded by God,” is being invaded and taken over by others who are not white American Christians. (2) Or our lack of security is because other white American Christians put some trifle ahead of being white American Christian. THOSE white American Christians think it is more important to be something else, feminist, gay, blue-collar laborer, sick, abused and on and on. They need to suck it up and get over being so damned needy. We are being attacked! (3) Or, somebody’s lying.
I am angry that what it means for me to be a white American Christian has been changed for a far worse idea. My being white is not a matter of choice; neither is my being a Kinsey 5 nor my finger prints. Being American has, so far during the past nearly 80 years, been an advantage despite living across the shining sea beyond the purple mountains and fruited plains. Being Christian began as an accident of my being born among Christians, continued as an act of commitment to Christian service, and is probably ending as a Christian among Buddhists not needing to fight one another. I deeply resent being treated as if I have exempted myself from the privileged elite into which I was born.
I am well aware that just being a white American entitled our family to assumptions and advantages denied to others. I ate my vegetables and cleaned my plate aware that I was better off than “millions of starving Chinese.” As for being elite, however, these are my memories of our family’s heritage: Mom’s spending money came from churning butter, without cows we would have suffered, the roof fell in on Uncle Walter’s house and the family of 6 lived in a large kitchen in back with a dirt floor, Aunt Eva’s house had no electricity, our house had no running water, on the coldest winter nights we had chickens in the living room. A friend of mine was Injun Joe who lived in a one room house next door. Grandpa had Gypsies that camped on their front yard, and Grandma fed hobos on the back porch. I was a young child most of this time [as the school photo shows]. Conditions got better but there were thefts.
My dad was a type-setter for the newspaper, secretary of the labor union, and was robbed of his union pension just when he was due to begin getting it. Without Social Security he could not have retired. That was my first clue that we could be robbed in other ways than at gun-point. Uncle Tom came home from the war and moved next door to Jack. It took me a long time to realize they should have been living in one house, but they were robbed of the chance to live without constant intimidation, by social opinion that all queers were faggots. Aunt Elsie became a beautician because the depression was going on and she was a female so college expenses were saved for her younger brother. Her aunt (my grandmother’s sister) was robbed of life when she blew her brains out with a shotgun because society refused to let her leave her violent, alcoholic husband.
Social opinion is one of the two greatest thieves of our time. We are blinded to options available to us by the need to feel protected as part of a tribe. If we dare to defy tribal totems and taboos we will be shamed and then evicted. Instead, we absorb the tribe’s perceptions that it is better to belong than to be defiant.
In his book, Dying of Whiteness, Vanderbilt University Professor Jonathan M. Metzel describes how White Americans will vote, act, and think in ways that are harmful to themselves rather than entertain ideas contrary to their white American peer-group (i.e. tribe). Interviewees told him they could not be for Obama-care even though they were literally dying (in hospice care with life-sustaining tubes inserted) and would have benefitted from better insurance, because they could not stand the idea that their hard earned money would also provide medical care for illegal immigrants and welfare queens. Once a tribe has acquired a slogan it tends to dominate further thought.
The other great thief is the elite 1% who are pillaging every resource they can get their hands on in order to become even richer. What they are robbing at the moment are public education, affordable health care, funds for retirement at a reasonable age, fair living wages, and a vast range of human rights. These things my generation and my parent’s generation worked hard to acquire. I tremble for the generations to come as the environment becomes unable to support life and natural resources are destroyed at an incredible rate. Take the Pacific Ocean for example. Radiation is fanning out from Japan, and the mass of plastic waste from California is now the size of France. Storms are increasing in destructive violence and frequency. Sea levels are creeping over island nations. Coral reefs are bleached and dead, potentially taking up to 50% of ocean creatures with them. Instead of working to save what’s left, every nation with the capacity to do so is increasing the devastation.
Back to my rage over the ongoing theft of my identity.
I do not feel especially attached to my identity as a white American Christian. But it is who I am. And I am married to a Thai man, accepted as a full member of a 100% Buddhist community (except for me). I have spent my whole adult life identified with and focused on three minority groups. I became an advocate of US civil rights in defiance of some important members of my family. I became a teacher to develop Christian leaders in Thailand where Christianity is less than 1% of the population. I became a defender of gender minorities and advocate for sexual human rights. Each of those expanded my identity. Each of those efforts cost a lot.
I am enraged to find that the very meaning of the term “White American Christian” has been distorted to such an extent that it is now a pejorative, derogatory term. I am ashamed to be identified with those who wear their White American Christian identities on their caps and stickers on their vehicles, and who attend political rallies where it is no shame to sport Nazi or Klan insignia and tattoos as if these groups did not murder millions and will not do it again if they have the chance.
There is only one thing to do, even if it is the last thing we do. We need to reclaim our right to be white American Christians. We need to reclaim the high ground that is proud to assert that white is a color assigned which has no validity, because it is never really white. American is a designation assigned by political entities that issue passports, birth certificates and collect taxes, but America is really a partner nation in the community of nations or it is doomed. Christian is a brand of humanity in search of connection with the transcendental-divine, but as a people striving to discern what is holy we are indebted to a heritage that has acquired vast spiritual treasure from Egypt, Persia, Greece, Rome and Phoenicia, as well as more recent insights from every faith community with which Christians have encamped.
We white American Christians are not a tribe of pathetic nationalists who cling desperately to ethnic supremacy. We are colorfully white, internationally American, and ecumenically Christian.
Rev. Dr. Kenneth Dobson posts his weekly reflections on this blog.