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Blog Post

White Supremacy, Babylon and the church (part two)

  • s Writing
  • + Peter Atkins
  • P 2nd Nov 2016, 22:08
  • C

White Supremacy, Babylon and the church (part two)

(if you have not read part one the start there)

The story that is usually told of human history is the story of Babylon Culture. Babylon is the archetypal empire. Empire is Babylon. Biblically speaking it started in Genesis with Babel (that is Babylon), continued with the Babylonian destruction of Jerusalem and echos forward in the Johns naming of Rome as Babylon in Revelation. Babylon is bible speak for empire and so Babylon culture is a term I use for imperialistic, coercive, hierarchical, dominance based, culture; that is our native culture.

Though they seem normal to us the foundations of the Babylon system of domination are an innovation without which white supremacy would not be possible. Domination of the land and other species through exploitative agriculture, domination of the spirit through fear-based, mediated, organised religion, domination of the mind through coercive, alienating and partial storytelling and education, domination of the body through slavery, violence and the threat of violence. These are the deep foundations that have supported Babylon and its culture since Babel.

Babylon rules by dividing; it nurtures an “us” and “them” worldview. So since Babel labels such as “barbarian”, “foreigner” and “savage” have been used negatively of the other beyond the boundaries of babylon. It is necessary for the stability and perpetuation of empire (however small) that it be perceived as the best available option. People would not put up with exploitative domination if they thought there was a better alternative available to them. If all beyond your boundary is painted as dark, chaotic and savage it is easier to dominate everything within that border. This is the origin of what we might call tribalism, patriotism, regional pride, nationalism etc. it says my place/culture/God(s)/language/traditions etc. are probably better than yours, this perspective is common, widespread and ancientwidespread and ancient [however we ought not assume that societies without these hallmarks of Babylon culture (agriculture, hierarchy, urbanisation and religion) eg egalitarian, gatherer-hunter/horticultural nomads before or since babel share our functionally negative instinct regarding “the other”]. But as most peoples have assumed some form of kinship between diverse peoples it never went as far as claim an innate or biological superiority.

Modern White Supremacy however is of a different order than this naïve prejudice. White supremacy assumes an innate, genetic or biological superiority associated with whiteness. This is a relatively recent historical phenomena however like tribalism it is a product of Babylon culture being as it is a result of western European imperial domination combined with modern scientific thinkingmodern scientific thinking.

The early European traders did not arrive in the great empires of West Africa, the Indian subcontinent or China with an overbearing sense of their own superiority. They were there because they lacked things which distant others had. The art, music, science, sensibilities, military and naval power and court etiquette were often far more impressive than what the European travellers left behind and in many cases they were received as marginal curiosities and provincial barbarians of little significance to the king, maharajah or emperor. The prejudices of Babylon culture are not a European monopoly. They used what little leverage they had, be it gifts of clockwork curiosities or specific medical, diplomatic or technological expertise to gain favour and influence and sought marriage with local people to secure positions at court and strengthen connections with the local populationlocal population..

However some centuries later once these initial scattered footholds had become global empires. Europeans ruled, directly or indirectly, most of the world's population. They dominated trade, education, technology, science, law and politics. However as people shape empire, empire shapes them. White supremacy soon emerged as an explanation of and justification for this global domination. Forgetting (and denying) the long history when things had been otherwise and bolstered by darwinian scientific discoveries white supremacism was a convenient way of making sense of the world.

Just as the relatively minor inequalities, abuses and devastations of ancient expressions of Babylon cultures nurtured and depended on the petty prejudices of tribalism so the vast, profound and total inequalities, abuses and devastations of Babylon in its modern expression nurtures and depends on the more totalitarian prejudice of white supremacy.

European empires and settler states in particular (for example Peru, Canada, Australia, Israel, Argentina, the U.S.A) have found white supremacy important in justifying their continued destruction of non-white peoples and the expropriation and exploitation of the land, resources and culture they depended upon. It was not genocidal devastation, it was progress; the superior replacing the inferior, the future replacing the past. All manner of white supremacist policies from the early wars of extermination, resource destruction, slavery and confinement to “reservations” of the worst land through to the recent decades of sterilization, murder, residential schools, exploitation, “breeding out” and the parallel destruction of histories, languages, traditional skills, knowledge and social structures, to the contemporary police terror, marginalisation, silencing, negative stereotyping, exoticisation and prejudicial policy and judicial treatment of black and brown peoples, white supremacy functions to empower and preserve the advantages of white people at the expense of others.of others.

There is yet to be a break in this white supremacist imperial policy. Though the rhetoric of most western societies has changed, at least in polite public discourse, structural inequalities and injustices persist as oppressive structures take new forms. For example the U.S. prison-industrial complex which profits financially from both the incarceration and labour of imprisoned people presently holds more black men in bondage than old school American slavery did in the 1850s. more aboriginal Australian children are forcibly taken from their families now than at any point in the 20th century, the only change is that it is now done under the social work policy banner of “Stronger Futures” rather than explicit ethnic eradication and assimilation.

assimilation. The white church has been largely indistinguishable from its ambient babylon culture# and so has historically been complicit in, “benefited” from and developed biblical justifications for white supremacy and its most violent abuses. Similarly the white church has moved with the tide of with public opinion and where explicit white supremacy has gone out of vogue in the mainstream conversation the white church has dropped it and on occasion, like many western governments and institutions, it has apologised for past abuses. However the white church has not heard the voice of the Spiirt calling it to take an unambiguous anti-white-supremacist position. Nor has it understood the witness of Moses or the prophets and laboured to uproot white supremacy from its culture, structures or members. That being so it is reasonable to assume that white churches are, to some extent, functionally white supremacist; no different from other institutions in western culture.

If what we said in part one about the “Epistemological Advantage of the Oppressed” is true we should not be surprised by the consistent failure of the white church to recognise, denounce and effectively combat white supremacy. This is not to loose the white church from their weel deserved condemnation but we should not be surprised that the greatest spiritual-political movement to resist white supremacy in the western world emerged from the rich tradition of the African American church. The Black church movement of the 1950’s and 60’s was the catalyst for more progress in the dismantling of state sanctioned white supremacy than anything since the foundation of the United States (and it paved the way for a cascade of other civil rights struggles and legislation). legislation).

However I believe that MLK and the “civil rights movement” made a theological and tactical mistake in directing that black church movement towards the goal of civil rights. I believe the black church would have better directed that great energy towards desegregating the American church before telling the government what to do.to do. What if it had recognised and depended on the alleged spiritual kinship of black and white Christians before focusing on their supposed equality as citizens. What if they had given primacy to their status as Christians and the work of kingdom reconciliation rather than their status as americans and the work of fulfilling the American dream. What if they had been beaten by police for seeking to worship in segregated churches, what if they were attacked by dogs for attending tent revivals what if the white church was exposed and explicitly shamed for its white supremacy rather than it being allowed to hide behind the town council or police force. What if prayer and theology and excommunication had been at the forefront of the struggle as well as marches and boycotts. What if they had won that battle rather than the other. what if denominations, congregations and Christian families had repented, forgiven and been reconciled and united in a grassroots gospel move of the spirit in towns and cities across the country.

There are lots of reason why the movement went the way it did, particularly the virulent and persistent violence of small town European American Christianity which had theologically entrenched itself in defense of its white supremacist way of life. Certainly the black church is not to blame for the continued white supremacy of white Christians, that judgement will fall on their own head, and the actions the black church have taken, sacrificially at great cost, has given ample opportunity for repentance and conversion. But in settling for a government enforced, and therefore coercive, legal establishment of their rights as citizens they missed an opportunity for genuine reconciliation within the American church.church. And we see the fruit of this continued un-reconciliation in America today. Winning just legislation has not made American society more just or less white supremacist, it has only modified its forms; just as with other forms of prohibition the resultant change is not always an improvement. It seems to me that the victorious Black church is weaker now and its community more broken than before the civil rights struggle, and the American church is no closer to reconciliation.

Church reconciliation and** Christian unity** may not be a vital concern of yours, perhaps it just seems like a nice idea or an unimaginable fantasy but in fact it is an divine and urgent necessity. While many western institutions are little impeded in their function by their white supremacy the very nature of the church is brought into question by it.

For he is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us. He has abolished the law with its commandments and ordinances, so that he might create in himself one new humanity in place of the two, thus making peace, and might reconcile both groups to God in one body through the cross, thus putting to death that hostility through it. So he came and proclaimed peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near; for through him both of us have access in one Spirit to the Father. So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God, built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the cornerstone. In him the whole structure is joined together and grows into a holy temple in the Lord; in whom you also are built together spiritually into a dwelling-place for God. Ephesians 2 14-22.

God placed church unity at the heart of the Gospel. Biblically there is no bigger difference between people that there is between Jews and Gentiles, yet in Christ this division, and the hostility that exists between the two groups, is destroyed and a new humanity is created in peace. If this is so for Jews and Gentiles then how much more must it be God’s will that gentile Christians be at peace with one another. a church divided against itself may not really be church for church is one body, built up on Christ and the apostles apart from the world but at peace with God and itself.

Furthermore, white supremacy is debilitating to the churches ability to discern the will of God. The church is a body of which Christ as the head is directly connected to all parts of the body by the Spirit. The Spirit moves as it will and so the church ought be ready to discern God’s will through all of its members, without exception. Any obstacle to the free and convenient discernment of God's conversation with his church is a barrier that must be opposed for the health and safety of the church, this is one reason why church unity is so important. White supremacy shatters unity, open expectation, freedom of being and trust within churches and so potentially disables them from hearing the fullness of God’s word to them; this begins a downward spiral. The more fractured the church the less able it is to hear God's gentle healing voice and if a church cannot hear God's voice what hope is there for it? If white Christians cannot trust, learn from and heed the words of black Christians on white supremacy how can they access the “Epistemological Advantage of the Oppressed” and so begin their repentance, healing and reconciliation to the ways of God?

However in my own experience it was not my ethnicity that triggered my most consistent and alienating period of social exclusion, rather it was my arriving in a Scottish primary school with an English accent. I mention this to expose the complexity of social disadvantages and advantages in babylon culture. While white supremacy is a significant aspect of our social dysfunction it is but one among many that requires the attention of the church. bell hooks an African American writer and cultural critique is noted for consistently describing our culture as an “imperialistic, white supremacist, capitalist patriarchy” (and perhaps other diagnostic descriptors could be added such as homophobic, ecocidal and cis-supremacist).

my family history and ethnic identity have sensitised me to the imperialistic and white supremacist aspects of our culture and by recognising the “Epistemological Advantage of the Oppressed” I am re-learning to trust and share my experience in regards to them. However that same “Epistemological Advantage of the Oppressed” makes me cautious of trusting my experience and instinct regarding our situation in respect to capitalism and patriarchy because of my social position as a wealthy middle class hetrosexual male. In this I am beginning to recognise my need to depend on others better positioned to see well.

my hope in initiating this topic and introducing this kind of thinking is not simply that all you white Christians learn to recognise white supremacy in yourselves and in our culture and that Mosaic, and other churches, start thinking about tackling white supremacy head on but that we as a community might grow in each learning about ourselves and our context from each other as individuals and from the church as a whole. our diversity presents complexities but in Christ these have the potential to be a great assets and resources for us all as poor folk educate the rich, the women lead the men, the migrant welcomes the native and we all grow in unity and discernment together.

However as well as deepening our internal attentiveness this should also stretch us beyond ourselves as we seek the insight of Christians who have not and perhaps would not easily find a place among us, people who are not following or even seeking Christ and non-human creatures with whom we share a wise and loving creator. In this way I think the church can position itself well to hear the rustle of the Spirit of God in the treetops and so to tell which way God is moving.

By learning to listen to each other we open ourselves to hear God and by hearing God is becomes possible to actively cooperate with God and by cooperating with her the church can lead all those who have ears to hear in a kingdom direction and in a kingdom way, without coercion but by sacrificial example, like Jesus.

This is our calling, to lead rather than following half a generation behind the crowd and be the last group to accept, to love or to finally let go once we realise we have been on the wrong side of history. to lead by listening, not seeking to have our own way, our own ideas our own mission. to lead by doing, not heckling or trying to control others from the sidelines, telling them what they should be or do or what they should make others be or do by force of law.

This, I think, is how the church should live and love and lead others out of white supremacy and myriad other entanglements of Babylon.