I used to shy away from terms such as racism or white supremacy, but it is clear now that they are not mere the vestiges of an old system. The machine of white supremacy continues to churn.
Years ago I resisted the language of white supremacy, to be honest. It was a term I associated with white-hooded figures and signs above water fountains. But these last few years have helped me to see just how white supremacy continues to shape American life and institutions. White supremacy is not about being “better than.” White supremacy is about sovereignty, a profound sense of freedom from the bodies and contingencies of those deemed outside.
Sovereignty is the language of our nation’s founding, that our citizens ought to be free to determine their own laws, their own policies, their own ways of life free from British rule. Sovereignty was the idea of freedom. But of course this notion of sovereignty was not understood as applicable to all of the inhabitants of what would become America. Slaves, women, indigenous people continued to be subjugated, exploited or killed to serve the needs of those deemed citizens.
Sovereignty was hardly a natural right. Sovereignty was the assertion of a people’s right to be free to determine themselves, use others, and ultimately be free from the contingencies that different bodies and ways of life require. This notion of sovereignty was bound to white supremacy, the image of the body that ought to be sovereign, that should be free to determine its elected officials, to bear arms (to put down a slave rebellion or protect one’s home), that should be free to be seen as whole.
Even more, this notion of sovereignty allowed a freedom for one’s mistakes to not be determinative of their entire identity, for their names and personhood to be shaped by their own choices and effort. Sovereignty is the pernicious delusion of the individual and the presumption of freedom being for certain bodies and not others.
It is the lie that beats underneath every police encounter that ends with a black man or woman, a Latino/a, a native American dead in the street. As we see the videos in a seemingly endless loop, the police do not react to a crime. They react to challenge, they react to questions and critique, they react to the challenge that they can do whatever the hell they want just because their wearing the badge. In the end, the gun is the sign of their independence, their freedom because added to their badge it displays.
As I ponder what the next four years will look like, I am convinced that our teaching, our theologies, our community building must find ways of teaching and embodying a “new creation” that resists the lie of American sovereignty. I still believe that, as Christians, we are encountered by a God who did not create us to be sovereign, but created us to be with and for one another and for God.
For my part, students will not be able to leave my classes without being confronted by a God who is so radically for us that the Word became flesh and dwelt with us, even as so many violently rejected such a scandalous presence. I will teach in such a way that, prayerfully, reveals sovereignty to be a lie and chips away at white supremacy one brick at a time. There will not be abstract lessons about sin without the concrete manifestations of its incarnation in our economic or justice systems. There will be no understanding of who God is without a variety of voices speaking into that vision of who God is and who we are. My classroom will not be an accomplice to the lie of the sovereign individual.
But I am also realizing that this is not going to be enough. I will be attending council meetings, reading fine print on initiatives, protesting the use of money to build police stations when our city has schools with no libraries. I may need to show up at deportation sites, ask difficult questions of my church and where will we be present and counted. This is a wake-up call to me that I need to risk more, be present more in places I was either to afraid or too tired to pursue.
I can’t dismantle white supremacy by only calling out racism, I begin by naming the sin that lies at its heart, this violent sovereignty – and everyday refusing it by trying to enflesh love – a reciprocity of personhood, a constant confession that my body is bound to those of my neighbors and that my life must be where Jesus’ body is – at the very places where the lie of sovereignty seeks to crush and dehumanize. This is what it means for me to follow Jesus.