In this reissued episode of The Bible for Normal People Podcast, Pete and Jared talk with Xavier Pickett about the Bible and slavery, the Bible and race, and the importance of theologian James Cone as they explore the following questions:
- What does it mean to be Black and Christian, and more specifically, Black and reformed?
- What is the difference between a biblicistic reading and a trajectory reading of scripture?
- How did the predominant interpretation of scripture move from pro-slavery to abolitionism?
- In what way did the lack of a clear answer on slavery impact the “authority” of the Bible?
- What happened to lead people to a more trajectory view of interpreting the Bible?
- How does the dominant narrative of whiteness impact our ability to have religious unity?
- How has white Christian America historically separated theological issues from moral issues?
- Why was the idea present that the Scopes Trial signified the beginning of the end of white Christian America?
- What led James Cone to relate the practice of lynching with the crucifixion of Christ?
- How have practices and policies of anti-blackness have marked white Christian churches from the very beginning?
- What is the invisible institution?
- How can we begin to unwind several hundred years of intertwining the Bible and oppression?
Pithy, shareable, less-than-280-character statements from Xavier Pickett you can share.
- “The Bible not only describes a world in which human beings are treated unequally, but it actually seems to justify the operations and processes and structures to maintain those hierarchies. So, what do we do?” Xavier Pickett
- “The process of becoming ‘all God’s children’ is actually a deracializing project which continues to mask and evade the ways in which whiteness is functioning as a type of universal standard that goes unnamed.” Xavier Pickett
- “The Scopes trial can be seen as like, a death of white Christian America, alright? As we were talking about the Civil War and slavery, we can argue that to what degree did white Christian America ever really live?” Xavier Pickett
- “Both Jesus and Black people were seen as a threat to the state and also to particular communities, particularly those communities that are in control.” Xavier Pickett
- “We’re like… what is happening in our country that these evangelicals and other Christians just kinda lost their mind? Well, from a standpoint of [an African American religious, prophetic, and political] tradition… these people lost their mind a long time ago!” Xavier Pickett
Mentioned in This Episode
- Book: “The Civil War as a Theological Crisis” by Mark Noll
- Book: “The Cross and the Lynching Tree” by James Cone
- Book: “Stony The Road We Trod” by Dr. Cain Hope Felder
- Article: “Honoring the Sacred Fire of James Cone” by Xavier Pickett
- Support: patreon.com/thebiblefornormalpeople
Powered by RedCircleRead the transcript
Pete: You’re listening to The Bible for Normal People – the only God-ordained podcast on the internet. I’m Pete Enns.
Jared: And I’m Jared Byas.
[Jaunty intro music]
Pete: Hey everybody, welcome to this episode of The Bible for Normal People and our topic today is “So When Did White Christian America Lose Its Mind?” and our guest is Xavier Pickett.
Jared: Yeah, Xavier is a visiting Assistant Professor at NYU and he had a lot of good things to say about white Christian America.
Pete: I mean, the word, I don’t know if he used the word at all during the interview, but I kept thinking like, systemic racism and how deep it is, and he gave a lot of insight about like, the Civil War and how the Bible was used and stuff that, you know, you think some of this stuff might be more recent, but the Black church has been thinking about this and Black theologians have been thinking about this for a long time.
Jared: That’s what I kept thinking, is how much we have to learn from, we talk about these ancient writers and St. Augustine and these people who’ve been thinking about it a long time. Well, in this modern conversation of race and the Bible, it’s not like these are new things. It’s just, do we actually want to take the time and effort to find Black authors who have lots of things that they could teach us about this particular moment and how our conversations in the Bible and the church have been shaped by things that happened a few hundred years ago.
Pete: And our tone-deafness to all that, that’s part of, you know, white privilege and that’s systemic racism, even if we don’t mean it. It’s the fact that it’s not on our radar screen is a problem all to itself.
Jared: Well, Xavier talks about willful ignorance and I think there’s something, there’s really something important to that. I think was it Upton Sinclair that said something about it’s really hard to understand something when so much rides on you not understanding it.
Jared: And I think that’s, it’s easy to be ignorant of things when it’s helpful for you not to understand it, not to search it out.
Pete: It doesn’t upset your world and how you look at yourself and the universe you live in, yeah.
Jared: Well, good. Well, let’s have this conversation with Xavier Pickett.
Xavier: Scripture seems to suggest that the Bible is a pro-slavery document that you actually have to work extraordinarily hard to read the Bible otherwise. Not just read the Bible, to actually understand how would people even at that time have a different view. It’s not until very recent history that we have any human rights and equality. And so, you think about women as property, it’s really hard to get a view of the Bible that seems to suggest the Bible is an abolitionist text.
Jared: Welcome, everyone, to this episode of The Bible for Normal People and today we have Xavier Pickett, so welcome Xavier. Thank you so much for being on with us.
Xavier: Thank you guys for having me.
Jared: We want to start as we often do by, basically, we want to know what turns ordinary, normal folks like you into nerds. So, just walk us through a little bit of your religious history, your spiritual background, and its intersection with the Bible that kind of leads us to where we are now.
Xavier: Yeah, thank you for that question. It’s a really good question, a question I get, you know, quite often and this is very interesting for me to be able to talk about that publicly and so, almost being on the record. So, one way I can kind of begin is I grew up in a religious Christian background in particular that took the Bible really serious. So much so that we kind of described ourselves as something like KJV-only. You know, King James Version of the Bible, that was kind of the authorized Bible, not only the authorized, that was the only text and translation that was considered the Word of God. And so, other translations like the NIV or RSV, those translations were, you know, looked upon with suspicion. Not just with suspicion, they were, a lot of times they were considered not quite the word of God. They were, wouldn’t go as far as say counterfeits, but some would at that time. And so, that was kind of part of my religious background growing up as a kid.
But eventually, you know, as I continued to study the scriptures and one of the kind of hallmark sort of passages for me growing up is “study to show thyself approved.” So, I really took that quite seriously and I was really Socratic to the core. From a very early age, I was that kid in the church who asked a question to the pastor and to other leaders about, well if Jesus died on Friday, and let’s just say got up on Sunday, what happened to the other day? Because if it’s three days, you know, there seems to be a day missing. So, and I was quickly ran out of the conversation and in some cases ran out of the building. So, I was always asking questions about the Bible and about Christianity broadly.
And so, eventually led me to do a number of things along the way, one of which, planted a church prior to going to seminary right after undergrad, from leading Bible studies on college campuses, doing various sorts of trips, mission trips, then eventually I decided to go to seminary to get some formal training because the training that I had been doing on my own, I could get that training a lot quicker in a concentrated structured setting and largely because of biblical languages.
I was trying to teach myself Greek and I wasn’t picking it up fast enough. So, that was one of the motivating factors to kind of go to seminary because I wanted to be able to read the Bible in those original languages and not just to be subject to various translations, English translations.
So, I went to seminary at Westminster Theological in Philadelphia, and there kind of began to sink my teeth into, well, let me just say something that might be helpful too. I get this question of like why I chose Westminster, particularly being a Black person in the US. It was like, “Out of all the places you could have gone, why Westminster?” Well, one of the reasons I chose Westminster was at that time where I was theologically is that I wanted to be at a seminary that had something like a kind of coherent theological vision because what I realized when I was trying to decide about where I wanted to go was that a number of people at other seminaries and divinity schools, some of the graduates that is, and even current students I had talked to, there was a lot of competing views that I got from students at the same seminary and divinity school. And so, when I talked to people that graduated at Westminster, a number of people, they had a similar and shared sort of way of looking at the Bible. And reason why that was important for me was because I realized that there was multiple interpretations of the Bible and so that we have one particular passage could generate several interpretations and so that alerted me to the fact that, well, there are some things we need to talk about that we don’t often talk about that is our presuppositions. And so, like, what are the things that actually inform our interpretation that actually leads to these multiple interpretations?
So, Westminster at the time, through you know, people like Cornelius Van Til, kind of really taking seriously presuppositions that end up becoming a particular sort of way of thinking about Christian apologetics, presuppositional apologetics, that was something that I was attracted to because I realized that we have to talk about our presuppositions because our presuppositions have much to do with how we read and interpret the Scriptures. And so, I wanted to be at an institution that, as they said at that time, you know, very much, epistemologically subconscious. And so, I was really compelled by that sort of way of approaching the Bible and a way of thinking about Christian theology broadly. At the institution like Westminster had a shared faculty and a school broadly had similar and shared sort of like theological presuppositions, then the types of curriculum, the types of classes and discussions would be a much more coherent as opposed to a kind of hodge-podge smorgasbord that one might find at other seminaries and divinity schools and theological institutions. While the smorgasbord, I’m not necessarily making a judgment about it, it’s just where I was at that time. I would prefer and desire something more sort of cohesive.
Pete: So, what happened though, right? Because you just didn’t stay there, right? I mean, theologically you grew or moved or whatever since that time.
Xavier: That’s right. And so, part of that shift you know, I was really interested in a reformed theological tradition and part of what accounted for that shift is that I was really trying to wrestle with at a broad level, what does it mean to be Black and Christian and more specifically what does it mean to be Black and reformed? And so, and that really led me to begin reading and reaching outside of the reformed tradition to make sense of that.
So, one of the ways in which I did that was really to, I ended up developing, curating, and founding a non-profit because I realized there was other Black Christians out there who took themselves to be reformed who didn’t know each other. And so, and who also were wrestling with these same sorts of questions, what does it mean to be Black and reformed? So, I kind of set myself really on a mission to really, to really think about that conjunction “and,” and to, in some ways, to make that conjunction, in some ways to get rid of that conjunction, and to really suggest, well, what does it mean to think about Black reformed theology and that allowed me to see that reformed tradition has been inhabited by Black people in particular sorts of ways, some of which is having a position, that theological sort of tradition and those positions very critically. So, I began to really trying to merge in my own mind, but also thinking about ways in which other people have really tried to think through reformed tradition as well as Black theological traditions of various sorts together and that kind of allowed me to reposition myself in relation to reformed theology in more critical ways but also in new ways. And that sort of gave birth to a new sort of institution, the non-profit I created, Reformed Blacks of America but also kind of gave birth to an emerging intellectual vision that I had at that time.
Jared: Yeah, I mean, you know, you’re talking about kind of uncharted territory, at least for a lot of us, with this Black reformed, and how do you navigate these things? So, who was guiding you in that? Were there certain intellectuals or certain authors or certain people that you found could be a guide for you in that conversation?
Xavier: Yeah, and so, I was beginning to, particularly while at Westminster but also a little before, were already in conversation with a number of Black ministers and academics who had situated themselves within particular like Presbyterian sort of denominations, one of which is like Carl Ellis and those type of folks. And what I began to realize was that there were other people who were wrestling with these issues as well before me. And so, but what I realized was, you know, in addition to that, more work, particularly theologically, needed to be done to really think about the complexities of the reformed tradition and the ways in which kind of that tradition and a way of reading the Bible had really obfuscated a sort of Black theological sort of like ways of interpreting the Bible and a Black theological traditions. You know, Black people within these denominations who were making significant sort of claims and demands on these sorts of reformed denominations and how might taking those things seriously actually give us a different understanding of the tradition and give us a different understanding of reading the Bible.
Jared: What are some examples of that, Xavier? You mentioned this obfuscation and different interpretations and people challenging those denominational standards or traditions. What are some examples of that?
Xavier: Yeah, I mean so, there are a number of Black, even Presbyterian ministers for instance, you know, even before the Civil War who situated themselves within Presbyterianism. People like J.W.C. Pennington, Theodore Wright, you know, one of who in many ways considered, you know, one of the first sort of Black graduates of Princeton Theological Seminary. You know, all of this is still Antebellum. And then, there is many people who came after that, you know, Henry Highland Garnet, who most notably known for the declaration and profound sort of theological claim that God is a negro. And in many ways, these questions and different ways of reading the Bible was precipitated around the Civil War, you know, and around slavery. And the debates that sort of ensued by Christian ministers across the country and the colonies particularly at the time around whether or not the Bible justifies slavery. And the stances that were taken by many white Christian denominations were in many ways pro-slavery.
And so, the ways in which many Black ministers and laity and Christians will in some ways contest those sorts of readings of the Bible as being, those type of readings that would suggest that slavery is let’s just say biblical, morally permissible, and those sorts of things. And so, there’s a tradition that I want to read against that type of abolitionism. Abolitionist sort of like, biblical sort of reading that is in some ways, is represented through an African-American sort of biblical interpretive traditions. So, those were some examples of individuals and ways of thinking that kind of trouble how the Bible has typically been understood. And for me, that was really instructive because, you know, one good thing about even Mark Noll, that’s The Civil War as a Theological Crisis, well, we can raise some questions about some of the other things in that text. One thing that is really important to understand is he lifts up is that the country went to war over the Bible.
Xavier: And a way in which the Bible actually was reinforcing a type of claim about states rights and these sorts of things. And so, man, I want to say, well, the South put it very crudely here, that the South, in some ways, were more Biblical than the North in that, that the South, mainly Southern Christian ministers and theologians at the time were arguing that the Bible does endorse slavery. And in North, many wanted to read the Bible in such a way to suggest otherwise.
Pete: Yeah, it’s sort of like, I mean, my take on that, for what it’s worth, and correct me, but in the South they had more of a, what we might call, a biblicistic reading of these texts. Like, here they are and that’s it. And the North might’ve had what some call more of a trajectory reading, like, yeah, we know what these passages say, but the Gospel as a whole is going in a different kind of direction. Is that –
Xavier: No, exactly.
Pete: Okay. So, we have, there really is sort of a battle, not just for the Bible, but for how to read it.
Pete: And that’s all sort of before the Civil War.
Pete: I mean, that’s news, I think, to a lot of people that it’s not a recent thing since, you know, maybe the early 20th century. This has been going on for a while in our country.
Xavier: Yeah. I mean, because, you know, part of the world that many in the South have, many of the Christian leaders is that they saw that the North was reading as we can say “extra-biblical” sort of principles and norms into the Bible that certain views about, like, human equality for instance, you know, that they were taking these ideas that are found outside the Bible as a way to read the Bible. And so, in this sense, it raises a whole other question around “modern” sorts of readings, stories about, you know, how to read the Bible from our particular vantage point versus a vantage point of the original writers and these sorts of things, all the things that you guys are fully aware. I’m not a Hebrew Bible scholar or New Testament scholar or late antiquity, so I’m most least registered at hard times in conversation.
Pete: Yeah, I don’t think that’s even necessary to register, because it’s, it’s sort of obvious, that’s my opinion anyway.
Jared: But, it’s also, I think, I mean, there’s something that seems like there should be named that there’s something to that, is kind of what I’m hearing you say, Xaiver, is yeah, if you adopt a certain way of reading the Bible, then it’s the, almost the logical conclusion if you start with these certain presuppositions about what the Bible is and how to read it, a logical conclusion would be to endorse slavery as a “plain reading of scripture.” And for me, that seems to be troubling where that can be the conclusion you come to if you adopt a certain, in some ways, people who have a certain hermetic or interpretive lens seem to have to do a lot more gymnastics not to come to those conclusions. Would that be fair?
Xavier: Oh, absolutely! I mean, because, I can state this in more provocative terms, that the Bible can easily be read and really particularly, and this is, the language you just used is really important, a “plain” reading of scripture would seem to suggestion that the Bible is a pro-slavery document, that you actually have to work extraordinarily hard to read the Bible otherwise. And not just read the Bible, to actually understand just historically how would people even at that time have a different view? I mean, it’s not until, like, until very recent history that we have anything like human rights and human equality in the way in which we think about those things currently, the 20th and 21st century. And so, in thinking about women, all these sorts of things. I mean, there’s property, there’s really a hard to get a view of the Bible that seems to suggest that the Bible is an abolitionist text. So, yeah, if that’s true, then how do we actually read the Bible, how is it the case that now we have a pretty standard and mainstream view of the Bible that suggests, like, well of course slavery is wrong morally wrong and of course the Bible isn’t for slavery! How is that now a mainstream accepted view? In other words, to reach to that, to come to that particular view, one has to actually admit, to be aware of the types of assumptions and presuppositions that one actually possess as modern readers that we have as, we use in these particular sets of presuppositions about, like, what does it mean to be human and equality and so forth, and we’re reading that into this particular text.
Pete: So, we’re bringing things from outside of the Bible to sort of solve this moral problem?
Xavier: Absolutely! I mean, the question around slavery in the Bible and various forms of slavery within the Bible, raises not just historical and like, questions around translation, but it raises a moral question. I mean, I think the slavery question really raised, it actually presents a moral crisis, actually. And it’s actually these sorts of concerns that lead many African Americans particularly, away from the Bible, or at least away from a typical sort of like, mainstream sort of white, in certain circles, like, evangelical sort of interpretation of the Bible that really obscures the kind of a moral stakes of the text. And so, in this kind of way end up emerging when slaves, you know, enslaved people sort of get ahold of the Bible, and this is what the war is about whether or not we want, particularly white slave owners, whether or not they wanted to evangelize slaves, whether or not they wanted to teach slaves the Bible because many of them knew if they taught slaves the Bible, it could backfire. And so, while on the one hand, teaching them about the Bible could make them more docile, more obedient, you know, because you have passages like “slaves, obey your masters,” but on the other hand, you know, there’s other passages that seem to suggest, like, well, maybe we are kind of like, all God’s children. Maybe we all the priesthood of all believers, that sort of stuff.
Pete: Yeah, “there is no slave or free,” you know, in Paul.
Pete: Yeah. Well, you know, you mentioned before Mark Noll and his book, the name of his book again is, what is it?
Xavier: The Civil War as a Theological Crisis.
Pete: Yeah. I remember, I don’t know if you remember this, but I remember one of our seminary professors said that, like, the crisis of the 19th century for “the authority of the Bible,” it wasn’t German higher criticism, it wasn’t archeology, it wasn’t Darwin, it was slavery in America because you can’t even go to the Bible to find a clear answer on the pressing moral problem of the time. And that has led people, I think what you’re describing, it’s led people to say, listen, maybe, maybe the Bible is not set up to answer this question for us. Maybe we have to think about this. And what I’m wondering is like, what happened to lead people to a more, what I called before, a trajectory view of interpreting the Bible? What might’ve caused people to say, listen, we can’t just read Bible verses here. We have to do something else?
Xavier: Yeah. That would be a, you know, a really fascinating sort of study. I think, and I want to kind of think about this out loud a bit if I can –
Pete: That’s how I write. Yeah, go right ahead, Xavier.
Pete: I just sort of riff. Go ahead.
Xavier: Yeah, I mean, in some ways, it’s a way to make the Bible more respectable, right? And so, in other words, you have abolitionist sort of movements and ideals that are taking hold and root within the US and of course across the pond in the UK, so, and I think, you know, many people in the 19th century and forward begin to buy into the view that, yeah, I guess we are kind of all the same human beings, but yet, the Bible not only describes a world in which human beings are treated unequally, but it actually seems to justify the operations and processes and structures to maintain those hierarchies. So, what do we do?
And so, we have to come up, we have to read the Bible in such a way to get that sort of trajectory that you’re just describing, to read the Bible as a way to sort of flatten out those hierarchies between human beings. And so, but a reality is at a moment in which we, those hierarches seem to be flattened, they’re actually other hierarchies that end up emerging in that process, and by that I mean, at a moment in which we’re all becoming all God’s children, we also end up becoming white, right? And so, all God’s children actually end up being sort of kind of, so in other words, the process of becoming all God’s children is actually a deracializing project. But that deracializing project is a way in which they continue to mask and evade the ways in which whiteness actually is functioning as a type of universal sort of like, standard that goes unarticulated, that goes unnamed. And so, that this particular way of reading the Bible, that this particular way of being God’s children, this particular way of being Christian actually begins to be the standard. Right? And so, this is how, to put it another way to illustrate this, I mean, how did Jesus actually end up becoming white in the process?
Jared: So, what I hear you saying is it’s okay, we can have a new trajectory, and everyone can be God’s children, and we can read these things in as long as it can be baptized into the dominate narrative of whiteness, and that’s the way that we can have this unifying structure. If it’s all about unity, that’s great, but then when you look behind the curtain, unity is actually just an excuse to continue to privilege the whiteness and not allow for this other diversity to emerge.
Xavier: Absolutely. And that has really gone unarticulated, and so, I don’t want to get too far off here, but in my class earlier today, American Religion I teach here at NYU, you know, we were talking about the Scopes trial earlier this week, revisiting it from a different standpoint because we were talking about what some have described as kind of the end of white Christian America, and so, one of the things I raised was that, like, why all of a sudden we’re considering white Christian America to be dead at this moment? How is it that that narrative even exists? And I said, you know, at around the time where the kind of modernist, fundamentalist controversy around the Scope trial, evolution, and these sorts of things, you know, this was like a big deal. A lot of ink was spilt, obviously we know William Jennings Bryan, he died right after the Scopes trial, interestingly enough. So, there’s a lot of contestation around these sorts of theological issues, but around the time at which the Scopes trial was such a big deal, this is also around the height of lynching and we know that there’s Christian churches and ministers who were involved in lynching. After Sunday morning worship, they would go out and go lynch Black people. But why was that not a controversy? Why was that didn’t reach kind of a crisis status in America? Why wasn’t white Christian America dead at that point? Because it has read the Bible in such a way that these particular set of, like, moral issues are actually not even theological issues. And so, there is something about the way in which white people have read the Bible in this country that refuses to interrogate the typeset of their own sort of moral lives. And in particular ways, in which their moral lives impact the lives of other people, particularly people of color broadly, but also Black people. I mean, because if that interrogation was to occur, one might see that the moral lives that are presented as models of good Christian living might actually be immoral lives, it might be immoral. And so, in this way, it raises a fundamental question about, well, are these people really Christian? And this is what the Black, sort of like, theological tradition of various sorts here in the US and various sorts of African American biblical interpretations really raise is that how is it that these people could still claim to be Christian and treat their sister and brothers and other people identify in various other ways immorally?
Pete: Well, okay, so, tie this in, because I think I’m getting it, but you mentioned before a very interesting idea that the Scopes monkey trial meant, like, the beginning of the end of white Christian America, and I think I’m tying those things together that you’re saying now, but could you be more explicit? Because that’s a really important idea, I think I get it, but I don’t want to be wrong.
Xavier: Yes. So, part of what I was just suggesting to my students earlier this week, that moment can be seen as like, a death of white Christian America, alright? And so, there’s other moments. We can go out as we were talking about, you know, the Civil War and slavery, we can argue that to what degree do white Christian America ever really live? To what degree did they ever become a fully sort of like, living organism, right, so they can be said to be really alive?
Pete: Are you saying it was that white Christian America was exposed for the problem that it is during this time?
Xavier: Yeah, I mean, that’s one way they kind of want to like, go back and sort of read the history in a larger sort of context in the early 20th century. We can read it like, well, while they were arguing about these particular like, minute theological issues, while at the very same time, engage in other sort of immoral sort of practices in terms of institutions, churches, seminaries, divinity schools, like, and also at the theological level, right? I mean, where there was segregation, there was theological justification for segregation, theological justification for lynching, for slavery. And so, what I’m saying is that we might tempted to believe in our current moment given a sort of recent president election, we’re like, oh my God, what is happening in our country that these evangelicals and other Christians just kinda lost their mind? Well, from a standpoint of African Americans and a particular sort of like African American sort of religious tradition and prophetic and political tradition, that these people have lost their mind a long time ago!
Pete & Jared: [Laughter]
Xavier: And so, this was country was born out of people who have lost their mind and you might want to raise the question, well did they ever have it to begin with?
Jared: Right. So, I hear that rather than sort of being outraged or surprised by the theological discourse or how we talk about God and how God endorses certain moral behaviors or practices or immoral practices and behaviors, we could actually look back and see that there’s certain moments where this has been exposed again and again. And the Scopes trial is one of those moments where we’re forced to see or to try and reconcile this interesting phenomenon where the whole world’s aflame, or at least in America, over evolution and yet there’s too much quiet about lynchings. Like, so, when you put these side by side, it sort of exposes this gross injustice and how the dominant people in America have constantly propped up their lives, right, through these narratives of how to read the Bible and never interrogating it. It’s never to sort of question where are we more like the Pharisees? Where are we more like the oppressors? Where are we more like the Egyptians? But we can see throughout American history it’s been more of how to justify and prop up the status quo.
Xavier: Yeah, and this is precisely what led James Cone, the father of academic Black theology to write about The Cross and the Lynching Tree, because to really talk about the cross in America, for Cone, you know, one has to talk about lynching because the closest example that we have of the cross is lynching. So, for him, we can’t understand the cross without understanding lynching and you can’t really understand lynching without understanding the cross. It was a form of execution, both the cross and lynching, for different sorts of reasons. You know, but in some ways, those reasons aren’t all that dissimilar. Both Jesus and Black people were seen as a threat to the state and also to particular communities, particularly those communities that are in control. And in this case, in the US, it’s a threat to white power. Particularly in the early 20th century, you know, come out of this era of the so-called “Reconstruction” where the country wants to kind of rebuild itself, and while this rebuilding effort is being made, there’s deep worries about whether or not Black people, if they really were to experience and participate in political, civic life in the US, then that means it could threaten various sorts of establishments. And so, there was an attempt to curtail and to contain that progress, particularly in the most well-known, institutional wise, is the KKK. I mean, that’s just sort of like, one sort of easy sort of example as a sort of like, renegade, vigilante sort of group that engaged in all kinds of terrorist acts, you know, because lynching was meant to terrorize Black people.
Pete: Well, let me ask something, Xavier. I think, this may sound like an obvious question to answer, but I’m assuming you’re of the opinion that racism in the American church has not been taken as seriously as it should have been over the past, say, 100 years. It’s this problem that keeps popping up and we don’t really talk about it very much, but it sort of informs so much of maybe what’s wrong with white America, white Christian America.
Is that fair? I mean, would you want to put that another way? That’s just sort of what I’m seeing more and more the older I get.
Xavier: Oh yeah, no, absolutely. Because part of what it means to grapple with racism, if what we mean by our racism is something more than just interpersonal sort of like, prejudice. Racism is more than that, racism signals something like the way in which I’d like to talk about beyond just kind of intent and motivation of a singular individual, that there’s more than just that, and it’s actually about a larger set of practices, you know, cultural sort of practices, really, institutional sort of practices of like, racial inequality and an investment and commitment to whiteness. Right, and so we can see this from various sorts of ways from various, like, you know, European sort of immigrants, you know, coming to the US at various moments and the 19th and 20th century, is that, you know, from Irish and Dutch, we eventually became white. And so, there is actually a value to become white. We see this legally through various legal cases that we can cite, questions around one drop rules are interesting ways. So, there’s always been an obsession around purity to put it in more macro terms. And so, Christian churches particularly have always been trying to police those boundaries, police those boundaries, you know, theologically, but also police those boundaries in terms of their rituals, in terms of like their, at an institutional level, in terms of who they admit into their congregations, who can be ordained, under what circumstance, if any.
I was talking today in class, we were talking about religion and politics and particularly like, around the 2007 and 2008 around the presidential election of ’08 around Mitt Romney. And that moment, you know, on “Meet the Press” where Tim Russert asked Mitt Romney about the Mormon church and how is it that the Mormon church didn’t allow Black people to be ordained in 1978, as late as 1978. But those sorts of practices and policies of anti-blackness have always marked white Christian churches from the very beginning.
And so, there’s a desire over the last 20, 30 years, you know, we have a movement of kind of racial reconciliation in many white Christian churches at various moments, but part of what that assumes and what it doesn’t recognize is that Black people didn’t decide to leave white churches because they didn’t like white people, right, or they just didn’t decide to leave white churches in general, but they were actually kicked out from the very beginning, right? And so when people ask, well, why are there, like, why aren’t Black people and white people and so forth and so on and various sorts of people worshipping under the same roof? Well, it’s not because it’s like we said, “Well, we’re out of here. We’re going to go do our own thing, you know, because we’ve been enslaved.” Well, no! It’s like, well, white people said we actually don’t want you here, so it was like, okay, well, Black people created their own sorts of institutions even though those institutions are already sort of had been created in informal and more kind of covert ways because enslaved folks who are Christian, they were already engaged in various sorts of like, religious practices and their own sort of building of it is what a number of Black religions and scholars have called the invisible institution. So, there’s an invisible institution that namely, sort of like, the emergence of kind of this Black church that, of course, is not monolithic that have always existed. And this is partly what created some of the shock and awe of the 2008 election around Jeremiah Wright and Obama, though Obama had to kind of distance himself from his own church, his own Black church because most of white America was like, they were shocked by Jeremiah Wright’s sermon that sound bite, when Jeremiah Wright said, “God damn America,” and it was like, well, if that’s what Black churches are talking about…
Of course, they took it out of context. What was taken out of context is a larger sort of tradition of Black Christians who have been very critical of the US and also of white Christian America along some of these sorts of lines. I mean, we can think about even Westminster and its own practices of like, segregation, you know, that we all have some connection to that institution. Like, a number of these institutions weren’t letting Black people into their schools, for instance. But yet, they claim to be Christian.
Jared: So, what’s the, what’s your tenor? Are you, are you hopeful about this? What’s the trajectory of the conversations that you’ve been having and the things that you’ve been seeing in, because I can’t help but think that, you know, maybe it’s just because I’ve been in different circles, but this idea of Black theology and giving it more of a place and allowing it to start properly critiquing white theology and even having such a thing as Black theology and it’s not subsumed under this wider umbrella has impacted, sort of feminist readings, has impacted how we read the Bible in relation to LGBTQ communities and overall, I feel like there’s more discussions of how the Bible has been used to oppress and more conversations about how to have different readings of the Bible that actually liberate and open up the conversation.
Is this a trend? Is this a trajectory? Are you hopeful?
Xavier: Hopeful that more people will take seriously Black theology and –
Jared: Yeah. Yeah, are we heading in a way that we’re starting to unwind some of these several hundred years of intertwining the Bible and oppression?
Xavier: I don’t know, to be honest. At the moment, I’m not very hopeful because anti-Blackness and white supremacy are in, I mean, these are particular sort of viewpoints and practices that are something like intractable. I mean, it’s hard to give up these particular ways of thinking and ways of organizing ourselves both at more macro levels but also more micro levels. I mean, because to give up the powers and privileges of whiteness is to, I mean, it’s something like unimaginable, right? It’s hard to imagine a world like, exactly like what that would look like for many people.
Pete: Yeah, when you’re not in control.
Pete: It’s almost like you have to die to yourself.
Xavier: Absolutely. Absolutely, I mean, this is precisely like some of the language that’s found within Black theology and a lot of African American leaders broadly, in particular like, you know, Baldwin is that it is a death and that requires a rebirthing, a resurrection, right? But that resurrection, I mean, this is partly what Cone means when he says that white people have to become Black. Right? And becoming Black isn’t simply about phenotype, it’s about a new sort of like moral center and practice, right, a new way of relating to ourselves in non-dominating ways, in ways that are not oppressive. And so, but to become Black, actually, means divesting one selves of whiteness. And so, whether or not, I mean, many was hopeful that that was on its way in 2008 when many believed that we were entering into this post-racial moment with Obama, you know, as understood to be this kind of first African American president. And, you know, shortly thereafter we found out that the honeymoon that this sort of illusion of post-racial America was precisely that. It was an illusion, right? Because of what we failed to really take seriously, particularly like for people who were interested in a religion and studying it, in particular Christianity, that we failed to understand and recognize that who was actually on the VP ticket on the other side, on the Republican, who was John McCain running mate? It was Sarah Palin! Right? And Sarah Palin was clearly mobilizing a type of like, Christianity that morphed into the Tea Party, the eventually morphed into kind of a birtherism, and we saw who became the figurehead of the birther movement, and that led to our current President.
Jared: So, it, I hear you saying it takes a divestiture of whiteness and white becoming Black. Can you tie into, like, what are some ways, I just can think of people listening to say I want to better understand what that means, especially, maybe, since we are The Bible for Normal People, what are ways that that intersects with how we read the Bible moving forward? So, maybe some practical things that people who are listening can do to better move this thing forward.
Xavier: Yeah, I mean, I think one practical thing to do is to read Black biblical scholars. Pick up Cain Hope Felders, Stony the Road We Trod, you know, African American biblical interpretation, that sort of volume has a number of essays that’ll be very instructive written by a number of Black biblical scholars and scholars who are thinking about the Bible from these particular lenses. That’s one thing. You know, I know that’s probably not the most satisfying answer, to tell people to go read, but I think it’s really unavoidable.
So, I mean, because partly what creates these sorts of challenges is just a lot of misinformation, you know, not just misinformation, but actually a desire to want to be uninformed, that is to say a desire to want to be ignorant. You know, we keep thinking this is precisely what someone like Baldwin is really trying to fight against. It’s not just that white people don’t know, it’s actually also trying to fight against the desire to remain ignorant, in other words, the type of willful ignorance. So, in this way, like one half is actually trying to cultivate desires and enlarge desires to know more, not just for the sake of knowing, but also for the sake of actually, to reorder oneself in the world morally that we can act more ethically regarding how we relate to each other interpersonally, but also institutionally, right, so that we all possess various degrees of power and authority in our own sort of like, domain of life.
So, and the question is how we use that authority, you know, in our families, you know, in the workplace, in our affiliations and ties, in various civic groups, so, we all have like, some measure of authority and power, so we’re not helpless. So, the question is do we use the type of authority and power that we have to sustain and to fight against various forms of injustice, not just racial injustice, but you know, all kinds of injustice, and all kinds of like, practices of domination. So, it’s really being committed to that, you know, whether in a particular church, synagogue, mosque, temple, and finding we don’t have to look very hard to live into these particular sets of ideals. While diversity talk is all the rage in particular settings, you know, whether in the corporate setting and higher ed, you know, churches in particular sorts of ways with kind of multicultural churches and multiculturalism, but all those things just reinforce, you know, in many ways, the status quo. We just have, you know, more people of color in higher places while all of the processes and policies remain the same. So, we just continue to, in other words, to reinforce the status quo is really to maintain a commitment and investment in white power, white power structures, and denominations. You know, or at least the conditions for domination to be able to dominate other people who don’t actually, or who fall outside of, or who might be, let’s just say, I’ll put it this way, for those people who might be more critical of current set of arrangements whatever they might be, whether it’s in the workplace or in a political arena. And so, because those people who are bit more critical tend to be, you know, continuing to push on the side. But you know, we can, various people who are in power, we can do all kinds of things to make sure that people who might actually be our critics and in some ways, people might view them as our enemies, that those people actually should be the people who we should be talking to the most.
Xavier: So, yeah, I mean, it seems like trying to create a world where that’s actually is desirable as an end in itself, not just desirable because like, if we have, you know, this kind of diverse array of people we can be more profitable as an institution, as a business, or are we can look like we, this business or organization can look more respectable, it can look something like a more sort of global sort of vision. But those sorts of things just are committed to and interested in just the appearances, the semblances of equity while actually trafficking in all kinds of inequalities.
Xavier: And so, we just have to be, I’ll just say this last part, we just have to give up the showmanship, we gotta give up sort of like, just being obsessed with appearances, wanting to appear like we are better than what we are when we’re not and actually get on with the business, the hard sort of task of doing the divestment, doing the work that is going to make our organizations uncomfortable, and running the risk that our organizations and our practices and policies have become more sort of equitable and just, run the risk that maybe our organization might not exist anymore.
Xavier: That’s okay! We actually might need less organizations, less institutions, you know, less sort of whatever in order to have a better, you know, society.
Pete: Yeah, true deep transformation and not just appearances. You know, this is obviously a huge topic that on one level, people might think it’s talked about all the time, but it isn’t talked about enough and we’re, speaking of time, we’re coming to the end of our time here and maybe, if you can just let people know if you’re working on anything at this point, or if they want to connect with you, like, online or social media or anything like that, where they can find you.
Xavier: Yeah, I mean, I’m not as visible on social media. I’m out there, but I’m not as out there as a lot of people. But I can be found on Facebook if people type me in, type my name in, I can be found that way. I’m not on Twitter. Maybe I’ll get on there, but there’s questions around sort of surveillance, you know, and technologies, and these corporations that warrants discussion too, particularly in our religious communities, because there’s much discussion need to be talked about that as well, the ways in which some of these companies are targeting various religious groups and religious individuals.
Pete: Hmm. Any projects?
Xavier: Yeah, so, the projects, you know, working on two projects that are cooking, you know, slowly. Some of which is already, some things have already been, that are done but won’t be released for a while. One is on Black rage, so, I’m working on the theory of Black rage to get beyond sort of like, anecdotal sort of like, an ad hoc analysis and thinking about, thinking that exists around the concept of Black rage.
So, that’s one as well as I’m thinking about the category of Black religion, and so, an academic study of Black religion and how might we need to rethink that based upon African American literature, some of the stuff around secularism, so, those are kind of two projects.
One thing I could point people to if they want to get a sense of where I am, and of course, that some of what went into me, like James Cone, you can Google my recent article that was published in Black Perspectives, it was the publishing arm of the African American Intellectual Historical Society, the article is a very brief sort of like piece on the late Cone because he passed earlier this year in April, the title of that piece is “Honoring the Sacred Fire of James Cone.” If people want another way into this, and to think about the significance of James Cone and what our argument, and I think I might have said this in the piece, is the greatest theologian that this country has ever produced. So, I’m willing to stand by that. To those people who are interested in theology and what this country has produced in terms of theologians and theological knowledge, then to not read James Cone is to do yourself not just an intellectual disservice, but a moral disservice. That in other words, I think one’s moral vision, and more theological vision, would be significantly diminished without really engaging very carefully and seriously his work. So, that piece is there for those who are interested.
Jared: Excellent. Well, thank you so much, Xavier, for coming on and yeah, we really appreciate it.
Xavier: Thank you all so much. It was good to be able to have a conversation with you guys. Again, it’s been far too long.
Pete: Same here buddy.
Xavier: All righty.
Jared: All right. See ya.
Megan: Alright everyone, that’s it for this episode. Thank you so much for listening and supporting our show, we hope you enjoyed this episode. We want to give a big shout out to our Producer’s Group who support us over on Patreon. They’re the reason we’re able to keep bringing podcasts and other content to you. If you would like to help support the podcast, head over to https://www.patreon.com/thebiblefornormalpeople, where for as little as $3 a month, you can receive bonus material, be part of an online community, get course discounts, and much more.
Dave: Our show was produced by Stephanie Speight; Audio Engineer was Dave Gerhart; Creative Director, Tessa Stultz; Community Champion, Ashley Ward; and Web Developer, Nick Striegel. For Pete, Jared, and the entire Bible for Normal People team, thanks for listening.
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