Antonyms of Complicity was written as a keynote speech for a consultation of mission and evangelism in Bangkok, Thailand in November 2017. The event was hosted by the World Council of Churches and the Council for World Mission. These days, I have found myself reflecting on what the church is called to be in this moment. What are the antonyms of complicity? (July 2020)
un-Sanitized by Karen Georgia A . Thompson I tried to teach my sons what my parents attempted to teach me they tried to keep me safe they did their best to warn me there are rules, they said rules to be upheld these rules unwritten these rules filled my head these rules kept me in check institutionally chained these rules kept me sanitized with these rules there was shaming and pain keep your mouth shut avert your eyes hands on the wheel no moves that surprise no fancy cars no fancy clothes learn your place keep your disdain off your face I played by the rules I taught my kids be polite, to follow those rules smile when you are pissed keep your hands where they can be seen bring your anger home, don’t show your rage in the streets don’t run after dark dress the right way don’t walk in a pack that guarantees you stay off the front page the more polite I am the more that boots presses into my neck my anger must be kept in check gloriously sanitized while your ill-will and hate is fed like spit on a plate the open hatred you display the fearless way you name your disdain I must swallow like a pill as my words get stuffed in my throat again to not be that angry Black woman I must keep my mouth shut nod my head shrink into your back room well, here’s the news I was never one to cower I will no longer de-sanitize myself in the confines of my shower in an attempt to keep you satisfied when you are so damned wrong the hot water cannot remove the staining of your words the soap cannot cleanse the rage that you provoke I am choking to death every day on the anger I swallow every time I go out go do your work re-educate yourself your are not better because you said so get your dirty boot off my neck I will no longer “watch my words” I will no longer fear your stinking jails I will no longer allow you to define me as unsafe my un-sanitized self you will meet today with your guns, your privilege, your pale I afforded you grace the scriptures you used said that was my place I suggest you not confuse me with the Holy or use my race as some deep disgrace my anger you will meet I will walk on able feet rather that sit and swallow that stuff that you mete so step back slowly out of my space you will not determine my worth you will not determine my words you will not write my script I will be heard the fear is gone the revolution has begun remember you heard it here first kgat 15:03 16 November 2016 Plane - ATL to CLE
Before I get to the heart of the matter for this morning’s conversation. ket me locate myself for you so that you can understand where my comments and observations are rooted. I was born and raised in Jamaica, which is a former British colony, emancipated in 1962 for the second time with independence from Britain. My parents and their parents before them were born on the island, descendants of Africans sold into the Caribbean during the Transatlantic Slave Trade.
My parents migrated to the United States in the 1960s and 1970s. My father first and then my mother. I am therefore the product of an immigrant experience that resulted in the separation of our family. Our family was reunited in 1979, when for the first time in 10 years we all resided under the same roof in Brooklyn, New York. I have lived in the United States for these 38 years.
I was raised in a Christian household where, as children, we went to church at least twice on Sunday and twice to Sunday School at two different churches. Later, as a teenager, we were down to one church, twice on Sundays. We also went to church on Wednesday and we were there on Friday nights for youth group. I was raised in a conservative Christian environment with a Biblically literalist outlook where women were taught to be silent in church and children were to be seen and not heard.
Sunday night meetings were fire and brimstone culminating with an altar call where sinners were invited to walk to the front in open confession and receive Jesus Christ as their personal Savior. This moment of conversion had expectations that there was some sort of change where one left old patterns of behavior behind and focused on reading the Bible, praying and following Jesus.
I learned then that Jesus was the only way to God. I also learned that other religious traditions did not know God. Christians were the only people going to heaven and that was reserved for certain types of Christians. The traditions of our African forebears were evil and to be feared, in fact they were demonic. Over the years, I moved significantly from the Christian right in my theology, and I still have no idea how I became the radical progressive ordained Christian minister that I am today.
I am the mother of two grown Black men. Both are married and have children of their own. The oldest of the next generation is five. His name is Giovan. At five, Giovan and his parents have already experienced the bitterness of a racist school system and racist teachers whose low expectations of Brown and Black children assume a destination towards the prison pipeline and a life in the depths of mass incarceration which Michelle Alexander calls the New Jim Crow.
I spent much of my life navigating the world with the knowledge that being a person of African descent is problematic in the context of Whiteness and the colonial imperative. My experiences as early as six years old and as recent as last week opened my eyes to a world where all are not equal and all are not free. I therefore offer no apologies for my quest to seek radical racial equality and racial justice for people who look like me. This is my life’s work. I want to see a different world for all of God’s people.
Before taking this post as Minister for Ecumenical and Interfaith Relations, I served for two years as the Minister for Racial Justice for the United Church of Christ, work that helped me to see that a national focus on eradicating racism to achieve racial justice is not enough. In order to confront the systemic nature of racism rooted in the globalized commodification of African people, the Transatlantic Slave Trade, the underdevelopment of the African continent and the on-going complicity of Christianity with the narrative of the inferiority of some of us created in God’s image, a global strategy, a global focus and a global comprehensive narrative about slavery and its legacies must be strategically employed.
It is time for Christians and in particular White Christians to confront a tainted past in the promulgation of the Gospel through the Christianization of indigenous peoples globally. The brutal history of Christianity ought not be to be romanticized and given credit for Christianizing people named as savages while decimating the heritage, culture and spiritual identity of billions of people globally, under the guise of converting them to Christianity.
This is a time for looking towards a future that is centered in the ministry of Jesus and his confrontation of Empire, turning over tables and naming the oppression of government and religious institutions alike. Examining the history of mission, evangelism and violence and its legacy will assist in ensuring that mission and evangelism in the twenty-first century brings a gospel rooted in peace and justice that respects the presence of God in all people and assures justice for all people.
An Unholy Past
Ignoring the history of White Christianity and its effects on the world is detrimental to the mission of the church and the Good News of the gospel. The unspoken truth of Christian mission in the 17th to 20th centuries is that of a tainted gospel whose mission was used to subjugate and enslave through a White supremacist presentation of the gospel.
The history of colonization and enslavement of peoples has to be interrogated in the presence of Christianity and the zeal of Christian missionaries who were complicit to the atrocities of the Transatlantic slave trade, the colonization of lands and people by European countries and the resulting decimation of traditions, heritage and culture by forced Christianization. Our denominational stories are filled with the goodness of abolitionists, while ignoring the history of enslaved people who sat in the balconies of churches or outside within ear shot of the preached word because they were not allowed into the pews with their White owners.
As historically marginalized people continue to create theologies from the margins of a Euro-centered Western Christian theology, the existence of Empire in our twenty-first century lives must push us to undertaking the challenges of interrogating a history forgotten and ignored, and must wrestle with the deafening silence that contains secrets, lies, complicity and a historic tainting and misrepresentation of the Good News of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
There is a difference between evangelism which is telling the Good News of the Gospel and the actions of White ministers and missionaries over the centuries who saw fit to teach that the practices of people they encountered were to be eradicated. They taught that others who did not know Jesus did not know God at all. Christian theology was used to justify the kidnapping, rape and enslavement of African people. In the Caribbean the indigenous practices of the Africans were labelled demonic and wrong and in many places their practices were criminalized, named illegal and punishable by law. How will Christianity resolve this past if it now seeks to invite individuals to embrace culture and heritage in context of their Christian faith?
In her dissertation entitled Christian Slavery: Protestant Missions and Slave Conversion in the Atlantic World, 1660-1760, Katherine Reid Gerbner writes: “Missionaries argued that slave conversion would solidify planter power, make slaves more obedient and hardworking, and make slavery into a viable Protestant institution. They also encouraged the development of a race-based justification for slavery and sought to pass legislation that confirmed the legality of enslaving black Christians. In so doing, they redefined the practice of religion, the meaning of freedom, and the construction of race in the early modern Atlantic World. Their arguments helped to form the foundation of the proslavery ideology that would emerge in the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.”
What is our current christian response to this historic corruption of the mission of the gospel? What do we have to say about these types of practices previously labeled as evangelism that we would not support in our day ? I believe our call for justice and Christ’s love would point to the inherent injustice present in the denigration of people, the use of force and coercion as unjust, and the acts of hate and brutalization as antithetical to the ministry of Jesus and the tenets of Christianity.
Christianity was complicit in the colonization of lands far and wide which brought White settlers into contact with people whose understanding of Divinity was declared less than Christianity’s. Christianity was complicit in the enslavement of Africans and Asians. Indentured servitude was not much more than enslavement. Christianity was complicit in the decimation of heritage and culture and the naming of people outside the European context as inferior and debased. With that history at its core, Christianity continues to be complicit in the production of White nationalism in the US and in Europe and continues to be complicit in this twenty-first century witness to racism, capitalism and neo-colonialism.
Mission and evangelism in these days must confront this unholy past and name it as such. It is not enough to point to the abolitionists as the Christian witness, without owning those who had their slaves in the balconies of churches. To say that mission and evangelism then and now are the same is to legitimize the weaponizing of the Gospel and Christianity as a tool of White supremacy and White privilege amplifying a Christian supremacy and Christian privilege that is violent and unjust. To say that mission and evangelism then and now are the same is to say that coercive strategies that are still present in some Christian traditions are legitimate in their offerings of hatred and the sin of racism. To say that mission and evangelism then and now are the same is to speak violence that is transgressive and continues to be injurious to communities that have been historically marginalized by a colonial Christianity.
We see the legacies of this unholy past all over the world. The stranger is feared more than ever. The poor are being criminalized. The indigenous, African descendant and the poor are filling jails and living on the edge. Just this week, the news has included scenes of African people being sold in Libya. The incidents of racial profiling are global. Lack of education, lack of housing, increasing homelessness and the global refugee crisis point to an unholy past and yet this are the places that call us to be present and a work in the world.
The Current State of Affairs
In the past months leading up to the election of Donald Trump and in the aftermath of his election as President of the United States, there is evidence of a rabid escalation of hate speech, incidents of racism and a blatant display of rhetoric that is hate filled. Gender, race, sexual orientation, religion and every other category that has been a source of marginalization of peoples globally has been targeted. This has also been seen on the road to Brexit, in Germany, Poland, France and across Europe and North America.
Coupled with this rise of racism, xenophobia and fear is the unmasking of White supremacy and White privilege. With these, there is also the presence of Christian privilege and Christian supremacy in a country where White people are 72% of the population. Black people as the second largest population in the United States account for 12.6% of the population (www.cia.gov). Over 70% of the population identifies as Christian across several categories of Christianity including Protestant Christian and Roman Catholicism. The population demographics match Europe, majority White and Christian identifying, even with increasing secularism.
The identification of the United States of America as a Christian country is still a part of current discourse. A July 4, 2017 Washington Post article entitled: “What politicians mean when they say the United States was founded as a Christian nation” examined the trend of Christianity and nationalism then and now, naming Attorney General Jeff Sessions and Vice President Pence among White nationalists in leadership.
White nationalism is not new in the United States and globally. Speaking of this White nationalist bent, Sam Haselby wrote: “It’s an old debate, as old as the United States itself. Yet, contrary to Pence, Sessions and other Christian nationalists, the range of views on what the role of religion in American life shouldbe has actually grown narrower, and shallower, since the Revolutionary generation debated the matter. There are many reasons not to want to return to the politics of the 18th century, but they did hold a richer discussion about religion and society.”
Yes, there are reasons no one wants to return to the politics of the 18th century and there is even greater reason for ignoring this same 18th and 19th century religious debate which was as much about the values of the nation, as it was about the subjugation and oppression of Native Americans and African people.
This summer the pictures of young White men and women carrying burning tiki torches through the streets of Charlottesville, VA were alarming for many. According to the New York Times account: “Late Friday night, several hundred torch-bearing men and women marched on the main quadrangle of the University of Virginia’s grounds, shouting, “You will not replace us,” and “Jew will not replace us.” They walked around the Rotunda, the university’s signature building, and to a statue of Thomas Jefferson, where a group of counter protesters were gathered, and a brawl ensued. At least one person was led away in handcuffs by the police.”
Their chants which also included: “White Lives Matter” and the violence that was directed to African descendant people, Jews and Muslims, to name a few, came as a shock to some. There was a stark resemblance to the hooded, torch carrying Klansmen of old, except these twenty-first century White nationalists did not feel the need to cover their faces as their racism and hatred was on full display, marching in the streets of Charlottesville. They claimed the ground on which they marched, land taken from indigenous people, as they named a Christian identity and White racial superiority.
There were those who would say that on display in Charlottesville was the canker of years of hatred and absence of discourse on the systemic issue of the Transatlantic slave trade, the commodification of African lives, the colonization of Africa, Asia, the Americas and the Caribbean Islands and the on-going disdain and disrespect for the legacies of slavery and the resulting challenges that are experienced by African descendant people and indigenous people globally. After all, the United States is not alone in exhibiting racism and xenophobia.
Erick-Woods Erickson wrote the following in the NY Times two days after the events in Charlottesville: “Theologically too, the idea of a superior race is anathema to our Judeo-Christian heritage. Genesis 1 makes clear that all of us are created in God’s image and likeness. To claim one race is superior to others is a sin against God, and Christians in the United States must forcefully condemn this.” I wrote this poem, playing with fire, in response to the events in Charlottesville.
playing with fire by Karen Georgia A. Thompson A poem written in response to White supremacy on display in Charlottesville, VA, and to a history some choose to forget. fire of terror fire by night hatred on sticks O, say can you see? burning out your plight burning down our homes hooded masks you proudly wear waving fear to control fire on crosses fire by night casting shadows on oak leaves witnessing temples swinging by the dawns early light from these ancient trees bringing torture and death to what you tried to own fire in your hand flame missing from your soul Black lives can not be bought or sold fire of spirit fire by night ours is no forgotten dream fire in our hearts fire in our bellies lift every voice and sing at the twilight’s last gleaming fire on lawns fire by night the neighborhood watch rides again afraid of unarmed men and women showing disregard for breathing children good for your cotton fields good for cleaning your floors chasing lives on your terror rides throwing cocktails at innocent doors bombs bursting in air the flag still flies fire on streets fire by night bringing fresh terror to churches and Black lives misplaced blame still the source of your pain wearing polo shirts and designer ties whiteness the only hood you now wear bringing your granddaddies’ fire games attempting evictions by fire and terror tiki torches burning citronella fire of spirit fire by night O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave fire in our hearts fire in our bellies marching and kneeling at the twilight’s last gleaming KGAT 2:56 Cluj-Napoca, Romania 10 October 2017
Antonyms of Complicity
The reality of these times produces the need for a new resistance. The resistance is rising from the streets and continues to ask: Where is the church in the midst of hatred and misery? What does the church have to say in the midst of despair? What then is the Good News that the church brings to the world in this age? Where is the hope of the world today?
In his paper “Reconstructing Mission Towards Healing and Reconciling Communities” Carlos E. Ham wrote: “So the question is how to deconstruct a mission which is in complicity with the ‘status quo’, with a world suffocated by “neo-liberal globalization”, exclusion, ideologically based terrorism, fragmentation, increasing poverty and degradation of the environment, and reconstruct God’s mission. We are called to promote a mission devoted not so much to “feed the poor”, but to raise the tough questions, asking why are they poor, marginalized, oppressed, and to do something about it.
In these times we too need to be wrestling with the tough questions of our day? Why do the marginalized exist? If there are margins, what do we define as the center to those margins? Why do those margins still exist? Why are they allowed to exist? We are also called to ask why does racism exist and to do something about it. I would say this is true for the questions related to all marginalized people.
Christianity must take new risk in the twenty-first century with a self-critical lens that is confessional and redemptive and examines the truth of the past. Such an analysis must confront and name the harm committed to traditions globally as Christians utilized the Doctrine of Discovery, stole lands, enslaved people and forced the Christian narrative on those it chose to subjugate. A rejection of this past opens the door for a theology that is beyond the margins and moves all to the center.
Redefining the margin and moving all to the center is the work that Jesus calls us to do. The center of the gospel is neither White nor is it Western or European. A theology that affirms all people and holds all people as created in God’s image and all traditions as emanating from God’s grace is a theology of love that expands notions of God. The redemption of mission and evangelism from its legacy of slavery and oppression is an enterprise that ensures the sharing of the gospel, the bringing of the Good News that is evangelism does not seek to convert or co-opt but places value in the truth of God present and revealed through the ages.
Marginalization is the treatment of a people or group or concept as insignificant and peripheral. That we continue to name our theologies and mission in the twenty-first century in the language of other and a Euro-centric Christianity is problematic. That we continue to name people in the context of the treatment of a White Euro-centered Christian supremacist narrative must be confronted and replaced with language that puts all people at center in conversation, confronting and bringing about new ways of living and knowing God through Christ.
In spite of the historic and current oppression of people of African descent, Asians, indigenous people, immigrants, migrants, same gender loving people, women, and practitioners of shamanistic traditions and spiritual expressions, the theologies of these communities have flourished. Their identification with a loving God and a redemptive Jesus is seen in the liberation theologies of these communities. These theologies are happening even in the silence of theologies that provide a new narrative that counteracts the violence of the past and forms a new path to the future.
Ignoring the theologies of the past and the complicity of Christianity allows Christianity and Christianity theology to be co-opted in the current rhetoric of hate and White Christian nationalism that we are seeing. The mission of the church has to confront what is present among us in the manifestation of religious intolerance, exploitation of people and ecology and the hoarding of resources by the few.
Evangelism is often framed in Jesus’ command: Go into the world and preach the gospel, baptizing in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. What are our expectations of those who hear the preached word? Is conversion an expectation if value is being given to the lives of all people and to the image of all people? What do we mean when we say that Christian mission and evangelism in the 21st century needs to make space for the culture and heritage of those it encounters? If value is being place on heritage and culture, what then do we have to say about the Christian practices of indigenous peoples coupled with indigenous spiritual realities?
As I worked through the text of this presentation, I wondered about the opposites of the word complicity. To be complicit is to be involved with others in activity that is unlawful and morally wrong. Unlawfully and morally wrong. What then are the antonyms for complicity, words that would name Christianity in these days as different from Christianity then? What are the antonyms – the opposites – for complicity that could name an inclusive Gospel in these days? What are the words that will identify Christianity that is framed in love for the whole people of God?
The church has work to do in these days. Ours is ministry that follows the way of Jesus who was willing to speak truth in naming Empire and calling for a new world order where the poor, women and those named as other could sit at the table in freedom and dignity. Jesus found his way into the place of most need in his day. His was a ministry to those in need.
The margin continues to grow as more among us become displaced and disenfranchised. The church also has a history of men and women who dared to believe that all can be free. Men and women who were willing to fight against a status quo mired in greed and the oppression of people. We are the people in this day. The people called to bring the hope of God to a broken and a dying world.
In the words of Frederick Buchner: The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.