The majority of my career in service to church and society has been focused on Christian communities in the Middle East, especially in Israel and Palestine. I have dedicated my efforts to understanding not just the forces of political and religious extremism in that region, but to comprehending why American Christians act the way we act when it comes to regional issues.
This present moment in American history, where we are (potentially) reckoning with the racist ideas embedded within American foundations, is providing some clarity on how my experiences and commitments can translate into this northern Texas context. As the Government of Israel steps up its efforts to unilaterally annex illegally occupied Palestinian territory, the connection with struggles for justice in the United States is even clearer.
It all comes down to the choices made by white American Christians.
In Jerusalem, lines between communities are clear. Orthodox Jews, for instance, signify their commitments and affiliations by the length of their trousers, the shape of their headgear, and the fabric of their outer robes. Muslims and Christians aren’t all that different from Jews in this regard.
The real division in Jerusalem, however, is between Jews and Palestinians. North of Damascus Gate, Israel proper, as defined by the 1949 Armistice Line, is to the west of Road 60, occupied East Jerusalem, in Palestinian territory, to the east. The distinction is most salient in how these local populations interact with security forces, including both national police and Border Police.
The difference is clear: security personnel, outfitted like paramilitary shock troops, are there to protect Jews from Palestinians. The state views one group as endangered by the likely criminal threat of the other. In order to avoid any confusion, Mizrahi (Arab and Maghrebi) Jews who came to Israel in the 1950s and who often have darker skin tones, take pains to signify their Jewishness to ensure that other Jews don’t mistake them for Palestinians. Being identified with the wrong community could have deadly consequences. In these weeks since the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, mass American reflection on policing has caused me to reflect on similar dynamics within American society.
For white Americans, the uneven apparatus of domestic state policing is less apparent than in Jerusalem. Jerusalem is a liminal space between visible and invisible state power. One can head down to Hebron for the day to see the technological sophistication and brutal efficiency of the Israeli military on full display, protecting Jewish colonists and vigilante groups while actively harassing and stealing land from stateless Palestinians. Or, for a taste of suburban American tranquility, one can head off to Tel Aviv for the day, where the frontline struggles in Jerusalem, Hebron, and Nablus can be all but forgotten, where theoretical sympathy for the Palestinian plight can be expressed from afar while enjoying margaritas and tacos. In both the United States and the State of Israel, if you are not directly under the boot of state power, that power is easily appreciated and most often ignored.
State Power and Ethnic Ideology
The past weeks of public protest, grief, and counterattack have reminded me that both the present American struggle and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict are rooted in the ethnic commitments of nation-states themselves. As I mentioned in a recent blog post, German sociologist Max Weber claimed in 1919 that the state is a “human community that (successfully) claims the monopoly on the legitimate use of violence within a given territory.”
The “state” is little more than an organization of power. A “nation-state” organizes that power around a particular ethnicity.
The State of Israel is clear about what ethnos—Jews—the state exists to protect and serve. In the United States, the ethnos is a simultaneously vague and precise construction called ‘whiteness’—the cobbled-together community of people who are not Black or Indigenous or Brown or anything else. People from those groups can hope to assimilate to the degree that they achieve the status of whiteness (Jews or Italians, for instance); but old distinctions remain (persistent Antisemitism among nativist groups, for instance).
The nation-state concept solidified with the 1648 Peace of Westphalia. The process had been set in motion 150 years before. In 1492, agents of the Holy Roman Empire invaded Turtle Island (the area later to be called ‘The Americas’) and expelled Muslims and Jews from the Iberian Peninsula. This westward push, hastened by Ottoman military threats from the east, provided context for the early Reformation and the development of modernity itself.
Between 1492 and 1648, European powers, driven by the capitalist ‘miracle’ of compound interest and unfettered by any church-related pretense of morality, sought profit alone. By the time the first African slaves arrived in North America in 1619, the philosophical and theological justifications for annexing land from Indigenous “savages” and for the subjugation of other humans as property had been well-established. Academics provided intellectual backfill to justify an institution already in full swing. Thus, philosophy and theology provided salve to the conscience of even the cruelest trader in human chattel.
These racial, economic, and security commitments are woven into the foundations of modernity and the essence of nation-states themselves. The United States, self-described as the “novus ordo seclorum” (new order of the age) is the epitome of modernity. The State of Israel is America’s most successful protégé.
In the nation-state concept, inequalities are simply assumed. When capitalism is thrown into the mix, economic inequities are assumed. When the economic strength of a country, like the United States, is built on a foundation of land theft and slavery—wealth built on stolen land and with stolen labor—inequities abound. Although the Zionist conquest of Palestinian land, untainted by slavery, echoes only a part of the Anglo-American story, the settler-colonial structure of Zionism has reproduced distinctive forms of subjugation and violence, often tied to repressive policing.
Communities living on the underside of such nation-states—Palestinians and Arab Jews within and under Israel; Black and Indigenous and other populations in the US not considered “white”—recognize each other across national boundaries. Trans-national solidarity abounds, often hidden from the oppressors’ view.
Having all of this in mind—both as an American, and as an American who has stepped outside of my country and analyzed it from afar within another context of systematic repression—the outburst of Black anger, grief, and rage emanating outwards from Minneapolis and Louisville and Glynn County, Georgia, only make sense. Instead of asking why black people are expressing such deep rage, my question is why this ever-present rage isn’t more regularly expressed. The answer I have heard from many Black and Palestinian conversation partners is that if the depth of their anger was expressed, they know they would risk being wiped out in a spasm of white violence. It has happened many times before.
Appealing to the Powerful
In Luke 18, Jesus shares a parable about a persistent widow and an unjust judge. The judge “neither feared God nor had respect for people.” A widow approached him regularly, asking for justice. Eventually, she wore him down: “because this widow keeps bothering me, I will grant her justice, so that she may not wear me out by continually coming.”
For centuries, much of the earth has been groaning under the structures and systems of coloniality and white supremacy constitutive of modernity. Populations exploited for their resources, land, and labor have been appealing to their white captors to set them free. In the cases of both US domestic and foreign policy, especially in the Israeli-Palestinian arena, the appeals are directly to Americans who understand themselves as white.
White Americans have the power to change American policy. The question is whether or not they will choose to do so. History suggests that this moment will pass with another round of slightly increased awareness and lip-service rather than any meaningful change. I would love to be proven wrong.
Palestinians do all they can to comprehend how Americans—especially white evangelical Christians—think and feel about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Their hope is to gain even a small toehold of support among Americans to counter how the State of Israel is embedded in American popular politics and spirituality.
Black people in the US are simultaneously sick and tired of, and deeply curious about, their white neighbors. How can they be spoken to? What do they think about the situation in their heart of hearts?
Both cases, it seems, are a lost cause. While a few individuals will sit for a conversation, white Americans, as a collective, cannot be reached. Although the United States maintains over 800 military bases around the world, dividing the entire planet into US ‘commands’, Americans don’t think much about foreign policy beyond a good, meaningful war. We are a distracted people, addled by the opioids of imperial religion and consumer quests, masking anxieties about our place in society and the world.
Our cultural Christianity even tells us that the accumulation of wealth—the produce of stolen land worked by stolen people—is a tangible sign of God’s favor. We thus tell ourselves, along with the theologians of early modernity, that inequality is God’s will.
Unlike the unjust judge, white Americans have not yet decided to grant justice, either through a strange warming of the heart or through simply being interminably annoyed. Perhaps other methods are necessary.
Although the planet is appealing to white Americans to change policy in order to change the conditions of the oppressed, white people aren’t convinced there is a problem. The most we will allow is that we need to refine individual attitudes and behaviors, and that there is enough blame to go around for all sides. People shouldn’t be acting in non-compliant ways, and police really should have a better attitude, but they are under threat and you have to trust their judgment; we’ll advocate for better training.
The refusal to consider systemic and structural analysis should be taken for what it is: white defense of the status quo. The retreat into individual attitudes and actions indicates not just a stagnant discourse but a tool of self-defense strategy.
We have been engaged in the same conversation for decades. Literally. Today’s most public organizing effort is the Poor People’s Campaign, the “revolution of values” envisioned by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., in 1968.
On a popular level, we are still working with the intellectual output of Dr. King, Malcolm X, James Baldwin, Angela Davis, and Stokely Carmichael (Kwame Ture). In conversation with white “allies,” one could be forgiven for not knowing there was much anti-racist intellectual production since the beginning of the Reagan administration.
Why is this? My understanding is that the system through which state power is exercised has protected itself through the decades. More precisely, white people have actively chosen to protect a system. We have outfitted the edges of state power with bumpers and lace, making it appear kinder and gentler, hoping we can make direct encounters with the underside of state power a bit less lethal than it once was. Again and again, white people have repeated the process of creating images and messages to salve their own collective conscience.
Over the past several weeks, I have repeatedly encountered a question asked out of exasperation: “why do we need to keep bringing race into it?” The answer to that is that race and racism have been present in the Americas since the first Europeans arrived. This “nation of immigrants” brought racism with them, with deadly consequences. As a white-presenting Citizen of the Chickasaw Nation, I am consciously aware that I am a product of white genocide against Indigenous peoples.
In Christian tradition, Eucharistic remembrance (anámnesis, as in “do this in remembrance of me”) is more than remembering an event or person in the past. Remembrance calls those events and people into the present. Johann Baptist Metz taught that to recall the betrayal, suffering and crucifixion of Jesus in Holy Communion was to call forth a “dangerous memory” of unjust suffering.
This past week, Americans were forced to reckon with the commemoration of Juneteenth, a holiday new to some of us. It is a remembrance similar to the Eucharist. It isn’t a celebration of the “good news” of emancipation from slavery alone. It is at the same time, rather, a remembrance of the cruelty and inhumanity inflicted by people invested in whiteness on people they imagined to be inferior and sub-human. The remembrance recalls not just the fact of emancipation but that slave owners withheld that fact as long as they could, eking out every bit of stolen labor until forced, by threat of arms, to relinquish control.
In a time of systemic forgetting, religious leaders are repositories of memory. We promote and promulgate ancient systems of wisdom and faith. We are in the business of bringing history into the present.
But we don’t. All too often, religious leaders in the United States—especially within white communities—take the path toward economic interest and comfort. We withdraw from challenging our people too much, because we know our people too well. We tell ourselves we can’t go sprinting ahead toward realizing God’s will; we’ll give our people a better chance of shooting us in the back as a traitor. But we can’t just mill about in the crowd.
Except … no. We absolutely can make that choice. We do it every day. At times like this, the choice to blend in and not challenge the status quo is a bit more difficult since more eyes—especially younger eyes—in our congregations are watching. But this moment of intensity will pass. We long for more “normal” times when nobody expects us to say anything challenging.
Thus, religious leaders are on the frontlines of either challenging or choosing to baptize the status quo of racial inequity and suffering. We may be exposed to analysis of systems and structures of white supremacy baked into the very concept of European nation-states, but we have long filled the role of reassuring the consciences of white people that we have done all we can to address the needs of the “less fortunate” and that they need to take personal, individual responsibility.
These forms of self-justification are at the center of it all. Self-justification is really at the heart of the systems and structures so many are working to dismantle. Self-justification that Euro-Americans have acted in good and noble ways, only killing in self-defense, only standing our ground, not challenging the notion that slavery was not as bad as we make it out to be today since those people (if they really can be considered human) were just as bad as us because Africans had slaves too.
Precisely because theology has been at the heart of justifying the colonial realities of European colonization, the role to which Christian leaders is called is crystal clear. We can begin with clear repudiations of both the Doctrine of Discovery and the theological rationale for slavery. Doing so is difficult: it means fully confessing western Christian complicity in land theft and unjust human bondage. In means standing against the foundations of the United States itself.
As we consider the question being posed in this moment, more Americans of African descent are being killed by American policing every day. More Palestinian land and life is being stolen. The question is not theoretical. Will you hear? Will you respond?
The Rev. Robert O. Smtih, PhD, directs Briarwood Leadership Center (Argyle, Tex.).