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Beck-oning God: Piety, Politics, and Power in White


Rev. David L. Ostendorf • Sep 01, 2010

From the time Europeans stepped foot on these shores the culture of “Manifest Destiny”—the notion that God mandated their journey, settlement, and power—has imbued white America. It drove the displacement of native peoples; provided Biblical justification for slavery; nurtured Jim Crow and horrific racial violence; and cultivated nativism, religious bigotry, and white, Christian nationalism—all in the name of “God.”

The thick piety and self-righteousness, the assumed privilege and power of that culture was once again on public display in D.C. Saturday as hundreds of thousands of “disaffected” and “aggrieved” whites and their proclaimed leaders sought to re-stake their inherent claim to God’s blessings in a nation allegedly subsumed by “darkness.”  “Darkness.”  They would never understand just how revealing were their own racially-tinged words.  They would never comprehend how deeply offensive was their rancid attempt to hijack the mantle of Dr. King and a movement grounded so deeply in faithfulness grown out of suffering and death.

Christianity in America has always been of two realms—that of the dominant culture, the “Christendom” ever-interwoven with assumed and maintained power, and that of the peoples of faith who daily engage in the struggle for life, dignity, freedom, hope, community, equality, and justice.  That the first wish now to be seen as the second would be laughable were their angst—and their shallow openness to religious and racial demagoguery—not so dangerous.  As their real or perceived power continues to erode in the face of dramatically changing demography and global power realignment these  “Christendom Christians” will seek to maintain their status at any cost.  Reports of their reactions in locales across the country already fill the daily news, “restoring honor” they believe is due them.

In 1885 Josiah Strong, a Congregational minister credited as a founder of the Social Gospel movement in the U.S., published Our Country—an aptly named tome for our own day in the din of the tea-full uprising, where white-held “We want our country back” placards prevail.  While the Social Gospel movement has been understood (and criticized) as a historic expression of liberal, reformist Protestantism, its own racial edges belied the historic drive of Christian dominance, when the world would “…enter upon a new stage of its history—the final competition of races, for which the Anglo-Saxon is being schooled.”  Even the reformists could not escape the pull of Manifest Destiny, the thread of piety, politics, and power that would reflect their honor of a God made in their own image, the thread bared again last Saturday in Washington.

Faithfulness turns dominant worlds upside down.  It is in the underside of history, where the impact of the dominant is most felt, that God is most resident.  Among the destitute, the hopeless, the homeless, the landless, the outcast, the oppressed, the struggling.

Beckoned or not, God is present there, far too engaged to have been Beck-oned to Washington, to hate-filled airwaves, to “safe zones” of white folk, to disingenuous political platforms.  May it ever be so.

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