White followers of Jesus must live in keeping with the gospel story and oppose the persistent, systemic racism in American society
By J. Ross Wagner
On June 1, during a speech in the Rose Garden, President Donald Trump proclaimed himself “your president of law and order, and an ally of all peaceful protesters.” Meanwhile, outside the White House, officers in riot gear backed by mounted police used smoke canisters, pepper balls, flash-bang grenades and billy clubs to break up an overwhelmingly peaceful protest on the north side of Lafayette Square.
Having demonstrated his ability to “dominate the streets,” the president then walked across the square to St. John’s Episcopal Church where he posed briefly for photos. Standing stern faced and holding aloft a leather-bound Bible, Mr. Trump declared to reporters, “We have a great country. … Greatest country in the world. We will make it greater.”
Though swiftly condemned by many religious leaders, this awkwardly staged pageant of patriotism and piety provided welcome reassurance to its intended audience, often described as the white evangelicals who comprise Mr. Trump’s most ardent adherents. Perfunctory as it may have been, the president’s performance signaled his support for the foundational narrative this constituency holds dear: the story of America as a land where biblical faith leads to national greatness, where an impartial justice protects the rights of all peace-loving citizens — and where the cancers of white supremacy and systemic racism are kept safely out of sight.
During the photo op, Mr. Trump never opened the Bible. And in truth, for the story of a “Christian America” to remain plausible the Bible must remain closed, its counter-narrative confined between its covers. An open Bible is a most troubling book for white American Christians like me. For to live in keeping with the story that Scripture tells requires us to relinquish our status and privilege in order to follow Jesus in the way of self-giving service to others.
Love of God and Love of Neighbor
This summons to sacrificial love of God and neighbor is central to the political vision of the New Testament. Jesus of Nazareth knew all too well the model of leadership so prized by President Trump — brutal defense of the status quo under the guise of “law and order,” “total domination” of one’s opponents through the use of “overwhelming force” — and he rejected it utterly. To his disciples, who were jockeying for power among themselves, Jesus had this to say: “You know that among the nations of the world those who are regarded as rulers dominate them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. Not so among you!”
Instead, Jesus offered a new paradigm for human community, one stamped with the pattern of his own life as God’s Word made flesh:
“Whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.”
In the same way, the apostle Paul says that the prodigal self-giving of Jesus, the contemptible weakness of the one crucified for us, displays the true nature of divine power and sets the pattern for his followers’ lives. To those living under the dominion of an emperor who proclaimed himself “lord,” “savior” and “son of god,” Paul told the story of Jesus as the one who, though he was “in the form of God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage.” Rather, Jesus willingly divested himself of status and prerogatives in order to identify with human beings in all the misery of their alienation from God and from one another. He took the very lowest place, the place of a slave, and poured out his life for the sake of others, even to the point of suffering a shameful death as a danger to political and religious law and order.
For this very reason, “God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name.” By raising Jesus’ crucified body from the grave, God made it known that the self-giving of this man was none other than God’s own act of justice and mercy. In Jesus’ death and resurrection, God’s invincible love has overcome the power of injustice and mercifully reconciled the unjust to their creator. The ascended Jesus now reigns at God’s side. And since the day of Pentecost the Holy Spirit has been calling together a people from every nation, tribe and tongue who acknowledge Jesus as Lord. Through baptism by water and the Spirit, God’s enemies are made daughters and sons, united with Jesus the Son in one family, the church. The Spirit of Jesus is now powerfully at work in their midst, shaping their common life after the pattern of Jesus’ self-giving for the sake of the world God loves.
Living in Keeping with the Gospel
Christians claim to believe that this incredible story — the gospel or “good news” — is true. That it is, in fact, the one true story in which all other true narratives find their place.
But what exactly does it look like to live in keeping with the gospel story here and now?
For me, as a white American Christian nurtured in the evangelical tradition of Wesleyan Methodism, the president’s public invocation of the Bible has only heightened the urgency of this question. What does it mean for white followers of Jesus like me to live in keeping with the gospel story in the face of the persistent, systemic racism of American society?
To open the Bible is to confront the call to live as citizens of God’s kingdom by adopting “the mindset of Christ Jesus.” As Paul puts it:
“Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others.”
Can white Christians hear these words as a summons to relinquish status and prerogatives for the sake of our fellow human beings — not least our brothers and sisters of color in the household of faith — who disproportionately suffer the evils of racism, injustice, poverty and pandemic that plague our society? Will we answer the call to make their interests our own pressing concern: to spend the time and effort required to understand the true nature of the problem; to recognize and repent of our own complicity in systems of racial and economic oppression; to lay our reputation, resources — even our own bodies — on the line in solidarity with Black brothers and sisters who are leading the way in nonviolent resistance to injustice?
In so doing, the Scriptures promise, we will come to know Christ himself. Sharing in his sufferings, we will find the power of his resurrection working among us. And in the end, we will discover that whatever we have given up to follow Jesus in serving our brothers and sisters of color pales in comparison with “the surpassing gain of knowing Christ Jesus our Lord.”
J. Ross Wagner is Associate Professor of New Testament at Duke Divinity School