A pastor once contacted me to tell me that a Facebook post I’d written was too divisive. I had been writing about American state violence toward Black people. I had been decrying the ways in which the church practiced slaveholder theology. I had been publicly confessing the different ways I have been complicit in this system of oppression.
In the days and weeks that followed the death of George Floyd, I posted about police violence. I challenged my friends to consider the images of policemen hugging protesters as a show of power, not an act of love. I shared quotes from Chanequa Walker-Barnes and Dru Hart, urging my fellow Christians to read their books. I wrote about a political billboard in my home state that has for decades broadcasted white supremacist ideology alongside Interstate 5. (One of its recent messages read, “Freedom is Dangerous! Slavery is Peaceful.”)
Using my Facebook profile to this end was a bit too much for some of the folks who supported my nonprofit work. Some of them contacted me directly, or in the comments section. Others called on the pastor to come and set me straight. I was warned that my words were harming the unity of the church. I was reminded that when it comes to issues like abortion, I was welcome to take a firm public stance. But in regards to the death of Black people in America or the legacy of slavery, I was reminded, with a veiled threat of financial backlash, that this conversation was off limits:
“You’re just supposed to be about the gospel.”
“This issue is not pertinent to the gospel of Jesus. Stop threatening church unity by bringing it up.”
“You are supposed to be apolitical, like all the other people we support.”
At first, I was shocked by these words coming from people I had been fond of for most of my life. They were delivered with such speed, as if I had said something criminal or confessed to no longer believing in the resurrection of Jesus Christ. Instead, I was confronted for bringing up the matter of human dignity—something that I had once been naive enough to believe was the reason Christians supported nonprofit work. These folks hurried to call me “political,” as if it was a dirty word that undermined the gospel.
When the word “political” is used in derision, it’s akin to calling someone a drama queen. It’s always used to apply to someone ruffling feathers, swimming upstream, or questioning the status quo.
After being on the receiving end of this label for several years now, I’ve come to realize that it’s meant to indicate that I’m overreacting (“Stop telling us the sky is falling! It’s clearly not falling on us!”). When the word “political” is used in derision, it’s akin to calling someone a drama queen. It’s always used to apply to someone ruffling feathers, swimming upstream, or questioning the status quo. What people don’t realize is that flowing downstream, smoothing feathers, and refusing to question the status quo are also political acts. We all pick our politics.
The greatest danger to White Christians and predominantly White Christian communities isn’t politics; it’s pretending that we aren’t supposed to be political—which is just another way of saying that our power is holy and must not be questioned. And whether America’s fair-skinned pastors like it or not, refusing to examine one’s own power and influence in the world is a deeply political act.
Across the ocean, there is another Christian community with misgivings about public solidarity with victims of state violence. Few Myanmar Christians I know are openly sympathetic to the Rohingya people. If you raise the subject, some will counter early in the conversation: “You mean the Bengalis.” That is to say: “They aren’t real, they aren’t a unique ethnic group, and they don’t deserve to be here in our country.” If I’m with a group of Myanmar Christians and I mention my Rohingya friends in a prayer request, a chill often passes through the room before someone changes the subject.
In late 2017, as over 70 percent of Myanmar’s Rohingya people were fleeing into Bangladesh in order to escape genocide, my husband Jim was engaged in a lively disagreement with Saw, a local Christian friend. Initially, Saw had posted something graphically violent on Facebook, celebrating the unfolding Rohingya exodus. Jim posted a dissenting reply, and Saw promptly called him up and asked if they could meet to discuss the issue more.
“It’s like this,” Saw explained to Jim over tea. “These Muslims aren’t like you and me. They will take everything you have. They will hurt you and rape your family members. Genocide is the best answer.”
Saw and Jim continued to talk openly, but neither one was willing to budge on his respective stance. Jim was earnest about the dignity of the Rohingya people, and Saw was equally earnest regarding the expedient need for them to be wiped off the earth.
It’s been chilling to watch American Christians take a stance that lines up so neatly with Saw’s. Both Saw and his White Christian counterparts were more invested in finding evidence that Rohingya people or Black Americans “had it coming” than in finding ways to end violence. Both Saw and his American counterparts share the felt need to be kept safe from these “dangerous” groups, and both support the efforts of state police in maintaining law and order. In Myanmar, it’s a political act to utter the word “Rohingya.” In many White Christian spaces, saying “A Black woman was murdered by the police” is equally offensive to the so-called apolitical dominant culture.
The notion that Christians can live apolitical lives is, in and of itself, a statement about power. Only powerful people can live under the illusion that their lives are free of politics. Those without power know the truth: there is no realm in which action or inaction is completely neutral. To insist that matters involving human life aren’t political is to become an apologist for human death. We are all political, in our speech and in our silence.
At the end of their heated disagreement about the humanity of the Rohingya people, Saw got up to leave. With a strained expression of concern, he asked Jim, “Are we still friends?” “Yes, of course,” Jim replied, and Saw hugged him warmly. But as they parted, he turned to Jim one last time and said earnestly, in English—“Dear sir: please, consider genocide.”
Saw was saying the same thing my American Christian counterparts had been insisting for so long. He applied his logic to the Rohingya people. My White Christian friends were applying it to Black lives. But only Saw had the honesty to strip it of any false spirituality, or to attach Christ’s name to such a request. Saw was saying the same thing American church leaders said to me, but without the fog of spiritual optics. He didn’t invoke the name of God in order to justify his support of violence.
Saw’s ideas were explicitly violent, but the desire for the American status quo is a linguistic shroud for the same kind of violence. Saw’s political logic is the natural consequence when ideals like “don’t get political,” are brought to their ultimate conclusion. The fact is, both Saw and the American Christians who like to say “don’t get political” in response to outcry over police killing Black people actually believe the same thing. They may use different words to express their beliefs, but their respective exhortations are actually the same: “Be silent. Don’t talk about who will pay the price for our silence. Find ways to say that those who suffer deserve to be in pain. Above all, support the status quo.”
Make no mistake. The church folk who insist on throwing spiritual weight around with exhortations of “don’t get political” are singing a tune that is delightful to the ears of the violent and powerful. Theirs is a different verse, but their song is the same as Saw’s—“Dear sir: please, consider genocide.”
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