By Theon E. Hill and Daniel Lee Hill
Fourteen-year-old Celia found herself living a nightmare when she was purchased by the wealthy Missouri slave owner Robert Newsom in 1850. She endured constant rape, assault, and abuse. By the age of 19, Celia had borne two children and was pregnant with her third. She threatened to harm Newsom if he raped her again. When he persisted, she kept her promise, killing him in an altercation.
Local law enforcement charged Celia with murder; however, her defense challenged the legality of the charges, arguing that a Missouri statue protecting women from charges of murder in the case of attempted rape should be applied to her case. The judge refused to define Celia as a woman in the eyes of the court, nullifying this statute. A jury of 12 White men swiftly convicted her of first-degree murder and she was hanged on December 21, 1855.
The irony of Celia’s case arises from the court’s willingness to view her as a capable human being when it came to the murder charge but its refusal to acknowledge her humanity when it came to her own self-defense. As African-American literature scholar Saidiya Hartman notes, “As Missouri v. Celia demonstrated, the enslaved could neither give nor refuse consent, nor offer reasonable resistance, yet they were criminally responsible and liable. The slave was recognized as a reasoning subject, who possessed intent and rationality, solely in the context of criminal liability.”
Celia’s heartbreaking story reflects the tragic accommodation of white supremacy in the U.S. Publicly, we decry the deaths of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, and Rayshard Brooks; yet, we refuse to acknowledge that their deaths are indicative of what justice has looked like for racialized minorities throughout U.S. history. In fact, for many groups—Chinese workers installing the nation’s railroads, Pequots being gathered and sold into slavery, or Japanese civilians (along with many non-Japanese Americans of Asian descent) being confined to internment camps—American conceptions of justice have often come at their expense. In fact, this point could be taken a step further. The internment of Japanese Americans, the lynching of African Americans, and the massacre of the Pequots are all undertaken as acts of “justice,” as “just” responses intended to uphold a social order. These tragedies are not anomalies, abnormalities, or irregularities in U.S. history. They represent an American notion of justice. As Donald Glover proclaimed, “This is America.”
Appealing to American Justice
Consequently, it is rather unsurprising that social activists throughout American history have consistently called the American people to “live up” to the values of justice and equity articulated in its founding documents. The Declaration of Independence states, in no uncertain terms, that “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” But what does it mean to be “equal?” Who is included in the realm of “men?” If indeed, as the next sentence states, it is the government’s responsibility to secure these rights, then justice can conceivably be viewed as the appropriate application of these rights and liberties to all those recognized as “men.”
In light of these conceptual commitments, Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech, James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time, and Fannie Lou Hamer’s Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party appeal to the malperformance of these professed values, calling the American people to live up to the high calling of its creed. As Frederick Douglass wonders, “Are the great principles of political freedom and of natural justice, embodied in that Declaration of Independence, extended to [Blacks]?” Similarly, James Weldon Johnson explains, “The battle was first waged over the right of the Negro to be classed as a human being with a soul; later, as to whether he had sufficient intellect to master even the rudiments of learning; and today it is being fought out over his social recognition.”
Transformation; Not Modification
During the latter part of the sixties, public support for the black freedom struggle began to wane. Leaders like Martin Luther King, Jr. began to doubt the nation’s ability to modify its practices to align with its creeds. He began to suspect that America’s understanding of its creeds might be the problem. Although Malcolm X came to this conclusion much sooner, King arrived there by the time he penned Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community? the year before his death:
“For the vast majority of white Americans, the past decade—the first phase—had been a struggle to treat the Negro with a degree of decency, not of equality. White America was ready to demand that the Negro should be spared the lash of brutality and coarse degradation, but it had never been truly committed to helping him out of poverty, exploitation or all forms of discrimination.”
In contrast with the earlier faith he placed in American conceptions of justice, freedom, and equality, this King called for a “radical revolution of values.” Scholars identify this type of rhetorical move as “outlaw discourse.” Like an “outlaw” in the Wild West, this move rejects the “laws” or norms tied to concepts like justice, freedom, or equality in order to allow new conceptions to emerge. It suggests that transformation, not modification, serves as the pathway to social change when concepts like justice operate unjustly in society.
The disruptive goal of outlaw discourse is familiar to readers of the Old Testament. Examples of God’s prophets rejecting society’s practice of civic values as counterfeit are ubiquitous. Isaiah indicts Judah for treating evil as good, Amos calls Israel to repentance for turning “justice into poison,” Elijah condemns King Ahab for perverting justice to steal Naboth’s vineyard. The problem for Israel is not merely that they have perverted justice, but that insofar as their conceptions of justice should correspond to and signify the greater justice of God, they fail to reflect God’s character. Moreover, not only have they failed to live in accordance with God’s ways and law, but they have passed off brazen injustice as if it did. In so doing, they are claiming that God’s character accords with and permits their oppression of their neighbors and kin.
Our current struggle reflects this same failure. As a nation, we embrace the unjust deaths of human beings like Walter Scott, Tamir Rice, Trayvon Martin, Sandra Bland, and Eric Garner to uphold an anti-biblical and oppressive social order. And insofar as we do so, we are making a larger claim of what the justice of God, and to be more precise the character of God, looks like.
Nations and Their Idols
National values shape civic identity, ideology, and trajectory. We exalt heroes who embody these values and then encourage the other members of society to emulate their conduct and way of life. Whether it is the honesty of George Washington, the determination of Davy Crockett, or the courage of Rosa Parks, the stories we tell shape our fellow citizens in accordance with a particular vision of what our nation should be. Because of their centrality, challenging a nation’s conception of its core values carries inherent risks. The outrage from Jeremiah Wright’s controversial “God Damn America” remark illustrates this risk. We imagine ourselves to be a redeemer nation; we celebrate American exceptionalism; we cling to the idea of manifest destiny. When Wright suggested that the U.S. was not eternally deserving of God’s blessing, he threatened our self-image.
Colin Kaepernick discovered the danger of challenging America’s self-image. The former NFL quarterback became a lightning rod for criticism when, instead of standing, he chose to kneel for the national anthem to protest police brutality. He protested peacefully, in conversation with the military, and even pursued dialogue with law enforcement. However, the nation remained preoccupied with the image of him kneeling rather than engaging the cause of the gesture or the message he intended to communicate.
Kaepernick’s case is particularly interesting. Instead of “disrespecting the flag,” a contested interpretation to say the least, Kaepernick appears to be embodying the role of a foil. It is, after all, citizens who kneel before a nation’s flags and citizens whose interests are protected by the governing officials, namely, the police. But in kneeling, Kaepernick appears to be communicating that Blacks are not yet fully treated or recognized as citizens within the United States and their interests are often neither protected nor served by law enforcement. However, the uproar which ensued suggested that Kaepernick was anti-military and anti-America, which is ironic, if nothing else, given that the NFL is particularly focused on cultivating national adoration and worship, as James K. A. Smith has noted.
America boasts a legacy of justice, freedom, and equality. The fury directed at people like Jeremiah Wright and Colin Kaepernick stems from the perceived threat they pose to the national story we tell and the image it props up. And this reaction illustrates that only certain members of society are free to contribute to our understanding of these values and it is only the voices of certain individuals who are weighed as equal. And in so doing, we have adopted an understanding of justice that is anything but, an understanding that continues to pass off injustice as justice. When Wright and Kaepernick, Baldwin and Hamer call attention to this failing, our reaction to them indicates that they are challenging something held closely to the heart, a story that motivates and guides us, a story that provides our lives with meaning and hope. It is perhaps not coincidental that their challenge cuts to the place where idols are safely stowed. To be blunt, this story is our national idol, an idol we protect with fierceness and vitriol.
The Ten Commandments forbid idolatry. God defines idolatry not only as serving a false God but also misrepresenting the true God. Israel often angered God when they attempted to represent the divine with rocks, wood, or metal because these substances fail to capture the essence and character of God. The images Israel created resembled the priorities of the people more than the God they claimed to worship. Thomas Aquinas describes idolatry as the act of giving divine worship to whom it should not be given. And, in the case of idolatry, the object of worship is always the creature or figments of the creature’s imagination. However, the God of Israel is not only provoked on account of Israel’s idolatry, but laments the formative nature of such worship.
Perhaps it’s time for us to recognize that our greatest idol in America is our national story. Our reliance on a self-narrative defined by justice, equality, and freedom obscures the selective application of those concepts throughout our history. From Thibodaux (1887) to Spring Valley (1895) to Tulsa (1921) to Money (1954) to Minneapolis (2020), we remain so deeply invested in this national story that we cannot see our dire need for social transformation. And that this transformation will cost us dearly.
The backlash directed toward figures such as Jeremiah Wright and Colin Kaepernick offers a glimpse into the discontinuity between our self-image and lived reality. And it raises the question: do our conceptions of equity, justice, and citizenship recognize these figures as participants and agents in the dialogue of what it means to be American? Or are we only willing to relegate their discontent back to the margins? Are they fundamentally objects to be determined, or dialogue partners to engage?
Here, the American God raises its ugly head, an issue that should be particularly pressing for Christians, especially since idols tend to demand sacrifices in one form or another. And it is in times of crisis that the dissonance between our professed and actual values emerges, as we attempt to apply our conceptions of equity, justice, safety, and convenience in a manner that is separate but equal. Simply put: we cannot get biblical justice with Jim Crow logic.
Let us be direct, change cannot occur until we as a nation recognize that our articulation of core values like justice, equality, and unity embodied in our national story constitute the foundation of white supremacy in the U.S. And in that recognition, we must begin the hard work of rearticulation and reimagining. Until we have the vulnerability to raise critical questions regarding the nature of the civic values that we turn to in moments of crisis, we will have no real hope of creating the Beloved Community. There can be calm; there can be stasis. But insofar as our conceptions of justice, equality, and unity continue to be defined in light of this particular epic, we will merely be changing the gauze on infected wounds and clothing broken bones without taking the time to set and splint the fractures.
Moments of unrest like this tempt us to question, “When will things get back to normal?” But for many people, normalcy itself has been the problem. It is not that society has not changed in 400 years, but rather that the fundamental story and the values this story undergirds have remained consistent. This thinking reflects a cultural myopia that has sustained racial injustice as “normal” for centuries. If this is normal, then it is precisely our normal that needs to be changed. For social change to occur, we must begin to rethink the very habits and stories that reinforce our national identity. Ultimately, the need of the hour is recognition that what has been can no longer be. The whole future of our democratic experiment depends on our willingness to sacrifice our idols and reimagine life together.
Theon E. Hill serves as Associate Professor of Communication at Wheaton College where he teaches and researches on the intersections of race, faith, and politics. You can follow him on Twitter @TheonHill.
Daniel Lee Hill serves as Assistant Professor of Theology at Dallas Theological Seminary where he teaches and researches on the theology of the church, human person, and the church’s responsibility in the political sphere. You can follow him on Twitter @dannyhills33.