History shapes us, our country and our faith in ways known and unknown. Truths from our history as Christian Americans need to be faced – not to shame or guilt anyone – but in order to understand what vestige of those still impact us today so that we might engage in community with one another to dismantle them and create a brighter future. Even as the church has hope eternal, there is much tension and confusion about what the American Church is and who God is calling her to be. Bishop Easterling invited Joel Goza, the author of America’s Unholy Ghosts: The Racist Roots of Our Faith and Politics, to her table to talk about foundational history that intentionally misshaped the American church. Drawing on the works of philosophers who shaped this nation, the brilliance of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., the life of Jesus and Joel’s experience of redemption in Houston’s Fifth Ward, they explore how the United States – including her churches – was built on intentional and destructive systems which dehumanized our life together and minimized the totality of Jesus’ message and ministry. You won’t want to miss this conversation on how these devastating foundations can be reversed and the role that church and people of faith might play in creating equity and justice.
The Rev. Joel Edward Goza, author of the award winning America’s Unholy Ghosts: The Racist Roots of Our Faith and Politics, speaks around the country bringing a rigorously researched and community-based perspective to understanding our nation’s racial crisis. He is a professor of ethics and the Director of Strategic Partnerships at Simmons College of Kentucky. He is currently working on a new book project titled Rebirth of a Nation: Reparations, Repentance and Redeeming America.
Questions for Reflection and Extending the Conversation
Bishop Easterling: Beloved, I am so pleased and excited to welcome to the table today, author, theologian, scholar, and advocate, the Reverend Joel Edward Goza. Joel is currently Professor of Ethics and the Director of Strategic Partnerships at Simmons College in Kentucky. He is the author of the widely acclaimed, America's Unholy Ghosts: The Racist Roots of Our Faith and Politics. His current book project is tentatively entitled, Rebirth of a Nation: Reparations, Repentance, and Redeeming America. Joel, welcome to the table.
Joel Edward Goza: Bishop, I'm so honored to be with you this afternoon. Thank you for having me.
Bishop Easterling: Excellent. Thank you. Now, in a minute, I'm going to read a couple of reviews that are at the beginning of your book, but before I do that, I have to ask you a couple of really important questions. Coffee or tea?
Joel: Cold coffee.
Bishop Easterling: Cold coffee?
Joel: Yes. I'll cook up my Folgers, put it in the pot, and then I have an apple juice container that's empty, and I will pour it in there, put it in the refrigerator, and that's my coffee for the next of the week. That's how I get going. That's what jump-starts me. My wife thinks I am just awful for doing things like that.
Bishop Easterling: Well, you know, no. Our son, our oldest son drinks cold coffee. He drinks iced coffee. We make a huge pot of coffee at home, and then the rest of us, my husband and our youngest son, we drink our coffee hot, and then he comes by and gets it, puts it over his ice, and that's the end of the coffee.
Joel: Yes. That is the end. Growing up in Houston, Texas, it never made sense to drink something that was hot to me. I was already hot enough at that point.
Bishop Easterling: Understood. Decaf or regular?
Joel: Oh, definitely decaf.
Bishop Easterling: Decaf?
Joel: Definitely decaf.
Bishop Easterling: All right. You're decaf.
Joel: Oh not decaf, caf. See, that's the problem. I don't have enough caffeine in my system right now.
Bishop Easterling: All right. I was going to say, "Wow. One for team decaf," because so far, it's been three to zero for caffeinated on this question. Then cream and sugar or straight up?
Joel: Cream and sweetener; I'm a diabetic. I don't know if that's okay. I can't do the sugar.
Bishop Easterling: Can't do sugar.
Joel: I get some of the sweetener in there every now and then. I can go either way as long as I got the cream.
Bishop Easterling: Understood. One of the things that we joke about is that I often change up my coffee cup. Today's cup says, "Be the change you wish to see in the world." A wonderful quote from Gandhi. That will be our guiding principle today. I think that sums up who you are quite well. You are being the change that you want to see in the world. I'd like to read a couple of the reviews from some other leaders in this field that are in your book.
Ibram X. Kendi says, of America's Unholy Ghosts, "An impressive analysis of some thinkers who inspired America's addiction to racist ideas, an addiction that continues to destroy America. Unholy Ghosts is for anyone daring to be anti-racist, daring to end racial inequity."
J. Alfred Smith says of the book, "Joel Goza introduces us to those respected intellectuals whose ideas became the DNA of White supremacy and American exceptionalism. He carefully and clearly documents his presentation with preciseness and ethical urgency that calls for an awakening from our apathetic slumbers. This book is a must-read."
Then Khalil Gibran Muhammad says, "Joel Goza writes within the faith traditions of the Black Prophetic Church with the passion of a modern-day racial justice apostle, and with the mind of a philosopher unraveling some of the oldest ideas to justify racism and poverty. America's Unholy Ghosts is an urgent offering to its readers who seek exorcism and rebirth for a new nation."
So, who are these unholy ghosts that help to frame this book, and why do we need to have our American DNA exorcised of them?
Joel: Absolutely. The philosophers that I write about are Thomas Hobbes, who is one of the first influential English enlightenment philosophers. John Locke, who is the father of liberalism, and Adam Smith, who is the father of capitalism. One of the things that Dr. King writes about in his first book, he says that one of the things that the church must do right now is we must study the roots of what he refers to as ideational race hate.
Dr. King was convinced, working within the context of the 1950s in the 1960s, that there was something within America's very DNA, something at the very foundation of the project that was still prohibiting his pursuit of the beloved community - 200, 250 years later. That if we are working on top of broken bedrock, until we fix our foundation, if we have fruits that are still poisoned by what is at our roots, until we really analyze what is going on, then our work is always going to fail to have the impact that we are working and desiring to see.
What America's Unholy Ghosts is trying to do, is it's really examining the intellectual infrastructure, the common sense, as maybe Thomas Payne would say, of our society and how it is that the racial nightmare of our nation seems to be repeating itself generation after generation after generation.
This book ended up coming out in 2019, and we are in this season where decades of history are getting compacted into just a month at a time and it's opening a door to really reflect and rethink some of our basic assumptions. These assumptions that we have failed to examine, but must re-examine, if we hope to begin crafting a society that is not defined by racial inequality and division.
Bishop Easterling: Talking about re-examining, in your book, you say, "Only by returning to the original crime scenes where America's ideologies were first crafted, can we begin to understand our ongoing addiction to racist ideas, institutions, and ways of life." Why do you call it an addiction?
Joel: What we try to do through addictions is we try to numb ourselves to the pain. This is the beautiful thing about a narcotic, is that we find ourselves in this unspeakable pain, and the question becomes is, how do you numb yourself? When you are a nation that is wealthy, but we have poverty, we have radical inequalities that are literally destroying people, the question becomes is, how do you numb yourself to the pain? These racist ideas became that narcotic.
Now, narcotics can numb you from the pain, but they can never address the root problems. When you think of racism as this addiction, the question becomes is, how do we numb ourselves from the pain that we witnessed and how do we make sense of this world? There was a way of numbing the pain simply by saying, "If you want to know the problem of America's racial inequalities, simply look at Black people, that the crime is colored, Black. It is because of X, Y, and Z.”
Since the crime is Black, then we can have a certain way of doing our economics, a certain way of doing our churches, a certain way of doing our prison systems that ends up undergirding the racist ideas that have so formed our culture. What America's Unholy Ghosts really seeks to do is it seeks to identify the different type of lies that we have bought into about politics, about the nature of economics, about the nature of justice, about the nature of justice itself, and about religion that provided those numbing effects for us so that as White people, like I'm speaking as a White person, I can live comfortably within the inequalities that I've examined.
Now, my next book really examines some of our foundational assumptions about Black folks in a lot of detail, but on America's Unholy Ghosts side, it is just thinking at a very foundational level, the way that we do government, the way that we do economics, the way that we do justice, the way that we do church, and how this helps feed the system that we find ourselves in.
Bishop Easterling: Of course, you could also add to that list of things that you've examined, you could add medicine because, certainly, the way that medicine has been practiced, the racist ideas about a Black intelligent, even in terms of how much pain a Black person should be able to withstand, so what has been done to the Black body through medicine.
Of course, we could look at the Tuskegee experiments, we could look at what happened to Henrietta Lacks, we could look at the father of our gynecological system and how all of that was researched and practiced upon Black women's bodies throughout slavery, so biology, psychology. We could talk about the foundation of all of those and their racist roots, again, coming out of the enlightenment and how all of those deep thinkers that still frame those traditions today operate among us.
Joel: That is exactly correct to a very scary, scary extent. One of the students of John Locke that I write about is a guy named Thomas Jefferson, who many Americans have heard about. He was famous for writing that all people are equal, but after he writes that all people are equal, he also writes a book that is called Notes on the State of Virginia. In Notes on the State of Virginia, he begins making arguments that Black folks can't feel pain, that they don't have the ability for relational intimacy, that Black men love sex, but they're not good fathers, they are not good husbands.
Now, he is doing this for a particular reason, and the reason that he is doing this is so that when people witness the violence that happens in slavery, they can believe in the myth that Black people can't feel pain. When they witness the agony at the auction block with families being torn apart, with women literally breaking down and weeping, that White folks can pretend and do pretend to not understand the agony that they are witnessing.
Even when you go into modern times, they have done research that shows that when White folks see Black folks in pain, that it literally does not register neurologically on them. They respond in such a way as if they were witnessing something that is non-human going through an experience that doesn't have the depth of human suffering associated with it.
One of the tragedies that we witness when we work in places like in inner-city Baltimore or here in West Louisville or in Houston's Fifth Ward, one of the things I became convinced of is that the destruction that we are witnessing was not in any way by accident, it was not happenstance, that it is instead destruction by design. If that is so, then we find ourselves in a place and moment in time in history where we must begin reimagining our world, reimagining the way that it is designed to do, and with greater urgency, begin fighting for a future that is much more worthy of our children.
Bishop Easterling: When you say that, that it is destruction by design, that is almost too much to comprehend. One wants to almost have a knee-jerk rejection of that because it's almost too much to think about, that the fathers of our country were that insidious with their thinking, and yet, as your work has shown us, as the work of others, that's exactly true.
That's why I think you're telling us that we have to go back and examine these racist roots because some folks will want to ask the question, "Well, why can't we just move forward, agreeing to do better? Why do we need to spend any time on the past? Why can't we just say, we accept that and move forward?" What I think you're telling us is that there are ways that we're not even cognizant of that this is affecting us. When you talk about a particular group of people being in pain and there fails to be a neurological registering of that pain, you're telling us it isn't as easy as simply moving on.
Joel: Absolutely. Part of the truth of the matter is, is that history could've been different. History is always shaped and always contingent on the types of decisions that we are making today. The types of decisions that we are making today is always based on our understanding of history. It's always based on our understanding of history.
One of the things Ella Baker said is that the reason we got to understand this history is not to produce White self-hate, it's actually not to produce shame, it's not to produce even perhaps guilt, even though shame, guilt are going to be very natural reactions, but this thing is about our future and about the future that we want to design together.
Now, when you look at, for instance, an issue such as reparations, I write about reparations. Now, do the past demand reparations? They absolutely do. Part of my fight for reparations is about the future that I want for my children, where we all are able to live together. The only way that we can create a more human, more inclusive future is by addressing the history that has dehumanized our life together.
The folks who have profited from the crimes of the past are most often the ones who want us to forget the past that they have profited from. The reason that that becomes so difficult is that one of the clear ways to repeat the mistakes of the past is to simply forget about them. The only way that a different future for us can be built and the only way different possibilities can emerge is for us to enter into the difficult work of repentance.
Again, we're not talking about repentance-- I'm not talking about wallowing in self-hate, I am not talking about demonizing White folks, I'm not talking about any of that, but I am talking about this process where we create a context where the crimes of the past are no longer allowed to repeat without being checked.
Bishop Easterling: I want to pick up on that in a moment because that's so important, and it's one of the things that I keep repeating and keep trying to drive home. I know there's some resistance to this important work of dismantling racism, anti-racism, understanding White supremacy, that folks resist because they think we are asking them to wallow, like you said, in this hatred, in this shame, in this guilt. Absolutely not. That doesn't benefit any of us. I appreciate you lifting that up. I want to talk about that in a minute.
Before we get too far, I want to, again, continue to have our listeners understand a little bit more about your book because these unholy ghosts, as Khalil said that we need to have exorcized from our DNA, you put them in tension with the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King. He becomes your conversation partner, if you will, in this book.
As I began thinking about that, I thought to myself, "Now, wait a minute. Is that fair? Is that not a Herculean task [laughs] to place on the shoulders of one man who happens to be a Black man, who was himself harmed by this racist rhetoric and these notions? Isn't that a Herculean task to put that all on his shoulders?" Tell us what you were doing by bringing forth-- you already mentioned beloved community, but tell us a little bit more about why you put them in conversation with Dr. King?
Joel: Well, first of all, it is a Herculean task. I would want to say that there are perhaps two reasons for that move that was intentional. One is that we have fundamentally mis-framed who Martin Luther King Jr. was. As a White kid that grew up right in the time where we began celebrating the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday, which I believe the first celebration was about 1986 or so, so I'm about six years old at this point, there was a particular way of framing King that warmed White hearts without ever challenging racial injustices. That's how the King holiday was designed.
In my mind, there is this overlap between the work of Sesame Street and Dr. King. He's got to have a simplistic notion of Dr. King. The more that I lived in the inner city community, the more I actually took time to read Dr. King and what he said, is he moved from this feel-good character to somebody who was an intellectual revolutionary. That when you talk about Galileo, when you talk about Copernicus, when you talk about Einstein and Newton, you are talking about men whose brilliance demanded that we begin seeing the world through their eyes in order to see it truthfully.
That is exactly the type of man King was. That is exactly the radical edge of brilliance that King displayed, is that to see our world and our nation truthfully demands intimacy with the thought works of Dr. Martin Luther King. Otherwise, you're going to miss what our nation has become. He would talk about, for instance, our addiction to three things, the military and violence, to materialism and capitalism, and to racism. We've got to really wrestle with that and not just write it off of a color-blind inclusivity.
The second thing is that Dr. King was more than a man in one specific way, is that he's the embodiment of a church tradition. That I'm using Dr. King to speak to an institution and perhaps in American history, the most anti-racist institution that was ever established. Perhaps the one institution that was made to help people thrive despite a racist world while intentionally working to uproot that racism. It is what I refer to in America's Unholy Ghosts as the prophetic Black church. Now, what people would ask me, what do you mean by the prophetic Black Church in the book? I don't make it clear because I didn't really know, so that was part of it.
Bishop Easterling: All right. That's honest.
Joel: I think I have found a way of talking about it is that it is that church that formed during the times of slavery, often meeting in the woods that instilled a sense of dignity, a sense of hope, the church that eventually inspired the destruction of slavery. It moves from the secret gatherings to very public gatherings during the aging of lynching. It keeps folks going through those persecutions. Where did the political imagination for the Black community come from, from Frederick Douglass and all the other folks? Where did education come from?
The church was the incubator for all of these things within the Black community. There is a mosaic of Black beliefs and Black convictions, but there's no doubt that one of, if not the critical incubator, becomes the Black church. The Black church begins playing these holistic roles where it is not simply about the salvation of souls, but it's nurturing in the care of souls, the nurturing in the care of people, while also fighting for education, while also fighting for public policies, while also shaping public leadership.
For me, King became one of the wonderful voices within that tradition. There's a choir of folks that you could pick from, but I worked with King on that because I felt like he had been so mis-framed and intentionally and racially mis-framed by our nation. I wanted to deal with that radical brilliance that has been in our presence but that has been ignored for far, far too long.
Bishop Easterling: Wow. You touched on so many things that I want to unpack. One of them, if we could stay with this notion of the Black church for a moment though, I also believe that as I read your book and was thinking also about, how is he using this term, the Black church. I've heard other people say that if Christianity is to be saved, it will be saved through the Black church.
What they mean by that is this notion that God is real. God is real. Jesus Christ came for the purpose of giving voice to and centering the marginalized and those who accept Jesus Christ as their Lord and Savior. It isn't just about a personal salvation. It is about being present in community and transforming lives and community. Dismantling again, those oppressive systems. Speaking directly to empire, really tearing apart the aspects of empire that privilege a few while oppressing the masses.
The Black church not only preaches that and teaches that, but it calls upon those who are adherence of Black church theology and spirituality to live that. You're not supposed to just show up on Sunday morning to be entertained, but on Monday and Tuesday and Wednesday and Thursday you live and put into practice that which you were inspired by. I also think that's an aspect of that Black church phenomenon that you're talking about.
Joel: Yes. Absolutely. It's also implicitly saying something about White Christianity. For me, as a White person, the term appropriation was hard for me to get my mind around. To understand appropriation, what I had to do is I had to look at a White model in dreadlocks, try to seek to understand, now why is this offensive. Why does this become offensive? What I realized is that this becomes offensive because this model steals African style without standing in solidarity with the African-American struggle. It becomes a way of appropriating the style, but not standing in the struggle.
When I started thinking about what White Christianity is, what it came to really mean for me was that it became an appropriated religion. Now, in what way is it an appropriated religion? It is an appropriated religion in the sense that it took the religion of the enslaved, of the Jews, and began using it by the masters, for the slave masters' purposes.
How does that appropriation happen? That appropriation happens by taking Christianity and losing the prophetic tradition that set it apart, that made it a system of liberation, of freedom, of empowerment. When we talk about Black Christianity, it is not the appropriation of White Christianity, but it is in fact, is taking off the way that enslavers appropriated Christianity and use it within a context much more in keeping of its original intentions.
Bishop Easterling: Interesting. Now, I want to be clear just for our listeners, just for a moment. For me, when we're talking about these things, the Black church, the White church, whiteness, we're talking about constructs. Again, it isn't all White churches, it isn't even all Black churches. Whiteness is a social construct. We're not just pointing to all White people. We are talking about social constructs and the ways that these things have been developed and then utilized within our society.
I just want our listeners to hear that lest they think that somehow we're now reducing this to Black church good, White church bad. That is not what we're talking about. We're talking about, again, structures and systems and how they are utilized either for good or to continue oppression. Let me go back then to, again, what you talked about, why you put King in conversation with these three unholy ghosts that you named, and you talk about what we've done to King.
The word that kept coming to my mind was how we've neutered him. To my mind, we've done the same thing with Christ, with Jesus. We have made Jesus safe. There's no need for us to be confronted by anything because Jesus is so passive, whereas I talk about love a lot, but in a far more radical sense than I think those who've tried to neuter Jesus and/or King would be using that term, "Oh, let's just all love each other. Why can't we all just get along?"
I think we've done that so that we don't have to confront the radical transformation that Christ came, I think to call upon those who had a relationship with God, but certainly also what King was talking about. Again, this notion of celebrating King. Some people who stand in stark contradiction to everything King stood for, can stand up on Martin Luther King Jr. Day and extol his virtues and turn right back around the next day and continue to promote and uplift policies that are hypocrisy, up against what King stood for.
Joel: There's a way of painting Dr. King to when people get enraged at racial justice, that we think that they are the folks who didn't hear King, or that rejected King, or that had simply lost their minds. What are they talking about? If you listen to what Ronald Reagan says about King, obviously those who are the angriest and those who are fighting the hardest to transform our nations are the one out of step with his legacy rather than the ones who are in step with the legacy that King himself was trying to create.
One of the arguments that I will make when we look at a struggle today, such as reparations, is that to reject the call for reparations is not only to reject the radical Black folks fighting for justice today, but it is also to reject the tradition from which they come. Martin Luther King calls for reparations, Douglas, Du Bois, Sojourner Truth, Ida B. Wells. That there is a whole tradition that is pointing within this trajectory.
One of the things I had to realize that became so tough was that our nation never lacked problems to our racial dilemmas, or never lacked solutions to the problems of our racial dilemmas. We simply ignored those who had the solution because they were radical and they were Black. It called everything into question, and we weren't quite ready to rethink our life at the type of deep level that we would need to in order to become a nation that we claim that we have always been.
Bishop Easterling: One more thing I want to parse out of your description of King, you talked about, again, his thought, what he brought to bear on the civil rights struggle as revolutionary. In your book, you talk about the difference between evolution and revolution, and how that which was revolutionary, and which really was attempting to exorcise, again, these unholy ghosts out of our DNA became-- that the movement that was doing that was slowed down by this notion of evolution. Can you talk about what you mean between the difference of evolution and revolution?
Joel: Yes, absolutely. What revolution is saying is that the problem with the game is that the rules have been broken. That the rules themselves create destruction. What evolution tries to do is it tries to keep the same type of ideas and come up with a little bit smaller improvements on the sides.
Now, the problem with the evolutionary type of progress in that paradigm is that it is extending the life of a system that is designed to fail, and that will fundamentally always create two different worlds, even within the same city. A world of the oppressed and broken, and a world of affluents. The question of King was, he said, "Phase one of civil rights movement is for participation in society, and then phase two in the civil rights movement is moving equality from an ideal that we herald to a reality that we experience."
King envisions these radical investments happening into inner city communities, into education, into the social safety net that will empower equality to become the words of Lyndon Johnson, and I'm going to mess them up a little bit, but he says, "We're going to move them from a right to a reality, to where this is something that we are actually going to fight to realize."
What ends up happening is that we stop that revolutionary push that would cause us to question our education system and the way that we fund it, our prison system, our health system, as you had mentioned, our economic system. Instead, we try to create these small incremental changes. We will do integration, and what is integration going to look like? It is not going to be ever putting White people into Black space, but we'll take a couple Black people and allow them into White space, and allow them to get acculturated into that space, and that this is what progress will look like.
While at the same time, really allowing the destructions of the inner city to continue, allowing Black employment to implode because of the refusal to really enforce informative action, allowing Black education to implode by robbing it of the public funds that it needs to thrive. The evolutionary sense of progress just perpetuated broken rules, and the revolutionary work that King was calling us to, was a work that we have the responsibility of picking up today.
Bishop Easterling: One might wonder, was there some event in your life, something that you experienced that really stirred all of this in you? Again, in your book, you talk about birth via bullet. Talk to me about what you meant by that and that experience that you had when you were, as you said, living in a community that was impoverished, that was predominated by people of color, and what experience you had that really removed the scales from your eyes.
Joel: I had mentioned earlier how it is in society, these times of crisis that give us the opportunity to really rethink our world. For me, it was a personal experience at this time of crisis where everything in my world had fallen apart. My career, my love life, my hell, my hopes went kablooie, and it went kablooie in one season. For some reason, it's not one storm, it's all of them hit at the same time. What I ended up finding myself in is in a place where the world was not making sense to me. I was ready to take the risk of really relearning my world from a different perspective.
At the time, I had a friend working at an inner-city school, and he encouraged me and my friends to move into an inner-city community in Houston, Texas. It's in the wider Fifth Ward area. When we did, it really turned my life upside down. One of the things that I would say, and I don't want to offend anybody, but I think you may understand what I mean is that everything that I ever knew about Black people, I learned from Ronald Reagan.
This was the era that I came up with, that placed these racialized caricatures in my mind concerning Black families about Black problems.
Then, once I was in the Fifth Ward area, everything that I believed got called into question, the ways that my faith had harmonized with racism, the way that my political convictions had harmonized with racism, and the way that the very way that I lived my life was complicit with the greatest crimes of our country. It was in that context that I began to be able to see the world through a different lens.
Bishop Easterling: Womanist theology talks about being in community, that one needs to be present with those whose situation one is intending to improve. It isn't good enough for one to send a check or to do a drive-by. Right?
Joel: Right, yes.
Bishop Easterling: That one actually needs to take up some residence. Bryan Stevenson frames it as getting proximate to the pain. Is that what that experience was like for you? Can you talk about how it changed everything you knew of these caricatured people, but that actually being in community allowed you to have a reframed, a deeper understanding?
Joel: Yes. Intimacy does stuff to us. It is those relationships for everybody. Before I moved into the inner city, it was these relationships that had formed me. I am thankful to have a mother and a father who deeply loved me, and that love did something to me. When I moved into the inner city, that love did something to me as well. It started changing the way that I saw the world and it started helping me to make sense with a reality that I had been segregated from. I think that we often fail to appreciate the way that segregation has shaped our lives because what segregation was intentionally designed to do was to make the type of relationships that we need to understand our world virtually impossible to foster.
There was a series of unlikely circumstances, unlikely miracles that happened where I got into a community where I was embraced where I was and given the time to really rethink things, and it became very redemptive for me. As I said, I came into a time of my personal crisis and that's where stuff started to work out, where I had to start working things out. It wouldn't be my only season, so life continues. That was nearly 20 years ago now.
Bishop Easterling: To me, the flip side of this coin is something that I heard you talk about in a video clip that I looked at a little bit, and it was harmonizing scripture with White supremacy. Here in the Baltimore-Washington Conference, we created a study called, Who Are We? The first confession in that study was understanding that we all come to scripture with a particular lens. None of us come as blank slates.
There are things that we learn from our family of origin, from the schools in which we were educated, from the communities in which we grew up, relationships that we had or didn't have, but we all come to scripture with a lens. As I listened to you in harmonizing scripture with White supremacy, you made me think about that. What were you trying to touch on in that phrase, harmonizing scripture with White supremacy?
Joel: When we think about the racialized world that we live in, what we often forget is that for this racialized world to exist, this racialized world had to be accepted by people who considered themselves Christian. What the philosophers that I examine do and what was very important to do was to know what Christianity and scripture was all about before you've ever read scripture.
One of the philosophers that I write about is a perfect example of this, and it is a guy named John Locke. John Locke wanted to say that religion is only about our relationship with Jesus and the salvation of our soul. What Locke would do is he would take these scriptures that seem to be talking about politics and what he would say is, we know that scripture is not talking about politics because Christianity is apolitical.
Now, what was important about that was the only way to think that Christianity was apolitical was to believe that it was before you ever read scripture and then read scripture accordingly. What will always happen, for instance, with the Beatitudes, is that we will talk about the poor in spirit that are blessed because we know that's already where the accent falls, that it's on the spirit, and we will ignore that the poor are blessed.
There is a training that we have all received before we've ever opened up scripture, and too often, rather than allowing scripture to shape our convictions, we shape scripture. Instead of scripture reshaping our convictions, we reshape scripture to fit what we believe beforehand. It is a very violent act of reading.
Bishop Easterling: Again, it takes me right back to again, that notion of that is why Christ then does not become the revolutionary figure, that he ought to be for us and for our world because we've already predetermined everything that it could mean. We read onto it what it's trying to tell us rather than really allowing us to tell us what God intended and what the Holy Spirit intends through that revelation. Peter Gomes talks about The Scandalous Jesus.
I remember the first time a woman that I was in seminary with heard that she was so offended. What do you mean? How can Jesus be scandalous? She was so turned off by that phrase, but what Gomes meant by that was, it was scandalous in terms of the work of our culture, empire everything that our society stands for. It stands the message of Christ then is scandalous if one is trying to identify and to connect it to empires. Again, I hear that in what you're talking about.
Joel: There's someone who's been very, very influential in my life, and that I love to the bone. I refer to Jesus as a Jew nailed to the tree. For him, this was offensive because he had been trained to think of Jesus in the reflection of the White man that he had wanted to be like, and to think that there was this Jew that could tell a White man what to do that was considered a criminal became a very difficult paradigm to embrace.
Bishop Easterling: Indeed. Let me ask you this question. We've talked a lot about the difficulty. We've talked a lot about the unholy ghost. We've talked about there needs to be an exorcism out of the DNA of our society, but then some of our own personal thought, where do you find hope? Where's your hope in this work?
Joel: One of the lines I love is what James Baldwin said, that hope is invented every day. Hope is a craft, hope is a work. What you hope for when you're looking for hope is that you see this crack of the impossible happening, that you see this crack of the impossible happening. Where I find hope is in the reality that everything is contention, that where hope is, is hope is in taking the responsibility and entering the struggle, and knowing that sometimes somehow the impossible does happen. It often happens in the context of impossibility.
When slavery fell, it had never been more entrenched, never more impossible to break than when it shattered. It had been growing more impossible by the day for 200 years at that point, essentially. Segregation, it was impossible to shatter segregation. We knew this couldn't happen, and yet, they killed a little boy named Emmett Till. After they killed that little boy, there was a generation that rose up and said, "No more," and they changed our world.
I am of a generation, for instance, that has never seen any type of policy progress in my lifetime. Born in 1980, we had one bit of positive policy in my life, that was the Healthcare Act. I remember that very distinctly because my wife and I looked at each other and we said, we might be able to have a child now, before we could not have done that.
Then when you looked at the passage, the failure of the Build Back Better, I was convinced, beyond the shadow of a doubt, we're going to watch ourself burn alive. Yet, the impossible happened and things started happening to where we got for the first time, a climate bill that gives hope to the children that I'm raising right now, that come up about my waist. It happened from within an impossible context.
The question of hope is, hope is never far from danger. There is this hope that I have experienced through the Black church tradition that is not optimistic, that it is a hope, as I think the boys would say, that it is often less than hopeful, but it's held onto with a dogged determinism, and through community, we hold onto these fragile hopes as we try to live beautiful lives during dark times. Every now and then, something happens and good things happen. Positive things happen, transformational things happen.
I am holding on to the hope that the children that we are raising now are going to be able to go in a different direction, that before we get into the grave, that we'll be able to make up for some of the crimes that we have already committed against these children, and you try to invent that hope one day at a time. I always think about the stark difference between optimism and hope, but I've seen the impossible happen. I've witnessed it happen. Even as I say, it's not an optimistic hope, it is a hope that has witnessed the impossible.
Bishop Easterling: Amen. For me, and I appreciate everything that you've just said and I resonate with it. For me, those in our society, whatever walk of life, whatever calling, whatever vocation they're in that are willing to engage this work that you talk about, looking back, not trying to shy away from some of these understandings, teachings, foundational principles that infected our world with racism, with sexism, with othering, with bias.
Looking back at those, honestly, not trying to shy away from it, understand it, again, not for guilt, not for wallowing in self-pity, but what were they? What are the vestiges of those that still impact us today? Recognizing that, and then being willing in community together, with one another, to dismantle them and create that brighter future. Pastors and preachers and theologians who aren't afraid to get into their pulpit and talk about the truth of scripture, and the truth of where our society is today, over against what God in Christ intended for us is where I draw a lot of hope.
I want to end with a portion of your book. Again, those who are listening to this, if you have not read this book, I really do commend it to you. It's really important, but these are your words, Joel. "What remains after the exorcism of America's unholy ghosts? Faith, but not a faith reduced to obedience to racist rulers and to knowledge of religious formulas. Hope, but not a hope limited by White fears and what the smallest minds deem possible. Love, but a love that rejects false superiorities by embracing a radical solidarity.
I understand our nation's wounds will not be healed by a faith, hope, and love that fails to transform the societal systems and lifestyles that segregate the American way, but to the extent that faith, hope, and love are insufficient virtues for the needed radical racial revolution, perhaps, they are also equally indispensable." Amen and amen.
Joel: Such an honor to be with you, Bishop. Thank you.
Bishop Easterling: Well, Joel, it's been an honor to be in conversation with you. I pray that you will continue to challenge us, to enlighten us, to inspire us with your work, and I look forward to your next book.
Joel: Well, thank you so much. The pleasure is all mine.
Bishop Easterling: Amen.
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