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May 26, 2020

It’s not just the coronavirus — bad theology is killing us

By William H. Lamar IV

Pastor, Metropolitan African Methodist Episcopal Church
The Rev. William H. Lamar IV  is pastor of Metropolitan African Methodist Episcopal Church in Washington, D.C. He previously served Turner Memorial AME Church in Maryland and three churches in Florida: Monticello, Orlando and Jacksonville. He is a former managing director at Leadership Education at Duke Divinity. Lamar is a graduate of Florida Agricultural and Mechanical University and Duke Divinity School. He is the co-host of "Can These Bones," the Faith & Leadership podcast, and can be reached on Twitter @WilliamHLamarIV

The Rev. William H. Lamar IV preaching. Photo courtesy of Paul Holston, Tru1 Photography

COVID-19 -- and its impact on black and brown communities -- is the American empire in viral form, writes the pastor of Metropolitan African Methodist Episcopal Church in Washington, D.C.

There comes a time when being nice is the worst kind of violence. This is especially true for the many Christians who erroneously conflate being nice with following Jesus. No more euphemisms. No more pretending. No more craving the annual Martin Luther King Jr. Day “Kumbaya.”

I believe it is time for those who claim to follow Jesus to declare, without equivocation, that white evangelicalism is a morally bankrupt, bone-crushing theological system devoid of any semblance of the deity incarnate in Christ.

Multiple factors are responsible for the alarming death rates that black, brown, Native American and poor white communities are experiencing from the novel coronavirus.

Mendacious, misanthropic political leadership. A so-called health care system driven by profit and not human flourishing. An economic reality where even the below-a-living-wage money earned by poor and working-class people is siphoned off to the wealthy via tax cuts and tax policies that force wage earners to pay a larger share than dividend earners.

I am a preacher. So as I dust the COVID-19 crime scene, I am ultimately in search of theological fingerprints.

What kind of God-talk makes possible a refusal to provide the universal health care that may have mitigated this crisis? What kind of God-talk makes possible a refusal to invest the money necessary to end homelessness? What kind of God-talk makes possible the racializing of criminality and poverty? What kind of God-talk gives political power to science-denying policymakers?

The answer? White evangelical God-talk. The injustices that many communities are experiencing as a result of the novel coronavirus are inextricably linked to this theology. The evidence is irrefutable.

Political systems require a theological system. Constantine glommed onto Christianity to strengthen Rome. The French, British and Dutch empires all used the signs and symbols of Christianity to plunder and to pillage. Norman Vincent Peale and Billy Graham were largely quiescent in the face of American warmongering abroad and racialized violence at home. (Integrating revivals is hardly enough.)

From what I can see, their purpose was access to power, not its conversion to the ways of Jesus. Even Vladimir Putin deploys the deep, symbolic well of Russian Orthodoxy to strengthen his dictatorial machinations.

The political order that presides over the United States would fall overnight if white evangelicals withdrew their support. But they will not.

Why won’t they break ranks with race-baiting, xenophobic politics? Why won’t they break ranks with economic policies that have destroyed wages and benefits and safety? Why won’t they break ranks with a politics that is clearly nourished by white supremacy? I believe there is no Christianity to be found here.

American white evangelicalism is the offspring of the religion of settler colonialists, and the raison d’etre of settler colonialism is to remove an existing population and replace it with another.

Settler colonialism is always violent, and it always has a theological system to support it.

The settlers who came to these shores were convinced that God was with them and that God commanded them to take what belonged to others. The idea that “what I survey I own” is deeply ingrained in white evangelicalism. Those who think, look or act differently are summarily marginalized, silenced and removed.

The fatal shooting of 25-year-old Ahmaud Arbery -- chased down by two armed white men while jogging through their neighborhood -- is just one recent example of this in action. And it’s why I argue that white evangelical theology’s settler colonial impulse fosters the conditions for the novel coronavirus to thrive.

Push black people onto islands of poverty and deny them health care, adequate housing and equal education. Keep them away. Send brown people, whether they were born in the United States or not, back home.

In the white evangelical imagination, certain bodies will never belong. This is why Mr. Trump knew that birtherism and calling Mr. Obama a Muslim would catapult him to white evangelical prominence even though he does not hold to its purported moral code.

Owning space and controlling bodies has always been more important than personal morality in that imagination.

Even a “liberal” city like Washington, D.C., is marked by policies born of white evangelical assumptions about who belongs and who should flourish.

Would majority-white, middle-class neighborhoods not have hospitals? Would white people be forced from public housing without an offer of viable alternatives so that fat-cat developers could feast on public land and make exorbitant profits?

COVID-19 -- and its impact on black and brown communities -- is the American empire in viral form. It lodges itself among the poor and feasts upon them.

They cannot socially distance in tight, squalid quarters. They cannot wash their hands in lead-ridden water in Flint. We are having digital funerals for people who live in a city where Congress refuses to extend the health benefits that they themselves enjoy.

This bad theology of who belongs and who does not, of who is worthy and who is not, has the blood of my parishioners on its hands.

Jesus is a strange figure. In Luke 4, he went to his home "church" and told the people gathered there that God did not love just them. And he used the Scriptures to buttress his claim.

The folks at that church tried to kill Jesus by hurling him off a cliff. But he made his way through the crowd and kept showing, in word and deed, that God was for everybody.

How would the novel coronavirus be affecting my community if the God-talk of white evangelicals, whose theology controls our political landscape, sounded more like Jesus?

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Faith & Leadership

This was first published in Faith & Leadership, the online learning resource for Christian leaders and their institutions from Leadership Education at Duke Divinity.

The Thriving in Ministry Coordination Program is a service of Leadership Education, which designs educational offerings, develops intellectual resources and facilitates networks of institutions.