by John Ellis
In January 2016, the pastor of a small Baptist church in Alabama made national news after he sent a letter rife with racism and anti-immigrant sentiments to the editor of the The Alabama Baptist. The letter (which can be read in full here) contains a barrage of hateful rhetoric and proudly and demonically crows the unbiblical claim that, “It is not a matter of loving your neighbor. My neighbors are the people that value the same standards of life and way of life that I value.”
As a “Baptist pastor,” Ted Sessoms should be very familiar with Jesus’ Parable of the Good Samaritan. Apparently, though, he’s not.
Jesus’ meaning is the exact opposite of Sessoms’ racist words. You see, after Jesus instructed a lawyer to “love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind and your neighbor as yourself,” the lawyer asked, “And who is my neighbor?” In reply, Jesus told the famous Parable of the Good Samaritan.
In the parable, a Samaritan comes to the aid of a Jewish man who had been beaten and robbed. The pertinent point regarding Sessoms’ claim is that Samaritans and Jews hated each other. Their cultures clashed and their religions clashed. At the time, Jews viewed Samaritans with disdain because, and repurposing Ted Sessoms’ hate filled words, the Samaritans did not value the same standards of life and way of life that the first century Jews valued. Yet, as Jesus made crystal clear to the lawyer, the Samaritan and Jewish man were neighbors. The Syrian refugees that caused Sessoms to put his hateful thoughts on paper are his neighbors whether he wants to admit it or not; Jesus says so.
As disturbing as Sessoms’ words and ideas are, he’s not an outlier among professing conservative Christians, to our great shame. His ideology, his ideas, represent a large percentage of professing conservative Christians. I’ve had those ideas muttered to my face. I’ve seen those ideas splashed across the newsfeeds of my social media accounts. I’ve been confronted with the fact that people I know, friends and family, espouse ideas that are coated with hate and racism.
While others have been busy parsing over stats bearing out that conservative evangelicals are not that racist, my experience tells me that many professing conservative Christians worship their comfort at the expense of fellow Image Bearers while serving a perniciously racist nationalism far more than they worship and serve King Jesus. This, of course, raises the question, can a man serve two masters?
Apparently, according to many of my fellow American Christians, the answer is that we can have as many masters as we can buy; we can have as many masters as will promise to protect our American way of life. We can have as many masters as we want because we’re Americans, darn it, and it’s our right, and our masters will have to be pried from our cold dead hands!
Lest you think I’ve steered too far into hyperbole, undermining my overall point that racism and gun violence is bad, a point that you want to “like” on Facebook but, “hey, John, you’ve gone too far,” here’s an exercise: Write an article or two slaying the sacred cows of the God and Country crowd. Write an article that makes the point that a church that sings a song during the worship service praising a President, any president, really, but you know which one I’m talking about, is bowing down before a false idol. Write an article about how patriotic services have very little – i.e. nothing – to do with the praise and worship of the Eternal Creator of the Universe. Write an article about how a painting depicting the President stepping on the head of a serpent is sacrilegious. Write an article about how depictions of the cross as patriotic propaganda is shameful at best. Write an article criticizing the false prophet David Barton and his deceitful religion of God and Country. Write those articles, post them on your social media accounts, and then let me know how people respond.
If those articles don’t gin up enough patriotic vitriol directed at you to prove that I’m not being hyperbolic, then write an article with the headline “White Nationalism, Gun Violence, and Donald Trump’s Complicity.”
It won’t matter that in that article you’ll point out that just a few short months ago, in May of this year, in fact, President Trump joked with a crowd filled with his sycophants about shooting immigrants. It won’t matter that you’ll prove that President Trump uses the very language of the racist ideology called the Great Replacement Theory to paint scared and hurting immigrant families as invaders and an infection in this country. It won’t even matter that in that article you’ll make the Biblically rooted case that dehumanizing people with brown skin is a sin and that we are called to love and serve them, and that Christians are not called to defend our rights nor to defend our “American way of life” at the expense of helping others.
None of that will matter because you will have destroyed the altar of the false god and torn down the Asherah of those who worship a specific lifestyle that is the purported dream of a certain nation. Unlike fearful Gideon, though, you won’t have done so under the cover of darkness but in the bright lights of Facebook and Twitter and the blogosphere. Your sin against the all-powerful and all-important god sometimes called Patriotism sometimes called the American Dream sometimes called Peace and Comfort sometimes called Our Way of Life sometimes called God and Country but always robbing God glory and obedience owed Him will earn you the rebuke of friends and family (although, many of them may have already written you off as a God-hating commie bent on destroying this country, so maybe you won’t).
Look, ideas matter, because ideas have consequences, and the ideas of God and Country matter, the ideas of anti-immigration matter – and those two things, God and Country and anti-immigration, frequently overlap, if they’re not synonyms. Those ideas matter because, again, ideas have consequences.
Attempting to claim otherwise is actually a tenet of Marxism (in his excellent book Socrates Meets Marx, Peter Kreeft points out the irony of Marxism having the idea that ideas are meaningless). Sadly, many conservatives actually push back against the claim that ideas matter. The internet is filled with conservatives claiming that the words of their beloved politicians don’t bear any responsibility for the violence and hate ringing around us (hypocritically, many of those same conservatives are more than happy to call out the violent words coming from the left).
Yet, the truism that ideas matter because ideas have consequence was brought brutally home this weekend in El Paso after a gun wielding terrorist opened fire in a Wal-Mart. By the time the police had subdued and captured him, many were killed and many more were wounded. Families and individuals and the friends and families of those individuals that had bullets rip through them while spending a Saturday afternoon shopping at the mall had their lives tragically ended, in some cases, and, for many others, tragically upended as they are now left to process and grieve this horrific act of terror. And, why? In large part, because of a demonic idea called the Great Replacement Theory.
The Great Replacement Theory is a racist ideology adopted by white nationalists and those on the far-right as well as some who protest that they are not far-right (I’ve heard and read the words of the Great Replacement Theory from some who will read and even “like” this post on Facebook). In a nutshell, the theory states that Western whites are being replaced in their homelands by an invading army compromised of people of color. This replacement, the theory believes, is being fueled by the avarice and greed of the ruling elite. Sound familiar? Drain the Swamp, build a Wall, Make American Great Again, anyone?
For starters, how fragile must a person be who can’t handle having people with cultures that differ from his or hers living in proximity with him or her? More importantly, it’s sinful. As Christians, our identity is supposed to be in Christ; our culture is supposed to be the gospel of Jesus Christ. Of course, there are things I enjoy about my American culture. But as a Christian, my enjoyment of those things is not supposed to be elevated above serving fellow Image Bearers in need. If there was a way to invite every single human being on this planet to live inside the borders of these fifty states and doing so would alleviate the suffering and pain of those made in God’s Image, then as a follower of Jesus, as someone who purportedly embraces the doctrine of Imago Dea, I should welcome the “invasion.” And I should welcome it even if it means my culture is lessoned. Serving others is to always take precedence over serving myself. For the record, because I’ve written this kind of thing long enough to know how some will respond, neither I nor my kids nor you will suffer in the least if “American culture” is displaced. Rigorously defending the continuance of “American culture” at the expense of aiding fellow humans demonstrates that “American culture” is an idol. Be warned, most often, God has to break idols because we don’t generally let them go willingly.
Also, be warned that a drift towards the desire to protect “American culture” is a drift into the Great Replacement Theory. A racist ideology with specific code words and dog whistles. Code words and dog whistles that we’ve all heard.
During the riots in Charlottesville, VA, white supremacists chanted “you will not replace us.” Last fall, Republican Congressman Steve King blamed George Soros for the replacement of “our culture” with “violent men.” Just a couple of months ago, Florida State Senator and Republican Dennis Baxley said, “When you get a birth rate less than 2 percent, that society is disappearing, and it’s being replaced by folks that come behind then and immigrate, don’t wish to assimilate into that society and they do believe in having children.” As I wrote above, during a rally in Panama City Beach, FL this past May, President Trump, referring to immigrants on our southern border, asked the crowd “how do you stop these people?” In response, someone in the crowd shouted out, “Shoot them!”
A famous clip of John McCain rebuking a woman at one of his rallies who made racially charged statements about Barack Obama is easily found online. After shutting the woman down, the late Senator went on to defend his presidential opponents’ integrity. In contrast, President Trump laughed off the openly racist and violent statement made by one of his supporters by saying, “That’s only in the Panhandle you can get away with that statement.” The crowd roared its approval.
Beginning in 2016, many conservative #NeverTrump writers, including myself, sounded the warning that Donald Trump’s racially charged and hateful words would bear violent fruit. Words like “invasion,” “threat,” and “infestation” to describe people from Latin and South American countries seeking refuge in the “greatest nation on earth” add fuel to the violent hatred of white nationalists like the El Paso shooter. I mean, where do you think the shooter got the idea that Hispanics and Latinos are invading our country? From our President, for one. From Fox News, for another. In fact, fill in the blank with any number of GOP Senators, Congressmen, and conservative pundits and you’ll be correct. My above examples are just a drop in the racist bucket.
The infamous white supremacist Brenton Harrison Tarrant, who murdered 51 people and injured another 50 in New Zealand’s worst act of terrorism in that nation’s history, titled his manifesto “The Great Replacement.” The terrorist who unleashed his white supremacist hatred on El Paso posted his own manifesto on the alt-right and racist site 8chan prior to his murderous actions. According to those who were able to read it before the authorities had it removed, the manifesto is rooted in the Great Replacement Theory. The white nationalist deliberately went to El Paso to target Hispanics.
President Donald Trump needs to own his part in this shooting. He needs to repent and seek forgiveness and not hide behind abstract statements like “hate has no place in our country.” And repentance requires turning from sin and changing. President Trump needs to stop stoking the hatred of those who prefer a specific way of life over offering aid to scared and hurting Image Bearers.
What’s more, those who count themselves among Trump’s supporters also share some complicity if they fail to call out President Trump and other conservatives when they make racially charged statements and borrow the language of racist ideologies. Ideas matter because ideas have consequences. And if you go so far as to defend Trump’s use of words like “invasion,” “threat,” and “infestation” to describe immigrants, then, frankly, you need to repent, too, as well as do some soul-searching.
Lord willing, this post will be not be my final word on this matter. Bluntly, this post may be an act of catharsis for me more than anything else. I’m sickened by the continuing violence and hatred directed at immigrants that’s fueled in part by the words of President Trump and other prominent conservative voices. I’m saddened by the number of friends and family who parrot those words and defend those ideas. Related, I’m tired of hearing the defense of this country as a Christian nation. I’m tired of hearing how we need to make America great again. And, so, Lord willing, having gotten my initial emotional outburst out of the way, there is much more to say on this matter. For example, do our nation’s immigration policies comport well with the principles of Scripture? Hiding behind “rule of law” during immigration debates is a red herring for Christians. For another example, why are many Christians so quick to dismiss any suggestions that combatting racism is a gospel issue? And as a final example, why do so many conservative Christians in America bristle at the notion that this country has never been a Christian nation?
Those are discussions that deserve thoughtful nuance. Those are discussions that require humility, on all sides, including myself. By God’s grace, in the coming weeks I’ll interact with those questions in measured ways. Shouting down and calling out the racist and hateful words and ideologies of men like Donald Trump that help foment the violence of white nationalists requires much less nuance, though. And today, I’m angry and frustrated. Many conservative Christians in this country have blood on their hands. It’s past time to stop defending evil and to start standing up for righteousness, even if it costs us our precious American Dream.
(David French has written an great article about White Nationalism – you can read it here.)