White Lives Matter, The Apostle Paul, and Hot Chicken

The Tennessean has reported that a number of white nationalist groups—the League of the South, Traditionalist Workers Party, and the National Socialist Movement—are gathering in middle Tennessee October 28 under the moniker “White Lives Matter.”

The Southern Poverty Law Center identifies these organizations as hate groups, under the headings of “neo-Nazi,” “neo-Confederate,” and “white nationalists.” Some members of the League of the South (LOS) put on a Christian veneer, and employ Christian language. They insist upon the efficacy of violence. (See here.)

The LOS has indicated that the shooting at the Burnette Chapel Church of Christ—by a Sudanese immigrant—is one of the factors solidifying their decision to assemble in middle Tennessee. (See here.)

I wish the agitators would stay home.

But before I get into that, let me change the subject a moment. There’s a biblical precedent set by the apostle Paul in which he arrogantly recounts his pedigree to one-up his opponents.

On the basis of such precedent, let me be, in Paul’s words, a fool myself, reciting my pedigree. I’m white, a man, and a life-long member of Churches of Christ. More, I’m a theology professor at a Churches of Christ affiliated university. More, I’m an Alabamian by birth. I was weaned on NASCAR and Merle Haggard, and I have a mini-lecture on the linguistic superiority of “y’all,” given that it makes explicit the second person plural, whereas a mere “you” lacks such elegance. I still have red-clay of central Alabama stuck in my toe-nails. I’m so Tennessean now, having lived here for two decades, that I have an upright bass in the corner of my dining room, frequently dine on hot chicken, and get all warm inside at the mere prospect of another visit to the Ryman Auditorium.

In other words, I will not be out-southerned, out-Church-of-Christed, out-Christianed, or out-white-maled by these outside agitators. I will not be out-Bible-quoted or out-pseudo-theologized.

So let me be clear: I don’t want the tragedy that occurred at Burnette Chapel Church of Christ being used as a pretense for hatred and hostility. First, it’s just tacky. True southern sensibilities don’t use other people’s tragedies for one’s own self-centered agendas.

Second, like most Christian denominations in the United States, we Churches of Christ folks have had our historic sins of racism and prejudice.  But many of us have been working hard at racial equity and social justice, confessing our historic wrongs, truth-telling and reconciliation. (See here, here, here, here, here, and here, as just a few examples.) We don’t want such racist rhetoric setting us back as a Christian community.

But beyond this more narrow concern is the rising tide of such hostile ethnocentrism and xenophobia in American culture at large. It is deeply troubling, and deeply troubling for numerous reasons, only one of which is this—that it often co-opts Christian speech. The LOS is reported to want a return to a “Christian nation.” As a Christian first, and not an American first, I maintain that the whole project of a “Christian nation” is deeply problematic. But that does not mean Christians cannot bring all sorts of good news to bear upon our communities.

And yet the good news of Christian practice is not some naïve “ethno-centrism” and a return to some foolish hierarchy of the white man or some intellectually ill-conceived construct about southern culture. In fact, if the Bible teaches us anything, it makes clear that the hierarchicalism of the new racists is fundamentally flawed. The whole move of the New Testament, the fundamental meaning of baptism, the practice of communion, all of these teach us to welcome strangers, practice hospitality, and cast down all foolish notions of superiority.

The likes of LOS couch their ethno-centrism in noble concerns: critiques of globalization, the loss of traditional morays, the over-reach of federal power, and more. All these are quite legitimate questions. But let the unwary be wary: heresy is always admixed with truth, and the wolf comes dressed in sheep’s clothing.

 

This piece was originally released as an op-ed, and was published on WKRN and The Christian Chronicle

Other resources on refugee and immigrant backlash in Tennessee available here, here, and here.