Growling at the Leviathan
Can the church unplug from the matrix of systemic racism?
There’s this scene in The Matrix where Morpheus is explaining to Neo the nature of the system in which society is trapped, an artificial reality constructed to pacify and keep all unaware that they in fact are enslaved, functioning as mere power sources for their unknown and unseen overlords.
As they walk along with the masses in a computer-generated cityscape he says, “these are the very minds of the people we are trying to save…you have to understand most of these people are not ready to be unplugged. And many of them are so inert, so hopelessly dependent on the system that they will fight to protect it.”
Baked into the cake
As I reflect on American Christianity’s struggle with the issue of race, I can’t help but wonder if the above isn’t an illustration that strikes at the very heart of the issue; the church, mirroring society at large, is so hopelessly enmeshed in White Supremacy that it will fight to protect it, even while at the same time proclaiming not to be associated with it.
After all, this is an evil baked into the very fabric of the American faith tradition. The name of God has been invoked to justify the genocide of indigenous people and the stealing of their lands, the enslavement of Africans, the horror of Jim Crow, and a whole host of other racialized atrocities meant to place power permanently in the hands of one select group of people, with certain segments of the church being the vanguard.
In his book The Cross and the Lynching Tree the late Dr. James H. Cone tells the story of a group of white Christians that leave a worship service to participate in the murder of a Black man, pose for photos with the corpse, then go back to the church building to finish the service.
So then it should not come as a shock that when followers of the Brown-skinned Galilean who embodies God with us start trying to save the collective mind of the American church from its original sin – to unplug it from the system and reveal its enslavement to the powers and principalities, the rulers of darkness of this world, and spiritual wickedness – the blowback is fierce.
Don’t believe me? Check out the current raging debate inside the Church concerning Critical Race Theory. As Dr. Cone so adeptly diagnosed, “the Gospel of liberation is bad news to all oppressors because they have defined their ‘freedom’ in terms of slavery of others.”
But the attempt to unplug from the system must be made if true freedom is to come to fruition. There can be no liberation without a realization that we are enslaved. And there can be no realization without confrontation.
Dismantling the Demonic
In late December we lost a giant of the faith. Archbishop Desmond Tutu not only was a model of what it looks like to follow the Jesus path, but also was a champion of the dignity and somebodyness of all of God’s precious children. A fierce advocate for the tearing down of spiritually wicked strongholds in order to build God’s vision of beloved community.
Stirred by the moral and ethical imperatives of his faith in a God of justice, he fought tirelessly against South African Apartheid, and quite literally put his life on the line in order that his people could gain their freedom. Upon news of his transition, Lisa Harper said that Archbishop Tutu “stared down the Leviathan of Apartheid and growled.”
Care to guess what the reaction to the growling was by a large swath of the American Church? The Archbishop was labeled a heretic and a communist, and the leader of the so-called “moral” majority, Rev. Jerry Falwell, denounced him as a “phony” – that somehow because he chose to stand on the side of righteousness and divine justice, that made him a “counterfeit Christian.” That somehow because he proclaimed the good news of liberation, longed to break the chains of oppression, to set the captives free, to give sight to the blind, and proclaim jubilee for all people that he wasn’t really on God’s side.
But Archbishop Tutu knew better. He was all about unplugging the system by any means necessary. He well understood and expressed that to be “neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor.”
And to choose the side of the oppressor is to oppose the God of beloved community.
As he sat in a Birmingham jail cell at the height of the Civil Rights Movement, Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote that “the contemporary church is often a weak, ineffectual voice with an uncertain sound…the power structure of the average community is consoled by the church’s silent and often vocal sanction of things as they are.”
Rev. Dr. King was America’s Morpheus, urgently working to save the mind, heart, and soul of the nation from itself – desperately attempting to unplug it from the system constructed to enslave it. Fiercely battling to dismantle White Supremacy and build beloved community in its place.
But a good many of God’s people weren’t ready to be unplugged. They remained silent while the Machine violently pushed back, and some joined in and fought to protect it.
If there is any hope in reclaiming the dream he died for, the dream Jesus died for, the dream of beloved community, then those of us who claim to follow the Nazarene can be silent no more.
We must vocally assert that things can no longer remain as they are. We must powerfully and boldly declare in word that the system must be unplugged, and indeed by yanking out the cord.
In so doing we affirm the somebodyness of all humanity that is created in God’s image. In so doing we affirm that we are citizens of God’s kingdom and bring it near.
Growling at the Leviathan
Mark’s Gospel tells us that the first time Jesus taught at the Capernaum synagogue the demons present in that space instantly recognized that his purpose was to destroy them. Their reaction? They subsequently lashed out and fought to protect the system.
But in the proceeding exorcism the man possessed by these evil, oppressive powers was unplugged, set free from them, and the evil spirit, not the Messenger of good news, was silenced (Mk. 1:21-28). Perhaps more importantly, the entire faith community was set free.
Jesus, like Archbishop Tutu, refused to be silent but rather growled at Leviathan, who silently slithered away in the face of the embodiment of God’s kingdom.
This past Christmas Eve I had the privilege and honor of baptizing two beautiful Black children who are beloved and precious in God’s eyes with their entire family present. At a church named for a Confederate. At a church where in 1923 the KKK paraded in full regalia during a revival service.
In that sacred moment, the Spirit growled while confronting the evil of systemic racism within the church. Entrenched demonic forces were dismantled. The vision of God’s holy dream resurrected.
My prayer is that the people who bore witness to that holy act recognize that it was their moment of unplugging – their moment of liberation.
My hope is that one day soon the whole of the church, nation, and world will experience such a moment, so that we may finally reach the Promised Land of beloved community built on the common ethic of divine love, justice, mercy, compassion, equality, and peace; where all of humanity lives in mutuality and interdependence, reconciled to God and one another.
So that God’s kingdom comes near.
Rev. Brad Davis (he/him) is the founder of The New Society, a grassroots Central Appalachian kingdom movement. A native of one of the nation’s most economically and socially exploited regions, Brad’s passion is connecting its people to a holistic, therapeutic, liberating message of salvation he calls the Holler Gospel. Click here to read more of Brad‘s work.
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