Academic journal article Anglican Theological Review

How I Came to Be Christened "Bird": Christian Baptism, White Racism, and Theological Passion in the 21st Century

Academic journal article Anglican Theological Review

How I Came to Be Christened "Bird": Christian Baptism, White Racism, and Theological Passion in the 21st Century

Article excerpt

There is a deep current of anger in the /and today at what appears to be the beginning of the end of the American Dream. It shows its face in multiple forms - the level of vitriol in contemporary political debates, Tea Party rants against big government and deficit spending, the battle raging in Wisconsin over union rights and benefits, among other obvious places. And indeed, these may well be grasped as a national version of the upwelling of protesters observed swelling the streets across the Middle East and North Africa, themselves reacting to the global reach of the dream of democracy in ways too complex to analyze in a mere article. Certainly this uptick in the evident energies of upset demands accounting from theological as well as political and social vantage points. The writing here will seek to contribute to such, but from an angle of theological concern for the way the currents of rage are typically channeled along predictable paths determined by our collective history in this country. Despite the election of Obama in 2008, race continues to function as a major channel guide for the currents of national angst, often serving to deflect legitimate dissent away from its appropriate target toward scapegoats and shibboleths. The need for a theological exposé of such angst shows its contours starkly in my state's own version of the Wisconsin struggle.

At a protest I attended in Michigan's state capital of Lansing in the late winter of 2011, the focus of concern was the impending passage of a law allowing the imposition of an "emergency financial manager" for any municipality or township in the state deemed by the governor to be approaching meltdown. The law arguably evacuates democracy altogether from the local political landscape, making something like "dictatorial takeover" an option at any untoward turn in the road, capable by managerial fiat of suspending local government, canceling contracts, and terminating school boards. The demonstration that day at the capital was a telling palimpsest of our history. Ringing the outer perimeter of the grounds were police and firefighters from towns and villages scattered across the state, maintaining a kind of gauntlet through which legislators had to pass on their way into the building, while gathered at the steps of the rotunda was a Detroit contingent of public employees and concerned citizens (including me), holding up signs and chanting. Between the two groups sharing concern for the same set of legislative initiatives - an obvious gap! The outer perimeter kept itself clear of the gathered mass. In the embodied performance of that public protest, the racial subtext of our political imagination could not be more starkly symbolized. With nary a word said, white "out-state" anger insisted on maintaining itself apart from its largely black "Detroit" counterpart. In a strange sort of social calligraphy, it ringed and contained black unrest inside its own. It is this continuing subtext of our national conversation that exercises my effort in what follows. I am concerned here with the way white identity continues to be embodied in a manner that perpetuates a default presumption of superiority, even outside of conscious intentionality. I will argue that white forms of embodiment remain a theological "sign of the times" that demands continual efforts at unmasking and deconstruction for any Western Christian practice worthy of the name. But I want to steal up on my topic by way of personal experience and do so through a rumination on baptism that will push toward similar riffs on "exorcism" and "apostasy" as the Christian tropes by which I organize my argument.

Baptism

If white supremacy is a sin embedded for at least half a millennium now in our Western theological practice and social habituation, as I believe it is, then as one claimed immediately if not exhaustively by the sense of public bearing and private scripting that can be loosely described as "whiteness," I should begin with confession. …

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