I preached this sermon at Goodson Chapel at Duke Divinity in February of 2016. I have reproduced it in light of the racial tension that has currently come to a boil among the faculty at Duke Divinity School. It’s a year old but it’s still true.
White Washed, White Lies, White Jesus
As it is Black history month, I would like for us to consider for a moment a prominent black writer by the name of Phillis Wheatley. Phillis Wheatley is the first person of African descent, male or female, to be a published in the American Colonies. She is the progenitor of black discourse in America. Her work, published in 1773, was entitled “Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral.” Interestingly enough, her publication had two prefaces. The first was a letter from her Master explaining that Phillis Wheatley was his slave and apologizing for any defects in her writing. The second preface was an attestation by a group of notable white men, the then Governor of Massachusetts and other famous preachers and politicians, to verify that she wrote the poems herself. They wrote these words of her and her work,
WE whose Names are under-written, do assure the World, that the POEMS specified in the following Page,* were (as we verily believe) written by Phillis, a young Negro Girl, who was but a few Years since, brought an uncultivated Barbarian from Africa, and has ever since been, and now is, under the Disadvantage of serving as a Slave in a Family in this Town. She has been examined by some of the best Judges, and is thought qualified to write them.*
Note that they called her a barbarian from Africa and note that they called themselves, these notable white men, the best judges to determine her efficacy for poetry writing. It is troubling indeed.
But what is more troubling, I would argue, is Wheatley’s poetry. Take a look:
‘Twas mercy brought me from my Pagan land,
Taught my benighted soul to understand
That there’s a God, that there’s a Saviour too:
Once I redemption neither sought nor knew.
Some view our sable race with scornful eye,
“Their colour is a diabolic die.”
Remember, Christians, Negro’s, black as Cain,
May be refin’d, and join th’ angelic train.
Here in this poem you can see she is articulating some pretty troubling theology, theology that would have been popularly propagated by preachers and theologians at that time. Theological statements like,
Africans were pagan people in need of saving.
Africans were descendants of Cain and their dark skin is the sign of Cain’s curse.
African people are naturally barbaric and need to be refined.
These are all lies. These are all theological untruths. Someone lied to her. Someone lied to her about herself, her people, her God and she believed these lies, internalized these lies and then reproduced these lies for the approval of her oppressors. They were so impressed with her ability to reproduce their racist theological rhetoric that they published her work. And this folks, is the beginning of black literary and theological discourse in America. Reproducing the oppressor’s lies for the oppressor’s approval.
Of course, we don’t tell these bold audacious lies anymore. In institutions where theology is created, institutions like let’s say… seminaries, it would be considered impolite to state out loud that African people and people of African descent are pagan, cursed, or barbaric.
In institutions where theology is created, like let’s say… seminaries, We don’t tell these big bold lies anymore. We tell little lies.
Tiny little lies.
Almost imperceptible lies. Flimsily little untruths.
What do you call a little lie?
Oh that’s right… white lies. We tell white lies here.
It’s little stuff.
Like how in our books and media St. Augustine is always depicted as a lily white Western European but we all know that he was North African. So he probably looked…oh I don’t know…African.
It’s little white lies like that.
Hardly worth mentioning at all.
It’s how we are always talking about racial reconciliation but when you walk into the Duke University Chapel, the most sacred place on the campus, you will find a statue of Robert E. Lee with the Confederate flag etched into his belt ( a symbol for so many black people of slavery and racial trauma) standing next to John Wesley. We cannot have a conversation about racial reconciliation until someone reconciles that damn statue.
It’s the little things.
It’s the micro-aggressions.
It’s when you are offering insight in class and your peers and professors say with such shock and amazement, “My goodness, you are so articulate!”
As if black people don’t know how to speak.
It’s the little institutional decisions. It’s how the thoughts and the work uplifting voices of people of color, of people of the African diaspora are relegated to one lecture in a semester or an entirely different class and it’s not called just “Theology” it’s called “Black theology.” It is how the primary pedagogy overwhelmingly lifts up the voices of White German men or men with German sounding surnames as if
And Stanley Hauerwas
Were the only ones to ever say anything thoughtful about Jesus.
It’s the little things.
It’s just white lies.
It’s little white theological untruths.
And the temptation is to, like Phillis Wheatley, to internalize these lies reproduce them for the approval of the oppressive people who created the lies.
It is tempting to white-wash in the white lies for the sake of a better grade, or a better field education assignment, or a higher paying job after graduation. It’s tempting to distance yourself from the mumblings and grumblings of the low country black church because no one nods their heads in approval when you moan, “I know it was the blood, I know it was the blood, I know it was the blood for me”
But everyone smiles in exhilaration when you can sing, “Come thou fount of every blessing tune my heart to sing thy praise”
There is a constant and continuous temptation here to reproduce for this institution a white-washed theology, predicated on white lies, created in order to worship a white Jesus.
And Jesus, the Most High himself, has something to say about this.
In the text for today, Matthew 7 Jesus says,
‘Beware of false teachers who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves.” (Mat 7:15)
He goes on to say,
“Not everyone who says to me ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven…one day many will say to me ‘Lord, Lord did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?’ and then will I declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness.” (Mat 7:21-23)
This is an incredibly significant text for students of theology.
Jesus is saying here that not everyone who claims to know Jesus actually knows Jesus. This is really important in your work. Not everyone around you who is talking about Jesus actually knows anything about Jesus.
There are people sitting next to you in chapel right now who don’t have any idea who Jesus actually is.
There are two hundred dollar text books that you will have to purchase where the writers have no idea who Jesus actually is.
There are professors standing behind their podiums who have no idea who Jesus actually is.
It is crucial for you to not just internalize and the reproduce everything that you hear in this institution.
It is crucial l that you listen to every sermon, listen to every lecture, read every book with a holy critical and suspicious lens.
It’s crucial. It’s not nothing. Because what you are doing here incredibly significant. You aren’t just writing papers here you are creating theology for the masses.
What you are doing is not nothing.
In fact it is everything.
You are creating the theology that undergirds our community. You are creating the theology that undergirds the presidential elections, the educational system, the justice system.
You are creating the theology that determines what bodies are legitimate and what bodies are illegitimate in society.
It’s everything. What you are doing impacts everything. It impacts even little Phillis Wheatley’s
little black girls who have the inclination to write poetry.
What you are doing here will influence what she thinks about herself, her people, her God.
And It’s up to you not to continue to spread false prophecies or rather, white lies.
It’s crucial that you maintain a critical ear, a critical eye on everything here because if you do not you personally run the risk of never knowing who Jesus actually is. It was here, in these hallowed walls of Duke Divinity School, where I learned who Jesus really is. I learned really complicated and esoteric ways to discuss Jesus here. I learned lots of 75 cents words on how to discuss Jesus but I also learned the truth of the uneducated elders in my little black church on the South side of Columbus. I learned that they were right about who Jesus is.
When my bank account said that there was no way I was going to finish this degree I learned that these little old uneducated black folks were right when they said that Jesus will make a way out of no way.
When I was all alone and had no one to turn to I learned they were right when they said “Jesus is a friend who sticks closer than a brother.”
When my body was sick and my mind was troubled I learned they were right when they said that “Jesus is a bridge over troubled waters.”
I learned so much here about Jesus. In these classrooms. In these hallways. I learned deeply and intimately who Jesus is. But I think the most important thing I learned here at Duke Divinity School, despite the pressures of the oppressive pedagogy here, is this one inimitable fact about Jesus:
He. Is. Not. White.