Advertisement

St. Paul’s Letter to America

“After the Capitol offense, all thoughts of American exceptionalism should be dead,” says the apostle. “But you need not despair.”
Demonstration at the 16th Street Baptist Church, Birmingham, Alabama, 1963

Frank Rockstroh/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

People calling for the racial integration of schools, a campaign organized by Martin Luther King Jr. and Fred Shuttlesworth, at the 16th Street Baptist Church, which was bombed by white supremacists later that year, killing four young women and children, Birmingham, Alabama, May 1963

What follows is the text of a sermon delivered at the National Cathedral, in Washington, D.C., on January 17. In the words of the author, “in the spirit of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., who in 1963 published an imaginary letter from the Apostle Paul to American Christians,” it takes the form of “an imagined letter from the Apostle Paul to America in a time of crisis.”


I have pondered long and hard about writing this missive. I have avoided speaking on political matters so that no one could accuse the church of being captive to any party. But the chaos in your country leaves me little choice. Beyond the global pandemic that has stricken the world and cruelly plagued people of color in your country, America is as bitterly divided now as it was when kinfolk slaughtered each other in a war over the liberty of Black bodies. Just the other day, a brutal throng of citizens charged the Capitol and desecrated both its Neoclassical architecture and its democratic dreams of ancient Greece. As you know, I had a sharp conflict with Athens in my sermon at the Areopagus. But I must defend America’s flawed democracy from the militants on the Mall. Yes, America has miserably failed to deliver to many of you the freedom and justice promised to all of you. Yet those who writhed in abortive insurrection resent Black citizens for demanding the very rights the Capitol insurrectionists feel they are being denied.   

In the wake of this carnage, many citizens claimed that what occurred at the Capitol is not America. The sad truth is that, for many people, this is the only America they know. An America that spills blood in the name of misguided patriotism. An America willing to avert its eyes from truth in the glare of baseless conspiracy. An America that worships at the altar of the Second Amendment while making an idol of weapons and betraying the Second Commandment. An America that spews disgust at the dark foreigner and harbors hatred for the brown immigrant. An America that despises as enemies those who cry out that Black Lives Matter, while waving the traitorous banner of Confederate bigotry. This is America and has been America since America became America.

The willful ignorance of these unflattering visions of your nation has fed your belief in American exceptionalism. You have turned a few lines from Tocqueville into sacred belief and Holy Writ. Thinkers and leaders across the political spectrum say that America has a special character and unique destiny. But other nations believed that God or fate guided them through the ills of history and the tragedies of time to a triumphant destiny. Various empires of the world have believed they were exceptional. Think of the Rashidun Caliphate or the Portuguese Empire. Consider the Songhai Empire, and the Russian Empire, as well. I can tell you from personal experience that the Roman Empire thought it was pretty special, too. And its advocates boasted that the sun never set on a British Empire that colonized territories and peoples around the globe.

I must warn you that no nation is spared divine judgment and that only God is exceptional. No country, no group of people, no collection of territories or political ideals is exceptional. Remember I said to you in my Letter to the Romans that “all have sinned, and come short of the glory of God.” Many nations think that their water is wetter, their sun brighter, their ways superior, their vision clearer, their beliefs purer than those of their chief rivals or sworn enemies. The moment a nation believes that its sins don’t diminish its moral standing, it is on the road to perdition.

If no country is unblemished, then it is not truly exceptional. That hasn’t kept the citizens of some nations from bathing in cultural narcissism or political delusion. That delusion often leads nations to accuse other countries of being dead wrong or tragically mislead. They fail to examine themselves in the mirror of national self-reflection. As the saints from the Black church sing in one of their most memorable sorrow songs, “Not the stranger, not my neighbor, but it’s me, O Lord, Standin’ in the need of prayer.”

Tragically, the spirit of American exceptionalism vexes the body of Christ. It tempts many believers to cloak their political beliefs in religious creed or church dogma. Too many of them baptize ideology as theology. My fellow Christian visionary, the Apostle Peter—please allow me to congratulate him for being hailed as the first pope—acknowledges the trap of exceptionalism. In the book of Acts, he said, “I now realize how true it is that God does not show favoritism but accepts from every nation the one who fears him and does what is right.” Our theology must challenge rather than justify American exceptionalism.

There is a greater danger you must boldly confront: American exceptionalism is really white supremacy on the sly. The men who founded your nation relished talk of God while holding Black flesh in chains. Many of those who say that God takes special pride in your nation seek to bless the blasphemy of white supremacy. The American church has sinned by portraying truth as white. Facts as white. Reality as white. Beauty as white. Normal as white. Moral as white. Righteousness as white. Theology as white. Christ as white. God as white. And America as white.

Advertisement

The whiteness of America purges the nation of everything that doesn’t conform to its ideals. The crude un-Americanizing of Black and Indigenous people is reflected in the Declaration of Independence, which paints Africans as “domestic insurrectionists” and Indians as “merciless savages.” The gospel of Christ has been shamelessly exploited by angry white citizens who mask their bigotry in faith. Many believers pervert the first miracle of our Lord, at a wedding, where he turned water into wine. Instead, they marry reactionary politics to Christian orthodoxy and turn the water of racial grievance into the whine of white resentment.

I bear responsibility for a great deal of the misunderstanding about race among American believers. In my Letters to the Ephesians and the Colossians I advised slaves to obey their masters. I failed to challenge the Greco-Roman view of slavery and uttered words that were used to justify American slavery. In my sermon at the Areopagus, I railed against pagan beliefs. I scorned the worship of idols of gold, silver, and stone. But I failed to lift my voice against the enslavement of human beings. It grieves my heart to know that my words helped to lower the whip on Black backs.

I am deeply troubled by white evangelicals, because, for many of them, white counts more than evangelical. From the start of your country’s history, white evangelicals supported slavery and the savage mistreatment of Black people. After slavery, white evangelicals rationalized the violent segregation of Black citizens from white society. They justified the callous denial of Black freedom and economic independence. Violence against Black Americans grew in the Jim Crow era. At the same time, white evangelicals clung to a vision of the household in which men controlled the women, children, and the enslaved. Black families endured vicious assaults on their civil and political rights. But white evangelicals cared little about the violence Black people experienced. Instead, they fumed over the threat posed by Black emancipation to the white household. White evangelicals even prayed to God for wisdom to deny Black people the right to vote.

I am sure some of you believe this is ancient history. Not so quickly. Many white evangelicals support recent efforts to deny Black people the vote. After your chaotic election, the cry of Black disenfranchisement echoed loudly. There were plenty of immoral and even illegal schemes to block the Black vote. There were photo ID requirements to cast a ballot. There were “use it or lose it” laws that strike voters from registration rolls if they haven’t voted in a given period. Polling places were unfairly closed. Early voting was severely curtailed. There were mass purges of Black voters.

It makes me ashamed to say I share the same faith as those who denounce Black Lives Matter after it is clear why such a movement is needed. After they patiently point out the grief and trauma they unjustly suffer at the hands of the police. After they prove that white vigilantes still target them with frightening regularity. After they point to leaked documents from the FBI obsessed with nonexistent “Black Identity Extremists,” while white supremacists go on their merry way plotting to lay siege to the Capitol. After they emphasize studies that show that Black infants have a better chance of survival if they’re treated by Black physicians. After they show how Black people are still locked up the longest for the smallest offenses while white people who commit more serious crimes often escape harsh penalty. After they document how schools fail their children, hospitals fail their sick, and employers fail their kin.

It is a bit disorienting to see white evangelicals attack upright Blacks while giving a pass to shady whites. The fiendish love for America’s forty-fifth president is the most depressing example, if only because white evangelicals vented spleen on the forty-fourth president. Of course, neither man deserved automatic endorsement or guaranteed support.

To be honest, it was easy to understand why the forty-fourth president was widely hailed. After all, he was the first Black president America had elected. He was young and charming and whip-smart and handsome, an ebony dream come to life in the sordid political arena. Given that no Black person before him got close to the Oval Office, it seemed that only an act of God got him elected.

The forty-fifth president was a dramatically different animal. Forty-four reveled in family values and radiated a wholesome image. Forty-five trampled on civility and revealed his genius for nasty communication. White privilege abounded. Forty-four had to play near the top of his game every day just to convince the masses of white Americans to give him a chance to excel. Forty-five flamed in fantastic mediocrity. He sank to the darkest chambers of the American soul and aroused an army of social tyrants and bitter bigots. Forty-four reached desperately across the political aisle to shake hands with his opponents. Forty-five rapped the knuckles of even his most ardent supporters if they dared disagree with him.

Advertisement

Because they are so stringently judgmental, you might think that white evangelicals would have embraced the man married once and not thrice. The man who knew his way around scripture and not the one who called my Second Letter to the church at Corinth “Two Corinthians.” The man who sought to use his faith to heal and not the one who turned his Bible upside down amid social tumult for a photo opportunity. The man who remained as cool as black ice and not the man whose fiery fits of temper roiled the republic. The man whose healthy self-confidence rippled in self-deprecation and not the man on whose cavernous ego every slight registered as a seismic tremor. The man who speaks the King’s English to the Queen’s taste and not the man whose split infinitives rival his split ends. The man of unimpeachable character and not the man with a twice impeached presidency.

The followers of each man have it wrong when they proclaim that God got their man into office. Let me solve a mystery my brothers and sisters: God doesn’t put presidents into office. Voters do. God wants justice to prevail. It is up to citizens to determine what that looks like and who best embodies it, or even if that’s a virtue they value. It is hardly God’s way to be a cosmic bully.

Sadly, white evangelicals seem to prefer bullies. Or domestic terrorists. The irony of white domestic terrorists is that they exaggerate their grievances while they underestimate their advantages. They have been taught that only white people deserve the spoils of democracy. But in seeking to deny Black people, or Jews, or Muslims, or immigrants, their rightful share of democracy, they’re undermining the system that gave them everything they have. All the tools they’re using to attack democracy they gained at the expense of democracy: the rules of governance, the knowledge of politics, the purpose of the social order.

White resentment deepens as democracy works better and white privilege shrinks. As more Black people vote, and more Black people are elected, reserved white seats in Congress, or for the presidency, or on the state and local level, get canceled. What was once guaranteed must now be earned. White anger is really a measure of disbelief. Even though it was built by their ancestors and it often favored them, many whites never believed in the system, especially when it doled out more favors to the rich than the poor, leaving them to believe that their whiteness had nothing to do with what they got. It was their hard work that earned them reward.

But that was only when they compared themselves to other whites. Blacks were no baseline to test their merit or worth—except as their whiteness kept Blacks from fairly competing with them. That is why they could embrace Black entertainers and athletes but spurn Blacks closer to their economic homes. They could forgive themselves for not having the wherewithal to best the most famous and richest Blacks, but they could never forgive themselves for losing to Black people who beat them at their own game. They had to believe that it was their own skill and not the system that got them over. White supremacy didn’t just depend on its headline bigots—the George Wallaces or the Bull Connors. Rather, its bread and butter, its source of inspiration and fuel, was ordinary racists.

The reason so many whites think the system is rigged is because their rigging, or the rigging they knew about—in slavery, in Jim Crow with its whites-only preferences, and in unions, schools and jobs—was finally challenged, exposed, and, at least legally, rejected. These whites don’t believe that anyone outside their race could actually win by playing by the rules that favored them—because the rules were made by them and for them. So a Black person who wins while playing by rules not meant for their success must be cheating. This in part drives white rage, the sort of rage that drives white people to storm the Capitol.

Yes, they have targeted Black symbols, but that doesn’t work nearly as well. They bomb Black churches, but that’s a less effective rebellion because Black people will forgive them into diminished evil. Or, by beating white bigots—who might eventually repent—to the moaner’s bench and the testimonial hall, they deny them the prerogative of moral superiority, yet one more Black mark against their fabled white superiority. Dylann Roof thought he’d start a race war and instead he inspired a prayer meeting. He wanted a riot and instead got a revival and one of the greatest presidential eulogies ever. He didn’t become a martyr; he made the Black folk he hated martyrs. He didn’t become a symbol of power; he got remade as a pitiful wicked white boy in need of the power of God in the womb of radical Black love.

White people stormed the Capitol because they were mad that the white folk in charge had reneged on their responsibilities to keep Black people in check. In effect, white supremacy backfired on itself. The Capitol became an avatar of all that was white and powerful—where white men ruled the day. But as the Capitol got less white and Blacker, as it finally began to live up to its promise of making just laws, it lost its racist appeal, lost its stature and its aura as a shining monument on the most sacred civic space. It became just another building, an edifice that could be attacked, especially since it had approved legislation to remove statues honoring Confederate heroes. It had decided to replace the bust of Chief Justice Roger Brooke Taney, who authored the Supreme Court’s Dred Scott decision in 1857 denying freedom to an enslaved man, with a bust of the first Black Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall. White politicians who had ardently defended these white insurrectionists became traitors to the Lost Cause.

What they did at the Capitol was anticipated and hurried along by the white man in the White House. He had taken an axe to principle, a sledgehammer to reason, a bulldozer to tradition, and a knife to convention as he assaulted the very structures that had put him in place. He set out to scrap the blueprint of democratic institutions and remake them in the image of his phantasmagorical entrepreneurial endeavors: the attorney general was his messenger boy, the vice president his valet, the rest of his cabinet his concierges, his supporters his clientele, the American people a business opportunity to exploit. The fundamental premise of his existence is that political and social institutions cater to him and support his efforts to make money and build wealth.

Although he is president, forty-five hates politics and despises government. He is not the extension of the revolution that led to 1776. Despite his populist pretensions, he is part of the counterrevolution that resented the spread of freedom and democracy to the masses. The counterrevolutionaries prided themselves on thinking of freedom as the protection of personal security and individual rights—not democracy. The distrust of democracy was fueled in the nineteenth century by the failure of the French Revolution. That distrust was later deepened by Black enfranchisement, and by mass migration. Thus there was a huge beef between freedom and democracy and the ongoing attempt by the counterrevolutionaries to redefine freedom as the effort to limit state power.

So, when supposed defenders of American democracy claim that they are reflecting the founding fathers in the effort to shrink big government, they are wrong. In truth, their views are in line with the critics of the revolution that birthed this nation. The architects of American democracy conceived of freedom as the people’s determining how they should be governed. These alleged advocates of democracy are in fact antagonists who seek to undo the American revolution. I learned all of this not from Tocqueville, but from an insightful observer from the Netherlands, Annelien De Dijn.

Forty-five’s destruction of democracy was an inside job. He was trying to deconstruct democracy within its most hallowed American hall: the Oval Office. He was in perfect position to demolish what he was elected to represent. He was the greatest enemy of American democracy with the biggest voice against American democracy while supposedly representing American democracy. What he more perfectly represented was antidemocracy. He had Thomas Jefferson’s position with Benedict Arnold’s job.

The white supremacists who are the enemies of democracy no doubt see Black people, as the Declaration of Independence phrased it, as “domestic insurrectionists.” Advocates of the young nation got mad at Black people for listening to the British who offered freedom in exchange for loyalty. Not a bad bargain, and one that America should have made with the Black people who remain to this day the nation’s most loyal citizens. The refusal to acknowledge Black loyalty goes hand in hand with the refusal to recognize Black life, Black intelligence, Black citizenship. It permits white Americans to draw false equivalence between Black protests against injustice and white insurrection against the government. The crucial difference is that Black people are protesting to gain access to unjustly denied rights and privileges while the white people at the Capitol were angry that democracy was working as it should for others.  

Of course, in their minds, they were not insurrectionists but patriots who were combating the false version of democracy, that is, one that is actually democratic, one that shares political resources and distributes civic legitimacy regardless of color or creed. This is why the rhetoric of reconciliation and the language of unity must come after the effort to clarify the moral and political basis of their disagreement with true patriots. There can be no reconciliation with people who believe that Black people, or Jews, or Muslims, or Mexicans, should be dead, literally, or socially. There can be no unity with people who believe that there is no difference between a Black patriot protesting for freedom and a white bigot rejecting Black humanity and social equality.

Unity is the bridge; justice is the destination. We don’t celebrate the Edmund Pettus Bridge; we celebrate the brave souls who crossed it and the voting rights Black people won for doing so. To pursue unity without justice is to prefer the surgeon’s scalpel to the healing it can promote. Unity without recognition of Black humanity, and the virtues of justice and emancipation, is togetherness without edifying purpose. The domestic terrorists and inconsolable insurrectionists at the Capitol were certainly unified, but for a morally corrupt and politically destructive purpose. There must be redemptive division before there can be healing unity. There must be righteous resistance before there can be transforming reconciliation.

I must take leave of you now. I have to write my Letter to Russia, but that is a far trickier missive to pen. I may call on some politically minded people from forty-five’s orbit to help me to get it into the proper hands. I think they will have plenty of time to assist me.

I leave you with the example of America’s greatest prophet, Martin Luther King Jr. In his “I Have a Dream” speech, King spoke of “the marvelous new militancy which has engulfed the Negro community,” and reminded the nation that Black people could “never be satisfied as long as the Negro is the victim of the unspeakable horrors of police brutality.” Instead of seeing Black people as the enemies of democracy—contemporary critics of Black Lives Matter call the activists terrorists—King understood them as the friends of liberty. He particularly understood the need to renew the vision and energy of the movement by embracing Black youth.

King worked throughout his career with younger people, whether he was trading fierce but friendly barbs about Black Power with Stokely Carmichael, applauding the courageous activism of John Lewis, or encouraging young gang members to lay down their guns in exchange for the more powerful weapon of love. King was in regular contact with members of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, and while they shared a broad vision of social justice, they clashed on methods and style.

King was reared in a leadership culture in the church full of patriarchy and hierarchy. While there was often consultation and conversation with members of the church community, decisions were usually made unilaterally by the male religious head. The SNCC’s guiding spirit was an amazing female leader named Ella Baker. Baker’s philosophy was driven by the belief that movements produce leaders, not the other way around, and that didn’t necessarily comport too well with the Black church’s charismatic authoritarianism. There were the usual tensions between younger and older leaders, some of a more serious nature—King often swooped down in a town after the local work had been done, often by SNCC, taking with him the cameras and glory for labor the younger folk had contributed to but rarely got credit for. Beyond these tensions, however, King and what are essentially the Black Lives Matter activists of their day forged progress together, with the aim of changing the world and making it safer and saner for Black people.

As we celebrate King’s legacy, we should remember that today’s young Black activists who challenge the status quo are humanitarian leaders deeply invested in Black freedom and justice and making America a truly democratic society. They are patriots and heroes because they are willing to risk life and limb for the building up, not tearing down, of America. Their disappointment with the nation, their rage against its lethal limits and fatal failures, is but love turned inside out.

Unlike white supremacists and domestic insurrectionists, they are trying to make America reaffirm its principles, its beliefs, its ambitions and its fundamental commitment to democracy for all. As King reminded America on that sunny day in August 1963, these principles cannot be realized if Black people continue to confront police misconduct and abuse. King understood in 1963 that the official power of the state to punish and murder Black people was fatal for a democracy. He also understood that too often law enforcement joined ranks with white supremacist forces to execute domestic terror that was protected by a badge and a gun. In our day, the stakes of Black protest against racial injustice are heightened by the fact that more than a few members of law enforcement were directly involved in the recent Capitol insurrection. The tentacles of white supremacy stretch ominously into American policing. The ultimate paradox may be that many white followers of the forty-fifth president rail against the very police forces that have historically had a hand in white supremacy’s deadly rampages against Black people, who are its truest victims.

The staunch resistance of many white people to organizations like the FBI might be better understood coming from the mouths of Black people, even King himself, whom the agency deliberately chose not to warn when there were credible threats to his life. Perhaps King’s greatest value to our present moment is to remind us that Black people have been willing to defend this country at every moment even when their lives didn’t matter to the people they protected. King’s nonviolent valor seems lost on white insurrectionists. It may be the height of irony that angry white people who benefitted most by American democracy are now willing to destroy it.

I will end by saying that after the Capitol offense, all thoughts of American exceptionalism should be dead. But you need not despair. There is something greater, something better. My colleague Luke, in the twelfth chapter of his marvelous gospel, captures our Lord and Savior Jesus speaking in parables. In one of them, Jesus tells his followers words that bear repeating time and again to America: “For unto whomsoever much is given, of him shall be much required: and to whom men have committed much, of him they will ask the more.” I like even better the translation that says, “From everyone who has been given much, much will be demanded; and from the one who has been entrusted with much, much more will be asked.” Honestly, there is a commentary of sorts I rather like, offered by a young prophet who has fallen out of favor—one I hope to speak to before I turn my attention to Russia—but that, nonetheless, captures part of the meaning of these words as well because it offers a terrific gloss on Job and his trials and tribulations despite his great wealth: “To whom much is given much is tested.”

I realize some of you are wedded to the King James translation, but I warn you against Biblical literalism. Rather, I encourage you to embrace the full meaning of the Holy Writ with the verve and imagination with which it was written. I say this because I can remember a time when there was no such thing as the New Testament, and we had to depend upon our communication with the Living Word and not its written transcription. Instead of fighting one another over various versions, I beg you to spend time with the “author and finisher of our faith.”

What Jesus is after here is more important than being exceptional; it is the notion that, in return for the great gifts we have been given by God, we should be willing to share with others out of the richness of our blessing. We might term it American Altruism. America, you have been given a great deal of wealth, of knowledge, of invention, of resource, of science, of wisdom, of power—and what you haven’t been given, you have often taken, in violent or unjust fashion, for which you must surely repent. But for the good things that God has given to you, you should be willing to put yourself in position to demand more of yourself and to require of those who are similarly blessed an equal measure of sacrifice for the greater good.

American Altruism suggests that Americans take responsibility for their blessings. Voltaire said it first, and Peter Parker’s Uncle Ben in Spiderman echoed him, when he said, “With great power comes great responsibility.” For those who chafe at the requirement for America to be responsible, not only for its blessings, but for the wrong your nation has done, claiming that they were not individually culpable of any crime, the Jewish prophet Abraham Joshua Heschel reminds us, “Few are guilty, but all are responsible.” And for those who say they have given and given and given again, and have nothing left to give, the Nigerian and British prophet Helen Folasade Adu says, “I gave you all the love I got, I gave you more than I could give.” Even when you have given all that you think you are capable of giving, dig deeper to give more and bless the world.

Go now in peace, and spread far and wide the Gospel of American Altruism.

Subscribe and save 50%!

Get immediate access to the current issue and over 20,000 articles from the archives, plus the NYR App.

Already a subscriber? Sign in