A new TNT docu-series about race in America, American Race, hosted by NBA Hall of Fame legend, “The Round Mound of Rebound,” Charles Barkley, recently featured a conversation with the alt-right identitarian, Richard Spencer. For others like me who grew up watching “Sir Charles” dominate the boards, block shots, and somehow always find himself in on-and-off-the-court skirmishes, the idea of him spearheading a thoughtful conversation on race relations is farfetched. That said, Barkley’s bad-boy “I’m not a role model” spunk mixed with his post-NBA commentary, which is often controversial (especially for a black male, i.e., his pro-cop statements in the wake of Ferguson), may make him an ideal driver of these discussions. Take the time to watch the interview with Spencer which Barkley conducts with his co-interviewer, Atlanta attorney Gerald A. Griggs.
Unlike a stereotypical Klansman, Spencer comes with a set of ideas that are more nuanced and carefully articulated. As an identitarian, essentially the belief in (ethnic) identity politics, he wants to preserve white, European culture, power, and dominance. Perhaps surprisingly, he is equal-opportunity with his views – he thinks African Americans, Asians, and Latinos should do the same. His view prioritizes common ethnic and racial characteristics over common virtues and mores. White Russian communists are better suited to – and should – co-exist with white American capitalists. African American Methodists are better suited to – and should – co-exist with Rwanda-Rundi Hutus and Tutsis. Generations of peoples, mass migrations, and interracial breeding, not to mention common language, religion, and political views of diverse people who grew up together because of the accident of their birth, all must be reversible in Spencer’s view in order for this to work – we simply start re-segregating now, and our ethno-states will eventually reemerge. Voila. Despite the sheer impossibility of such a reversal in people that follows from his idea, particularly that race and ethnicity are what create culture rather than ideas and agreements, Spencer defends it boldly. He has the laughable challenge of getting everyone to agree (or be forced) to all return to our respective native lands. Except for whites, since America is “ours” now.
Spencer would like to believe – and us with him – that he is a prophet of sort; he sees the writing on the wall for the future downfall of white power and supremacy in the West. He believes his media-presence and controversial views give him moral authority and deserve a true following. They don’t. He has 63,000 followers on Twitter. Skittles has 379,000. Taste the rainbow! His movement is fundamentally un-American, saying in the Barkley interview, that “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness sound very Enlightenment, I’m tempted to say ‘faggy.’” He craves power and an increase in white privilege, but, fundamentally, he simply doesn’t have a compelling biological argument to support his thesis. He said, “Racial differences cannot fundamentally be breeched.” This means that he believes the races were never intended to mix, and while there is a biological basis for race, as former writer and editor for Nature and Science, and science writer for the New York Times, Nicholas Wade, stated in a May 9, 2014 opinion piece in Time entitled What Science Says About Race and Genetics, Time,
“Exploration of the genome has shown that all humans, whatever their race, share the same set of genes. Each gene exists in a variety of alternative forms known as alleles, so one might suppose that races have distinguishing alleles, but even this is not the case. A few alleles have highly skewed distributions but these do not suffice to explain the difference between races. The difference between races seems to rest on the subtle matter of relative allele frequencies. The overwhelming verdict of the genome is to declare the basic unity of humankind.”
Human evolution allows, usually out of necessity, the races to blend – sometimes there just isn’t a match with one’s own race, but the two mate anyway (and it works). Interracial breeding even rewards the offspring. While those who breed too close to home, on the other hand, often produce lackluster results in their progeny. Consanguinity produces homozygosity, and that’s not good for the individual or the group because of the increased likelihood of pathogenic mutations, increasing the risk of autosomal recessive disorders. In other words, Spencer is one or two degrees away from inbreeding and all that entails.
Yet, despite Spencer’s views not only being empirically false, based on the least compelling aspects of our humanity, namely our race, as well as being simply morally bankrupt, his temerity could be honored. He is a man crying out in the wilderness. And people aren’t just listening, they are responding – positively and negatively. Although his “movement” is most likely, and hopefully, a nonstarter in today’s globalized world, the fact that his message has cut through the noise in the way that it has is truly remarkable. The KKK has been an easily ignorable media blip for decades, perhaps because the KKK cloaked themselves and hid their faces, came off as uneducated and backward, and were petering out as the Civil Rights movement was firing up. It wasn’t cool to be a Klansman any more – the roaring 40s were over. But in today’s caustic environment, lubricated with acceptable identity politics on the left, a well-educated dapper lad with un-American values coupled with racist and xenophobic views has emerged as a slight American anti-celebrity.
But, why? When the messages coming through are so lacking in basic human virtues like wisdom – insomuch as it fails to hold together a cohesive scientific, anthropologic, or reasonable proposition for the human experience, charity – insomuch as it fails the lowest bar of benevolence in its views of others and how they should be treated based simply on race, and humility – insomuch as it fails to demonstrate any modesty around one’s own race’s importance, what are we to think about our culture (for those who are willing to take this seriously)? Justice, kindness, and freedom are mocked. Our neighbors are the enemy. These are not the principles of the American republic or its people. But, we humans have been here before. The past is never dead. It’s not even past. And, if tradition and shared values serve us in any measurable and positive capacity, it is its ability to provide lessons from our books of wisdom, Holy Scriptures, and common religious ancestry. There is little doubt that the West, and to be sure the white Europeans Spencer wishes to save, is a substantially Abrahamic lot, so we do well to appeal to our common narratives when looking for authority on matters of “our people” and what we believe and value.
The Hebrew prophet Amos – acknowledged by Jews, Christians, and Muslims alike – hailed from Judah, the southern, half-sister/neighbor nation of Israel. He was a shepherd and tended to sycamore-fig trees. Prior to his calling by God to prophesize to Israel, he “was neither a prophet nor the son of a prophet” (Amos 7:14). He traveled to the Northern Kingdom of Israel around 760 B.C. to prophesize against Israel, primarily in Samaria and Bethel. Most of the surrounding Kingdoms (Moab, Syria, and Ammon) had been restored to Solomon’s Kingdom, and there was relative peace in the land. Yet, as Amos testified in his call for repentance in chapter 5, “the times are evil;” injustice, oppression, and corruption reign. The rich are extravagantly rich, and the poor abjectly so. The court can be bought, and the poor are taxed unfairly. Righteousness is replaced by religiosity, and the kings and priests are in cahoots. Amos comes to proclaim the prophetic message that Israel’s abandonment of their god, YHWH, will lead to their destruction. He famously pens, “Fallen is Virgin Israel, never to rise again, deserted in her own land, with no one to lift her up” (Amos 5:2).
The book of Amos is filled with specifics about how and why God is going to destroy Israel, Judah, and the surrounding Kingdoms. Crops will dry up, the elites’ mansions will be ruined, religious festivals and offerings will be ignored by the Almighty, and everyone will be laid waste. Although there is relative peace, God is displeased and has sent Amos to fill everyone in on what’s to come.
Like Spencer, Amos was wildly unpopular with the mainstream culture in which he emerged. Both see something awry and are crying out for change, and both firmly believe that their messages are for the good of their people. Neither of these individuals seem to blink in the face of verbal or physical attacks, and both have a passion for the restoration of a nation for a specific people. Spencer sees the decline and destruction of the white European race; Amos foretold of it for the Jews. So, what is different about these two individuals? How do we test a prophet’s legitimacy?
Biblically, there are many tests to determine the validity of prophesies, which include everything from accuracy to biblical faithfulness to spiritual fruitage to physical manifestations. The simplest two, which convey the most about the speaker and the hearer, are found in 1 Thessalonians 5:20-21 (“Do not despise prophecies. Test all things; hold fast to what is good.”), and Matthew 7:20 (“Therefore by their fruits you will know them”). Although it is clear that Spencer’s message does not measure up to either of these two standards – 1) to the extent that the fruit (aka homogenous offspring) is less “good” than that of inter-raced children; and 2) our social, biological, and moral tests of his views leave it wanting in that it is anathema to the imago dei (humankind was created in God’s image, and “it was good”).
To be fair, Spencer would lay no claim to being a religious prophet from God in his quest for a white European ethno-state. Further, it is particularly difficult to test Amos’ prophesy since much of what he said was to happen either hasn’t happened in the way he proclaimed or his prophesy has happened but in a more metaphorical sense. Perhaps this is where the juxtaposition of these two characters breaks down and loses utility for the point of this piece. But to conclude the comparison, one is a canonized prophet who was killed for claiming God was the God of all nations and people and would strike down their culture of corruption, oppression, and injustice, while the other is spouting biologically backward and biblically unsound ideas about the future of God’s people. Perhaps the closest Spencer could get to a biblically-based argument here is the wrongly cited curse of Ham by Noah, which many have used for thousands of years to justify racial difference and subjugation. In truth, Noah actually cursed Canaan not Ham, the passage never mentions race, and Ham is genetically Noah’s son, so there is little to no support for race-based differences or that they would/should play into subjugation of other races. Suffice it to say that Spencer is no Amos, and we will be perfectly fine ignoring him and the alt-right as we have with the Westboro Baptist Church and the KKK moving forward.
So, back to our original concern: how do we respond or lift a godly message up for America while surrounded by the rancor of people like Spencer, the reputationally-challenged and money hungry media, and a US-cum-global citizenry that is horrifically negatively polarized? Better put: what is the prophetic voice of the 21st Century?
Despite significant generational efforts by the church to the contrary, as St. Paul clearly states in his first letter to the Corinthians, the Christian message is love; specifically, love of other, and in particular, love of our enemies. This is perhaps the most radically prophetic message Christians should share today, as Christ did two millennia ago. When Christian Americans prioritize national interests over Christ’s loving grace, the light of the gospel is dimmed. When we cannot distinguish the truth from untruth using the simplest biblical test “we will know them by their love,” but instead rely on party loyalty, the message of God’s enduring love for all of creation is shrouded by a puffed-up pride in human institutions, which are here today and gone tomorrow. When we ignore the cries of the oppressed, poor, and refugee for personal safety and selfish ends, we proclaim every act of selflessness in the life of Jesus’ ministry here on earth to be false and of no good use. The Good Samaritan, the “he who is without sin cast the first stone,” the “turn the other cheek,” the saving grace of the crucifixion itself, and everything Christ taught are all negated by a lack of courage to love our enemies as we love ourselves.
The prophetic voice of Amos, as unnerving as it was in his day – calling for the fall of the Kingdom of Solomon – speaks volumes today. We all know the facts about the 1% and the rest of the global poor. The injustice is overwhelming and the corruption is rampant, yet the religiosity of the American Christian is hugely narcissistic and self-serving. The fall of our financial institutions, our national insolvency, and overall division are a sign of the times, and unless we heed the loving call to love our enemy, we will crumble. We are 8th century B.C. Israel, both as a nation and as individuals. As individuals, if we continue to do little or nothing to right wrongs, allow the corrupt elite to keep their boots on the necks of the downtrodden, and ignore the obvious wealth disparities in our world, we too, as individuals, will crumble.
Certainly, the book of Amos is a challenge to read, but if Christians understand anything about God it is that he does not break us down to leave us down. We are never forsaken. As the apostles who rebuilt the body of Christ as the first church fulfilled the final prophesy of Amos (“I will plant Israel in their own land, never again to be uprooted from the land I have given them.” Amos 9:15), so too must 21st Century Christians fight the hard battle of loving our enemies. This, and only this, is the ultimate message of Amos as well as the saving grace of the Christian faith.
The prophesy of Amos, whether it came literally true or is simply a metaphor for brokenness in sin and resurrection by grace, is a powerful message about God’s insistence on caring for the poor, the stranger and alien, the downtrodden, and weak. His message is about how power and privilege lead to injustice and corruption, and ultimately destruction. Christ speaks and ministers in the same prophetic tone of Amos when he speaks about the new covenant being for all of God’s people. The Samaritan, Roman, African, Jew, Greek, and Gentile were all one in Christ Jesus – this is decidedly the citizenry of the Kingdom of God. Loving and serving those we believe we should hate is the reason for the crucifixion – this is decidedly the Constitution of the Kingdom of God.
Even still, Jesus of Nazareth is not white or European and would be unwelcome in Spencer’s ethnostate. So, when the 21stCentury American religious message, which is shared by nearly seventy-five per cent of all Americans is the message of Christ, a prophetic voice calling for the deportation of the great Jewish carpenter from the heartland of America is perhaps not a voice crying in the wilderness, but a mad man with despicable ideas. Spencer is truly a false prophet of our generation whom we are called to love but have no need to assent. I hope Mr. Spencer will allow his heart to be broken for those over whom he wishes to exert his dominance; I hope he can do the hard work of loving others rather than the easy work of retreating into the least compelling aspects of our shared humanity – our flesh, which is here today and gone tomorrow.
In preparing this post, I consulted with a few of my advisers, whom I should thank: Jeff Scholes, Micah Rose, and Dontae Lawrence. Micah, who happens to be a person of color, pointed out to me that this post seemed to be directed primarily to white people and had no call to action. As a black woman, what was she supposed to do with this information?
So, let me suggest a three step “call to action.”
- Regardless of your race, intentionally seek out a friend of another race to start a discussion about race and racism. Ask questions like: “how important is race to you, and why?” And, “what exactly is racism, and are there different forms?” “Can black people be racist?” Or, “how do you feel others view you because of your race?” Come up with tough and meaningful questions that can be discussed in love.
- Document your questions and answers and do something with it – share it on Facebook, create a blog post about it, or take it a radio station and produce a piece about it.
- Do it again and encourage others to do it.
Race has consequences. Racism is real and has no place in a modern civilized society like ours. We must work to understand race and racism in order to build a better more perfect union