They came for him.
They criminalized him.
They subdued him.
They suffocated him.
His lungs were giving out.
His arms began to weaken.
His eyes began to close.
His voice was giving out.
The community heard him cry.
The community watched him die.
No one did anything.
(No one could.)
He died slowly.
He died publicly.
His name was Jesus.
Many forget that economic, gendered, and racial oppression is central to the narrative of Jesus’s life. He was born amongst animal shit to a teenaged mother mired in poverty. He was from Nazareth—and Nazareth wasn’t a pleasant place. He was poor. He was dispossessed. His friends were sex workers and number runners. They committed survival “crimes.” His friends were “criminals.” They were castoffs. They were “illegals.”
Many forget this. They don’t remember the context. They don’t remember the poverty, the dispossession. They don’t remember the free healthcare clinics and the food pantries. They don’t remember his criticism of wealth.
Many forget that Jesus wasn’t a patriot. They forget that he was a convicted political prisoner and social prophet. They’ve forgotten their own savior’s call scripture in Luke 4:18-19:
The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.
They forget that Jesus himself led mass protests.
They forget that Jesus was committed to the redistribution of wealth.
They forget that he rioted.
They forget that he destroyed property.
And they forget that he was targeted for it.
For these theological amnesiacs, only one thing comes to memory: that he died for them. He paid it all. He was a substitute for their sinfulness. He took their sinfulness away by dying. All is forgiven. And all is forgotten. Especially their complicity in, inheritance of, and responsibility for, the sinful violence of white supremacy.
* * *
After Derek Chauvin plugged George Floyd’s throat and mass protests erupted across the country, many conservative evangelical Christians were pressed to say something about “racism.” They were hurt, they told us. Voices wavered. Tears flowed. Some even went so far as to bring token black people to educate them on “racism” in the church. It was time for a reckoning.
But not that reckoning. They wouldn’t remember their violence. They wouldn’t take responsibility. They could remind their congregants to be nice to black people, but they couldn’t talk about the myth of Ham. They could criticize Derek Chauvin but not Cotton Mather and Billy Graham. Those criticisms evoke “critical race theory,” and they couldn’t abide that. After all, “critical race theory” makes white people feel bad for apparently no reason. As Gerald McDermott, a professor at Baylor, put it in a recent article:
“In the 1970s, liberal Protestant denominations began trying to “diversify” clergy and congregations by using… teachings about systemic racism. Millions of their members felt they were being forced to confess the sins of past generations as their own.”
McDermott wasn’t done. Being a white man, he needed a token negro to ventriloquize. Derryck Green obliged.
“… it is always the presumption of white guilt/black innocence and the demand that whites must absolve themselves from the original sin of racism… The conversation will never end because it is presupposed that the only guilt is white guilt and the only victims are blacks… White Christians genuflect in front of blacks in a ritual act of confession, admitting their white, guilt-by-association sins… even if they have never personally committed these sins. [my emphasis]”
For these folks, “critical race theory” is antithetical to Christianity. It makes white people feel responsible for sins they hadn’t committed. It makes white people feel bad for being white. For these folks, “critical race theory” is reverse racial essentialism. It is reverse racism. It turns individuals into their group identities. Andrew Sullivan puts it this way: “An assertion of individuality is, in fact, an attack on the group and an enabling of oppression.” Thinking of antiblackness in structural terms is an assault on individuality. And, for Sullivan, McDermott and others who have forgotten, this assault reads as an attack on Christianity itself. Christianity is individual. The individual is Christian. Or so the logic goes.
In response, then, I offer a meditation on “the individual.” I want to be clear. I am not a theologian. I’m a philosopher of religion. I am interested in how subjects are formed, and how religion contributes to that formation. So that’s what I’ll do here.
* * *
Let’s consider, for example, Derek Chauvin. The pressure of the knee, the smirk on Chauvin’s face, the duration of the suffocation—all of it speaks to the obvious intentions of a man hellbent on murder. No reasonable person would come to his defense—save, perhaps, his lawyers.
But the truth is, Chauvin killed because he was supposed to. He didn’t show up there by himself. Someone had to call him to the scene. And someone called him because Floyd was struggling financially. If Floyd used counterfeit currency, we know this is because Floyd was unemployed.
But we also know that Chauvin killed because he could. Graham v. Connor and qualified immunity are win-win games for police. They can kill as long as it’s within the line of duty and in the name of safety. They can, and they should. That’s what the system tasks police with doing. That’s what the structure tasks them to do. The “individual” who called the cops is responsible—even if they did not kneel. So are the courts. So are the financial institutions. Chauvin wasn’t formed in a vacuum. His violence isn’t solely his own. He is responsible. And so are all of the other people and institutions that support his profession.
Some forget all of this. They only see the knee and the smirk. They are saddened by the brutality. But, in the same breath, they maintain their adherence to the “good” that cops represent. They aren’t upset that George Floyd died. If they are upset, it is because of how Floyd was killed. (Perhaps they’re not upset at all.) After all, they’d just as soon call the cops, too. Had Chauvin said Floyd “reached into his waistband,” or “resisted arrest,” or had he said, “I feared for my life,” there wouldn’t be any issue. There would be no reckoning. Floyd would be just another casualty.
I know this because I’m not hearing the same kind of sadness over Breonna Taylor, Tony McDade, or Sandra Bland. After all, they were brutalized in the name of public safety. Those were either accidents or appropriate force. The cops were just doing their jobs. “Public safety,” so the logic goes, sometimes requires violence. Safety comes by killing someone. The “public” and its “safety” is formed through homicide.
But, if public safety requires that cops be able to kill, then “public safety” is a sacrificial logic. Taylor, McDade, and Floyd are all stand-ins—substitutions, we might say—for the “evil” cops need to keep at bay. The “individuals” who support the police and the justice system are saved by the murders cops commit. These individuals justify cops’ killings. The cops, in turn, oblige: they kill to save these “individuals” who form the “public.” Someone has to die in the name of safety, of salvation.
It turns out, then, that the “individual” isn’t as individual as it thought. The “individual” requires others—others who agree and are willing to do its dirty work: cops, judges, lawyers, politicians. The “individual,” it turns out, is an identity, and it’s a collective one. It is an umbrella term for a constellation of people and institutions who require that some people die so that they may be safe—that they may be saved.
This isn’t about “black innocence.” It’s about white complicity in the senseless and wanton killing, dispossession, and oppression of black communities. Black physical and social death forms the “public” world of white safety. We die so that some may live well.
This sounds a lot like substitutionary atonement to me.
* * *
It’s ironic, then, that some turn to Jesus as a way to absolve themselves of their complicity. After all, Jesus’s death was also a world-building structure. For those who have forgotten, the people who killed Jesus might be evil. They might be sinful. They might be responsible.
But those who benefit from that death—those who are saved by the crucifixion—are redeemed. They aren’t responsible. They are only saved. On the one hand, those who kill are evil. On the other hand, the world is saved because Jesus died. The logic is similar. The structure is similar. Conservatives—be they white, black, or otherwise—forget that white supremacy is, in and of itself, a logic of substitutionary atonement. They, as individuals, are saved because someone else does the dirty work. They live because someone else dies. They passively accept the world as it is—which is what Green means by “never personally committing sins.” They don’t have to personally commit sins. Others do it for them. Jesus paid it all, so the saying goes. And now, black people do the same. No need to act. One only needs to be nicer.
In the end, the entire conservative logic of individual salvation hinges upon doing nothing—nothing of substance, anyway. They reduce the world-sustaining structure of black social and physical death into platitudes about individual salvation. They save themselves not by transcending the antiblack racial capitalism that destroys communities and lives, but instead by benefitting from it.
They didn’t crack whips and hang ropes, but they do gentrify and call the cops
They don’t say “n*gger,” but they do denigrate the righteous indignation of a resistance movement.
They say they’re not racist, but they rest in the safety that cops, eviction notices, and “school choice” provide.
They killed him slowly.
They killed him publicly.
They accept his death so that they can live.
They accept ours so that they may live well.
They are saved by inequity.
They are saved by iniquity.
It is a zero-sum game. And these “individuals” struck by theological amnesia made it this way. Holed up in their churches—many not wearing masks—they forget. They exchange the prophetic depths of the gospels for whitewashed children’s stories of a white man holding sheep.
And, having forgotten, they demonstrate themselves to be, as James Cone called them, antichrist.
* * *
But we remember.
Those who march, protest, burn, fight, and throw remember. Their acts of resistance, of protest, and yes, of burning property are as visionary as they are elegiac. This movement is a movement of celebratory mourning. “That we have to celebrate is what hurts so much,” Fred Moten writes. And the chants, fires, broken windows, and burning cars are all acts of prophetic celebration. The movement remembers, even if it doesn’t articulate, that some of us came “not to bring peace, but a sword.”
James Cone remembered, too. He was after the destruction of a world that was mired in the violence of discrimination and exploitation. Cone writes:
“… it is the task of theology and the Church to know where God is at work so that we can join [God] in this fight against evil. In America we know where the evil is. We know that [people] are shot and lynched. We know that [people] are crammed into ghettos.”
Amaryah Armstrong also remembers. She remembers that “blackness [is] the primary image of disorder—and so the primary threat to order—in the history of Western societies.” And she, like Cone, also recognizes that this is an ongoing struggle, that the liberation we see and seek is found not in irresponsible civility and individual salvation, but in collective rebellion. She realizes, with Cone, that liberation will not be found in status quo platitudes or twisted exegetical conclusions, but instead in the destruction of the current world in favor of a different one. She writes,
“Looting, property destruction, and physical—sometimes armed—resistance to the state’s and citizenry’s enforcement of white nationalism are a means of contesting the law, order, and economy of an antiblack world and the reality it legitimates. It is only by dismantling the current order that our social existence and knowledge can become adequate to black existence and knowledge, and thus be freed from this order of things.”
To be “freed from this order of things” is to be freed from the violence of the individual who can only save itself through the death of another. In short, it is to be freed from the violence of atonement that marks white salvation.
The gospels and the movement—a movement that begun when some of us arrived here in the holds of ships and continues to this day—are powerful criticisms of the evils that structure this world. Black people are still being killed, crammed into ghettos, and targeted by the state for elimination, exploitation, and repression. To “misread” this, as Sharon Patricia Holland might say, is to fail to realize that evil is as widespread as it is interpersonal. You don’t have to personally do anything to be complicit. All you have to do is believe—in this system, in this world, where black death funds and founds white life.
* * *
The way forward is not to “transcend” race—as if that could ever occur. The way forward is to abolish the very logic of race, where blackness is reduced to bodies and then body parts. Those who have forgotten only “see,” and therefore “transcend,” race when the race is not white. In the end, whiteness remains. The violence of the individual is the violence of a white gaze that can only see and exploit otherness.
We must abolish the white individual gaze.
We must abolish the white individualist idea of atonement as salvation.
We must abolish the entire forgetful logic of individualism, punitive justice, and existential atonement that whiteness is.
We must abolish whiteness.
Which is to say: we must remember.
Cone remembers. Armstrong remembers. I remember. We remember. And in our remembrance, we also recall that salvation shouldn’t be substitutionary. It should be liberative. As Cone and Armstrong and the protesters demonstrate, salvation is collective liberation. Salvation isn’t individual. It’s collective. That’s why Jesus proclaimed the kingdom of God, not a collection of individuals. He proclaimed a new world. A new world: that is the content of salvation—and there is nothing of that new world in white supremacist critiques of “critical race theory.”
This new world could be available to everyone. But, unfortunately, many “individuals” will not want to come.
Biko Mandela Gray is assistant professor of religion at Syracuse University. He teaches and writes on philosophy of religion, race, American religion, and black studies.