Last weekend a group of alt-right leaders gathered in Washington, DC. Richard Spencer, the leader of the group, called them to attention with the slogan, “Hail Trump, Hail our people, Hail our victory.” The crowd - need I add the white and nearly all male crowd? - cheered and raised a hand in the Nazi salute.
The new visibility of white nationalism shocked many of us. I can only imagine what my grandfathers - one who fought fascists in Germany and the other who fought them in the Pacific - would think of American fascists.
And yet, here we are. So this week I tried to learn about them. NPR interviewed Richard Spenser, a chilling interview, in which he calmly describes carving up America into a white homeland with enclaves for everyone else. To Spencer, this move represents “an awakening of white identity politics.”
While the NPR interview helped me understand Spencer’s goals, much of the rest of the coverage didn’t. The LA Times covered the alt-right conference. But made it seem like a fashion show. “White nationalists dress up and come to Washington,” the LA Times exclaimed. So clean cut; “buttoned-down millennials, in their dark suits and ties.”
Mother Jones seemed equally struck by the fashion consciousness of the alt-right, featuring GQ photography of Spencer while calling him dapper.
I don’t get it. The alt-right is not a fashion statement; nor should these men be described as fashionable. Honestly, have you seen Steve Bannon?
But more deeply, when the coverage of a white nationalist conference devolves into fashion commentary, we’ve missed something important; allowed the suits and haircuts to distract us from the cruelty and hate advocated.
Decades ago Vaclav Havel wrote about distraction as a key method of totalitarian control. In an essay I’ve long treasured, Havel described a scene from the 1968 Prague Spring. A brief break in the total control exerted by the communists allowed some public protests. During this time, a concrete window ledge fell off a building. It killed a woman. Her neighbors gathered to protest the shoddy building conditions. The newspaper covered it. But while it mentioned the window ledge, the article focused on the fashionable clothing worn by the protesters and concluded with a note about the bright prospects for all humanity this evidenced. In doing so it distracted from the tragedy and the on-going danger of falling window ledges across the city.
Reading the LA Times brought me back to Havel’s essay: a gathering of people who want everyone not white and not heterosexual and not Christian to disappear; but they’re fashionable!
Havel called such reporting “evasive thinking.” He meant thinking about a problem in a way that evaded the central question, focusing on fashion instead of falling window ledges, haircuts instead of hate speech.
What is necessary, in Havel’s critique of evasive thinking, is for us to continually refocus ourselves on the real, the immediate, the personal, the concrete, and the actual. To wake up to what happens right around us. And this Advent, our call as Christians is to be truth tellers in the face of evasive thinking. To keep awake.
The Apostle Paul, who lived under the totalitarian rule of the Roman Empire, called the disciples to wake up too. “Besides this, you know what time it is, how it is now the moment for you to wake from sleep. For salvation is nearer to us now than when we became believers; the night is far gone, the day is near.”
“Wake from sleep,” Paul said. I can’t hear this call now without thinking of the term “woke” used so often in conversations of social justice and racism. The expression may have come from Erykah Badu’s song “Master Teacher.”
The song could be an Advent anthem, for it poignantly names the hope and longing which shape this season. She sang:
I am known to stay awake
A beautiful world I’m trying to find
I’ve been in search of myself
It’s just too hard for me to find
Said it’s just too hard for me to find
I am in the search of something new
Searching inside of you
Badu reminds me of the energy and vitality behind Paul’s words. He sought a beautiful world, searching for something new, inside of himself and inside of us.
And, painfully, Paul saw the way the Church remained asleep at the crucial hour. “Let us then lay aside the works of darkness and put on the armour of light; let us live honourably as in the day, not in revelling and drunkenness, not in debauchery and licentiousness, not in quarrelling and jealousy.”
In our own day we would use different words to name the sleepiness of the Church. Perhaps words like Martin Luther King’s to his white colleagues from his prison cell in Birmingham. “We will have to repent in this generation not merely for the hateful words and actions of the bad people but for the appalling silence of the good people.” And certainly that’s the sense of woke imagined by Badu and countless people using the phrase today: to be awakened to the injustice, oppression, racism, and misogyny around us.
But I want to press this term towards a particular direction. I’m mindful of Vaclav Havel’s stories of life under totalitarianism: the state always wants to distract us from what’s going on by lifting up utopian visions: ignore the falling ledge, see the bright prospects of humanity.
We don’t have a totalitarian government, but we face something just as controlling in the invasive ideology of white supremacy. The white supremacists are good at using evasive thinking. They lift up grand visions to distract from what’s going on: a vision of America that never was America to me - a vision of law and order when what they mean is discriminatory policing, religious freedom when they mean legalizing homophobia, election protection when they mean voter suppression.
We don’t need more grand visions. Instead, we need to wake up to the real, the concrete, the practical issues right before us.
Which is, of course, true to what happens when I literally wake up. First it’s the fitbit buzzing on my arm. Then the alarm clock, strategically placed on the opposite side of the room. Not to mention Duchess, who knows she get fed first thing in the morning. Waking up, at least for me, is a slow adjustment to pressing, buzzing, demanding realities. Really, I can’t have any grand visions until after the second coffee.
I read this into Paul’s Letter. The portion we read ends with, “Instead, put on the Lord Jesus Christ.” Now we could have a whole sermon just on that, but here’s what I notice. All over scripture we hear about God’s love: it’s the grand vision. But when God wanted to act, God took on human flesh. That’s the mystery of Christmas: when God decided to act, God didn’t thunderously declare some vision but instead got down into the gritty details of life - being born into poverty, in a backwater of the Empire, a far as possible from power, a life of vulnerability.
When I think of my faith this Advent morning, it means to me a spirituality awakened to the vulnerable, the practical, the concrete reality happening around me. Just this month I heard of a local company who wanted to hire an African-American man. They brought him to Milwaukee. His flight arrived late. So he went out to find a restaurant on Brady Street. The cops questioned him, “What are you doing here?” After his interview, he drove up Lake Drive. The cops pulled him over, “What are you doing here?” And so he asked himself, “What am I doing here?” It was a good job offer, but he’d rather stay on the east coast than here.
We could tell a thousand stories like this one. And we need to. Because we need to name all the damage white supremacy does. Richard Spencer wants you to notice his fancy suit, but the spirit calls us to see all the harm done by racism.
And yet, that’s not enough either. It’s not enough to just see the oppression going on around us. Earlier this month I attended a luncheon for a non-profit working in the 53206 zip code. The non-profit provides educational support to children and life-coaching to parents. Good work.
But I was struck in their presentation by the way the non-profit staff described the people they work with: a litany of brokenness, statistics of despair. On the screen behind the white executive director were four photographs - two of rundown houses, one of a syringe, and another of pill bottles. The white staff focused on all the deficits in the community and the people served. What happens when we’re only awake to what’s broken?
After the staff spoke about their work, a few of the people served got up to tell their stories. An African-American woman spoke of discovering her own leadership gifts as she organized her neighbors and other parents. Another African-American woman, who lost her sight, described the creativity of her family in helping her cope and the joy she found in a new job. These women spoke of the assets in their lives, not the deficits; the strengths, not the brokenness. And seeing the contrast between the white staff and the African-American’s served, just underscored for me a dangerous way people often speak about oppressed communities.
I know what it’s like when people only see the deficits. It usually starts, “who would chose to be gay…” and then goes on with a litany of hardship. I’ve never thought of my life that way. Hard things have happened but I’d chose my life every time.
As a congregation and as people, we’re waking up to many of the injustices happening around Milwaukee and our nation. We’re reading the New Jim Crow. We’re watching 53206. We’re talking about white privilege. And it’s important to know and understand what’s going on.
But I think we risk the danger of only seeing deficits and not assets, of seeing brokenness and not strength.
We need to awaken to the strength too. Richard Spencer doesn’t want us to see the harm racism causes in real lives. But even more he doesn’t want us to see the humanity.
This morning we heard not only from Paul, but also from KJ with one of his many poems about Milwaukee. He captures a love of this place important for us to remember amid all the change we want to see. It’s a call to be awake to the beauty in this place he names the Paris of the Midwest.
Our Christian life begins with the call to awake. Awake to the evasive thinking of white supremacy. Don’t let the fashions distract you from the fascism, the haircuts from the hatred. Awake to what’s really going on. Just as God chose to be with the vulnerable, take in the injustice and oppression around us. Awake to the assets of people. See the strength, the beauty, the power, the humanity.
My Advent prayer is that we be known to stay awake, as a beautiful world we try to find, searching in me, searching inside of you. Alleluia and Amen.