By Bryson White
(Author’s note: The following is an excerpt from a sermon delivered at the First Mennonite Community Church on Sept. 20.)
In Jeremiah 8, the “wise leaders” of the nation are “senseless and foolish” because they are taught by these idols. Their thoughts and actions are formed by idols that can’t bring forth life. Jeremiah then in verses 8 and 9 describes the “industry behind the creation of idols.”
I want to sit in these few verses for a moment and humbly lift up today, that the primary idol that has “taught” this nation, that has created such senselessness and foolishness has been the idol of Whiteness.
Whiteness in this country has served as a way of measuring both human value and who has access to resources—predicated upon skin color. In this idolatrous formulation, Black people are at the bottom of the totem pole with the inability to never be White, or better put, with the inability to be considered fully human, and Whites are at the top as divine and as the personification of what it means to be human.
This idolatrous formulation is all around us. It’s in our religious paintings—such as the Sistine chapel, where god, not the real god, is depicted as a White man, and since mankind is made in his image, Adam must be depicted as White as well. Never mind that the geographic location of the creation story is nowhere near Europe. In our religious paintings, all of the biblical characters are White, and the Son of God is nearly always depicted as a White man from the Renaissance era.
What the idolatry of Whiteness has created in the world is the inability to believe that non-White people, especially Black people, are capable of being divine, and are incapable of creation, are incapable of being fully human.
From the inception of this nation, the life of this nation and all of those things that go into forming it, has been built upon the elevation of Whiteness to benefit White people, and to denigrate Black bodies and cause us harm. From slavery to Jim Crow to the New Deal and who was able to access its benefits, to the so-called war on drugs and mass incarceration, to police violence—all have served to destroy and denigrate the Black body. I want to be very clear about this particular idolatry; at the core of American history is the degradation of the Black body as evil and the elevation of the White body as righteous. The Black body prepared for destruction, the White body prepared for protection.
The idolatry of Whiteness is so pervasive that the way one becomes protected in this country is to become White. The Italians, the Irish, the Germans, the Scandinavians the French, and all those from White nations that have immigrated here have had their ethnic particularity subsumed by the category of Whiteness.
Journalist and author Ta-Ne-hesi Coates aptly describes the function of Whiteness as “those that think they are White.” He uses this phrase as a way to spell out that although many participate in the maintaining of this idol that many of these same people do not receive its benefits. However, with the allusion that they are White, and with the understanding that to maintain this status they have to hold others under their feet, they protect this idol at all costs, even to their own detriment. In this country, to be seen as human, people have to assume this sociological construction to protect themselves.
Sociologist Orlando Patterson explains this phenomena of an Italian brother who was being assaulted by a group of White people in New York. In attempts to protect himself, he runs down the street saying that he is not Black, that he is White. He understood the sociological function of Whiteness as a form of protection. He also understood, implicitly, that one becomes White by sharing in the core ritual celebration of Whiteness, the denigration of Blackness. To become White, groups had to hate and dissociate themselves from Blackness.
Whiteness is a religious category, it is something where people place their faith; this is why it is an idol to be dismantled. J. Kameron Carter, a theologian and a professor of Black church studies at Duke University, places Whiteness in its proper context. He says the construction of Whiteness is a “new creation story,” that in constructing the idol of Whiteness the Western world re-created the world in its own image, where Whiteness was the measure by which everything is then judged by. To put it simply, like every other idol, Whiteness becomes a god, constructed to explain and represent the form and function of the world.
What I find fascinating in Jeremiah, to bring our time back into scripture, is found in verses 8–9, the industry that goes into making idols. The word of the Lord says that “silver is brought from Tarshish and gold from Uphaz. What the craftsmen and goldsmiths have made is then dressed in blue and purple, listen to this—all made by skilled workers.” The NRSV [New Revised Standard Version of the Christian Bible] says that they are “all the product of skilled workers.” This is such a heavy passage.
What the Prophet Jeremiah is saying is that in order to form the idol the gifts and skills that God had given people for his glory and to improve human life were instead deployed to create and worship something false.
Goldsmiths were a part of the industry of idol production.
Sailors and merchants who carried these materials from foreign places to Israel were a part of this industry.
The textile industry, those gifted with the ability to take materials and make clothes and other fabrics to adorn the human body, used their gifts to adorn false idols.
The word says that this whole industry is comprised of “skillful workers”—dedicated to something evil and diabolical.
This is how the idolatry of Whiteness has functioned. People used their gifts for something evil.
People gifted with intelligence deployed their gifts across an array of disciplines to create and maintain this construct.
Pastors and theologians constructed and endorsed false theology to say that Blacks were subhuman.
Philosophers constructed philosophical thought that justified this idol’s existence.
Pseudo-science was deployed to “prove” Black’s sub-humanity.
The literary world wrote fanciful tales of barbaric Africa.
Historians rewrote history in a multitude of ways, to sell a lie that Africa didn’t have civilization when in fact Africa is the mother and father of civilization.
Archaeologists lied in their findings to justify the supposed lack of civilization of Blacks.
The film industry reinforced this idolatry with films that depicted Black civilizations such as Egypt as White civilizations, and biblical characters and their social world as White versus the actual skin tone of darkness.
Politicians crafted racist policy.
The real estate industry redlined communities.
Banks wouldn’t give out loans to Blacks.
The prison industry exploded and has become a moneymaker integrated into the nation’s economy, a new type of slavery.
All of these things were done to support the principal idol of this nation, which is White supremacy, which expresses itself in anti-Black hatred.
However, we serve a God that raises up prophets to call people into repentance. God has risen up prophets throughout American history to combat this horrific idol. From Fredrick Douglass to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. From Ella Baker to the recently killed Pastor Clementa Pinckney of Emanuel African Methodist Church in Charleston, S.C.
In our current moment, the Black Lives Matter movement is another manifestation of this prophetic line that is critiquing the idol of Whiteness. The recent events in Ferguson, Baltimore, Cincinnati, Cleveland and New York have given expression to the pain and struggle of the people at the bottom of society. People, according to one Latin American theologian, who are the “crucified people of history.”
The Black Lives Matter movement has brought back to the fore the age-old question of who is considered fully human? Who can reflect the image of God? It is the question that is posed by Cain in the early chapter of Genesis where he asked, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” I would argue that the rest of the Bible answers, “Yes, you are your brother and sister’s keeper,” and modern prophets continue to answer this question in the affirmative.
Idols destroy people, they destroy communities and they destroy cities, states and nations. They place at the center of our lives something other than God and form our societies along the lines of disunity and violence, and they bring the good gifts that God has given people, to be used for evil. Jeremiah, along with the rest of the prophets of old and new, call on us to rid our society of such idols.
Bryson White is a community organizer with Faith in Community. Contact him at bryson@ ficpico.org.