These past few weeks, Langston Hughes’ evocative poem “Let America be America Again” has been shaking me. (Take a moment to read it now.)
In biblical speak, Hughes’ words are an apocalypse — an unveiling or uncovering of the soul of America. They are like the revelatory vision of John of Patmos who looked out at the great Rome of antiquity and saw nothing but endless violence and bloodshed in the name of king and country. Hughes knew what we now know: that our American house was built on sand, and it has been breaking and busting under the weight of our black brothers and sisters. This has not been a land of freedom for all. The dreams of our black neighbors have been deferred, and America has become yet another patriotic military machine that churns out bodies in the likeness of Babylon, Assyria and Rome.
While this uncovering of America may be a surprise to some white Christians, it is not to the savior we proclaim. Jesus’ Jewish life threatened the very fabric of Roman life —the trampling of poor and the destruction of the other all in the name of Caesar’s peace. Jesus lived as a Jewish peasant under the hegemony of Roman Empire. When he ate the Passover meal – the Juneteenth of the Jewish people – he was reenacting in his body the liberation of his people from slavery in Egypt. When we Christians take Communion, we are, in effect, participating in a history and a meal that remembers God’s liberation of an enslaved people, a connection lost on us white Christians who on June 19 are unsure how to celebrate. During this high holy festival, Jesus was executed by the Roman police force — on Calvary his breath was taken from him.
In Hughes’ words, Jesus’ crown of thorns dismantled the “patriotic wreath” of Rome. The book of Revelation imagines this stripping of power with its use of numbers. While it is commonplace for fundamentalist white Christians to boast 666 as the number of the devil, in Jewish Gematria – where Hebrew letters have numerical values – Emperor Nero’s name adds up to 666. The peaceful protest of God on the cross has not only torn the temple veil in two, but torn back also the curtain of Rome’s religion-sanctioned evil.
Writing this on the weekend of July 4th, I cannot help but see how Hughes and John of Patmos strip away the the wreath of American Christian nationalism. More than ever the flag in the sanctuary falls under the weight and power of the cross. For many white Christians, all of this makes the gospel sound too “political.” But we cannot turn our face from the truth of Jesus’ death. Tried as a political criminal, put on death row and crucified by the Roman state under the political charges “King of the Jews,” Jesus’ death was not as much the system oppressing as it was the system doing what it was created to do — destroy the innocent. Irony of ironies, foolishness beyond all foolishness, somehow the nakedness of God on the cross offers us a politic for living — the left and the right disappear, because all that is left is the crucified messiah. As it turns out, the Kingdom of God is not the RNC or DNC convention.
James Cone sees in Christ’s cross the lynching tree of Black Americans. Rome may no longer crucify Jewish peasants, but America has taken up the mantle. In the cross we see the bedroom of Breonna Taylor, the street corner of George Floyd and the country road of Ahmaud Arbery. In this apocalyptic moment, God has revealed to we white Christians the ways in which we have forsaken Jesus’ gospel of freedom and liberation. We have, in Martin Luther King Jr.’s words, “chosen peace as the absence of tension rather than peace as the presence of justice.” As tempting as it is to join in the sanctimonious woke chorus on Facebook, we white pastors know deeply that there is harder, longer, slower work to be done in our congregations. Wide and easy is the road where we stand on the street corners of social media pointing fingers at the KKK and screaming at Donald Trump. Narrow and hard is the road where we take a hard look at ourselves, at our way of life, our worship, our relationships, our churches, our hearts. The opposite of love is not hatred, it is indifference; it is lukewarm gospel. The problem is not just with “those racists over there.” The problem is us. We are the America that Langston Hughes laments. Our foundations may be crumbling, but they can be rebuilt, brick by brick, on the rock of the gospel.
All this makes me wonder: What if we replaced the word “America” in Hughes’ poem? What if we said: “Let the church be the church again”? And what if we asked his poignant question of ourselves in white mainline Protestantism?
Let the church be the church the dreamers dreamed —
Let it be that great strong church of love
Where never kings connive nor tyrants scheme
That any man be crushed by one above.
JOSHUA MUSSER GRITTER co-pastors First Presbyterian Church in Salisbury, North Carolina, with his wife Lara. They watch movies together with their dog Red.