Amanda Gorman proudly declared that “being American is more than a pride we inherit,” in her brilliant poem written for President Biden’s inauguration ceremony.
“It’s the past we step into and how we repair it,” she said.
Her poem, “The Hill We Climb,” is both heartbreaking and hopeful. She courageously names the harm of injustice that has dominated the landscape of our country’s history and relentlessly leans into the pregnant possibility that a very different America is waiting for us on the other side of honesty and reconciliation.
I was left inspired, hopeful and thankful for this beautiful country we call home. But between the lines of Gorman’s poetry lies the deplorable reality of the harm of white colonization that she invites us to face.
Slavery. Injustice. Division. Rupture. While we would like to think these to be historic harms that we have put behind us, the last year has shown us just how many inequalities persist.
With wisdom beyond her years, Gorman invites her listeners to step into the harm that has dominated the history of this country so that we can build a future together.
One way to sit with the harm that has persisted in America is to recognize the competing Christianities that have grown up together.
As I see it, the division felt among Americans is not only between left and right or blue and red, but also between the white church, born in power and privilege, and the Black and Brown church.
These congregations have formed a robust embodied theology of liberation that addresses the harms done to them by white people and policies throughout our country’s history, often at the hands of, and justified by, white Christians and their theology.
In her groundbreaking book, Ancient Laws and Contemporary Controversies, Cheryl Anderson quotes Audre Lorde’s observation of the mythical norm in America that “is usually defined as white, thin, male, young, heterosexual, Christian [who is] financially secure.”
The theology of white church in America has had the privilege of being the template for what faith in America should look like and the standard by which other churches are judged.
We have been the dominant theological force in America since before the Revolutionary War when, in 1680, to be white and Christian were synonymous, as Ibram X. Kendi observes in his book, Stamped from the Beginning.
This trend continued through the eras of slavery, Jim Crow and the fight for civil rights in the ’50s and ’60s. But nothing has changed.
Unfortunately, it feels as though the interchange between white pastors and Martin Luther King Jr. while he was in the Birmingham jail is still taking place between white clergy and the leaders of the current Black Lives Matter movement. We are still missing each other.
And closer to home, white conservatives in my social media feed are quick to correct me whenever I post something that conflicts with their ideology, saying I’m buying into “a demonic lie from liberal theologians.”
As Gorman invites Americans to consider that “the norms and notions of what ‘just’ is isn’t always justice” and to “lay down our arms so we can reach out our arms to one another,” I find myself grieving what much of the white church has been missing out by choice.
Our thirst for power and privilege has kept us from regarding our fellow Black and Brown Americans as anything other than different and less-than. We have not heard their cries or let their voices transform us. How much has been lost!
In their book, Intersectional Theology, Grace Ji-Sun Kim and Susan M. Shaw say this another way:
“For most of Christian history, straight white male theologians have spoken for everyone else, as if their theologies do not reflect the bias of their own social positions and power. This has meant that our theologies have been partial, a reflection of only a very small slice of the whole human experience. In many ways, we have missed out on a great deal we could have learned about God and ourselves by ignoring and subordinating the experiences and theological reflections of most of humanity.”
It is time that we, as white Christians in America, courageously step into America’s past with a heart of lament and desire to allow our differences to enhance, rather than divide, us.
If we are willing to do this, then we just might see Gorman’s hope materialize – that “our people, diverse and beautiful, … emerge battered and beautiful … [knowing that] there is always light, if only we’re brave enough to see it. If only we’re brave enough to be it.”