White supremacy is demonic, because it promotes an “unclean” spirit that delights in hatred, conflict and violence. It is profoundly wicked.
Look at these white faces from the “Unite the Right” rally just held in Charlottesville, VA. Holding their torches, they give the Nazi salute, a tribute to a genocidal regime that killed millions. “Blood and Soil!” they yelled, a reference to the Nazi racist and nationalist philosophy. Prominent white supremacist Richard Spencer specifically said the goal of the rally was to instill fear.
We have to call this travesty by its real name, even as Jesus did when he came upon a man so crazed with violence that all his neighbors were terrified of him. His neighbors couldn’t control him, and then Jesus specifically called out the demonic spirit:
“Come out of the man, unclean spirit!” Jesus calls, and then he asks him, “What is your name?”
And the man with the unclean spirit answered, “My name is Legion, for we are many.” (Mark 5: 8 and 9) Then Jesus dismissed the spirits, and they were destroyed.
You have to call white supremacy by its right name and let us make no mistake, these white supremacists are “legion.”
This “rally,” that should rightly be called a terrorist action, brought together white supremacists, Ku Klux Klan members, the so-called “alt-right,” Nazis and assorted armed militia members. Their numbers are growing in strength and visibility as they are empowered by the racist, anti-immigrant, religiously bigoted and homophobic rhetoric coming from Donald Trump and his administration.
It is not enough to just say white supremacy is demonic. That needs to be unpacked in a historical, theological and deeply cultural sense. There are so many forces that helped to create the horror in Charlottesville, VA in August 2017.
White supremacy didn’t just start in the Trump era. It is a long-standing system of vast exploitation and immorality, as Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote so powerfully in The Case for Reparations. “Two hundred fifty years of slavery. Ninety years of Jim Crow. Sixty years of separate but equal. Thirty-five years of racist housing policy.” There’s a lot for today’s white supremacists to build on for their current work of hate.
Many who are condemning what has just happened in Charlottesville are calling the racism that fuels it “sinful” and this rally “evil.” That’s true. But the kind of wickedness that defines the demonic is more than sin and evil. It is, in fact, the malignancy of sin and evil combining and reinforcing each other, as Mary Potter Engel put it so well in our book Lift Every Voice: Constructing Christian Theologies from the Underside.
Evil and sin together may be called “wickedness,” the complex condition of the lack of right relation in the world in which we live naturally, socially, and individually.
Evil is the systems created by centuries of racist oppression, sin is the “free and discrete acts … that create or reinforce these structures of oppression” in housing, the judicial system, the prison industrial complex, the economy and in politics. And in so much more. They mutually reinforce and that is what we call “wickedness.”
Structures. Systems. White Christian complicity. Take those as a given. Then, we need to move outside theology to get even more help to understand the many layers of the demonic in white supremacy.
Sociologists have described what they call wicked problems. These are problems that are driven by a vast number of interconnected forces that sustain and grow them. Wicked problems are characteristically difficult either to recognize or to solve.
Horst Rittel, one of the first to formalize a theory of wicked problems, cites 10 characteristics of these complicated social issues, some of which stand out as particularly applicable to white supremacy.
Wicked problems “have no definitive formulation,” as they have different patterns in different locations. White supremacy in Chicago, IL, for example, has important differences in terms of historical roots, as well as economic and political structures than the white supremacy of let’s say, Virginia.
White supremacy is a “wicked problem” because it “bleeds.” That means there are no boundaries to its causes or its effects. Instead, white supremacy permeates education, law, law enforcement, economics, politics, religion and, broadly speaking, culture. Sexism, racism, homophobia, trans-phobia, Islamophobia and classism all need constant examination, critique and corrective action because white supremacy is a constant force of depravity and deformation.
So when I say white supremacy is demonic, I mean it is this kind of wicked problem that hides and lies and denies and warps and corrupts. It is the unclean spirit that percolates through all of this and cannot be easily confronted. See it in yourself as you track the mud of it around, perhaps unknowingly.
The time for thinking oneself innocent just because you didn’t give a Nazi salute in Charlottesville is over. The corruption bleeds, remember that.
The time to acknowledge and confront the demonic forces of white supremacy is now.
As Jesus taught, we must call white supremacy by its right name and destroy it.