Insipid Salt: White Christianity in the Wake of Charlottesville

Protest sign stating white silence equals complicityby Herb Montgomery

“I do subscribe to nonviolence. I teach it. I uphold it. Yet, to claim a nonviolent neutrality, saying “I’m against violence on both sides,” while you yourself are socially privileged and benefit from violence being used against people of color, both public and privatized, is a violent form of nonviolence. I reject that. To compare oppressors and resistors based only on the use of violence is intellectually lazy. The two sides are not on the same moral plane. They are not morally equivalent. Social location also matters.”

Featured Text:

“Salt is good‚ but if salt becomes insipid, with what will it be seasoned? Neither for the earth nor for the dunghill is it fit—it gets thrown out.” Q 14:34-35

Companion Texts:

Matthew 5:13: “You are the salt of the earth. But if the salt loses its saltiness, how can it be made salty again? It is no longer good for anything, except to be thrown out and trampled underfoot.”

Luke 14:34-35: “Salt is good, but if it loses its saltiness, how can it be made salty again? It is fit neither for the soil nor for the manure pile; it is thrown out. “Whoever has ears to hear, let them hear.”

Last weekend, the U.S. witnessed an evil display of racism and white supremacy/nationalism in Charlottesville, VA. We at Renewed Heart Ministries reaffirm our commitment of solidarity with Black, Latinx, Native, Arab, Asian, Jewish, Muslim, and immigrant communities, with women, our LGBTQ siblings, and the organizing working class who are all opposing White supremacy.

In a presentation on misogyny, heterosexism, and homophobia, Rev. Dr. Kelly Brown Douglas explains, “We must recognize the intersecting realities of all of these [forces]. That misogyny, heterosexism, and homophobia are all a part of a social political narrative of power. That is they are all a part of the White, patriarchal, imperialistic, capitalistic power. Misogyny, heterosexism, and homophobia are secreted by that narrative, and they feed the agenda of White, male hegemony. In as much as non-White, non-male, non-heterosexual persons can be effectively marginalized, can be set against one another, and in as much as marginalized communities marginalize and oppress one another, well then. The White, male agenda of oppressive power has been served.”

We at Renewed Heart Ministries affirm the work of those who came together and opposed and resisted White supremacy in Charlottesville, VA, last weekend. And we will continue to do our part in standing against white supremacy in all its forms.

That brings me to this week’s saying and its relevance to what we are seeing right now in the discussions around race here in the U.S. First, lets ask an important question of our saying. Our saying asks what happens to salt when it becomes salt-less. But how could that happen? How could salt lose its saltiness? That’s chemically impossible. Salt is salt is salt is salt—at least today.

In the 1st Century, rock salt in the Roman Empire naturally occurred in vast salt beds where evaporated minerals left sediment behind. Salt was not the only sediment in these beds, nor was it the only white sediment present. Salt mingled with other white sediments, was harvested, and then sold. In a cook’s broth, for example, the sediment (composed of salt and other rock) would be placed in a cooking cloth and used to stir the hot liquid broth. The salt would naturally dissolve, flavoring the broth, while other sediments with less ability to dissolve would not.

Over time, however, the salt would be used up and the other sediments left behind. The salt would be spent: it would have “lost its saltiness.” It would be “insipid” or tasteless and at that point it would be worthless, its use to be thrown out with the gravel on the road but it wasn’t even fit to be mixed with soil as fertilizer. Each of the synoptic gospels (Mark, Matthew, and Luke) mention salt becoming insipid (cf. Mark 9:49-50, Matthew 5:13 and Luke 14:34-35).

In Matthew and Luke, the context of this week’s saying is different. For Matthew, this is a saying included in the list of Jesus’ sayings that we call the Sermon on the Mount. For Luke, this saying is set among a list of criteria, an explanation of what it meant to be a follower of Jesus. Luke seems to be reminding his readers of what it means to be a Jesus follower in deeds and practice, not just in label or name.

This holds relevance for me. As I travel from place to place trying to help groups of Christians rediscover the teachings of the Jesus at the heart of their faith, I’m struck by how often we Christians are opposed to what Jesus actually taught. Recently, I was sharing Jesus’ ideas of mutual aid and wealth redistribution and once again, Christians in the audience raised strident objections. This past week, too, I watched my Christian friends on social media demonstrating an alarming lack of discernment, echoing the harmful rhetoric of blaming “many” or “both sides,” placing evil and opposition to evil on the same moral plane. These experiences have cemented the relevance of this week’s saying for me.

I have often wondered whether Christianity today has fallen much more in love with the idea of Jesus than with the reality of him. We seem to resonate with the hope of heavenly bliss after death; we want a gospel that liberates us from our mortality. We also have a very low interest in a gospel that liberates us from oppression, subjugation, and marginalization here, now, today. We like a Jesus who gives us hope for the future but leaves the present untouched. We are content with a Jesus who leaves our economic, racial, and sexist injustice in place. We are happy with a Jesus who promises heaven and leaves our present homophobia, biphobia, and transphobia unaddressed—or even worse, affirmed.

I’m working through my own frustration with this reality. I don’t resonate with a Jesus who is only concerned with our after-life, and I’m honestly at a loss to understand those only interested in that Jesus.

The Jesus in the gospel stories addressed and challenged the social, economic and political injustice of his day. We never see him telling people how to get to heaven or how to have a private relationship with him. We do see him teaching us how to enter into relationships with one another, how to share with one another, how to take care of one another. We encounter a Jesus who cautions us to make sure no one has too much and that everyone has enough. Jesus isn’t preoccupied with a future heaven but rather a present hell in which too many are trying to scrape out an existence.

A Christianity that has forgotten what the Jesus of the gospels actually taught is a Christianity that has lost its way. It’s lost the way. It’s lost its saltiness. It has become insipid or worse, dangerous.

Throughout history, forms of Christianity that have become divorced from Jesus’ ethical teachings have produced a Christianity that becomes the tool the powerful use to push the vulnerable to the underside or the margins. We see this in Europe before the Enlightenment and at the heart of colonialism. We see it in the history of America with Native people and the Africans brought here against their will through the inhumane trade of slavery. And we see it globally in the economic exploitation of developing countries by the West.

Parts of contemporary U.S. Christianity have departed starkly from the teachings of the historical Jesus. Recently one Christian claimed that “God has given Trump authority to take out Kim Jong Un.” Christians applaud the administration’s dismantling decades of protecting the vulnerable through regulation. Christians support the denial of climate change and respond “all lives matter” to silence people of color standing up to systemic injustice. Christians chant “religious liberty” as they did during the civil rights movement, as code for the demand to live out bigotry. While many CEOs demonstrated their opposition to Trump’s defense of White supremacists this past week, most Evangelical leaders carried on with business as usual.

I live in West Virginia, which is the most pro-Trump state in the U.S., but I know West Virginians are not alone in their support. I see church signs here that attribute to Trump a savior status: to some Christians, he is a “Godsend” in whom they find hope. This is the same man who bragged of sexually assaulting women and whose campaign included dog-whistle racism and blatant xenophobia. He dropped the dog-whistle this week, and defended white supremacists outright. My Christian friends who are Trump supporters took it all in stride and didn’t bat an eye. It wasn’t a deal breaker for these Christians. The Christianity of the socially privileged is not a counter cultural movement that speaks truth to the powerful or calls for a radically different way of organizing society. Although those traits are the traits of the ancient Hebrew prophets, they are either absent or opposed within this sector of Christianity today.

Last weekend, a multi-faith coalition of clergy who do demonstrate these traits met in Charlottesville, VA, to counter-protest the white supremacist, alt-right rally there. Their lives were in jeopardy multiple times, and they were saved not by police who stood by, but by groups such as Anti-fa and other anarchists who stepped in. Yet so many White Christians here in the U.S. criticized the violence of the groups that came to these faith leader’s aid with their “both sides” rhetoric, oblivious to their own social location in the discussion.

Rev. Dr. Kelly Brown Douglas spoke this week about where the critique of violence should land. “Make no mistake about it,” she said. ”Such ideologies in and of themselves are violent. For any ideology or system of thought that objectifies another human being and fails to recognize their very humanity must be recognized as violent. Moreover, such ideologies and systems serve only to precipitate more violence.”

The violence of objectification is the violence that my White Christian friends should have been critiquing. Paulo Freire’s words in Pedagogy of the Oppressed could pull back the veil from White Christians’ understanding: “Never in history has violence been initiated by the oppressed. How could they be the initiators, if they themselves are the result of violence? How could they be the sponsors of something whose objective inauguration called forth their existence as oppressed? There would be no oppressed had there been no prior situation of violence to establish their subjugation. Violence is initiated by those who oppress, who exploit, who fail to recognize others as persons— not by those who are oppressed, exploited, and unrecognized.”

I want to be clear. I do subscribe to nonviolence. I teach it. I uphold it. Yet, to claim a nonviolent neutrality, saying “I’m against violence on both sides,” while you yourself are socially privileged and benefit from violence being used against people of color, both public and privatized, is a violent form of nonviolence. I reject that. To compare oppressors and resistors based only on the use of violence is intellectually lazy. The two sides are not on the same moral plane. They are not morally equivalent. Social location also matters. It is not for us to determine what form people’s opposition should take when we socially benefit from their oppression. That’s not our place and it’s another subtle form of White supremacy to believe that we are in a moral position to critique the resistance of those threatened by White supremacists. We may not like it, but James H. Cone correctly states, “Since whites have been the most violent race on the planet, their theologians and preachers are not in a position to tell black people, or any other people for that matter, what they must do be like Jesus” (God of the Oppressed). All White people benefit from one degree to another from the White supremacy that is baked into our country’s history and design. THAT is what we should be opposing right now. If the resistance is to be critiqued, that critique should come from those being targeted by the violence of White supremacy, not those standing on the sidelines and claiming moral superiority to violence.

What should I, as a White Christian cisgender straight male be speaking out to this week? The Christianity of the socially privileged here in the U.S. is one of those things on the list.

What happened to the movement spawned by a Jewish prophet of the poor who stood in solidarity with the exploited and marginalized, and whose work was characterized as “good news to the poor” and “liberation for the oppressed?” (See Luke 4:18-19)

The salt has become insipid and its flavor is rancid. It is no longer based on the sayings and teachings of the one whose work it was founded to honor. As Rev. Willie Dwayne Francois III has stated, it has become “duplicitous.”

But there is another way to understand Christianity.

As Delores S. Williams reminds us, “It seems more intelligent and more scriptural to understand that redemption had to do with God, through Jesus, giving humankind new vision to see the resources for positive, abundant relational life. Redemption had to do with God, through the ministerial vision, giving humankind the ethical thought and practice upon which to build positive, productive quality of life. Hence, the kingdom of God theme in the ministerial vision of Jesus does not point to death; it is not something one has to die to reach. Rather, the kingdom of God is a metaphor of hope God gives those attempting to right the relations between self and self, between self and others, between self and God as prescribed in the sermon on the mount, in the golden rule and in the commandment to show love above all else.” (Sisters in the Wilderness: The Challenge of Womanist God-Talk, pp. 130-131)

Salvation in Sayings Gospel Q was not about “getting to post-mortem bliss.” Salvation was defined as righting the injustice, oppression, and violence in our world. It had a distinctly Jewish character to it, of a hope where one day all injustice, oppression and violence in the earth would be put right. Q does not point to a future messiah figure but to a then-contemporary prophet of the poor who showed a way whereby followers could choose to right injustice, oppression, and violence then and there, beginning with them.

Salvation defined this way is based on action, not in the sense of merit we earn, but intrinsically. Because our choices have intrinsic results, humanly-created problems can have humanly-chosen solutions. Q’s gospel isn’t primarily fixated on “guilt alleviation,” grace, forgiveness, no condemnation, and unconditional love for oppressors. In Q, Jesus’s salvific way included mutual aid or resource-sharing, wealth redistribution, nonviolent, self-affirming resistance. It was a values shift that centered those on edges and sat those on the undersides of society around a shared table. It wasn’t liberal, it wasn’t “progressive,” it was liberation, and it was radical! Characters in the gospels who held positions of power felt threatened by it. People in power don’t feel threatened by people handing out tickets to post mortem heaven. They feel threatened by people unifying around a shared vision of how things can change here and now, today.

Today, many people believe Christianity has become worthless, fit for neither the earth nor the dung hill. I’m not sure what Christianity’s future is. But I do believe that, to the best of our ability, we must rediscover the gospel Jesus himself taught, not merely a gospel about him. We must then take these teachings and weight their fruit, asking what they may offer our work of survival, resistance, liberation, restoration, and transformation today. Anything less, in my estimation, would be unfaithful to the Jesus stories.

“Salt is good‚ but if salt becomes insipid, with what will it be seasoned? Neither for the earth nor for the dunghill is it fit—it gets thrown out.” Q 14:34-35

HeartGroup Application

In the statement Dr. Kelly Brown Douglas made this past week, she also states:

“If it wasn’t clear before, the events in Charlottesville have now made it abundantly clear—we have reached a decision point as a nation. We must decide whether we want to be a nation defined by its Anglo-Saxon myth of exceptionalism and White supremacist culture or one defined by its democratic rhetoric of being a nation of liberty and justice for all. This question is even more poignant for people of faith. For we must decide if we are a people committed to a vision of a country that reflects an ‘Anglo-Saxon’ God or a God whose image is revealed through a racial/ethnic/religiously and culturally diverse humanity. If we are in fact committed to building a nation and being a people reflective of a God with a vision of justice and freedom for all, then we must do more than just counter-protest. Rather, we must proactively protest for the kind of nation and people we want to be.”

This week I want you to read the whole article and discuss it together as a group. You can find it at: https://btpbase.org/charlottesville-truth-america/

2. The Souther Poverty Law Center also has released a document, Ten Ways to Fight Hate. Read through this document, too, and discuss which of the ten you as a group could begin putting into practice.

3. Pick the way to fight hate that you discussed and do it.

I’m so glad you checked in with us this week. Wherever you are, keep living in love, for “when you start with an understanding that God loves everyone, justice isn’t very far behind.” (Dr. Emilie M. Townes, Journey to Liberation: The Legacy of Womanist Theology)

Remember to check out our new 500:25:1 project to discover a new way to participate in the RHM community. We just completed our 500:25:1 weekend. I wrote about it here.

I love each of you dearly.

I’ll see you next week.