Our Life Together

February 25, 2021

Jim Hopkins

February 25, 2021

Some white Christians speak a great deal about accountability, but then apply it very selectively. The response, or lack thereof, to the charges by the United States House of Representatives of “incitement of insurrection” against former President Trump on the part of many white Christians is disappointing and disconcerting.

In the white Christian church in which I grew up, there was frequent reference to the “age of accountability” related to matters of faith. I found that reference somewhat confusing and unsettling, but it did indicate that accountability was an important concept in the faith of my family. It made it clear that, at some point, each of us was accountable for our response to Jesus. Yet, the response of some white Christians to the actions of former President Donald Trump, both leading up to and following the January 6 insurrection, points out a very uneven understanding of the concept of accountability.

A brief look at history suggests that I shouldn’t be surprised. For centuries, some white Christians have been very willing to blame Judaism for the crucifixion of Jesus and to hold Jewish persons accountable for this crime through myriad persecutions and defamations. The fact that this blame is misguided has not prevented violent and destructive efforts to “make them pay.” History is replete with the slaughter of Jewish innocents at the hands of Christians using the language of accountability. In a similar way, some white Christians have been very willing to hold Islam accountable for terrorist attacks. Too many white Christians have shown very little interest in distinguishing between the acts of individual Muslims and adherents to that faith in general. Instead, they have equated the acts of radical extremists with an entire faith tradition – while, of course, eschewing such broad strokes when it comes to terrorist acts by Christians.

Some white Christians have been reluctant to engage in dialogue about the “texts of terror” that can be found in the sacred writings of both traditions. Also, they have been slow to support freedom of religion for adherents of other faith traditions. Such willingness to “hold them accountable” due to an erroneous perception of an inclination to violence has had a very corrosive influence on the relationship between the Christian and Islamic communities, to put it mildly.

Some white Christians also like to talk about accountability when it comes to criminal justice. The evidence suggests that they are perfectly comfortable with sending large numbers of Black and Brown persons to jail, frequently for very minor crimes, and too often for crimes they didn’t commit. Similarly, although support for the death penalty seems to be waning nationwide, white Christians often proclaim it to be a “biblical” and necessary way of making the punishment fit the crime. Of course, they don’t seem to notice that the death penalty is much more likely to be sought when the defendant’s skin color is of a darker hue, and they disregard the many instances in which people on death row were later found to be innocent.

They claim that everyone must be held accountable for their actions. However, if asked to apply the concept of accountability to the lasting impact of slavery, many white Christians suddenly become much less committed to the concept. Apparently, accountability is only for others. When others seek to hold them accountable, they quickly talk about grace and all the time that is past. They confess an inability to rewrite history and declare the arithmetic of justice to be hopelessly confusing.

Even though the legacy of slavery continues to shape our society, they solemnly deny that the current generations can, in any way, be held accountable and reject calls for reparations.
In February 2021, there have been representatives of white Christianity aplenty that deflected calls for holding the former president accountable for inciting the January 6 attacks on the US Capitol. They have said that the time is not right, that we need to focus of healing a divided nation rather than holding Donald J. Trump accountable.

Apparently, in their view, the work of justice somehow undermines national unity. I find these responses curious. They make me wonder about the age of accountability that I learned of as youth. Maybe they believe they’ve “aged out” of such concepts. Maybe there never was such a thing. Or maybe they believe that there is no such thing when it comes to an older white male who seems to have been forever able to escape responsibility for his actions.