30 Days of Anti-Racism: #5 Revisionism

As we continue this survey of the tactics deployed by structural racism in resistance to institutional change, we now look at the practice of revisionism.

Societies are built around common narratives. These narratives simplify, reduce, and communicate shared history in ways that provide the public with role models and an etiology for the structures of social ranking and relationships. Many of these narratives draw upon Jungian archetypes to create hagiographic or defamatory depictions of the principal actors or groups within the conflicts of the historical narrative while framing the greater movement of history in favor of the dominant caste as a manifestation of divine providence.

Movements of liberation understand this as revisionism, the revising of actual history to favor the dominant caste. Post-modern and liberationist historians utilize the hermeneutic of suspicion to unmask revisions. Their work in deconstruction and recovery seeks to provide a just, accurate, and fair account of history by giving voice and authority to the testimony of the oppressed, the conquered, the enslaved, and the annihilated.

Within the United States, the Thanksgiving story is a popular revisionist myth. In this account, European colonists are re-labeled as spiritual pilgrims. Unlike all other pilgrims on a journey to a Christian shrine, these pilgrims travel outside of Christendom. In the Thanksgiving account, indigenous tribes welcome these colonists, providing knowledge of indigenous foods needed for survival, and granting land for their expansion. As European colonization moved westward, annihilating and displacing indigenous people and their culture, Anglo military expansion was framed in the Calvinist and Zionistic categories of “Manifest Destiny” and “Promised Land.”

The State of Texas is built upon its own revisionist history.

In downtown San Antonio, Texas, the Cenotaph stands in front of the historic site of the Battle of the Alamo, canonizing the insurgents who died in battle as founders and heroes. An urn at the entrance of the San Fernando Cathedral on Main Plaza claims to contain their cremated remains.

Near the Alamo, tourists can visit the Texas Ranger Museum, celebrating the order of Texas police for which the Texas Rangers Baseball team is named. Children throughout Texas learn of the Alamo heroes.

Across the border from Eagle Pass, Texas, outside the town of Muzquiz, Coahuila, another history can be found.

There, with some help, a traveler might find remote village of the Negros Mascogos, the Black Muskogees, a community of Afro-Mexicans who descend from escaped slaves who were allied with the Seminole Indians of Florida. With help from indigenous tribes, they fled U.S. expansion and migrated into Mexican Texas. For the Negros Mascogos, the outcome of the Texas Revolution meant the loss of freedom and the introduction of slavery under the new Anglo authority.

Refugees once again, they fled deeper into Mexico, establishing themselves outside of Muzquiz. Today, in their annual Juneteenth celebration and Protestant church services, one can hear echoes of the ante-bellum English-language slave songs known only to their oldest members, individuals who themselves speak only Spanish.

Back in Porvenir Texas, yet another history can be found. A memorial stands where Texas Rangers assembled and massacred Mexican land owners they labeled as bandits as part of the greater campaign of predatory lending and terror that opened the door to Anglo-Saxon land acquisition, colonization, development, and dominance in deep South Texas.

Shortly after sharing my report on the Hispanic Imperative in 2002, I gave a talk during a breakout session at Annual Conference called “Forgetting the Alamo.” I spoke of the Alamo story as a creation myth for the State of Texas and a paradigm for the perpetual conflict between Anglos and Hispanics. My title harkened back to the rallying call of the Texas Revolution: Remember the Alamo.

I explained that many of our churches were re-living the Alamo story. Fearful White people had barricaded themselves in crumbling, neglected old churches, surrounded on all sides by Mexicans, but were determined to die rather than give up the the fort. This meta-narrative, the Alamo, helped people understand the social dynamics of church decline in ways not otherwise possible.

The tactic of revisionism is still used to justify contemporary structural action against people of color.

Perhaps the single most structurally racist action of General Conference since the Uniting Conference of 1968 was the abolition of appointment security for elders in good standing.

In 2012, General Conference delegates gathered from the privileged ranks of the superintendency and large churches. These had been chosen through partisan lists favoring or opposing the inclusion of LGBT persons. So opposed were these delegates to one another, so filled with mutual loathing, they would later propose protocols to divide the UMC around their differences.

These partisan enemies, meeting together, found such common ground around abolishing appointment security, a proposal that would free bishops from making appointments, eliminate fair process, undermine minimum salaries, and render women, non-White clergy, and other groups vulnerable to employment discrimination, that the legislation was approved not once, but twice on a consent agenda (2012, and 2016).

Their first attempt to abolish this principle of open itinerancy was judged to be “repugnant” to the UMC constitution in Judicial Council decision 1226. The second attempt, establishing involuntary part-time appointment, has not been tested by Judicial Council review.

For months prior to adopting this radical change, a campaign of revisionist propaganda was deployed to disseminate scandal about straw-man ineffective clergy and unsustainable subsidies.

Appointment security and guaranteed appointment are themselves revisionist terms. This language frames the missionary responsibility of our church to deploy clergy as a form of tenure or job security. According to Bishop Jones, himself endowed with a fully subsidized episcopal salary for life, the privilege of a subsidized salary should only be granted to bishops and superintendents.

Some annual conferences still apportion some clergy benefits such as health care and pensions. Their use of the equitable salary budget hides the true cost of pastoral services. Every congregation should bear the full cost of the pastoral leadership assigned to that congregation. No congregation should be paying for the pastoral leadership of another church, with the exception of new congregations that have a fixed number of years of declining support. Where such subsidies still exist, conferences should end them now. Subsidizing pastoral compensation, except in temporary and rare instances, is bad practice…But perhaps Bishop Willimon is referring to the apportionments that pay District Superintendent and Episcopal salaries. In those cases, DSes and Bishops should be focused not on taking care of dying club-like congregations, but on extending United Methodist witness for Christ as much as possible.If that is how we as leaders spend our time, small churches are paying their fair share of a missionary movement that God is using to change the world. That is how I want to serve as a bishop. Such an apportionment system is not a subsidy but a fair share of mission work.

Bishop Scott Jones – https://www.ministrymatters.com/lead/entry/4147/why-willimon-is-wrong-about-small-churches

For months prior to General Conference, bishops, executives, and church media outlets circulated this propaganda, whipping up resentment toward the straw-man ineffective complacent and lazy pastor who gets an appointment automatically without any merit.

Writing to the North Georgia conference, Ed Tomlinson claimed, “This guarantee has been in place for a little over half a century. It came into existence shortly after the decision to ordain women. The slowness in accepting women as ordained clergy necessitated some safeguards.”

Tomlinson’s account revised the actual historical record in which the earliest Methodist itinerants were compensated through the conference with flat salaries, and changes of appointment happened every two years.

When the legislation was challenged to Judicial Council, the Council of Bishops claimed that the legislation abolishing appointment security made no change to their constitutional powers, a claim that if true, would have denied them standing to even make that argument.

Allowing bishops and cabinets to deny appointment would disproportionately impact clergy of color. In the published appointments for 2020 in the Rio Texas Conference, the first eight rounds of introductions exclusively placed White clergy in churches. At the end of the process, one Hispanic elder was left without a church appointment and an Associate member was placed without adequate funding in his appointment.

For many years, I believed the revisionist narrative that the Rio Grande Conference was a vestige of Jim Crow and segregation. This narrative was later used to provide warrant for the merger.

The structures preceding the Rio Grande Conference did emerge during the period of Jim Crow, but they were an attempt to extend the church, not segregate it. Several White congregations were actually started within that missionary conference in South Texas and Mexico, meeting together with Mexican parishioners.

When the Mexico Border Mission conference was formed in 1885, several bilingual Anglos left the West Texas Conference to join their Mexican clergy counterparts traveling throughout South Texas and Northern Mexico. Even within the structurally racist Methodist Episcopal Church, South, these leaders chose to mark through racist language within conference statistical reports separating “White Members” and “Colored Members.” These men were not free of the racial biases of the time, often jealously guarding positions of privilege and authority, but in no way did their success in planting churches, schools, and institutes, intend to create an ecclesial ghetto.

Revisionist history played an important role in the creation of the Rio Texas Conference. A consulting group from the denomination declared the Southwest Texas Conference to be “demographically unsustainable” even though its Hispanic membership had been doubling every ten years for over over twenty years. The Rio Grande Conference was said to be “financially unsustainable” even though it was without indebtedness and had millions of dollars in reserves, while the Southwest Texas Conference had unfunded liabilities and a budget being paid on a line of credit. So significant was this difference that before merger, the RGC established two legacy funds restricted for the benefit of their former churches.

Since that time, two attempts have been made to usurp and repurpose these legacy funds. In the most recent attempt against the funding of pensions and healthcare for clergy serving over 20 full-time appointments in former RGC churches, Anglo executives argued that the fund was not limited to its written beneficiaries and that those who created the fund intended for it to be liquidated.

The revisionism was straightforward. Under the racist revised history, the Rio Grande Conference, the last Spanish-language regional structure of the UMC, shortly before being dismantled under false pretenses, would not have wanted the endowment it went through pains to legally create to become perpetually sustainable for the benefit of those it declared in writing to be its beneficiaries.

If you believe that, tip your hat in gratitude to the indigenous people who supposedly gave North America to the European colonists after inviting them to a pot-luck.

Revisionism thrives in an environment of indifference and ignorance.

Anti-racists need to know history, to know the whole of history, especially their unique history, and to find the courage to call out structurally racist revisionist propaganda before the false narrative becomes the meta-narrative.

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