White Jonathan

August 13th, 2017

[David] came to Jonathan and asked, “What have I done? What is my crime? How have I wronged your father that he wants me dead?” Jonathan said to him, “No! You are not going to die! Listen: My father doesn’t do anything big or small without telling me first. Why would my father hide this from me? It isn’t true!” (1 Samuel 20:1-2).

The friendship of David and Jonathan is one of the great dramatic stories of the Bible, and this chapter is especially poignant. After David tells Jonathan that he fears for his life, Jonathan doubts him. They decide to do an experiment: David will skip dinner and Jonathan will observe Saul’s reaction.

What follows is like a classic gangster movie or Shakespearean drama. When he deduces that David is hiding from him, Saul calls Jonathan all kinds of vulgar names (son of a “stubborn, rebellious woman,” is the way the translators delicately put it), and accuses him of being a traitor to his own family. Saul is so furious he actually hurls a spear at his own son.

Later, Jonathan uses a secret message to let David know that Saul has gone off the rails. Jonathan meets David in the field and they both weep, knowing that David will have to flee for his life in order to survive.

What I find timely about this story is that Jonathan literally cannot see the danger David is in. He is blinded by his royal privilege. He cannot imagine that his own father would keep secrets from him, or that Saul has such deep wells of resentment, jealousy and fear. So when David asks, “Why does your dad want me dead?” Jonathan responds with disbelief. “My Dad? No, you must be mistaken.”

I believe white Christians have often behaved like Jonathan. When people of color have said, “white supremacy is killing us; mass incarceration is unfairly targeting us; economic injustice is keeping us down; voter suppression is stealing our political power,” well-meaning and friendly white Christians have said, “No, you must be mistaken.” Eager to avoid conflict and smooth everything over, white Christians have skirted conversation about racial injustice with platitudes about colorblindness and “just loving on people.”

During the last year, as white nationalism and white supremacy have grown in volume and influence, I’ve heard many stories from Jonathans being stunned at the hatred that has come out of the mouths of their own family members. Sometimes when they try to discuss things with friends and family who are passive racists, they are called traitors, or worse. Some are alienated from their families or disinvited from holiday meals.

Events like the white supremacist march on Charlottesville may help open our eyes, but it’s important to recognize that white supremacy has been lurking beneath the surface for many years. In 1901, the president of Alabama’s Constitutional Convention said the objective of the representatives was “to establish white supremacy in this state,” not by force or fraud, “but by law.” Of course, they used plenty of force and fraud, too, but their strategy was to use “colorblind” laws to take political and economic power away from people of color, to use sneaky methods and plausible deniability that would allow them to avoid accusations of racism. In the same way, in 1968, the “War on Drugs” was used as a colorblind smokescreen to target and systematically decimate black communities. It is no coincidence that we are hearing that rhetoric once again this year from the Attorney General.

For years, people of color have been saying that there is a not-so-secret plot to terrorize them, kill them, incarcerate them and deprive them of political power and economic opportunity, and white Jonathans have said, “No, you must be mistaken.” They have asserted that many of our rulers are crazy with the irrational fear of losing their power, so much so that they are willing to do violence, and Jonathans have said, “Surely not. I would know it.”

It’s important to note that Jonathan himself is not a bad guy. He’s an ally, one of the good ones! The author is sympathetic to him. Jonathan even says to David, “What do you want me to do? I’ll do it” (v.4). He’s deeply devoted to his friend, and plays a supporting role.

But he also loves his father, and he simply cannot see what David is talking about until he’s the one who is threatened by Saul’s jealous rage. He cannot see the simmering, frightened anger masked by the polite conversation at the dinner table. The question for those Jonathans who wake up and see that their friends are really in danger is this: How will you demonstrate your friendship? Will you keep making excuses? Or will you join them?


If you'd like to explore some practical ideas for leading your congregation to see and solve problems of race and justice in your community, check out Holding Up Your Corner: Talking about Race in Your Community by F. Willis Johnson.

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