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Growing Up With White Paranoia: Persecution vs. Privilege

As a home-schooled child in an Evangelical household, I watched as Waco roiled 90 miles away. Unlike black protestors, white fringe groups have the privilege of picking their fights.
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Militia member Duane Ehmer rides his horse Hellboy at the occupied Malheur National Wildlife Refuge on January 7, 2016. (Photo: Rob Kerr/AFP/Getty Images)

In 1993, when I was 10 years old, I believed that the end foretold in Revelation wasn’t just coming someday, but any minute. For that entire year, from April until December, I worried about being raptured on the toilet and having all the ungodly see my butt. So I held it until I thought I would burst, racing to the bathroom and praying to Jesus he’d hold off on any magnificent return until I could just pull my pants up.

That April, as the ATF stormed the Branch Davidian compound just 90 miles from where I lived, was the first time I had ever seen television news, and I thought the world was burning. My parents had so far sheltered my siblings and me from the brutality of current events. The TV was on a cart hidden in the closet. At night, when we were in bed, they would shut the door to the living room and roll it out, plug it in and watch the news. I know because my brother and I would commando-crawl down the hallway, pressing our ear to the door, then crawl back, trying to piece together the different sounds we had heard. Kuwait. Hussein. Ruby Ridge. Iran. Savings and Loan Crisis. Nothing made sense. I held onto the words, secret pieces to a puzzle I had yet to see in its totality.

But in April of 1993, I huddled in a sleeping bag on the floor of my friend’s living room—my parents were out on a date—and, with the TV running as I pretended to sleep, I saw helicopters, a large white building on fire, women and children running away.

The Bible and the Constitution were spoken in the same breath. We lived on the edge of an apocalypse. Every moment was the end.

This was the end we had been warned about at church. Our pastor had pointed out the signs: The president was pushing for peace in the Middle East, the signing of the seven-year covenant foretold in the book of Daniel. The government was taking away our rights, the world was at war. The end was coming. Were we ready?

In the following weeks, I eavesdropped on adults’ conversations and parsed enough to be afraid. A group of people in Waco, Texas, only an hour and a half from our home in Dallas, were under attack by the government. I lingered at the table, pretending to clear the plates as the grown-ups talked. I heard a family friend say, “They were a cult, but God-fearing Americans are next.” I heard our pastor, his mouth still full of brisket and coleslaw: “It’s good we have our guns. The next thing Clinton will do is put the mark of the beast on us.” They all nodded and began to argue over whether the mark—666, prophesied in Revelations—would be on our hands or our heads.

I was raised Evangelical in Texas, in the shadow of white paranoia. “Don’t tell anyone you are homeschooled,” my parents told us after Waco. “Tell them you go to private school. Only play in the backyard during the day. Never answer the door if mom isn’t home, even if it’s the police. Especially if it’s the police.”

Newsletters came to us from the Home School Legal Defense, recounting horror stories of parents separated from their children for exercising the right to educate them at home. Stories trickled down at church about abuses of justice—government overreach into the lives of good Christians, living their lives by faith. Once, my sister’s friend showed us how the letters in Hillary Clinton could work out to 666. (According to the numerology, Hillary (248) + Rodham (249) + Clinton (169) = number of the beast.) The Bible and the Constitution were spoken in the same breath. We lived on the edge of an apocalypse. Every moment was the end. With every breath we were fighting a battle against a Godless state. Our very lives as Christians were a protest.

We moved seamlessly between destiny and agency. As white, middle-class Americans, it never occurred to us that it could be different, that our perceived persecution was in another sense chosen. No sympathy was allotted to others who were persecuted for their race or sexuality—or for any other religion besides the right one: ours. It took me years to realize we never were in any danger.

Later, when I was in high school and rebelling against my faith, I was sent to a Christian boot camp to prepare me to fight the intellectual, heathen onslaught of liberal teaching I would receive in college. The camp, Worldview Academy, still operates today and on much the same curriculum. During one session on government and history, sitting in an airless room that reeked with sweat and the body odor of the earnest and righteous, our professor echoed the words of Jesus: “When it comes to the government, you must be wise as serpents and gentle as doves.” He was talking specifically about the Second Amendment—how we ought to cling fast to our right to bear arms because this right was our last line of defense against an increasingly “secular America”—but his advice was meant to be all-encompassing.

It would be tempting to believe this was a fringe phenomenon, but the paranoia of my past has leaked into popular culture. The Left Behind series, the fictionalized account based on the book of Revelation, recently turned into a movie with Nicolas Cage, is based entirely upon Godly white men resisting the evil overreach of the devil disguised as a world leader. (At last count, 65 million of the books have been sold.) Any Second Amendment supporter will eventually tell you that if the Founding Fathers hadn’t been armed they wouldn’t have been able to stand up to the tyranny of England and an evil monarch—a false ruler. In a recent appearance on the Sean Hannity Show, Ben Carson said: “The real reason that they put the Second Amendment there is recognizing that there could come a time when our government itself could go off the rail, and could try to dominate the people, and the people would need a mechanism of defense for themselves.” The logical conclusion of such words is more frightening, I think, than the threat of ISIS.

As an adult, I feel the pull of the paranoia when I watch the news: the broken system of justice in Making a Murderer, the killing of unarmed teens, Black Lives Matter. My heart feels like I have a crazy wall plastered to it. You know, the one serial killers always have—news clippings and black-and-white photos, pinned together and connected by the red yarn of paranoia. They are after me. They are after us. We will never be free. Throw off the chains of oppression. Come again quickly Lord Jesus.

Parsing the paranoia from the privilege is a messy enterprise. When is oppression real? And when is it a symptom—a delusion of grandeur? The answer lies within the ability to make choices. Make no doubt, oppression is real. I can see it as an unarmed teenager is gunned down in a park by police, while white men take over a federal building and are unharmed. But the Bundys have chosen their fight. They are in the business of defining their own tyranny and exacting it within our nation’s borders. Tamir Rice, he was just a kid playing in a park. The fight was given to him the moment he was born. The Bundys have multiple avenues to pursue justice, including, apparently, arming themselves and taking over a federal building. The Rice family has none. Their protests have been declared riots, their legal avenues of justice closed. It would be easy to dismiss the acts of the Bundys in Oregon as those of a fringe group, but Donald Trump concurrently leads the national dialogue as the self-appointed voice of the disenfranchised white man. Trump is winning in the polls and dominating the national conversation. As a white man of wealth and privilege, he still stakes out marginal status. Choosing persecution, while ignoring those who were born with it. Even in oppression, white paranoia dominates our culture.

The struggle against tyranny is how this country has been made and re-made. Whether you're liberal or conservative, the desire to rise up twines within our political DNA. Yet sometimes, separating the tyrant from the patriot can feel like divination.

All I know is that I have only ever felt oppressed by the shouting voices of men telling me to be afraid—of myself, my God, and my government. And it is only their voices I fear.