Know the enemy and know yourself; in a hundred battles you will never be in peril. When you are ignorant of the enemy but know yourself your chances of winning or losing are equal. If ignorant of both your enemy and of yourself, you are certain in every battle to be in peril.
—Sun Tzu, Chinese military strategist
“We are in a battle for the soul of this nation,” said Joseph Biden while racing toward his final showdown with Donald Trump last year. The pronouncement turned heads, his invocation of an ancient philosophical concept crashing into a heated public reckoning over whose nation, exactly, was hanging in the balance.
When we use the word “soul,” we are typically referring to that immaterial force that sustains and also distinguishes a life—whether that life belongs to a human individual or a collective life form. If there is a fight to hold on for dear life, as the “battle for the soul” implies, there must be something out there that is threatening to kill that life. Survival instincts push all living things to set up defenses against threats real or perceived. For human beings united under a constitutional government, there are bound to be different views and values around what gives life to a people, and what, conversely, causes them harm. In the United States, this conflict has reached a fever pitch.
What is our nation’s soul, and who’s defining the battle lines? How might the answers to those questions help each of us discern our role and shape the strategy to win?
I don’t ask these questions rhetorically. For centuries, politicians, journalists, historians, educators, and pretty much every white male in a position of power have been able to define America’s principles and values. They have written the laws, told the history, shaped the norms, and named the stakes for the rest of us—indigenous people, black people, various peoples of colour, and women. This extraordinary influence wielded from such a narrow cultural lens has not only influenced generations of lives in the United States, it has also set the stage for standards of behaviour toward black and brown bodies that reverberate around the world.
“When I think of the soul of the nation, I think of the process of becoming, and what it is we want to become.” So said poet laureate and Muscogee (Creek) Nation member Joy Harjo. For me, a black woman with a gift of leadership in a country whose default lens remains both white and male, I am convinced that the battle our political leaders invoke must be in support of liberty and justice for all. Christians have a special role to play in this battle as truth-tellers who defend and promote righteousness. But are we ready? Do we understand the stakes?
What follows is a reflection on some of my own personal wrestling as one called to battle for God and the nation’s people. Telling the truth while upholding righteousness is a daunting and dangerous endeavour, especially for those of us who are not white. But hope flickers from the witness of those who refuse to be ignorant of the real task at hand, it grows and bears fruit from the labours of those thinking strategically, and it flourishes and catches fire under the leadership of those who are spiritually prepared.
Know the Enemy
I often say that history is not about what happened; it is about who has the power to tell the story. When our political leaders decry “the soul of the nation,” it is not surprising that neither they nor our government are naming white supremacy as the spiritual stronghold that it is.
I call white supremacy a principality because a conscious observer can see that no matter the work of justice or progress made against it, it doesn’t die. It evolves, changes form, and adopts new hosts, but it is there, always lurking around some corner to kill, steal, and destroy. The metanarrative of this principality in my context includes slavery, indentured servitude, Jim Crow, lynching, mass incarceration, and other violence by the state with impunity. Prophetic laments like “Hands up, don’t shoot,” “I Can’t Breathe,” and “Black Lives Matter” ring loudly in my ears. I’m only a wise, observing woman, in my black body, bearing witness to these violent and visceral attacks from the enemy.
The enemy, the spirit behind white supremacy, is the spirit of the antichrist. It is not a human; it is not a political party; it is not progressive or conservative.
The enemy, the spirit behind white supremacy, is the spirit of the antichrist. It is not a human; it is not a political party; it is not progressive or conservative. It is a principality and power, and if we try to fight it on our own physical strength, then we most certainly will die prematurely on the battlefield. We will become casualties of war, and we might even be scarred by friendly fire.
This spirit cares nothing about the “soul of our nation.” It disregards the fortresses that some prop up as defenses for the American empire. The so-called battle for the soul of the nation is a deception. It is the fog of war that has so many in the American church distracted. The spirit of white supremacy knows that it is in a war for the souls of humans, destroying white folks, black folks, and everyone in between.
If I were to get less spiritual and state the truth plainly, I’d say this: White supremacy is the sickness that continuously eats away at the soul of our nation’s people. It says that white lives, white families, white reputation, white wealth, white history, white theology, white power, white stories, white education, white work, white women, white government, the white way of doing things are sacred, and should therefore be preserved at all costs. Too often it also means that white violence is sacred and therefore tolerable.
White supremacy is why white terrorists get escorted down steps or take selfies with the police on a historic day of treason. It is why white terrorists get Burger King and organic meals when they encounter law enforcement. White supremacy shaped the American narratives when we know the truth—it is Martha, and not Snoop, who is the felon; people like Felicity Huffman, and not affirmative action, who are the culprits. White supremacy needs the sacrificial narrative of black threat, black anger, black guilt, black inferiority, black ignorance, black promiscuity, black deformity, and black magic. From the very beginning, everything that we are formally taught and is subconsciously caught in the United States worships at the altar of this lie.
This lie is killing us all. The spirit of physical and spiritual death is no respecter of persons. Too many white evangelicals do not yet know that they have become an enemy unto themselves and are endangering others because they have worshipped at this altar and lost their way. It is paramount that Christians go back and study American history with a keen eye to observing how white supremacy has worked to destroy the souls and assault the minds and bodies of those made in God’s image.
But getting educated is only part of the preparation for this spiritual battle. Christians must also arm ourselves with wisdom, a mighty band of faithful warriors, and the power of the Holy Spirit so that we are not deceived when we are recruited to fight on the enemy’s side. Followers of Jesus must correctly name the enemy, survey the battlefield, and diagnose the enemy’s principles and values before we can fight honourably. The white men who have so long led the country and continue to write the books are too often deceived to confess and repent of the web of lies they have inherited and continue to weave. If Christians are deceived about ourselves, if we do not name our own sins, and if we ignore the ways that our culture, history, society, and families of origin shape how we view each other, then we are self-deceived (see 1 John 1:8–10 and Ephesians 2:25). We cannot fight for liberty and justice if we are unwilling to bring truth to light and stand humbly in its shade. The principality of white supremacy endures because of America’s ongoing accommodations and the blindness of too many Christians to the white theology permeating the majority of our gatekeeping institutions.
Find Your Battle Commanders
Black Christian women have been America’s battle commanders and moral scouts since the beginning of their arrival on these hostile shores. This nation is indebted to the likes of Harriet Tubman, Sojourner Truth, Ella Baker, Fannie Lou Hamer, Rosa Parks, Coretta Scott King, Ida B. Wells, and so many others. It is the historic contributions of these black women who saw liberation as victory, who trusted the Christian imagination that God offered, who became soldiers for freedom and truth, who fought for the people’s collective strength and resilience, who worked for the power of the vote, who organized with humility and great character, who mothered in their homes and then nurtured an entire people and movement at their breasts, and who boldly declared that no more black bodies will be lynched on their watch. These image bearers of God trained and dedicated their lives to this battle.
As a Christian today, I wonder: On what have we based our lives and our labours? We’ve declared—and continue to declare—that we are members of God’s church, receivers of his mandate to exercise dominion on the earth. We declare that we are daughters of his kingdom, heirs to his throne, prophetic witnesses to his saving grace and the redeeming power of Jesus, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against us. I fight because souls are at stake. I fight because the kingdom of God suffers violence. The real mission is transformation and redemption that acknowledges and welcomes the kingdom of God on earth as it is in heaven. I fight for God’s kingdom of souls who embody human flesh from every tribe, language, nation, and people group. I fight for the blessing of people who are poor, who mourn or are persecuted, who are meek and merciful, who hunger and thirst after righteousness, who are peacemakers and pure in heart, and for those who are falsely accused for all kinds of evil because they walk in the way of Jesus. I tell the truth, and the lies of imputed Marxism, reverse racism, a defanged MLK (the prophet of God whom white supremacy murdered), and the false idol of a Western and white Jesus will not stand against me. I am a warrior for God!
“Natasha, you’ve had to fight for everything that you have. God sees and God knows that it’s not right.” I gritted my teeth and moved my body uncomfortably as a white woman I’d only just met spoke these words. We were paired in a small group at a Christian retreat, where, as is often the case, strangers of different backgrounds lean into the truth of spiritual family and relate—often a little too quickly—as temporal brothers, sisters, and friends.
The setting was awkward, but I had already chosen to trust them. This woman wasn’t wrong: I have been harmed by the systemic injustices of racial trauma, sexism, and classism, just to name a few. God does know it, and it’s not okay. But it’s also true that I know how to fight. It’s something I’ve been doing for a long time—with my mind, with my spirit—and fighting is exhausting.
I cannot point to a single incident where I learned how to fight. I never had to physically fight as a child. Contrary to the narrative about black families and black communities, I didn’t fear for my safety in my formative years because I was fiercely protected by the black men and women in my family and in our community. But I adopted a certain mindset anyway.
I have been harmed by the systemic injustices of racial trauma, sexism, and classism, just to name a few. God does know it, and it’s not okay. But it’s also true that I know how to fight.
The fighting started in my mind. I was recently reminiscing with a black girlfriend about our college years—we both graduated from the US Naval Academy. In the context of the conversation about our undergraduate experience as black women in a predominately white space, she said, “It was always fight or die.” At first, when she said it, I wasn’t sure I agreed. But the more I reflected on those formative years, the more I realized how much energy had been spent simply trying to survive. I was constantly having to reject white supremist thoughts about my black feminine body, mind, and ability. I was building defences all the time, playing a kind of strategic chess so as to ward off the institutional and cultural currents that didn’t seem to care if I died, lost, or quit on myself. I was always considering my moves, contemplating my opponents’ reply, and then my rebuttal, because I was not going to become another casualty of the war of white supremacy and patriarchy. As Audre Lorde once said, “If I didn’t define myself for myself, I would be crunched into other people’s fantasies for me and eaten alive.” It was psychological warfare and spiritual warfare, and I was training for it before I even knew what the war was or when the battles were coming.
Preparing for Battle
I am a US Marine. Once a Marine, always a Marine. The US Marine Corps warfighting manual states, “The purpose of training is to develop forces that can win in combat. Training is the key to combat effectiveness. . . . Training should not stop with the commencement of war; training must continue during the war to adapt to the lessons of combat.”
I started training on the track field with the Orangeburg Junior Olympic Track Club when I was eleven years old. I ran fast and hard, around the curve, over the hurdle, passing the baton and jumping into the pit. My training included countless hours of weightlifting before practice, hurdle drills after practice, and many miles of cross-country during the off season.
I started to win. Winning in track laid the foundation for winning in life. Whenever I won, I trained harder to improve. The few races that I lost only motivated me to get smarter, to confront my weaknesses, to know my opponent better. I didn’t name a real enemy then. I didn’t really care about the trophies or awards—I liked what they represented: that I had worked hard. Combat Lesson Number 1: Winners in life need strong minds and strong bodies. It’s a lesson that would also prepare me for spiritual war.
While I was becoming a better athlete, I also understood that education provided keys that would open doors of opportunity. I knew that slaves had been denied the opportunity to read and write because knowledge increases curiosity, invites questions, and provides information that charts the path to self-efficacy, liberation, and leadership. I committed to becoming a lifelong learner.
I graduated from the Naval Academy in 2002, in the first class after the September 11 terrorist attacks. It was highly probable that I would be called away to war. My twenty-two-year-old self was preparing to fight and take on the world on at least three fronts: defeating my country’s unnamed enemy in the desert, and confronting the demons of white supremacy and fighting patriarchy at home. I was always training. Combat Lesson Number 2: You don’t know when the enemy is going to attack, so you must always be ready.
The Perils of Ignorance
The lack of knowledge concerning the enemy, and a lack of wisdom about yourself, will inevitably lead to battle failure. Our battle is not against flesh and blood. The apostle Paul understood this when he wrote, “Our struggle is . . . against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms” (Ephesians 6:12 NIV), and “The weapons of our warfare are not carnal, but mighty through God to the pulling down of strong holds; Casting down imaginations, and every high thing that exalteth itself against the knowledge of God, and bringing into captivity every thought to the obedience of Christ” (2 Corinthians 10:4–5 KJV). We must name our enemy rightly, for spiritual battle requires the casting down of false imaginations and the renewing of our finite minds as we take our stand against the enemy’s schemes.
We must name our enemy rightly, for spiritual battle requires the casting down of false imaginations and the renewing of our finite minds as we take our stand against the enemy’s schemes.
We must spiritually arm ourselves with truth, righteousness, and the gospel laced in peace, faith, salvation, the Holy Spirit, and the Word of God (Ephesians 6:10–18). My prayer is a weapon of war. Praise is a weapon. Lament is a weapon. Building Christian communities who will armour up, so we are not going into spiritual battle alone, is a mighty defense. Knowing that God launches angels on my behalf gives me great assurance in the battles of war. Do I win every battle? No. As for the war . . . in that, I am assured victory.
Christ has come and defeated the enemies of death and the grave (Isaiah 25:8, 1 Corinthians 15:24–26; Hebrews 2:14; Revelation 1:18). Because of that, I am no longer the fearful black girl that I was in grade school or even college. I can now see with my spiritual eyes that greater are the spiritual warriors who are with me than those who are on the enemy’s side (2 Kings 6:15–17). I have taken an oath to serve the Lord. God is my Commander in Chief and my strong defense! Paul wrote that we must stay alert and pray in the Spirit on all occasions, making our requests to God, so that we can take our stand against the enemy’s schemes (Ephesians 6:11). Combat Lesson Number 3: We must know ourselves, and we must know our enemy.
This Present Battle
I am more than forty years old now, and I’ve lived through several military, spiritual, and personal wars. In fact, death has been so near to me that I’ve wrestled with the finality of my earthly life for a long time. So hearing our leaders philosophize about the “soul of our nation” seems trite. It is not because I don’t love the United States, but I understand that Old Glory has been drenched in white supremacist ways that demands its own sacrifices. I will not be sacrificed. Because I love God and the people God has made, I have pledged my allegiance to his eternal kingdom. I know that tomorrow is not promised to anyone, so every day I wake up with the intent of living my life on purpose to serve God and his agenda. I train for war because I want to die honourably on the battlefield, doing exactly what my Commander in Chief sent me here to do. I see the enemy at work to destroy black and brown bodies, so I put up defenses. I build fortresses to protect against these imminent threats. I know what’s at stake. Souls and lives hang in the balance, so I cast vision; I move stealthily; I low crawl to dismantle bombs. I lift heavy weapons. I renew my mind, beat my body, and make it my slave because I understand that there is an enemy without, and the enemy is also working within. Apart from the work of the Holy Spirit, we can cause great harm to each other through friendly fire. I can also cause great harm through self-inflicting wounds, so I trust God and God’s people to nurse me when I am in poor emotional, mental, physical, or spiritual health. I rest. Sometimes I retreat until the reinforcements come in.
I dig foxholes and I wait. I’m okay with delayed gratification because I know that this enemy has been working and strategizing for a long time. I can’t beat him on his own turf, so I trust that God will hide me in the heat of battle. I trust God as my eyes are open to the narrative that Eddie S. Glaude records about the nation’s soul as my black ancestors understood it: “America is an identity that white people will protect at any cost, and the country’s history—its founding documents, its national heroes, its claim to be a moral force is the world—is the support argument that underpins that identity.” But I see glimmers of hope when poet Amanda Gorman commands us to take the hill, and when Latina singer Jennifer Lopez offers praise that God’s land was made for all of us. People of moral character and conviction are all in this fight together. I cannot do this work of justice or stand against the principality of white supremacy alone, so I rally the troops, and with discernment, we rightly name our common enemy, and we name our allies. I understand that this is a spiritual mission, so I lean on the power of God’s Spirit at work within me. I also understand that this mission might take my life—indeed, that is the cost of discipleship. We must know what and who we are willing to die for. I am submitted to this work, as I long for my eternal home, and that is the redemption and hope that is set before me while I’m on the battlefield. Laying down my life for friends is the existential way that I follow Jesus. To God, I have waved the white flag of surrender.
Brick House by Simone Leigh, 2019. High Line, New York City.