Sunday, January 25, 2015

Thoughts for Sunday: Why Protest?

In an age of inequality and silent oppression, protest is necessary. But it is easy to think that protest is something for other people to do. You know, the young and adventurous types with nothing to lose. It is true that protest isn't for everybody. But it can be for anybody. You don't have to be a certain kind of person to protest.

Are you introverted? Me too. Are you conflict-avoidant? Me too. Are you temperamentally conservative? Me too. Are you a natural rule follower? Me too. Are you traditional in your morals? Me too. Are you made uncomfortable by any yelling or displays of anger? Me too. Are you a White Christian? Me too.

But we can still protest. This is all the more true when we realize that "protest" for you might not mean being out on the streets. Your "protest" might be at your dining room table. It might be at your church. It might be in conversation with colleagues at work.

The first thing we need to remember is that the act of protest is not about us. It's not about drawing attention to ourselves or becoming leaders. It's about supporting and centering Black voices. So it is ironic that I'm a White Christian writing to other White Christians, apparently doing the very thing I claim we shouldn't do. But some of us need to wrestle through our own identity before we can protest effectively. And we need to recognize that it's not so much that Black people need us to protest; it's that other Whites need us to protest. The fact is, some Whites will give us a hearing that they would not give to a Black person. Those people need to see White people protesting. Now, we can't let them stay comfortable in their double-standard. The racism embedded in assumptions about who has credibility and who is worth listening to must be challenged. But maybe we can be a wedge opening up new ideas for people who are on the road to being able to listen to Black voices.

So why do we protest?

We protest because racism is evil in the sight of God.

We protest because millions of people tell us they experience racism and discrimination, and disbelieving them is arrogant.

We protest because God has entrusted to us the ministry of reconciliation and the mistreatment our brothers and sisters face prevents reconciliation.

We protest because the image of God in every human being is equally sacred and glorious.

We protest because our country was founded on a denial of this theological truth, and still does not practice it today.

We protest because we do not bow down to the idol of nationalism and thus do not fear implicating our country in humanity's sin.

We protest because silence implies acceptance of evil.

We protest because of the overwhelming weight of historical and sociological evidence demonstrating that the sinful invention of Whiteness is privileged in American society.

We protest because God is unequivocally revealed in scripture as being on the side of oppressed. We protest to expose the theological error of the evangelical church, which falsely claims middle-class values for our Lord.

We protest because we are commanded to pray, "Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven." The violence imposed on Black lives is not God's will.

We protest because Jesus announced the coming of his kingdom as good news to the poor and the imprisoned.

We protest because we are not ashamed of the Gospel. It is the power of God for salvation to all who believe. A Gospel that can save depraved human beings for all eternity but can't address racial discrimination and police brutality in a particular historical moment just doesn't ring true. It's not even biblical.

We protest as an act of solidarity with our Black brothers and sisters who are in pain. We protest because we can't claim to be ministers of the Gospel but then refuse to join others in their suffering.

We protest because the love of Christ compels us. Not because we want to. Not because it makes us feel comfortable. Not because we want attention. 

Remember, protest is not about us. Listen to the voices of others. Draw attention to them, and be willing to learn from people who are not like you. Here are just a few people I follow on twitter:

Deray Mckesson
Thabiti Anyabwile
Austin Channing
Drew Hart
Christena Cleveland
Shaun King

Thursday, January 8, 2015

"Black Lives Matter" --Jesus

We are in the dreary doldrums of winter, the continuing protests are small and mostly beneath the media's radar, and the collective weariness of the American public is palpable. It is time to move on, isn't it? Haven't we made our point? And haven't the majority of Americans just as strongly pushed back, making clear they are not interested? Haven't we had our moment of catharsis? Isn't it time for regularly scheduled programming to resume?

Of course not.

Nothing of any substance has changed yet. We are still living in a country where Black life is devalued every day. Many Americans claim not to see it, but they see it clearly enough to know which neighborhoods to avoid. Funny how that works.

I grow weary of the debates about why things are the way they are. People will continue to debate the role of culture, discrimination, government programs, globalization and more. Most White Americans are likely to continue to place an overwhelming emphasis on culture. As a historian, I think that is terribly mistaken, and much of what passes for reasonable points in these discussions is often racist or irrelevant. But the debate is important, and it's one that I'm sure I will continue to engage in at the appropriate time.

But I grow tired of it, and here's why:

The Christian's responsibility is much the same regardless of what side you take in that debate. If we want to join our life to God's Kingdom work, we don't stand on the sidelines debating the causes of marginalized peoples' suffering. We go join them. Any attempt to grapple with the problems of the poor and the oppressed apart from our own personal engagement with them at the level of our spiritual poverty--recognizing the upside-down way God has ordered the world--is bound to be paternalistic at best, downright destructive at worst. God has chosen those who are poor to be rich in faith (James 2). I and most of my readers are winners in one of the most materialistic and prosperous societies in global history. As such, our impoverishment in the things that matter is profound.

Even more upsetting to the tiring debate about Black disadvantage is the fact that we serve a God who takes sides. Over and over again in scripture we see God identifying with the poor, the oppressed, the needy, the marginalized. It's not hard to figure out who these people are in our society. It's African Americans. It's Native Americans. It's illegal immigrants. It's poor Whites left behind in nowhereville Kentucky, with no jobs and no hope. These groups are not "those people" from whom we keep our distance. These groups are where God's attention is drawn in this society. They live in the places Jesus would be born if he came today instead of 2,000 years ago. They are loved by God. Not only that, they are identified with by God in an astonishing way. Their powerlessness is embodied in the powerlessness of Christ as a baby and their suffering is given its ultimate advocate in the figure of Christ on a cross.

Who do we identify with? The respectable. The educated. Business owners. Law enforcement. Celebrities. Religious leaders. People who look like us. People of our social class. And then, with this pattern firmly set in place, we claim to follow Jesus. Can't we see the contradiction? Amid our recent racial controversies, I've seen Christians firmly identify with White police officers while failing to muster even an expression of sympathy for the families of Black victims.

A consistent pattern of identification with our group at the expense of a marginalized group is evidence of a spiritual sickness. It is dangerous. God does not overlook it.

The poor are shunned even by their neighbors,
but the rich have many friends.
Proverbs 14:20

Whoever shuts their ears to the cry of the poor 
will also cry out and not be answered.
Proverbs 21:13

Adonai brings vindication and justice
to all who are oppressed. 

Psalm 103:6

Friday, December 19, 2014

We Have the Nation's Attention

This, out from Gallup today, is fascinating:

I wrote earlier this month that this is the best moment for "race relations" (a horrible term) in decades. The American public might not describe this moment in such cheerful terms, but it appears that many agree that it is at least consequential.

The brief spike you see in the early 1990s is the Rodney King verdict and subsequent violence in Los Angeles. Other than that brief moment, more Americans currently say "racism/race relations" is the biggest issue facing the country than at any time since the 1960s.

What do these numbers mean? Three quick things:

1) Racial injustice is invisible to Americans unless highly publicized--usually violent--spectacles bring it to light. Schools did not suddenly become more segregated in December, 2014. The justice system did not turn on a dime and start brutalizing Black people. Poverty did not take an unexpected racial turn this December. These are longstanding issues that impoverish and kill and cause misery and heartache. They are invisible under normal circumstances.

2) The movement is accomplishing something meaningful. Don't get me wrong. We need much more tangible accomplishments. But this poll represents a dramatic shift in public consciousness that we've only seen once before since the death of Martin Luther King. This is not sufficient in itself, but it may be a necessary precondition for the more tangible changes that need to occur.

3) This will surely be, like the 1992 eruption you see in the graph, just a brief spike before a return to the normal baseline, unless we continue to organize, protest, disrupt, and bring our concerns before the nation in a way that it cannot ignore. Our activity does not need to stay in the same form. Less important than any specific means of protest is our ability to craft an overall posture of protest such that we are increasingly organized, increasingly specific, increasingly assertive. We must develop a large, sustainable movement capable of escalating over time. The media will come and go, as will the nation's attention. We know this. We must be organized in such numbers that we can bring justice back onto the national agenda repeatedly and reclaim the nation's attention until substantive change is achieved.

Going to a protest this week is nice, but making plans to be on board for the tough years ahead is more important.

Monday, December 15, 2014

White Pastors in the Age of "Black Lives Matter"

I worry that in some quarters the White evangelical response to Ferguson is being reduced to a barest possible minimum. We must listen. We must try to understand how African Americans are feeling. We must bear each others' burdens. We must weep with those who weep. All this is true, but when presented to a White congregation that has fundamentally false and unchristian assumptions about America and about Christianity, it doesn't upset those assumptions at all. In fact, it reinforces them.

When we reduce our job to listening and trying to understand the hurt of others, we're left in a position of superiority. It allows White evangelicals to stand back in our supposed objectivity and maturity and feel good about ourselves for deigning to listen to the overly emotional feelings of others. When we refuse to talk about injustice and White supremacy in our churches, White congregations are left to conclude that even though African Americans should be over these things by now, we should be the bigger people and patiently listen to their concerns.

It allows White congregations to continue in our unconfessed sin, all the while thinking that we are patiently bearing with the sins of others. If pastors can't bring themselves to use words like injustice and oppression in connection to recent events, I think it may be better for them to not bring these issues up at all. (I witnessed one pastor of a White congregation discuss Ferguson on a Sunday morning in a way that reinforced the prejudices of his audience).

That said, I don't envy pastors at this or any time! It's an incredibly difficult job. How do you preach about and expose the most fundamental things ordering your congregants' lives (Whiteness, materialism, individualism, etc) in a way that will draw them to Jesus rather than pushing them out of the church? On the other hand, a church that doesn't expose these things might not be worth being inside in the first place. We need to pray for our church leaders, because identifying the problems in our congregations is much easier than leading us out of them.

Sunday, December 14, 2014

The Dilemma of Nonviolence

I believe in nonviolence. Don't get me wrong. I believe in it as a strategic matter, and more importantly I believe in it because my Christian faith compels me to. Keep that in mind, because the rest of this post is a contemplation of the limitations of nonviolence.

I've written about this before, but it's been made more abundantly clear in recent months. The dilemma nonviolent protestors face is that it takes probably at least 1000 times as many people to produce the same political response and national sense of urgency that a few people acting violently can achieve. How many people actually engaged in violence in the small riots in Ferguson? Dozens? Maybe hundreds if we're being generous. Yet their actions provoked a widespread response and nationwide attention.

Yesterday, tens of thousands of protestors all over the country marched peacefully, demanding change. We barely made it on the news. We outnumber those engaging in violence by 10,000 to 1, but our impact may be less.

The civil rights movement got around this problem largely because of the stupidity of its opponents in places like Birmingham and Selma. Americans who had little sympathy for Black rights still didn't want to see people being beaten on TV. The nonviolent actions were extremely effective because authorities responded with violence, making them newsworthy. The prospect of disorder on the streets was, I believe, the decisive factor causing the political system to pass the Civil Rights Act of 1964. My apologies to your favorite morality tales. Certainly, the 1968 Fair Housing Act cannot plausibly be explained apart from the violence that ensued after Dr. King's murder.

When the civil rights movement came up against more canny opponents in places like Albany, Georgia, or Chicago, it was much less successful.Without the dramatization of injustice as expressed through the ritual of state-sanctioned violence, it turned out Americans didn't really care about injustice. In the present day, with the notable exception of Ferguson's absurd militarized police provocation even while Brown's body lay on the street, nearly every place in the country these protests occur is more akin to Albany and Chicago than Birmingham and Selma. We're dealing with savvy governments that have an institutional memory of how the civil rights movement was defeated. They are determined not to provide the dramatization we seek.

So what's the way forward? I don't claim to know. The easy theoretical answer is that we simply need to make these protests bigger. If we could mobilize as many Americans for a worthwhile cause as routinely gather at stadiums in cities and college towns all over the country to watch football every weekend, we could shut whole cities down. Once normal commerce and transportation is disrupted in a severe way, the political system will respond quite rapidly. 

I frankly think this is a pipe dream. I just don't believe we have that many people. We have to find other ways to make the political system responsive. We have to work from the grassroots level. Partisan political mobilization will accomplish little. Nearly all the authorities involved in recent events, from Governors Nixon and Cuomo in Missouri and New York, to President Obama, are Democrats. So what? All of them are doing the barest possible minimum to support justice. They know that demands for equal treatment for all Americans and honest discourse about how to get there enrages many of their White constituents.

This White rage over the prospect of losing unjust advantages brings us back to the most fundamental limitation of nonviolence: it plays along with the basic White supremacist double-standards of American history and thought. The average White American today will look at you with a straight face and say that the American Revolution was justified but an armed insurrection by African Americans in the 1960s would not have been. Try to make any moral or historical sense of that position without relying on the logic of White racism. Yet this point is no doubt a new thought to many people. It shows how deeply embedded are our assumptions about the racial boundaries of justifiable violence.

I believe in nonviolence. I think it is strategically wise. I think it is morally necessary. But I'm not blind to its limitations.