Wednesday, July 17, 2013

The Sin That Can't Be Named

My confession of racism a couple days ago was unusual enough that I think a number of people might not have known quite what to make of it. I've covered similar ground before though, first in a personal narrative three years ago, and again last year when I explored some of the roots of my sin. But I've never been quite so explicit. And that's why I wanted to publish a post that could make the same point, but without the self-incrimination. I was embarrassed and afraid to publish that post as it was. And that's why I had to do it.

I don't pretend my motives were pure. In fact, my "confession" was a fairly obvious attempt to give fellow White Christians the space to let themselves consider the possibilities of their own condition. That's not to say I was insincere. Far from it. But my high-minded vision involved some lonely soul in a random corner of blog-land reading that particular post and having an ah-hah moment. But that's not really the way change works.

Still, I would do it again, because racism has become the sin that must not be named. Even mature Christians who can freely confess to problems of anger, pride, and even that awkward one--lust--have trouble confessing racism. And that actually understates the problem. For many Christians racism is not thought of as something that could be confessed. It is beyond belief, beyond contemplation. We often don't even have the categories, the mental or spiritual tools, to consider it.

In my faith tradition there is a deep-seated theological and cultural bias that distorts the Gospel and the biblical message, causing us to be hyper-aware of sins that are personal and affect the individual, while missing sins that are collective, systemic, and sociological. Racism is one of those sins. Searching our hearts for personal prejudice, including the deep implicit kind I referred to earlier this week, is important. But if that is all we do we're missing the point. After all, most scholars lean toward the view that the kind of personal prejudice we call racism only began as an after the fact justification for an unjust social order, namely slavery. Our present social order has descended from that foundation and remains systemically unjust. Practically speaking, and I believe in God's eyes, if we only examine ourselves for personal prejudice while passively supporting the unjust social order, we are practicing the sin of racism.

Yet, for complex reasons that are worth a discussion of their own, there is an extraordinary defensiveness around the question of racism. This defensiveness doesn't just block us as Christians from confessing racism. It precludes even  the serious consideration of it. It prevents us from giving racism the kind of contemplation and study that we readily devote to other problems.

I started thinking on this line today after hearing a passionate Christian radio host discussing the Zimmerman verdict. A White man, he began the show talking about how we all have blind spots, and the nature of blind spots is that you don't know you have them. So, he said, he and his listeners would talk to each other today and poke at each other's blind spots. Ok, so far so good. He was also adamant that a lot of inflammatory language was being thrown around, and that needed to stop. Ok, that's fine too.

Then, before offering his opinion on the verdict, his voice suddenly quickened and grew louder, sounding almost angry. This is a direct quote of what he said:
I've proven-- anyone who's listened to me for years, that color is not an issue to me. Issues are the issue. And anyone who accuses me of being racist, is a racist. That is a racist, false, ugly accusation, with zero basis in truth.
I promise I'm not joking. This is a direct quote of what he said in a show devoted to exploring blind spots and restoring civility. These are not the words of a mature Christian who has explored his soul and found it pleasing to God. These are words of fear. These are the words that spring up, unbidden, from an unexamined heart. Can you imagine a respected Christian figure saying something similar about a different sin? "Anyone who accuses me of being arrogant, is arrogant!" "Anyone who accuses me of being materialistic, is materialistic!" It doesn't even make sense.

I've been around enough to know that this man is normal. That's why I'm not out to name him and beat up on him. He's a normal White Christian. And that's the problem.

No comments:

Post a Comment