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.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

In America, White Supremacy Hides in Plain Sight

As we protest the systemic racism of the American criminal justice system, we must be conscious of the ideologies that sustain it. We must attack them at their roots. And we must have a positive vision for the changes that need to occur in the systems that shape life opportunities--education, housing, employment, healthcare--long before encounters with the police and justice system occur. Otherwise, I fear, the American state will never gain the capacity to respond to new circumstances and challenges in justice-producing ways. Mass incarceration and the war on drugs have not been, in my view, deliberately racist policies designed to replace the old Jim Crow with the new. They are, rather, a function of the United States' inability to develop policy solutions to pressing challenges without reinscribing White supremacy through those solutions.

As protests continue and, we pray, grow larger, we must come to understand that there is no carceral solution to the consequences of White supremacy. Punitive policies and "law and order" rhetoric will not get us any closer to justice and healing. I fear that many Americans don't realize this.

The sick  brilliance of White supremacy is in its ability to hide in plain sight. We see its shape-shifting work, for example, in the way its most devastating consequences are held up as evidence that it does not exist. You know the drill, the tired litany of complaints: Black illegitimacy, Black family breakdown, Black crime. All of these are framed as functions of Blackness itself, even if presented now in the more respectable  guise of cultural traits rather biological essence. As often as I've heard these complaints, I've yet to find a serious explanation for the certainty with which they're delivered. The basic claim that Black failure produces Black disadvantage is an ideological leap of faith with nothing to support it beyond the a priori assumption that the world works just so. 

This is rooted deep folks. In the decades after the Civil War, White scientists and intellectuals were eagerly speculating about when African Americans would literally die out. Now that they were no longer under the tutelage of slavery, they would obviously revert to a state of savagery. It followed that crime committed by African Americans was not an American social problem; it was just Blackness expressing itself. Meanwhile, sociologists took it for granted that White crime was not White as such, and could readily be alleviated by education and social programs. When we talk about "black on black" crime without any sense of irony or absurdity, we place ourselves in this intellectual tradition.

In the United States of White supremacy, White problems are social, Black problems are racial. It is considered unnecessary to explain or quantify how, precisely, a group that has been systematically plundered and oppressed for hundreds of years could possibly be expected to have the same amount of wealth and educational attainment as the plunderers. As this question is silenced, the fervent faith that there is somehow something wrong with Black people that is not wrong with America rushes in to fill the void.

The family breakdown thesis, in particular, is important for White Americans because it explains Black disadvantage without reference to the larger society, and does so in a way that upholds conservative religious value about the importance of the family. Americans are not wrong to stress the importance of strong families; they are wrong, however, in the application they think it has to this discussion. The family breakdown thesis locates disadvantage and cause alike within the Black community. For it to have any explanatory power at all, then, this view necessarily contrasts the contemporary Black family with a prior era in which the Black family was strong and stable, illegitimacy rates were low, and the norms of the White middle class prevailed. There was no such period. 

The family breakdown thesis gazes at the problems racism has produced, and flippantly turns consequence into cause. The Black family in the United States has always been under tremendous pressure. Emancipation was a boon, and many African Americans desperately searched around the country for their spouses and children that had been separated by enslavers.  But sharecropping in the shadow of Jim Crow, lynching, and convict leasing was a precarious existence for any family. In the twentieth century, as mechanization of agriculture proceeded, the traditional occupation of the vast majority of African Americans was rendered obsolete. They responded as human people do: they moved en masse, eagerly looking for work. For a brief moment they found it in the nation’s burgeoning industrial cities. Yet even as mechanization foreclosed traditional Black agricultural occupations, by the 1960s and 1970s globalization and deindustrialization began to cause a sustained hemorrhaging of industrial jobs, beginning with those at the bottom of the ladder: African Americans.

Dr. King recognized how devastating these changing economic conditions were. In "A Testament of Hope," published posthumously, he wrote:
Before 1964, things were getting better economically for the Negro; but after that year, things began to take a turn for the worse. In particular, automation began to cut into our jobs very badly, and this snuffed out the few sparks of hope the black people had begun to nurture.
The people who stress the importance of strong families should not need much convincing that being shut out of gainful employment makes it hard to sustain stable families.

Whites responded to the influx of Black migrants looking for work and housing with their own mass migration—out of city centers to new, federally subsidized White suburbs. Business and government investment followed the movement of the White population, leaving little to no work for African Americans. Concurrently, federal housing and education programs that excluded African Americans began to build the modern White middle class. Buffeted by discrimination in housing and employment, unequal education, globalization and deindustrialization, discriminatory government programs and poorly designed federal assistance programs, many Black families splintered. Rather than addressing the problem, federal and state governments launched massive punitive operations, building a mass incarceration state that ripped men from their families for petty offenses and exacerbated the persecution of the Black family. By the end of the twentieth century, the Black family had passed through what was, in some ways, the most sustained and multi-pronged assault on it since enslavers had broken up a third of their families by sale the century before. 

This is an extraordinarily brief overview of the story that complainers from afar want to reduce to a tale of Black irresponsibility, with a little "big government welfare" thrown in for good measure.  As we continue to protest, we must fight these simplistic morality tales. We must fight the pervasive assumption that the message Americans of all backgrounds convey to their children in the quiet of their homes--work hard, take responsibility--is somehow an answer to the problem of white supremacy. The moral instruction we instill in our children is no substitute for reform of systems, laws, and institutions.

White supremacy is continually rendered invisible as we glance at the devastation it creates and then resolutely turn away. We change the subject from causes and solutions to scapegoating. American problems become racial problems. Social sins become individual sins. In a lot of ways, Americans hate our own history. We really do. We can't stand it. If we're ever going to become a country that works for all of us, we must gain the courage to look at our history, and this time, not turn away.

Sunday, December 7, 2014

This is the Best Moment for American Race Relations in Decades

Racial controversy has been in the news a lot in the last couple weeks. This has produced a heightened sense of racial tension, and protestors around the country have been out on the streets daily. My sense is that most White Americans view all of this as unfortunate. There is a feeling that “race relations” have deteriorated. 

I want to dispel that idea. If you stand for justice, this has been, by far, the best moment for American “race relations” in decades. It is hard to overstate how pervasive the assumption is that outward calm should be the goal of our efforts. The assumption is carried in the language we use. “Race relations” is a term that reduces everything to the question of how we appear to be getting along. It completely elides whether there is a presence or absence of justice. And folks, what American history unequivocally shows is that you don’t get racial justice without going through times when White Americans are despairing over the sad state of “race relations.” It’s time to recognize how empty that term is. Let’s stop using it.

During the civil rights movement, an astonishingly consistent pattern emerged. As protests began in a city or region, Whites in that area expressed confusion and irritation. Over and over again, they declared that “race relations” were good in their town before the protests began. They were genuinely, sincerely baffled that African Americans were protesting when there was nothing to protest over. They repeatedly lamented that the civil rights activists had caused deterioration in “race relations” and sought to get the protests over with as quickly as possible so that peace could return.

Though Whites don’t see it this way, the message they convey when they focus on “relations” instead of “justice” is that racial injustice doesn’t matter as long as others are bearing the brunt of it, and doing so in silence. If our first response to recent events is to hope that things calm down soon, we’re acting as defenders of injustice even though we don’t mean to be doing so. If protests stop, no legislation is likely to be passed. If protests stop, White Christians can stop learning about these issues. If protests stop, we can go back to saying, “peace, peace!” when there is no peace. 

Want a concrete example of the “Let’s all calm down and stop talking about race” discourse? There is no better specimen than the repeated quoting of Martin Luther King that I’ve heard from many Whites in recent weeks. Here’s the funny thing about it: you already know which line they quoted. I don’t even have to tell you. And this line is quoted as a trump card. It’s a strange thing. I’ve never gotten the sense from the people quoting it that they have any qualms about not knowing any of Dr. King’s thousands of other speeches and sermons. The thing that is so discouraging about it is that they don't seem to realize there is more to know. They quote the line with utter abandon. It would be a different sort of problem if people were just cynical and saying, “As a strategic matter to try to bolster my argument and moral authority, I’m going to quote King.” But I don’t think that’s what they’re doing. I think they sincerely quote him and are unaware that he disagreed with their point of view. 

What should our conclusion be? These protests do not increase racial divisions. They expose them. Yet many White Americans are more offended by the act of exposure than by the injustice. We lack self-awareness and a sense of our place in history. Think about this: you can get all but the most committed racists to reluctantly admit that every single prior generation of White people was wrong on racial justice. Every generation. Yet people will continue to take the White perspective in this generation, with an outlandish confidence that, hey, I guess, the 20th time’s the charm. It’s theoretically possible they’re correct. But it takes a special brand of arrogance to think it is likely.

Sunday, November 30, 2014

Thoughts For Sunday

 Isaiah Chapter 59

Justice is turned back,
    and righteousness stands far away;
for truth has stumbled in the public squares,
    and uprightness cannot enter.
Truth is lacking,
    and he who departs from evil makes himself a prey.
The Lord saw it, and it displeased him
    that there was no justice.
He saw that there was no one,
    and wondered that there was no one to intercede;
then his own arm brought him salvation,
    and his righteousness upheld him.
He put on righteousness as a breastplate,
    and a helmet of salvation on his head;
he put on garments of vengeance for clothing,
    and wrapped himself in zeal as a cloak.
 According to what they have done,
    so will he repay
wrath to his enemies
    and retribution to his foes...
For he will come like a pent-up flood
    that the breath of the Lord drives along.

Saturday, November 29, 2014

The War Against Black Communities

This, from the grand jury transcript of Darren Wilson's testimony, says it all:
Wilson: “It is an antipolice area for sure.”
Prosecutor: “And when you say antipolice, tell me more?
Wilson: “There’s a lot of gangs that reside or associate with that area. There’s a lot of violence in that area, there’s a lot of gun activity, drug activity, it is just not a very well-liked community. That community doesn’t like the police.”
Prosecutor: “Were you pretty much on high alert being in that community by yourself, especially when Michael Brown said, ‘[expletive] what you say,’ I think he said?”
Wilson: “Yes.”
Prosecutor: “You were on pretty high alert at that point knowing the vicinity and the area that you’re in?”
Wilson: “Yes, that’s not an area where you can take anything really. Like I said, it is a hostile environment.” 
Black communities full of normal hardworking people are seen, from the outside, as "hostile environments" by most White Americans. The police roll into them with the mindset, as Wilson displayed here, that they are entering enemy territory. 

When liberal, highly educated Whites in my circles find out where Alicia and I live, they are often mystified. They say things like, "Isn't that a bad area?" Because, don't you know, it's a hostile environment. It's enemy territory.

What they don't know is that it is by far the nicest, friendliest place we've ever lived. What they don't know is that we live there for our own sake, to escape the spiritual impoverishment of this decadent society.

I wish Darren Wilson would have known a little something about the community he drove into that day. I wish America would know.

Friday, November 28, 2014

What is The Investment in Whiteness?

A few days ago I posted this on Facebook:
Where are the White Christians who will join me in confessing our investment in whiteness? Who will join me in repentance? Who will seek to learn more if these questions confuse you?
Well, some have kindly asked questions seeking to learn more.

What in the world do I mean by the phrase "investment in whiteness"?

For me, this phrase has become a useful shorthand to sum up the problem that White people face in American society. I think the phrase emerged for me from Cheryl Harris's 1993 Harvard Law Review article, "Whiteness as Property," and more directly from George Lipsitz's 1998 book, The Possessive Investment In Whiteness.

To have an investment in something means that we have a stake in it. If we make a business investment, we expect to get a monetary return. We "invest" in relationships, and hope to receive companionship and support as a result. We invest in our children, expecting them to grow up to be responsible adults. In a very similar way, most White Americans have an investment in Whiteness.

It is important to understand that this investment in Whiteness is almost always unconscious. That might sound strange at first, but when we think about it, we realize that unconscious investments are quite normal. I, for example, claim that my identity is rooted in my relation to Jesus Christ. Yet I have gradually begun to realize that I unconsciously use my daily work as a way to make myself feel like a worthwhile person. If I haven't performed a lot of tasks in a given day, I subconsciously feel less valuable as a human being. This is a deep and harmful "investment" in work that has only gradually begun to become conscious to me. As Christians we can all relate to the times we've been convicted of putting our faith and hope and identity in things that we should not. And at the moment of conviction we might say, "Wow, why couldn't I see it before?"

Our investment in Whiteness works a lot like that.

Ok, so we've gotten this far: people have all sorts of "investments," it is quite normal for some of these investments to be unconscious, and some of them are harmful. It remains to be seen what this investment in Whiteness consists of. The most basic thing about the investment in Whiteness is that Whiteness is seen as neutral and normative, and thereby protects the advantages White people have by making it appear that these advantages have nothing to do with being White. For example:

It often blinds us to the limitations and quirks of our own point of view. Instead of realizing that our views are just as biased, particular, and racial as those of other groups, we often subconsciously think that the White view is not White at all, but is actually just normal, neutral, or obvious.

It prevents us from seeing that our theology is not a neutral restatement of Christianity or a simple adherence to biblical teaching. It is shaped by our culture. It is White theology.This theology is extremely individualistic. We often think this is because the Bible is individualistic, but White theology goes far beyond the Bible's insistence that every individual needs the salvation of Jesus. White theology adds on a radical American individualism that insists individuals are basically innocent of the corporate and collective sins around them. White theology focuses on individual improvement, and changing the world "one heart at a time." The Old Testament vision of shalom and the New Testament vision of the Kingdom of God go against this radical individualism, but White theology consistently downplays or even ignores the communal and systemic aspects of sin and redemption that the Bible emphasizes.

Our investment in Whiteness causes us to insist on racial innocence and individualized racism. Because White theology downplays the biblical view of sin as both personal and corporate, individual and systemic, we tend to assume that racism is a personal sin, and therefore one that we have nothing to do with. The investment in Whiteness causes us to insist that we can't possibly be racist. We feel a deep need to not be racist. This need comes not from the humility of Christianity that would cause us to assume that we probably do share the sin of the society around us. It comes from the pride of our culture that doesn't really believe that human beings are depraved.

The investment in Whiteness causes us to evade personal responsibility for the systemic racial oppression that is constant in American society. Because we are protecting our own innocence, we feel compelled to blame other people or things for the suffering and oppression racial minorities experience. Some blame the "culture" of the disadvantaged group or emphasize family breakdown; others focus on the damage of government welfare programs. These views downplay or even ignore the severity and scale of racial oppression past and present, but they accomplish something important: they make the individual White person innocent. Often, when discussing racial controversies, Whites reveal their investment when they focus not on questions of how best to remove injustice against racial minorities, but rather on defending things such as political conservatism, small government, American patriotism, or radical individualism. Others focus on the importance of civil discussion and even-handedness, not realizing that their Whiteness makes it easy to focus on these comparatively trivial qualities since they don't have to bear the brunt of racial oppression.

Indeed, one of the most obvious aspects of investment in Whiteness that I should have mentioned by now is that most White Americans do not know basic facts about American history and American society. Many Whites don't know that the United States was founded as a White supremacist state, and that for much of our history being White was a qualification for being an American citizen. Many don't know that racial oppression was a vital part of the creation of the modern American middle class after World War Two. This basic ignorance of American history and of the reality of the present oppression by the United States is very important to those who are invested in Whiteness. (My purpose here is not to prove the racial oppression of the American past and present. The burden of proof is on those who deny it. They need to find some evidence to support their position. I'm happy to provide reading lists for anyone who'd like to learn more about the reality of American history).

Acknowledging the facts of American history is extremely threatening to those who are invested in Whiteness. Many of us have ancestors who have passed wealth down to us. When we realize that this wealth was produced from opportunities that the American state deliberately provided only to White people, we are disturbed. It doesn't reflect poorly on our ancestors. They were just normal human beings. They, like us, often had no idea they were benefiting from injustice. When we realize what has actually occurred, there is no getting around the fact that much of our success owes itself to our identity as White people. It is even more disturbing when we realize that in the present day the oppression is ongoing. We begin to realize that the White environments many of us are in (White neighborhoods, White schools, White churches) are not natural or accidental outcomes, but are the result of our deliberate choices--choices that have protected our investment in Whiteness. As Christians, we begin to realize that the simple acts of our daily lives as we go along with the flow of American society inevitably entrap us in the sinful systems of a broken world.

What, then, am I repenting for?

This is where people get especially confused. We can't grasp the repentance part without remembering that a radical, unbiblical individualism is a part of our investment in Whiteness. So let's do our best not to bring that individualism to our repentance. We're not wringing our hands with a sense of White liberal guilt. We're not pretending we're to blame for everything that's wrong with the world. We're not pretending that we ever wanted our society to be broken like this. We're not even repenting of being racists.

We're simply confessing our participation in systems of racial oppression. We're confessing our blindness. We're humbly acknowledging that one of the key reasons we live where we do, have the jobs we do, send our kids to the school we do, is because we are White. We're confessing that we hadn't realized it before. We're humbly admitting that the oppressed know more about their oppression and how best to respond to it than we do. We're repenting of going along with systems of racial oppression and accepting them as normal. From now on, we will begin to try to figure out what it will mean to be people that weaken those systems rather than being just another cog in them.

Hopefully some of this makes sense. In the end, it is impossible to know how strong the investment in Whiteness is until you've actually begun to go against it.

Monday, November 24, 2014

The Coming Movement

Indictment or no indictment tonight (we'll know soon enough), we must pray that what is happening in Ferguson is the awakening of a movement that will change the entire country. We must pray that it will change not merely a set of policing practices. That is as good a place as any to start, and we must start somewhere, but what is needed goes much deeper. Movement activists understand it even if the great mass of morally slumbering White Americans do not. What is needed is what has always been needed: a society that is for Blacks and everyone else every bit as much as it is for Whites. What is needed is comprehensive reformation of laws and hearts so that America works for all of us. If you're not a believer, what is needed is some basic human decency. If you are a believer, repentance is needed in the hope that somehow we Christians will begin to pray and live "Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven" instead of throwing stones at "radicals" who dare to do what Jesus told us to do.

The United States is a dramatically better place for Black Americans than it used to be. The United States is also a White state that has yet to fully reckon with what it would require to do justice for all its citizens. In spite of everything that has changed, we can still quote the words of Black intellectuals over half a century ago, and their words ring true with a vital and terrible ferocity. Richard Wright believed that the exclusion of African Americans was so central to American life that if the United States ever attempted to eradicate White supremacy “it will find itself at war with itself, convulsed by a spasm of emotional and moral confusion.” James Baldwin agreed. Baldwin wrote, “there is simply no possibility of a real change in the Negro’s situation without the most radical and far-reaching changes in the American political and social structure.” Yet such changes were so unsettling to white Americans that they were “unable even to envision them.” Wright and Baldwin offered a sense of America’s history and meaning in which the destruction of white supremacy might produce a national identity crisis rather than ushering in the inevitable culmination of American ideals. In an age of inequality and mass incarceration, in a time of protest and disillusionment, when thousands feel compelled to take to the streets and signs assert what should not need to be asserted, that “Black Lives Matter,” the promise and tragedy of American history haunts us still. And still, millions of Whites stand to the side, choosing whiteness over justice, whiteness over God, whiteness over their very souls.

Dr. King was right. If we're wrong now, then God almighty is wrong.

Saturday, November 22, 2014

Ferguson Is The Civil Rights Movement

My son was up at 2:45 this morning and decided that going back to sleep was an unnecessary extravagance, so here we are.

I'm sick in my heart over Ferguson and all that it represents. There are a great many things I wish I could tell my fellow White Americans if I had them as a captive audience. For now, I'll just mention one:

Never use disorder as an excuse to avoid dealing with injustice. 

The fixation of so many people on the tiny amount of looting that occurred months ago is extremely revealing. What would it take for them to be on the side of the protestors? I bet they think the civil rights movement consisted of a bunch of middle class Black people in suits refusing to make a ruckus. I bet they don't know that there was lots of violence in and around civil rights movement demonstrations. Or they do know, but somehow they assume that back then it was all so clear and those mean southern sheriffs were obviously at fault. Don't they know that the civil rights movement seemed murky and confusing to White Americans and most of them eventually opposed it?

Ferguson is not so different. We must expose people and make them uncomfortable. If Ferguson comes up in conversation, go ahead and tell your White friends that the civil rights movement isn't over. Tell them to stop paying lip service to the gains of the past while refusing to get on the side of justice in the present. Consider the gross perversion of this world where truth and justice are constantly on the defensive. Find a perfect example of racial injustice, they tell us! One where it is so obvious that the victim is an angel and completely innocent and the perpetrator is a monster! Then we will join with you! Then we might be willing to support Black humanity!

People can't find any evidence that Black people are treated equally in this country, but we who point this out are deemed to be radical or unreasonable. Sure, there's racial discrimination and inequality in education, employment, housing, health care, and life in general, but it doesn't matter because looting. Because baggy pants. Because ebonics. Because scary Black male.

The sins of the powerful produce oppression. The sins of the powerless produce disorder. Which sins we're quickest to judge says a lot about the state of our hearts.

Monday, October 27, 2014

Thoughts For Monday

(Because sometimes you need it more on Monday than on Sunday.)

I imagine these questions are part of an old tradition, but I'm not sure where they come from. They're in our church bulletin every week:
Where am I with the Lord Jesus Christ who died on the cross for my sins?
     1. Am I more aware of others faults than I am of my own?
     2. How do I speak of others, with contempt or with mercy?
     3. When I am in conflict with someone, do I quickly separate myself from them, or do I stick with them through difficult times?
     4. Am I overconfident about my being "right" and do I hate to be contradicted or am I flexible and easy to be around?
     5. Do I confront all the time or not at all?
     6. Do I complain a lot, and am unhappy and filed with self-pity? Do I make myself the center of attention?
1 John 1.9 -- "If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness."
Makes you think.

Saturday, October 25, 2014

Colorblindness in the Classroom

I don't know how to deal with race and the ideology of colorblindness in the classroom. My sense is that it would be easier in a sociology class. Sociology is naturally present-minded and inevitably political. I could assign Eduardo Bonilla-Silva and no one would think twice about it. But as a historian, I have a responsibility to the past that constrains me in important ways and shapes my behavior in the classroom. How can I historicize race and colorblindness? How can I compel them to think in a way they haven't before (this is the whole point of college, right?) without telling them what to think?

It is a strange feeling to stand before a room of students and "teach" them when the only certainty I have is that in five years or ten--or one---I will look back on it and feel sorry for having done it so ineptly.

The class I'm talking about is called American Revolutions, and it has three sections: Puritanism; Indian Removal, and slavery and emancipation. Puritanism is hard because students, even religious ones, have trouble understanding the intense religiosity of the Puritans. Indian Removal is difficult because some students bring deeply engrained stereotypes to the classroom and seem impervious to new information. These days, though, their papers are more likely to portray the Indians before European contact as peaceful and at one with nature than as violent savages. The point is that the benign myth is equally dehumanizing.

Now we're moving into slavery and emancipation, and it is going to be the most difficult and enjoyable part of the course for me. Judging from the conversation in class yesterday, most of my students reflexively hold to some form of colorblind ideology. As a historian, it's not my job to convince them that they are wrong. Yet their ideology is in fact an impediment to historical thinking. So it is my job, I think, to show them that their unexamined "truth" about the world, its givenness and obviousness, is in fact a historically constructed discourse about the world. They inherited it. It is not obvious or inevitable or natural. That doesn't make it wrong. But it does make it historical, and that alone is often earth-shattering for us.

It is ironic that the dominant racial ideology of our time is named after a condition that makes it hard to see certain realities about the world. After all, the main feature of actual colorblindness is that its owner is unable to see clearly. Colorblindness changes the perception of its owner, not the reality of what is being perceived. People who proudly claim to be racially colorblind are admitting more than they realize.

The popular conceit seems to be that the next generation will rescue us from any racial problems we may have. I admit up front that I am deeply pessimistic about this. Anecdotally, I see abject confusion about race among people of my generation and the next one coming up. Moreover, the data indicates that around half to an outright majority of White millennials believe discrimination against Whites is as big a problem as discrimination against Blacks.

Consider the bundle of beliefs that often coexist in the minds of students.

Race is a real physical thing.
Race is unimportant.
Everyone should be treated equally.
Whites are as likely to be discriminated against as others.
We should all just see each other as Americans.

This constellation of beliefs is  unequipped to answer basic questions.

Why have racial definitions and classifications changed over time?
When did race become unimportant?
What does it mean to be White?
Does the past influence the present?
Why is there racial inequality?

The answer to that last question often invokes culture. But that raises more troubling questions. How can advocates of colorblindness speak of racially distinct cultures without attacking their own suppositions? What does culture mean? From where did it come? This, too, must be historicized. Those who claim that culture is at the root of racial inequality must explain why they have taken up a historically created discourse that was used by segregationists decades before we were even born. At what point did this discourse change from a defense of White supremacy to a correct description of American society?

My sense is that many students believe that race is a fixed category rooted in biological realities. And it's no wonder. We routinely hear, even from the census bureau itself, that we're on our way to being a minority-majority nation by mid-century, as if anyone really knows how racial identity will develop in the next forty years. This week USA Today did a giant project on America's changing demographics, and the entire story implicitly treated race as a biological reality rather than a social construct. If the United States does become majority-minority, it will probably indicate a more level playing field. The more likely outcome, I think, is that Whiteness will continue its three century-long expansion by growing to encompass most Asians and many Hispanics. By 2050, the White majority might be just as large as it is now. We just don't know. It is ironic that the very people insisting race should not matter are often the ones treating it as a fixed, real, physical identity.

Colorblindness, the refusal to "see" race, often coexists awkwardly with a view that makes race real in a way that harkens back to heyday of scientific racism in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. People who don't want to see race in the present tend to be reluctant to look at its construction in history. But when we take race out of history we're left with contemporary phenomena we cannot explain. Most White young people are growing up in households that do not discuss race beyond a few brittle admonitions: it should not matter; treat everyone equally. How are these young people to make sense of the world, then, when they come to Temple University? They see the poor, Black neighborhoods all around the campus. They sit in predominantly White classrooms. They read the Temple safety alerts that almost invariably describe Black male suspects. They hear the pervasive discourse about which neighborhoods to enjoy and which to avoid. The nearly exact overlap between avoidance and racial minorities is there to be seen, but it must not be stated. The ideology they've been given does not match their experience of the world, but admitting as much is extremely troubling.

I've come to believe that modern forms of prejudice grow up and our reproduced in this space between the brittle tenets of colorblind ideology and the reality of young peoples' lived experiences. In these spaces lurk the silences and inconsistencies and unconscious beliefs that are creating the next iteration of racial inequality and White supremacy. It will not be the "New Jim Crow" or neo-segregation. It will be its own phenomenon, historically conditioned but formed in its own time. Colorblindness cannot see this. In an ironic way, colorblindness depends on essentializing race, turning it into more than it is. If race is real, then we can ignore history. But if race is constructed, it immediately raises at least the possibility that our ignorance is very destructive indeed.

I'm still thinking through this. There's something about the way I led the class yesterday that made me feel that I was reproducing White supremacy rather than challenging it. When students don't yet understand historical thinking, can't the simple act of discussing White supremacy in history reinscribe it in the present? We never need to have discussions about whether White people are inferior. I'm just scratching the surface. At least I'll never run out of questions.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Move Along, Nothing To See Here...

UPDATE: It turns out that this chart is very misleading. Though it doesn't say so, the incarceration rate for "Black America" is actually for Black American men, while those of other countries are for total population. Once women are added in, the black bar on the far right would be much shorter. Yet it would still be dramatically higher than any other country. One way of looking at it is that even if the incarceration rate of Black women was zero, the total rate would still average out to above 2,000, which is 4x that of the nearest country (Cuba). So the chart is factually wrong, but the point it's making stands.

Friday, October 10, 2014

Goodbye to Partisanship

I really think I'm done blogging politics. Am I naive for thinking so? Perhaps. But this conviction has been building on me for a long time and I find myself increasingly detached from things I thought I cared about. I recently removed all posts with a politics tag from public view. Besides making a severe dent in my publishing volume, this decision is problematic because of its face-saving implications. Am I just conveniently hiding six years of poorly reasoned, embarrassing, and at times offensive posts? The lack of transparency is obvious. Yet, if this were just about face-saving, I would have many more posts to delete. I've been writing about race, too, for six years. Ouch. Tomorrow, hopefully we'll realize how ignorant we were today. In the meantime we press on as best we can.

The reason I removed the politics posts is because I'm closer to understanding what's important to me. I don't want politics to compromise my message. People might look at my recent Ferguson commentary here and in other venues and say, "What do you mean you're done with politics?" But that gets close to my point. Ferguson is only superficially political, but many of us have lost the ability to see other classes of people in non-political terms. There are millions of culturally isolated White Americans, for example, for whom Black Americans appear as political opponents before they are human beings. Their primary engagement with them is political. We can write about politics in a way that encourages this dehumanization. In the past I have been guilty of reducing human and Christian concerns to political issues. I have taken things that are incidentally political and made them fundamentally so. I acted as though politics was basic; now I find that it is built on the foundation of other things. Politics is not where the action is at. Let's work on the foundations.

What I dislike--what I've come to fear--is unrooted politics. I am still political. But my politics come from the archive.* My politics come from the block. I'm not talking about the arrogance of the historian who think his very particular expertise is transferable. I'm not talking about the arrogance of an epistemology that unduly values personal experience. Expertise is counter-productive without humility, and my block isn't inherently more knowledge-giving than your block. But these two very different worlds do provide grounds for useful political engagement.

I want to make a difference on my block, and I want to make a difference in the intellectual circles I occupy. The social filters up and the intellectual trickles down. I can't be an activist without first being a neighbor. And those books I will write will change the thinking of people who never read them, because that's how ideas work. Intense engagement in these very different social and intellectual worlds makes it difficult to approach politics with the same old partisan points to score and trivial allegiances to uphold. The Christian vision of shalom is so category-busting, so utterly weird to the modern American, that our politics cannot serve as a container for it. We shouldn't want it to.

*I realize I'm indulging in historian-speak here. By "archive" I mean the primary sources that are the foundation of the historian's work.

Saturday, October 4, 2014

Land of the Free, Home of the Slave

Alan Taylor's The Internal Enemy continues to occupy my mind. His treatment of slave owners' psychology is excellent. He writes, "When confronted with suffering slaves, some masters showed a deft ability to evade blame by, instead, congratulating themselves for a superior ability to feel the pain of inferiors." When Henry Tucker acquired a ten-year-old slave boy named Bob in 1804, the boy "felt devastated by the forced separation from his mother." His new owner wrote,
Poor little fellow! I was much affected at an incident last night. I was waked from a very sound sleep by a most piteous lamentation. I found it was Bob. I called several times before he waked. "What is the matter, Bob?" "I was dreaming about my mammy Sir"!!! cried he in a melancholy & still distressed tone: "Gracious God!" thought I, "how ought not I to feel, who regarded this child as insensible when compared to those of our complexion"...How finely woven, how delicately sensible must be those bonds of natural affection which equally adorn the civilized and the savage -- the American and African -- nay the man and the brute.
Taylor writes, "Despite discovering a shared humanity with the boy, Henry reiterated a stark polarity in which he stood as the superior: the civilized American man in contrast to the savage, African brute. In that view, slave labor supported, rather than contradicted, the freedom of those who most deserved it." Most White Virginians assumed that Black slaves had a fundamentally different inner life that allowed them to bear up under hardship in a way that Whites could not. "'Their griefs are transient,' and their afflictions 'are less felt, and sooner forgotten,' insisted [Thomas] Jefferson" (58-59).

Lest you think these attitudes are distant irrelevancies, consider two recent studies of modern Americans:

Researchers at the University of Virginia found that young children "report that black children feel less pain than white children."
Frontiers in Psychology published a study finding that "Caucasian observers reacted to pain suffered by African people significantly less than to pain of Caucasian people."

It is no great stretch to infer a line of connection between the Henry Tuckers of antebellum Virginia and psychological studies of implicit bias two hundred years later. This raises big problems for most Americans, for whom history is either an abstraction or a tool to be picked up and used at their leisure. It is rather more galvanizing--and terrifying--to face up to history as an independent weight pressing in on us and shaping us well before we're ever able to shape it. What happened exerts an influence that is, despite the distortions of memory and vulgarization of historical thinking, independent of what is said to have happened.

Americans understand this even if we are loath to admit it. Jefferson's language of liberty is assumed to matter. The importance of the Constitution is obvious and inarguable. We take it for granted that these documents, and the intellectual currents that produced them, matter to us in 2014. But the popular discourse surrounding the much more recent institution of human bondage takes place on an entirely different ground. History suddenly disappears; all is the present; all is political. Racial prejudice is so entrenched in our discourse that the influence that is assumed for other centuries-old American institutions is denied to slavery. And not just denied. To explain any contemporary phenomena in light of slavery is now a tired cliche that earns ridicule.

The idea that the enslavement of four million human beings a century and a half ago still tangibly matters is vehemently denied by most White Americans. Take the pervasive White-immigrant narrative: "My ancestors weren't even here. I had nothing to do with slavery." This a la carte Americanism is something to behold. Somehow, we are to believe, the late arrival of these White immigrants on the American scene was comprehensively fortuitous and ennobling. Theirs is the Constitution and the Bill of Rights and the Pursuit of Happiness. Other American birthrites of rather more recent vintage--racial slavery and White supremacy--left them unscathed.

Beneath the flag-waving and the invocations of history resides the psyche of a people that cannot abide what has happened. So we must tame history and make it manageable, however incoherent the results. There is no question that Americans' fear of history is often expressed in ways that are downright funny. But then, those who can see it for what it is laugh only so we won't cry. For the past bears down on us whether we recognize it or not. And it does its most brutal work among the ignorant.

Monday, September 29, 2014

When White Evangelicals Learned To Tolerate Slavery

I'm reading Alan Taylor's prizewinning new book, The Internal Enemy: Slavery and War in Virginia, 1772-1832. Describing Virginia's post-revolutionary path to retrenchment rather than reform, Taylor writes that Virginia's white evangelicals urged the state to adopt a plan of gradual abolition. Here's Taylor:
They insisted that as republicans as well as Christians, Virginians needed to do right by their slaves. "The holding, tyrannizing over, and driving slaves, I view as contrary to the laws of God and nature," declared the Baptist preacher David Barrow, who regarded liberty as "the unalienable privilege of all complexions, shapes, and sizes of men." Citing the Golden Rule, Barrow wished that masters would be "doing as they would others should do to them!"
The legislature, unmoved, unanimously rejected abolition. Again, Taylor:
Sobered by this defeat, the Methodists and Baptists retreated from antislavery activity...Most leading evangelicals sought respectability as middle-class men of property. Preferring neighborhood peace and acceptance, they marginalized any radicals who continued to agitate the issue. Becoming more conservative, mainstream evangelicals reframed their message, urging slaves to obey their masters and wait for freedom after death in heaven. Among the state's Christians, only Quakers clung to antislavery principles, but they comprised a small and increasingly despised sect in Virginia.
They could stand up for the oppressed, or they could be good neighbors and respectable people. They could not, in the eyes of the great majority of White Virginians, do both. Don't look down on them. These are the same calculations we're making today. These are the sorts of accommodations from which White evangelicalism has yet to recover.

Friday, September 26, 2014

Why Can White Evangelicals Only See Discrimination Against Ourselves?

Pew is out with a new survey. It's worth contemplating for what it reveals about White evangelical psychology and the engrained racism of the White evangelical community. Here's the question that we're interested in:

"Just your impression, in the United States today, is there a lot of discrimination against [insert group, randomized], or not?"

Pew asked the question about religious and racial groups, as well as atheists and gays. Here, in chart form, are the results for some of the groups:

50% of White evangelicals say there is a lot of discrimination against evangelicals in the United States, while only 36% of White evangelicals say Blacks face a lot of discrimination in the United States. The gap between White evangelicals and the American public in perceiving discrimination against evangelicals is 19%. The gap between White evangelicals and the American public in perceiving discrimination against Blacks is 18%.

Before going further, it is important to mention two mitigating factors. First, even though this is specifically a question about discrimination within the United States, it is possible that some White evangelicals globalized their response as they thought of Middle Eastern Christians and others around the world who do indeed face appalling discrimination. This would be a plain misunderstanding of the question, but perhaps it explains part of White evangelicals' high perception of discrimination. Second, White evangelicals are theologically and culturally predisposed to answer yes to this question. We are often reminded that Christ promised that his followers would face persecution. There is a sense in which we feel we are supposed to be persecuted. At times, this produces an unseemly psychology in which we cast ourselves as a courageous band of righteous believers under siege in a hostile world. Instead of trying to accurately describe the world and our place in it, the perception of discrimination becomes a key tool of self-validation. Our perception of persecution establishes are bona fides as committed Christians.

White evangelicals' high perception of anti-evangelical discrimination is problematic, but in itself it need not be too damaging. Yet when put in context, White evangelicals' perception of discrimination looks far from benign. According to Pew's survey, White evangelicals believe they face more discrimination (a lot more!) than any other religious or racial group in the United States. It is difficult to find charitable interpretations for such gross error.

In particular, White evangelicals are much more likely than any other group of Americans to say that Blacks do not face much discrimination in the United States. Making any sense of this is an ongoing challenge. It's no good to say, "well, White evangelicals are racist." That is apparently true, but it brings us no closer to the why question. One standard interpretation is that White evangelicals, as strong individualists, inherently object to cognitive frames that recognize group discrimination. But this explanation doesn't quite work because, as we have seen, White evangelicals are quite ready to recognize group discrimination against themselves.

There are surely numerous factors contributing to White evangelicals' false perceptions of discrimination coupled with blindness toward actual injustice. Any single explanation is insufficient. Cultural and spatial isolation, conservative political ideology, individualism, racism, and nationalism may all be contributing factors. We must also consider the rampant popularity of middle-class theology, the cult of upward mobility, and the basic reluctance of large segments of White evangelicalism to apply the gospel to American life.

It might be worthwhile to dwell on the gospel a little bit more. Theologically liberal Christians have found the gospel offensive since at least the 19th century. It is too conservative, narrow, dark. All that talk of blood and wrath and miraculous resurrection from the dead is so primitive. Of course, without all this supposed primitivism, you have no gospel at all. I am grateful for the blood; I absolutely deserve the wrath of God, and Jesus literally returned to life to literally rescue me. White evangelical Christians are nodding in agreement at this point.

But it is not commonly understood that White evangelicals are also deeply offended by the gospel. Just as theological liberals have found the gospel too narrow and conservative, White evangelicals do not accept the whole gospel. They find it too expansive, and they mistake basic Christian doctrine for liberal politics or naive utopianism. Try talking about Christian teaching on segregation in the church, as I wrote about recently on this blog. You won't get a response from White evangelicals. Try using the Apostle John's words about salvation in the same way White evangelicals use the Apostle Paul's words. We like the simplicity of confessing with our mouths and believing in our hearts, but somehow we don't really believe that lack of concern for our fellow humanity is proof that we're not Christians. The Bible teaches both. Try actually talking about God's will being done here on earth as it is in heaven. Yeah, Jesus said it, but White evangelicals will tell you to calm down and realize that the world is going to hell in a handbasket anyway. Try explaining to evangelicals that Christianity teaches that God has ordered the world in such a way that the materially poor have more spiritual riches than those of us who are middle class. You get blank stares.

White evangelicals believe in a syncretistic gospel (do any of us, truly, believe in anything other?) that is made more damaging by its insistence that it is simply biblical, unencumbered by culture. It claims to be the universalizing truth of God and is thus blind to its own particularity. If you want to be accepted as a leader in many White evangelical churches, be very careful about presenting a gospel that challenges nationalism, patriotism, whiteness, capitalism, and middle-classness. Of course, the true gospel challenges all these things, just as it challenges all human systems and loyalties, whether of the right or the left.

How does this relate to White evangelicals' failure to see discrimination against other groups? If we were applying basic Christian doctrine in an American context (the church is to be unified, we are to look out for the interests of others, we are to have special regard for the poor, etc) it simply would not be possible for White evangelicals to look out across America and see ourselves as the most victimized group. Our own lived experience would tell us otherwise.

I'm not giving up. Like Paul said, "I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God" and it can fix even this.

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Thoughts For Sunday

My experience as a pastor has been that those who are middle-class in spirit tend to be indifferent to the poor, but people who come to grasp the gospel of grace and become spiritually poor find their hearts gravitating toward the materially poor. To the degree that the gospel shapes your self-image, you will identify with those in need. You will see their tattered clothes and think: "All my righteousness is a filthy rag, but in Christ we can be clothed in his robes of righteousness." When you come upon those who are economically poor, you cannot say to them, "Pull yourself up by your bootstraps!" because you certainly did not do that spiritually. Jesus intervened for you. And you cannot say, "I won't help you because you got yourself into this mess," since God came to earth, moved into your spiritually poor neighborhood, as it were, and helped you even though your spiritual problems were your own fault. In other words, when Christians who understand the gospel see a poor person, they realize they are looking into a mirror. Their hearts must go out to him or her without an ounce of superiority or indifference.

Timothy Keller, Generous Justice

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Is Segregation in the Church A Serious Problem?

The American church is segregated by race. We have White churches and Black churches, Korean churches and Hispanic churches. In almost all churches, groups of other races are welcome, but a single group dominates the church, gives it its character, and makes it recognizably racialized.

There is no law requiring it. There is no church enforcing it. This has nothing to do with Jim Crow.

In fact, most churches are downright eager to become more diverse.

But the goal remains elusive.

Consider: even if we use a really broad definition of what constitutes a diverse church, only around 3% of American churches are racially mixed over the long term.* A slightly larger number are mixed for a short time as they transition from one group to another. But most of our churches have a single racial group that makes up the vast majority of the congregation.

I suspect that one of the reasons diversity in our churches is so elusive is because it is something that most people support in the abstract, but few churches and church leaders make it an urgent priority.

Is this a problem? Is it sin? Or is it, in fact, just the way things are? Is it an innocuous fact -- no harm, no foul?  Is it God's design?

Does it depend where you live?

If you live in rural Maine, you can hardly be expected to attend a diverse church. It simply isn't possible.

But most of us don't live there. Most of us live in metro areas that are, on the whole, much more diverse than the churches we attend. (Despite the vast rural regions of our country, four out of five Americans actually live in cities or suburbs, where diversity is almost always close at hand). What is our responsibility when diversity is in reach, as it is for most of us? Is racial integration something our church leaders should make a top priority? Is it a nice idea and something we hope for but one that should not get in the way of more important church functions? Or is it not really important at all?

I have a simple premise: Christianity teaches that the racial segregation of the American church is sinful. As such, racial segregation in the church is necessarily harmful, and fixing it is an appropriate concern of every believer. Just as every believer is called to abstain from sins such as lust, pride, anger, and so on, every believer is called to abstain from the sin of worldly divisions. There is a lot more to be said, but that simple premise is more than enough to keep us occupied for now.

Jesus prayed that everyone who would ever believe in him in the future would be united, would be "one" just as he and the father are one. The fascinating thing about this prayer in John 17 is that the purpose of this unity is entirely outward focused: "so that the world may know that you sent me." In a broken world that has always been riven with strife and divisions of all kinds, Jesus intended Christians to come together across those lines of division. This is an act of evangelism. The unity of the church is one of only a handful of ways Jesus said we can practically attest to the truth of the Gospel.

Now, many Christians have spiritualized this prayer into nothingness, in two different ways. First, the prayer is often thought of in the context of doctrinal ecumenism. Christians should agree on a few fundamentals and be willing to cross doctrinal lines in order to maintain the unity of the church. This is fine as far as it goes, but it is not the primary sort of unity about which Jesus prayed. Remember, this is an outward-focused unity. Its purpose is to show the world that the Gospel is true. But internal doctrinal differences are often invisible to those on the outside, if not confusing and irrelevant. Coming together across lines of disagreement that the world does not even recognize has little potential to provoke and amaze the world. We must cross lines of division that the world counts as meaningful. This is where the second means of spiritualizing this prayer into nothingness enters in. Many Christians say, we might worship in different places but the true church is united in spirit. The problem with this second perspective is much the same as the first. This spiritual unity is essentially invisible to those on the outside. As such, how can it be an evangelistic, outward-focused unity? How can it amaze? How can it show the world that Jesus is who he says he is?

The New Testament church came to understand this, though we have forgotten it almost completely. In his letter to the Colossians, Paul urged them to "put to death" their old selves and "put on" the new self given by Jesus. In this new self, Paul admonished, "there is no Gentile or Jew, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave or free, but Christ is all, and is in all" (Chapter 3). We can spiritualize this under the rug too, but at grave risk to our souls. We must wrap our minds around the fact that Paul's readers could not have turned this into a vague spiritual point, because he had just named all the starkest divisions in their society. He named groups they disliked. He named ethnic, sectarian, and economic divisions. He told them to stop identifying with one group against another. He told them to be united across the most bitter divisions of their society. 

This was not an isolated commandment. A key subtext of the entire book of Romans is Paul's knowledge that Jewish and Gentile believers are in conflict with one another. He does not simply tell them to get along. He laboriously provides a deep theological grounding for why and how they can be unified. Because if they are not unified, Rome will not be amazed. Because if they are not unified, will the Gospel appear to be true?

In his letter to the Galatians, Paul recounted the story of Peter and other church leaders giving in to worldly divisions and allowing those divisions to rupture the church. What was Paul's response to church leaders who let society's values guide them rather than Jesus's prayer for unity?  He did not think it was merely unfortunate. He did not think it was a distraction from preaching the Gospel. He did not excuse it as just the way things are. He publicly rebuked them for "not acting in line with the truth of the gospel" (Chapter 2).

God calls the church in a given society to make a theological statement (singular). But wait, we must be more specific. Many churches seem to think they are simply called to make theological statements (plural). Those churches are hollow, like the "whitewashed tombs" Jesus described. The church is called to embody, to incarnate, a theological statement. Theology that is not first embodied is no theology at all. It will not amaze the world. In fact, it will disgust the world. Jesus came to us. We know God because of the incarnation. Yet the American church wants to pull off a bait and switch that God himself did not dare to try. We want to call people to a Christ who does not appear to solve the most pressing divisions of our society. We want people to be amazed by a disembodied Christ. On the contrary, they are rightfully disgusted. 

When we seek a practical unity that crosses all the barriers of division in American society, we make a theological statement. It is an evangelistic witness that Jesus is who he says he is and can accomplish what he claims. When we do church the way it is normally done in the United States, we simply reproduce the divisions of society at large, and give that society no reason to be amazed. 3% of American churches are racially integrated. Does this have anything to do with the values of the Kingdom? Or does it have everything to do with American society? When was the last time you went to a church where the millionaire and the homeless person worshiped side by side? When was the last time you went to a church that was more welcoming and comfortable for the homeless than for the middle class? How do the values of whiteness and middle classness and upward mobility that dominate our churches fit in with the Kingdom of God? What theological statement are they making? 

How can we break through the complacency and self-satisfaction of an American church that is so far from the heart of God? Our whole pattern of church life and composition blatantly reflects American history, American values, and American social divisions. Yet many well-meaning Christians find little reason to make integration a top priority. We're willing to cast off one of the primary means of being the body of Christ as if it's a stylistic choice. Churches that are eager to "evangelize" often cannot be bothered to embody their message. How can we break through? What will it take? 

In the thirteenth chapter of John's Gospel, Jesus said that people will know that we are his followers if we love each other. I do not see much love in the American church. I do not see much love in myself. I search my heart and cannot find a good motive. I truly cannot. Am I so much worse than everyone else? Why do we appear so satisfied? Yes, we tend to do a good job loving people in our little congregation in our little corner of the world. We even do a good job of loving people 6,000 miles away! But while we do so we wish to absolve ourselves of all responsibility for why we live and worship where we do, why the people around us are so like us, why the poor in our own country are so far away. We love our congregation in our little corner, while lobbing missiles of misunderstanding and recrimination toward our brothers and sisters in their corners. 

Trayvon. Ferguson. For those of us who long to see a compassionate American church that values Jesus more than whiteness, these were shattering experiences from which we will not recover.

Why do we accept the premise that American society, rather than the values of the Kingdom of God, should structure the biggest decisions of our lives? The segregation of the American church has no theological basis. It is not in the will of God. It is sinful. It reproduces misunderstanding and isolation. It fosters division. It does not amaze the world. It merely shows the world that we are just like them. Though racial segregation in American society has slowly eased a little bit (not by much) Americans are increasingly self-segregating by income and political views. If you're poor, you probably live around a lot of poor people. If you're middle class, you probably live around a lot of middle class people. Will we, the church, join in this trend? Or will we live by the values of the Kingdom? 

In the fourteenth chapter of Luke's Gospel, Jesus told a story that the American church desperately needs to hear:
“A certain man was preparing a great banquet and invited many guests. At the time of the banquet he sent his servant to tell those who had been invited, ‘Come, for everything is now ready.’ 
“But they all alike began to make excuses. The first said, ‘I have just bought a field, and I must go and see it. Please excuse me.’
“Another said, ‘I have just bought five yoke of oxen, and I’m on my way to try them out. Please excuse me.’
“Still another said, ‘I just got married, so I can’t come.’
“The servant came back and reported this to his master. Then the owner of the house became angry and ordered his servant, ‘Go out quickly into the streets and alleys of the town and bring in the poor, the crippled, the blind and the lame.’
“‘Sir,’ the servant said, ‘what you ordered has been done, but there is still room.’
“Then the master told his servant, ‘Go out to the roads and country lanes and compel them to come in, so that my house will be full. I tell you, not one of those who were invited will get a taste of my banquet.’”
I will leave the last word to Dr. John Perkins. He's a Black man who lost his brother when White policemen in Mississippi murdered him. Perkins got out of Mississippi. But then God called him to go back. He befriended two White pastors, who became convicted that they needed to tell their congregations to love their Black brothers and sisters. Within a short time, both pastors had committed suicide. Such was the strain of fighting against racism. Later, White policemen beat Perkins almost to death as he struggled for civil rights. These experiences caused him to dedicate his life to seeking racial reconciliation among American Christians. In 1982 he wrote a book called With Justice for All. His searing critique of the church might sound angry to you. Or unfair. But it is the critique of  man who loves the church and has given much more for it than most of us.
The only purpose of the gospel is to reconcile people to God and to each other. A gospel that doesn't reconcile is not a Christian gospel at all. But in America it seems as if we don't believe that. We don't really believe that the proof of our discipleship is that we love one another. No, we think the proof is in numbers -- church attendance, decision cards. Even if our "converts" continue to hate each other, even if they will not worship with their brothers and sisters in Christ, we point to their "conversion" as evidence of the gospel's success. We have substituted a gospel of church growth for a gospel of reconciliation.

And how convenient it is that our "church growth experts" tell us that homogeneous churches grow fastest! That welcome news seems to relieve us of the responsibility to overcome racial barriers in our churches. It seems to justify not bothering with breaking down racial barriers, since that would only distract us from "church growth." And so the most segregated racist institution in America, the evangelical church, racks up the numbers, declaring itself "successful," oblivious to the fact that the dismemberment of the body of Christ broadcasts to the world every day a hypocrisy as blatant as Peter's at Antioch -- a living denial of the truth of the Gospel.

* This statistic is from United by Faith by DeYoung et al. They classified a church as "racially mixed" if no single racial group made up more than 80% of the congregation. That seems to be a generous definition, but even that is met by only 3-4% of churches over the long term.

Monday, September 15, 2014

Is the Church "adjusted to the status quo"?

Dr. Martin Luther King never accepted the complacency that marred the lives of so many of his fellow Christians in the 1960s. They offered him the objections that have been served up by casual enablers of oppression in every age:

You're moving too fast.

Your cure is worse than the disease.

Things are better than they used to be.

You're causing disorder

Let time do its work.

Focus on the gospel.

King's letter from Birmingham City Jail is probably famous precisely to the extent that people don't actually know its contents. Because its contents are still too heavy for us 50 years later. In an era of mass incarceration, drastically inequitable schools, intense segregation, hostility to immigrants, and limited social mobility, Christians still find the same excuses useful.

In his letter to White Christian pastors, King did not hold back. We still need to hear it:
I must confess that over the last few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro's great stumbling in the stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen's Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate who is more devoted to "order" than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says, "I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I can't agree with your methods of direction action"; who paternalistically feels that he can set the timetable for another man's freedom; who lives by the myth of time and who constantly advised the Negro to wait until a "more convenient season." Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection...
I guess I should have realized that few members of a race that has oppressed another race can understand or appreciate the deep groans and passionate yearnings of those that have been oppressed and still fewer have the vision to see that injustice must be rooted out by strong, persistence and determined action...
I must honestly reiterate that I have been disappointed with the church. I do not say that as one of the negative critics who can always find something wrong with the church. I say it as a minister of the gospel, who loves the church; who was nurtured in its bosom; who has been sustained by its spiritual blessings and who will remain true to it as long as the cord of life shall lengthen...
In the midst of blatant injustice inflicted upon the Negro, I have watched white churches stand on the sideline and merely mouth pious irrelevancies and sanctimonious trivialities. In the midst of a mighty struggle to rid our nation of racial and economic injustice, I have heard so many ministers say, "Those are social issues with which the gospel has no real concern," and I have watched so many churches commit themselves to a completely otherwordly religion which made a strange distinction between body and soul, the sacred and the secular.

So here we are moving toward the exit of the twentieth century with a religious community largely adjusted to the status quo, standing as a taillight behind other community agencies rather than a headlight leading men to higher levels of justice.
Can we honestly say this has changed? Is the church leading the way, or is it following timidly behind? During the recent events in Ferguson, did it seem as though the White church understood or appreciated "the deep groans and passionate yearnings of those that have been oppressed"?

Help Wanted

Again I saw all the oppressions that are done under the sun. And behold, the tears of the oppressed, and they had no one to comfort them! On the side of their oppressors there was power, and there was no one to comfort them. And I thought the dead who are already dead more fortunate than the living who are still alive. But better than both is he who has not yet been and has not seen the evil deeds that are done under the sun.

--Ecclesiastes 4:1-4

That's some real talk. And it's utterly true. We just don't want to think about it. 

But then there's this:

[Jesus] went to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, and on the Sabbath day he went into the synagogue, as was his custom. He stood up to read, and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was handed to him. Unrolling it, he found the place where it is written:
“The Spirit of the Lord is on me,
    because he has anointed me
    to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners
    and recovery of sight for the blind,
to set the oppressed free,
    to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
Then he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant and sat down. The eyes of everyone in the synagogue were fastened on him. He began by saying to them, “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.”
--Luke 4:16-21

I'm so glad Jesus didn't just come to "save me from my sins." He came to set everything right. He is, and he will. 

Also, he wants help and is accepting volunteers.

Saturday, September 6, 2014

If White Evangelicals Treated Abortion Like Racism

We White evangelicals are notoriously individualistic, but we're not consistently so. What if our public response to abortion was just as individualistic as our response to racism? I think it would look something like this:

Question: Don't you think we should pass laws to promote a culture of life and financially empower pregnant women to keep their babies?

Evangelical Answer: Well, laws can't change people's hearts. And it might be expensive.

Question: Shouldn't we fight for laws that ban elective late-term abortions?

Evangelical Answer: Well, there will always be abortions as long as there is sin in this world. The solution is to change the hearts of individuals. When a person becomes a Christian, she won't have abortions.

Question: Ok, but shouldn't we establish community organizations and charities that support vulnerable women, promote life and adoption, and stand with women in difficult situations?

Evangelical Answer: I don't see anything wrong with that, but that sounds like a lot of resources to invest in a minor problem. Are there abortionists out there? Sure, and there always will be. But I think the vast majority of Americans don't think much about abortion and are excited to welcome new children into the world.

Question: Don't you think we should develop public advocacy campaigns and culturally appealing messages to promote a pro-life view?

Evangelical Answer: Well, the abortion rate has already gone down so dramatically in recent decades. I think a lot of people profit by continuing to stir the issue up. I think if we talk about it less things will continue to get better.

Question: Well at the very least, shouldn't local churches come alongside women in difficult circumstances, offering them childcare and financial support?

Evangelical Answer: Hmm, well I guess there's nothing wrong with that. I don't really see what it has to do with Christianity though. It seems like you're getting away from the primary mission of the local church, and it might cause conflict within the church.

Question: Isn't there anything we should do?

Evangelical Answer: If some people are passionate about it I think it's fine for them to work on it. But it really seems rather political, and I don't think they should expect other Christians to join in. Again, a lot of this stuff is missing the main point: sin. People's hearts need to change.