Sunday, August 24, 2014

Evangelicalism Doesn't Possess A Language For Talking About Injustice

Thabiti Anyabwile says there must be a robust White evangelical response to the issues raised by Ferguson:
Otherwise, orthodox evangelicalism is dead. It’s dead to oppressed folks in our back yards who need to hear the word of God spoken into their situation with all the prophetic unction our Lord would give. It’s dead to grieving parents required to have closed casket funerals for their children because racist systems and people so disfigure the body it can’t be shown. Orthodox evangelicalism is dead to the marginalized because it’s so allergic to the margins. It wants its mainstream, its tree-lined streets of cultural acceptance, its reserve and respectability. So it’s dead.
To be clear, evangelicalism’s quietude is not a case of not knowing what to say, how to say it, or being too distant from the problem. It’s not merely a case of leaders and people staring into an isolated incident and needing to collect data before they act. It’s not a case of not having media outlets and channels of its own. No. In incident after incident—proving a pattern, a systemic problem that requires eyes-and-mouth-wide-open denouncement—the church has turned her head, closed her eyes, and pressed tight her lips. The problem dominates local and national news. But evangelicalism changes the channel and carries on with regularly scheduled programming. Even if the revolution is televised, evangelicalism ain’t even willing to watch much less join.
And this call isn’t an attempt to guilt people who have nothing to do with some far off situation. No. This post is a recognition that evangelicalism is useless in its own back yard, with its own neighbors, while it changes its twitter avatars to identify with persecuted Christians half a world away. Evangelicalism should show outward solidarity with persecuted Christians. But it should also be the good Samaritan religion, a religion of justified people who demonstrate their justification in practical acts of compassion for its beaten, robbed and left-for-dead ethnic-other neighbors. Do we see that from national evangelical ministries and leaders? No, we don’t. Ours appears to be the religion of the Pharisee who asks, “Who then is my neighbor?”
Who is evangelicalism’s neighbor? Is Michael Brown? How about Kimani Gray, Kendrec McDade, Amadou Diallo, Ousmane Zongo, Timothy Stansbury, Jr., Sean Bell, Orlando Barlow, Aaron Campbell, Ronald Madison and James Brissette, or Oscar Grant? Or let’s just take the unarmed persons shot and killed in the month of August: Eric Garner, John Crawford, Ezell Ford and Dante Parker. Has evangelicalism recognized these men as neighbors? Does it recognize that their being made in the image of God requires the protection of their lives and the expression of our neighborly love? An evangelicalism that does not know its neighbor is a dead evangelicalism, an unjustified evangelicalism.
We must join people in their suffering or else say goodbye to evangelicalism. The righteous and carefully channeled anger Anyabwile displays here must pierce our hearts. In a more eloquent and fulsome way than I could say it, he is repeating my point that we, the White evangelical church, do not fully recognize Jesus when he comes to us in unexpected forms. One of the most discouraging and painful things about this is that many White evangelicals have strong opinions on issues of race, poverty, and justice, despite living in church cultures that have never taught them what Christianity has to say about these matters.

We haven't heard sermons about systemic sin. We have not had a Bible study about racism. Our pastor has not told us that Christianity values both individualism and collectivism but we're living in a culture that has made individualism an idol. Our leaders have never told us that the inability to think systemically as well as individually distorts our view of self and others and makes us blind to much of what Jesus accomplished on the cross. We've not been challenged to give thought to our class and racial privileges and forsake them in the way the Apostle Paul did so relentlessly. We have not been confronted about our preoccupation with American nationalism. If we've been lucky enough to be in a church that teaches us to care for the marginalized, our church leaders still probably shrink back from telling us what it might actually mean and cost in our own country and community.

Our sin is so engrained -- woven into the very fabric of our religious tradition well before we were born -- that we take strong and opinionated positions about race without any sense of shame or self-awareness, without even realizing that we're not using Christianity to support our views. Our certainty is reinforced rather than tempered by our ignorance. It is not caused by a bunch of bad people in the church being mean. It is precisely the sort of systemic sin we have trouble seeing. Laboring under the weight of generations past, constrained by secular cultural norms and patterns of thought that were long ago baptized as "Christian," we treat race and justice more as an issue to be argued over in the vein of politics than as an inextricable part of the Gospel. Anyabwile goes on:
Around the country evangelical leaders participate in “racial reconciliation” conversations and repeatedly ask, “How can we diversify our church?” or “How can we attract more African-American members?” Why would diverse groups want to belong to an evangelicalism that does not acknowledge their diversity where it hurts when it matters? You want diversity in your membership roles? How about forgetting your membership statistics and further diversifying the picket lines and protests thronged by the disenfranchised in their just fights? We don’t want to be your statistics—whether wrongful death statistics or church membership statistics. We want a living, breathing, risk-taking brotherhood in the gospel lived out where it matters. Until evangelicalism can muster that kind of courage and abandon its privileged, “objective,” distant calls for calm and “gospel”-this or “gospel”-that, it proves itself entirely inadequate for a people who need to see Jesus through the tear gas smoke of injustice.

It can no longer be the case that to be “evangelical” means to care about either the gospel or justice. Evangelicalism must come to understand that justice and mercy flow inextricably from the gospel—both at the cross of Christ as well as in the daily carrying of our crosses. Micah 6:8 is still God’s requirement of us. And it will not do to position one injustice against another, as if to say we need only focus on one thing, or as if to say until this one “greater” injustice is dealt with then all “lesser” crimes need not be attended. Don’t place abortion in opposition to persecuted Christians in Syria or persecuted Christians in Syria in opposition to the Mike Browns. Can not the evangelical heart and mind expand to care about and act against all these things? Should not we risk a bursting heart in order to live a vibrant Christian life? If we can’t, then we should confess and repent of our hypocrisy and partiality, else be done with calling ourselves Christians. True religion cares for widows, orphans and the like.
Anyabwile calls for the formation of a new conservative evangelical organization to promote sound theology for justice as well as a program of activism aligned with that theology. As I ponder this, I think a big part of the challenge for us is that there is no widely accepted language for talking about justice that is indigenous to evangelicalism. This has some lamentable consequences. Those who have begun to see evangelicalism's failures try to speak to their fellow evangelicals about it, but often do so by borrowing words and phrases that, to most evangelicals at least, are associated with the academy or secularism, and have developed political connotations. How can we avoid this when there is no established evangelical language for discussing these issues? It becomes very tempting to borrow words such as racism, white privilege, social justice, and more. The Bible addresses all of these ideas extensively, but the use of these phrases can throw up walls among White evangelical listeners right away.

The severity of the difficulty is revealed when we consider what happens when we try to discard these buzzwords and speak in specifically Christian terms using scriptural evidence. When we take this approach we encounter two dangers. The first concern is that in using specifically Christian language and lots of scripture, we make the message too opaque and generalized for White evangelicals to even understand that race and privilege and justice are the topics at hand. The second problem arises when White evangelicals understand the point we're driving at, but are utterly baffled by our use of scripture. Because we have been immersed in a cultural milieu that does not address systems and justice and racism -- because we have imbibed the false belief that these issues are not just superficially political but fundamentally political -- when we read scriptures that explicitly give us teaching on precisely these things, we often fail to see it. Having never seen a scripture used in this way before, it is extremely easy to reject its plain meaning.

Perhaps the kind of organization Mr. Anywabwile calls for can address this problem in a substantial way. In the meantime, it is important for us to begin to understand that our leaders have let us down. They have sold us a distorted and incomplete Gospel that harms others while leaving us without credibility before a watching world.

Thoughts for Sunday

This was the prophet Jeremiah speaking against Jerusalem thousands of years ago, but sometimes it sounds a little bit like us. 

To whom can I speak and give warning?
    Who will listen to me?
Their ears are closed
    so they cannot hear.
The word of the Lord is offensive to them;
    they find no pleasure in it.
But I am full of the wrath of the Lord,
    and I cannot hold it in.
“Pour it out on the children in the street
    and on the young men gathered together;
both husband and wife will be caught in it,
    and the old, those weighed down with years.
Their houses will be turned over to others,
    together with their fields and their wives,
when I stretch out my hand
    against those who live in the land,”
declares the Lord.
“From the least to the greatest,
    all are greedy for gain;
prophets and priests alike,
    all practice deceit.
They dress the wound of my people
    as though it were not serious.
‘Peace, peace,’ they say,
    when there is no peace.
Are they ashamed of their detestable conduct?
    No, they have no shame at all;
    they do not even know how to blush.
So they will fall among the fallen;
    they will be brought down when I punish them,”
says the Lord.

--Jeremiah 6:10-15 

I love scripture's use of language and imagery. It's remarkable that it sounds this good after translation. "They dress the wound of my people as though it were not serious. 'Peace, peace,' they say, when there is no peace." So biting, so heavy and hard-hitting and beautiful all at once. We're living it now.

Saturday, August 23, 2014

The Long Reach of Slavery

Slavery, abolished 150 years ago, measurably influences who is rich and poor today (see abstract below), and even who we vote for. It is one thing to say in a general sense that we are living with the echoes of slavery. It is quite another to control for all other variables and find that current inequality correlates with slave concentrations eight generations ago. We're not as independent as we like to believe. We can't escape the past. We must either face it as best we can, or let our ignorance compound its ravages.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

A Prayer for Mercy

I've written before that a White person coming to grips with the realities of American life and racial injustice is a process akin to a spiritual conversion. I'm not sure how much I thought of this as an analogy, or as an accurate description of what occurs. However I thought about it before, I'm now increasingly inclined to use these terms quite literally. This stems from my efforts to make sense of the reactions of White evangelicals when racial conflict is in the news. More than ever before I'm convinced that the disagreements we have are not rooted in evidence or politics. These are theological disagreements, and the stakes couldn't be higher.

As I've tried to make sense of some conversations I've had in recent days, I returned to Divided by Faith, by Michael Emerson and Christian Smith. There are some astonishing passages that I had forgotten. They describe, with exacting detail, the process that leads us to be so hard-hearted on this issue. Though written nearly 15 years ago, they perfectly capture the state of mind I've seen in discussions this past week. How could these sociologists so accurately portray the views of people 15 years in the future? White evangelicals are drawing on a deep intellectual tradition and "cultural toolkit" that constrains our opinions in ways that are invisible to us. We take White American middle class Christianity and just call it Christianity. It is a deeply destructive mistake. At its extreme end it is thoroughly heretical.

In addition to a large nationwide survey, Emerson and Smith built their study on hundreds of in-depth interviews with conservative Christians. When they asked interviewees what they believed caused racial inequality, a significant number of respondents were offended by the question. "Either they did not agree with the premise of the question (those who denied there was inequality), or they were irritated by blacks themselves (or the seemingly implicit suggestion that whites might somehow be at fault)." The authors go on:
What is it about inequality and black Americans that arouse such responses? After all, the respondents talked much about love for their neighbors, particularly those in the Christian family. African Americans are by and large Christian--a larger percent self-identify as Christian than in white America--so they should be particularly exempt from such responses. What then is so offensive?

African Americans, despite their Christian association, violate key tenets of white conservative Christianity. African Americans, in their eyes, are not true accountable freewill individualists, are relationally dysfunctional, and sin both by relying on programs rather than themselves, and by shifting blame to structurally based reasons for inequality. Although African Americans may be Christians, they are not good white American Christians. African Americans violate and challenge much of what is core to white American conservative Christianity. At first glace, the question about why racial inequality exists is not a religious question. Yet, because of the close historical and present-day connection between faith and the American way of life, at least for white conservative Protestants, it is a religious question. Racial inequality challenges their world understanding, and it challenges their faith in God and America. And insofar as it does, it is capable of arousing impassioned responses, for they are now dealing not just in mundane policy matters, but with issues of cosmic significance. [My emphasis]
When I'm trying to defuse tension in conversation with White evangelicals, I assure them that they don't have to change their politics in order to fight for racial justice. But that's trivial in comparison to what we will have to change: our understanding of God and self, our sense of what the Gospel means and how it is applied to our lives, the very foundation of our religious and spiritual life. It is likely to be every bit as wrenching as our original conversion experience. We don't have to want all of that upfront, any more than we really want Jesus to go to work on every other area of our life and destroy our selfish natural selves. But if we're unwilling to take even the first step with Jesus on this issue, then sin will build up around this hard place in us like rust on exposed metal.

But it's much harder for us than this individual perspective implies. Because we're living in communities and worshiping among brothers and sisters who encourage us to believe that the rust is a good thing, that it won't corrode us and turn us into something less than we're meant to be. We're happy about the things we do to follow Jesus and tell him we'll follow him anywhere. Then he comes to us in black skin. It's not that we refuse him, or spit on him, or slap him in the face. No, it's worse. We don't see him at all. Because he came to us in a black skin.

God, have mercy on us. Forgive us for the sins that we breathe in and out with the air. Forgive us for what is invisible to us because it came before us, bent us before we knew better, made us careless before we saw how much you care for us. Forgive us.

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

The Slaying of Michael Brown

True peace is not merely the absence of tension; it is the presence of justice.
     --Martin Luther King

The slaying of Michael Brown by a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri calls forth disparate but by now well-worn responses. There are two that I want to highlight that might come from White people like myself.

The first response is the evenhanded call for calm and justice in this particular incident. What happened to that boy is a damn shame, this person says, but it was a distinct event unconnected to anything else. A full and impartial investigation of this incident is needed, but now a media circus is going to make that more difficult. Furthermore, she might say, the rioting that has followed the shooting is more troubling than the conduct of the police force. She can't understand why a lonely shooting in a nation of 318 million souls provokes such an outcry, especially when people who look like Michael Brown are killing each other every day.

This person says everyone deserves justice. He says everyone is innocent until proven guilty. He says the color of a person's skin ought not matter, either in the application of justice or in the awakening of our sympathies. Indeed, this person is usually right, but it is the superficial and airy rightness born of complacency temporarily disturbed. "What's that? A racial disturbance in the national news, you say? Hold on, let me find my racial disturbance opinion flowchart."

This person accepts, but has not seen fit to understand, that peace is hard work. This person has learned about something called out-group prejudice but has happily found himself to be the exception proving humanity's rule. He makes his logical and insufferably correct pronouncements with no embarrassment, because he cannot imagine that others bring full and weighty lives, with full and weighty words to match, refined as they have been by fire. He cannot see what is so obvious to the grieving: his flowchart is showing.

The second response stands in opposition to the first. This person contemplates the experience of people who look like Michael Brown. She gets to know people who look like Michael Brown. She understands how governmental authorities operate in Michael Brown's neighborhood, because she has seen it with her own eyes. She sees the last few days not as a sudden and unwelcome disruption or media event, but as a cresting wave in a continuous roiling current. Most of this evil current is beneath the surface, invisible to the flighty holders of flowcharts.

This person has seen the men who look like Michael Brown on the side of the bustling boulevard pathetically selling bottles of almost-cold water to passing motorists on a too-hot day because no one will hire them. He understands that their strength of character and work ethic is stronger than his as he commutes to his rewarding middle class job. He has seen the boys who look like Michael Brown meekly submit as police assault them for what they might have done rather than what they did. He has seen the elderly woman who could be Michael Brown's grandmother faithfully sweep the sidewalk in front of her house every morning as her block falls apart.

This person has seen all this, and she is not surprised by the death of Michael Brown. Her surprise comes from elsewhere: how do millions of people who look like Michael Brown press on with patience in their step and bitterness absent from their heart? She contemplates this mystery. As she does she is tired and she is heavy with grief, because she cannot see the isolated incident that the flighty holders of flowcharts see. She sees another page in a very long story with an uncertain ending.

This second response is the Christian one. Racism as such is not addressed in scripture, since it's a category that didn't exist. But race, inextricably mingled with class, is our modern means of performing that ancient human rite that certainly did exist in biblical times: othering. Many of us, good Christians in our self-image, our loath to contemplate our practice of this insidious vice. But if the Gospel is working on us, we cannot avoid it. In its natural condition the human heart declares that its virtues are intrinsic and its faults extrinsic. In other words, if I am good, it is because I am good. If I am bad, it is because someone bothered me. The Gospel enters in and demands a complete reversal. There is nothing good in us; everything is a gift; I am bad because that's the sort of creature I am. We begin to find the playing field leveled. We look out on humanity and we can't find anyone worse than us. In a sense, with empathy infused by the Gospel, we can't even find anyone different from us.

Now, Michael Brown has been slain. There are "sides" to take. There are arguments to be won! Many of us are so afraid to confront the deepest sins of the human heart (pride toward God; indifference toward fellow human beings) that we fail to make the most basic application of Christian principles to American society. We know the God of our scriptures is on the side of the oppressed. Well, we'd better consider what that means right here in the United States. We'd better do so with no regard for the heretical worship of nation that dares to tell God our system of markets and liberties has rendered moot his categories of oppressed and oppressor. This heresy is rampant in our churches. In short, we must consider the basic fact that Black Americans are an oppressed class of human beings in our country. This calls for a response that transcends the evenhanded reasonableness I discussed above.

Some of us -- judgmental souls like myself -- are likely to ride our logical and evenhanded pronouncements all the way to hell. God, through scripture and in the the human form of Jesus, reveals himself to us without ambiguity as a God on the side of the weak, the poor, and the oppressed. Jesus died for us all, but beyond that there is very little even-handedness with God. He decided to give more faith to those at the bottom of society (the book of James). He decided to eternally judge us based on how we treat them (the book of Matthew). It is a fearful thing, then, to find that in controversy after controversy -- and much more than that, in the structures of our daily lives -- we take the side of our group against another. Christians need only consider where we would be if Christ's loyalties were constrained in the narrow manner of our own. Amid the perfect justice, peace, and fellowship of the Trinity, he might have asked, "Why let the humans in? Are any of them deserving? Why sacrifice for them?" It's laughable to consider, because of course Jesus apparently doesn't think like that. But it's more than laughable because it is precisely how we, his followers, do think.

Michael Brown is dead. It is not an isolated incident. It speaks of a centuries-old story. It speaks of the pain of millions. It speaks of oppressions yet to come. If that has not yet settled into your heart, please look to Jesus. Try to add your tears to his. Only then can you come back to consider how you might fight for the presence of justice rather than the absence of tension.