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.

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