Saturday, June 27, 2015

Confessions Of A Former Confederate

In a moment of heated debate, it is useful for me to step back and consider the myriad beliefs I hold that are incorrect, immoral, or just plain stupid. Of course, this is something close to an exercise in futility because I don't know what those misguided beliefs are. If I did, I suppose I wouldn't claim them as my own. Yet the mere admission--if sincerely contemplated--that such beliefs have no doubt found a home in me is a useful check on overweening pride and judgment of others. And I can go a step further. My current error may be extremely hard to discern, but I can see my past sins with relative clarity.

One of those sins is directly related to the debate over the Confederate flag. So let's have some real talk.

As a teenager, I was a devotee of the Confederacy. Call it my own peculiar brand of adolescent rebellion if you like. I devoured popular military histories of the Civil War, including Shelby Foote's monumental classic. I read the book precisely as Foote wrote it--lustily cheering for the underdogs (more about this in a moment). My favorite movie was Gettysburg, a sprawling epic that hit all the high notes of popular myth: the civil war as tragedy, of noble brothers bonded by valor, of invisible African Americans. I labored through a book purporting to show that the South did not secede because of slavery, and I prided myself on reading every word of what seemed to be a very academic book. I played the Civil War General computer game and enjoyed destroying the Yankees at Fredericksburg. I went to bed at night pondering what might have been if only Stonewall Jackson had not ridden out in the dark that fateful night to be shot by his own men. Ahh, the possibilities!

As a 17-year old taking an English 101 class at the local community college, I declared that the historical figure I would most like to meet was Robert E. Lee--not only because of his military prowess, but because of his extraordinary character. I evangelized to my friends, explaining to them that the war was not about slavery and that the South was in the right. I lamented the expansion of federal power that the war wrought. A couple years ago, I found my notes from a 2004 sociology class. I was the hapless Confederate roped into a group project on racial disparities in modern America. Scrawled across the pages of evidence gathered by my classmates were my words: "Not true!" "False!" I knew my classmates were wrong not because I gathered counter-evidence, but because they had to be wrong.

Though I myself did not wear or fly the Confederate flag, its absence was by circumstance rather than conviction. Being a collector of books rather than memorabilia, I simply never got around to buying one.

We can talk about all sorts of reasons I may have had so many mistaken beliefs, but the real root of it is deceptively simple: In my mind, Black people were abstract. They were something less than fully human. I gave intellectual consent to their existence without any difficulty. But they were people to be talked about more than talked to. They were people on the news (and it usually wasn't flattering). They did not sweat and bleed and dream and hope in precisely the same way I did. They appeared in history as disembodied slaves. Not enslaved people, just slaves. They appeared as the aggregate labor force of King Cotton, not as the stooped backs and bloodied hands picking that cotton. They were "servants" and slaves with a better diet than many European peasants (this was, for some reason, a very important point). They were not parents and children separated by sale; they were not liars and truth-tellers and heroes and failures and murderers and saints and all the other things that human beings are. Mostly, they just weren't in my picture at all. My enthusiasm for the underdogs extended not to the real underdogs, but their oppressors.

There is a rather simpler way of talking about all this. I was racist. (And, no doubt, still am by the way). But to simply say that I was a racist is to miss the nuances of what this racism consisted of. It was not, in fact, animus toward Black people. (True to form, I could honestly say at the time that my best friend was Black, and it was literally true.) It was, rather, a pervasive overlooking of Black people, Black culture, Black history, a dismissal so total that it constituted the dehumanization of an entire class of human beings. This was all invisible to me. If I said I had nothing against Black people, I wasn't putting on airs. If I said I saw and treated all people equally, I said it with all the certainty of an unexamined conscience. And when I praised the Confederacy, it literally didn't occur to me that this had much at all to do with Black people.

In 2005, I moved to Chicago for college. I met a wonderful young woman (now my wife) who mercifully did not dismiss me out of hand when I casually mentioned that I was a fan of the Confederacy. She began to have her effect on me. And over the years, Black Christians and Black neighbors have been so patient, so winsome, so manifestly human, that my unexamined and unconscious racism was ruthlessly exposed.

Once a process of repentance began in my life, I began to see that many of my beliefs about the Civil War, African Americans, and the Confederacy were factually wrong. But the deeper transformation was a moral one. I came to see that my moral failing preceded my intellectual error. Believing fake history did not make me racist as much as being racist made fake history seem plausible. My moral awakening exposed my intellectual incoherence and quickly caused it to crumble.

Who is to blame? We like to assign culpability, right? This was my sin. It's completely on me, and I have to answer for it. Yet we must keep another truth in mind at the same time. My sin was only practical, only conceivable, in a society of White supremacist imagination. My beliefs had no rational basis, and we do not, as a matter of course, wander off into random irrational beliefs. Rather, our beliefs are structured by the boundaries of the plausible in a given society. Evil embedded in the foundations of a society is hard to recognize. It appears, in fact, as nothing at all. It is natural, invisible. It is what allowed me to breathe in American air and exhale profound indifference for my fellow human beings.

I bring this experience to the Confederate flag debate. That's my bias. I don't think I'm particularly noble. I don't think I'm particularly monstrous. I'll let you work out the implications.

Saturday, June 20, 2015

After Charleston, We Must Remember

As we mourn the dead of Charleston, let us remember. As many of you know by now, this was not just any church. This was Denmark Vesey's church. It was a living symbol of a Black freedom fighter. Let us remember. Let us reject White frames of remembrance that cast Robert E. Lee as noble and Denmark Vesey as threatening. Let us remember that African Americans were both Christians and Americans in the South at a time when few Whites wanted anything to do with the genuine article of either.

"What one begs the American people to do," the Black writer James Baldwin declared in 1965, is simply to accept our history."

Half a century later, this act of remembrance is still the great task remaining before us.

By their very presence, Black Americans have always represented a threat to the White "system of reality" (Baldwin's words). When American law said Whiteness was a prerequisite for citizenship, Black Americans insisted they were entitled to it anyway. When the idea of America as a "Christian Nation" was sheer farce, African Americans gave lonely expression to a genuine faith. It makes sense that the terrorist targeted a Black church this week. The Black church challenges, at once, the entire system of White racial-religious myth that continues to hold sway in our imaginations. To the present day, forthright expression of Black perspectives evokes extraordinary anger and defensiveness among White Americans. To this day, Black Americans represent a threat to our very identities. Let us remember.

James Baldwin saw this more clearly than any writer I know. At a debate in Cambridge, England, in 1965, Baldwin said, "Until the moment comes when we, the American people, are able to accept the fact ancestors were both white and black; that on that continent we are trying to forge a new identity for which we need each other; and that I am not a ward of America; I am not an object of missionary charity; I am one of the people who built the country--until this moment there is scarcely any hope for the American Dream..."

Too many of us want to construct this new identity on the cheap. We want a "post-racial" future without the reality of our oppressive past. The problem is, deep in our bones, White Americans understand the awful logic of retribution. We intuitively, if subconsciously, understand the magnitude of what Black Americans could justly demand. Yet Black Americans have repeatedly rejected an eye for an eye. They have taken the fake Christianity of the enslaver and produced a faith worthy of the name of Christ, a faith we saw so richly in action in the words of grieving family members as they spoke forgiveness for the Charleston terrorist.

Most Black Americans have not embraced the cold logic of revenge to which they are entitled. Baldwin was one of many who instead asked for something as profoundly simple as it is difficult: acknowledge our history. Admit the full humanity of Black Americans. Admit that they took a country that was never intended for them, and made it into something different for all of us. Admit that their experience is unlike any other group in American history. Come to grips with why race was made. Confront the causes and consequences of White advantage here and now. Many White Americans would rather corrupt our entire "system of reality" than face an honest accounting of the history to which we belong.

Remembering is not a culmination but a beginning. Remembering is not sufficient for justice in 2015, but it is a precondition for it. As the flag of enslavement, torture, rape, and treason flies high in South Carolina, the need for a reckoning remains. What kind of social sickness must stalk the land that would allow such a hateful emblem to be open to interpretation?

Baldwin's opponent in that debate of 1965 was the founding father of modern American conservatism, William F. Buckley. His sneering response to Baldwin has much to tell us about the White American imagination then and since. He insinuated that Black Americans were either culturally or genetically inferior. At a time of state-sanctioned oppression, he castigated Black Americans for supposedly not taking advantage of the opportunities available to them. In a bizarre and chilling conclusion, Buckley warned that if made to choose between the American Dream and Black demands, White Americans would embark on a race war to defend their civilization. And they would do so with confidence in the rightness of their cause, just as the British had done in their fight against Nazis a generation before.

In Buckley's rhetoric, Black Americans constituted a threat to traditional American culture, economic systems, and political practices. The American Dream stood in opposition to Black demands for inclusion in it. Blackness, analogized as Nazism in Buckley's imagination, threatened the very meaning of America.

It is somehow fitting that Buckley warned of a race war fifty years ago. A friend of presidents, prolific author, maker of a movement, recipient of the nation's highest civilian honor, host of an award-winning public television show--Buckley was anything but marginal. Indeed, he had a brilliant mind. His morally sick system of reality was not exceptional; it was representative of the nation he loved.

By all accounts, Dylann Roof acted alone when he shot nine people this week. But the ideas animating him are as American as apple pie. He wanted to start a race war.

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

A Usable Past For Justice-Loving Evangelicals

At a time when the public face of American evangelicalism is strongly associated with the cultural conservatism of the White South, it may surprise some of us to hear that evangelicals are also heirs to a tradition of progressive reform. Indeed, it may surprise evangelicals themselves. Both within the church and without we have been inundated with narratives of resentment and reaction from the descendants of southern enslavers and White supremacists. Jerry Falwell's transition from a provincial segregationist pastor to avatar of the "Moral Majority" has been told many times not only because he was important in his own right, but because his story embodies some of the embarrassing roots of contemporary evangelicalism.

But our roots go deeper than that, and they're important for young evangelicals to know. Then perhaps they can fight for justice because they are evangelicals, not in spite of it. I was reminded of this when reading Daniel Walker Howe's excellent history of America from 1815-1848, What Hath God Wrought. Religion is prominent in Howe's interpretation, and few figures loom larger than Charles Grandison Finney. Finney is well known to contemporary evangelicals because of his phenomenal success and influence as an evangelist. That we are less likely to be aware of his other exploits is itself an indication of the dominance the White supremacist evangelical tradition has in our understanding of ourselves. Here's Howe:
Finney saw social implications in the Christian message. He preached against the evils of alcohol and tobacco [At a time when alcohol consumption was much higher than now and really was a vast social problem]. He ran greater risks by his active opposition to slavery. Although New York had begun a process of gradual emancipation, some persons remained in bondage there until 1827. When Finney was preaching at Chatham Street Chapel...he refused the sacrament of communion to slaveholders on the grounds that they were unrepentant sinners. In October 1833, he offered the chapel to a meeting of the New York Anti-Slavery Society. Their demands for immediate, uncompensated abolition met a hostile reception in New York...When a mob stormed the building, the leaders of the society barely escaped....A series of disorders followed, all deriving from the church's support for the antislavery cause. After the Broadway Tabernacle was built for Finney's use to replace the theater-turned-chapel, arsonists burned it down...

In 1835, Finney went to Ohio to teach theology at the exciting newly founded Oberlin College. Oberlin had been created by one of the major student rebellions in American history. Seventy-five radical antislavery students left Lane Seminary in Cincinnati en masse, protesting racist practiced by the seminary trustees...

In 1851, he would become president of the college. During Finney's years there, Oberlin defined the cutting edge of social and religious innovation. At a time when women could find little higher education open to them, it was the first coeducational college in the world. It trained Christian missionaries and antislavery activists of both sexes...The college was racially desegregated on more than a token basis; indeed, before he accepted his professorship Finney stipulated that "we should be allowed to receive colored people on the same conditions that we did white people." Oberlin became a safe haven on the underground railroad for slaves escaping to freedom in Canada...

For widespread influence, personal integrity, social conscience, and spiritual power, few American evangelists of a later age could equal Charles G. Finney.
I was surprised by Howe's nearly hagiographical tone here, but nonetheless, I hope the stories of people like Finney find a larger evangelical audience. I do not have any desire to obscure evangelicalism's myriad failings, but I do want evangelicals to know that they have antecedents beyond the White supremacist South. We want to reform evangelicalism. Reformers often ground the legitimacy of their efforts in a certain  narrative of the past. Often mythologized, such narratives nonetheless do important work. They provide a usable past for those seeking to change the future. Justice-loving evangelicals need to know that they have a usable past, and they barely even need any mythology to lay claim to it.