A Different Kind of Social Justice (or African Theology)

In today’s class on religion in the U.S., students and I discussed Mary Beth Swetnam Matthews’ book Doctrine and Race. Aside from lots of evidence of how pervasive racism was among the leaders of the fundamentalist movement (William Bell Riley, John Roach Straton, and J. Frank Norris — no mention of Machen), Matthews’ book is very illuminating about how conservative and conventional African-American Baptists and Methodists were. Consider the following:

Those loose morals had many causes, including dances, movies, and gambling, all of which shared a common denominator — they were usually performed outside of churches and thus away from the moral guidance of pastors, elders, and other God-fearing people…. “What is the danger of these [non-church activities]?” Baptist J. C. Austin asked the assembled National Sunday School and Baptist Young Peoples Union Congress in Dayton, Ohio, in 1935. His response was simple: “It is cheating, lying, gambling, a loss of temper, a waste of time, being eaten up with a seal for [worldly pastimes], and the disposition to fight and murder about them. (100)

[W. J. Walls} carefully noted that “we do not hold that dancing itself sends anybody’s soul to hell, but we do know from all observation (for we have never danced), that it is one of the contributing causes to the weakness of the race, the dissipation of religious influence, and therefore the downfall of character. . . We must preach a whole gospel for the salvation of the individual: — body, mind, and soul. There is no perfect character that is not built upon this basis.” (104)

[According to Cameron C. Alleyne] divorces “rob so many children of complete parent bond. Something must be balanced in this parenthood. The mother is given to pampering. It is hers to comfort the child with tender words. The father is given to the sterner qualities of discipline now”. . . Divorce mean “substituting calories for character and vitamins for virtue,” with women supplying the calories and vitamins and men the character and virtue. (108)

[William H. Davenport wrote] “nowhere in Holy Writ is there a hint or suggestion about birth control, or regulating the size of families.” For him, the doctrine of sola scriptura had primacy. argued that to “put the imprimatur of the Church upon the immoral practice of arresting the orderly process of nature is hostile to Christian doctrine, and subversive of the welfare of society”(110)

The lesson: some social gospels are more social than others.


Comments Are Open

Leon Brown wants to have a conversation about race at a blog where comments are always closed. So let me help him out — servant serving servers I am — by opening up comments at a site where even spammers get through.

Brown’s post about the tragic death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri and the subsequent interview with Scott Clark has me puzzled and that is why I would like to open the comments.

First, I’m not sure I recognize myself as an American of European descent in Brown’s post. On the one hand, he acknowledges whiteness and says that whites should not be ashamed:

Let’s be transparent: the majority of both readership and authorship on this blog are white. Do not be ashamed that you are white. I am unashamed of this visible difference. You should be unashamed, too, and take great pride in God’s creative genius to create us visually different. Yet, simply because we are in Christ does not flatten the beauty of ethnic and cultural distinctions that we maintain. Galatians 3:27-29 provides no grounds for such a conclusion.

That’s all well and good but then Leon goes on to mention white perceptions or treatment of blacks that should make every white American very ashamed:

With these ethnic and cultural distinctions, therefore, we may see the Mike Brown proceeding through a different lens. For some of us this simply highlights what we have always known, or at least believed, to be true: young black men are unsafe in this nation. For others, perhaps some of you, especially if you have been following this event, may wonder, “Why do they (i.e., African-Americans) have to make everything about race?” Based on your observations, you have concluded that blacks, and/or other minorities, unnecessarily pull the proverbial race card. Some African-Americans, or other sub-dominant cultures, might respond, “Why do whites always dismiss the possibility that race, or ethnicity, was a motivating factor in said event?” . . .

Consider the recent and ongoing immigration debate. How has it affected you? What do you think when you see a Spanish speaking image-bearer, one who knows, or at least it is assumed, very little English? What has caused your conclusions? Do you remain unaffected by the outcry of some in the media who thrust names on them, such as, “illegal,” “unwanted immigrant,” or “wetback”? The point of the news, while to inform, is also to sway opinion, and I think we may lack transparency if we claim we are not, at least in part, somehow affected by what some branches of the media portray about immigration.

The same can be stated about African-Americans. For years in this nation, African-Americans have been, and continue to be, portrayed in shrouds of untruth. “We are lazy, good-for-nothings,” some have and do say. “We are animals,” it has been said. Or in the words of PCUS minister, Benjamin Palmer (1818-1902), “The worst foes of the black race are those who have intermeddled on their behalf. We know better than others that every attribute of their character fits them for dependence and servitude. By nature the most affectionate and loyal of all races beneath the sun, they are also the most helpless.”

I don’t deny that these attitudes exist or that they are worthy of shame. But Leon doesn’t seem to understand that whenever he (and others) bring up race in ways that shame whites, he introduces a one-way street of discomfort. Whites do and should feel uncomfortable. But Leon doesn’t seem to show any awareness that such an uncomfortable subject may shut down conversation — sort of like a wife wanting to talk to her adulterous husband about his affair; what do you say, “honey, let’s talk more about how I betrayed you”? In which case, what kind of conversation does Leon want?

One way to facilitate conversation might be for Leon to notice at least two segments of his white audience — those who are racist and those who don’t think they are (though they may harbor some residue of prejudice), don’t generally make stupid comments to black pastors, and who empathize with black frustrations and resentment. If Leon wanted to have a conversation with the second of these groups, what good does it do to bring up insensitive remarks? Doesn’t this miss the target? But if the former group, doesn’t the introduction of matters that should cause embarrassment (or require explanation of why it’s embarrassing) — again — shut the conversation down?

Another question worthy of conversation, it seems to me, is whether Leon would be interested in discussing the black church and its own lack of integration. I don’t raise this as a tit for tat. I have great admiration for African-American Protestants. Here you have a group of Americans disproportionately Protestant compared to Americans of European descent. Here’s is what a Pew survey found:

The Landscape Survey also finds that nearly eight-in-ten African-Americans (79%) say religion is very important in their lives, compared with 56% among all U.S. adults. In fact, even a large majority (72%) of African-Americans who are unaffiliated with any particular faith say religion plays at least a somewhat important role in their lives; nearly half (45%) of unaffiliated African-Americans say religion is very important in their lives, roughly three times the percentage who says this among the religiously unaffiliated population overall (16%). Indeed, on this measure, unaffiliated African-Americans more closely resemble the overall population of Catholics (56% say religion is very important) and mainline Protestants (52%).

Additionally, several measures illustrate the distinctiveness of the black community when it comes to religious practices and beliefs. More than half of African-Americans (53%) report attending religious services at least once a week, more than three-in-four (76%) say they pray on at least a daily basis and nearly nine-in-ten (88%) indicate they are absolutely certain that God exists. On each of these measures, African-Americans stand out as the most religiously committed racial or ethnic group in the nation. Even those African-Americans who are unaffiliated with any religious group pray nearly as often as the overall population of mainline Protestants (48% of unaffiliated African-Americans pray daily vs. 53% of all mainline Protestants). And unaffiliated African-Americans are about as likely to believe in God with absolute certainty (70%) as are mainline Protestants (73%) and Catholics (72%) overall.

These same African-Americans profess the faith (though in separate communions) that their former masters and oppressors used against them. It would make more sense to me if I were African-American to be a Muslim than to be a Baptist, Methodist, or Pentecostal. Why have anything to do with the religion that white Protestants used to justify slavery and segregation? But for some reason, African-Americans remain a devout people.

The strength and institutional significance of the black church means that establishing mixed race churches as Leon wants to do may be akin to integrating Major League Baseball. With Jackie Robinson’s joining the Dodgers also came the beginning of the end of the Negro Leagues. No offense to Leon, but I doubt his efforts will bring an end to the black church. But the idea of attracting African-Americans to white churches does raise a few additional questions for the desired conversation.

Do the African-Americans who come to Presbyterians churches leave black churches or are they converts? In other words, how much sheep stealing may be involved in trying to integrate white churches? And if some respond that we want African-American Baptists and Holiness folks to leave the churches and come to the best expression of Christianity (Reformed Protestantism), then can we lay off the Machen’s-warrior-children put down of confessional Presbyterians who raise questions about whether Baptists or evangelicals are Reformed? I for one welcome support for the Reformed cause. But to be militant about Reformed Protestantism in discussions about race relations can raise another delicate subject — namely, whether the black church is good enough. It may not be (from the perspective of the Reformed confessions), but what white Protestant who does not want to insult fellow Americans or professing Christians wants to argue that black churches need to be more like white Reformed ones?

A final question that deserves comment is why Leon decided to make further remarks about race in the highly charged context of the Michael Brown slaying. Since his post was personal let me be as well. The news of apparent police brutality carried out again against a black young man was deeply discouraging. Leon uses the word, “unfortunate.” I’ll use “tragic.” I cannot imagine the grief to his parents, siblings, friends, teachers, and neighbors, nor the fear of living with police that appear to be capable of such actions, nor the resentment that a minority people that has taken lots of hits now having to endure another. But this incident also sent me looking for news about the St. Louis neighborhood, Mark Brown himself, and even church life in Ferguson. Well, aren’t I special. But why didn’t Leon try to present more information about the incident and aftermath? Why did this piece remind him to remind us that American Protestants are still divided by race?

For that reason the piece about Ferguson that American Conservative posted might have been more instructive and even hopeful than Leon’s post:

Adam Weinstein put it more bluntly at Gawker. “The U.S. armed forces exercise more discipline and compassion than these cops.” He cites the first page of the Army’s field manual on civil disturbances, which emphasizes proportional, nuanced responses. “Inciting a crowd to violence or a greater intensity of violence by using severe enforcement tactics must be avoided.” The manual also notes that “highly emotional social and economic issues” inform such disturbances, and that “it takes a small (seemingly minor) incident” to set off violence “if community relations with authorities are strained.”

Unlike the military, who are trained in nonviolent options for conflict resolution, the police often lack such knowledge. Bonnie Kristian expounded this failure and reasons behind systematic police brutality earlier this summer, noting also that cops are rarely held accountable for abuse. “Only one out of every three accused cops are convicted nationwide, while the conviction rate for civilians is literally double that.”

The entrenched racial injustice behind Michael Brown’s death will be difficult to root out, as it has been over centuries of American history. But the decades of policy that allowed for police abuse of Brown, and his town’s peaceful protesters, could be reversed—and if the public outcry over Ferguson is anything to judge by, Americans will be keeping a closer eye on the police in the coming years.

Let me be direct: Leon, some of us white American Presbyterians (vinegary though we be) want to know what to do. We want to be good neighbors and good fellow presbyters. As the American Conservative piece indicates, racial injustice and racial prejudice are hard to transform. But trying to curtail police abuse sure seems like a policy and social good. That might not help with planting mixed race churches. But churches may be beside the point in instances like this, or if they are part of the point, American Protestantism is a whole lot more complicated than churches separated along racial lines.