Timelines and Bloodlines

It turns out that the shift along racial lines among evangelical and Reformed Protestants is remarkably recent. Some have objected to seeing 2014 as the turning point, but Jemar Tisby seems to provide the smoking gun:

remembering Brown on the five-year anniversary of his killing would be incomplete without acknowledging the impact that this tragedy had on race relations within American evangelicalism.

I know how that day and the subsequent events affected my faith and my relation to those who I once thought of as my spiritual family.

Six days after Brown’s killing, I wrote for the first time publicly about my traumatic encounters with the police.

Every black man I know has harrowing stories of being pulled over, searched, handcuffed or even held at gunpoint. When I encouraged readers to “pause to consider the level and extent of injustice that many blacks have experienced at the hands of law enforcement officers,” the responses disclosed a deep divide.

Tisby goes on to talk about the criticism that he and other African-American evangelicals for questioning police brutality. He then observes:

Black Christians like me and many others began a “quiet exodus” from white evangelical congregations and organizations. We distanced ourselves both relationally and ideologically from a brand of Christianity that
seemed to revel in whiteness.

Now, after this quiet exodus, we find ourselves wandering in a sort of wilderness. Some are rediscovering the black church tradition and moving in that direction for healing and solidarity. Others, often by necessity, have remained in white evangelical spaces but with a new degree of caution. Some of us still don’t have a faith community to call home.

In sum:

Brown and Ferguson highlighted that when it comes to some parts of conservative evangelicalism, whiteness is not a bug, it’s a feature.

Who can judge another’s personal experience? I do not doubt that 2014 was traumatic for Tisby and many African-Americans, though I still don’t see the issue of police brutality as simply indicative of a black-white divide in the United States. In the hyphenated world in which all Christians live, it seems possible to support in general the functions of the police and oppose racism. In other words, opposition to racism should not be synonymous with hostility to law enforcement. I could well imagine, for instance, someone supporting Robert Mueller’s investigation (part of law enforcement) of the 2016 presidential election and detesting racism.

What is a problem, though, is to write a book with a tone of exasperation that white Christians just don’t get it. Not only does Tisby in his book fault white Christians for being tone deaf to race today. He adds that this is the way it has always been. The white church has been racist and always oblivious.

But if it took 2014 for an African-American Christian to see the problem, might not Tisby also have empathy for those who are five years late?

Meanwhile, to John Piper’s credit, his book on racism came out in 2011. He did not need cops in Ferguson, Missouri to see what Tisby saw three years later. Here is how Collin Hansen reviewed Piper’s book:

Tim Keller writes in his foreword that conservative evangelicals “seem to have become more indifferent to the sin of racism during my lifetime” (11). That would indeed be a major problem, since conservative evangelicals have been responsible for so much of the institutional racism of the last 60 or so years. Piper saw racism in the form of Southern segregation. The church of his youth voted in 1962 to ban blacks from attending services. His mother, however, opposed this motion. Piper’s experience explains the burden for writing this book, in which he argues, “Only Jesus can bring the bloodlines of race into the single bloodline of the cross and give us peace” (14). No political platform, lecture series, listening session, or economic program can cure what ails us. Nothing but the blood of Jesus can wash away our sin and make our diverse society whole again. Sadly, white Christians have so often perpetuated racism that we’ve largely lost the moral authority to help our neighbors confront and overcome this sin.

Bloodlines opens with a brief recap of racial history in the United States focused on the leadership of Martin Luther King Jr. and his masterful writing, particularly “Letter from Birmingham Jail.” This historical jaunt may indicate Piper anticipates a youthful readership who did not live through these events. Or maybe he believes the race problem is worse than ever. He writes, “There are probably more vicious white supremacists in America today than there were in 1968” (27).

Either way, no one can argue the church has made sufficient progress on race. Sunday mornings remain largely self-segregated. But Piper sells himself short as a credible leader when it comes to racial reconciliation. He and his church have made commendable and costly investments to live out what they profess about the gospel that unites Jews and Gentiles. I would have gladly read much more than a few appendix pages on Bethlehem’s experience of trial and error. We need theology that exalts the work of Jesus, and we also need examples from churches that have enjoyed God’s gracious favor in the form of racial diversity and harmony.

With Keller and Piper alert to the problem of racism in white Protestant circles in 2011, Tisby’s dating of the racial rift is curious. It is hard to believe he was not reading Keller and Piper.

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Selective Skepticism

Glenn Loury inspired this post.

Have you noticed that skepticism about climate change is unacceptable?

Skepticism of man-made global warming is high among pastors, especially younger ones, according to a 2013 poll from LifeWay Research. Just 19 percent of pastors ages 18 to 44 agree with the statement, “I believe global warming is real and man made.”

The Christian right has been actively promoting climate change skepticism, especially on Christian radio and television, said Robin Globus Veldman, a religious studies professor at Iowa State University who is working on a book on evangelicals and climate change.

“Environmentalists were caught in the crossfire because they were positioned on the other side of the aisle and tend to be less religious,” Veldman said. “They started to be described as allied with the people who were trying to push Christianity out of the public square.”

But skepticism about the U.S. criminal justice system is acceptable:

Long after the facts of the case have been parsed and forgotten, long after Mike Brown t-shirts are faded and Darren Wilson rides off into a sunset that still hides George Zimmerman, there will be a record.

And if written correctly, it will tell the story of a people who refused to let America run from her promise of justice and equal protection under the law; citizens who used every awful tragedy, every imperfect victim, every messy media firestorm, every conflicting account, every questionable death, every chance it got to scream a truth that it knows deep in its bones: the police state is dangerous and unequal.

So, dear lions. Those of you black, brown, female, gay, poor, and oppressed; those feared and hunted by a system that won’t recognize its flaws, commit now to being historians. Tell and claim the parts of the Ferguson story that didn’t make it into the President’s remarks or McCulloch’s recap or the 24 hour news coverage.

If we do this, history will undoubtedly show what the state never has: that black lives – and all lives – matter.

Is the difference the result of Americans’ greater esteem for scientists compared to their regard for the professionals who comprise the criminal justice system (attorneys, police officials, judges, legislators, governors, POTUS)? Do Americans distrust people involved with law more than those who do science? Like so many answers, this one is complicated. Americans and scientists often do not see eye-to-eye on a number of matters of public debate:

A majority of the general public (57%) says that genetically modified (GM) foods are generally unsafe to eat, while 37% says such foods are safe; by contrast, 88% of AAAS scientists say GM foods are generally safe. The gap between citizens and scientists in seeing GM foods as safe is 51 percentage points. This is the largest opinion difference between the public and scientists.

Citizens are closely divided over animal research: 47% favor and 50% oppose the use of animals in scientific research.1 By contrast, an overwhelming majority of scientists (89%) favor animal research. The difference in the share favoring such research is 42 percentage points.

In some areas, like energy, the differences between the groups do not follow a single direction — they can vary depending on the specific issue. For example, 52% of citizens favor allowing more offshore drilling, while fewer AAAS scientists (32%), by comparison, favor increased drilling. The gap in support of offshore drilling is 20 percentage points. But when it comes to nuclear power, the gap runs in the opposite direction. Forty-five percent of citizens favor building more nuclear power plants, while 65% of AAAS scientists favor this idea.

The only one of 13 issues compared where the differences between the two groups are especially modest is the space station. Fully 64% of the public and 68% of AAAS scientists say that the space station has been a good investment for the country; a difference of four percentage points.

So if Americans and scientists are divided on lots of questions, why feature evangelicals’ skepticism about climate change? I wouldn’t have anything to do with the mantra that 81% voted for Donald Trump.

The Captain Renault GIF

How can you be shocked, shocked to find injustice going on in America after Ferguson (film noir anyone?)? And yet, people like Patricia McGuire of Trinity Washington University act as if the country has not been having a conversation about having a conversation about race for the past two plus years:

“We Americans study the history of tyranny and exclaim, ‘That’s terrible, but it would not happen here!’ as we congratulate ourselves on the robust state of our democracy. The experience of the last few months now exposes this once-confident boast as terribly naive and perhaps even dangerous as a new administration indulges in a remarkable torrent of false and misleading statements as a basis for policy and action,” she wrote. “The gravest lie we are grappling with at the present moment is the Trump Administration’s cruel and unreasonable war on immigrants — mostly people who are black and brown, and Muslim — Mexicans and refugees from central America, Syrian refugees, people from certain countries in the Middle East and Africa including Iran, Iraq, Sudan, Syria, Yemen, Libya and Somalia.”

Black lives mattered before Trump?

This is why we worry about those who use the present to turn history into morality plays. What history does best is teach students we’ve been here before, all is vanity. Only Whig historians believe in progress and then are surprised when their narratives let them down.

Turns Out W-w Isn't Sufficient

Matt Chandler implicitly challenges the powerful work of taking every thought captive:

The challenge with white privilege is that most white people cannot see it. We assume that the experiences and opportunities afforded to us are the same afforded to others. Sadly, this simply isn’t true. Privileged people can fall into the trap of universalizing experiences and laying them across other people’s experiences as an interpretive lens. For instance, a privileged person may not understand why anyone would mistrust a public servant simply because they have never had a viable reason to mistrust a public servant. The list goes on.

What is so deceptive about white privilege is that it is different from blatant racism or bias. A privileged person’s heart may be free from racist thoughts or biased attitudes, but may still fail to see how the very privilege afforded to him or her shapes how he or she interprets and understands the situations and circumstances of people without privilege.

Well, actually, if you’ve seen any television show in the last five decades, not to mention the beloved The Wire, you have plenty of reasons for knowing about the mistrust that some people experience when encountering a public servant. Heck, if you’ve watched a single Coen Brothers’ movie, you can’t but help encounter the mixed motives that course through most people who don’t think they have had a lobotomy just because Jesus is in their heart. Double heck, if you went to Temple University and dealt with “public servants” in the Bursar’s Office, you don’t need to be black to mistrust people who work for the state.

But I do wonder why people with white privilege need to change more than to be pitied. Maybe people with white privilege are simply under bondage and can’t change. Why don’t they receive any empathy? Or why does Chandler expect some people to overcome their blinders but not others? Is it another form of white privilege to think that whites have the capacity to change or lead it?

Back to the Regularly Schedule Outrage

So as I was cooking yesterday morning in preparation for last night’s congregational hymn sing and December (near Christmas) pot providence supper, I had NPR on with Diane Rehm leading a group of men through a discussion of the Senate’s report on CIA torture. And I’m thinking, first Ferguson, then Ray Rice, then Eric Garner. How do I manage my outrage?

Well, in the world of grief followed by getting on with life, the way Diane decided to ease her listeners back from a view of the CIA far too close to Homeland was by devoting the second hour to Mr. Rogers? Imagine how African-American listeners might have felt if Diane had decided to follow an hour-long discussion of Ferguson with a segment on holiday weight-gain. Would that topic trivialize the injustice?

Maybe you devote two hours to U.S. intelligence and its abuses.

Or perhaps, if you have a job to do and you put together roughly 250 programs a year, you don’t feature outrageous events all the time. After all, with all the sin, misery, and injustice in the world, we could be outraged most of the time (as the missus suspects I am). The fact that we are not more outraged more of the time may be an indication of how relatively good life is this side of glory. As anyone who grieves the loss of a loved one knows, the world doesn’t stop and you don’t get a day off from adult responsibilities just because dad died. Maybe even the day after you observe the burial of your father you clean the bathrooms. Does that trivialize the grief? Or is it possible to live a life based on intense grief (or outrage)? Experimental Calvinists please don’t answer.

Upon further reflection, though, with help from Ross Douthat, John McWhorter, and Diane Rehm, I have come to wonder whether the extensive discussions of race relations and police brutality disguise a much bigger problem — the use of force by people whose self-interest coincides with justifications for it.

Ross Douthat, for instance, thinks that Ferguson does not make the case for improved policing policy that many do:

Ferguson is turning into a poor exhibit for the policy causes that it’s being used to elevate. We will never know exactly what happened in the shooting of Michael Brown, but at this point the preponderance of the available evidence suggests that this case is at the very least too ambiguous, and quite possibly too exculpatory of the officer involved, to effectively illustrate a systemic indictment of police conduct. Meanwhile, while I continue to believe that the looting and vandalism in Ferguson do not, by their mere existence, prove that a full-metal-jacket police response to the protests was wise or productive — quite the reverse; I still think it contributed to a dynamic of escalation — the fact remains that if you’re trying to make a case to anyone on the center-right (or the non-ideological public, for that matter) that American police forces have become too aggressive, too armored-up, too bullying, a story in which they ended up failing to prevent the destruction of businesses and property is not necessarily the ideal exhibit to introduce.

Douthat points to John McWhorter, always a good read, who thinks the Brown and Garner incidents point to a problem about police-community relations:

The right-wing take on Brown, that he was simply a “thug,” is a know-nothing position. The question we must ask is: What is the situation that makes two young black men comfortable dismissing a police officer’s request to step aside?

These men were expressing a community-wide sense that the official keepers of order are morally bankrupt. What America owes communities like Ferguson — and black America in general — is a sincere grappling with that take on law enforcement that is so endemic in black communities nationwide. As Northwestern philosopher Charles Mills has put it, “Black citizens are still differentially vulnerable to police violence, thereby illustrating their second class citizenship.”

This is true. It is most of what makes so many black people of all classes sense racism as a key element of black life, and even identity. Now, some suppose that the reason for what Mills refers to is black people’s fault, that black people are just too dumb, lazy, and immoral to understand what it is to be decent citizens. Most would disagree, however, which logically implies that something has gone terribly wrong from the other end — from law enforcement itself. The President’s statement on the verdict got at this point: what we must get past is larger than the specifics of what happened between Wilson and Brown.

And in that vein, as someone who has written in ardent sympathy with the Ferguson protests, I find this hard to write, but I have decided that it would be dishonest of me to hold back. As I have written endlessly, America will never get past race without a profound change in how police forces relate to black men.

The one point of disagreement I have with McWhorter stems from the reality that today U.S. police forces include many African-American men and women. This is not like the televised incidents of white police beating up protesting blacks in urban neighborhoods on fire. African-Americans are now — can you say President Obama? — on both sides of the law. In which case the issue of race may actually cloud the matter of privilege. Do Bill Cosby or Jesse Jackon’s children face the same relations with people who enforce the law as do Michael Brown and Eric Garner? And do the poor white residents of Hillsdale, Michigan fare better with the local police than the children of African-American University of Michigan professors do with Ann Arbor’s finest? Of course, in some parts of urban America, African-Americans are disproportionately situated in communities that police treat differently. But is that merely a function of race or is it much more a case of wealth?

Irrespective of the incidents in New York and Ferguson, the United States faces a much bigger problem — perhaps the granddaddy of them all — a branch of the federal government that has almost unlimited power (in the name of national interest) to brutalize people. But before we let ourselves off the hook as innocent bystanders to these incidents, Noah Millman has a useful reminder that many of us asked for this after 9/11:

I’ve written before about the overwhelming fear that afflicted the country in the wake of 9-11, and how, perversely, exaggerating the severity of the threat from al Qaeda helped address that fear, because it made it acceptable to contemplate more extreme actions in response. If al Qaeda was really just a band of lunatics who got lucky, then 3,000 died because, well, because that’s the kind of thing that can happen. If al Qaeda was the leading edge of a worldwide Islamo-fascist movement with the real potential to destroy the West, then we would be justified in nuking Mecca in response. Next to that kind of response, torture seems moderate.

Willingness to torture became, first within elite government and opinion-making circles, then in the culture generally, and finally as a partisan GOP talking point, a litmus test of seriousness with respect to the fight against terrorism. That – proving one’s seriousness in the fight – was its primary purpose from the beginning, in my view. It was only secondarily about extracting intelligence. It certainly wasn’t about instilling fear or extracting false confessions – these would not have served American purposes. It was never about “them” at all. It was about us. It was our psychological security blanket, our best evidence that we were “all-in” in this war, the thing that proved to us that we were fierce enough to win.

You can probably make a similar point about the police and community relations. Lots of Americans, black and white, vote for candidates who will be tough on crime. When that toughness becomes something from which we would prefer to avert our eyes, do we side with candidates who say, “let’s treat criminals charitably”? I don’t think so.

And maybe that is why Diane Rehm has a nationally syndicated radio show and I don’t. You program both outrage and sunny-side up sentimentality. That’s how we get through the g-d day.