How would Tyler and Jemar sound
if they listened to Glenn and John?
I’m all for conversation.
Mark Galli thinks evangelicals have opened a new chapter on race. But I wonder if it is the chapter that mainline Protestants opened — oh — fifty years ago:
We are currently experiencing a new “God moment,” when God is shining his burning light on how our nation and our churches are fractured by racial division and injustice. In the past two years, we’ve seen image after image of injustice perpetrated against black Americans. We’ve studied the statistics. And most important, we’ve heard the anguished cry of a suffering community that is understandably hurting, angry, and demanding progress.
Moderate white evangelicals, who make up the bulk of our movement, see more clearly than ever how racism is embedded in many aspects of our society, from business to law enforcement to education to church life. We have been slow to hear what the black church has been telling us for a while. And in all that, we hear God calling his church to seek justice and reconciliation in concrete ways.
To be evangelical now means to be no longer deaf to these cries or to God’s call. In 2012, only 13 percent of white evangelicals said they thought about race daily (41% of black evangelicals did so). Today, we’re thinking about race more than daily—due partly to the news cycle, and partly to our rediscovering biblical teaching.
I used to hear a lot about how evangelicals were always about 10 to 15 years behind the times.
So I wonder when evangelical Protestants like Galli will get around to reading John McWhorter whose book, Winning the Race, came out ten years ago:
It’s not that there is “something wrong with black people,” but rather, that there is something wrong with what black people learned from a new breed of white people in the 1960s. . . . The nut of the issue is that [people who see racism everywhere] want neither justice nor healing. What people like this are seeking is, sadly, not what they claim to be seeking. They seek one thing: indignation for its own sake. . . .
Two new conditions were necessary for alienation among blacks to so often drift from its moorings in the concrete and become the abstract, hazy “race thing” that whites just “don’t get.”
One condition was that blacks had to be prepared to embrace therapeutic alienation, and ironically, this could only have been when conditions were improved for blacks. When racism was omnipresent and overt, it would have been psychological suicide for blacks to go around exaggerating what was an all-too-real problem.
Second, whites had to be prepared to listen to the complaints and assume (or pretend) that they were valid. This only began during the counter cultural revolution, within which a new openness to blacks and an awareness of racism were key elements. . . . Many whites were now, for the first time, ready to nod sagely at almost anything a black person said. And in that new America, for many blacks, fetishizing the evils of the White Man beyond what reality justified was a seductive crutch for a spiritual deficit that we would be surprised that they did not have. It was the only way to feel whole. Even blacks less injured were still injured enough to let the loudest shouters pass, as bards of their less damaging, but still aggravating, pains. (4, 5, 7)
What will Galli’s successor write about evangelicals and race in twenty-five years when she discovers John McWhorter?
I was listening to Glenn Loury and John McWhorter yesterday on whether Donald Trump is racist. During the podcast, Glenn threw out the notion that something Trump said was third-degree racism, but not the full blown variety.
That got me thinking about why it is the case that when conservative Presbyterians talk about race, racism is an all or nothing proposition. Think back to Leon Brown’s post (discussed here) about racism in NAPARC communions after the shooting of Michael Brown:
This is why we need a movement of the Holy Spirit. Amid the horrific realities of Mike Browns all over the United States, and even the incidents that occur which are not broadcast (e.g., unjust acts taken against poor whites), we must demonstrate that the church is different. We are unlike the world, which can segregate, almost immediately, based on the color of one’s skin and other factors. Have you noticed that is what has occurred in the death of Mike Brown? Why do you think the pictures and quotations from Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. have newly surfaced on the internet, largely from ethnic minorities? Why do you believe pictures from the 1950’s and 1960’s have been newly awakened? For many, history continues to repeat itself, and that angers African-Americans and other minorities. Perhaps we, specifically Christians, are also angry at the lack of representation in the ‘Christian’ blogosphere from others in the majority culture. Robin Williams is okay, but apparently Mike Brown is not.
Without dodging or answering the question of whether blacks and whites should necessarily worship together (since historically black communions are such a part of the African-American experience), is it possible to distinguish what transpires among the Ferguson, Missouri police force from what happens on a Sunday morning in your average PCA congregation in the middle of Tennessee? Is one perhaps first-degree racism and the other third-degree? If we can make distinctions when it comes to the loss of human life, can’t we distinguish among the levels of prejudice that humans manifest?
So here’s the proposal:
Banning students from attending a Reformed seminary on the basis of race is first-degree racism.
A search committee at a white congregation placing an application from an African-American licentiate is second-degree racism.
Church members choosing on their own to worship in congregations where the majority of members are the same race is third-degree racism.
Do any of the overtures before the PCA reflect such differences? I’m merely asking.
Scott Sauls may have spent too much time with Tim Keller, the author of Center Church, because Pastor Sauls seems to think that he is at the center of Presbyterianism. The reason for saying this is that he admits that he needs to hear from those with whom he differs. Here’s his list:
I don’t know where I would be without the influence of others who see certain non-essentials differently than I do. I need the wisdom, reasoning, and apologetics of CS Lewis, though his take on some of the finer points of theology are different than mine. I need the preaching and charisma of Charles Spurgeon, though his view of baptism is different than mine. I need the Kingdom vision of NT Wright and the theology of Jonathan Edwards, though their views on church government are different than mine. I need the passion and prophetic courage of Martin Luther King, Jr., the cultural intelligence of Soong Chan Rah, and the Confessions of Saint Augustine, though their ethnicities are different than mine. I need the reconciliation spirit of Miroslav Volf, though his nationality is different than mine. I need the spiritual thirst and love impulse of Brennan Manning and the prophetic wit of GK Chesterton, though both were Roman Catholics and I am a Protestant. I need the hymns and personal holiness of John and Charles Wesley, though some of our doctrinal distinctives are different. I need the glorious weakness of Joni Eareckson Tada, the spirituality of Marva Dawn, the trusting perseverance of Elisabeth Elliott, the longsuffering of Amy Carmichael, the honesty of Rebekah Lyons, the thankfulness of Anne Voskamp, the theological precision of Kathy Keller, and the integrity of Patti Sauls, though their gender is different than mine.
In the world of hipster Protestantism this is cool but not Snapchattingly trendy. If I were to assemble my own list of those with whom I disagree theologically but who have shaped my thinking in profound ways it would include: Orhan Pamuk, Joel Coen, Tom Stoppard, F. Scott Fitzgerald, H. L. Mencken, Aaron Sorkin, Wendell Berry, Michael Oakeshott, Edward Shils, David Simon, John McWhorter, Andrew Sullivan, Louis Menand, David Hackett Fischer, Henry May, Richard John Neuhaus, Joseph Epstein, and Ethan Coen. See what I did there? I went outside Christian circles with most of that list. Do I get points for being really cool and cosmopolitan?
The thing is, none of those writers really helped me understand the nature of the Christian ministry as Presbyterians understand it. I’ve learned greatly from these figures about being human, which comes in handy for overseeing a congregation or participating in a church assembly. But I don’t look to these people for my life in the church.
But here’s the kicker for Pastor Sauls: what if he learned from those with whom he disagrees about Presbyterianism like Old Schoolers? What might his ministry look like then?
My sense is that because Pastor Sauls via Keller thinks he is in the heart of Presbyterianism or conservative Protestantism or evangelicalism, he already has his Presbyterian bases covered.
And in that case, boy does he need to understand the nature of disagreement.
Recent travels sent me again to the inter-web in search of podcasts that inform, provoke, and keep me awake. My latest favorite source for vigorous exchanges is The Glenn Show at bloggingheadstv.com. You can watch the discussion on-line — it’s the weird images of talking heads in Skype session. Or you can download a show as an audio recording. (Who knew that mp audio formats had climbed to 4?)
Glenn Loury is an economist who teaches at Brown University, an on-and-off-again black conservative intellectual who broke with the Republic establishment (as I understand it) over the reception of Charles Murray’s The Bell Curve. A frequent guest on Glenn’s show is John McWhorter, an African-American linguist at Columbia University who wants to defy political categories but because he is often critical of the left he gets pigeon-holed a conservative. (Full disclosure: the missus and I heard McWhorter at a book festival in Philadelphia a few years ago and from the audience I asked him if he had seen The Wire and if so who is favorite character was. He became enthusiastic about The Wire in a George Whitefield way and declared Omar his favorite character. I was delighted in my frigid Old Life way.)
The reason for asking about the PCA is that the sort of ideas about race relations you hear from Glenn and McWhorter you don’t hear in NAPARC circles. Consider, for instance, a couple of columns that McWhorter wrote this summer at the Daily Beast. First, McWhorter opines that all the talk of structural racism may be well meaning but it doesn’t actually do anything (and whenever I read the African-American pastors I am left wondering what I’m supposed to do):
No, the fact that Hillary Clinton is referring to structural racism in her speeches does not qualify this as a portentous “moment” for black concerns. Her heart is surely in the right place, but talking about structural racism has never gotten us anywhere significant. Hurricane Katrina was 10 years ago; there was a great deal of talk then about how that event could herald some serious movement on structural racism. Well, here we are. There was similar talk after the 1992 riots in Los Angeles after the Rodney King verdict and, well, here we are.
The old-time Civil Rights leaders did things; too often these days we think talking about things is doing something. But what, really, are we talking about in terms of doing?
Who among us genuinely supposes that our Congress, amidst its clear and implacable polarization, is really going to arrive at any “decisions” aimed at overturning America’s basic power structure in favor of poor black people?
So instead of merely talking about structures that to abolish would require a slate almost as clean as the one the Puritans encountered when the landed at Massachusetts Bay (and yes, I know they weren’t the first ones there), McWhorter recommends real policy. Reformed Protestants won’t like these but they do give specifics to those who want to know what might be done:
1. The War on Drugs must be eliminated. It creates a black market economy that tempts underserved black men from finishing school or seeking legal employment and imprisons them for long periods, removing them from their children and all but assuring them of lowly existences afterward.
2. We have known for decades how to teach poor black children to read: phonics-based approaches called Direct Instruction, solidly proven to work in the ’60s by Siegfried Engelmann’s Project Follow Through study. School districts claiming that poor black children be taught to read via the whole-word method, or a combination of this and phonics, should be considered perpetrators of a kind of child abuse. Children with shaky reading skills are incapable of engaging any other school subject meaningfully, with predictable life results.
3. Long-Acting Reproductive Contraceptives should be given free to poor black women (and other poor ones too). It is well known that people who finish high school, hold a job, and do not have children until they are 21 and have a steady partner are almost never poor. We must make it so that more poor black women have the opportunity to follow that path. . . .
4. We must revise the notion that attending a four-year college is the mark of being a legitimate American, and return to truly valuing working-class jobs. Attending four years of college is a tough, expensive, and even unappealing proposition for many poor people (as well as middle-class and rich ones). Yet poor people can, with up to two years’ training at a vocational institution, make solid livings as electricians, plumbers, hospital technicians, cable television installers, and many other jobs. Across America, we must instill a sense that vocational school—not “college” in the traditional sense—is a valued option for people who want to get beyond what they grew up in.
Note that none of these things involve white people “realizing” anything. These are the kinds of concrete policy goals that people genuinely interested in seeing change ought to espouse. If these things seem somehow less attractive than calling for revolutionary changes in how white people think and how the nation operates, then this is for emotional reasons, not political ones. A black identity founded on how other people think about us is a broken one indeed, and we will have more of a sense of victory in having won the game we’re in rather than insisting that for us and only us, the rules have to be rewritten.
In another column, McWhorter explains why we don’t hear specific policy proposals in church circles but instead hear a lot about the vagueries of white supremacy. He argues that anti-racism is a religion (and that plays directly to the Reformed case against racism) and it is dogmatic:
The Antiracism religion, then, has clergy, creed, and also even a conception of Original Sin. Note the current idea that the enlightened white person is to, I assume regularly (ritually?), “acknowledge” that they possess White Privilege. Classes, seminars, teach-ins are devoted to making whites understand the need for this. Nominally, this acknowledgment of White Privilege is couched as a prelude to activism, but in practice, the acknowledgment itself is treated as the main meal, as I have noted in this space. A typical presentation getting around lately is 11 Things White People Need to Realize About Race, where the purpose of the “acknowledgment” is couched as “moving the conversation forward.” A little vague, no? More conversation? About what? Why not actually say that the purpose is policy and legislation?
Because this isn’t what is actually on the Antiracists’ mind. The call for people to soberly “acknowledge” their White Privilege as a self-standing, totemic act is based on the same justification as acknowledging one’s fundamental sinfulness is as a Christian. One is born marked by original sin; to be white is to be born with the stain of unearned privilege.
The proper response to original sin is to embrace the teachings of Jesus, although one will remain always a sinner nevertheless. The proper response to White Privilege is to embrace the teachings of—well, you can fill in the name or substitute others—with the understanding that you will always harbor the Privilege nevertheless. Note that many embrace the idea of inculcating white kids with their responsibility to acknowledge Privilege from as early an age as possible, in sessions starting as early as elementary school. This, in the Naciremian sense, is Sunday school.
This will keep you awake on a long drive to Baltimore.
No one has to agree. But if some folks want us to have a conversation about race in the Presbyterian and Reformed churches, are those same people calling for the conversation willing to listen to the comments of Glenn Loury and John McWhorter? And if others are wanting the church to confess their sins, might they want to consider Anti-Racism as the religious source more than the gospel?
Let the conversation go on but make sure we include all the voices. They are only a download away.
Despite frequent claims that America “doesn’t want to talk about race,” we talk about it 24/7 amidst ringing declamations against racism on all forms. Over the past year’s time, I need only mention Trayvon Martin, Paula Deen, Cliven Bundy, and Donald Sterling. Over the past few years, three of the best-selling and most-discussed nonfiction books have been Isabel Wilkerson’s chronicle of the Great Migration, The Warmth of Other Suns, Rebecca Skloot’s book about the harvesting of a black woman’s cancer cells (The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks), and Michelle Alexander’s invaluable The New Jim Crow. And let’s not forget recent major release films such as The Help, 12 Years a Slave, and The Butler.
Can we really say that these are signs of a nation in denial about race, racism, and its history? . . .
In exactly what fashion could 317 million people “reckon” or come to certain eternally elusive “terms” with racism? Especially in a way that would satisfy people who see even America’s current atonements as insufficient?
The haziness here recalls doctrine more than proposal. The reality is something less proactive than reactive, not an initiative but a condition—a matter of identity. Four-hundred years of slavery and Jim Crow left us unwhole, and unfortunately susceptible to a baseline sense of existential grievance as a keystone of being black.
The only question is why things would not have come out this way. But, because we are faced with a matter of identity, a sense of self, we have to ask: would the “coming to terms,” once it had happened, be enough?
Imagine: “Okay. The acknowledgment has been expressed. I accept it, and now, finally we can move on.”
I just can’t see it. More likely would be “They better not think they can just say sorry and be done with it.” One imagines the tweets: “400 years and it’s all over with a Conversation? #ItsNotOver.”
So perhaps the real conversation should be about policies about which the Gospel allies have little to say (unless they are moonlighting as think-tank wonks after exegeting Habakkuk by daylight):
The War on Drugs must end, since with its demise, acrimonious and often lethal interactions between the police and young black men would cease as a foundational experience of being black. In schools, few are aware of how magical the effect would be of reading programs that actually work for poor kids, as I have written about here. We must utilize the reality of Obamacare to bring black America into a new relationship with the health-care system. Efforts to coach poor black parents on child care, having results in programs such as the Harlem Children’s Zone, should be taken to scale.
All of those things can happen—and in fact, are happening . . .
To be a concerned black person, many have internalized, requires harboring a feeling that something large-scale is just out of our reach; that we exist as a people eternally unfulfilled; that a shoe has yet to drop. Our identities, so battered by 350 years of brutality and dismissal, feel incomplete. We seek a true sense of nobility, and we find it in the ironically comforting status of the underdog.
Make no mistake—we must protest where it is called for. I reject the “black bourgeoisie” argument that we must quietly wait things out while keeping our chinny-chins up. But today it’s increasingly difficult to characterize black America’s problems as a matter of a single problem or cause, in the way that desegregation was. The efforts that today’s problems require can’t create an identity as easily. One seeks something larger, something that, crucially for us with our history, heals. Hence the idea of something as large-scale as an ever-elusive, overarching conversation America somehow “never” has. The concept has an operatic sense of catharsis in it. It’s even true that some Americans think race plays less of a role in black people’s fate than it does. None of this, however, belies the fact that what is being proposed is a kind of stage-managing of social change that no human group has ever sought—and which, I submit, black America needn’t seek, either.
I suspect that civil rights leaders before, roughly, 1966 would be perplexed by today’s calls for a conversation about race, especially one that imagines all Americans taking and passing some kind of national history test on institutional racism, past and present. The old heroes fought against segregation and discrimination because it was impossible for any but a few black people to get ahead otherwise. But Martin Luther King, Bayard Rustin, A. Philip Randolph, and the others did not seek a perfect society. Today, we seem to be doing just that: we cannot be whole as long as nonblack Americans are going about with their summer snacks, unmindful of our past. But are human societies ever so exquisitely mindful? Could they be?
I wish the Gospel allies had invited McWhorter to the discussion but I doubt he would have accepted.
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.