Advancing the Conversation?

It was not so long ago, after Michael Brown’s death, that lots of people in Reformed circles were calling for a conversation about race. After almost two years and after listening to some of the chatter, I am not so hopeful. Anyone who wants a version of how that conversation is going among people without faith — in this case a journalist and an Ivy League student newspaper editor — give a listen and embrace the suck.

But in the interest of avoiding a bad ending for the PCA, where the conversation has escalated more than anywhere else in NAPARC circles, I offer the latest musings on blackness from Michael Eric Dyson:

There is the symbolic blackness that the president perfectly embodies. By this I mean the representative sort, in which his blackness is the blackness of the masses; his lean body carries the weight of the race, and the words of James Baldwin meet those of pioneering scholar Anna Julia Cooper: To paraphrase Cooper, when and where a black figure like Obama enters, black folk automatically enter with him, as he bears what Baldwin termed the “burden of representation.” Like other symbolic blacks before him, Obama has no choice in the matter—one fittingly symbolized in nonnegotiable terms of existence that are nearly Cartesian: he is, therefore we are.

There is, too, substitute blackness, in which luminaries like Michelle Obama and former Attorney General Eric Holder supply the blackness—the resonant cultural tropes, the signifying gestures, the explicit mention of race in context—that a figure like Obama, bound on all sides by demands and constraints, can barely acknowledge, much less embrace. Historical contingency and political necessity meld to determine Obama’s role, versus that of substitute blacks, when it comes to speaking about race: he can’t, but they can.

Then there is surplus blackness, which is too much blackness for many outside the race, and some inside it. Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson are some noted examples, figures whose blackness is never in question, even if the use and force of it depends on the situation at hand or the need of the group at the moment. If substitute blackness is a conditional stand-in for blackness, surplus blackness is the display of blackness—in fact, blackness as display. The nearly exclusive imperative of surplus blackness is to stand up for black folk in public, whether after a police killing of an innocent black or a neighbor-to-neighbor murder or a cry for racial justice in the courts. Obama’s symbolic blackness also sometimes takes up the cause of black folk, but more often judges them. When it comes to defending black people: he won’t, but they will.

Finally, there is subversive blackness, glimpsed most recently in the activism of Black Lives Matter, where the meanings of blackness compete and collide, where blackness is at once self-subverting and self-regenerating. Subversive blackness glances sideways at symbolic, substitute and surplus blackness, preferring, instead, to grasp what’s been left out of the official narratives of blackness and to fill in the blanks. It is perhaps summed up in Kanye West’s credo, “Everything I’m not made me everything I am,” which nicely captures the irreverence that Obama spurns but subversive blackness embraces: he isn’t, but they are.

I assume Michelle Higgins wants subversive blackness. But is that what Ligon Duncan, Jemar Tisby, and Sean Lucas were bargaining for?

The Omar Effect

Will I be the only American to sense the insult that may lurk behind Pope Francis’ visit to the U.S.? While Ross Douthat considers the Francis effect, let’s not forget about Omar Little who worked the streets of Baltimore, the city that was the capital of American Roman Catholicism for its first 125 years at least. (Can you say Baltimore Catechism? Sure you can.)

Rorate Caeli has a set of images of the churches that Pope Francis will visit while in the U.S. But what about this one, the original Roman Catholic cathedral in the U.S.:

Of course, a visit like this has lots of symbolism. I was relieved to see that discussion of Pope Francis arriving in the U.S. by way of a Mexican-border crossing fizzled. I imagine that photo-op went no where once adults in the room figured out how much security it would take for the pope to identify with Mexicans seeking entry to the U.S. How strange might it have appeared to have 8 to 10 black SUVs along side the pope’s little white Fiat crossing from Mexico into Texas from the town of Sarita (just north of Laredo)? Would the SUV’s have to put the papal Fiat on a flatbed to cross the river? Some are not convinced, though, that the pope is immune to posing for cameras.

Still, imagine the two-fer that Pope Francis could have executed had he spent one more day in the United States and visited a city rich in Roman Catholic history. After all, Baltimore is only 40 miles north of D.C., and only 100 south of Philadelphia. He could have honored those Roman Catholics of English descent, like John Carroll, the first American archbishop who organized Roman Catholicism in the new nation. And he could have scored points by identifying with the mourners of Freddie Gray’s death and the many others who have protested the brutality of urban police against African-Americans.

Missing an opportunity like that suggests a pontiff that knows not life in the United States. We get our first Bishop of Rome from the Americas and he turns out to be — well — European.

Hate the Sin, Demonize the Sinner?

Shameless self-promotion alert: a post I wrote for First Things’ blog “On the Square” about the recent vote within the Presbyterian Church U.S.A. on the ordination of sexually active gays and lesbians prompted me to reflect on a point that I could not include because of space constraints.

One of the responses from a joyous Presbyterian to the news that gays and lesbians could now be ordained in the PCUSA (though the constitutional process forward is anything but clear) was to the effect that homosexuals could be regarded as normal, or better as moral. Instead of regarding homosexuality as inherently perverted, the recent presbytery votes indicated, to this happy observer, that mainline Presbyterians are more willing than before to see that within the spectrum of homosexuality are standards that run the gamut from virtue to sexual license. In other words, a gay man can be part of a committed relationship and faithful to his partner, or he can live like most young men – gay or straight. The important consideration, accordingly, is not the sexual practice or orientation per se but whether a person pursues these acts modestly and responsibly.

I appreciate this distinction, especially since fans of The Wire are forced to confront a similar ethical dilemma in countless of the series’ characters. Jimmy McNulty doesn’t follow the chain of command within the police force but he is really trying to bring criminals to justice. Omar steals from drug lords but he has an honor code that only allows him to retaliate for just reasons. Avon Barksdale makes millions of dollars in dealing drugs and destroys many lives but is a man committed to his family (and only gives up family members for justifiable reasons).

In other words, the reality of the fall is that sinners are human beings and they do wicked things even while they retain the image of God in ways that endear them to friends, family, and writers.
This also means that sinners are not monsters. “Monster” was the word I heard repeatedly on CNN when the perky evening news anchor (I never once found her attractive, really!) interviewed various officials about the significance of Mr. Laden’s death. She kept referring to Mr. Laden as a “monster.”

This way of demonizing evil helps may help to make better sense of how ordinary people can commit such heinous acts. If we can simply chalk them up as deranged or as inhuman then we have a ready explanation for their wickedness and don’t have to reflect upon the extent of the fall.

But such demonization also shelters us from recognizing the sinfulness that afflicts each and everyone one of us. If only monsters commit wicked acts, and if I am not a monster, then I must not be so bad after all. Whew!

In reality, sin does not turn human beings into monsters. Some of the most evil figures in human history such as Adolf Hitler were real people with feelings, loyalties, reason, and virtues (see Downfall). In which case, the standard for sin is not the degree to which a person is a human being or a monster, but whether his or her acts conforms to the law of God.

Plenty of gays and lesbians are great people or characters (think Omar), and many are likely involved in very caring, faithful, and committed relationships. But none of this excuses the nature of homosexuality, nor avoids what the Bible (in the case of the PCUSA) reveals about sexual relations.