The White Man’s Burden

With all the talk of intersectionality and white privilege, it now turns out that white men themselves can play the victim card. We too are oppressed and marginalized as Pete Enns recently discovered:

White male privilege really is a thing, I never see it from the outside in, and I was never challenged to critique white male privilege as an expression of my faith. Rather, it was allowed to fit far too comfortably with my faith.

Not being an oppressed person puts me at a disadvantage. I rarely need to cry out as the psalmists do about being treated with injustice, prejudice, with violence. I don’t need to worry about being pulled over by uniformed protectors of the public. There are many more places I can go and things I can do because I am part of the dominant culture.

And I don’t worry about my competence or value being questioned because of my gender. I am the default, the norm. I do the judging.

An iteration of the Christian faith that doesn’t see the problem here, really see it, is its own refutation.

But here come some complications when men of privilege grasp for the ring of oppression:

Was the fact that Pete was a victim of white male domination at WTS its own form of oppression? On the scales of social justice this instance of maltreatment (according to some) does not itself rise to the level of what people of color have experienced. But Pete needs to see that white male privilege only goes so far when it collides with other white men with privilege. Ten years ago the Psalms would have made total sense of Pete’s experience.

But that raises a question about using as expressions of lament the prayers of kings, which is much of the OT Psalter. Should a victim of oppression really appeal to a prayer from an officer who according to social justice warriors is inherently oppressive? After all, the left has taught us that the wealthy and powerful are chief among the perpetrators of injustice. So how do you sing the songs of lament of the wealthy and powerful, like kings as opposed to the oppressed people (who haven’t left much of a paper trail)?

One last wrinkle: can a white Christian man really appeal to the text of Hebrews even if that is his academic specialty? Isn’t this a form of cultural appropriation? If Oberlin College students have taught us about authentic tacos in the cafeteria, and if Pete wants to approve the arguments that currently fuel the politics of identity, hasn’t he gone to the wrong place if he turns to the Psalms? Wouldn’t T.S. Eliot be a better fit for a white Christian man if he were — hypothetically of course — to experience oppression?

The gods of social justice are a demanding bunch. Call on them at your peril if your complexion is pink or ruddy.

Whatever It Is, I’m Against It

Why does so much confusion surround the so-called Alt-Right while so many people are absolutely certain they oppose it? The Southern Baptist Convention seemed to set the standard for establishing indignant distance from the Alt-Right and its associations with white supremacy. At the same time, pretty much no one knows what the Alt-Right is. If the SBC had thrown Charles Murray, the co-author of The Bell Curve, into its resolution, I doubt anyone would have cared. Who is Charles Murray? Not sure. Must be a white supremacist because those kids at Middlebury College know what’s what.

Here is Joe Carter’s attempt to define the Alt-Right even after the fact of the resolution — reporting catches up to voting:

The alt-right—short for “alternative right”—is an umbrella term for a host of disparate nationalist and populist groups associated with the white identity cause/movement. The term brings together white supremacists (e.g., neo-Nazis), religious racialists (e.g., Kinists), neo-pagans (e.g., Heathenry), internet trolls (e.g., 4chan’s /pol/), and others enamored with white identity and racialism.

The Southern Poverty Law Center gives a somewhat broader definition (that could actually include Joe Carter and me at times):

The Alternative Right, commonly known as the Alt-Right, is a set of far-right ideologies, groups and individuals whose core belief is that “white identity” is under attack by multicultural forces using “political correctness” and “social justice” to undermine white people and “their” civilization. Characterized by heavy use of social media and online memes, Alt-Righters eschew “establishment” conservatism, skew young, and embrace white ethno-nationalism as a fundamental value.

At the Alt-Right website, the defining component of the movement seems to be a race-based defense of Western civilization. One question in these race obsessed times — and can anyone remember this goes back to the election of Barack Obama and didn’t just start with the 2016 election? — is if you defend cultural goods of the West like smart phones, rule by law, or tennis are you guilty of the sins of the Alt-Right? Or if you look favorably on the United States, which people of European descent have dominated for good and ill, are you also tainted?

But a bigger question is what a white man is to do. The comments at Joe Carter’s piece suggest that even the fans of John Piper and Tim Keller are not willing to support the SBC’s resolution even while they do not identify with the Alt-Right:

The SBC did us a huge disservice by not defining the Alt Right. The more familiar one becomes with their bigotry, the more disgusting their venom. I think, however, there is a danger in all of this. Since we have left the Alt Right as an ambiguous term, we have set ourselves up for witch hunts. For instance, If I believe in a strong national defense, and in protecting our borders, am I to be branded with this label, and thereby made notorious? If I call myself a “Proud American”, then I am, by definition, a nationalist. Will that term soon become, “white-nationalist” with the passage of time? As the author points out, the “Alt Right” has far more in common with progressivism, than with true conservatism. I would welcome a clarification to the resolution. One which helps us all understand the dangers of this deceptive movement, but which does not leave those Christians who lean left, with the misunderstanding that Conservatives are hateful, or bigoted. That would seem to me to be the exact kind of Xenophobia we just denounced.

One of the reasons for such criticism is that Carter leaves the average white person in a dilemma. One the one hand, identifying as white is a sin:

White supremacy, white nationalism, and white identity are not all the same thing, but they are all equally repugnant….

At the core of the alt-right movement is idolatry—the idol of “whiteness.” In building their identity on shared genetic traits the alt-right divides humanity and leads people away from the only source of true identity: Jesus Christ.

If that is true, that even recognizing myself as white as opposed to Christian is a form of idolatry, what am I supposed to do if I am a Southern Baptist and read calls like this?

White leadership must be vigilant in yielding the floor to black voices, black language, and black tone on this issue in particular, regardless of perceptions or consequences. Right is right and it often takes authentic voices and types of expression to rightly convey it. Jesus said that if you enter a banquet do not seat yourself at the head of the table but at the foot. It is time for white leadership in the SBC to sit at the foot of the table and learn from their African American brothers and sisters how to rightly oppose racial injustice in this country. Including allowing for language and tone that may at times be uncomfortable.

Do I get to ignore this because I say I’m not white but a Christian? Or do I have to look around the room at skin color and come clean that I am white and so need to take a back seat to people of color? At that point, have I not committed the sin of idolatry by identifying as white? Something along the lines of doubly damned comes to mind.

Not to mention that whites and blacks talking about race often ignores Asians and Latinos. Do whites and blacks also sometimes need to sit at the feet of Native Americans or Korean-Americans? At this point, have we really heeded Paul that in Christ there is not Jew nor Greek? Or aren’t we simply a little late to the aggrieved minority party that Democrats have been holding since 1965?

Doesn’t the right side of history have an expiration date?

Empathy Matters (but maybe not the way you think)

While recent discussions of police brutality have brought attention to the so-called racial empathy gap, other research suggests that empathy can create as much harm as good. First, racial empathy gap:

For many people, race does matter, even if they don’t know it. They feel more empathy when they see white skin pierced than black. This is known as the racial empathy gap. To study it, researchers at the University of Milano-Bicocca showed participants (all of whom were white) video clips of a needle or an eraser touching someone’s skin. They measured participants’ reactions through skin conductance tests—basically whether their hands got sweaty—which reflect activity in the pain matrix of the brain. If we see someone in pain, it triggers the same network in our brains that’s activated when we are hurt. But people do not respond to the pain of others equally. In this experiment, when viewers saw white people receiving a painful stimulus, they responded more dramatically than they did for black people.

The racial empathy gap helps explain disparities in everything from pain management to the criminal justice system. But the problem isn’t just that people disregard the pain of black people. It’s somehow even worse. The problem is that the pain isn’t even felt.

On the other hand:

Paul Bloom, professor of psychology and cognitive sciences at Yale, has written a thoughtful criticism of the widespread assumption that we can improve the world by increasing our empathy. In his farewell address, for example, President Barack Obama said that empathy for those who are different is an essential pillar of democracy. Political polarization could be reduced if Republicans and Democrats had more empathy for one another. Teachers, psychologists, and politicians suggest that lack of empathy lies behind complacency toward Native Americans, judgmentalism toward opioid addicts, and hostility toward immigrants. If we felt the pain of the afflicted, it is often assumed, we would want to take proactive steps to help them.

Bloom doubts it. He rejects the assumption that empathy is either a strong motivator of moral goodness or a proper guide to moral decision making. One can identify emotionally with the suffering of others but not do anything about it; conversely, one can offer effective assistance to another person without echoing his or her internal states.

Bloom goes even further in arguing that empathy is actually responsible for more harm than good. A wide array of studies in social psychology and neuroscience show that empathy is highly context sensitive, shortsighted, mood dependent, narrowly focused, biased, and parochial.

Turns out that moral reflection (not moral outrage) may be better than empathy:

The good Samaritan was moved by the victim’s sorry state, but there is no reason to think he felt anything like what the victim would have felt lying on the side of the road. What was important was the Samaritan’s good will and good judgment about how to help the poor man. More generally, the point is that we do not have to feel any particular way in order to do what is right in any given situation. What is essential, as Thomas Aquinas put it, is a “constant and firm will to give each his or her due.”

Once again, the value of emotions, experience, and authenticity may be way less important than pietists (among others) think.

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.

Don’t Boycott Disney, Boycott Reading (and watching)

Evidence of where the sensitive college students are coming from?

A Virginia school district has banned two classic American novels after parents complained they were racist.

To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee and Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn have been temporarily removed from shelves because they use the N-word more than 250 times.

…according to WTVR.com, Accomack County Public Schools has removed both books from the shelves of its schools while they investigate complains into the books which, which have been available for 56 years, in the case of Lee’s novel and 132 years with Huck Finn.

One mother complained: ‘There’s so much racial slurs and defensive wording in there that you can’t get past that. Right now, we are a nation divided as it is.’

. . . School authorities were forced to act on the complaint and removed the novels pending ‘a review committee consisting of the principal, the library media specialist, the classroom teacher (if involved, a parent and / or student, and the complainant will convene.’

One parent Teresa Wilkins said: ‘It’s in a book and they’ll feel they are able to say that to anybody, and so I don’t feel that that should be done.’

David Simon, award winning journalist, author, and creator of The Wire tweeted: ‘We are going backwards,’ after hearing about the controversy.

Sort of like saying The Wire has nudity and bad language. A lot of pietists out there.

Why Not Address President Obama?

I’m with Chris Bodenner that Brandon Victor Dixon’s remarks to Vice President-elect Mike Pence after a performance of Hamilton was not all that disrespectful or edgy. Here’s part of the speech:

We have a message for you, sir. We hope that you will hear us out. And I encourage everybody to pull out your phones and tweet and post because this message needs to be spread far and wide, OK?

Vice President-elect Pence, we welcome you and we truly thank you for joining us here at Hamilton: An American Musical, we really do. We, sir, we are the diverse America who are alarmed and anxious that your new administration will not protect us — our planet, our children, our parents — or defend us and uphold our inalienable rights, sir. But we truly hope that this show has inspired you to uphold our American values and to work on behalf of all of us. All of us.

What does President Obama not need to hear in this advice? Should he have been governing in a way to keep BLM protests from happening, opponents of gay marriage from feeling marginalized, and Americans with pre-Affordable Care Act health insurance from having to lose benefits in their existing their plans? Of course, a president has to make choices and not all of the electorate will be happy. But why do the elites in the U.S. — Democrats in D.C., Hollywood, university faculty, and mainstream journalists — think that partisanship in politics only happens when Republicans get elected?

And I wonder what Dixon makes of President Obama acting in a statesmanlike manner in meeting and greeting President-elect Trump? Was the President properly empathizing with those Americans who not only refused to vote for Trump but view his supporters as deplorable?

PCA Trumped

Or, how politics matters more than communion:

But a few predicted that this election could permanently damage attempts to create unity among evangelicals. “I spend most of my time in ministry talking and teaching about racial reconciliation,” said Jemar Tisby, the president of the Reformed African American Network, a “theologically traditional” coalition of black Christians and churches, as he described it. “The vast majority of white evangelicals with whom I interact are on board and want to see a more racially diversified and unified church. However, when that same constituency overwhelmingly supports Donald Trump, I feel like they haven’t understood any of my concerns as a racial minority and an African American.”

All the racial reconciliation that last year’s General Assembly allegedly accomplished was thin compared to a PCA minister or member’s status in the world of evangelicalism. Does the PCA now need to repent for its members who voted for Trump? Or can its pastors, theologians, and elders help members understand that belonging to the visible church — the kingdom of Jesus Christ, mind you — is so much more significant than what federal politicians do (or votes for them)?

Now more than ever, the PCA needs a healthy dose of the spirituality of the church. It needs to understand that the politics of this world are trifling compared to the realities of the world to come, and that the freedom a Christian enjoys in Christ has nothing to do with politics (just ask the peasants who used Luther’s gospel to advocate an egalitarian social order). But that doctrine is now in the rear view mirror.