Not So Messy

The folks at Witness have abandoned a theological system (Reformed) to rally around a racial (black) identity. Jemar Tisby explained:

Christianity is not some otherworldly religion that is only concerned with our spiritual lives. True faith acknowledges that our souls inhabit bodies and we experience the world in a physical and material way. So Christianity is also concerned with our reality as a people who have been marginalized due to the racial caste system in America.

We are a “black Christian collective” because we are made in the image of God and part of that image includes our melanated skin along with the culture and experiences that go along with it….

As a “black Christian collective,” The Witness has returned to its original mission to serve black people. The move from “African American” to “black” acknowledges this endeavor is international scope. The Witness is for the entire African diaspora. We are also a collective in the sense that a variety of black Christians from different denominations, ages, regions, and experiences all contribute their perspectives. The Witness is not the voice of black Christians; it is the microphone that amplifies those who have often gone unheard.

I was curious, in light of these changes, what The Witness’ perspective or counsel on the shootings in Texas might be. After all, the congregation is white and the shooter was white. So how would black Christians speak to or about Sutherland Springs?

It turns out, they sound like any other U.S. evangelical (white or person of color):

Tragedies like this provoke many discussions and debates around issues such as domestic violence, gun control, and church security protocols. We absolutely need to address these issues and seek concrete solutions, but that is not the focus of this post. Honestly, I don’t feel like I have the proper words at this point. I am tired saints. I have been to war and back and I am tired of violence.

Will you join me in praying that those in Sutherland Springs would be comforted by the God of all comfort? Is it alright if we include Charleston, Las Vegas, Orlando, San Bernardino, Blacksburg, Aurora, and all of those who have been struck by this plague of gun violence?

Let us pray.

Father God, we cry out to you. We thank you that we can approach your throne of grace boldly through the person and work of Jesus Christ. We thank you that you have caused us to be born again by the power of your Spirit who now indwells us and testifies with our spirits that we are the sons and daughters of God.

Father, you are able to do exceeding abundantly above all that we ask or think. We come to you now and we ask that your kingdom would come and that your will would be done on earth as it is in heaven. Lord God, bring healing to the families and communities impacted by these tragedies. We ask that you invade every place of darkness with your glorious light. Let grace abound.

I do wonder about the use of the word “darkness,” but otherwise, kudos to The Witness for showing solidarity with white Baptists.

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Expiration Date Passed

Apparently Ta-Nehisi Coates’ magic has worn off. Several writers have recently taken issue with his ideas about race relations and whiteness (and white superiority). Thomas Chatterton Williams, who was one of the first black authors to take Coates on, returns for another at bat under with the approval of editors at the New York Times (not the New York Post or the Washington Times). This must be serious.

At the Atlantic though, where Coates writes regularly and achieved some of his fame, his editors still think Coates is brilliant and that they bask in the brilliance by publishing and endorsing his ideas. For instance, on a recent podcast about Charlottesville and the Confederate Monuments, Jeffrey Goldberg described President Trump’s reaction, in which he wondered if taking down Robert E. Lee leads to Jefferson and Washington, in cataclysmic terms:

It is an amazing moment when the president of the United States can’t delineate the difference between the Civil War and the Revolutionary War. I think this is a breakpoint in modern American history.

Hasn’t Goldberg read Coates? Someone well before Trump showed a lack of nuance in describing white supremacy in U.S. history:

For the men who needed to believe themselves white, the bodies were the key to ta social club, and the right to break the bodies was the mark of civilization. “The two great division of society are not the rich and poor, but white and black,” said the great South Carolina senator John C. Calhoun. “And all the former, the poor as well as the rich, belong to the upper class, and are respected and treated as equals.” And there it is — the right to break the black body as the meaning of their sacred equality. And that right has always given them meaning, has always meant that there was someone down in the valley because a mountain is not a mountain if there is nothing below.

You and I, my son, are that “below.” That was true in 1776. It is true today. (Coates, Between the World and Me, 104-105).

So what do the editors at the Atlantic think of a staff writer who cannot tell the difference between the Civil War and Revolutionary War?

Providential Wisdom

I don’t believe (or much like) the phrase, common grace, but sometimes the insights of the heterodox and even the unbeliever make you wonder about the effects of special grace. Consider Noah Millman’s invocation of Abraham Lincoln for the current pissing match over Confederate Monuments (and oh by the way not all Christians are not using the Port-a-Potties). First Millman credits Lincoln with recommending “charity for all”:

North and South were compacted together within the Union, and both prospered by that union. So both North and South bore the moral stain of slavery, notwithstanding that the slaves themselves were overwhelmingly concentrated in the Southern states, and the social and economic structure of the South changed most by emancipation.

This perspective was what made it possible for Lincoln, in the midst of war, to speak of achieving a just and lasting peace “with malice toward none, with charity for all.” It is easy to argue that such a lasting peace would require honoring the honest—if, in Lincoln’s view, badly mistaken—conviction of men like Robert E. Lee that their actions were not rebellion but a defense of their country. Indeed, it is hard to see what “charity for all” could mean if it did not extend to a man of Lee’s widely-touted honor and integrity, or those who cherish his memory. Reconciliation could be achieved between North and South on the basis that while the political matter of secession was settled on the battlefield, there was honor on all sides. Those were precisely the terms that prevailed from the end of Reconstruction through the era of the Civil Rights movement.

Of course, reconciliation is not easy (and doesn’t come by way of statements and letters):

Reconciliation in the present means reconciliation of conflicting narratives of the past, finding a place for all of our varied common ancestors. But the axes of conflict between those ancestors may, themselves, be irreconcilable.

We may fool ourselves to think that matters are simpler elsewhere. Attila may be honored in Hungary without upsetting the descendants of the cities he sacked; Bohdan Khmelnytsky may be honored as the father of the Ukrainian nation notwithstanding that his men perpetrated the most horrific massacres of Jews between the Crusades and the Holocaust. But the illusion of integral simplicity is as deliberate as it is false, as the currently bloodletting in Ukraine and the escalating authoritarianism in Hungary should demonstrate.

Regardless, no such illusion is possible in America, which is torn not on one seam but on many. Wounds still bleeding must be triaged for present succor, but our national memory must be capacious enough to acknowledge the whole truth, and not only the truth of victory, for there to be any lasting reconciliation. Lincoln’s insight is still relevant. We should properly judge slavery to be an unequivocal evil, and the Confederate cause to have been unsalvageable because it was fundamentally and overwhelmingly that evil cause—not only of defending but of extending slavery. But we should not delude ourselves that, had we sat in our ancestors seats, we would have judged our own cause any more rightly than they did.

Millman is not thinking President Trump will help but is looking to ordinary people for help (can Christian social justice warriors find their inner average?):

Today, we are led by a President as far from Lincoln’s spirit of charity as it is possible to imagine. And so it rests on the shoulders of ordinary Americans to eschew malice. It falls to the descendants of slaves to see men like Lee through the eyes of the descendants of planters, as the exemplar of their country’s virtues, and dispute their place in national memory in a spirit that appreciates that fact. And it falls to the descendants of planters to see him through the eyes of the descendants of slaves, as the American version of Erwin Rommel, Hitler’s favorite general, and let that understanding give them pause when they consider rising to defend his honor.

Imagine that. Being holy means giving up contempt and hatred for other people and trying to identify with them, you know like, grieving with those who grieve.

How Liberalism Abets Sin

People who self-identify as Christian scholars have issued a statement that condemns racism:

Racism should be denounced by religious and civic leaders in no uncertain terms. Equivocal talk about racist groups gives those groups sanction, something no politician or pastor should ever do.

The Christian basis for such denunciation is that all humans are created in the image of God. So far, so uncomplicated.

The statement also includes an affirmation of civil liberty:

Even as we condemn racism, we recognize that the First Amendment legally protects even very offensive speech.

The statement could include freedom of assembly, and freedom to publish. But these Christians see that our laws protect speech even when it is offensive.

Now imagine if the abolitionists had made similar assertions about slavery:

Slavery should be denounced in no uncertain terms.

Even as we condemn slavery, we recognize that the First-Amendment legally protects slavery advocates to express their ideas.

I don’t think that kind of toleration was in William Lloyd Garrison’s playbook.

I am aware, that many object to the severity of my language; but is there not cause for severity? I will be as harsh as truth, and as uncompromising as justice. On this subject, I do not wish to think, or speak, or write, with moderation. No! no! Tell a man whose house is on fire, to give a moderate alarm; tell him to moderately rescue his wife from the hands of the ravisher; tell the mother to gradually extricate her babe from the fire into which it has fallen; —but urge me not to use moderation in a cause like the present. I am in earnest—I will not equivocate—I will not excuse—I will not retreat a single inch—AND I WILL BE HEARD. The apathy of the people is enough to make every statue leap from its pedestal, and to hasten the resurrection of the dead.

And so, the problem that proponents of certain moral positions in public face is that in a free society, we make room for sinners.

Even as we condemn adultery, we recognize that we don’t want police going into private homes to see what people are doing.

Or

Even as we condemn the desecration of the Lord’s Day, we recognize that those who try to observe the Fourth Commandment should not receive special protections from law enforcement officials for their beliefs.

Or

Even as we condemn Communism, we recognize that the freedom of association allows the Communist Party USA to enjoy the protections of tax laws and civil and corporate codes.

In other words, a liberal society will not allow government to root out sin. It even protects its practice.

That is an especially difficult aspect that this statement does not address. The authors acknowledge that racism has taken many forms in U.S. history:

Slavery was formally abolished in 1865, but racism was not. Indeed, it was often institutionalized and in some ways heightened over time through Jim Crow legislation, de facto segregation, structural inequalities, and pervasively racist attitudes.

American law and policy have addressed some of these instances of racism — Jim Crow, structural inequalities, voting rights. But can legislation do anything about racist attitudes or the efforts of those who hold them to meet and publish?

Probably. But then you may no longer have a free society.

In which case, what does speaking out do?

Even without liberalism, will always have sin with us. With it, we have different interpretations of sin and so vice receives protection.

Even Patriotic Good Works May Be Tainted

The overwhelming case against Confederate Monuments is that either those memorialized or their patrons stood for an evil cause — slavery.

But what if Union Monuments — those memorialized or their patrons — don’t stand for a righteous cause — anti-slavery? What if Union Monuments were designed, like the war itself, to preserve the — get this — Union?

Frederick Douglass pointed out that Abraham Lincoln’s motives in the war were not pure, and that those who came to celebrate the 16th POTUS at the unveiling of the Freedmen’s Memorial Monument, also had mixed motives in the war:

It must be admitted, truth compels me to admit, even here in the presence of the monument we have erected to his memory, Abraham Lincoln was not, in the fullest sense of the word, either our man or our model. In his interests, in his associations, in his habits of thought, and in his prejudices, he was a white man

He was preeminently the white man’s President, entirely devoted to the welfare of white men. He was ready and willing at any time during the first years of his administration to deny, postpone, and sacrifice the rights of humanity in the colored people to promote the welfare of the white people of this country. In all his education and feeling he was an American of the Americans. He came into the Presidential chair upon one principle alone, namely, opposition to the extension of slavery.

His arguments in furtherance of this policy had their motive and mainspring in his patriotic devotion to the interests of his own race. To protect, defend, and perpetuate slavery in the states where it existed Abraham Lincoln was not less ready than any other President to draw the sword of the nation. He was ready to execute all the supposed guarantees of the United States Constitution in favor of the slave system anywhere inside the slave states. He was willing to pursue, recapture, and send back the fugitive slave to his master, and to suppress a slave rising for liberty, though his guilty master were already in arms against the Government. The race to which we belong were not the special objects of his consideration.

Knowing this, I concede to you, my white fellow-citizens, a preeminence in this worship at once full and supreme. First, midst, and last, you and yours were the objects of his deepest affection and his most earnest solicitude. You are the children of Abraham Lincoln. We are at best only his stepchildren; children by adoption, children by forces of circumstances and necessity. To you it especially belongs to sound his praises, to preserve and perpetuate his memory, to multiply his statues, to hang his pictures high upon your walls, and commend his example, for to you he was a great and glorious friend and benefactor.

Having said all that, Douglass was willing to honor Lincoln:

Instead of supplanting you at his altar, we would exhort you to build high his monuments; let them be of the most costly material, of the most cunning workmanship; let their forms be symmetrical, beautiful, and perfect; let their bases be upon solid rocks, and their summits lean against the unchanging blue, overhanging sky, and let them endure forever! But while in the abundance of your wealth, and in the fullness of your just and patriotic devotion, you do all this, we entreat you to despise not the humble offering we this day unveil to view; for while Abraham Lincoln saved for you a country, he delivered us from a bondage, according to Jefferson, one hour of which was worse than ages of the oppression your fathers rose in rebellion to oppose.

The Attack on Public Art

With all the attention to Confederate Monuments, I was wondering about what the recent hostilities in Charlottesville might say about the state of public art in the United States.

For instance, Nicole Martinez wrote positively about public art displays as recently as May:

If you walked past one of the Garment District plazas in New York City last fall, you may have noticed those giant, vibrantly colored animal sculptures towering over sidewalk diners at café tables. Or perhaps you were running to catch a plane at Miami International Airport, and you glanced up to see an intricate web of etched glass on the roof of the bustling transportation center. If you’re an artist, you might be wondering how you might land an opportunity to showcase your work in a public space and land a public art commission – and while the process can be long and arduous, there are a variety of opportunities to participate in public art programs across the country.

Public art programs were first launched in the United States in the 1930s, when President Roosevelt’s New Deal spurred the idea that Americans should take pride in their cultural treasures. The New Deal program Art-in-Architecture (A-i-A) developed percent for art programs, a structure for funding public art still utilized today. This program gave one half of one percent of total construction costs of all government buildings to purchase contemporary American art for that structure. Today, acquisitions also include specially commissioned art projects for public art spaces, and the percentage allocated from a new construction project typically varies from one-half to two percent.

You might think that public art is a positive aspect of American society.

The Association for Public Art admits that some pieces might receive support from the entire community but that should not stop funding and recognition:

In a diverse society, all art cannot appeal to all people, nor should it be expected to do so. Art attracts attention; that is what it is supposed to do. Is it any wonder, then, that public art causes controversy? Varied popular opinion is inevitable, and it is a healthy sign that the public environment is acknowledged rather than ignored. To some degree, every public art project is an interactive process involving artists, architects, design professionals, community residents, civic leaders, politicians, approval agencies, funding agencies, and construction teams. The challenge of this communal process is to enhance rather than limit the artist’s involvement.

For that reason, Martinez advises caution to artists:

Ultimately, artists interested in landing public art commissions should pay close attention to government agency websites in an effort to keep track of open calls for public art commissions. If you choose to apply, consider crafting a proposal that directly addresses the architectural components of the space, bearing in mind the agency’s budget constraints and your own ability to stick to the budget you’ve laid out. And while its true that a public art project may not be the most lucrative commission of your artistic career, its lasting influence will likely impact it for years to come.

Obviously, she wasn’t thinking about changing historical awareness.

Consequently, to keep up with the times, Americans for the Arts decided to create distance between their support for public art and the kinds of public displays that have drawn ire recently:

“For nearly 60 years, Americans for the Arts, with its member organizations, has been a fierce advocate for public art and how it can help transform, inspire, and educate communities. Americans for the Arts stands with community members who are coming together to have civil and just dialogues, and to meaningfully and honestly assess the value of their existing public art pieces, monuments, and memorials in telling the narratives that their communities desire and deserve today. Americans for the Arts stands in opposition to any form of violence, intimidation, or illegal activity that cuts short such community dialogue.

“We support ongoing community dialogue around truth, reconciliation, and removal and replacement of the various artistic and cultural vestiges of white supremacy and racism in the United States, and the installation of monuments commemorating narratives of emancipation, shared strength, and equity. We recommend that local arts agencies and other arts institutions join these dialogues in concert with affected communities.

“Americans for the Arts strongly supports diversity, equity, and inclusion, and stands against racism, bigotry, and hatred. To support a full creative life for all, we commit to championing policies and practices of cultural equity that empower a just, inclusive, equitable nation.”

Sixty years for public arts. Four days against white supremacy and racism. You do the math.

American Exceptionalism Perfectionist Style

Forget the meme that has Roman Catholics winning. The big winner of late is Charles Finney, that evangelist who insisted that Christians renounce all sin in their lives and taught a generation of Protestants that compromise with sin in politics was — wait for it — sin.

Evidence of the prevalence of such perfectionism comes in Theon Hill’s piece on Charlottesville. Surprising is his acknowledgement that black Civil Rights advocates were far from pure:

The practice of accommodating white supremacy is not unique to white America. People of color have often deployed accommodation strategically, hoping that it will lead to greater acceptance by whites. Booker T. Washington, in his famous Atlanta Exposition Address, embraced the logics of “separate but equal,” expecting blacks to experience upward mobility as they demonstrated their worth to white America. W. E. B. DuBois called on blacks to avoid racial activism during the First World War, believing that loyalty to the nation during this difficult moment would produce greater acceptance during the post-war period. Even my personal hero Dr. King hesitated to oppose racists in the Democratic Party in 1964, believing that accommodation would produce greater gains for blacks in the long term.

Isn’t that the nature of politics? Don’t you take certain gains while recognizing you don’t get everything? Since politics is about maintaining order and equity in a world that consists of sinners, and since you can’t eradicate sin in this life and don’t want to live in a society where government (who uses force legitimately) is looking into everything you do and think, maybe you live with a little compromise? Maybe you fight another day for another round of proximate goods.

Not so when you apply the standards of perfectionist Christianity:

Scripture and history repeatedly warn that accommodating sin never produces greater holiness.

That is certainly true for the believer and even the church — oh, by the way has anyone asked how pure the mainline churches are in their efforts to combat the alt-right? But monuments and social protests are not about personal righteousness. They are about what we share as people inhabiting the same national borders and government by the same civil authorities.

When did people ever start expecting a nation to be holy?

Oh, that’s right. Mr. Finney.

Does this Apply to Parks Departments and Historical Commissions?

13 Submit yourselves for the Lord’s sake to every human authority: whether to the emperor, as the supreme authority, 14 or to governors, who are sent by him to punish those who do wrong and to commend those who do right. 15 For it is God’s will that by doing good you should silence the ignorant talk of foolish people. 16 Live as free people, but do not use your freedom as a cover-up for evil; live as God’s slaves. 17 Show proper respect to everyone, love the family of believers, fear God, honor the emperor. (1 Pet 2)

Or is it better for Christians to be known for their protest love?

Perhaps most difficult of all, I believe victory will come through our obedience to the Lord who commanded us to love our enemies. We cannot live in the disobedience of ignoring the sin of racism and using the terminology “love your enemies” to justify the protection of prejudiced practices. This is not the example of Jesus.

Jesus taught us that telling the truth – and acting accordingly – is integral to godliness. As the Word of God and the Son of Man, he confronted the oppressive actions of church leaders. He challenged bigotry, judgmental attitudes, and injustice. He exposed the prejudices that his enemies loved. He knew exactly who his enemies were, and he took every opportunity to speak directly about the wickedness they shielded. The love of Jesus for his enemies was not a cover-up; it was rooted in revelation. This is the example we must follow. This is the work of love that the church has inherited.

But we have shunned the revealing, revolutionary acts of love because they are too difficult. We have invalidated our own message. The reason that the Church has not been able to rightly dismantle white supremacist notions is because the Church is guilty of undermining racial justice.

Malcolm X with a Joni Eareckson Tada Finish

The incident in Charlottesville gave Jemar Tisby another chance in the op-ed section of the Washington Post. No one could disagree with Mr. Tisby’s estimate that this protest was an instance of white supremacy or that it is ugly and a threat to public order and the rule of law.

But I do wonder if Mr. Tisby lost his nerve when speaking to a national audience. For instance, in an earlier post last spring about another incident in Charlottesville, he wrote this at his own blog:

As much as city leaders sought to gain support for removing Confederate monuments and symbols, they never had complete consensus. Officials in New Orleans kept the date and time of the monument removals secret for fear of reprisals from their opponents. The Confederate flag came down in South Carolina in the middle of vocal defiance of the decision. Yet come down they did.

In the church as in the world, the time is always right to do right. Racism is sin. Leaders should not take a gradual approach to killing racism just like they should not take a gradual approach to killing any other sin. Nor should they think it necessary to build a consensus to combat this sin. True leadership initiates righteous changes even when they are unpopular with those being led.

That is the kind of radicalism that Charles Finney took to Oberlin College. If it’s sin, you break with it immediately. Any delay is even more sin. It is even in the ballpark of the sort of radicalism that Malcolm X promoted. If you have a system that is so brutally and obviously bad, you need to blow it up or leave it. That was part of X’s appeal — he advocated black nationalism and black separatism, and given the nature of Jim Crow and police brutality, you could understand why.

But at the Post, Mr. Tisby backed away from that sort of radicalism and admitted that we will always have racists with us:

Let’s also be clear that we can’t really end white supremacy. In the Christian view, racism is a sin, and sin cannot be completely eradicated on this side of eternity. But we are called to fight against sin in all its forms, so we should expect positive change in our churches and society at large as we fight against it.

So how do we fight white supremacy without taking Malcolm X’s path? Cue Joni Eareckson Tada:

1. Admit the American church was built on white supremacy.
From the Colonial era to the present day, white churches have helped build a society that privileges whiteness and denigrates blackness. In light of the white church’s involvement in creating and maintaining white supremacy, white pastors can presume that their churches are already part of the problem, intentionally or not.

2. Confess and repent of past sins.
Many congregations were formed in a fit of “white flight” from cities. Many Christian schools, particularly in the South, were explicitly created to preserve racial segregation in an era of court-ordered desegregation. Christians and church leaders must ask themselves how much they have acknowledged their own history. Have they gone through their church records and rulings to tell the full story of how their church, community, or denomination has cooperated with white supremacy? A failure to face white supremacy in the past will lead to a failure to confront it in the present.

3. Commit to responding to white supremacy with the vigor that the problem requires.
When we examine the history of race and the American church, the story is often worse than we expect. The church hasn’t simply gone along with white supremacy — it has assembled and established it. If white Christians have historically been so intentional about building up barriers between the races, then they will have to be just as intentional to bring them down.

4.Listen to black people.
We’ve been saying all along that a Charlottesville could easily happen. For years, the alt-right and white nationalists have employed the Bible to justify their racism, in public online. But many white Christians have never heard of the alt-right, much less been equipped to filter their messages biblically. We kept trying to tell them that this obsession with the Confederacy and its cultural artifacts sabotaged efforts at racial unity.

In addition to the fourth point, which is an implicit pitch for Mr. Tisby’s podcast, this is advice right out of a w-w play book — take every thought captive. It’s all about thinking and making personal resolutions.

But imagine telling that to Germans living in the 1930s under the tyranny of National Socialism. When evil is so institutionalized and so oppressive, as Mr. Tisby has long argued, do you simply commit to do things differently? Or do you actually think that Malcolm X had a point? You overturn the system or get out and form a separate nation? Mr. Tisby’s recommendations strike me as the equivalent of what I hear about climate change. What do I do? I feel badly and commit to do better, even when the entire food distribution system and development of town life in the U.S. is predicated on the use of fossil fuel.

In other words, Mr. Tisby’s recommendations are sort of like saying don’t trust the system but don’t forget to work with the system. Glenn Greenwald spotted the flaw in this logic when he went after those who complained about the ACLU’s defense of Charlottesville’s white supremacists’ rights to assembly and free speech:

. . . the contradiction embedded in this anti-free-speech advocacy is so glaring. For many of those attacking the ACLU here, it is a staple of their worldview that the U.S. is a racist and fascist country and that those who control the government are right-wing authoritarians. There is substantial validity to that view.

Why, then, would people who believe that simultaneously want to vest in these same fascism-supporting authorities the power to ban and outlaw ideas they dislike? Why would you possibly think that the List of Prohibited Ideas will end up including the views you hate rather than the views you support? Most levers of state power are now controlled by the Republican Party, while many Democrats have also advocated the criminalization of left-wing views. Why would you trust those officials to suppress free speech in ways that you find just and noble, rather than oppressive?

Greenwald’s question is one I’d like to hear Mr. Tisby answer. If the United States was founded by racists, prolonged its racism through slavery and Jim Crow, and now continues that racism in policies of mass incarceration executed by Republicans — and there is validity to this understanding of U.S. history, I’m not saying it’s wrong — then why continue the United States? Why obey the laws of the U.S.? Why submit to police? Why not instead rebel and bring down such an oppressive regime?

Is it because the next regime will also be a sinful one that has its own oppressive bugs (not features)? In which case, is the argument that sin is structural really self-defeating? It certainly gets attention and inspires outrage. It also gives you a platform that will never go away because you’ll always have a system to oppose. But at a certain point, the protest looks like only pious advice unless it counters the unjust structure not with a commitment to do better but an alternative structure.

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.