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Seeing Through Cruelty

When I arrive at Jackson Park, having walked briskly the fifteen minutes from our apartment and crossed the footbridge which, for me, marks the edge of the neighborhood and the beginning of the park, I instinctively slow down. In warmer months the swallows swoop from under the bridge, chasing the insects which skim across the surface of the lagoon before returning to their nests hidden somewhere beneath my feet. I often have the paths and trees to myself so, aside from the distant traffic on Lake Shore Drive to the east and Stony Island off to my right, there aren’t many noises to compete for what I’ve come listening for: the birds. Not that I actually know what I’m listening for; I don’t. Anything that sounds like it might be a bird gets my attention. And so I walk slowly, one of my ears cocked slightly toward the canopy, trying not just to hear but to listen.

Listening like this is new for me. This winter is only the second that I’ve made this walk my weekly habit and the difference between the two is that I’m just slightly more aware of how poorly I’ve noticed the birds that populate the alleys, shores, and parks around our neighborhood. I’m learning to listen, and to see.

This spring I stood still for a long time near a willow that leans over the lagoon. Small flashes of yellow caught my eye. The warbler was dancing from branch to branch, disappearing and then, suddenly, perched again within my view.

Yellow Warbler

The little bird kept circling where I’d stopped along the mulch-covered path. Why hadn’t she moved on? I wondered. Then she dropped into the branches of a very small tree, about the level of my chest, and I knew. I’d stumbled into her front yard, or maybe it was her back porch. Either way, for the rest of the summer I’d stop and look. Soon there were two small eggs, the size and shape of one of those foil-wrapped chocolates my boys might eat at Easter, a dull white and covered in brown speckles. She’d flit around my head during most of my visits, finally resigning herself to my intrusive presence and perching herself proudly on her delicately built nest.

I pointed my boys toward her nest during one of our walks and they strained to see. Eventually the eggs hatched and the mother and her young vacated their little home. They’re somewhere in Central America now- Guatemala, or maybe Panama. At least I hope they are.

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Earlier this year it was reported that, since 1970, the number of birds in Canada and the United States has dropped by almost 30%. There are something like 3 billion fewer birds today than there were then. Habitat loss from industrial scale agriculture and development along with pesticides which impact a bird’s ability to gain enough weight for migration seem to be the culprits. Warblers, like the responsible mother in Jackson Park, have been especially hard hit: their numbers have dropped by 617 million. It staggers the imagination.

When my boys walk through the park with me, looking and listening for birds, I think about these small deaths, staggering in scope. There is a meadow we walk through on our walks, the height of the grasses marking the time of year. A sign along the path informs the walker that this is the Bobolink Meadow, named after a species that used to frequent the area. Which other birds used to make the trees and fields along this lagoon their habitat? Which of the birds we are used to seeing are slowly, imperceptibly to my novice eyes, disappearing?

Black-Capped Chickadee

Reading about these massive population losses raises in me a sense of helplessness. How do we even begin thinking about reversing such a dramatic decline? There is an awful feeling of inevitability about these incomprehensible statistics. But of course, it isn’t inevitable. The Migratory Bird Treaty Act (MBTA) dates to 1918 and was meant to protect vulnerable populations of birds from their human neighbors, including “any part, nest, or egg of any such bird.” The MBTA is an explicit acknowledgement of our collective responsibility for the vulnerable birds with whom we share space and fate. It requires companies to take reasonable measures to protect birds and their habitats. But then, in 2017, the current presidential administration reinterpreted the MBTA so as to benefit industry and commerce. It’s the birds who’ve suffered.

In nearly two dozen incidents across 15 states, internal conversations among Fish and Wildlife Service officers indicate that, short of going out to shoot birds, activities in which birds die no longer merit action. In some cases the Trump administration has even discouraged local governments and businesses from taking relatively simple steps to protect birds, like reporting fatalities when they are found.

“You get the sense this policy is not only bad for birds, it’s also cruel,” Mr. Greenwald said.

Cruel. That’s the word I’ve returned to during this year of learning to listen and see. Columnist Elizabeth Bruenig wrote about this inhumane tendency last year, when word of the policy change was first announced.

They’re so easy to kill, birds; or rather, the power of human industry is so profound that only a little carelessness — the slightest abdication of that deeply human impulse to know and understand — is tremendously destructive for them. Perhaps this is why dead birds so often stand in literarily for human cruelty and corruption: Coleridge’s senselessly killed albatross in “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner,” for example, or the titular species of Harper Lee’s “To Kill a Mockingbird.”

But maybe that’s the heart of it, and maybe that’s the heart of the Trump era: permitting cruelty without consequence for the powerful. It’s harmful to the weak — birds, in this case, whose beauty needs no argument — but also to the strong who, in the exercise of cruelty, become less humane, less human.

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In her essay, Bruenig notes that in “the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus Christ tells His followers that not a single sparrow falls from the sky without God’s knowledge.” This is part of what makes the deaths of so many birds cruel, but I think there’s more to it. In the Bible, and especially in the Old Testament, birds and other animals are often portrayed with great tenderness; the worthiness of our concern seemingly self-evident. So the psalmist writes, in God’s voice, “I know all the birds of the air, and all that moves in the field is mine.” (Psalm 50:11)

This divine care for creatures is presumed upon God’s people as one of our responsibilities. In Deuteronomy, in a section of practical instructions about how to live well in their new land, the Hebrew people are told what not to do when happening upon a bird’s nest. If you come across a bird’s nest beside the road, either in a tree or on the ground, and the mother is sitting on the young or on the eggs, do not take the mother with the young. You may take the young, but be sure to let the mother go, so that it may go well with you and you may have a long life.” (22:6-7) Every time I stumble onto these verses I’m happily stunned by God’s concern for his people and for the animals within their care. And also by the explicit connection between the well-being of the birds and our own.

“His eye is on the sparrow,” sang Mahalia Jackson, “and I know He watches me.” But according to Scripture, my own eyes are also meant to be on the sparrows, finches, thrushes, sandpipers, and, one day maybe, the Bobolink.

Hermit Thrush

And this is where I’m caught short. The cruelty inflicted on the birds with whom I share a neighborhood is not some shapeless, inevitable thing. It is my own. The decimation of their habitats and their young is possible, in part, because of my own dumb and distracted plodding over land that isn’t mine, that I mistreat simply by not listening or seeing.

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A few days ago, during our Christmas visit to see family in Washington, we took the 90 minute ferry ride through the Puget Sound to Friday Harbor. There’s a used bookstore there, a few blocks up the hill from the harbor, and after lunch we spent some time browsing its overflowing shelves. Typically, when visiting a used bookstore, I make stops in theology, essays, and biography. But this year I’ve added to these what is alternatively called “nature,” “nature writing,” “the natural world,” and the like. In the Friday Harbor shop I found a gently worn hardcover copy of the Peterson Field Guide for eastern birds, perfect for Chicago and other Midwestern places I’m likely to find myself looking for birds.

This beautifully illustrated book was written in 1980 and as I thumbed through its pages I couldn’t help wondering about how many of the species could no longer be found in the places they used to frequent. It’s a terrible thing for a book to be out of date because millions and millions of its subjects have perished.

Walking to the counter and paying $10.00 for that book felt, even in the moment, something like delusion. But it also may have been a very small act of hope. That, by choosing to listen and see, there still might be a world of birds and people worth saving on the other side of our cruelty.

Five Favorite Books from 2019

I’m not sure there’s such a thing as a bad year of reading, but if there is, this wasn’t it. I got to review some very interesting books: The 21 (see below), Passionate for Justice, and The Color of Life for The Englewood Review of Books and Whole and Reconciled for Missio Alliance which, along with I Bring the Voices of My People (see below), has influenced my perspective on racial reconciliation. A friend recommended Beyond the Abortion Wars which I in turn also recommend for tender and charitable engagement about a reality which can seem impossible to talk about in mixed company. I loved David Blight’s biography about Frederick Douglass and I learned so much from The Heartbeat of Wounded Knee, David Treuer’s stark and beautiful reminder that Native American life continues with a diversity of expressions all over this country. I could go on: N.T. Wright’s biography about Paul was the perfect companion for our travels in Greece, The Water Dancer by Ta-Nehisi Coates surpassed my high expectations, and I finally got to Eugene Peterson’s A Long Obedience in the Same Direction. I’ve been doing a bit of bird watching and Maggie gave me God’s of the Morning as a birthday gift. Oh, and I finished The Crucifixion by Flemming Rutledge early in the year. A genuine masterpiece!

So, as I do each year, here are five of my favorites from a list full of favorites. There is biography, theology, history, and whatever The 21 is on this list. I hope there’s something here that piques your readerly interest.


The 21 by Martin Mosebach (2019).

When I wrote a review of The 21 for The Englewood Review of Books earlier this year, I began with this:

I am ashamed to admit that I had forgotten about the twenty-one men whose beheading in Libya by ISIS fighters was broadcast around the world in 2015. In the ensuing years my memory has constricted to the frenetic pace of our world’s rolling timeline of disasters and tragedies, whether close to home or, as with those young men kneeling before their masked captors, on a lonely beach on the other side of the world. It was the cover image on Martin Mosebach’s recently translated book, The 21: A Journey into the Land of Coptic Martyrs, that jostled my mind. On it we see a procession of bound men in orange jumpsuits, their heads bent under the heavy hands of their captors, dressed head to toe in black. Even those readers who had forgotten this story, or had somehow managed to miss it the first time, will understand that this choreographed march will end terribly for the men in orange.

Of all the books I read this year, this may be the one that has most stayed with me. Mosebach’s account of the men’s deaths and their lives has worked its way into my memory. I’ve found myself mentioning these stories throughout the year, awed by the Coptic Church’s risky witness to Jesus.

Powers, Principalities, and the Spirit: Biblical Realism in African and the West by Esther E. Acolatse (2018).

Originally from Ghana, Esther E. Acolatse brings her perceptive eye to this study on the different ways Christians in the West and global South think about supernatural realities. Engaging with theologians like Rudolf Bultmann, Walter Wink, and Karl Barth, the author holds up western assumptions about the spiritual life against the experience and perspective of churches in Africa. Seeing these differences as one of the major points of distance between these regions, this is a project worth undertaking.

Acolatse wants to call all Christians back to accounts of spiritual warfare found in Scripture. “Accounts of evil from the global South currently lack appropriate attention to personal complicity and guilt as well as structural dimensions; but accounts from the global North also emphasize the individual and structural dimensions without giving sufficient attention to extra human components.” It’s this larger hermeneutic of the spiritual powers that she is after in these pages.

This is an academic book with all of the accompanying analysis. But Acolatse is not a dispassionate observer; there is a conviction that runs through the book, occasionally erupting in passion. A longer quote will illustrate this.

It is probably that the lack of knowledge and experience of the presence of the demonic in modern times – through to our current times – has made it easy to turn Christianity into a primarily cerebral, morality-infusing code for civilizing humanity, rather than the life-transforming, Satan-crushing, God-Glorifying powerful religion or lifestyle that was intended… We seem to have exegeted (almost exorcised) the power out of the Logos and propped it up with philosophy.

I’ve come to think that, for those of us engaged in the work of racial reconciliation, a strong emphases on the spiritual nature of evil and oppression is vital. Forgetting this leaves us confused about the true nature of our fight. Powers, Principalities, and the Spirit is a helpful and at times jarring reminder.

A Surprised Queenood in the New Black Sun by Angela Jackson(2017).

I like the idea of reading poetry more than I actually like reading poetry. But that has changed some in recent years and the poet who is responsible for this is Gwendolyn Brooks. Brooks was a life-long resident in the communities where we live and do ministry and reading her helps me not only imagine what the neighborhoods were like fifty or sixty years ago, but also what I have missed today.

In A Surprised Queenhood the author, also a poet, tells us Brooks’ story. This was a woman seemingly born a poet; it was the thing she always wanted to be. We learn too about her community, Bronzeville, and the many currents then shaping this community to which black citizens were migrating from racial terror in the south. We also see how Brooks’ conception of being a black poet changed over the years, how younger artists and poets shaped her vision and voice.

An older pastor once told a gathering of pastors that each of us should have “our” poet. By this I think he meant we should have that one poet whose work we continue to turn to for help in gaining some perspective about our own lives and circumstances and our own small place in the world. This is what Brooks has done for me. As a small example, here’s one of her short poems, provoked by the lynching of Emmett Till. And be sure to watch this creative rendition of what is probably her best-known poem, “We Real Cool.”

The Last Quatrain Of The Ballad Of Emmett Till

(after the murder,
after the burial)
Emmett’s mother is a pretty-faced thing;
the tint of pulled taffy.
She sits in a red room,
drinking black coffee.
She kisses her killed boy.
And she is sorry.
Chaos in windy grays
through a red prairie.

The War Before the War by Andrew Delbanco (2018).

I began the year with David Blight’s really great biography of Frederick Douglass and ended it with Delbanco’s history of the Fugitive Slave Act. In fact, I’ve recently found myself spending a lot of time in the years surrounding the Civil War. The more I learn about the debates and political maneuverings leading up to the war and the responses and betrayals following it, the more I feel that I understand some of the instincts motivating our own fraught American moment.

Delbanco takes the Fugitive Slave Act, passed eleven years before the war began, as a lens through which to view and interpret the roiling debates and civic, religious, and cultural clashes leading to it. At the heart of these debates is the simple question of personhood: Can an enslaved person who liberates herself be thought of as having stolen herself? Can you be held accountable for freeing yourself when the place you were held captive never saw you as fully human? To most in the south the answer was clear and the demand that fugitives be prosecuted and returned rang loud and clear. To many in the north the answer was murkier. Even those who found slavery reprehensible were often willing to accept the status quo as a matter of law and order. Delbanco reminds us that the war between the states, and the horror which led to it, implicated both the north and south.

I Bring the Voices of My People by Chanequa Walker-Barnes (2019).

Chanequa Walker-Barnes is a uniquely qualified guide to the world of Christian racial reconciliation. Having led in these spaces, she now reflects from a theological vantage point that finds much to critique. For example, with other students of the movement, she views multi-ethnic churches as regularly defaulting to white cultural norms and inevitably avoiding the sources of racial injustice. This is an important and very necessary criticism.

But Walker-Barnes is not content only to level critique. Rather, this book is a vision of what reconciliation could be, especially if the voices and experiences of women of color were to lead the way. So, for example, this way forward is unafraid to identify white supremacy as the source of racial injustice, rather than the relatively benign relational separateness that is so often the focus in white-led reconciliation ministries. (I couldn’t help rehearsing my own book as I was reading. While I can’t be sure, I think that my own suggestions about addressing racial injustice fall in line with Walker-Barnes’ justice focus.)

Throughout the book I wondered if the author would ever abandon the language of reconciliation. Such has been the tendency over the past 3-5 years in the circles I travel. But no.

For me and many others, only one thing keeps us on a journey in which we are destined to encounter people who devalue our personhood: captivity. That is, we are held captive by the understanding that reconciliation is core to the gospel, that it reflects God’s intention for humanity, and that it is central to our identity as Christians.

Amen.

Will there be racists in heaven?

I wrote this for my weekly newsletter which you can subscribe to here.

A few weeks ago a friend retweeted a well-known bishop who is vocal in his opposition to racism who had declared something along the lines of: I’d rather not go to heaven if I’ve got to be there with white evangelicals. To this my friend added, “I hope to have a good conversation with the bishop about this a few thousand years from now.” To his witty response, I commented,

Reminds me of a large group conversation I was in yesterday…

Person: “Will there be racists in heaven?”

Me under my breath: “I sure as heck hope so or I’m in a world of hurt.”

I’m still thinking about this short exchange. I think my friend’s response was right: I expect many of us will be surprised about who we’re spending eternity with. And I think mine was too: If sin of any kind – including racist ones – is going to keep someone from heaven than I’m out.

And yet. I think there’s more to wonder about here.

During the same meeting I mentioned in my Twitter comment we found ourselves discussing which Christian doctrines are worth going to the mat for and which fall into an agree-to-disagree category. Or, to use the language of the bishop’s provocative tweet, which Christian beliefs can be considered central-enough to salvation that they might impact a person’s salvation? In our meeting the example of racism was brought up. Might one’s posture toward racism be an example of something that, however odious and deadly, might be considered a non-essential to Christian orthodoxy?

You can imagine that there were some differing opinions on this question. Those of us for whom racism remains largely in the abstract – a sin to resist and repent of – were willing to consider it a matter of great importance, but perhaps not raised to the level of orthodoxy. (I don’t know for sure, but I imagine for some of us white Christians this open-heartedness has to do with those family members we love who remain happily ensconced in their racism. It’s tough for us to talk about the theological significance of one’s beliefs about race when the people we’re talking about are grandma and grandpa.)

And then there were those whose experience with race and racism is absolutely real. They experience in their bodies the desecration of the imago Dei and there is nothing secondary or peripheral about it.

In her important new book, I Bring the Voices of My People: A Womanist Vision for Racial Reconciliation, Dr. Chanequa Walker-Barnes, writes plainly about the heretical nature of racism and white supremacy.

Racism is an interlocking system of oppresion that is designed to promote and maintain White supremacy, the notion that White people – including their bodies, aesthetics, beliefs, values, customs, and culture – are inherently superior to all other races and therefore should wield dominion over the rest of creation, including other people groups, the animal kingdom, and the earth itself.

Racism, Walk-Barnes points out repeatedly, is not a matter of private prejudice or relational separateness; it is a matrix of beliefs and behaviors which systematically elevate some at the expense of another person’s suffering. Viewed – experienced – thusly, it’s hard to make a case that racism is anything other than a central concern of Jesus’ gospel. And so it must be for all of his followers too.

Trying to Remember

I wrote this for my weekly newsletter which you can subscribe to here.

Yesterday morning I walked three quarters of a mile from my in-law’s home in Brownsville, TN to this roadside marker beside a small family cemetery.

James Bond, a quick internet search will reveal, was once one of Tennessee’s largest slaveholders.

By the eve of the Civil War, Bond had amassed property holdings in Haywood County alone of more than seventeen thousand acres and approximately 220 slaves. In 1859 his five plantations yielded more than one thousand bales of cotton and nearly twenty-two thousand bushels of corn. The federal manuscript census for 1860 estimated his total wealth at just under $800,000. (By comparison, the total value of all farmland, buildings, and other improvements in the entire county of Johnson–situated in the mountainous region in the northeastern part of the state–was just under $790,000.)

The average passerby will intuit none of this from the marker standing watch over the great pioneer’s grave even though almost nothing on that marker would have been accomplished or amassed without those women and men he enslaved.

It’s not exactly a secret that James Bond owned people; people in this town know it, or at least some of them do. But seeing a sanitized version of his legacy etched in steel does reveal something about our shared memory. After all, the choice – and it must have been a conscious decision – to gloss over the source of the man’s wealth and generosity was an act of deliberate forgetfulness.

I’m sure this sort of thing is not unique to this country. It’s one of the privileges exerted by the powerful in any society to remember history in a manner wherein our forefathers and mothers retain their heroic status. But still, there is a particular way in which we forget things in the U.S.A.

In 1962 James Baldwin published a letter to his nephew. In it, he warns his young namesake about the dangers he will face from forgetful white Americans.

I know what the world has done to my brother and how narrowly he has survived it and I know, which is much worse, and this is the crime of which I accuse my country and my countrymen and for which neither I nor time nor history will ever forgive them, that they have destroyed and are destroying hundreds of thousands of lives and do not know it and do not want to know it. One can be–indeed, one must strive to become–tough and philosophical concerning destruction and death, for this is what most of mankind has been best at since we have heard of war; remember, I said most of mankind, but it is not permissible that the authors of devastation should also be innocent. It is the innocence which constitutes the crime.

Baldwin was surely thinking about more than deceptive roadside memorials to slaveholders, but it does illustrate his point in concrete and metal.

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The gravity of Christian worship is the Lord’s Supper when bread is broken and wine poured out. “This is my body, which is for you; do this in remembrance of me… This cup is the new covenant in my blood; do this, whenever you drink it, in remembrance of me.” (1 Cor. 11:24-25) In remembrance. There are echoes here of the many times God commanded his people to remember their former captivity and God’s saving intervention.

Forgetfulness, in other words, is not normal for Christians, at least not the willful variety. Remembering is one of the choices we can make which draws us toward our Savior and into the presence of sisters and brothers. And yes, this is a remembering that centers on Christ, but at table we also remember precisely why we come so hungry and thirsty. We remember our sins, even the ones previous generations worked so hard to forget.

This week, using this helpful site, some of us posted to social media which Native American people’s land we were celebrating Thanksgiving from. It’s true that this could easily slide into a kind of meaningless virtue signaling. But, for some, it represents a decision to remember what has been forgotten for so long that many of us hadn’t even known that it could be remembered. It’s a small decision which can remind us that forgetting isn’t inevitable.

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After visiting James Bond’s grave, I walked to the small town square which is dominated by a monument dedicated to “the Confederate dead of Haywood County.” There, a block away, is a recently placed monument to Elbert Williams, a man known as the NAACP’s first martyr. For his efforts to register black voters, Williams was kidnapped by the police and drowned in the Hatchie River.

I’m not sure why the Tennessee Historical Commission decided to erect this marker so many decades after Williams was lynched, but its presence is notable. Standing in the shadow of the county courthouse is this honest testimony to an ugly past and proof that, if we want to badly enough, we can remember what was previously and purposefully forgotten.

Just how much racism is in our DNA?

I wrote this for my weekly newsletter which you can subscribe to here.

This week I learned that there’s something called the World Socialist Website and that they published an interesting interview with James McPherson who’s book about the Civil War is exceptionally good. Anyway, the interview is ostensibly about The New York Times’ recently published 1619 Project and it quickly becomes clear that neither McPherson or his interviewer are all that impressed with it. I’ve not read all of the 1619 articles but what I’ve read – and the podcast episodes I’ve listened to – have been well done and informative, so I was interested in McPherson’s critique.

Image result for 1619 project

Some of you might be interested in the whole thing, but here’s the portion of the interview that jumped out to me.

Q. Nikole Hannah-Jones, the lead writer and leader of the 1619 Project, includes a statement in her essay—and I would say that this is the thesis of the project—that “anti-black racism runs in the very DNA of this country.”

A. Yes, I saw that too. It does not make very much sense to me. I suppose she’s using DNA metaphorically. She argues that racism is the central theme of American history. It is certainly part of the history. But again, I think it lacks context, lacks perspective on the entire course of slavery and how slavery began and how slavery in the United States was hardly unique. And racial convictions, or “anti-other” convictions, have been central to many societies.

But the idea that racism is a permanent condition, well that’s just not true. And it also doesn’t account for the countervailing tendencies in American history as well. Because opposition to slavery, and opposition to racism, has also been an important theme in American history.

Q. Could you speak on this a little bit more? Because elsewhere in her essay, Hannah-Jones writes that “black Americans have fought back alone” to make America a democracy.

A. From the Quakers in the 18th century, on through the abolitionists in the antebellum, to the radical Republicans in the Civil War and Reconstruction, to the NAACP which was an interracial organization founded in 1909, down through the Civil Rights movement in the 1950s and 1960s, there have been a lot of whites who have fought against slavery and racial discrimination, and against racism. Almost from the beginning of American history that’s been true. And that’s what’s missing from this perspective.

McPherson, if I’m reading him correctly, takes issue with Hannah-Jones for a few reasons. First, he sees similar themes of racism in the histories of other societies. Second, he doesn’t think that anti-black racism is the DNA of this country. And third, he sees certain white people like the Quakers as revealing that it’s not only black people who’ve fought to make America truly a democracy.

I don’t think his first concern deserves much of a response; I’m not sure anyone would disagree, including the contributors to the 1619 Project. (Having said that, it’s interesting how often those who want to downplay the power of race and the persistence of racism bring up this sort of thing, as though the fact that there is racism in other countries somehow makes it less important. There’s plenty to explore about what is distinct about American racism – the unique ways whiteness gets legally codified in the U.S.A., the tortured logic of the founders who had to square visions of liberty with their own enslaving tendencies – but we’ll leave that for another day.) The second two, though, are worth exploring for what they reveal about the assumptions under-girding how we think about race.

Is racism a central theme to this nation’s founding? McPherson thinks it is but also seems to believe that Hannah-Jones sees it as too central of a theme. This might seem like a quibble, but I actually think it’s an important distinction. Over the years I’ve interacted with white people who are quick to acknowledge that racism is a part of the nation’s history, but one that can be quantified and contained to certain moments and individuals. Once the claim is made, as the 1619 Project does repeatedly, that racism taints everything about the U.S.A.’s founding mythology, well, that’s where the trouble starts.

In part, I think, this has to do with one’s understanding of what racism is. For many it can be located in explicit actions or policies and, when it is, they have no trouble denouncing it. But the argument that people like Hannah-Jones are advancing is that racism functions more like a lens through which the world is viewed. This means that more of our shared history than just the obviously racist stuff has to be reckoned with through this lens.

https://farm8.staticflickr.com/7131/7104244325_878bc56f1e_z.jpg

This leads to McPherson’s third concern which has to do with the exceptional white people who bravely stood against slavery. He’s right about this, thankfully, though I’m not sure I’d characterize this as optimistically as he does: “there have been a lot of whites who have fought against slavery and racial discrimination, and against racism.” Later in the interview he raises Abraham Lincoln up as an example. Yes, he admits, Lincolns views on race were complicated but he evolved over time.

Q. Is it correct to say that by the end of his life Lincoln had drawn to a position proximate to that of the Radical Republicans?

A. He was moving in that direction. In his last speech—it turned out to be his last speech—he came out in favor of qualified suffrage for freed slaves, those who could pass a literacy test and those who were veterans of the Union army.

But the important historical fact that Lincoln’s views about African American people changed over time – during the war he lectured a delegation of black leaders about why it was the presence of black people which caused the war and why they’d need to emigrate to Africa after the war – doesn’t mean that he shed his racist lens. One of the insights of David Blight’s really good biography about Frederick Douglass is that it was very possible to be an earnest white abolitionist and still hold paternalistic and prejudiced assumptions about the very people you worked so hard to free.

So, to say that African American people, as those who’ve seen clearly the hypocrisies of the democracy, are the ones who’ve alone fought to hold the country to its promises is simply to notice how race has functioned. As Hannah-Jones writes, “More than any other group in this country’s history, we have served, generation after generation, in an overlooked but vital role: It is we who have been the perfecters of this democracy.” This isn’t to say that some white people haven’t opposed racism and its many expressions – slavery, Jim Crow laws, lynching, mass incarceration, etc. – only that such righteous opposition does not free us completely from our captivity to, as Bryan Stevenson says, the narrative of racial difference. Lincoln could free the slaves and remain captive to this devious narrative.

This is all a long way of saying that how we think about racism – what we think it is – impacts significantly what we think an adequate response to racism is. Hannah-Jones and others are right, in my opinion, to think about race as a smog or an operating system or a strand of DNA. It’s not our only story, but we cannot understand any of our shared story without reckoning with racism. And, for those of us who are white, there’s actually quite a bit of freedom that comes from admitting our inability to keep this country’s promises for liberty and justice on our own.

I have a hunch that Hannah-Jones would agree with McPherson’s conviction that racism is not a permanent condition, or at least that it doesn’t have to be. The really important question has to do with how we get there. It seems to me that confessing precisely the extent of the problem is the place to begin.


“All of these fanatics were white.”

I wrote this for my weekly newsletter which you can subscribe to here.

There was one place I wanted to visit during our recent 48 hours in Paris. Well, there were a bunch of places I hoped to visit, but there was one place in particular I wanted to sit. The Café de Flore was, according to believable legend, one of James Baldwin’s regular writing spots. Baldwin’s essays have been important to me over the years; I recommend him before any other author to those wanting to understand what it means to be white in America. I wanted to sit in that cafe, while munching on a croissant, sipping an espresso, and imagining the expatriate hunched over his notebooks.

Maggie was gracious enough to get up early the morning after we arrived so that we could get to the cafe as it opened. It was a rainy morning, but the newstand next door sold the international edition of the Times and the awning was enclosed and heated, so we found a table and got comfortable.

It was great. Between the rain and the early hour, we seemed to be some of the only tourists in the place. We chatted and read and I thought about what Baldwin came to Paris looking for, a reprieve from the racism that plagued him in Harlem and anywhere he stepped foot in his country.

I was first exposed to this instinct to sojourn in Paris by reading Ta-Nehisi Coates when he used to blog for The Atlantic. I remember sitting in the living room of a friend’s cottage in rural Illinois, about as far from Paris in every way possible, reading his posts about that city.

And we are here now, and all around me is the incredible music of French. I walk into stores and bumble my way through. I take my family for le boeuf et frites and bumble through. I inhale a bottle of red wine with my wife, and stumble out. I walk into pharmacies with my son mishandling verbs, fumbling pronouns, wrecking whole grammars. And by my heel, I care not. It is not for them. It is for me. I know how we got here. I do not know when we may be called back.

This is when I fell for Coates and his writing. He wrote with urgency and conviction but also – and this continues to be a hallmark – with great humility. He was a man unashamed to admit what he didn’t know, hungry to learn and understand, especially those histories which make sense of those things which seem inevitable in this world but which, as Coates has shown us again and again, are not.

Not far from Café de Flore is a bookstore I wanted to visit. I’d forgotten this, but I must have first learned about Shakespeare and Company in one of Coates’ posts.

Two Saturdays ago, I visited the venerable bookstore Shakespeare and Company. It was a hot day. The store was small and stifling. A woman walked around handing out watermelon. I picked up a copy of Eric Hobsbawm’s The Age of Revolution and Primo Levi’s If This Is A Man. I went upstairs, sat in a room with view of the street and I think even the river. Two things happened while I sat there. First, I fell in love with Primo Levi, an unoriginal event which nevertheless deserves (and shall receive) elaboration. Second, I decided that this room was perfect.

I walked into that bookstore looking for The Water Dancer, Coates’ first novel which had just been published. After scanning the tables of new releases and checking the fiction shelves, I went to the counter to ask, worried that the book hadn’t been released overseas yet. But the clerk walked me over to a table and handed me the book; I’d not recognized it because, here in Paris, it was a paperback with a different cover.

The book tucked under my arm, I made my way upstairs to Coates’ perfect room. He was right. I sat in an ancient armchair near that window and read the first chapter. It was inevitable that the shop cat would make his way over and jump onto my lap. Perfect.

I finished The Water Dancer earlier this week. I don’t read enough fiction so take this with a grain of salt: I really liked it. Coates has created a world full of detail and surprise. There’s much to notice even as the story pulls the reader forward. It’s full of sentences like this one, which Coates has coming from a fictionalized Harriet Tubman: “For memory is the chariot, and memory is the way, and memory is bridge from the curse of slavery to the boon of freedom.” That, as my pastor friends might say, will preach!

And then, toward the end, is this passage which made me think of Baldwin scribbling away at the Café de Flore and Coates and his family eating and drinking their way through the city. The narrator is describing a white woman, an important leader of the underground railroad.

All of these fanatics were white. They took slavery as a personal insult or affront, a stain upon their name. They had seen women carried off to fancy, or watched as a father was stripped and beaten in front of his child, or seen whole families pinned like hogs into rail-cars, steam-boats, and jails. Slavery humiliated them, because it offended a basic sense of the goodness that they believed themselves to possess. And when their cousins perpetrated the base practice, it served to remind them how easily they might do the same. They scorned their barbaric brethren, but they were brethren all the same. So their opposition was a kind of vanity, a hatred of slavery that far outranked any love of the slave.

In recent weeks I’ve had two occasions, within the company of some African American friends, to notice this sort of vanity. There is a certain kind of white person who is committed to opposing racism and white supremacy. They have read many books on the topics and are conversant in the ideas and histories. And yet, as Coates writes, they love the fight against oppression more than they love those who’ve been oppressed. Like the white woman in this passage, they are fanatical and even effective. We surely need them in this work. And yet I can imagine that Baldwin disappeared into Paris to escape not just the scary racists but them, the fanatics, too.

And this, as one prone to fanaticism, is worth pondering.

The Offense of Grace

Photo: Stefano Corso.

Botham and Brandt Jean and White Christian America’s Refusal to be Forgiven

When Brandt Jean extended forgiveness to the police officer who murdered his brother in his own apartment having, apparently, mistaken it for her own, I saw a poignant example of grace. Given the racial dynamics however – Brandt’s brother, Botham, was Black; the woman who killed him is white – many others didn’t see grace at all, but a tiresome and infuriating repetition of an old reality: an African American is mortally wounded by a white neighbor and is expected to forgive publicly and quickly. The word of forgiveness is a stabilizing word which leaves the racial hierarchy undisturbed and allows both the perpetrator and the supremacist system that shaped them to walk away unscathed.

First Lady Dorena Williamson, in an important article for Christianity Today, identifies the way racism distorts our understanding of forgiveness and grace.

Yes, God is a forgiving God. But we haven’t really understood the depth of that grace if all our examples of forgiveness are times when the people being forgiven look just like us. Given the long history of white supremacy in this country, we as Christians should ask: Why aren’t there videos of white people forgiving their black assailants trending on our social media? Why aren’t black accusers hugged by judges or comforted by the victim’s family members, as this former police officer was? How long O Lord?

Indeed, this was one of the many insights shared on social media following Brandt’s forgiveness. Why is it always Black people who are expected to forgive the assaults of their white neighbors? We think back to those relatives of the slain members of Mother Emanuel in Charleston who, despite the explicitly racist motivations of the murderer, chose to forgive him.

After the courtroom forgiveness, my friend Dr. Marcus Board shared an article that investigates the Mother Emanuel massacre to better understand this racialized forgiveness. In “‘But I Forgive You?’: Mother Emanuel, Black Pain and the Rhetoric of Forgiveness”, authors Andre E. Johnson and Earle J. Fisher write that when “atrocities grounded within a racist socio-historical framework explode upon our collective consciousness that causes Black pain and suffering, there is an expectation that those victims forgive their perpetrators.” Within a white supremacist landscape “white emotion usurps the affirmation of black humanity. This is why African Americans in times of such tragedy cannot express ‘black rage’ or anger.”

The authors quote an op-ed by Roxane Gay in which she explains why, contrary to this racist assumption of Black forgiveness, she will not forgive the many who murdered the worshipers at Emannuel AME Church.

What white people are really asking for when they demand forgiveness from a traumatized community is absolution. They want absolution from the racism that infects us all even though forgiveness cannot reconcile America’s racist sins. They want absolution from their silence in the face of all manner of racism, great and small. They want to believe it is possible to heal from such profound and malingering trauma because to face the openness of the wounds racism has created in our society is too much. I, for one, am done forgiving.

These warning and complaints are more than legitimate; they are true. Yet in them I still see an example of grace, both for the reality of forgiveness to which it points as well as the reality of justice which such an act of grace creates. Brandt’s choice to forgive, I believe, testifies to something that has long been accomplished, a grace whose offense is largely lost on us until we’re confronted by something like his courtroom forgiveness. And it also calls into existence a possibility of justice- genuine justice that has long eluded the racialized imaginations of our nation’s justice system.


Despite the understandable protests elicited by Brandt Jean’s decision to forgive, I still see in him the closest example to Christ’s costly grace that this racist nation is likely to experience.

In the forgiveness offered to the woman who murdered his brother, Brandt Jean offers a window to the grace of Christ not despite our long racist history but precisely because of it. Many have pointed out the endless ways white people presume upon the forgiveness of Black people who we have purposefully and systematically oppressed for centuries. We might worry that by elevating Jean’s act of grace we are rendering it meaningless. After all, this is the sort of thing that always happen in this nation and to what effect? Black people continue to be attacked and murdered; those entrusted to protect them aid and abet their killers.

Yet to rightly understand grace in the Christian tradition, we must reckon with this offensiveness. For those willing to grapple with our nation’s racism and white supremacy, Jean’s forgiveness is unpalatable. It feels unjust, undeserved. It is. But if we are to even get close to understanding the crucifixion of Jesus of Nazareth, we must be willing to drift into this kind of objectionable territory. The grace of God extends to us through the Christ’s bloody sacrifice – and only though it – because of our corruption and complicity, because of our propensity to sin and to sin again. If this divine grace is less offensive to us than Jean’s forgiveness it is our own fault. It is not grace that does not offend but our tepid and self-serving interpretation of it.


This is the reality to which Jean’s forgiveness points. This, for Christians, is our sure foundation. It is offensive, a stumbling block as the apostle Paul rightly understood. Yet to those who’ve realized our sinful corruption and complicity, it is the way to life. And here is where we see that in Jean’s forgiveness, and in the similar acts of grace by African American Christians over the centuries, a new reality is being created. Christian forgiveness, as a reflection of Christ’s grace, is creation-al and allows for the possibility of true justice.

In Luke 19, when Jesus invites himself over to the despised tax collector’s home, Zacchaeus responds to this grace in a public and accountable manner.

“Look, Lord! Here and now I give half of my possessions to the poor, and if I have cheated anybody out of anything, I will pay back four times the amount.”

Jesus said to him, “Today salvation has come to this house, because this man, too, is a son of Abraham. For the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost.”

The assumption, readily understood by Zacchaeus, was that Jesus’ grace required a costly response. By accepting it genuinely, he had to repent of his previous way of life which had depended on the exploitation and oppression of his neighbors.

The rich young man in Luke 18 also understood the nature of the Christ’s grace. Having been told by Jesus to sell his possessions and give the proceeds to the poor, he “became very sad, because he was very wealthy.” Though their responses differed, both the wealthy young man and the corrupt tax collector understood the nature of the grace offered by Jesus. Accepting it required a complete reversal of their previous ways of life. They would become new people, living in harmony with the righteousness and justice of the Christ.

This, I think, is what white Christians persistently misunderstand about grace. Roxane Gay’s indictment of us is dead on: we want absolution. So we cheapen grace, desecrating the costly sacrifices of our Black (and Brown and Native and…) neighbors. Or to put it differently, we reject the gift that is being offered for a counterfeit of our own diseased imaginations, one that justifies our ongoing oppressive ways. In this context, it’s reasonable to think that the most gracious thing a Black Christian can do is to withhold forgiveness so as to not, in Jesus’ evocative phrase, cast their pearls before swine.

What would it look like for Botham Jean’s murderer to receive the grace offered by his brother? It would mean confessing her sins and dropping her defense. It would mean reflecting honestly on the ways her imagination and assumptions have been infected – like mine – with, in Bryan Stevenson’s phrase, the malicious narrative of racial difference. It would mean living in solidarity with those, like Jean’s mother, Allison, who tell the truth about police brutality and political corruption. It would mean losing her life in order to find it.

Were this costly grace to be received it would lead to justice. Like Zacchaeus, recipients of this grace give themselves to repairing what we have exploited. There is no spiritualized absolution here, only sacrificial and accountable action.

This is what Christ’s costly grace can create. It is a reality in which the woman who murdered Botham Jean becomes a new person. That white America, as shown not by our occasional tears or social media shares but by our sustained actions, has for centuries refused this grace is evidence not that Brandt Jean’s offer was not genuine, but that we have not genuinely received it. The fault is ours alone. As are the consequences.