The Priority of Prayer

Wendell Berry, Jaques Ellul, and a Christian response to technologies and tyranny.

Wendell Berry, in an interview in The New York Times on October 1, makes this important point:

Both of the political sides, so far as I am concerned, have to accept responsibility for the emergence of Donald Trump, the autonomous man, the self-made man, economically “free” and sexually liberated, responsible only to himself, starting from scratch and inventing his own way of doing things. To get outside the trajectory that produced Trump, we will have to go back to tradition. I am unsure when we began to think of, for instance, the 15th Psalm and Jesus’s law of neighborly love as optional. They are not optional, as I think the Amish example proves, and as proved by present failure.

I think Berry is exactly right to identify the fundamentally bipartisan nature of the president’s emergence. While we’re watching the Republicans fall in line and the Democrats engage in varying levels of resistance to this administration, we shouldn’t forget that the culture that gave rise to current resident of the White House is the same one that continues to animate our country’s partisan politics. To be clear, I hope that more Democrats will get elected in the midterms; a check on this administration’s powers is overdue. But such political victories should hold very limited hope without, as Berry notes, an alternative to the assumptions and ideologies that led us to this sad place in the first place.

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Jaques Ellul

Christians ought to be able to think about these sorts of moments differently than others. In the afterword of his fascinating new book, The Year of Our Lord 1943, Alan Jacobs introduces the reader to one of my favorite Christian thinkers, Jaques Ellul. In the years immediately following World War II, Ellul, a Frenchman who spent the war years aiding the resistance and giving shelter to Jewish refugees, wonders about the role of Christians in rebuilding war-ravaged communities and countries. Jacobs’ book is all about the rise and eventual preeminence of a cultural mindset that elevated technology – the machine, science, etc. The old Christian humanism championed by C.S. Lewis, T. S Eliot, and the others Jacobs’ chooses to highlight would fade in the gleam of powerful technologies. Ellul understood the inevitability of technology’s ubiquity – and the human instinct to worship the glittering, gleaming machines – and still wondered what a distinct Christian response would be.

His answer, as he thought about Hitler’s rise, was that the unique thing Christians should have done – as Christians – was to pray. “But Christians,” writes Jacobs, “while they certainly did pray, failed to give prayer the priority and centrality they were required to give it. Had they done, then ‘perhaps the result would not have been this horrifying triumph of the Hitlerian spirit that we now see throughout the world.'”

And this brings me back to Berry and his observation about the emergence of Donald Trump. While Christians ought to think about how best to mitigate the damage inflicted by the presidential administration, we must do so from a very particular starting point. Voting and organizing are activities in which Christians ought to participate, but we will also remember that there is nothing inherently Christian about these things. Prayer, on the other hand, as a posture of submission and allegiance to Jesus Christ is something only available to those who confess Jesus as Lord. Our confession will lead to the kind of sober-minded assessments exemplified by Berry – we’re all responsible for this president – as well as for creative and humanizing responses that will remain invisible or irrelevant to our fellow citizens.

“They’re so easy to kill, birds…”

This, from Elizabeth Bruenning in the Washington Post about the Trump administration’s decision not to enforce the Migratory Bird Treaties Act, is so beautifully said and so profoundly sad.

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. In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus Christ tells His followers that not a single sparrow falls from the sky without God’s knowledge. Maybe this is why a person like Len Howard, with her deep and steadfast love of knowing her fellow creatures, seemed in some sense like St. Francis preaching to his birds, graced. But ours is not a graced age. So many more birds will die now, drowning in waste pits with greased feathers and electrocuted on power lines. We won’t even know.

“Her death, like her father’s to some extent, is another reminder of what it means to embody and to carry in the body the full experience of being Black in the United States.”

Ms. Garner’s death means much and it’s impossible for me to distance her death from her father’s death. They were two different people and if I can find one common line between them, it is, for me, that neither of them should have died when they died. Her death, like her father’s to some extent, is another reminder of what it means to embody and to carry in the body the full experience of being Black in the United States.

There is immense pleasure in being Black and there is a corresponding shadow side that is inexplicable despite the best linguistic tools. Death comes for everyone, and it seems that death comes so soon for those whose skin is along that gorgeous spectrum from cream to vanilla bean. The hands of those who are sworn to serve and protect or the low-lying pervasive threats of asthma and “high blood and sugar” as they were known in my childhood–the line of angels of death is long.

Michael Washington meditating on the death of Erica Garner, daughter of Eric Garner who was killed by the NYPD.

Exposing White Lies

We’re right to be appalled by the constant revelations of sexual abuse and assault. But what, exactly, are we shocked about?

Recently it seems hardly a day can pass without credible new allegations of sexual assault or abuse leveled against another powerful white man. It’s not that only white men abuse and assault women, but there is something important about women who are believed when standing against powerful white men. I think this moment – when a woman’s word is trusted over that of political or entertainment mogul –  is unique in the history of the United States. We are grappling with something new and I wonder whether it can be sustained.

lynch lawIn 1892, in the aftermath of the Civil War, the abandonment of reconstruction, and her own expulsion from Memphis under the threat of mob violence, journalist Ida B. Wells wrote Lynch Law, an investigation into the lynchings then rampant throughout the American South. She also looked into the purported causes of these murdered black citizens. She found one cause to be more common than any other: “[The Negro] is now charged with assaulting or attempting to assault white women. This charge, as false as it is foul, robs us of the sympathy of the world and is blasting the race’s good name.”

In this and later investigations Wells documented case after case of black men standing accused of sexual assault by white women and summarily executed (often after being tortured) by white men.  The public history of white men, particularly powerful white men, and sexual assault is one in which we are judge, jury, and executioner. This makes the recent tendency to believe the women who have come forward so surprising. We are used to the deceitful lore of the violent and sexualized black man and the equally fantastical legend of the universally virtuous white man. Seeing so many white men assumed guilty of their crimes is exceptional, utterly counter to the widely accepted narrative that Wells exposed so plainly.

But our surprise should run even deeper. I’m thinking about a horrifying passage in Edward E. Baptist’s masterful The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism. Here Baptist writes about two enslaved women, Rachel and Mary, as they stood before gazing eyes in New Orleans, their bodies offered to the highest bidder.

Rachel watched. She had been leered at, too – when she came through the door, all the way back to the point of her sale in Baltimore. It had been going on ever since she reached puberty, but sale time was when the forced sexualization of enslaved women’s bodies was most explicit. Before the 1830’s, and sometimes after, whites usually forced women to strip…

For white people, seeing Mary up on the bench was one of the rewards of membership in the fraternity of entrepreneurs. Men asked questions of a woman that they did not put to John or Willam, questions that attempted to force her to acknowledge everything that was being bought and sold. Women who refused to play along could expect white anger, as one observer noted: “When answers were demanded to the questions usually put by the bidders to slaves on the block, the tears rolled down her cheeks, and her refusal to answer those most disgusting questions met with blood-curling oaths.” Of course, not all white bidders minded resistance. Some relished overcoming it. It was all part of the game.

The American instinct to impute sexual violence to black men is, as Baptist points out, deeply at odds with our actual history. Rachel, Mary, and countless other enslaved women of African descent experienced this terrorizing history. They lived before the gaze of white men who believed it to be within their power to take land and bodies at will, their right to arrange plundering hierarchies built upon others’ blood and toil. What is today being exposed as sexual predation was for them a birthright so deeply assumed as to remain unquestioned.

The demonic genius of the white gaze was to deflect its own sexual violence, this one terrible representation of its pilfering nature, onto other, darker bodies. Wells saw through the lie. “Nobody in this section of the country believes the old thread bare lie that Negro men rape white women. If Southern white men are not careful, they will over-reach themselves and public sentiment will have a reaction.” It seems that more of us are finally beginning to see what was never obscure to Wells or to Rachel or to Mary. Have the powerful white men finally over-reached themselves?

Many of us have been astonished by how frequently these abusing men have been exposed. Our shock, though, shouldn’t begin with the revelation that many powerful white men are also sexual predators, but that it’s taken so long to reckon with this foundational aspect of our troubled history.

 

“You know you’ve entered a temple when disagreement is treated as sacrilege. “

You know you’ve entered a temple when disagreement is treated as sacrilege. The animosity directed toward NFL players kneeling at the anthem, protesting police brutality and structural racism, is the sort of acrimony we reserve for infidels.

Many professedly “religious” believers will be among those most incensed by resistance to this secular liturgy — a sign that even believers in God are not immune to being captivated by secular rituals, confusing what is holy.

This response to the kneeling controversy tells us something about the state of American civil religion and the way it accommodates — and then deforms — traditional religious communities.

– James K. A. Smith, “The NFL’s Thanksgiving games are a spectacular display of America’s ‘God and country’ obsession” in The Washington Post.

A new white burden?

Does Ta-Nehisi Coates fetishize race? No, but Thomas Chatterton Williams thinks he does.

Thomas Chatterton Williams has written an alarming  piece in the Times about Ta-Nehesi Coates, specifically his leading role in pushing the idea that white supremacy “explains everything.” Because Coates has been an important guide for my own thinking about white supremacy, I want to consider his arguments seriously.

“We Were Eight Years in Power” can leave a reader with the distinct impression that its author is glad, relieved even, that Donald Trump was elected president. It is exhibits A through Z of Mr. Coates’s national indictment, proof that the foundations of the United States are anti-black and that the past is not dead — it’s not even past, to echo William Faulkner.

This one is puzzling. Eight Years can be read as one person’s slowly grasping that things aren’t what they seemed, that the election of the country’s first black president didn’t mean the kind of racial progress that so many of us had hoped for. Rather than seeming glad about Donald Trump confirming his existing theory, Coates is repeatedly self-reflective about how he was wrong, about what he missed.

Such logic extends a disturbing trend in left-of-center public thinking: identity epistemology, or knowing-through-being, somewhere along the line became identity ethics, or morality-through-being. Accordingly, whiteness and wrongness have become interchangeable — the high ground is now accessible only by way of “allyship,” which is to say silence and total repentance. The upside to this new white burden, of course, is that whichever way they may choose, those deemed white remain this nation’s primary actors.

Two things about this paragraph. First, the notion that the only thing white people can do productively is to sit in silence is one I’ve read about occasionally but have never – not a single time – experienced personally. It should be obvious that white people will choose repentant and humble postures in the work of racial justice, but the notion that everyone agrees that this requires complete silence from white people sounds like more like a Fox News scare tactic than a realistic description of reality.

The second point to note here is the notion that Coates’ perspective about whiteness (not his alone, it seems to be necessary to point out; would Williams have similar issues with James Baldwin who foreshadows so much of what Coates argues?) only solidifies that “those deemed white remain this nation’s primary actors.” How, I wonder, is this any different than the myriads of white people who refuse to talk or think about race? Williams seems to believe that it is in the talking about whiteness that white people derive our power, yet I’d suggest that is in our very reticence to speak our race which betrays the power it holds over us. Williams reads Coates to say that one’s morality is attached permanently to racial identity; I hear the exact opposite, that morality in America’s historical context requires speaking truthfully about what has so long been intentionally buried.

This, more than anything, is what is so unsettling about Mr. Coates’s recent writing and the tenor of the leftist “woke” discourse he epitomizes. Though it is not at all morally equivalent, it is nonetheless in sync with the toxic premises of white supremacism. Both sides eagerly reduce people to abstract color categories, all the while feeding off of and legitimizing each other, while those of us searching for gray areas and common ground get devoured twice. Both sides mystify racial identity, interpreting it as something fixed, determinative and almost supernatural. For Mr. Coates, whiteness is a “talisman,” an “amulet” of “eldritch energies” that explains all injustice; for the abysmal early-20th-century Italian fascist and racist icon Julius Evola, it was a “meta-biological force,” a collective mind-spirit that justifies all inequality. In either case, whites are preordained to walk that special path. It is a dangerous vision of life we should refuse no matter who is doing the conjuring.

This is a particularly serious charge. I think it’s wrong-headed for a bunch of reasons, but mostly because I think about these things as a Christian. What I mean is that rather than mystifying racial identity – something that was long-ago accomplished in this country – Coates works to define it, to help us to see the myriad of imminently tangible ways that race plays itself out among us. His “Case for Reparations” does this exceptionally well about housing segregation. Christians are interested in confession and repentance; we are not afraid of the specificity of our sins as the confession of them become the means of grace and embodied reconciliation. Engaging racial discourse in this manner does not preordain any of us to a special path – or any other kind of path. Rather, it allows for truth to be spoken and heard. Justice is not then inevitable, but the possibility for it is far more likely.

However far-fetched that may sound, what identitarians like Mr. Spencer [the white nationalist] have grasped, and what ostensibly anti-racist thinkers like Mr. Coates have lost sight of, is the fact that so long as we fetishize race, we ensure that we will never be rid of the hierarchies it imposes. We will all be doomed to stalk our separate paths.

I’m not sure what to say about this except that calling Coates an “identitarian” and summing up his work as fetishizing race seems to admit a significant misreading. I’m not sure that Williams is all that different from those who think that we can only talk so much about race before we grant it a power it does not deserve. Coates, I think, would argue that this nation has never even approached such a line. The obscene power we’ve granted race is betrayed not by how much a few people talk about it, but by how little it’s even acknowledged by most of the nation’s racially privileged. Maybe the academic and media worlds inhabited by Williams are different but for most of us, the words of Ta-Nehisi Coates (and Baldwin, Ida B. Wells, Frederick Douglass, and so many more) remain voices in the wilderness.

The Ends of Silence

Who can afford to be quiet when the white supremacists come to town?

I had a quick reaction when I first saw the photos of white nationalists gathering by torchlight in Charlottesville on Friday night: Please everyone, can we just ignore them? Any attention, I thought, would benefit the idiotic agenda of these racist young men. Look away, was my instinct; let them revel in their lunacy and absurdist version of reality. If a couple hundred nazis hold a white pride rally and no one else cares doesn’t that reveal how little they matter?

But my quick reaction was wrong. And though the events following the Friday night march might have been less violent had my reaction been widely shared, it still would have been wrong.

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Credit: Susan Melkisethian

To begin with, thinking that the best response would have been a non-response to a perspective which demands one’s persecution or annihilation can only seem reasonable to those who aren’t threatened by that hateful perspective. More to the point: Only a white person – me! – would think it rationale to be quiet in the face of such blatant white supremacy.  I saw those torch-wielding men and thought, What a bunch of cowards! Their insecurities seemed palpable; their willingness to be manipulated obvious to the point of easy ridicule. Any attention seemed like adding kindling to their pitiful, dim flame.

I was thinking about these young men as bullies. The bully wants you to react because he’s itching for a fight. The bully only knows confrontation and any other form of communication is wasted on his narrow vision of reality. Your mother’s advice about bullies, though not always practical, contained some wisdom: ignore a bully and he’ll often go away to find someone else who’ll agree to his rules of engagement.

But the white supremacists who gathered in Charlottesville are not like bullies at all, which leads to the second reason my reaction to them was wrong. According to news reports, many of the marchers wore those red Make America Great Again hats while carrying their signs and chanting their bigotry. The man who owns that slogan and that red hat, the president, still hasn’t directly confronted the marchers or their agenda, choosing instead to blandly condemn “hatred, bigotry and violence on many sides. On many sides.”

Many sides. This is what my gut reaction missed. The white supremacists appear so fanatical in those photos that it’s tempting to laugh and then turn away. As Vann R. Newrick II wrote in The Atlantic, “It’s easier to joke about losers camping out in a park than to consider them capable of the kinds of paradigm-shifting horror that destroyed countless black families.” But this is a fatal mistake because, regardless of their appearance or the outrage of so many, these men understand that their assumptions are not those of an easily marginalized or ignored bully, but of much of the nation, including, it’s not a stretch to assume, the president. So when he, the most powerful man in the world, talks about the events in Charlottesville, he’s not talking about the overwhelming forces of good standing against the small vanguard of hate; he’s conjuring a strange sort of predetermined battle in which everyone is equally to blame. The problem, for the president and much of the nation, isn’t with the white nationalists’ premise but in how they advanced it this weekend.

We heard a lot about the silent majority this past election cycle, people who related profoundly to candidate Trump’s vision of a country returned to a mythical past. It’s that word silent that seems important now. The silence of the powerful is deadly. It’s what allows the president to recast the day’s events as an ideologically-neutral fight which should have been fought with more dignity. It’s what will allow so many of the president’s supporters to role their eyes at the news, claiming that the events have been blown out of proportion while admiring the marchers’ goal of defending the statue of Robert E. Lee. That silence creeps into the chests of even those who are disgusted by the hate on display in Charlottesville but who’d rather avoid the complicated conversation, the awkward moment.

But this silence only cuts one way and many of those who showed up to oppose the white supremacists must understand this innately. For while the silent majority has the luxury to watch its agenda advanced from the sidelines, those who’ve long suffered under that agenda have no such privilege. Ignoring the foul propaganda doesn’t delegitimize it because it’s already legitimate. Newrick again: “[E]ven the most feared white supremacists in the lore of Jim Crow were just regular white men, transformed from lives as politicians, mechanics, farmers, and layabouts by the sheer power of ideology. And often, their movements were considered “fringe” and marginal—until they weren’t.”

The events in Charlottesville today exist not as an anomaly that can safely be ignored but as a veil pulled back revealing the ends of silence. So silence, no matter the cost, cannot be an option.