Terror, Trauma, and Better Questions

Last week Ed Stetzer, director of the Billy Graham Center at Wheaton College, was interviewed by NPR about the white evangelical presence at the U.S. Capitol insurrection. It’s obvious that, for Stetzer, this is a catastrophic moment which requires serious reflection and blunt questions. He asks, “How did we get here? How were we so easily fooled by conspiracy theories?” Later in the interview he wonders, “What happened? Why were so many people drawn to somebody who was obviously so not connected to what evangelicals believe by his life or his practices or more.”

It’s right that white Christians would ask questions about ourselves after seeing so many of us represented amidst symbols of violence, conspiracy, and racial supremacy. I wonder, though about the timing and direction of our reflection.

In early 2017 the Council of Bishops of the African Methodist Episcopal Church wrote an open letter warning of the un-Christian and destructive aims of the Trump administration. Here are the first two sentences. Note the explicit call to action.

The Council of Bishops of the African Methodist Episcopal Church had hoped that the Trump Administration would alter the views and policies espoused during the presidential campaign, but is disappointed and troubled by the decisions and actions taken during the early days of this administration, and vow to do all that we can to see that these decisions and actions do not last. We ask that every member of this denomination, and people who are committed to justice and righteousness, equality and truth, will join with us to thwart what are clearly demonic acts.

It took far less than a deadly insurrection to compel the bishops of the AME church to warn of the coming danger. It’s probably inevitable and necessary that white Christians are asking the sorts of questions suggested by Stetzer right now. But shouldn’t we have been doing this a long time ago?

Was an attack on our nation’s symbols of power and democracy really necessary to force this introspection? Why was the attack on the Central Park Exonerated not enough? The slander of immigrants from Mexico and Central America? Separating children from their parents?

The collective disinterest in these previous dehumanizing offenses hints at my other question about this reckoning. For many of the white Christians who were appalled by the scenes from Washington D.C. last week, the foremost question seems to be, How? How did we get here? This is the framing question for Kristin Kobes Du Mez’s excellent new book, Jesus and John Wayne. Not surprisingly, the book begins and ends with our outgoing president and the rest is a compelling answer to that How? question.

But why is this the first question? Let’s review again that ugly scene last week. Whatever their specific aims, the mob successfully broadcast their racial/religious messages and symbols of supremacy. There’s nothing new about this. Listen to what James Cone writes in The Cross and the Lynching Tree. “The claim that whites had the right to control the black population through lynching and other extralegal forms of mob violence was grounded in the religious belief that America was a white nation called by God to bear witness to the superiority of ‘white over black.’“

The white supremacist insurrectionists should be prosecuted. But any eventual convictions will do little to blunt the terror that was already brazenly unleashed. Every attempt to downplay the terror – as many Republican representatives have done – only exacerbates it.

Terror aims beyond its specific victims. It is the members of the community represented by the victims who are the real targets. Cone writes, “Whites often lynched blacks simply to remind the black community of their powerlessness.” Terror is meant to traumatize communities.

I hear a lot of non-Black people who are outraged at the desecration visited upon the country by that white mob. Our sense of dignity or respect or civility or patriotism or justice or whatever has been offended. This is when we start asking our preferred question, How?

But many of us don’t see the terror and the trauma. Why not? Cone writes, “Whites acted in a superior manner for so long that it was difficult for them to even recognize their cultural and spiritual arrogance, blatant as it was to African Americans.” Supremacy inoculates us against the truest experience of the insurrection. We see but don’t rightly interpret what has been wrought. We don’t feel the shattering impact on flesh and blood. And so, rather than beginning with the intended trauma of that terrorizing mob, we make ourselves the focus. Again. Rather than opening ourselves vulnerably to the experience of suffering, we retreat to our analyzing and theorizing. Again.

How did we get here? We have to ask this question. But when we make this our first question – and often our only question – we are revealing just how incapable we are of answering it truthfully.

(Photo: Brett Davis on flickr.)

Diplomacy Doesn’t Work

This was first published in my newsletter earlier this year.

During our ministry staff devotions this week we ended up talking about what our Christian responsibility is to those in positions of power whose attitudes and beliefs about racial justice (among other areas) are damaging to people. These powerful individuals could be a parent, a boss, or someone whose own access to racial privilege grants them a measure of power.

It’s not a theoretical question. I’ve had lots of conversations in recent months with people who’ve been wrestling with exactly this. How do I respond when I see, overhear, or experience a racially damaging perspective or action? After this initial question comes the follow-ups: Who might be impacted if I don’t respond? How will my silence be interpreted? What will be the personal cost if I speak up?

One of the ways I think many of us respond to these sorts of scenarios is by being diplomatic. Our strategy is to determine which sort of response will be most effective in getting the powerful offender to change. So, when that racist thing is said or done, we start asking how questions: How can I get this person to see what they’ve done? How can I gain this person’s trust so that I can say the difficult thing? How can I bring up this racist encounter without alienating them?

I don’t know about you, but I’m not a very good diplomat. I’m unable to keep anyone at the table and I certainly can’t know, on any given day, what is just the right way to point out that instance of racism.

In the end, much of our attempted diplomacy ends up being little more than negotiating around the edges of an inferno. Or some polite conversation amidst unmitigated theft and plunder.

I’ve come to believe that Christians oftentimes take the diplomatic approach in order to avoid telling the truth. By focusing on the how we overlook the what. What damage has been caused by this person’s words or actions? What lie has been advanced? What truth needs to be articulated? As followers of the embodiment of truth, our loyalties are to the Truth, even when it’s impossible to speak that truth diplomatically.

During our staff conversation I said something I’d not quite verbalized before: I think the Holy Spirit is the diplomat. We are called to speak the truth in love. It’s not our responsibility to determine whether the truth will be received or not; this is something that God alone can do.

So let’s not confuse our timidity with an effective diplomatic strategy. Let’s pray for courage and commit ourselves to speaking the truth all the time. (Try this, for example: The president is not investigating election fraud; he’s attempting to disenfranchise voters of color.) And then let’s trust that the Holy Spirit is more than capable to make even the most powerfully heard-hearted person tender to the truth.

(A postscript: None of this is easy, especially for those of you who will experience painful repercussions for speaking truthfully. Here we need two things. First, wisdom to know what to say and when to say it. Wisdom, unlike our attempts at diplomacy, never tells half-truths. And thankfully, the Spirit wants to give us wisdom. Second, for those with some racial privilege, the constant reminder that whatever blow-back we experience from telling the truth about racism pales when compared to, you know, experiencing it.)

Acknowledgment is better than ignorance. Confession is even better.

This was first published in my newsletter earlier this year.

I’m sure some of you saw the new research about Christians and racial justice released by Barna this week. Here are a few relevant sections:

There is actually a significant increase in the percentage of practicing Christians who say race is “not at all” a problem in the U.S. (19%, up from 11% in 2019). Among self-identified Christians alone, a similar significant increase occurs (10% in 2019, 16% in 2020).

There is, however, a boost in Christians’ willingness to strongly agree that, historically, the U.S. has oppressed minorities—from 19 percent in the 2019 survey to 26 percent in the summer of 2020.

Meanwhile, the number of those who are “somewhat motivated” [to engage racial injustice] has shrunk and the number of those who are motivated has held fairly steady over the past year, indicating some of those who might have previously been on the fence about addressing racial injustice have become more firmly opposed to engaging.

Some minority groups are, naturally, highly motivated to address the racial injustices that may affect them. Among self-identified Christians, Black adults in particular (46% “very motivated”), followed by Hispanic adults (23% “very motivated”), are eager to be involved—something few white self-identified Christians express (10% “very motivated”).

In short, American Christians in general are less willing to pursue racial justice, with white Christians leading the way, even as we are more willing to acknowledge past instances of racial injustice.

It seems we are watching an entrenchment happening in real time. Despite the very public instances of racial injustice we’ve all witnessed in the past few months, many Christians have found reasons to keep justice at a distance. Why?

Maybe we get the hint of an answer in the data that suggests a greater willingness to admit to racial injustice throughout our nation’s history. To be clear, there are plenty of people who struggle even with this as was evident this week in the president’s speech unveiling his 1776 Commission.

Our mission is to defend the legacy of America’s founding, the virtue of America’s heroes, and the nobility of the American character. We must clear away the twisted web of lies in our schools and classrooms, and teach our children the magnificent truth about our country. We want our sons and daughters to know that they are the citizens of the most exceptional nation in the history of the world.

There are still those working to whitewash our history of racial terror and trauma. Willful ignorance remains an attractive option for many Americans. So, the fact that a few more people are willing to tell the historical truth is good, even if it’s a pretty low bar.

So what might keep a person who can see past injustices from seeing them today? I wonder if it has to do with a sort of cultural individualism that severs a person from the generations before him or her. An understanding of persons as completely autonomous beings allows for us to acknowledge the ugly stuff of yesteryear because, well, we weren’t around.

(There’s more to say about how this hyper-individualism and generational detachment hamstrings Christian attempts at racial justice, but that will have to wait for another time.)

But our tone changes when we move the timeline forward; now it’s us we’re talking about. Could it be that our unwillingness to see injustice today has very little to do with the awful facts as others experience them and a lot to do with an unwillingness to admit our entanglement with those facts?

There’s a big difference between acknowledgment and confession. The first requires a bit of information and sympathy; the second, a tolerance for uncomfortably close truth and a whole lot of humility. Which is what makes Christians’ unwillingness to see today’s injustices so disappointing. Shouldn’t we know something about confession? Doesn’t the gospel provide a platform strong enough for the truth?

I think we do and think it does. Who’s with me?

White fragility is spiritual immaturity

This was first published in my newsletter earlier this year.

Here’s a confession: I haven’t read White Fragility by Robin DiAngelo. Over the past couple of years, conversation partners have sometimes assumed that I’ve read it – You know, like how DiAngelo writes about white people in her book. – and I’ve generally just nodded along. That’s probably not a good thing and I hope to get to the book one of these days; it’s obviously been helpful to a bunch of people.

(One of the reasons I’ve yet to get to the book is that I’m prone to prioritizing books about race, including about whiteness, by people of color. If memory serves, the only white authors I engaged on the topic while writing my book were Wendell Berry, my friend Daniel Hill, and Eula Biss, a white woman whose essays about race are not nearly well enough known.)

White fragility – the concept, not the book – as I understand it has to do with the all-too-common tendency for white people to crumble in response to relatively straightforward conversations about race and, in particular, whiteness. As DiAngelo puts it in one interview, “For a lot of white people, the mere suggestion that being white has meaning will cause great umbrage.”

As I’ve listened to white Christians talk about the patterns associated with white fragility it often sounds like they are describing what, in some Christian circles, we might call spiritual immaturity. Throughout his epistles, Paul often urges the young Christians to grow up in their faith, to put away childish behaviors. And isn’t this what white fragility describes? Defensiveness, deflection, selfishness, denial, etc.

These are the sorts of reactions we might expect from a child or, in Christian terms, a spiritually immature person. Rather than having the depth to sit with tension or conflict, the fragile/immature person makes the moment about himself and steers the conversation away from the thing that deserves attention.

Nowhere is this tendency more apparent than in the immature white Christian’s refusal to hear the truth. Rather than absorbing difficult new insights having to do with, say, historical racism or the nature of racial privilege, the immature Christian defaults to debate and denial. This happens, horrifyingly, even when a Christian of color is narrating the truth about her own life and the impact of racism on it. Surely we could expect that, between Christians, white people would be able to hear and hold painful truth. But no, oftentimes our fragility reinforces the deceit which defines so much of the white experience.

White fragility is real, and yet I find myself wanting to highlight the biblical language of immaturity and spiritual growth as I talk with white Christians. The reason for this has to do with a worry I have. In the time I’ve shared with Christians of color, especially African Americans, I’ve come to see the biblical language and theological imaginations for conversations about racial justice which many of these friends have access to. They belong to communities of faith which have histories of thinking, talking, and acting in response to racial injustice with the mandates and metaphors of Scripture.

White Christians, on the other hand, usually have none of this. We lack the biblical vernacular and theological constructs to respond thoughtfully to, for example, systems of white supremacy. And so, as we awaken to racial injustice, we grasp for tools and language wherever we can find it. But we don’t expect to find it within our own faith tradition because, well, our segregated congregations haven’t been interested. So the good and helpful tools of psychology, sociology, philosophy, and history become our guides and we don’t even consider the fact that many of our fellow Christians have found the deepest wisdom to be found in the same Bible we esteem so highly.

I don’t think we shouldn’t read books like White Fragility. Not at all. There is so much helpful history and analysis out there and we ought to read widely. Rather, the solution to our bereft imaginations is to push through the bounds of our segregation so that we can begin to see how others in our Christian family have read the Bible. We can listen to preachers of color, listen to old gospel music, read theology by women and men whose traditions have always found biblical insight for confronting racial injustice. I could go on, but hopefully the point is plain: as Christians we have access to a spiritual tradition which many have long found to provide wise resources for the battle some of us are just now waking up to.

So, for now at least, when I observe my fellow white Christians exhibiting our trademark fragility, my response will be, Grow up! You can say the same to me.

Why this time might be different.

I wrote this earlier this year for my newsletter.

I spent this week with my family in Wisconsin, mostly unplugged. One afternoon we visited a small bookshop in downtown Woodstock, IL, just across the border. It was my first time in an independent book store since March and, despite masking-up before entering, it felt great to browse the stacks and shelves.

Interestingly, in this very white town, the main display was filled with books about race. There were titles by friends like Jemar Tisby and Austin Channing Brown. There were history, sociology, and books of essays represented. I picked up My Grandmother’s Hands: Racialized Trauma and the Pathway to Mending Our Hearts and Bodies by Resmaa Menakem, a book that’s been recommended repeatedly during the past few months.

It wasn’t what I expected when we walked in the door of this small town book store.

The other day I got to interview my friend Drew G. I. Hart for an event at his local bookshop in Harrisburg, Midtown Scholar. Drew thinks about race a lot and his book is one of the more sober treatments about the fraught intersections between Christianity and racism. I wanted to know what he thought about the recent groundswell of interest in racial justice.

Drew’s answer surprised me. Yes, he said, this moment does feel unique, certainly in our lifetimes. And the thing that really stood out to him was how many non-Black people are suddenly interested in justice for Black communities. Ta-Nehisi Coates said something similar the other day during a conversation with Ezra Klein. “I don’t want to overstate this,” he said, “but there are significant swaths of people and communities that are not black, that to some extent have some perception of what that pain and that suffering is. I think that’s different.”

Does that explain the display of racial justice books in the Woodstock book store? Probably. Why else would the only bookshop in the area expect to sell these titles to a clientele which, if it mirrors the town, is close to 90% white?

It’s possible, then, that the same thing is behind those books and the hesitant optimism shared by those like Coates and Hart: White people are finally understanding our essential role in taking apart racism. If this time is really going to be different it will largely be because enough white people have woken up to precisely this. We are finally understanding that, in so many ways, racism is our problem.