Whose liberation?

I first published this in my weekly newsletter. You can subscribe here.

This week saw a weird development in our collective stay-at-home reality. The president, encouraged I assume by conservative media, has begun calling for states to be liberated from the lock-downs that are in place to reduce the spread of COVID-19.

LIBERATE MINNESOTA!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) April 17, 2020

How many of those who urged our govt to help liberate the Iraqis, Syrians, Kurds, Afghanis, etc., are as committed now to liberating Virginia, Minnesota, California, etc?— Laura Ingraham (@IngrahamAngle) April 17, 2020

I’ll leave the debates about when we can safely loosen our new quarantined lifestyles to the experts; it’s the language of liberation that caught my attention.

If the recent protest in Michigan is indicative, it would seem that those who most want to be liberated right now are white supporters of the president. At the same time, it’s obvious to anyone paying even a little bit of attention that those most at risk from the virus are people of color, especially Native Americans, African Americans, and Latino/as. The impact of poverty on underlying health conditions along with the inability to shelter in place have made certain communities of people way more susceptible than others.

So the call for liberation is also – intentionally or not – a call for more sickness and death.

The ugly irony here is that the people calling for liberation are co-opting language and imagery from those who are suffering the worst of this virus. The African American communities who are being devastated are heirs to a long tradition composed of those who called, worked, and died for their own freedom. By appropriating the language of liberation in this moment, the president and his supporters are aligning themselves with the same stream of racial oppression that led to the fight for liberation in the first place.

Resisting the demand for liberation in previous generations led to Black suffering and death. Co-opting it today will lead to the same.

Preaching While White on MLK Sunday

I first wrote this for my weekly newsletter which you can subscribe to here. It was obviously written for MLK Sunday, but I think the content remains relevant.

A few years ago a friend invited me to preach at his mostly white suburban church the Sunday before MLK Day. I happened to have a couple of friends who attended this white pastor’s church – an Asian American woman and an African American man – who would have been excellent preachers for that Sunday. I also asked my friend if he wouldn’t prefer a mutual friend of ours, an African American woman who is the best preacher I know. No, he replied. My people need to hear about racial justice from a white man.

I’m guessing that a lot of mostly white churches will have guest preachers in their pulpits tomorrow. Most of these will be back men and women who will preach godly sermons that will convict and encourage the congregations to pursue the biblical mandate to seek justice and mercy. But I keep thinking about my friend’s decision to invite a white preacher into the pulpit on MLK Sunday.

My friend’s decision, if I’m remembering right, was motivated by a sense that white people are more likely to hear challenging things about race from other white people than they are from people of color. And because he was self-aware enough to know his own limitations and knowledge, he wanted another white pastor to preach the gospel of the kingdom on that particular Sunday.

His instincts, I’m hate to admit, were good. Over the years my colleagues and mentors of color have pushed me to speak to other white people about race and racism. They’ve experienced enough cold shoulders and turned backs to know that, for many white people, it’s just not possible to hear the truth from a person of color. And as long as this ugly dynamic persists, I’m personally committed to showing up in those white spaces when given the opportunity. Perhaps I might do a bit of the spade work that will allow those same colleagues and mentors to be heard and believed some day in the (hopefully) not too distant future.

But as I was working on my book and thinking about these things through the lens of discipleship, I thought about another expression of my pastor friend’s pulpit supply wisdom. When it comes to race and racism, white people have been formed to locate the center of those conversations among people of color, especially black people. Over this country’s history, the reality of racism and racial injustice has been couched as the “Negro problem,” the “race problem,” or the “problem of race relations.” For white people, the problem is over there and we expect to hear about from people who come from over there.

You can hear hints of this assumption in the recent interview Joe Biden did with the editors of the New York Times. He was asked, “How specifically should the country confront its history of slavery, discrimination and plunder of black America?” After responding that those who are acting oppresively must pay if their actions are criminal, Biden went on to describe a reason some families of color might be struggling today.

And the people who don’t show up on the nights when there’s a parent-teacher meeting are not people who in fact don’t care, but folks from poor backgrounds. They don’t show up because they’re embarrassed. They’re embarrassed the teacher’s going to say — and it’s hard to say, “Well, I can’t read,” or “I don’t …”

In the former vice-president’s imagination, the focus of addressing the impact of racism is on the families who’ve experienced racism. This tends to be how white people perceive the so-called race problem: It’s theirs. And we can be sympathetic or callous but most of the time we’re not going to see it as ours.

So it’s reasonable for a church that has few people of color in attendance or leadership to welcome a preacher of color to the pulpit once a year, on the Sunday we’ve set aside to acknowledge the existence of a reality we will spend the rest of the year ignoring.

And this is why, in hindsight, I think my friend’s invitation was brilliant. By inviting a white man into the pulpit on MLK Day Sunday, he was messing with our assumptions about the gravity of race and racism. He was, subtly perhaps, helping his white congregation understand their own complicities and responsibilities. He was lining up with what Frederick Douglass said so many years ago, “The true problem is a national problem. There is no Negro problem. The problem is whether the American people have honesty enough, loyalty enough, honor enough, patriotism enough to live up to their own Constitution.” Or, in the case of the church, whether we have enough faithfulness to live up to kingdom of God.

So, if you’re in a position to invite some guest preachers next year, maybe mix it up. Have a thoughtful white preacher step up on MLK Sunday. And then invite your colleagues of color to guest preach on some other Sunday, on any text or topic they want. Help your people see that our responsibility is greater than we’ve typically imagined and that our sisters and brothers of color have expertise and experience much broader than we’ve been led to believe.

Scapegoating the Racists

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

My family moved to southern California the summer before my freshmen year of high school. That was the summer the Lakers lost to the Bulls in the NBA Finals. I think that loss was totally incidental to my decision to become an LA Clippers fan because the Clippers were so much worse than the Lakers. Sure, the Lakers may have lost to the Bulls but at least they got to the finals. Or made the playoffs. Or had a winning season. Oh man, the Clippers were horrible.

(Why did I choose the Clippers when most of my new friends were Lakers fans. I’ve no idea, though it probably reveals something about a contrarian personality that persists to this day.)

We all knew the Clippers were bad – it was so gratifying, and surprising any time they won – but most of us casual fans didn’t know about the particular badness of their owner, Donald Sterling. I had pretty much forgotten about my days as a Clippers fan until Sterling fell into the news a couple of years ago, his racism on public display thanks to recorded voicemails courtesy of his mistress. “In your lousy f**ing Instagrams, you don’t have to have yourself with – walking with black people.”

Apparently Sterling’s racism was an open secret and eventually he was forced to sell the team. (The Clippers are now consistently decent. I was a couple of decades early.) All of this came back in vivid detail as I listened to ESPN’s 30 for 30 podcast about the Sterling saga. It’s a really interesting look at the backstory that led to Sterling and his wife owning the team, the shady ways they build their fortune, and the racism that shaped how Sterling thought about his players, the black players particularly.

One of the things that caught my ear was how the host described the racist things Sterling was recorded saying. I’m not sure it was quite hyperbole – it was, after all, terrible stuff – but I got this sense that she wanted all of us to understand that she understood just how terrible it was. In a later episode one of the players who was on the team when Sterling’s racism broke into the open talks about his confusion about everyone’s reaction. He says something to the effect of: Everybody knew this guy. Why are you acting shocked now? Just because it’s public? It was an interesting contrast with the host’s disdain.

I thought about the collective reaction to Sterling back when the story broke. Here’s part of what I wrote then:

Sterling has been known for years to be prejudiced in his real estate dealings. He didn’t want to rent to Hispanics because they “smoke, drink and just hang around the building.” He opined that “Black tenants smell and attract vermin.” The Department of Justice sued Sterling in 2006, accusing him of housing discrimination. Where was the anger then? Perhaps it’s just easier to direct outrage toward those who make their racism explicit. Prejudiced systems and policies are more complicated, a fuzzier point to rally around. Maybe that’s why Sterling’s implicit racism didn’t elicit calls for his ouster. Or maybe it’s because acknowledging radicalized systems and policies implicates a whole lot of people and not just one, unlikable individual.

Those of us in positions of cultural privilege and power lose nothing when we call for Sterling to step down. It costs us nothing to distance ourselves from his racist language and perspectives on the world. But the same wouldn’t be true were we to call out the underlying racist structures that have made Sterling a very rich man while marginalizing his tenants, employees, and players. Shining a light into these shadows may well mean shining the light on ourselves. Much better, don’t you think, to direct our attention at one pitiful man?

All of this is a long way of getting at a tendency those of us who pursue racial justice should aim to avoid, especially those of us who are white and Christian. Scapegoating the obvious racist feels good for how I’m distanced from racism, but it does very little beyond feed my self-righteousness. The good work comes when I wonder about the similarities between Sterling and myself. Where is the propensity toward (racist) sin shared between us? Where might his public shame provoke personal repentance and confession?

Self-righteous scapegoating feels really nice for a few minutes, but it does nothing to address the racial injustices that persist long after Sterling was forced to sell his team. For that, we need a bit more honesty and humility.

Remembering a [Christian] Woman We Should Have Never Forgotten

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

I recently reviewed a new book about Ida B. Wells for The Englewood Review of Books. The book, Passionate for Justice: Remembering a Woman We Should Have Never Forgotten, was co-written by a retired white pastor and an African American professor. It was that subtitle that caught my eye. Wells has become a hero of mine; I included her in the acknowledgments at the end of my book. I’ve read much of what she wrote and I love driving visitors by her house, just a couple of miles from where our church meets for worship. The more I’ve learned about this journalist and activist who was also a Christian, the more puzzling it’s been that more people aren’t familiar with her. So you can imagine why this book grabbed by eye.

Here’s my confession, something I didn’t mention in the review: I was kinda disappointed by the book. I remember doing research in the University of Chicago Library which holds the Ida B. Wells papers and coming across an entry in her journal. She was 19 or 20 years old and had just returned from a New Years Eve service at her church. In this entry she describes her desire to grow in her faith in the coming year, to live out her beliefs with greater intention. Something about her words really impacted me. The incredible work that Wells had done as one of the very few people speaking out against lynching had been driven, I realized, in large part by her Christian faith.

A few years ago I heard a black pastor lament that one of the tragedies of race is how it keeps us from entering the experiences that human beings ought to share naturally with one another. I’ve thought about her observation a lot and I think it gets to my disappointment with Passionate for Justice. I wanted a book that introduced or reintroduced Wells to American Christians – especially the non-black Christians who have likely never heard of her – as a Christian.

Of course, this book wasn’t written with this in mind, so I’ve no reason to be let down. But still, it’s reminded me that there are far too many Christians who don’t know about Wells as someone whose faith is worthy of esteem and imitation. When I was a student at Wheaton College Graduate School one of my professors, in passing, mentioned the importance of reading Christian biography. The stories of the faithful saints who went before us can help us find our own way along the narrow way of Jesus. But race has kept a bunch of us of us from knowing many of these saints and their stories.

So, if you don’t already, get to know Saint Ida B. Wells. A Sword Among Lions and To Tell the Truth Freely are both good biographies. This is a good collection of some of her journalism and advocacy and it includes Frederick Douglass’ fantastic introductions.

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.

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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.