Facing Racism

Saturday, August 10, 2019

The Trump era has caused us to face the ugly specter of racism. No one wants to think of themselves as racist. When someone says "that's racist" let alone "you're being racist" or worst of all "you're a racist" our natural reaction is to deny and defend ourselves against the accusation. It's more than an accusation, it's a condemnation. Our response is to want to distance ourselves from people or groups that we see as racist, as if by doing that we could claim to be immune and untouched and pure. 

I recently came across a talk by David Gushee called "In the Ruins of White Evangelicalism" which he gave as the presidential address to the AAR. In the talk he said that the connection between Trump's base being racist and white evangelicals being the demographic most likely to support Trump made it an inescapable conclusion for him that racism was a major problem within evangelicalism. He says he is driven to the conclusion that evangelicals support Trump not in spite of his racism and cruelty, but because of it.

But the part that really impacted me was where he went from there. Although he had distanced himself from evangelicalism, he did not distance himself from its sin of racism. Instead he wondered how he, as a major voice within evangelicalism focusing on ethics, could have been blind to racism for all those years. His talk therefore was one of him confessing and repenting for what he called the sin of racism.

Calling racism a sin is interesting because it opens up a way to see racism that leads to self-reflection and growth. Let me unpack this. As Christians we should be familiar with the concept of confessing that we are sinners. We see this in the catechisms, but also in the Gospels, in the parable Jesus tells of the Pharisee and the tax collector,

The Pharisee stood by himself and prayed: "God, I thank you that I am not like other people—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector."

But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, "God, have mercy on me, a sinner."

I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God. (Luke 18:11-14)
If we come at sin like the Pharisee, saying "I was a sinner before, but now I've repented and go to church and am saved and chosen. I thank God that I am not like those sinners outside of my church" then Jesus says we don't go away justified, even though we are trying to justify ourselves.  Growing up evangelical I heard statements like that made from the pulpit constantly. "Thank God we are not like those liberals, gays, woman's lib-ers, welfare queens, Muslims out there!" In other words, I heard messages of homophobia, misogyny, xenophobia, and racism constantly growing up evangelical.

Of course as an ex-vangelical it's just as easy for me to say "Thank God that I am not like those racist Trump supporting evangelicals over there." It's easy to write of racism as a problem "over there" in evangelicalsm, or in the South. In fact, it's really common for progressives and liberals in an attempt to "out-woke" each other to condemn others for the sins of racism and white privilege. People will be shamed and ostracized on social media, calls will go out for people to be fired and shunned for some insensitive comment or act. In that atmosphere of self-righteous progressivism, it's really no wonder people react defensively. They act like they are being attacked and condemned because... well, they are. Progressives see themselves as champions of compassion, but boy can they be merciless.

Jesus said we should remove the log from our eye before we take the splinter from our brother's eye. What if I looked at my own life before I became the progressive moral police of social media? Maybe if I did, I could approach others with the same mercy I know I need. Maybe if I did I could have conversations rather than accusations. Maybe I as a progressive Christian need to take the stance of the tax collector in Jesus' parable and say, "God, have mercy on me, a racist!" What if instead of seeking to prove myself innocent of racism, I assume that just as I am a sinner, just as I know that I can do things that hurt others, I am open to the idea that I have blind spots in me, I have racial bias, and am therefore open to seeing this and becoming sensitized to it so I can do better.

I also feel pulled to look back at my evangelical past and try to make sense of why it is that evangelicals today so overwhelmingly support Trump, as Gushee says, not in spite of his racist cruelty, but because of it. At the same time, evangelicals would all deny that they are racist. I think that's due to a misconception of what racism is. We think of racism as the stereotypical Southern plantation owner in the Hollywood film. We think that if we don't have malicious intent in our hearts, that we are not racist. But the thing is, people who do evil and hurtful things, even horrific things, never think they are doing evil. They think they are doing good. That's why the whole focus of "but I don't have any racism in my heart!" misses the point, and blinds us to the racial blinders that lead to do cruel and hurtful things.

What's behind racism is a reaction to fear that causes us to be tribal, to protect our tribe, and if "they" suffer as a result, well that's just too bad. It comes from perceiving some other group as being a threat, and reacting in fear to that threat. Fear is the opposite of empathy and compassion. As Gushee says in his address, American white evangelicalism today has really become "U.S. white tribalist religion" characterized by "aggrieved white conservatives." That stance of "aggrieved whites" of course is the constant mantra of  Fox News, and it very much echoes what I heard from the pulpit Sunday after Sunday, a message of fear and resentment towards "those sinners out there" who were a threat to our family, our way of life.

That tribalist fear stance is very much tied to the tendency in evangelicalism to justify violence as good and righteous. Evangelicals are more likely than just about any other demographic to support violence as a means to good, whether that's supporting torture, war, capital punishment. When you tie that propensity to justifying violence and cruelty together with demonizing other groups, fearing them, seeing them as a threat, it seems inevitable that when little black boys are shot by cops, evangelicals stress that "blue lives matter" and when hispanic children are traumatically ripped from their parents and held in concentration camps, white evangelicals feel the need to justify and support this.

If you feel threatened, it's a natural human reaction (Paul would call it a fleshly reaction) to justify a harsh, merciless response. 

The two poisons of racism and violence go hand in hand, specifically violence understood as a means to good, and racism as a fearful otherizing and thus dehumanizing of a person or group. Of the two of these, I want to argue the most important one to address is racism. I do not want, therefore, to propose a Christian solution of total abstinence from violence. That is, I am not arguing that the police should not be armed, we should not have an army, or even that a person cannot defend themselves in their home. I say this, primarily because it is utterly impracticable. If we want to take steps towards reducing violence, towards less cruelty, towards more compassionate way I living together, I don't think abstinence from violence is the key.

Rather, I want to argue that the core problem here has to do with the otherizing or dehumanizing of a person or group. When we see a person or group as a threat, as "other" it is easy to justify cruel or inhuman treatment. We see them as a monster, an animal. If we instead saw them as our brother, our sister, our child, as part of us, we would seek to deal with them in more humane ways. This would lead to a reduction in violence, a reduction in cruelty and hurt. We would find other ways because we value the other as we value our own. That's something that Jesus was constantly preaching, widening our circle to include loving the sinner, loving the enemy.

Conservatives need to not see liberals and people of color as the evil other, and progressives similarly need to not see white evangelicals as the evil other. Isn't that what "love your enemy" means? That is, it does not mean they are not your enemy, but that you should act lovingly towards them nevertheless. We should see them as a part of us. Again, that does not mean we tolerate people doing or saying hurtful things, but it does mean dealing with them as we would deal with someone beloved, which would lead us to seeking ways to deal with things restoratively and humanely.

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