I Can't Hear You Over All the Name Calling
Lately I have been reading articles by a few Evangelicals who are deeply committed to racial justice. As I agree and sympathize with much, I do find myself in reaction to some of the things they have said. These ideas, and others like them, spring up from time to time, although often in new phrases and provocative rhetoric. Some of what they have said is not new, they are echoes of various lines of thinking that have been part of conversations that have been present as long as I have been involved in the struggle for justice and reconciliation.
Ah, you will see I mentioned a word that is part of what is at stake in the conversation, and that is the word "reconciliation." The phrase "racial reconciliation" is a term that has been at times threatening, revolutionary, and welcoming to people who have been convicted about the racial and ethnic alienation that has been present in our society since the idea of race was constructed to help both Arabs and Europeans feel justified in their exploitation of various nations, namely those nations and ethnicities of color.
This term is also slammed, shunned, and discarded by some as being either misunderstood or misused, and thereby not radical enough in the quest for justice. Some have postulated there can be no reconciliation since we were never unified to begin with, and though this sounds like it might make sense, the idea discards Adam and Eve and Noah as a unified human race, Babel as the dividing of the nations, and the calling of Abraham as a Jew to divide the world into Jews (circumcised) and Gentiles (uncircumcised). I take that criticism as a cheap rhetorical trick with no logical foundation. It also seems to accept the postulation of race as a biological reality and not a constructed one.
Some don't like the word "racial" since it was a socially constructed idea to explain "color" in various human beings and to assign them a lower status by white people. No less a person than John Perkins has recently spoken powerfully against this word since it creates differentiation between people groups, and God is no respecter of persons. He thinks that our continued use of it perpetuates the differentiation in a negative way. Nevertheless we all pretty much admit to such realities as "racism" and doing away with the term is not going to do away with racists anytime soon.
Then there is the criticism of the entire phrase as one seen to be preferred by white people because they see it as an individualized process or event and fail (or refuse) to see systemic injustice in the broader society. One of the writers I read wants only to speak of "white supremacy," and feels that is where the onus belongs, on the white community. I certainly sympathize with the need to see justice as a larger issue than simply our personal bias and prejudice.
White Supremacy is a term that is searching for some consensus. It seemed to have a historical context in the teachings of the slave justifiers (even among Muslim scholars prior to the Western slave trade) the KKK, Aryan Brotherhood, and going back to Nazi Germany's view of the "Superior Race." The attempt to dump the guilt of such association on all white people due to their being in the numerical majority, having inherent white privilege as a cultural majority in a racialized nation, and or being clueless as to what systemic injustice does to people is problematic at best, and frankly, racist at worst.
Let me be clear, as our former president used to say. I think white supremacists are dangerous, and the belief in white supremacy is the essential building block of intentional white privilege. In short systemic decisions to deprive people of color of their rights while seeking to maintain those of whites is due to an evil and deceived thinking that being white is superior and something to be maintained by economic, political, and social means. The use of violence to achieve and maintain racial advantage has often followed soon after, but not all those who agree with this racist ideology or who passively and/or ignorantly go along and enjoy its benefits are people who would engage in violence.
I also believe that racists can be converted and changed, and that the white population that is carried along in the stream of white privilege has a conscience that can be stimulated by truth and justice. This is one of the historic realities of the power of the Civil Rights movement in our nation, and no matter the mockery by some of the Christian Church the fact is that some of those Christians were touched and awakened to help bring about legal and substantive change in our society. It did not happen without them.
Political ideologues, in their rhetorical world, are adept at polarizing issues, leaving no middle ground, and thereby marginalizing people who are still learning and still becoming conscious of issues. In their eyes you are either as radical as they are, or you are the enemy. Taking and using such political device and rhetoric may sound and read as prophetic, but the question remains as to whether or not it is genuinely Christian? Some of it frankly is bitter, a bit mean, and seems to take delight in making people feel miserable.
Some of the rhetoric is no better, and serves no other purpose, than name calling. I suspect some of it is an attempt to feel powerful, a sort of triumphalism, through the use of language. Rhetorical "one ups-man-ship" might make one feel better but I don't think it convinces anybody but one's allies. Instead of seeking peace, which is a Christian duty, command, and practice, it alienates. I believe one of the worse things we can do is to use language (no matter how lyrical or artistic) that is confused, opaque, and that causes more misunderstanding and less healing.
One of the realities we live in is that of a demographic white majority in the United States, and lately we are seeing in the white population (both here and in Europe) a strong reaction against and resistance to any changing of that reality through immigration. White cultural reality is very strong in Evangelicalism, and those minorities which are present in a white Evangelical world are forced to encounter "white normativity." Whether or not white people in majority or whole admit to the presence of other cultural realities in the United States I think "white normativity" is going to be a cultural reality for a long time to come.
Some minority individuals decide that self-segregation is what they would rather pursue for their own cultural comfort, healing, and safety. They seek an escape from the cultural fatigue and aggravation which seems to be fairly consistent in the education and training of "one more white person," who has only now realized and admitted there are other cultural realities. If it is not self-segregation it sometimes seems to be an emotional self-alienation with a lot of complaining.
There is a corresponding majority culture reaction by which racial issues are simply shut down, walked away from, or mocked and ridiculed if a white person feels racially aggravated. Too often white people seem to react to racial issues, or even some racial event on the news, as if every mention, achievement, or expressed anger of black folks was taking something away from them. When that resistance to engaging in a healthy understanding and realization of racism gives up to listening, learning, and hoping then the turn begins; the turn to reconciliation and justice.
The price to pay for real "reconciliation" is high for each of us in our own ethnic and cultural groups and we pay it in different ways. I believe minorities pay a higher price but it is arrogance to assume others are paying nothing (though they may not being paying the full price yet), it is disingenuous and dangerous to assume it will cost any of us little. There is both an illegitimate and a legitimate price to be paid. The illegitimate price of self-hatred and complete assimilation into the "other" while discarding our own culture and ethnic identity pays negative dividends in self, family, and community. There is only one thing worthy of paying the legitimate price of reconciliation (which is a long exposure to misunderstanding, insult, attacks of various kinds, and sacrifice in relationships,) and that is the pursuit of being the answer to the prayer of Jesus; that we might be one.
The argument for expanding the term White Supremacy to include the entire white population (and thus take the onus off of specific political and violent groups) as responsible for systemic injustice seems to negate the idea of personal repentance, and personal relational healing, and declare it to be inconsequential as long as injustice continues. In an attempt to thwart individual evasion of institutional racism it makes the personal repentance of racism meaningless. We agree that change must be pursued in "loosening the chains of injustice and untying the cords of the yoke, to set the oppressed free and break every yoke," as Isaiah says in chapter 58:6 Change has to begin somewhere, and more pointedly in "someone." From such individuals justice begins to arise, and it must if the repentance and change is real.
To take the term White Supremacy and make it universal rather than specific to hate groups is to deprive all of us of the vigilance needed to monitor their incipient violence and to be prepared to resist it. White supremacists must love this universal application and definitive inflation.
I would like to be one of the few voices lifted up to defend the word "reconciliation." Not only do I like it, want to practice it, and have paid some measure of a price to pursue it, but my bottom line is that I think it is Biblical. It is a word far greater than race, full of grace and mercy, includes all the Gentiles in the Body of Christ (thus including in its central idea inter-Gentile union), and the Jews, and is one of the soteriological effects of the death of Jesus on the cross.
Reconciliation is not a word to despise for the reason that being personally reconciled (to God or people) does not automatically end systemic injustice, but rather a word that is to be preached! It is our future hope that Jesus will reconcile all things to himself. In short, it is a process which God commissioned, a message and a ministry we should all be caught up in and which will not be fulfilled in our lifetimes.
To reject reconciliation, and yes, racial reconciliation, and substitute it with permanent guilt until there is complete systemic change, is defeatist, despairing, unrealistic, and ultimately creates more division. I think it is better to spell out, and preach out, the price of real and Biblical reconciliation; the cost of sacrificially enslaving ourselves to other groups to win them, the cost of suffering with and for them in a true "becoming" with them.
One phrase that comes up is "white fragility" in the context of conversations about race and injustice. I think I understand the historic dynamic but unfortunately this is a universal human problem, and not simply one that can be assigned to one people group. It is difficult, as a representative of a particular racial, ethnic, or cultural group, to constantly hear the pathology present in one's own people group carped on by another ethnic group. Racial conversations are frequently difficult and sometimes feel threatening; the use of blaming and provocative language in the guise of the pursuit of justice (without giving hope) I believe will be self-defeating.
I have seen this reaction in various groups when the issues of public health and social concerns and "pathologies"are listed by race or ethnicity. Invariably the argument is made to stop blaming those listed as representative of the statistics (from our ethnic group, or our ethnic group a whole) and attack something else; the system, society, and history that has helped to create those problems. I'm just wondering if you can feel my love if I keep telling you how bad your people are?
Can any of our identified racial groups own any of (their) our peculiar or popular sins? It is no doubt difficult. Will our identified racial groups continue to resist group labeling as insulting and demoralizing? I have a suspicion that they will, therefore such labeling should be used tenderly, strategically, tactfully, and even lovingly in trying to bring about change. Every cultural group has particular sins that should bring shame to them, and certainly the white majority in this country has earned much of the shame and guilt that generally they don't like to hear about or embrace.
Guilt, by itself, is an insufficient motivator and is quite often the edge of the blade on which people will either divide into denial, anger, and resentment on one side and admission, confession, and a search for restoration on the other. The preaching of the Gospel always contains the bad news of sinful reality, but it is not a Gospel at all if it doesn't have "good news."
The Gospel, the real Gospel of Christ, is not true to itself if all it does is stick people with guilt and leaves it there. This is not a way of saying that we shouldn't preach against societal or national sins, it is a way of saying that with repentance there is forgiveness, there is grace, there is, (watch it, here it comes...) reconciliation. I see that word as one which has a milestone beginning but continues as a process, both personally, socially, institutionally, and ecclesiastically.
It is progress when any community faces its reality head on, and in humility and courage seeks to change its culture toward righteousness, both personal and social, in its behavior. As the Scripture says in Proverbs 14:34, "Righteousness exalts a nation but sin is a disgrace to any people." Does any of this humility and courage happen without change in individuals? I would submit that it cannot. Does it suddenly happen generally, culturally, systemically, politically? While some despise the individual aspect of Christian faith as insufficient for corporate change it is nevertheless a historic (societies and nations have changed) and realistic part of the whole, it just has to be preached (consistently) as a beginning and not an end in itself.
Randy Nabors was the pastor of New City Fellowship, a congregation committed to the African American and poor communities, in Chattanooga, TN from 1976 until 2012. In 2012 Randy began working for Mission North America--the mission agency of the PCA--in order to coordinate Urban and Mercy and to build the New City Network.
[Editorial note: This post originally appeared on Randy's blog and is used with his permission. While it is somewhat lengthier than that which we usually run at Ref21, we believe that the content demands a more careful and developed treatment.]