Wrestling with Race on MLK, Jr. Day

It is Martin Luther King, Jr. Day.

More this year than ever before, I find myself genuinely desiring to observe this day.  And more than ever before, I find myself perplexed and dismayed at the seeming impossibility of getting any observance right.  How does someone like me, a forty-seven year old white guy with only a small handful of relationships with people of color and nothing like a real clue about the actual experience of African Americans, rightly observe a holiday honoring someone like Dr. King and all he stood for?

I have decided to observe the day by taking a bit of time to share some of my pained ponderings.  To those who might wish to upbraid me for posting such thoughts as these on MLK, Jr. Day, I simply pose this:  Maybe you’re right.  Maybe it’s indecorous of me to choose this day, of all the days of the year, to air these thoughts.  I don’t know.  And that’s kind of the point.  But right or wrong, I have chosen to take a portion of this day to wrestle publically with my ongoing difficulties in this area.  I am observing MLK, Jr. Day by trying to deal with the thorny issue of race in my own heart and in the arena of relationships.  How are you observing this day?

In a recent course on 20th century theology, I have had the opportunity to gain more exposure to different liberation theologies, including Black Theology.  James Cone, who still occupies the Charles A. Briggs chair of Systematic Theology at Union Theological Seminary in New York, began writing books of black theology in the late 1960s.  I find his work to be fascinating and provocative in mostly good ways.  For me, at least, there is no scandal in his assertions like “God is black” and “Jesus is the black Christ.”  I understand his point.  More than that, when he says that the only hope for white people in America is for them to “become black,” my response is to say that I would be glad to.  If I understand him correctly, Cone means by this ‘becoming black’ a forsaking of power and a total identification with the oppressed.  That is nothing less than biblical.  It is the calling of all who would follow the incarnate Son of God.

But Cone and others end up asking too much, it seems to me.  I will explain below.  But first, let me offer some thoughts about my struggle to get a handle on the so-called ‘race issue.’

Recently I saw a few minutes of a sitcom in which a white couple and a black couple were making an effort to spend time together and get to know each other.  The conversation began to get painfully awkward along race lines, and in order to defuse it a bit, the white woman mentioned something about liking the movie “The Help.”  Then one of the black folks said something to the effect of, “Yeah, wasn’t it great how that pretty white girl started the Civil Rights movement?”

Ouch.  How does a white person rightly respond to that?  There is, of course, no such thing as a non-response.  It seems that there is nothing one could do or say—including nothing—that would be the right response.

One wrong response—but one perhaps worth offering anyway—might be to observe the fact that the movie could not have been produced without the willing participation of a number of black actors (and presumably others).  The same can be said of practically any such endeavor.  Perhaps such things as “The Help” should be seen as goofy attempts at white goodness which really just serve to expose how deeply racist we whites really are.  In our misguided attempts to be good white people, we cast ourselves as magnanimously and heroically non-racist.  That is a stinging rebuke, one that does not miss its target with me.

But implicit in such criticism is the idea that we should have known better.  And I can’t help wondering whether the same may be said of the black people who participated in the movie.  I do not mean to commit the tu quoque fallacy (Latin for “you too,” a dismissing someone’s argument by pointing out their hypocrisy).  My point is that, if there is an “Oops—what was I thinking?” to be uttered, it seems that it should be uttered by more than just the white people involved.  And maybe—just maybe—it might be admitted that, while there truly is a foolish white blindness that results in unhelpful gestures like the utterance “all lives matter,” such sapiential failures are not the sole demesne of white folks.

This summer, the website of the Gospel Coalition hosted a piece titled “When God Sends Your Daughter a Black Husband” by a blogger named Gaye Clark.  I never got to read the piece, because it was removed (at Clark’s request) before I became aware of it.  But there has been a great deal of discussion in its wake.  For those who might be interested, here are a few pieces of the discussion:

The address of the original article, offering a link to a discussion about it.

The link of the actual discussion: “A Controversial Article and What We Can Learn”

A news story about it.

A different blogger’s interesting take on it.

Thabiti Anyabwile’s reflection on it.

Apparently, in the article, Clark talked about the surprise she experienced when her daughter announced her engagement to a young black man.  She was happy to say that her son-in-law-to-be was a committed Christian and that that was all that really mattered.  But she also wrote honestly about her… shall we say, unpreparedness for the surprise.  Perhaps the most controversial sentence in the article was, “Glenn moved from being a black man to beloved son when I saw his true identity as an image bearer of God, a brother in Christ, and a fellow heir to God’s promises.”

It seems that a maelstrom of argument followed in the comments section of the post.  Obviously, some people were upset by the inherent racism.  But death threats apparently came from white supremacists who were angry that Clark was okay with her daughter marrying a black man.  She ended up writing a brief apology and asking TGC to remove the article, which they did.

I listened to the discussion between Jason Cook, Isaac Adams and Jemar Tisby, three African American Christians, reflectively responding to the article and the fallout that ensued from it.  They dealt with the sentence quoted above, pointing out that it reveals that Clark sees her son-in-law’s blackness as something to get over.  This and many other points made by these brothers are painful but necessary and helpful.

But one of the things that comes out in the discussion is that, before it was ever posted in the first place, the article was vetted by a number of people, including Clark’s son-in-law-to-be (who is said to have loved it) and Cook himself as an editor for TGC.  Cook briefly acknowledges that he too managed to miss the depth of the racially problematic message in the article.  But it seemed to me that the point was rather quickly set aside.

Now, there are several problems with my observations here about black people sometimes also missing the subtleties of inherent racism in such places as “The Help” and the Gaye Clark article.  First, one might rightly argue that it is not my place, as a white guy, to make that observation—that my job is to own my own white issues.  This leads to the second problem, namely that such an observation might just serve as a convenient distraction from the main issue.  That would, indeed, be a rather gross instance of the tu quoque fallacy.  And of course, there is the basic question of just how helpful it is to the over all conversation to make such an observation.

But my point in making it is not to change the subject or to avoid responsibility or to evade any appropriate white guilt.  My intent is certainly not polemical at all.  My point is to say that I want to think rightly and truly about race.  But if it is so difficult to think clearly that well-intentioned white people and well-intentioned black people can easily miss the mark, I’m going to need some help and some patience from those who are ahead of me in “getting” it.

The other day I remarked to a friend (another white guy like me) that I had thought of coining the phrase “Jim Dove laws” as a term for what I see coming in the not too distant future: legal persecutions of Christians somewhat resembling the Jim Crow laws which make up so much of America’s cruel history toward black people.  But I hadn’t actually used the phrase anywhere until I mentioned it to my friend, because I knew there was something wrong with it.  Mostly, I had thought of “being misunderstood” and looking like I was being insensitive toward the actual plight of African Americans by comparing it  to the discomforts of evangelical Christians in an increasingly secularizing culture.

My friend pointed out what I already knew was the case, though.  It wasn’t just a matter of being misunderstood as insensitive.  It was insensitive.  How could I even seriously entertain the idea of such a comparison?  The fact is that I did.  A worse fact is that the right word for that insensitivity is “racism.”

While I am not some skinhead or KKK member, I am a sinner who has insidious strains of racism in his heart.

One of the problems of the discussions of racism among white people, including Christians, is that racism is too often defined as active, aggressive meanness toward people of other races.  There is not enough acknowledgment of the “soft” racism that inheres in all of our hearts.  For example, why is there some little part of my psyche that thinks it kind of cool of me that I treat a minority person just the same as any white person?  Is there something especially good about me when I am kind toward a black person?  Is it magnanimous of me?  Usually such ideas are only present in me in the form of deeply embedded feelings.  I don’t sit there consciously patting myself on the back for not being racist.  But the latent notions are there.  And I must be honest and call them what they are: racism.

Some months ago, I heard the story of a black pastor in Canada whose wife begs him not to go out to the store at night, not because he might encounter criminals but because he might encounter the police.  Other brothers in Christ who are pastors, scholars, theologians, testify of the daily experience of having white people, especially women subtly shrink away from them on the street or in other public places.  I have no idea of how to respond to that other than to shut my mouth and listen, to try—somehow—to join them in their pain through prayer and my God-given powers of imagination, thinking of how awful that must be.

And of course, there is no denying that, in more than a few cases, this racial xenophobia reaches lethal levels.  If I get pulled over by the police, I am liable to feel annoyed, but I don’t generally worry that it might be the end of my life.

This brings me to another thought.  Most of what attaches to me as so-called “white privilege” is negative in nature.  That is, because I am white, I do not experience certain unpleasant things such as being tailed by security when I walk through a store.  But as far as I can tell, there is not much in terms of positive privilege.  Being white certainly does not mean that doors just swing open for me in life.

And come to think of it, there is such a thing as a white experience which is also unpleasant and which it might be fair to say is something the black person does not share.  It is the converse to the black experience that the white person does not share.  Black people, it seems, cannot know what it is like to be a member of an ethnic majority which is expected to feel guilty for being such.

Many years ago, when I was pizza delivery driver, I had a somewhat disquieting experience on a delivery to a certain apartment.  A young black man opened the door, and we began the normal of exchange pizza for money.  In the background of the room a young black woman suddenly yelled at me, “Hey!  Can you deliver me some watermelon?!”  I was terribly flustered and just tried to pass it off with a nervous laugh.  The young man was merciful and turned to her and told her to shut up, then turned back to me and said, “Sorry.”  As far as I know, my discomfort—and that is putting it mildly—is a distinctively white experience.

Now I must hasten to say that the experience of white guilt, white awkwardness or embarrassment, the burden of actual white racial badness—none of this comes anywhere close to off-setting or comparing to the real pain of the black experience in America or the appropriate indignation that black people feel.  I make no comparisons of scale—or even of kind—between these special white and black experiences.

Moreover, I know that some black people, in hearing the expression of quandary and confusion by white people over not knowing what to do, have responded by saying it is good and appropriate for white people to feel it.  And in general, I think they are probably right.  It is certainly fair for black people, as a group, to feel less than sympathetic toward the awkward and embarrassing struggle of white people as we try to figure out how in the world to be good and right in relation to them.  Maybe it’s really a good problem, healing to black folks in one way and to white folks in another.

But all of this tempts me to despair.  It seems to set us all up for a hopeless separation of races.  Black experience and white experience, and therefore, black people and white people, seem to be separated by water-tight bulkheads.  Can we ever come together?

I know that it is almost inappropriate for a white man to be the one to ask that question.  I know that it must be black people who say when racial tensions are over and forgiveness and reconciliation have done their work so that no more worry is needed.  And I get that, in expressing a desire for that time to hurry and arrive, I may be guilty of trying to forestall the necessary process of going through what we must go through—perpetrator race and victim race—together.  (By the way, if you think it is silly to use such terms, you are probably white and have not really come to grips with the realities of the history of race in America.  The phenomenon of African slavery alone is unparalleled in human history in terms of scope and cruelty.)  Yet I cannot help it.

Matters may be further complicated by the fact that there are some ideas communicated from people like Dr. Cone with which I simply cannot agree.  Again, if I understand him correctly, he takes the force of his black theology to places which are just a bit too far.  It seems that I am asked to recast the gospel as being essentially about the black experience, not just including it.  It is not enough, it seems, to see the suffering of Jesus as including the horrors of the black experience in American history; we are expected to see them as one and the same.  It amounts to a black exclusion of white people somewhat like Jewish exclusion of Gentiles.  And at that point, it goes too far.

I am confident that Dr. King would say so.  (And yes, I know that white people are not supposed to invoke Dr. King.)  He had no desire to see the Lord Jesus and His cross, which is for all people equally, eclipsed by or subsumed under the Civil Rights movement.  He would not tell me that my being white means I can only approach God through the mercies of black people and then take my seat in the outer court.

I am more than glad to look at a black brother and say, “For too long, you and those of your ethnicity have languished under the cruel burden of white hegemony.  I realize that there is something terribly inappropriate about the idea that it is sufficient simply to announce a leveling of the field after several centuries of mistreatment.  I agree that it would be totally fitting and maybe therapeutic for all, for the shoe to be on the other foot for some period.  And I am willing to go through that passage.”

But I cannot agree to a theology of reversal which makes anyone, even us white people, ultimately second-class citizens of the kingdom of God.  I do not know what Dr. Cone would say now, but that is how I read his work of four or five decades ago; and that is an extreme to which I just cannot go with him.

Well, these have been long-winded thoughts on this Martin Luther King, Jr. Day.  I do not have any greater clarity than I did when first began writing them.  But maybe now that I have put them here, I may have the benefit of some good help form others in wrestling with them.

Meanwhile, I look forward to this:

After these things I looked, and behold, a great multitude which no one could count, from every nation and all tribes and peoples and tongues, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, and palm branches were in their hands;  and they cry out with a loud voice, saying, “Salvation to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb.”
— Revelation 7:9-10

A Taxonomy of Christian Political Stances

In this country, there seem to be five basic types of political stances taken by Christians.  Many American Christians, however, lack the understanding or imagination to see all five.  Some can see only two or three.  Most will easily understand four.  But the fifth remains an elusive, incomprehensible mystery to them.  The reason for this is that it is wholly different from the other four in character and worldview.  The four stem from some form of worldview inherited from modernism; and generally, they share in the great worldview bath of modern Enlightenment Liberalism.  The fifth kind of Christian politics is not rooted in modernism—or at least, it consciously seeks not to be.  For that reason, it is a breed apart from the other four, and so adherents of the four find it difficult to imagine or understand.

Let us have a brief look at these five views:

First, there is left-oriented Christianity.  This may range from basic blue-state Democratic leanings all the way to Christian versions of Marxism.  If you are a Christian who voted for Hillary Clinton in the election of 2016, whether from a place of general approval or as the lesser of two evils, you are probably a good example of someone this kind of political stance.

Second, of course, there is right-oriented Christianity.  Here again is a range, but these Christians tend to believe that right-wing, “conservative” politics best match the teachings of the Bible.  If you are a Christian and have supported Donald Trump in any way or to any degree, and certainly if you voted for him even as the lesser evil, it is rather likely you are in this group.

Third, there are many Christians who are “moderate” whether on purpose or on accident.  That is, they may intentionally try to stay in the middle, not adopting the planks of any platform to the right or to the left.  Or they may, simply out of confusion, end up somewhat tenuously in such a position. If you spread your vote and your political critique around because you don’t want to get tied to one party or another, this might be you.

Fourth, many Christians try to be apolitical.  These brothers and sisters are interested in keeping their focus on the things of God.  They want to work in and through a church that stays out of politics.  If this is your political stance, perhaps you didn’t vote at all.  Or if you did, you would never talk about it to anyone, and you wish no Christians would talk about their vote publically.  You see Jesus as having a kingdom “not of this world” and believe He would not want His church to get bogged down in the mess of earthly politics.  We should just be about the business of winning souls and building up the body of Christ.

Well, those are the four.  What could possibly remain?  We have covered leftward, rightward, centrist and noninvolvement political stances.  All parts of the political spectrum are accounted for, and so is disengagement from it.  Thinking spatially, it is difficult to picture any other option.  How could there be a fifth kind?

The fifth kind is a radical commitment to the kingdom of God under the Lordship of Jesus Christ.  Of course, Christians of all kinds will think of themselves and their politically like-minded fellows as having such a commitment.  But they believe that the kingdom of God is manifested in this time and place on earth in a commitment to right, left or centrist political ideas.  Or in the case of the apolitical type, it is believed that the kingdom of God is manifested in a church that remains unsullied by the muck of worldly politics.

Christians who have the fifth kind of political stance share a commitment to the kingdom of God which, at once, transcends the political spectrum and actively engages it.  They understand—really understand!—that God is neither a Republican nor a Democrat.  They understand, furthermore, that He is not even a modern Enlightenment liberal.  His kingdom is both transcendent and immanent, both not of this world and deeply involved in this world.

Commitment to the kingdom of God, then, is extremely political and it will necessitate political involvement in this world, mostly through faithful testimony, but also through social action.  Sometimes that testimony and action will sound to those whose imaginations are trapped within the modern worldview as though it were left-leaning (perhaps when advocating for the poor against the ugly side of capitalism) or right-leaning (perhaps when advocating for the pre-born against the selfishness of “reproductive rights”).

When Jesus told Pilate that His kingdom was not of this world, He was not saying that it was located on Mars or even in heaven.  He was not saying that His kingdom had nothing to do with this world.  He was saying that it was qualitatively different from anything this world has seen or can understand.  That it is of another realm refers to its essence, not its location.  Indeed, King Jesus is very interested in this world and has bled to claim it for His own.  This world is in rebellion against its true King, but it will not always be so (Rev. 11:15).

The church is here in the world as a colony of heaven.  And her mission is to be a picture and a foretaste of the kingdom of the One who has already conquered the world but who is patiently letting it go its way for the time being.  This is what James Davison Hunter has called “Faithful Presence.”

Perhaps you are reading this and thinking, ‘Well, duh!  Of course!’  But if you think this understanding of Christian politics is clear or easy to understand, you are probably either not an American or are one of the many who only think they get it.  I, for one, have been reading, thinking, talking about this kingdom politic for many years.  I have been actively trying to let it frame my worldview, and I continue to struggle, finding myself drawn into modernist modes of thought.

So in general, if you would be one who is committed to the kingdom of God with this fifth kind of political stance, I would suggest starting by cultivating a healthy suspicion of your own sense of already having it.  A second step, for some, might be to trade your diet of either right or left-oriented media faucets for more Scripture.

Hymn for Epiphany

Ye who walk in darkness here,
Ye who languish in the vale,
See! The Light of God comes near!
Know that grace shall yet prevail!

God, His promise to unveil,
He to save the perishing,
Ends now Israel’s long travail,
He who bears her suffering.

Sages, come, your gifts to bring,
Thinking not of your largesse.
Learn that He’s the King of kings.
It is you who will be blessed!

Of your pride yourselves divest,
Your anxieties and fears.
Come to Him! He bids you rest,
He who bottles up your tears.

He proclaims to them with ears
Of the kingdom in His wake.
‘Tis the King who now appears
With a kingdom naught can shake.

———————–

Mental Ascent

For some years now, I have been thinking about how Christians—with our anointing (I John. 2:20,27)—participate in the story of our Lord Jesus, the Anointed.  Like Him—or rather, in Him—we have incarnation, ministry, crucifixion and resurrection.  Recently, though, I have been thinking about the fact that the first advent of His story included a final piece which we call the ascension, followed by His enthronement at the right hand of the Father.

If I am crucified and risen with Christ (I can’t take the time just now to explain how I see our sharing His incarnation and life of ministry), am I also ascended and enthroned?  Well, Ephesians makes clear that I am seated with Him in the heavenly realms, so, yes.  This speaks to enthronement, at least; but what about ascension?

There is a day coming when our Lord will return to effect our literal ascension, our being caught up into the air with Him.  That is the ‘not-yet’ part.  What about the ‘already’?

Enter, Colossians 3.

“If you have been raised up with Christ,” says Paul, “keep your upward momentum!”  Look up!  Standing on your tiptoes, focus on the sky, not on the earth!  See Christ seated beside the Father!  Reach up!  Reach up as those who can’t wait to join Him there!

on-things-aboveWhat is pictured as a straining forward in Philippians 3, then, is a straining upward in Colossians 3.  Just as surely as we can live into our (Lord’s) resurrection while not yet having died physically, we are told to live into our (Lord’s) ascension while still living this earthly life.  The apostle says we do this by setting our minds on the things above.  In day-to-day life, this amounts to a murderous eradication of the aspects of ourselves which would seek to keep us chained to the earth (v.5).

One of the most striking features of the ascension that awaits us is that it is to be the moment of our final revealing.   The world around us is really in for a shock.  “The world knows neither Christ nor Christians,” wrote the 18th century NT scholar, J.A. Bengel, “and Christians do not even fully know themselves.”  He was referring to the revealing of Colossians 3:4.

The apostle John speaks in similar terms.  “… It has not appeared as yet what we will be.  We know that when He appears, we will be like Him, because we will see Him just as He is.”  As always with the Lord’s apostles, such a thought leads quite naturally to a present-time application:  “And everyone who has this hope on Him purifies himself, just as He is pure” (I John. 3:2-3).  For Paul, in Colossians, it leads to the rest of what he writes in chapter 3: putting to death our earthly members, putting on the new man, clothing ourselves in love and much more.

When the Lord returns, He will start by bringing His dead out of the ground.  Then He will bring us all up into the air with Him.  Will this give us whiplash, or will we be found already stretching ourselves in His direction?  Or as He put it, “…hen the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth” (Luke 18:8)?

Father, thank You for raising us up with Your Son, our Lord Jesus, and for embedding us within Him so that His glorious revealing will be our revealing too.  Thank You for giving us—in Him—the power to kill the ugliness that still attaches to us to the fallen world and to put on the new man whom You are renewing in His image.  Lord, make me into a tiptoe Christian.  Like a toddler anxious to be picked up by his Daddy, let me strain upward to Your throne.  In the name of our risen, ascended and seated Lord, Amen.

Not FROM, but FOR

Six times in his little three chapter letter to Titus, Paul calls for Christians to be into good deeds (1:16; 2:7,14; 3:1,8,14).  The last of these six comes near the end of the book where he says, “Our people also need to learn to engage in good deeds…” (3:14).  He even goes so far as to say that the reason Christ Jesus saved us was to redeem us from our lawless deeds “…and to purify for Himself a people for His own possession, zealous for good deeds” (2:14).  We cannot miss, then, the fact that God has not saved us just to save us.  He intends to make us into a people of active goodness in the world.

And in the context of all this emphasis on good deeds, the apostle writes, “He saved us, not on the basis of deeds which we have done in righteousness, but according to His mercy…” (3:5).  Literally, Paul tells us that our salvation is ‘not from’—‘not sourced in’—any righteous deeds on our part (ouk ex ergōn = “not out of works”).  Instead, it is completely according to His mercy (and by the means of a bath of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit)!

[Huge sigh of relief goes here.]

Boy, is that good news.

If God is to save me on the basis of my good works, I’m sunk.  Look at the list that characterizes us prior to the rebirth and renewal of the Spirit: “thoughtless,” “led astray,” “enslaved to various passions and pleasures,” “killing time in wickedness and envy,” “hated,” “hating each other” (3:3).  And it’s not as though Paul has the worst non-Christians in mind here.  Rather, he is thinking of all people in general.  That’s who he has just referred to in verses 1-2; if there is any particular class or kind of people in view, it is the people good enough to be in civic leadership (v. 1).  No, if God is going to save anyone, it won’t be related in any way to righteous deeds on their part.

Nevertheless, He saves us for good deeds.  Paul insists that Titus insist on this point.  Drenched in the Holy Spirit, Christians are to be a people of good deeds.  Justified by grace, Christians are to be a people of good deeds.  As heirs of the hope of eternal life, Christians are to be a people of good deeds.  As those who trust in God, Christians are to be a people who thoughtfully engage in good deeds.

Good deeds.  It’s not where our salvation comes from.  But it is what our salvation is for.

Lord Jesus, forgive me for my tendency to rest on the laurels of Your merciful salvation.  Make me a vessel of Your grace and love in this world.  I want to be profitable for people.  Father, wash me anew with Your Spirit for this purpose.  In Jesus, amen.

The One True Scandal

Donald Trump’s “locker room talk” is horrible but not at all shocking.

Hillary Clinton’s political surgical taking out of Bernie Sanders is also horrible.

And many, many more examples could be stacked up under each name.  There is no surprise in any of these things.

What is truly scandalous is that Christians continue to attach their hopes to either of these two people–or to anyone in Washington.

We have a King.  He is our hope.