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:
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