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


31 thoughts on “Wrestling with Race on MLK, Jr. Day

  1. So….Wow, that is a huge subject. I believe there is some base questions that need to be addressed. 1. Is white guilt a subject that needs to be discussed between believers? 2. Can we open a subject that some are not allowed to participate in? 3.What does scripture say about “fighting for our rights? I’m going to stop there, though there is much more that could be covered.
    Lets be clear “white guilt” is not an idea that is supported in scripture. We are not called to take on the sin of others. To the contrary We are forgiven of Our sins. On the second point, we are heading for more self inflicted pain in America by closing down discussion. The safe spaces, the words that some have a right to use and others don’t. At what age can we no longer use the argument, “they hurt my feelings”. May I suggest the mature response. Ask for clarification. Give a logical response, edify others. On the third question there is so much to address that in scripture. We are bond servants of Christ. The lives and sacrifices of the apostles. When we are submissive to the will of God, we trust in God to supply our needs.

    • Thanks, Cuz.
      I always appreciate your help in thinking things through.
      Yes, I do think white guilt is something that believers need to discuss; and yes, I think it is Scripture that leads us to do so. Scripture addresses it more in terms of oppressor/oppressed, but failing to apply that to the white/black relation in American (ongoing) history would be like saying the book of I John calls us to love our brothers, not our sisters. What I’m not at all sure about is that I have a good handle on just what white guilt means or how one rightly bears it. And for that, I need more people of color for dialogue partners (sadly, at this point, I don’t have many). And by dialogue partners, I mostly mean teachers. I need to let them lead.
      Yesterday, a friend of ours was responding to me and expressing the idea that black people need to leave it in the past and move on. My response to him was to say that, while I understand the idea, I can’t go with it anymore, because (1) I don’t think it’s the place of white people to say when enough contrition is enough, and (2) it seems that black people will not likely feel that the time has come to say it until white people stop trying to say it for them. In other words, it seems to me that white people need to take the posture of learner and let black people lead the discussion.
      After WWII, most German people could not bear the weight of guilt of having participated in the evils of the Third Reich. They simply would not talk about it. And there is serious question as to whether they, as a people, have yet healed of the wounds of their own making. They needed to repent and weep and let the Jews and others tell them when it was over. Then they would be healed. And while that did happen in small ways here and there, it never happened on a large enough scale to make it the story of post-WWII Germany.
      I heard a story the other day about a young black man who was working on President Johnson as a medical professional in the hospital—a nursing assistant or something. As he was returning from somewhere else to the area where the president was, a white cop grabbed him and slammed him face-first into a wall, and said, “I’ve got him!” (This may have taken place during the falling out between Johnson and Dr. King.) It took a moment for others to explain to the cop who he was and that he belonged there. Then the cop just said, “Oh,” and let him go. No apology or anything.
      I think that, for many black people—maybe enough to say for black people in general—that is their experience in American history. Sure, things are better now than they once were. But the improvements for black Americans are like white people just let go and said, “Oh.” And that is insufficient. For both black and white. Dr. King was explicit about the need for white oppressors to be healed, and he cared deeply about seeing them healed. But it cannot come about without sincere tearful repentance.
      White people cannot ask black people for a specific date to mark the end of our period of contrition any more than a husband who hits and demeans his wife can say, “How long to I have to be sorry?” It’s not about the passage of time, but even if it were, the clock could not even begin to tick while the sinner has such an attitude. What drags it on is the refusal of the sinner just to own his sin.
      I will say this much, however: If I were in conversation with black people about this, I might ask for an end time on one particular aspect of all of this. And that would be how long I must be left in silence. What I mean is this: As I said in the post, when black people hear how difficult it is for well-intentioned white people even to know what to do or say—or even how to be properly sorry—the response sometimes is effectively silence. The idea being that white people want to run to solutions, and it is probably best that they just learn to twist in the wind, learn to bear the awful weight of not knowing what to do. What I am saying is that, while I understand that, and am willing to go through it, I will probably not make it, if I don’t at least have some sense that a day of mercy will eventually come, and black people will sit down at table with me and say, “Okay, that’s enough. Let’s talk.” If I don’t have reason to believe that that will come some day, I am likely, at long last, to despair and give up the whole thing. The result of that would then be racial entrenchment that says, “You know what? Forget you! I’m done!” I think some white people may have already gone through something like this.
      I don’t know, man. I may be wrong about any or all of this. It is very hard.

  2. I will continue to direct you to your assumption of guilt for all white people. Or the idea of assuming some one else’s sin. This isn’t a racial problem. Biblically speaking it’s a forgiveness problem. That is, in the confines of believers of course. The discussion is relavent with non believers. We are called to forgiveness… Daily. What does Scripture tell us (believers) about unforgiveness to wards our brothers? Assuming and applying guilty to self and others is contrary to Scripture. Confess OUR sins. Love your brother. So, to be direct……Quit being racially motivated and just love your brother.

    • How about this as a basic axiomatic concept?:
      When it comes to issues like this one, quick, easy answers are out. If we think we can just resolve it with a simple few sentences, we have probably failed to grasp the issue.

      • Sorry…..I thought you would see the depth of the argument….being a bible scholar. I say half jokingly. I will endeavor to find the time to pull together multiple scriptural passages to support my opinions on the subject. That is not a quick thing for me to do. Help me out though, why isn’t this a forgiveness problem? In context to believers of course. Loving the sparring brother. Sharpen my edge of knowledge. Final response. Forgiveness is a simple, basic scriptural idea. Matthew 18:21-22 A start to my study for you. Matthew 6:14

  3. I’m not clear on what you mean when you say it’s a forgiveness issue. Of course that’s a major piece for black people, but I’m not black. I’m a member of the group that needs forgiving.
    And then, it needs to be said that, no it’s not simple. It’s incredibly complex.
    Forgiveness is–maybe–simple on a person to person level, but usually only over small matters. And this is at a macro level. A people enslaved for two and a half centuries and then treated horribly for another century and a half cannot easily hear messages like, “You need to forgive and move on”… especially not from those who are members of the category that oppressed them.
    And as members of that category, it is both presumptuously wrong of us to say it and probably not good for us either.
    As Cone puts it in the video I attached here, this country still lives in the shadpw of the lynching tree, and you don’t move on by not talking about it.

  4. Sorry, I’m obviously being unclear again. In response to your last reply. You are completely correct when talking about unbelievers. The emotional argument response is and should be addressed. Though I believe it should be done individually. What I thought we were addressing was the scriptural response to sin and forgiveness for the believer. Also I’m not familiar with the scriptural Passage “forgive and move on”. Please enlighten. Addressing another point, I don’t believe in all cases that the forgiveness issue is always just one sided. I believe your argument from the start put you also into the guilty (white male) position. I am still unclear why you have taken on the guilt and sin of others. I submit to you again that your position is starting at an emotional level. I suggest starting at the basics, the truth. The scripture itself.
    I realize this is a dumb question, but we seems to be going in circles at the moment. Please clarify what you believe is the sin or sins in this issue. I am also curious how these sins relate to specific racial groups. It would be excellent if there was some scriptural back up in your answer. In that case we could really move beyond opinion and emotion.
    Before I get labeled as a racist, keep in mind I am coming from a stand point of what is in scripture. I am not looking at the emotion. I am not declaring it’s easy. I am simply stating what I see in scripture as being obedience to God. Do people have emotions,? Of course they do. Do we need to connect to others on an emotional level? Of course we do. Do those emotions supersede God’s will? Never. Please let me know if you feel I need to back up any of my statements with scripture.
    Watched the recent video you posted. I believe he is right on track. Are you changing the discussion? If you are, we are done. We most likely are not disagreeing. Though keep in mind in the first few seconds he makes an interesting point. He say the discussion should be addressed between individuals, as I also have stated. Please disregard all previous statements of mine if you no longer want to discus the original. If we are on the original subject, reread your original article. Please send me the scripture relating to your original reply on oppressor/oppressed. Also a brief idea of how that relates to our discussion.
    I would appreciate responses (as I did for you) to my questions and over all concepts. I have honestly found your responses to be vague and redundant at this point. It is entirely possible I am wrong at least in part. As the Bible scholar take the lead and edify your less educated brother.

    • Whew… Well, it’s not easy to reply because of the sundry nature of what you’ve put here.
      I can probably best respond by not trying to hit everything you’ve mentioned, but rather just one or two things for now.
      I’ll start with a couple of quick things and then try to address a third and bigger one:
      1. “Forgive and move on” is obviously not in Scripture. It is one of the major white messages to black Americans. It can be expressed in a whole spectrum of tones from a brash, “No black person now living was ever a slave, and no white person now living ever owned any. It’s over. Time to move on,” to a more calm “Black people aren’t helping themselves or race relations in general by dwelling on the past; there is nothing stopping them from achieving anything they want to achieve now in this country. It is terrible what was done to black people in the past, but the best thing now would be for them to forgive those past injustices and move on.”
      2. On forgiveness going both ways: There is an inherent contradiction–not a logical one, but a spiritual one–in any apology which is communicated with a simultaneous complaint against the other. “I’m genuinely sorry for what I did to you, but here’s what you did to me” is really no apology at all.
      3. On the question of backing up with Scripture the idea that God sides with the oppressed:
      For one thing, not everything that the Bible teaches can or should be reduced to snippets from the text. Clipping a verse from here and a couple of verses from there, while not always wrong, is hardly a satisfactory approach to biblical theology. This is one of the things that gets lost in the debate over Christian non-violence. Many of the people I talk to want me to show them a verse that says, “Christians need to be pacifists.” While I can point to specifics in the text which strongly teach a peace position, I think is at least as important to pull back from the individual trees and see the unmistakable picture that is the forest. How anyone can take the New Testament in from a panoramic viewpoint and still believe that followers of the crucified Lamb of God can be advocates or participants in any sort of “good” violence is truly beyond me.
      Similarly, that God is the God of the oppressed–and specifically opposed to those who wield power against them–is not only something we can find in individual verses and passages, but is shown in the big picture of the whole Bible. However, if you want to see it in a few clear places, I would offer these as a starting point:
      –> The Song of Hannah (I Samuel 2:1-10)
      –> The Magnificat (Luke 1:46-56)
      –> The Song of Zachariah (Luke 1:67-79)
      –> Isaiah 58
      –> James 5:1-6
      And at the whole book level, I would suggest reading Micah or Revelation.
      If you read Revelation, try to set aside the prophecy-mongering with which we were raised. In other words, try to see the theological themes, not a map of secret clues for figuring out the end times.
      What you’ll find is a cosmic showdown between the forces of good and the forces of evil. The dragon and the whore of Babylon and all the forces of worldly power persecute the people of the Lamb. But God is on the side of His oppressed people, and the dragon will lose.

  5. I’m disappointed.
    Let me quickly explain why. I will address in your order.
    1. The reason for my statement on forgive and move on. The way you wrote it implied I was making that point. Which I was not. That was my way of checking the …putting words in my mouth problem.
    2. I didn’t bring up that point. Read the verse after. That was specifically directed to you and your view on assuming others guilt.
    3. Ok, I was really hoping for how that related to our discussion. That is not really the question I asked. Nor the idea you originally wrote. Going from oppressor/oppressed to white guilt. You think that might need a little push to bridge that gap? Though I guess I could have been more specific in my question.

    There is two ways to go from here. 1. We disagree on the starting point, the base of this issue. As I understand it. You say the starting point is taking on the responsibility (sin) of others. Then addressing what to do from that point. I say God calls us to forgive. Thus removing road blocks to fellowship with our brothers. Please recall the more full idea I have previously stated. Would rather not go back over the “forgive and move on” misunderstanding again. If I am correct we are at an impasse.
    If I am wrong, lets get back on track to the key problem. The focal question that I have asked before. From my last response……. I realize this is a dumb question, but we seems to be going in circles at the moment. Please clarify what you believe is the sin or sins in this issue. I am also curious how these sins relate to specific racial groups. It would be excellent if there was some scriptural back up in your answer. In that case we could really move beyond opinion and emotion. Obviously the question relates to taking on the guilt (sin) because of race.
    Can we move on? If this can be explained, you most likely have a convert. I will join you in your white guilt.

  6. Don’t be disappointed, man…
    For me, there’s no reason for things to go sideways between us here. I hope I’m not upsetting you. I sure don’t mean to be.
    Don’t read me wrong. I’m not calling you racist. If I did (which I’m not), it wouldn’t be at any deeper level than I would say of myself.
    Some quick responses by number (at the risk of the whole number thing getting ridiculous):
    1. Okay, well, I’m sorry if I made you think I was putting those words in your mouth. That was pretty far from my mind. I thought I mentioned that I had gotten a version of the ‘forgive and move on’ message from a friend of ours. In telling you about that, I was not trying to say you were also bringing it. I only meant to say that it is the kind of thing one typically hears coming from white folks, and that it furthers the problems. I was NOT AT ALL laying it on you.
    2. ‘Read the verse after’ what? I’m confused. Do you mean the sentence after? I think you must mean that. So I’ll respond accordingly: I realize that the idea of white guilt on a mass scale is something of a new or foreign idea given our upbringing, but it is not at all a bad thing to take seriously. I know your main concern is whether it is biblical, though. (That’s mine too, of course.) I am not totally sure, to be honest. We are called by Scripture to stand up to and speak out against injustice. The question is whether doing that in this place and time and in regard to this issue means admitting that we belong ethnically and nationally to a people who are historically guilty not only of heinous treatment of another people group, but of ongoing failure to own it satisfactorily. In the same way that Christians should be the ones to lead the way in caring for the poor or caring for the environment, should not Christians be leading the way to address this injustice?
    3. This seems to be covered in the one directly above.

    To address the things you have in your finishing paragraphs here:
    First of all, it might be good to point back to my title and the over all tone of the post. I am trying to think these things through more than make assertions. I am not totally sure how to think about a great many of these things.
    Second, may I suggest you check out some good stuff on liberation theology? It might be black theology, but it might also be Latin American liberation theology. But don’t (for the time being) read from those who hate it. Read from those who believe in it. You can disagree with it on your own without having to hear from the haters.
    I would suggest some online resources, but I don’t really know of any just now. I’ve mostly been dealing with books.
    But if you Google “James Cone black liberation theology,” or “Gustavo Gutierrez liberation theology,” you’ll likely find some good summaries out there.
    I’ll tell you right now, I have some serious differences with these guys. But I also think they are right on about certain things. Meanwhile, I’ll send to your email a couple of briefs I just wrote on them for my 20th century theology class.

  7. I’m still unclear on the biblical premise you are pulling from on the racial guilt. I just don’t see that in scripture. Though from your response, it appears you don’t either. Your answer leads me to believe you are pulling support for this “racial guilt (sin) idea” from theologians (or a personal theology) not scripture. As we have discussed and agreed in the past, that is a dangerous way to go.
    Let me also step away from using scripture as our guide for a moment. Let’s go with logic and just plain functionality. If we spent the time to fully find out what our ancestors sins were. How they had wronged someone else. Would we have time to do anything else. Even if we knew a specific sin they had committed. How would we begin to make it up to the wronged party. This is a silly, life consuming endeavor. It is a vicious cycle of self hate. Why can’t we do specifically the things clearly listed for Christians in scripture. Lets get those done before we start looking at what our ancestors may have done. I will admit, I did not feed the homeless; visit a widow or help any orphans today. I apologize ahead of time that I’m a simple guy and see scripture in simple terms. At the point in time I have daily mastered the specific simple passages of scripture, I will move on to rectifying the wrongs of my “people”. But really, what are the chances that all the widows, orphans and homeless are taken care of, that I would have time to start wondering about my ancestors?, If our heads are in the clouds, our feet are always tripping.
    Or feel free to really address the key question and win a convert.

    • Here is a piece of the underlying biblical view that drives the sort of thing I have been talking about here:
      When we read Genesis 11, we are supposed to recognize the endemic race-based xenophobia that we see in all humans, especially ourselves. As the story of the Bible unfolds from there, and we keep seeing people groups treating one another with xenophobia and cruelty and arrogations of self-superiority, this awareness is intensified. We see the Scriptures convicting us of the fact that, unlike God, we fail to be other-centered and are instead self-centered. This is not only true on the individual level, but also true at macro and societal levels. All of us who are honest with ourselves before God know that we are guilty of this. Also, when we read of the day of racial reconciliation to come (Revelation 7:9, et al), we are meant to feel the glory of it and hunger for that day to come. All of this is easy to see in Scripture if we look at the forest and not just the individual trees.
      Add to this the vast biblical theme of God as the God of the oppressed who is set against the proud and the oppressor.
      Add to this the fact that the church is called to be a people who are the place on earth where the Spirit of God is overturning this horrid phenomenon.
      Add to this the fact that we do not live in a theoretical vacuum, but in a real world with specific historic actualities. Sadly, those actualities do not include very many examples of white Europeans or Christians treating African peoples with love and respect. This is a world where the actualities of history include white barbarism toward Africans, Native Americans (North and South), and others. We live in a world where the historic actualities include a mass failure on the part of the church to live up to her calling, being complicit with the racism and cruelty of the powers toward non-white peoples. We also live in a world where none of us exists in a racial vacuum. You and I are biologically of white European descent, which is not a non-category in terms of race and ethnicity. It is a specific seat at the table. And in terms of the history of race relations, it is the seat of the oppressor race.
      So when we hear, in the last fifty years or so, black Americans and Latin Americans voicing their outcry against the oppression they have endured for centuries at the hands of people who are very much like us, how shall we respond? Do we say, “Well, I never owned any slaves, so it’s got nothing to do with me! The Bible doesn’t say I have to answer for other people’s sins”?
      Or do we weep, confessing that we have never had to endure the kinds of hardships that people of color have had to endure? Might we be moved to explore the various ways we have benefited from the oppression of others? Might we not at least confess that, insofar as we have lived as though it were not that important to think about these things, we have been incredibly callous toward our fellow human beings–and that that, in itself, is a kind of racism?
      And as we take the time to pray and cry before our Lord, might we not ask what He would have us do? And might we not imagine that what He would have us do probably does not include figuring out how it doesn’t apply to us unless we can find specific Scripture verses that tell us to bear the guilt of other people’s sin? (By the way, that is exactly what our Lord did on the cross, which He commands us to take up and follow Him.) Might we not imagine that it probably does include letting those who have been systematically wronged by the majority culture of which we are members lead the conversation about all of this?
      Is any of this helpful?

  8. quick note. Not mad.
    In your article, it appeared to me you where admitting being a racist. So I don’t feel better that I wouldn’t be worse than you…lol

  9. For now, let me ask you to address this question in a straightforward manner:
    Do you agree that there are some important truths which are biblical but which are not easily captured in a pinpoint verse or passage?
    If not, why do you believe God is a Trinity?

  10. (sigh) Yes sadly, Your reply helps.
    Let me start by saying I’m concerned that you see my argument being supported only by a single or few verses. how is that possible? Forgiveness is specifically stated (for the layman..me) and woven through the whole of the bible. Again why are you arguing that point?
    You are missing the beautiful simplicity of Gods word. Please for your own good pull back to the scripture itself, first. Realize that if we just do the things specifically stated in scripture, there is no racism. At least their wouldn’t be among believers. This conversation would not be needed. Don’t get me wrong there is a depth in scripture that goes way beyond “the basics”.
    As a layman I don’t see Xenophobia in Genesis 11. I could be missing it. I agree that people are self centered. Now we run into a problem. People are self centered does not equal all people are self centered in all the same ways. Which has to be believed to continue on with your theory. Were all the Germans during world war two guilty of killing Jews. Of course not, some lost their lives in response to savings Jews. Lets call attempted genocide, sin. Lets call lynching and racism, sin. If some of those before mentioned Germans didn’t commit that sin, yet lived in the country are they guilty also? By the way they were white. If some folks Living in early American history were killed because of saving and freeing slaves, are they also guilty of the sin? I think we will agree that they are not being held responsible for that sin. How much more would be the distance between them and a non-racist currently living American. If I have to go further to convince you of the wrongness of your theory, nothing I write will ever be good enough.
    Or feel free to address my earlier question and convert me.

  11. I’m afraid I’ve completely lost track of what you mean by your earlier question.
    I almost chuckled when I read your second to last sentence here, because it said exactly what I was thinking as I read your reply: Nothing I write will ever be good enough.
    You don’t see xenophobia in Genesis 11? What made the people form into groups based on commonality of language AND abandon the project they had been working so hard on?
    Observe how God splits them up by a miracle of language. Much later in the story (Acts 2), He will use another miracle of language–a reversal of the first one–to unite a new people called the church. But if we keep tracing the theme of race through the book of Acts, we’ll see some amazing stuff (particularly in chs. 10-11), episodes centered on the theme of racial superiority. This is no small theme in Scripture! (I don’t have time to cover Jonah, Zechariah, Ezra-Nehemiah, et al.)

    Anyway, one thing that seems to be coming clearer for me (though much remains muddled) is that you see yourself and many other white people in America as “non’racist.” Do I understand you correctly in this? If so, how do you define racism? What sort of diagnostic do you use to so clearly and easily acquit yourself of it? How do you respond if others (persons of color, in particular) disagree with your definition, your diagnostic methods and your happy conclusion? Will you hear them? Or are they just wrong?

  12. just got a quick look at Cone. very quick at the moment. Hoping you are not in agreement with this view point. I don’t see this agreeing with scripture.
    Cone defines it as “complete emancipation of black people from white oppression by whatever means black people deem necessary.” For Cone, the deeply racist structure of American society leaves blacks with no alternative but radical transformation or social withdrawal. So-called Christianity, as commonly practiced in the United States, is actually the racist Antichrist. “Theologically,” Cone affirms, “Malcolm X was not far wrong when he called the white man ‘the devil.'” The false Christianity of the white-devil oppressor must be replaced by an authentic Christianity fully identified with the poor and oppressed. This is problematic. He wants to identify with the poor and oppressed….but not be the poor and oppressed. I don’t see christian fellowship in these statements.Or, again quick look. I’m hoping these statements are completely out of context.

  13. Great! This might help.
    Several things to say here.
    First of all, I’m no Cone scholar either, but I have enough exposure to him and to liberation theologies in general that I think I have a decent line on him. Maybe not, though.
    Second, as I said in the post, I do not know just how vigorously Cone still holds to the inflammatory modes of thought with which he worked decades ago (around the time we were born and were little). He is on record in the 80s as acknowledging that he needed to open up some (though that is mostly about caring about other oppressed groups like Latinos and women). In the Moyers interview that I embedded above, he certainly seems to have mellowed. At one point, he assumes that President Bush (the interview was in 2007 or 2008) is a Christian, a label he was loathe to allow white people in the 1960s and 70s.
    Third, there are definite problems with Cone’s theology. No question about that.
    The big problems with liberation theologies, in my view, are:
    1. They equate salvation with material liberation from oppression in this world.
    2. They believe the oppressed must rise up and deliver themselves.
    On both of these points, dialogue with them is nearly impossible, because they hear all objections as attempts by the powerful to retrench power and to keep the oppressed in their place.
    If you say to #1, ‘No, the salvation God gives us in Christ is primarily salvation from sin so that we can go to heaven when we die,’ they say that’s a convenient theology for the white and powerful. It’s a way of keeping the oppressed focused on the next life so they’ll be content sitting at the back of the bus (etc.) in this one.
    Similarly, if you respond to #2 by pointing out that God never calls the oppressed to deliver themselves but instead calls them to trust Him in their afflictions and wait for Him to deliver them, they will again say that’s a convenient interpretation for the white and powerful. They also develop it along the lines of the wars of Israel (that God was Israel’s Deliverer did not mean they didn’t need to fight).
    You can see their point, I trust.
    And despite these problems, there is a lot of good stuff in these liberayion theologies. They are right that God is on the side of the oppressed and against the rich and powerful. And they are right in their insistence that Christian faith must be concernef with the kingdom of God in this world, not just in the next.
    So where does that leave us white folks?
    Well, we may be something like good Gentiles who come to God by attaching themselves to Israel (e.g., Rahab or Ruth). In Cone’s words, we need to “become black” to be saved. But what he means is we need to forsake power and identify with the oppressed. And I have no problem with that biblically. And in tetms of the actual social context here in America, I have no problem with the idea of bowing to become the zetvant of my black neighbors, realizing that there is a sense in which sincere repentance before the God of the oppressed entails a penitence expressed toward those who have been wronged (Matt. 5:24; Luke 19:8).
    However, as I indicated toward the end of the post, there are limits. I cannot repent and “become black” if that means denying that God sent His Son to redeem me (and other white Christians) just as much as for people of color and all the oppressed.
    But to switch back to the other hand here at the end, that doesn’t mean there is no place for a weeping acknowledgment of the centuries of oppression of black people in this country and my own little piece of ownership of it.
    Any clearer?

  14. I give up. Do you realize the difference between us? I say this is what I see, If I’m wrong lead me to the correct answer. You say, This is what is wrong with me and don’t forget your guilty too.
    Your right I’m a prideful racist, to stubborn to explain my theories. Just take my word for it, I’m the all powerful white man.
    Or make a convert. The focal question.
    Please clarify what you believe is the sin or sins in this issue. I am also curious how these sins relate to specific racial groups. It would be excellent if there was some scriptural back up in your answer. In that case we could really move beyond opinion and emotion. Obviously the question relates to taking on the guilt (sin) because of race.
    Dang it. really……really….really. Are you serious? Really. You keep sucking me back in. Xenophobia….because they separated into groups. Is that the most logical answer? which is easier to believe? They separated from some of their group, but not all of there group because they feared some. Or maybe, they found some in their group that they could communicate with and stayed with that group. No, I get it now. In my old job I would spend hours sometimes talking to some of my coworkers. A small group out of the many that worked there. I feared the other do to their race, and barely spoke to them. Well, No that doesn’t work out. They all spoke Spanish. They all were Hispanic. You know what the only difference was? The guys I spoke to for hours also spoke English. I speak almost no Spanish. A little logic goes a long way. Quit assume the sin of others brother. You know what also happened on that job? Daily racism against me. Stealing from me. Threats of violence many times. I am happy to be moved on after five years. Stayed that long mainly because I felt God wanted me to learn from that experience. To find a way to correctly represent the life of a Christian. I failed over and over. I stop by on a regular basis to see those guys, still. I’m still not one of them. God called me to forgive over and over. I was called to apologize over and over. Yes, forgiveness is crucial in a believers life. Lets stop over thinking and live the life we have been called to. I’m sorry the run of the mill simple basics of the Christian life aren’t exciting enough. I guess that is where obedience comes in.

  15. Hmmmm…
    I do not actually want to counter anything you’ve written here. In fact, I think you’re on to something. There is much to be said for the various real-life exposures our personal life paths afford us. And I love what I have heard from you about your previous job, both here and in previous talks.
    I suppose it is fair to say that some of my exposure leads me to see categories that I wouldn’t see otherwise. And for now, it is difficult to communicate that, though I have tried.
    Particularly, on the question of ‘backing it up with Scripture,’ I have tried several times to satisfy that expectation, but it seems that you keep acting as if I haven’t offered any biblical argument at all.
    To wit, let me ask another question of you: If a white man is rude–or even less than kind–to a black man because he thinks of the black man (perhaps not fully consciously) as somehow inferior, what sin has he committed? What Scriptures can you point to to back up your answer?
    Or to put it another way, with regard to these many times on your previous job when you were called to apologize over and over, what was your sin? Did you have to find a specific Scripture passage that spelled it out and told you to apologize? Was it ever a matter of just knowing that you were off-track with the Spirit of Christ without having to put your finger on the exact nature of your being in the wrong?

  16. On the question of xenophobia in Genesis:
    My hermeneutic operates with several assumptions (as does anyone’s). One of them is that there is no major phenomenon of human life that the Scriptures leave unaddressed. If the Scriptures don’t address it, either it’s not a major human concern, or we just don’t know how to see it in God’s word.
    This is my major issue with much of what flies under the banner of psychology–even in the church. It is often implied there that the Bible is not enough, we need the findings of modern psychology really to deal with the deep problems of people’s souls. So you see pastors and churches sending their people to psychologists and counselors, rather than taking them under pastoral care and the nurture of the church and the Scriptures.
    Someone you and I know well actually told me years ago that he didn’t think Jesus was relevant to contemporary questions of politics or society. That was the reason it is okay for Christians to serve in the military or to be wealth-expanding capitalists. Jesus is about the spiritual side of life and simply does not address much of the practical world in which we live, except as a general moral advisor.
    These detachments of Scripture and the Christ of Scripture from life as we know it in the 20th and 21st centuries are devastatingly costly.
    Okay… So how does that pertain to our discussion?
    I assume you would agree that white on black racism is real. That slavery and legal segregation were real problems. That, although there have been some really good developments, racism continues to have an ugly presence in the ongoing history of this country to the point that none of us gets to bury his head in the sand and ignore it. Moreover, racism has been and continues to be a major problem the world over. It is a major part of the story of human history throughout the world.
    My hermeneutical assumption, then, is that God is not unaware of this and would have, in fact, addressed it in His word. So where do I find it? Well, all over the place. It runs throughout Scripture in several different strains. And they all seem to be rooted in the Babel event in Genesis 11. So to reduce the picture there to one of bare logistics is silly.
    And in fact, while I understand your account of your previous interactions with your Latin coworkers and the language barrier you described (been there myself some), I think if you take a closer–or deeper–look, you might find that there is more to it than logistics.

  17. Greetings dear relatives. I have enough time to make a small assertion. My son who is a self proclaimed atheist argues that the white man’s burden of guilt toward blacks is a justified one. He also argues that it is a Darwinian concept, and that a recompense must be meted out against the white man since there is no God, for our species to progress. Also that if there was a biblical God that there would be forgiveness, and a new start for so called Christians. How great is your God if he can not make it right by his own power, and what forgiveness of sins is there if the white man has to carry this guilt of sin that Jesus supposedly died for?

    • Hmmmmmmm…
      Wow… I cannot tell you how sad it makes me to hear of his worldview. I pray that the Lord will chase him down with His irresistible grace.
      As far as the content of what you’ve written here goes, I think I take your point. Correct me if I am wrong, but it seems that you are saying that an acknowledgment of something like ‘white guilt’ belongs with those who espouse atheism—or at least does not belong with those who embrace Christianity. I understand that. But I don’t entirely agree.
      The problem comes when we use these concepts as an excuse not to listen. And I mean really listen.
      I’ll say it again: The perpetrator cannot be the one to talk about forgiveness, except to humbly ask for it. He cannot say to his victim, “You’re supposed to forgive me. God says so.”
      If it can be truly said that white people as a category have done terrible evil to black people as a category in the history of this country, then white people cannot be the ones to talk about forgiveness. The question is how this works down at the individual level. Is it okay for an individual white person to talk about how black people need to forgive? Maybe, but it is chock full of problems:
      1. Such a white person must have absolutely ZERO racism in his or her heart, a condition which is both highly doubtful and utterly unprovable.
      2. Black people do not want to hear it. In fact, it is NEVER well-received. This does not make it wrong. The point is that no white person should expect to see any productive results from it. In fact, it is almost certain to make things worse.
      3. It is likely to be a sign of avoidance of responsibility. That is, focusing on the need of black people to forgive goes hand-in-hand with a refusal to consider one’s own culpability.
      I am personally rather dubious of the idea of material reparations actually solving anything, though I (sort of) get your son’s point. On the one hand, if the US government were to make such reparations, it would only be amid much controversy with many white people objecting to it; and many of the white people who approve would probably be doing so from less than the best reasons. At least, it is hard not to imagine millions of white people saying to black people five or ten years later, “We gave you what you wanted, and you’re still not happy!” And for their part, I think black people would find that it did not really help to heal them or the racial rift in the country. One major reason for this is that the arena of needed racial reconciliation is the relationship between people, not between black people and the government. Reparations paid by the government would not do much to change relations between actual black and white people. Then there is the nature of free will in the offering. If any monetary gestures will actually help, it can only be those which are made freely from the heart. Even if it was approved by a two-thirds—or even a 90%—majority of American voters, it would not be the same as freely given.
      Perhaps what would be best would be for the US government to set up a public fund to which private citizens could freely contribute. And that fund could be used for reparations. That probably would not work either, but it’s a thought.

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