Harvey on the Real Problem of Race

Problems with the reconciliation paradigm and the assumptions about difference on which it rests become most clear when we move away from a “universalist” way of talking about race and difference and, instead, bring a “particularist ethic” to bear on the discussion. A particularist ethic recognizes that there is no one shared standard against which we might measure or interpret our experiences of race, nor one to which we may all be held similarly accountable. Rather, we can begin to speak of the “particular” problem white racial identity brings to bear on reconciliation, the particular relationship of white people to matters of race and racial injustice…

Allowing particularity or distinction to be our starting point allows us to analyze and meaningfully discuss the differences between blackness and whiteness, as well as to ascertain the different work required of differently racialized groups in the context of white supremacy.

Another outcome is that the structures, histories, and injustices that result in such particularity – that, in fact, give our identities (and our agency in response to those realities) distinct meanings – become central in our attempts to envision and work for racial justice… given the construction of race and US racial history, only a particularist ethic is able to support the kind of understanding imperative for meaningful and effective responses to our actual racial situation.

Racial division is a real problem… but the racial problem… is not separateness itself. And togetherness is certainly no solution. Separateness is merely a symptom. The real problem is what our differences represent, how they came to be historically, and what they mean materially and structurally still. Racial separateness is evidence of the extent to which our differences embody legacies of unjust material structures. Racial separateness is a to-be-expected outcome of the reality that our differences literally contain still painful and violent histories that remain unredressed and unrepaired. Racial separateness reveals that our differences are the very manifestation of ongoing forms of racial injustice and white supremacy…

Racism and racial injustice are actual material conditions that shape all of our lives and mediate all of our relationships with one another. These material conditions, which began in an era of enslavement and continue powerfully still today, are the source of our alienation from each other. Loving difference without addressing these conditions as a way of demonstrating that love is a recipe for failure…

As important as genuinely appreciating difference may be for an array of other reasons, setting our souls right can be done only through justice-filled engagement with and responses to those very same structures that racialized our human bodies in the first place and continue to racialize us on a daily basis.

Jennifer Harvey, Dear White Christians: For Those Still Longing for Racial Reconciliation, pgs. 59-61.

Mine Eyes Have Seen the Glory

All we say to America is, “Be true to what you said on paper.” If I lived in China or even Russia, or any totalitarian country, maybe I could understand the denial of certain basic First Amendment privileges, because they hadn’t committed themselves to that over there. But somewhere I read of the freedom of assembly. Somewhere I read of the freedom of speech. Somewhere I read of the freedom of the press. Somewhere I read that the greatness of America is the right to protest for right. And so just as I say, we aren’t going to let any dogs or water hoses turn us around, we aren’t going to let any injunction turn us around.

Well, I don’t know what will happen now. We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it doesn’t matter with me now. Because I’ve been to the mountaintop. And I don’t mind. Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the promised land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land. And I’m happy, tonight. I’m not worried about anything. I’m not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. :: April 3rd 1968 :: Memphis, TN

In Memory of Mandela

mandela

During my lifetime I have dedicated my life to this struggle of the African people. I have fought against white domination, and I have fought against black domination. I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons will live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal for which I hope to live for and to see realized. But, My Lord, if it needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.

Nelson Mandela, in the last words of a statement he read in his defense when he was on trial in 1964 for opposing the apartheid government of South Africa.

Alexander on Raced-as-Whites Confronting Whiteness

White American Christians need a liberation theology of their own to free them from the denial of their own past…. White Amer-Europeans must courageously own their past, without guilt but with great intentionality, to change the present and the future. This means Amer-Europeans will have to engage in a collective or corporate type of confession and repentance that looks incisively at the systemic and ingrained violence that has been such a consistent part of the American experience…

Paul Alexander in “Raced-As-White,” PRISM, Vol. 20, No. 4 Summer 2013 (click to download the full text of this issue)

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr, Civil Rights, and the New Normal

martinlutherkingpublicdomain1In a NY Times op-ed piece published today entitled “Good and Evil in Birmingham,” Diane McWhorter rightly deconstructs our idea of the Civil Rights Movement as an exercise of the “good” versus the “evil”:

Our understanding of the “good” has expanded beyond the lone-dreamer theory to embrace other activists, like King’s partner in Birmingham, the Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth. Yet the evil segregationist archetype is fixed in the popular mind as the villainous housewife of “The Help” or the cretinous mob of “Django Unchained” — nobody we’d ever know, or certainly ever be.

But the disquieting reality is that the conflict was between not good and evil, but good and normal. The brute racism that today seems like mass social insanity was a “way of life” practiced by ordinary “good” people.

According to the Southern community’s consensus of “normal,” those fighting for rights now considered mainstream were “extremists,” and public servants could rationalize plans to murder men like Shuttlesworth, confident that they were on the right side of history.

As an Alabama native, I am not posting this as a condemnation. I am posting this as a reminder that our various “ways of life” in America today continue to implicate us all in an array of evils – racism included. This is the reality of structural sin. Entangled in this sticky web of sin and evil, we are always in need of healing and restoration and repentance; we must continue to be reminded that, while we follow Jesus Christ, we do not yet follow Jesus Christ. Our “new normals” may seem like progress, but doesn’t it seem like we open one eye only to close the other? I pray that today, as we celebrate the prophetic, healing witness of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., we have eyes to see and ears to hear those who continue to suffer under the “the giant triplets of racism, extreme materialism, and militarism.” For all our good attempts to commemorate Dr. King on this day through physical acts of love and service to others, the Jericho Road still stands in need of transformation: “true compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar. It comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring.” The “new normal” is not normal at all – it is still evil.

Reflecting on Structural Sin and Suffering

Growing up as a member of a Southern Baptist church in rural Alabama, I heard all about sin: smoking, drinking, partying, and the like. In my embedded theology, sin was an individual’s decision to disobey God’s commands and suffering was the intended consequences of these sinful actions. I began to question these ideas about sin and suffering as I visited places like Honduras where suffering was widespread but no one individual could be blamed. I realized that individual sinful actions were similar to the tip of an iceberg; a much greater evil was concealed in darkness below the water’s surface. This greater evil is known as structural sin.

The individualized focus of my embedded theology of sin is woefully incomplete. Since, as Clark Williamson notes, human beings are created as persons defined by relations to each other, God, and creation,[1] sin and suffering are always both personal and social. Alienation – “the refusal… to acknowledge the Creator and to love the neighbor” – is revealed as sin’s essential quality when human beings are properly situated within God’s communal vision for creation.[2] As Serene Jones has argued, this alienating sin is not merely individual acts but a comprehensive state of being that orients the life of all people and societies in opposition to “God’s will for our flourishing.”[3] Enveloped in this sinful reality, we grossly distort every dimension of our created nature and form “interlocking structures of various forms of oppression”[4] that transform our good diversity into evil division. All created things involved in these sinful structures suffer from the loss of God’s abundant life offered to all creation.

In order to understand and faithfully respond to the suffering caused by the evils of structural sins, I must examine this suffering as it occurs in specific historical contexts among specific individuals and groups.[5] I have witnessed this suffering most distinctly in the life of my friend Bob.[6] He is a poor, African-American man in his early sixties with mild schizophrenia. He lives in rural Sumter County, Alabama, only a few miles from my hometown. When I met Bob, he was living in a dilapidated mobile home with no electricity or running water. As I came to know him, I discovered an interwoven triad of structural sins – poverty, racism, and the stigma of mental illness – that caused immense suffering in his life. He was trapped in deeply rooted poverty: 2010 US census data reported a startling 35% poverty rate in Sumter County.[7] His humanity was degraded by the force of what Delores Williams calls “white racial narcissism.”[8] He was treated as if he were violent, incompetent, or immoral because of his illness.[9] These evil structures alienate Bob from his community, his family, and even from his own talent. He is a creative man who loves to write poems but the multiplicative forces of these structural sins utterly devalue Bob’s creative ability and deny him any opportunity to share his work with others.

This plurality of suffering in our world demands the kind of prophetic response that Walter Brueggemann describes as a criticizing “rejection… of the present order of things” and an energizing “anticipation of the newness that God has promised.”[10] However, the criticizing work of the prophet must begin in silence, as Dorothee Soelle has argued, in order to respect those who have suffered.[11] In this silence, sufferers are given the freedom and space to grieve and bear witness to their pain on their own terms. This grieving functions as potent criticism because it announces that “things are not alright” in the world.[12] According to Abraham Heschel, the prophet takes up this grief and amplifies it in order to express God’s rage on behalf of those suffering in “silent agony.”[13] Through the prophet, God condemns the suffering of the status quo and calls the church to repent from their idolatry and subsequent refusal to live and work towards justice and mercy for the oppressed.[14]

While criticism is the starting place for prophetic ministry, Heschel notes that nearly every prophet “concludes with a message of hope.”[15] Because God is faithfully involved in creation, prophets proclaim that God’s mercy and love will have the final say – not sin and suffering.[16] They sing new, hopeful songs in anticipation of the alternative reality promised by the God who is present in suffering.[17] In these songs, prophets give voice to a new moral imagination that envisions “new ways of living and loving.”[18] As faith in God is renewed, resources for survival and building a new quality of life are revealed in the midst of suffering.[19]

As a person answering God’s call to ministry in the US, my first response to the reality of structural sin is to see clearly my own participation in it. I lived the first 18 years of my life in a small, rural town in Alabama where white racism towards the majority African-American population was an everyday reality. However, I have never considered how this racist “social body” may have influenced my own “assignment of meaning and significance” to racial others.[20] I have failed to see this sin clearly because I have refused to see it in myself.[21] As a result, I have remained “unstirred” and therefore unable to raise a prophetic voice that criticizes the racist consciousness and imagines alternative, subversive ways of being that dismantle racist structures and embody God’s communal vision.[22]

My complicity in a racist society calls for confession. “In confession,” Bonhoeffer writes, “the breakthrough to community takes place.”[23] Racism, like all sin, has desired to keep me isolated and unable to engage in full fellowship with the African-American community.[24] It has taught me to fear and belittle racial others. Racism has led me to believe that African-Americans are intellectually inferior to Caucasians, are always looking for an excuse to avoid work, and are unable to manage responsibility. This socially-mediated pedagogy of racism has led me into the sin of homogeneity that seeks uniformity over unity-in-diversity and the sin of apathy that blinds me to the suffering of my African-American brothers and sisters. As a result of participating in a racist society, I confess that I am a racist.

The church’s response to God’s vision for justice in the world should also begin with a confession of complicity. Unfortunately, this response is problematic for many Christians in the US because they have reduced the social sin of racism to overtly racist individual actions. As a result, many claim no responsibility for “causing” racism and therefore see no need for confession. These people deny their participation in what Dr. King called the “inescapable network of mutuality.”[25] However, once racism is understood as a social sin, Christians of all colors move beyond blame and create safe spaces for confessing their complicity in racist structures. This communal confession can empower prophetic ministry in the church that overthrows sinful structures and embodies God’s vision of justice in creation.


[1] Clark Williamson, “What’s Wrong with Us?: Human Nature and Sin” in Essentials of Christian Theology, ed. William C. Placher (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2003), 165.

[2] Ibid., 166.

[3] Serene Jones, “What’s Wrong with Us?: Human Nature and Sin” in Essentials of Christian Theology, ed. William C. Placher (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2003), 149.

[4] Eleazar S. Fernandez, Reimagining the Human: Theological Anthropology in Response to Systemic Evil (St. Louis, Missouri: Chalice Press, 2003), 35.

[5] Kenneth Surin, Theology and the Problem of Evil (Oxford:  Basil Blackwell, 1986), 51.

[6] I have used a fake name to protect the identity of my friend.

[7] “Sumter County QuickFacts from the US Census Bureau,” http://quickfacts.census.gov/qfd/states/01/01119.html, (accessed November 9, 2012).

[8] Delores S. Williams, Sisters in the Wilderness: The Challenge of Womanist God-Talk (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1993), 88.

[9] Corrigan, Patrick W., Amy C. Watson, and Victor Ottati,”From whence comes mental illness stigma?,” International Journal Of Social Psychiatry 49, no. 2 (June 2003): 142.

[10] Walter Brueggemann, The Prophetic Imagination (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2001), 3.

[11] Dorothee Soelle, Suffering (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1984), 69.

[12] Brueggemann, 11.

[13] Abraham J. Heschel, The Prophets (New York: Harper Collins, 2001), 5-6.

[14] Kyle D. Fedler, Exploring Christian Ethics: Biblical Foundations for Morality (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2006), 119.

[15] Heschel, 14.

[16] Felder, 136.

[17] Brueggemann, 68.

[18] Felder, 137.

[19] Williams, 203.

[20] Mary Shawn Copeland, Enfleshing Freedom: body, race, being (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2010), 8.

[21] Williamson, 161.

[22] Heschel, 31.

[23] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together, trans. John W. Doberstein (New York: Harper Collins, 1954), 112.

[24] Ibid.

[25] Martin Luther King, Jr., Trumpet of Consciousness (New York: Harper and Row, 1968), 68.