jasonbwatson

September 3, 2015

Words of Judgment

The same issue of Christianity Today that contains the column I referenced in the last post includes a column by Christena Cleveland. Cleveland, an African American, is an associate professor of the practice of reconciliation at Duke University’s Divinity School and also the director of the school’s Center for Reconciliation. She has, in the past, received recognition from CT as one of the most influential young evangelicals, and in addition to her recent appointment at Duke (she had been a professor at St. Catherine University in Minnesota) she has also become CT’s “newest print columnist” because, in the words of the magazine’s managing editor, Katelyn Beaty, “she speaks words of judgment and of hope on racial reconciliation.”

When I read this, I was excited, because I have been aware of Cleveland for a while and I have both read and recommended her book Disunity in Christ. So impressed was I by the way Cleveland raised thought-provoking questions about the church and the issue of racial reconciliation within the book that not only I recommended the book to several people, I invited her to come speak at the school where I serve. While initially that seemed to work out, and we had a date scheduled, she later had to cancel and no rescheduling was ever completed. Having read her first effort for CT I am no longer sure I am disappointed about that. To borrow Beaty’s words, she definitely speaks words of judgement.

Cleveland’s column is titled “A Necessary Refuge,” and sub-titled, “I learned at age five that most US churches are unsafe for black people.” That’s thought-provoking and attention-getting to be sure, and while it rubbed me the wrong way I gave her the benefit of the doubt, thinking it was intentionally chosen to provoke interaction and to prompt reading. After setting the stage with her childhood experience, she would likely use the full-page essay to explain how that experience prompted her to pursue the career path she is on and how she has since learned that that assumption is not always the case, nor should it be. Sadly, that is not what her column does at all.

The first three paragraphs of the essay explain Cleveland’s first experience with being called the n-word. It happened when she was only five years old, and it happened at a Vacation Bible School she and her siblings were attending at a predominantly white church outside of San Francisco. It was one of the VBS teachers who shouted the word at the children when they did not respond immediately to a call to return to the classroom after some outdoor recreation. Cleveland writes that while she had never heard the word before, she “instinctively knew that it referred to out blackness. I lowered my head and ran back to the classroom, feeling unwanted and unsafe.”

I have no doubt that was traumatic for Cleveland and her siblings and that it happened is inexcusable. However, from there Cleveland makes a big jump. She writes, “This was the first of many times that the white church has dishonored the image of God in me as a black person, resulting in feeling unwanted and unsafe within the white church walls.” I certainly cannot speak for Cleveland’s feelings, nor would I presume to know what it feels like to be addressed the way that she and her siblings were at that VBS all those years ago. What I do know is that Cleveland is painting with a very wide brush. As tragic as it was for the woman to call her the n-word, it is just as tragic for Cleveland to blame it on the “white church.”

This goes to the same issues I have addressed in the last two posts. Zach Hoag wants to blame God for Josh Duggar’s behavior and Cleveland wants to blame the entire white church for one woman’s stupidity. Ligon Duncan wants an entire denominational body to apologize for the acts of some churches. Cleveland wants an entire race of Christians to be held responsible, and to apologize for, the acts of one individual. For reasons already addressed, neither option makes any sense of holds any water.

Cleveland writes, “Because of this early experience, I have long believed that white churches are not safe spaces for black people.” Notice she does not say she believed that for a long time and has now realized the error of her ways. No, she says have long believed—present tense, meaning she still believes this. And this is a woman who is a professor of the practice of reconciliation? This is a woman who directs a Center for Reconciliation? How, I am longing to know, can she teach or practice reconciliation when she holds millions of people responsible for the actions of a few? If Cleveland believes that white Christians are all responsible for the attitudes, beliefs and actions of a few white individuals who may profess Christianity does she also believe that all African Americans are responsible for the ridiculous violence that some African Americans engaged in over the past year in Ferguson, Baltimore and elsewhere? Somehow I doubt it.

The impetus for Cleveland’s article is the attack, by a white male, on the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, SC. She says that the attack was particularly disturbing because “it communicated that black people are not safe even in our own churches. The trauma is exacerbated by the fact that the black church was created to be a haven for black people.” This is absurd reasoning. It makes as much sense as suggesting that because James Holmes shot up a crowded theater in Aurora, Colorado no one is safe in a theater. It makes as much sense as suggesting that because several hundred people lost their lives on the airliners that were crashed into the World Trade Centers, the Pentagon and the field in Pennsylvania that no one is safe on airlines now, certainly not airlines carrying passengers of Middle Eastern ethnicity. When the United States rounded up and imprisoned anyone of Japanese ancestry after the Pearl Harbor attacks it was inexcusable. It is one of the saddest events of American history, in my mind. Christena Cleveland is essentially doing the same thing with her words.

Unsatisfied with suggesting that the actions of one white man in one black church mean that the white church is unsafe for blacks, Cleveland goes on to write that “anti-black racism” is “part of the DNA of the white American church. … The white-led church was a headquarters for black subjugation, birthing a legacy of racial inequality that has long shaped white Christianity.” Wow… With a few pecks on her keyboard Cleveland wipes out every white church that opposed slavery, that persevered in the face of opposition to bring about an end to slavery, to discrimination, to Jim Crow and racism. It is a very narrow and incredibly inaccurate view of history to suggest that all white churches were in favor of black subjugation. Cleveland gives no credit to those individuals and churches. Instead, she writes, “While many black churches were leading abolitionist and anti-lynching efforts in the 19th century, and the civil rights movement in the 20th century, white churches overwhelmingly maintained the status quo of racial inequality and actively resisted change.” Overwhelmingly? That’s a strong word, and one without sufficient evidence to support its use.

Cleveland cites, as well, a Public Religious Research Institute poll which indicates that white evangelical Protestants are “the only major religious group in which a majority doesn’t see the need for such a movement” as Black Lives Matter. I have not seen the poll numbers so I will not comment on them. But I am a white evangelical Protestant and I do not see the need for such a movement. I see no point in qualifies of any kind. Lives matter, period. Plain and simple. All lives matter—in the womb and after birth; young, middle aged and elderly. Red, yellow, black and white—all are precious in His sight. Those are the words of a children’s song, but they contain adult truth. The emphasis of movements like Black Lives Matter draws lines that need to be erased, reinforce attitudes that need to be obliterated and contribute more to the perpetuation of racism and discrimination than to the elimination of the same. Cleveland’s rhetoric, though perhaps less outrageous and more eloquent, is about as helpful as the rhetoric of Al Sharpton.

She continues, “How can churches filled with people who refuse to acknowledge that racism is still a problem possibly honor the image of God in the black people who darken their sanctuary doors?” I have a few thoughts in response to this question. First, I am more than happy to acknowledge that racism still exists. However, I am not willing to admit that it exists everywhere and certainly not in all white churches. Second, and I suspect Cleveland may not like this position, but racism is not a one-way street. There are plenty of African Americans who are just as racist as the most vehement white racist. There are plenty of people—Sharpton, Jesse Jackson and others—who cannot move fast enough, or open their mouths quickly enough to make every problem or crisis a racial matter. Unfortunately, as alluded to above, Cleveland’s tone in this column do much the same thing. Another point related to this question is that in my own experience very few blacks do darken the sanctuary door of a predominantly white church. I grew up in an area that was quite racially diverse. I taught at a school that was predominantly African American students. Indeed, I once taught a class that was probably 85% non-white. Still, there were very few churches in the area with multi-ethnic congregations. Yes, there were some, and as far as I knew there were no racial issues from the church as a whole. Am I naïve enough to think that no one within those churches was racist? Of course not. But multi-ethnic churches are possible and they do exist, successfully. I am well aware that this cuts both ways; after all, I have never darkened the door of a black church. But Cleveland has to acknowledge the dual directionally of this problem.

Cleveland concludes her essay saying that until the white church is willing to acknowledge its racist history and honor African Americans, the black church will persist as a “necessary place of refuge and resistance—a place where black Christians like me can encounter a God and community that labor for equality and seek to restore the racial identities that have been cursed both inside and outside the broader church.” I take real issue with this statement as well. I have lived in the south—the part of the south where anyone from north of the Mason-Dixon line is considered a Yankee, where men still wear belt buckles that proclaim “The South Will Rise Again”, where African Americans are still referred to by some in very ugly, very inappropriate terms. Sadly, I went to church with some of those people. So yes, there are some white evangelical Protestants who do still fit Cleveland’s bill. Not all of the people in the churches I attended, however, thought that way. Indeed in one church there was an uprising when the pastor performed a marriage ceremony for a white female marrying a black male. A number of people wanted him gone from the church. But enough other people in the church took a stand and did not let that happen. They researched the matter, said there is no biblical support for limiting marriage to people of the same race, and insisted that the pastor had done nothing wrong. Other people in that church went out of their way to welcome and include individuals who were not white. So Cleveland needs to put away her paint brush and take out her fine point pen.

I truly believe that if we would stop focusing so much on the racism that does exist and instead celebrate and focus on the inclusion that also exists we would be surprised at home many stories and examples of reconciliation we can find. Perhaps that should be the first assignment for the new director of Duke University’s Center for Reconciliation. I dare say it would be far more productive and constructive than the current attempt to incite and divide.

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