jasonbwatson

August 17, 2017

Intentional Idiocy

Fortunately I am not the leader of the free world and therefore no one has been criticizing me for not responding more quickly to the white supremacist nonsense in Charlottesville, VA five days ago. My delayed addressing of it in this space has nothing to do with me not condemning it as strongly as I possibly can and everything to do with being a wee bit busy with the start of a new school year. However, I feel I have reached a point of preparedness for the week ahead that I can pause for a while this morning and type out some of that which I have been thinking.

The first thing I would like to say is simply this: the idea that anyone could still hold to the idea of any race being superior to any other goes beyond upbringing and prejudice and serves as the strongest possible example of intentional idiocy. It is absurd and nonsensical for anyone in the twenty-first century to believe with any level sincerity that one race is superior to any other. The evidence against such a notion is so overwhelming that anyone who thinks it is truly characterized by mental dullness (part of the dictionary.com definition of “stupid”). In case that is not clear, let me be more specific: anyone who actually believes that one race is superior to another suffers from a mental defect. That does not, however, excuse anyone from their ludicrous notions because this is a mental defect that is entirely self-inflicted. Or, at a minimum, self-perpetuated.

Having lived in the south for a number of years I am well aware that there are still areas where people commonly refer to the Civil War as the War of Northern Aggression. There are people who still hold to the notion that the South will rise again. There are people who still believe that anyone that is not white is inferior, lesser and somehow other than fully, equally human with those who are white. I also recognize that many of those people were born into families and communities that perpetuate that nonsense and have simply been parroting the foolishness they received from their parents, who received it from their parents, and so on back up the family tree. But that does not excuse their stupidity. There have been examples throughout U.S. history of individuals who were born and raised in areas and families of strong white supremacist convictions who overcame that apparent disadvantage by recognizing and accepting the truth about human equality and choosing truth over prejudice. There are even individuals who were born into slave holding families and attended churches that taught that blacks were created by God to be in a condition of servitude to the whites who overcame that by embracing the truth of human equality. Sarah and Angelina Grimké would be two great examples but there are many others.

Sadly, the church does bear some responsibility for the racist notions of many white supremacists. Many Christian schools, especially in the American south, were birthed as part of the “white flight” movement after racial integration became the law. Many white churches in the south would not allow blacks to attend their services much less become members. Interracial marriage was forbidden in many churches–and in some it still is. Bob Jones University, in South Carolina, lost its non-profit status for a while over its refusal to give up its ban on interracial dating, claiming the Bible supported their position. I was present in a Southern Baptist church some twelve years ago when the church leadership announced one Sunday from the pulpit that after prayerful consideration their decision was that the church’s pastor had not done anything biblically wrong by officiating an interracial wedding. It blew my mind that that was still an issue in twenty-first century America. I was relieved that they reached the correct decision, but it should never even have been a question. There is simply no way to accurately interpret the Bible and come to any position other than full human equality regardless of race.

I have disagreed with some of what she has written since, but Dr. Christena Cleveland’s 2013 book Disunity in Christ provides excellent insight into why so many Christians continue to struggle with fully embracing equality in action even when they want to do so and can articulate those convictions verbally. She expresses what needs to happen succinctly on page 61 of her book when she writes this:

We must relentlessly attack inaccurate perceptions in our everyday interactions, weekly sermons, denominational meetings and dinner table conversations. Now that we are aware that categorizing is polluting our perceptions of other groups in the body of Christ, we must do the work of purifying our perceptions. What we need to do is really quite simple: rather than continuing on as cognitive misers who lazily rely on inaccurate categories to perceive others, we need to engage in what my friend Reverend Jim Caldwell calls cognitive generosity. We need to turn off autopilot and take time to honestly examine our polluted perceptions.

Parents, extended family members and communities bear responsibility for perpetuating the notion of racial supremacy or inferiority as well. We know this is true because racism and hatred are not naturally present–even in a world marred by the total depravity of man due to original sin. Jimmy Fallon started The Tonight Show on January 14 by speaking out against hatred and the nonsense in Charlottesville. In his comments he mentioned his 2 and 4 year-old daughters and said, “They don’t know what hate is. They go to the playground and they have friends of all races and backgrounds. They just play and they laugh and they have fun.” I have seen that childlike innocence of race demonstrated in my own daughter. My brother and his wife have four adopted children. All but one of them are of different racial backgrounds than my brother and his wife and that difference is immediately noticeable due to their varying skin tones. When my daughter was still a toddler they adopted their fourth child and she is only one who looks at all like she could actually be their child. My daughter was old enough to understand that the necessary steps and time had not occurred for this new cousin to have joined the family through natural means. As we explained that she was adopted just like the other three children in their family my daughter expressed shock that the three others were not the natural children of my brother and his wife. The varying skin tones meant nothing at all to her!

This is why I call racism and notions of racial supremacy intentional idiocy. It takes intentionality to accept that one race is superior to another. It takes intentionality to teach that to children. It takes intentionality to continue accepting it even in the face of reality and mature understanding that all humans truly are created equal. It takes a conscious commitment to and genuine intentionality to look at yourself in the mirror every morning and think that you are better than someone else simply because your skin color is different than theirs, to think that you deserve more or better than someone else simply because of your race. Doing that for a while, based on your upbringing and your surroundings, may be excusable. Continuing to do it when you’re old enough to know better makes you an intentional idiot.

The same day that Jimmy Fallon began his show by addressing the Charlottesville mess, an editorial by Cal Thomas appeared in The Washington Times. Thomas makes a number of excellent observations in the piece, but one of the most significant is his reminder that there is no such thing as a supreme race precisely because there is no such thing as racial purity. Thomas writes, “Dr. Henry Louis Gates Jr., a Harvard professor, discovered in ‘Finding Your Roots,’ his PBS series on race in America, that there are no purebred humans. Mr. Gates himself discovered through a DNA test that he is descended from an Irish immigrant and a slave.”

The idea that there is no such thing as racial purity assumes, of course, that there is such a thing as race. A truly biblical worldview however goes even further and negates the notion of race completely. Are there various skin tones? Of course. But there is only one race and that is this: human. Answers in Genesis, the apologetics ministry that is most well known for its Creation Museum and Ark Encounter, has long taught that there is no such thing as race. Search “racism” on the AIG web site and you will find a page under their worldview section that beings like this:

The term race is often used to classify people based almost solely on physical characteristics. According to evolutionary ideas, these so-called races descended from different ancestors separated by location and time. However, based on biblical history, the term race must be incorrect. We are all one race (“one blood” in Acts 17:26), the human race.

It’s not just “black” and “white.” A person’s skin shade (what is on the outside) should in no way invoke any sort of prejudice or racist comments. What a difference we would see in our world if people reacted in accord with biblical principles, understanding all humans are equal before God, and all are sinners in need of salvation.

Anyone claiming to believe the Bible has to acknowledge that the Bible teaches several truths that fundamentally destroy any notion of race, let alone racial superiority. Genesis 1:27 says, “So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.” Genesis 5:1 says, “This is the book of the generations of Adam. In the day when God created man, He made him in the likeness of God.” God made man–and woman–in His own image. That word man is all-inclusive. Every human being is created in the image of God. Every human being is descended from Adam and Eve, the first man and first woman. Every woman being is also descended from Noah, since only Noah, his wife, their three sons and their wives survived the destruction of the earth by flood as described in Genesis 6-9. The Bible makes it clear that God does not show partiality and that He sent His Son, Jesus, to die on the cross to pay the penalty for human sin because He “so loved the world” (John 3:16), a statement which omits any reference to race. Jesus repeatedly commanded that those who follow Him are to love one another, that we are to love our neighbor as ourselves. James condemning the showing of any partiality. There is simply no biblical justification for racism or attitudes of supremacy.

But what about Charlottesville specifically? CBS News posted a photographic story on line that included some fifty-five images and paragraph-length commentary or reporting on each one. The title of the story is “White supremacist rallies in Va. lead to violence.” The first picture and caption stated that the rally was planned by white supremacists and “advertised as ‘Unite the Right.'” Whether “the Right” was intended to refer to the political right or to the notion of right as opposed to wrong, it was an inaccurate label on both counts. As demonstrated here already racism and ideas of supremacy are never right. And there is no evidence that most individuals who identify with the right wing of the political spectrum are racists. That some claim that does not make it so for all. Cal Thomas said that David Duke claiming that he voted for Donald Trump does not make Trump a racist or the KKK representative of Trump’s positions or goals for America. “Mr. Duke claimed in Charlottesville that whites elected Mr. Trump,” Thomas wrote. “Sufficient numbers of white voters also elected Barack Obama — twice — so what’s his point?”

The CBS story reported, on the next slide, that in July “members of the Ku Klux Klan demonstrated in Charlottesville against the planned removal of a statue of General Robert E. Lee, and called for the protection of Southern Confederate monuments,” a demonstration that came “[a]mid heightened community outcries for the removal of monuments honoring Confederate heroes.” Removing those monuments is another example of stupidity but advocating their removal–or even removing them legally–is no justification for claims of white supremacy.

The Civil War is an important part of American history and there is absolutely nothing to gain by trying to erase all images or references or even monuments to it from our land. According to a Washington Times article published just today, New Jersey Senator Cory Booker “plans to introduce legislation that calls for the removal of Confederate statues from the U.S. Capitol building.” The Capitol includes statues of both Robert E. Lee and Jefferson Davis. There are, according to the Architect of the Capitol, “three times as many statues of Confederate soldiers and politicians as there are statues of black people in the entire Capitol complex.” Is that sad? Of course. But there are ways to fix that problem without eliminating the Confederate statutes. And the statues in Statuary Hall were placed there by the action of each state legislature (each state gets two), so it would make far more sense for state legislatures to reconsider whom they want representing their state in the Capitol than it would for Senator Booker to propose the removal by congressional action. Most Americans do not know who the Confederates in Statuary Hall are and would not recognize their names or historical significance even if they did. (Think I’m wrong? Without using Google or any other resource, tell me who Edward Douglass White, James Zachariah George, Uriah Milton Rose or Zebulon Baird Vance were, for example). The collection of one hundred statutes was not completed until 2005 when New Mexico finally sent its second statue. Seven states have replaced one of their first two since Congress authorized replacements in 2000, so if a state–or the people of a state–want to put a different individual in the collection to represent them let them do so. For Cory Booker or anyone else, however, to say that they have to do so is dictatorial and a clear violation of free speech and other constitutional rights. Alabama replaced Jabez Curry, who was a Confederate politician, in 2009. Florida approved replacing Edmund Kirby Smith, a Confederate, in 2016. So let the process run its course! (The collection, by the way, only includes nine women and a handful of Native Americans, so there are a number of other underrepresented groups as well).

According to CBS, the white supremacist protesters marching into the University of Virginia campus were shouting “Blood and soil”, a phrase used by Nazis. Demonstrators were giving “Nazi salutes and chant[ing] ‘You will not replace us’ (and alternately, ‘Jews will not replace us’).” One man said he was participating in the march because, “‘Our country has been usurped by a foreign tribe, called the Jews. We’re tired of it.'” Business Insider reported that on Monday, August 14,

“Vice News Tonight” published a chilling 22-minute documentary featuring interviews with several of the white nationalists who helped lead the “Unite the Right” rally that devolved into violence and chaos in Charlottesville, Virginia, over the weekend.

Most prominently featured throughout the episode is Christopher Cantwell, a white supremacist who provided an in-depth description of his beliefs and his movement’s goals at the rally to Vice correspondent Elle Reeves.

Cantwell offered racist critiques of black and Jewish people, confirmed that his movement was violent, and defended the killing of Heather Heyer — the 32-year-old woman fatally struck on Saturday by a driver identified as a white supremacist — as “justified.”

Later in the article Cantwell was quoted as saying that he wanted a president far more racist than Donald Trump, whose daughter Ivanka is married to a Jew, and that “a lot more people are going to die before we’re done here.” He went on to say,

This is part of the reason that we want an ethno-state. The blacks are killing each other in staggering numbers from coast to coast — we don’t really want a part of that anymore, and so the fact that they resist us when we say we want a homeland is not shocking to me. These people want violence, and the right is just meeting a market demand.

Cantwell’s statements are disgusting. They may even be construed as illegal and treasonous. The right to free speech and opinion must be protected. We cannot make being an idiot a crime. But actions can become crimes. Illegal marches and protests, inciting others to violence and destruction of public property are all crimes, not to mention actual violence, and they should be treated as such. Anyone who broke the law at the Charlottesville rally should be arrested and prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law. Anyone who broke the law by yanking down a Confederate statue Durham, North Carolina should also be arrested and prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law. One good thing about modern technology like ubiquitous cell phone cameras and social media networks is that someone is almost always filming this nonsense–usually the idiots themselves–and posting it for all the world to see. Arrests and convictions should be rather simple.

There are very few things that will truly unite Americans anymore. Politics will never do it. Sports won’t. Religion will not. But the uncompromising and determined opposition of racial hatred and violence should unite us all. There is simply no place for it in this country. We should be just as united against the idiocy of Charlottesville as we were at the attacks of 9/11. The 9/11 attacks were attacks against the United States of America, against what we are, what we stand for and what we believe. The Charlottesville rally was no less such an attack.

 

 

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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