Items filtered by date: February 2019

In reaction to remarks made by Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa), which questioned the offensiveness of white nationalism or white supremacy, the US House of Representatives overwhelmingly passed a resolution (424-1) on January 15, 2019, condemning that ideology. Specifically, the House “once again rejects White nationalism and White supremacy as hateful expressions of intolerance that are contradictory to the values that define the people of the United States.” Ironically, the only vote against it was by African-American representative from Illinois, Bobby Rush, who felt it didn’t go far enough by specifically censuring Steve King.

Then over this past weekend, a photo from the Virginia governor’s medical school yearbook page turned up with a “black face” next to a man in KKK gear. Nearly everyone, and especially fellow Democrats, are calling for him to resign. The NAACP president, Derrick Johnson, quipped, “When are we going to address it – the issue of intolerance and racism and not seek to sweep it under a rug that can never cover it up?"

"Addressing the issue" is the purpose of this blog post. This is Black History Month, but too, after a very thorough reviewer of my manuscript, Justice and Love: A Muslim-Christian Conversation, I felt compelled (his/her critique was spot on!) to rework parts of the book, including dedicating a whole chapter to the question of racial justice in the United States. So this is a good lead-in to that task.

Though much of this blog post is about Jim Wallis’s 2016 book, America’s Original Sin: Racism, White Privilege, and the Bridge to the New America, I want to begin with a key concept in John Dawson’s 1992 book, Healing America’s wounds. I end with my own experience this year at a Martin Luther King Jr. prayer service.

 

John Dawson’s “identificational repentance”

Dawson, a New Zealand missionary to Watts, Los Angeles since the early 1970s, wrote Healing America’s Wounds in the wake of the deadly Rodney King riots in 1992, which killed 59 people and caused billions of dollars in property damage. And this was all in their neighborhood.

I referred to Dawson’s book in both parts of my Fourth World post in December 2017 (see here and here), because of his useful recounting of all the broken promises made to the Native Americans. That is only half of the equation, however. Slavery, followed by Jim Crow and the sordid treatment of Blacks in so many areas of civic life – even after the Civil Rights Act – is the other half of that tragic equation. Dawson has much to say about that too.

I have no space here to recount Dawson’s persuasive arguments from the Old and New Testaments about covenants, curses and blessings, but allow me to highlight two of his points, which will then lead us into the Wallis book. First, each nation has a God-given personality, along with divine gifts it contributes to other nations, or even just ethno-linguistics groupings among humankind. He sees this wonderfully played out in the huge mission agency he belongs to – Youth With A Mission (YWAM). Dawson’s mother Joy Dawson was one of its earliest leaders (founded in 1960, it is very decentralized with 1,200 centers in 180 countries and with over 20,000 staff and volunteers; see its website and the wiki article on it). It’s from this vantage point that he could write back in 1992:

 

“Modern missionary enterprise is no longer a European/American activity; it is the Latinos, Asians and Africans who are mobilizing in great numbers. The churches of the nations, when combined, bring us a picture of God’s character and personality that cannot be accommodated in one language or represented adequately through one people” (34).

 

This certainly aligns with the picture at the end of the Bible that John paints of God’s people in the New Heavens and the New Earth. Rather than disembodied spirits, they are resurrected people. What is more, they seem to still belong to various “nations” and as such, they bring their gifts to impart blessing to the whole assembly of redeemed humanity:

 

“I saw no temple in the city, for the Lord God Almighty and the Lamb are its temple. And the city has no need of sun or moon, for the glory of God illuminates the city, and the Lamb is its light. The nations will walk in its light, and the kings of the world will enter the city in all their glory. Its gates will never be closed at the end of the day because there is no night there. And all the nations will bring their glory and honor into the city” (Revelation 21:22-26).

 

What does the United States have to contribute? Dawson begins to enumerate: “Breadth of vision, communication skill, hospitality, generosity, flexibility, openness; my list is long” (35). But as with other nations, it comes with “a tangled web of righteous and unrighteous roots.” From some of the early Puritan settlers it offers ideals of service (e.g., a refuge for the oppressed); from the European age of conquest, however, it has valued “unbridled liberty” and has been focused on “the pursuit of affluence, security and status” (36).

Now for the second point: by virtue of God’s creation of humanity in his own image and his empowering them to exercise dominion on earth which is accountable to Him, nations with power must exercise it with restraint and for the purpose of serving the weaker ones, and not oppressing them. So with regard to his native land, New Zealand, Dawson was part of a movement of “whites” who publicly repented and asked forgiveness of their fellow citizens from a Maori (indigenous people) background. He relates how one such large gathering went on for two days with much weeping, prayer, embracing, and healing. This is what he calls “identificational repentance”. Members of the offending group identify with the past sins of their people, publicly repent and ask forgiveness of members from the aggrieved group. In his words,

 

“Unless somebody identifies themselves with corporate entities, such as the nation of our citizenship, or the subculture of our ancestors, the act of honest confession will never take place. This leaves us in a world of injury and offense in which no corporate sin is ever acknowledged, reconciliation never begins and old hatreds deepen” (30).

 

Jim Wallis’s America’s Original Sin

At the heart of this book is the plea to Euro-Americans (“white,” he demonstrates, was a sociopolitical construct designed to justify the enslavement of Africans) to listen to the stories of their African-American fellow citizens. Really listen. They have to let the reality of “the talk” that each of them has to give to their children sink in. That is when black parents sit their kids down and tell them how they must behave with the police:

 

“‘Keep your hands open and out in front of you, don’t make any sudden movements, shut your mouth, be respectful, say ‘sir,’” as my friend and regular cab driver, Chester Spencer, said he told his son. ‘The talk,’ is about what to do and say (and what not to do and say) when you find yourself in the presence of a police officer with a gun.

White parents don’t have to have this talk with their kids. That’s a radical difference between the experience of black and white parents in America. Why do we continue to accept that?”

 

When these kinds of issues are brought up, most of us white folk will react defensively, saying something like, “I’m not a racist!” And we mean it. But there are two problems with this answer. The first is that racism (among white Americans, but in general as well) is part of the culture we grow up with. It is taught and even if we resist it overtly, we still carry it implicitly. Jim Wallis remembers as a child loving the musical South Pacific based on the book by James Michener. But this was also his first exposure to the idea of racism, as the story about mixed-race love affairs unfolds. This is laid out most graphically in the song, “You’ve Got to Be Carefully Taught.” Here are some of the lyrics:

 

“You’ve got to be taught to be afraid / of people whose eyes are oddly made,

and people whose skin is a different shade, / you’ve got to be taught …

You’ve got to be taught before it’s too late, / before you are six or seven or eight,

to hate all the people your relatives hate, / you’ve got to be carefully taught!” (82-83)

 

Much research has now been done on implicit bias. You can even take a short test online called the Implicit Association Test, developed by several American universities (here is one example). Cheryl Staats of the Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity at Ohio State University explains,

 

“Implicit bias refers to the attitudes or stereotypes that affect our understanding, actions, and decisions in an unconscious manner. These biases, which encompass both favorable and unfavorable assessments, are activated involuntarily and without an individual’s awareness or intentional control. . . . Residing deep in the subconscious, these biases are different from known biases that individuals may choose to conceal for the purpose of social and/or political correctness. Rather, implicit biases are not accessible through introspection” (84).

 

This is a frightening fact. As Staats explains, “implicit biases are robust and pervasive. . . . Everyone is susceptible to them, even people who believe themselves to be impartial or objective, such as judges” (85). The other scary consequence is that “most Americans, regardless of race, display a pro-White/anti-Black bias on the Implicit Association Test.”

This is especially alarming, because implicit bias can “explode into explicit behavior.” Staats reports the findings of a study using a video game that simulates situations faced by police officers. Participants were told to shoot armed individuals who appeared on the screen but not those holding innocuous objects like wallets or cameras. The game was set up in such a way that these decisions had to be made in a split second. As a result, researchers found that “participants tended to ‘shoot’ armed targets more quickly when they were African American as opposed to White, and when participants refrained from ‘shooting’ an armed target, these characters in the simulation tended to be White rather than African American.” Staats concludes, “Research such as this highlights how implicit biases can influence decisions that have life and death consequences” (86).

There is good news, however: these biases need not be permanent. They can be unlearned over time. At both institutions where I teach – St. Joseph’s University in Philadelphia and Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, CA – there have been ugly racial incidents this past year that have forced them to take some drastic measures. Part of those has to do with specialized training in diversity awareness.

The second reason for dismissing a defensive statement by a white person who says, “I’m not racist” is that this is not just an individual matter. As Wallis puts it, “These issues are historical and structural and have to do with how our racial groupings as human beings have been deliberately manipulated for social and economic purposes” (82). Particularly as Christians, we need to “die to our whiteness.” Part of that is recognizing the reality of white privilege. As a white American, I have benefited from several centuries of “affirmative action” that has oppressed Black Americans and granted untold advantages to Whites.

My own father served in WWII and like 7.8 million other veterans until 1956, the GI Bill paid for his college education. Though my parents moved to France in 1953 that same GI Bill would have given them a generous interest-free loan to buy a house. By contrast, African Americans benefited very little from these statutes. Historical research demonstrates that congressional leaders in the North and South ensured that these programs were carried out by local officials and not the federal government. “As a result, thousands of black veterans in the South – and the North as well – were denied housing and business loans, as well as admission to whites-only colleges and universities” (89).

Add this and many other policies over time and you realize that it is not by chance that “there are more African-American adults under correctional control today – in prison or jail, on probation or parole – than were enslaved in 1850, a decade before the Civil War began” (156). The well-known civil rights lawyer Michelle Alexander, in an article published in Sojourners in 2014 (“How to Dismantle the ‘New Jim Crow”), writes how the war on drugs was used like a club to beat down communities of color who were already mired in poverty: “where the War on Poverty has been abandoned and factory jobs have disappeared, … the drug war has been waged with ferocity.” She goes on to explain:

 

“SWAT teams are deployed here; buy-bust operations are concentrated here; drug raids of schools and housing projects occur here; stop-and-frisk operations are conducted on these streets. If such tactics were employed in middle-class white neighborhoods or on college campuses, there would be public outrage; the war would end overnight. But here in the ghetto, the stops, searches, sweeps, and mass arrests are treated as an accepted fact of life, like the separate water fountains of an earlier era” (160; for more on the poverty gap between African Americans and the rest, see my post on economic justice).

 

There is so much more in this book, especially a host of practical ideas for changing public policy and for Christians to work together across racial barriers to “build a bridge to a new America.” You will have to read it for yourself. Yet I do want to end this post with a brief story of what happened to me a few weeks ago as I was grappling with this material.

 

The interchurch MLK prayer service

Our church was one of a dozen or more in our area that came together a couple of years ago and after several discussions the consensus was that racial reconciliation was the most urgent task we could work on together. Sometimes these local committees of activists are slow to translate ideas into action and this prayer service scheduled for the Saturday before the Martin Luther King Monday holiday was too last-minute to bring much of a crowd.

But I was able to bring a close family friend from the Central African Republic. After five years of legal limbo he and his wife finally obtained political asylum refugee status. Since this special service was being held at an African Methodist Episcopal church (AME), I thought this would be a good experience for him.

Though the program was nicely divided between leaders of various churches, the African-American clergy appropriately was more involved, partly because the pastor of that AME church (a woman) truly played the role of host, and partly because the music was all done by another African-American pastor at the piano and his wife on electric guitar.

I noticed in the printed program this rubric, “Time of Testimony: open for all to participate.” I thought, “I need to stand up and say something.” Four of us shared in the end, all white. I was the second.

Though I spoke for less than five minutes, I managed to list a number of recent signs of overt discrimination against African Americans, including the numerous killings of unarmed black youth by police, the dreadful white nationalist 2017 march in Charlottesville, and the rise in hate crimes done against Jews and Muslims as well. I quickly mentioned that one of the night aides for my aging mother-in-law was an African American lady from Chester, PA (a majority black population, notorious for its poverty and violence). She and another aide have truly become part of our family, and we deeply felt her pain when her 20-year-old son was shot and killed in the street late one night. As for so many others, the police never found out who murdered him. I added that his was just a symptom of the shameful and tangled history of oppression of the slaves’ descendants and other people of color in this country.

I ended with something to this effect: “I am a white guy and I’m particularly aware of having benefited from the ideology and institution of white privilege in America. I want to state this clearly. Inasmuch as I am a white American, I want to ask my black bothers and sisters here to forgive me and to forgive us as a people. We need healing as a nation.” By then the words were coming out with difficulty, as tears were coming down my cheeks. But I felt strongly that the Spirit was telling me what to say, however difficult it was.

The host pastor came and gave me a hug, as did the couple playing the music. One of the church’s leaders, also an African American woman stood then and spoke to me, “No one should have to apologize for who they are,” and a few more sentences along those lines. Later in the basement meeting hall where we shared a lunch, I was able to talk with this lady and explain the idea of identificational repentance. This time we connected, and she seemed grateful, and hopeful as well.

Someone mentioned on the podium earlier that my own church’s representative had seen a vision (perhaps a prophetic word) of the stadium in Chester, home of the Philadelphia Union, full with Christians from diverse backgrounds gathering to celebrate the beginning of a divine work of racial reconciliation. May it be so!