Reader Reaction: Race, white innocence, and Michael Eric Dyson

A libertarian friend writes:

I’m not buying your piece on race fully. What is a sufficient apology for those things you have no role in or control over? When you make a mistake, yes, own it. But what about those who have not made mistakes, and there are many, despite what you may think.

IOW, I don’t believe in collective guilt.

I responded:

We’ve talked about this before, and I’m not sure what to tell you: I think this remains a sharp philosophical difference between us.

I think there ought to be room for the libertarian ideal and acknowledgement this country doesn’t fully live it out. “Collective guilt” doesn’t strike me as precisely the right term, but it seems undeniable to me that A) this country has long benefitted white people at the expense of black people and b) even if you think those days are over, the legacy and ramifications live with us still.

For one example: There’s a profound disparity in wealth between whites and blacks — one magnified by the great recession. Why? Well, a good chunk of that is housing policy: Black neighborhoods were redlined, white neighborhoods weren’t, so the government ensured white people were able to buy homes, create equity and wealth, and build a buffer for themselves that they handed down to their children.

I’ve benefitted from that, as a legacy from parents who were able to help me through tough times. I bet you have benefitted from that, too. Does that make you “guilty” of something? Tough word. You’re probably heir to the picking of winners and losers, though, and you got the bright side of the deal.

Maybe you don’t agree with that, but it seems to me largely in keeping with a libertarian critique, one that doesn’t necessarily damage your overall outlook. “Government picking of winners and losers sucks” isn’t just a theory. We have evidence!

My friend adds:

What gets me is that, reading Dyson and Coates makes me want to ask: What about the adult kids of the Hungarian refugee who came to this country in the 1950s? How are they tainted with the sin of slavery? There’s very little acknowledgement of this in what I read of their work, and granted, I’m not that enthralled by it anyway.

It’s hard for me not to shrug a bit at this, on the one hand: Adult kids of Cold War refugees are probably a very small slice of the American community. The fact that they might be an exception to the general thrust of American history makes them exactly that: An exception.

In a less-shruggy vein, though, I do ask: Are our Hypothetical Hungarian Immigrants as likely as an African-American to be shot in a traffic stop? To be stopped-and-frisked? To be arrested for smoking a joint? White privilege isn’t just the accumulation of perks, after all: It’s also a free pass from the disadvantages that black folks are often subject to. That’s probably true even if you just got off the boat.

UPDATE:

I don’t want to misrepresent my friend, who points out I omitted his comments that touch on some agreement between us. My apologies to him. Here’s part of what he additionally wrote:

Do the education, criminal-justice, and employment/housing systems treat “whites” and “others” differently? Sadly, yes, in fact if not in law. I would argue that the legal situation (as in statutes on the books) is much better than it was not so long ago. But people ultimately implement those laws, and far too often, they continue to demonstrate bigotry.
What to do about it?
IMO, blaming whitey for being whitey gets us nowhere. It may assuage some of the guilt of some people and will assuredly inflame the hostilities of others. Reviewing situations, case-by-case, and discussing responses that address the specific problem could ease some of the tensions, name-calling. And accomplish something. Maybe?
There’s a whole discussion here to be had about systemic evils versus individual trespasses. I don’t think it’s one or the other — though I agree with my friend that discussing the systemic problem does inflame hostilities. More later.

Race and “the velocity of history”

Rebecca:

I hope you don’t mind if I take a small detour from questions of Christianity and politics to talk for a few moments about race.

This should be easy, eh?

As it happens, I’m currently reading “Tears We Cannot Stop: A Sermon to White America” by Michael Eric Dyson. It feels like a companion text to Ta-Nehisi Coates’ much-lauded “Between the World and Me,” except that earlier book — ultimately — was a conversation among black folks about being black folks, one that whites might get a chance to listen in on. Dyson’s book, as the subtitle suggests, is aimed squarely at us whites, a relentlessly hectoring “What the HELL are you going to do about this injustice!?!?” tome born of anger and love and faith.

Anyway, here’s a passage I read tonight and I want to share it with you.

“Even when individual black people confront individual white people, even when we love one another, white innocence still clouds our relationships. We are two historical forces meeting, and the velocity of that history is so strong that it can break the bonds of individual love.”

I’d like to talk about the “velocity of history” a bit.

Back when I was working in Philly, I played a part in committing what I can only characterize as a “racial error.” (That’s too cloying; put it more clearly: I fucked up.) I helped arrange a magazine cover featuring students at a local elementary school — and neglected to make sure any black students were in the picture.

The response was angry and loud. And I was … well, I was a lot of things. I had written within recent months about “white privilege,” but even my familiarity with the concept wasn’t enough to make me aware enough of my own blind spots.

Goddammit.

I learned a lot of lessons from the affair, all of them painful. But one of the chief among them was this: When you commit a racial fuckup, that racial fuckup doesn’t exist in isolation. It bears the weight of every racial fuckup, microaggression, injustice and moral outrage that has accumulated in this country since, oh, 1620. (In the case of my particular error, it also bore the weight of my publication’s own history of getting race wrong.) It has its own mass and gravity, and once you’ve entered its orbit — well, prepare yourself.

Even writing about it a couple of years later is scary, because I’m afraid that somebody will read these words and think to themselves I think the moral of my story is: “Oh, poor white me.” That’s not the moral here. I fucked up. People were hurt by it, by my choices. I don’t get to un-own it or make it better by going on the defensive. Let me be clear on that point.

I became somewhat more sympathetic to conservatives who get angry, though, when you bring up race. They’re not the ones who perpetuated slavery or Jim Crow, after all, and they don’t like being implicated in our Great National Sin — they refuse to accept the burden.

But my sympathy — for them, for myself — doesn’t extend that far, and here’s why: White people are able to refuse to accept that burden. Black folks? Not so much. We see it in the vast wealth disparity between whites and blacks. We see it when the “Black Lives Matter” slogan is treated as evidence of racism instead of a pushback against racism. We see it when police apply methods to minority neighborhoods that whites would never allow for themselves. We see it when mainstream conservatives eagerly consume “scientific” proof for white superiority. While we who are white try desperately to unburden themselves,  and often believe we have succeeded, the truth is that for many minorities in America, the past isn’t dead. It isn’t even past.

“White fragility is a will to innocence that serves to bury the violence it sits on top of,” Dyson writes. I can’t deny it. I don’t even really know what to do with it, except to acknowledge it, to keep acknowledging it, to try and be better than that — and know, from the clear evidence, that sometimes I am not.

I talk about the weight of history. Dyson talks about velocity. You know what mass times velocity is, don’t you?

Momentum.

— Joel

What can non-Christians tell Christians like Erick Erickson about Christianity?

President Trump’s budget came out Thursday, with big increases to military spending and big cuts to pretty much all other discretionary spending. Lots of people raised a big stink, to which conservative Erick Erickson responded:

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So. Can Christians learn anything about Christianity from non-Christians?

I’d like to think so. Certainly, we can read the Bible as well as any Christian can, and if we who are atheist or agnostic or Jewish or Muslim can read those words, look at how Christians behave, and draw some conclusions about the sincerity or authenticity of that faith.

We can read, for example, Mathew 25:

34 “Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. 35 For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, 36 I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’

37 “Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? 38 When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? 39 When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’

40 “The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’

…and expect Christians to act accordingly.

Don’t get me wrong: There’s still plenty to argue about, I guess, regarding the “how” we feed the hungry and clothe the naked. Does that have to be a government program?

But understand: American Christians bring their religiously based moral understandings to bear on a whole bunch of government policy — especially as regards reproductive rights, but also a whole bunch of other stuff. If they want to hold society to their standards, it’s only fair that the rest of us try to hold them to their standards too, no?

Rod Dreher takes his ball and goes home

Rebecca:

I’d like to talk a bit about Rod Dreher.

Do you know of him? He’s now a writer at The American Conservative, but I’ve been following his career for years — back when he was a Catholic pursuing the Catholic abuse story at a time when doing so was still a difficult thing to do (his angst was so great that he converted to the Eastern Orthodox church) and back when he was one of the first conservatives to break with the movement over the Iraq War. I’m not sure why, but I’ve always had an affinity for conservatives willing to stand apart from movement orthodoxy, and he fits the bill.

But it’s complicated.

I love Rod Dreher. I hate Rod Dreher. He’s essential reading. I sometimes have to turn off his RSS feed for weeks or months. He’s incredibly thoughtful. He’s a kneejerk reactionary. He’s terrified of the influence that gays will have on American society. He’s really good friends with Andrew Sullivan — who kind of helped kickstart the gay marriage movement decades ago. He’s profoundly human, but I wish he could be a bit more humane and less purely contemptuous of people who think differently than he does. I think there’s stuff we have to learn from him, and for God’s sake sometimes I wish he’d just shut the hell up.

There aren’t many writers who produce this kind of reaction with me, but there you go.

I mention him because he’s got a new book out, “The Benedict Option,” that’s probably worth our notice. I haven’t read it yet, but I’ve read his blog over the years as he developed the ideas in the book, so I think I can fairly sum up the core idea.

  • American Christians no longer dominate American society like they used to — see the rise, and widespread acceptance of, gay marriage.
  • As a result, the religious liberty of American Christians is threatened — one small example being the whole wedding cakes issue — which, in turn, threatens their ability to freely live out their religious beliefs, which in turn threatens the survival of authentic faith in America.
  • So it’s time to start limiting participation in the broader culture, to cloister up into small Christian communities that limit interaction with and influence from the outside world, in order to be able to continue to live authentically Christian lives.  

Damon Linker distills Dreher down to this:

This means, specifically, that Christians need to turn inward, steeling themselves against the pernicious moral influences swirling around them by adopting a “rule for living” that turns their faith into the orienting focal point of their lives. Roughly half of Dreher’s book offers practical suggestions for how to live out this vision of deep piety amidst the ruins of Christian civilization: Attempt to live in proximity to like-minded Christians; pull children out of aggressively secular public schools; recover liturgical worship; tighten church discipline; devote family time to studying scripture; place strict limits on digital technology in the home; and so on. Only when a comprehensive form of Christian living has been recovered and instantiated in concrete communities will believers be equipped to begin the daunting task of attempting to win back the wider culture from the forces of secular nihilism.

And here’s Dreher giving his elevator pitch during an interview:

It is withdrawal for the sake of renewal. My book is heavily influenced by a 2004 essay in First Things written by the early-church historian Robert Louis Wilken. He said we in the West were losing our cultural memory of Christianity. Because of this, he said, there is nothing more important for Christians today than the church telling itself its own story, and nurturing its inner life. His point is not that we shouldn’t evangelize, but that we are forgetting what Christianity means. We cannot give the world what we do not have. Therefore, we have to withdraw in meaningful ways for the sake of contemplation and formation — this, so we can truly bring the light of Christ to the world.

And here’s one more good summary of the arguments involved. Also, Dreher’s Christianity Today cover story

Given that this is Dreher, I’m of two minds how to react.

I kicked off our conversation by asking, essentially, if Christianity was essentially a tribal exercise or a spiritual undertaking. Dreher’s answer to this seems to be: “Yes.” By which I mean: It seems that Christianity is for societal ordering, until it’s no longer in that position, after which it’s time to turn inward and focus on our souls.

Dreher, to be fair, would probably contest that characterization, and counter with the the idea that America being ordered along Christian lines has given individuals the room they need to focus on their souls — and that the shifts in society require an intentionality on the soul-cultivation front that maybe wasn’t quite as pressing.

Either way, here’s what’s frustrating: Society is no longer ordered to Dreher’s liking. So he’s taking his ball and going home. My instinct isn’t to like this.

On the other hand, there’s scriptural and traditional basis for Christians walking away from situations they consider unwelcoming. Here’s Matthew 10:

11Whatever town or village you enter, find out who is worthy and stay at his house until you move on. 12As you enter the house, greet its occupants. 13If the home is worthy, let your peace rest on it; if it is not, let your peace return to you. 14And if anyone will not welcome you or heed your words, shake the dust off your feet when you leave that home or town. 15Truly I tell you, it will be more bearable for Sodom and Gomorrah on the day of judgment than for that town.

And what’s more: You and I are heir to and participants in the Mennonite tradition — a tradition that includes a lot of fleeing and cloistering. The Mennonites I grew up with in Central Kansas told their story as such: They started out in Germany, fled from there to Russia when they could no longer freely practice their pacifism, then from Russia to America when they could no longer freely practice their pacifism there. The older Mennonites where I grew up spoke a  “low German” dialect that signified some of this history. (They were still using it in worship services well into the 1950s.) Maybe I’m not in a good position to critique Dreher’s own sensibilities here.

So maybe my problem here with Dreher is that he sees gay liberation as a zero-sum game: If they get full rights, then conservative Christians will end up oppressed. I don’t like that idea very much at all.

Still waiting for my copy of the book, which may provoke more discussion yet.

— Joel

On foolishness

Rebecca:

This concluding sentence from you blew me away:

“We have no models of Jesus scolding anyone for being too generous in their sacrifice, their love, or their hospitality—and plenty of models of grand and often dangerous gestures of generosity.”

Well said. Quite right! A mission statement, even!

And it was that particular turn of phrase — “often dangerous gestures” — that turned my mind to a bit of Scripture. Let’s pick up the words of Paul in 1 Corinthians:

“Where is the wise man? Where is the scribe? Where is the philosopher of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since in the wisdom of God, the world through its wisdom did not know Him, God was pleased through the foolishness of what was preached to save those who believe.”

These verses don’t get talked a lot about in public these days, yet I suspect they do incredible damage to our discourse and politics.

See, I read Paul’s words as suggesting that the path of God can be counterintuitive — requiring your “often dangerous gestures” of generosity. But I think many Christians have interpreted this passage as … allowing them to embrace real, actual foolishness.

I’m thinking here of conservative attitudes on climate change. While it’s true that there’s a subset who take a faith-based foundation to defending the environment, the sad truth is that many American Christians (evangelicals, at least) have decided to accept Republican teaching on the matter, which amounts to: “Ignore all that science and scientists who tell you that human-made climate change is real and poses risks. It isn’t and doesn’t.” Why do American Christians buy into this? Well, many of them regard environmentalists as (literally) idolatrous nature lovers; some are just binding themselves to GOP tribalism — and a few figure the End Times are just around the corner, so screw it.

But: The Republican teaching is … foolish. There are lots of people — lots and lots of scientists — who say so. And I suspect this makes some conservative Christians cleave ever more closely to these ideas, because the “wise men” of the age are calling them foolish. That’s proof that they’ve taken the right position!

That’s obviously self-reinforcing. I’m not sure how one argues against that kind of logic. And it’s a logic that gets applied to all kinds of issues.

So. How to decide what’s really foolish? And what’s wisely foolish? How do we not end up chasing our tails on this whole damn thing?

Oh dear. I think I just went full Obi-Wan:


Rebecca, you offered a pretty good measuring stick the other day when you wrote this: “We can actually measure who Christianity is for by looking at who benefits from American Christianity. And that answer is pretty clear:  the same people who have always had power. American Christianity protects the status quo.”

I suspect that asking that question would help clarify the effort to distinguish real foolishness from God’s (wise) foolishness, assuming one isn’t trying to get to a predetermined conclusion.

Wait. How does this relate back to your “often dangerous gestures” comment?

Only this: I’m not so sure it’s God’s foolishness to believe and act the way that oil companies, as well as the politicians and think tanks they buy, want you to. If a senator says exactly what you believe on C-SPAN, there’s probably not much divinely counterintuitive going on.

I don’t think God’s foolishness requires believers to ignore mounds of evidence in favor of a proposition — that makes God a trickster, and every day a sort of “Opposite Day.” Instead, I think God’s foolishness requires one to consider and discard conventional wisdom, and that is much, much more difficult than merely taking the side of everybody else in your political party.

I think living God’s foolishness is legitimately, terrifyingly difficult.

Giving your coat when asked for it. That’s hard. Turning the other cheek when you’ve already been struck. That’s hard. Loving your enemies and praying for those who persecute you. That’s damn near impossible. Acting in God’s foolishness often requires putting something on the line — your life, maybe, or your reputation.

It requires “often dangerous gestures” of generosity.

— Joel

P.S. We’ve started off with some heavy questions and thinking, haven’t we? I promise, Rebecca, that we’ll do some lighter stuff. I want to talk about books and movies with you. And I want to elicit some thoughts from you, in the near future, about how to raise “aware” kids. We’ve got a lot of time and ground to cover. We’ll get to it all eventually!

What Is Christianity, anyway? (Russell Moore edition)

Rebecca:

Here’s something I’ve been thinking about a lot lately, and I suspect it’s a topic you can shed some light on: What is Christianity, anyway?

Let me get more specific. Is it just a means of encountering God — the “just” does a lot of work there — and being transformed, even redeemed, by our encounter with the divine? Or is it just another tribe that we who are Christian (or post-Christian) belong to, an identity that marks us externally instead of internally (or eternally)? Is it political or apolitical?

Or maybe all of it? Or none of it?

I regularly come up with reasons for wanting to delve into this. My own sense is that American Christianity is largely more tribalistic than spiritual. Which — though I’m quasi-agnostic these days — makes me feel less than charitable towards a lot of people who call themselves Christian.

Here’s my latest example:

Concern is mounting among evangelicals that Russell Moore, president of the Southern Baptist Convention’s policy arm, could lose his job following months of backlash over his critiques of President Trump and religious leaders who publicly supported the Republican candidate. Any such move could be explosive for the nation’s largest Protestant denomination, which has been divided over politics, theology and, perhaps most starkly, race.

More than 100 of the denomination’s 46,000 churches have threatened to cut off financial support for the SBC’s umbrella fund, according to Frank Page, president of the executive committee. The committee is studying whether the churches are acting out of displeasure with Moore because it has received more threats to funding over him than over any other “personality issue” in recent memory, said Page, who will meet with Moore today.

Now: I’m not Southern Baptist. Russell Moore’s theology is not my own. But he’s struck me as a sincere, thoughtful guy walking in his faith — in a very public way — as best he knows how.

Let’s back up here. What did Moore say that was so controversial anyway?

Well, this for example:

We should not demand to see the long-form certificate for Mr. Trump’s second birth. We should, though, ask about his personal character and fitness for office. His personal morality is clear, not because of tabloid exposés but because of his own boasts. His attitude toward women is that of a Bronze Age warlord. He tells us in one of his books that he revels in the fact that he gets to sleep with some of the “top women in the world.” He has divorced two wives (so far) for other women.

This should not be surprising to social conservatives in a culture shaped by pornographic understandings of the meaning of love and sex. What is surprising is that some self-identified evangelicals are telling pollsters they’re for Mr. Trump. Worse, some social conservative leaders are praising Mr. Trump for “telling it like it is.”

So Southern Baptists are angry at Moore … for a critique of Trump based on the longstanding Southern Baptist understanding of sexuality?

Now, Rebecca: I’m pretty sure the Southern Baptist sexual ethic isn’t mine, and I’m pretty sure it isn’t yours either. But it also seems pretty foundational to the Southern Baptist identity. Did I miss something?

I dunno. It bothers me when churches seem to so easily dispense with their message when earthly politics are on the line. If Russell Moore is forced from his job, it seems to me the Southern Baptist witness will be rooted in Trumpism rather than any particular understanding of the Christian faith or message. And I suspect that Trumpism, for all its faults, isn’t really rooted in the kind of eternal outlook you’d expect of a religion.

I’m still trying to make my thoughts cohere on this. I’m not Southern Baptist, but I’m offended at what I see as a wound to Southern Baptist integrity. Does that make sense? Am I weird?

And what the heck is Christianity supposed to be for, anyway?

— Joel

Resist the Internet? Not quite.

Without the Internet, I imagine I would’ve ended up with a nice, long career writing and editing for newspapers in small Kansas towns. This was the career track I was on, early in the Digital Era, before the Internet’s rise finally started to displace everything in its path. This would’ve been good.

Because of the Internet, I write regularly today for national outlets like Macworld and Vice.com — and because of the Internet, I got to leave my Kansas roots for awhile and live nearly a decade on the East Coast. It’s an experience I wouldn’t trade for anything — and it has also been good, but in a very different way.

The Internet opens the world to me. The Internet floods me with too much information. The Internet forces me to be in contact with people from my past whom I’d sometimes like to shed. The Internet lets those people offer me support when times are rough. The Internet is too much for our minds and not enough for our souls.

In other words, the Internet is like any other human creation: It can be used for good. Or it can be abused to our detriment.

This may seem obvious, but it’s also worth asserting from time to time. There are lots of smart, bookish people who sometimes seem to regard the Internet as a malevolent force even as they surrender to its warm embrace. Take Ross Douthat’s column today, entitled “Resist the Internet”: Continue reading “Resist the Internet? Not quite.”