Posts tagged ‘Racism’

The Strategy of Love

Credit:  New York Times via The Associated Press

Credit: New York Times via The Associated Press

It was a day law enforcement officials were dreading. On the same day, during the same hours, two groups whose worldviews could not be farther apart planned to hold rallies for their respective causes on the same grounds – the grounds of the South Carolina State Capitol. One group, Black Educators for Justice, which has ties to the Black Panthers, held signs that said “Black Lives Matter” and chanted “black power.” The other group, the Loyal White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, waved Confederate flags while chanting “white power.”

This has not been a good season for race relations in America. The latest round of racial tension began with a horrific racially motivated shooting at a Charleston church. This sparked a debate over displaying the Confederate flag at the South Carolina State House that became so fierce that a black man named Anthony Hervey who often dressed in Confederate regalia and waved the state flag of Mississippi, which contains the Confederate flag in its design, in an attempt to honor African-Americans who served with the Confederacy during the Civil War was allegedly run off the road by another vehicle full of people angry at his demonstrations. Then there was 43-year-old James Dubose, a black man, who was shot and killed by a white University of Cincinnati police officer after being pulled over for not having a front license plate on his vehicle. The officer is charged with murder. Although authorities do not yet know precisely what precipitated this shooting, the episode has certainly exacerbated race relations in that community.

Now, there are these dueling rallies between two self-identified racially distinctive groups at the State House in South Carolina. The New York Times reports that though there were some scuffles between the groups and some demonstrators were arrested, because the groups were on opposite ends of the State House and their contact with each other was minimal, thankfully, no major fights erupted.

Perhaps the point of contact that was most noteworthy in these demonstrations was not a point of contention between these two groups with each other, but a point of grace that an officer had with a Klan member.

Officer Leroy Smith is the Director of the South Carolina Department of Public Safety. He was at the State House the day of the demonstrations, working crowd control. In the midst of his duties, he spotted an elderly man who was part of the Klan rally, donning a t-shirt emblazoned with a swastika, who looked sickly and weak as he protested in the hot South Carolina sun. What did Officer Smith do?   He took him by the arm and led him up the steps of the State Capitol into the air-conditioned building.

Did I mention Officer Smith was black?

Just days before, Officer Smith had watched as state troopers lowered the Confederate flag from its perch atop the capitol grounds for the final time. The symbolism of the moment sent chills up his spine. But lowering a flag that is widely associated with racial tension cannot kill hatred. It cannot kill suspicion. It cannot kill resentment. It cannot kill self-absorption. Indeed, all of these things were on display the day of the demonstrations. But then one man decided to show love.

The Klan did not volunteer the name of the man Officer Smith helped up the steps of the State House. But it doesn’t really matter. What matters is that this one scene – this one act – is what will be remembered out of an otherwise frightful day in Charleston. This one scene – this one act – is what wound up overshadowing all the expressions of dismay, distrust, and disunity.

Jesus said, “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (Matthew 5:43-44). When we read these words, we can be tempted to relegate them to the realm of nice sentiment rather than practical reality. Enemies, our street smarts tell us, need to be defeated, not loved. But then one man decided to love someone who, by all accounts, was his enemy. And his love devastated the divisive strategies of literally thousands of protesters. Jesus’ strategy of love, it turns out, made a much stronger impression than any human strategy of malcontent.

What will be remembered the most from that day in Charleston is the love of an officer for a man who, morally, holds repugnant views. As Christians, what will be remembered of us? Will we be remembered for loving those who others – and, if we’re honest, we ourselves – would find it far easier to hate? If our lives are marked by anything other than Jesus’ strategy of love, it’s time to change our strategies.  After all, Jesus’ strategy is better. And His strategy really does work. In fact, more than that, His strategy really can transform prejudices and people.  Just ask Officer Smith.

August 3, 2015 at 5:15 am Leave a comment

On Confederate Flags and Moral Clarity

South Carolina CapitolOn the heels of a terrible tragedy has come a robust debate. When 21-year-old Dylann Roof walked into Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in downtown Charleston for a Wednesday evening Bible study, 50 minutes later, he had shot eight people dead with a ninth victim who died later at the hospital. His stated reason for the rampage was horrifyingly racist. “You rape our women and you’re taking over our country,” he said to the African-American churchgoers, “and you have to go.”

As our nation has been processing its grief, it’s also been engaging in a debate over an old symbol connected to racism and slavery: the Confederate flag – specifically, the one that flies at the South Carolina State Capitol. In one way, I am still trying to wrap my head around how this debate was sparked by this tragedy. Although I would heartily agree that racism and slavery, in all their forms, are egregious, it seems that a debate over how to keep a firearm out of the hands of a man like Roof would be much more directly related to the tragedy at hand. In one way, I can’t help but wonder if we needed to find something over which to be morally outraged as a catharsis for our deep shock and grief. My psychologizing notwithstanding, this is still an interesting debate.

Sadly, as with so many of our debates, this one has quickly degenerated into cheap attacks. Take, for instance, this tweet from Vox’s David Roberts: “The American South has always been the most barbaric, backward region in any developed democracy. Can we admit that now?” Somehow, Roberts managed to connect a racist lunatic with a gun and a Civil War era symbol to a whole region of our country and its prevailing cultural sensibilities. Thankfully, CNN ran a much more nuanced piece on the history of the Confederate flag, which, it turns out, is not the Confederate flag at all, but the battle flag of General Robert E. Lee’s army unit. David Brooks of The New York Times provided us with a thoughtful biographical analysis of General Lee – both the good and the ugly.

I, for one, though I certainly see and would uphold the value in preserving the history of the Confederate flag, am not quite sure why this particular flag needs to fly outside the South Carolina State Capitol, especially when it is a reminder of terrible pain and division to so many. Preserving history is more the job of museums than it is of flagpoles outside capitol buildings.

But there is more here than just a debate over a flag. For out of this debate, a broader trend has once again emerged that deeply troubles me. Our cultural conversations have become so anemic and, in many instances, so vile that they are often of little to no value. Politically, sociologically, and morally, we have divided ourselves into traditional and progressive camps, loathe to admit that there is any worth, insight, or righteousness on the side to which we are opposed.

I happen to come from the generally progressive Pacific Northwest while finding myself much more at ease now living in the generally traditional state of Texas. This does not mean, however, that progressivism has nothing to teach me. I think of Senator Robert F. Kennedy’s speech at the University of Kansas in 1968:

Our Gross National Product, now, is over $800 billion dollars a year.  But that Gross National Product – if we judge the United States of America by that – that Gross National Product counts air pollution and cigarette advertising, and ambulances to clear our highways of carnage.  It counts special locks for our doors and the jails for the people who break them.  It counts the destruction of the redwood and the loss of our natural wonder in chaotic sprawl.  It counts napalm and counts nuclear warheads and armored cars for the police to fight the riots in our cities.  It counts Whitman’s rifle and Speck’s knife, and the television programs which glorify violence in order to sell toys to our children.  Yet the Gross National Product does not allow for the health of our children, the quality of their education, or the joy of their play.  It does not include the beauty of our poetry or the strength of our marriages, the intelligence of our public debate or the integrity of our public officials.  It measures neither our wit nor our courage, neither our wisdom nor our learning, neither our compassion nor our devotion to our country. It measures everything, in short, except that which makes life worthwhile.

Senator Kennedy may have been progressive, but it is hard to find sharper moral clarity than his. Traditionalists need to listen. Likewise, in what may come as a surprise to David Roberts, traditional culture – even when it’s from the South – has a lot that is good and outright charming. Chivalry, Southern manners, and a biblically informed, even if imperfectly so, moral compass are important to the thriving and future of any civilized society. Progressivism needs to take note.

As Christians, no matter what our general cultural sensibilities may be, we will always find ourselves as strangers in the midst of raging culture wars. After all, our first loyalty is not to the sensibilities or hobbyhorses of any particular culture, but to the truth of the Word of God. And God’s Word has a funny way of challenging every culture and every sinner.

Let’s remember that when we fight over flags – or over anything else, for that matter.

June 29, 2015 at 5:15 am 4 comments

Charleston

A view ofthe Emanuel AME Church is seen June 18, 2015 in Charleston, South Carolina, after a mass shooting at the church on the evening of June 17, 2015.  US police on Thursday arrested a 21-year-old white gunman suspected of killing nine people at a prayer meeting in one of the nation's oldest black churches in Charleston, an attack being probed as a hate crime. The shooting at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in the southeastern US city was one of the worst attacks on a place of worship in the country in recent years, and comes at a time of lingering racial tensions. AFP PHOTO/BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI        (Photo credit should read BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/Getty Images)

Credit: Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images

There have been plenty of tears in Charleston these past few days. When 21-year old Dylann Roof first walked into the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, he appeared as though he came to join the congregation in its Wednesday evening Bible study. But after nearly an hour, he opened fire, killing nine people, including the church’s pastor, the Reverend Clementa Pinckney. According to reports, he announced as he stood up and drew his gun that he was there “to shoot black people.” Survivors said Roof also told the congregation, “You rape our women and you’re taking over our country. And you have to go.”

I wish I could attribute what happened in Charleston to the simple fact that Roof is a deranged lunatic, which, if preliminary reports are any indication, he probably is. But there is more at work here than just Roof’s psychological health. What happened in Charleston is also a reminder that ideas have consequences. Good ideas have good consequences. And yes, bad ideas can have devastating consequences. Roof, as insane as he may be, is a man with ideas – deeply racist ideas. And these ideas have now left a church, a town, and a nation in mourning. This is why, in today’s blog, I want to take a moment to remind you of what the gospel has to say about racism. For the bad ideas of racist hatred can never be allowed to trump the holy ideals of perfect love.

Acts 10 tells the story of a Roman soldier named Cornelius and one of Jesus’ apostles, a Jew named Peter. Generally, Jews and Romans did not get along. This had to do in part with the fact that the Romans were the occupying force in Israel at this time. It also had to do with the fact that Romans were Gentiles, and Jews and Gentiles despised each other. One of the prayers many pious Jews of this day would pray was, “Blessed art Thou, [O God], who did not make me a Gentile.” So you can imagine that Peter must have been more than a little uncomfortable when three men came to his door and said, “We have come from Cornelius the centurion” (Acts 10:22). Just the mention of a Gentile soldier, especially when that Gentile soldier happens to be working for the army that is occupying your nation, would have turned Peter’s stomach. But this group of men had a special request of the apostle: “A holy angel told him to have you come to his house so that he could hear what you have to say” (Acts 10:22).

It is at this point that Peter had a decision to make: does he turn his nose up in disgust at these men because of their racial and political differences, or does he welcome them and honor their request?

“Then Peter invited the men into the house to be his guests. The next day Peter started out with them” (Acts 10:23).

Peter, rather than walking the well-worn and socially accepted road of the racism of his day, instead chose the road of racial reconciliation. Indeed, when Peter finally does talk to Cornelius, he announces, “I now realize how true it is that God does not show favoritism but accepts men from every nation who fear Him and do what is right” (Acts 10:34-35). God, Peter explains, loves people without regard to race. He loves people “from every nation.” This is why, when another apostle named John sees a vision of heaven, he sees people “from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and in front of the Lamb” (Revelation 7:9).

Peter’s words, then, cut the core of the problem with racism. Racism says, “Even if God accepts people from every nation, I will not.” And to not accept someone that God has is not only hateful, it is wicked.

In my mind, the most eerie, yet poignant, part of this tragedy at Charleston is that Roof, when he first entered the church building, walked up and sat next to Pastor Pinckney. In a predominantly black congregation, and as someone who had not been there before, he would have surely stuck out. The pastor could have shunned him, or, at the very least, ushered him to a more “appropriate” spot that wasn’t right next to the church’s leader. But Pastor Pinckney welcomed him. He gladly let him sit next to him. He, as Jesus said, loved his enemies even though, at the time, he didn’t know Roof was his enemy.  Indeed, in one of Roof’s most chilling confessions, he said he “almost didn’t go through with it because everyone was so nice to him.”  Now that’s amazing love from a congregation who has every reason to hate.

Oh, that we would all have a double portion of Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal’s spirit. For a spirit like that is just what we need to prevent tragedies like this.

+ IN MEMORIAM +

Cynthia Hurd
Susie Jackson
Ethel Lance
Rev. DePayne Middleton-Doctor
Rev. Clementa Pinckney
Tywanza Sanders
Rev. Dr. Daniel Simmons
Rev. Sharonda Singleton
Myra Thompson

June 22, 2015 at 5:15 am 5 comments

Hand, Meet Glove: Why We Need Both Justice and Morality

JusticeIt was George Washington who, in his farewell address, explained, “Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, religion and morality are indispensable supports.”[1] It was John Adams who, in a letter to Zabdiel Adams, said, “It is religion and morality alone, which can establish the principles upon which freedom can securely stand.”[2] It was Benjamin Franklin who, in a letter to the Abbés Chalut and Arnaud, wrote, “Only a virtuous people are capable of freedom. As nations become corrupt and vicious, they have more need of masters.”[3] The founding fathers of this country saw a rich and deep connection between morality and freedom. And rightly so. As Os Guinness points out:

Sustainable freedom depends on the character of the rulers and the ruled alike, and on the vital trust between them – both of which are far more than a matter of law. The Constitution, which is the foundational law of the land, should be supported and sustained by the faith, character and virtue of the entire citizenry, which comprises its moral constitution, or habits of the heart.[4]

A freedom that lacks morality is not a freedom that will last long. It will hemorrhage to death by the hand of its own hedonism. The founding fathers knew this.

Sadly, for all the concern that many of our founding fathers devoted to morality, ethics, and virtue, their concern did not always translate into active efforts toward justice. The failure to fight the institution of slavery and the racism behind it is just one of the many blights on this country’s history. In such instances, morality needed a push from democracy to blossom into justice, which is a sad twist of irony, considering this nation’s very charter has in its preamble its intention to “establish justice.”

The tragic reality is that our treatment of morality and justice has been and continues to be deeply schizophrenic. We persistently seek to separate one from the other. The philosophical and, for that matter, theological reality, however, is that morality and justice are inextricable concomitants of each other. This is why, in Scripture, we are treated both to warnings against those who “pervert the grace of our God into a license for immorality” (Jude 4) and to warnings against those who “devise injustice, and … mete out violence on the earth” (Psalm 58:2). Morality and justice go together.

Currently, I am concerned that, just as in the earlier days of our nation many preached a morality without justice, we have now moved into a time where many are preach justice while eschewing any steadying moral tiller. For instance, the sexual revolution, culminating in the legalization of abortion in 1973, was hailed by proponents as part of an inexorable march of justice toward freedom. No longer could people be told what to do in their bedrooms or with their bodies! The dragon of old-fashioned, constrictive sexual morality and its connection to marriage had finally been slain and severed. What happened? Those in economically depressed areas of this country found themselves economically oppressed by a new set of sexual freedoms as they had lots of children born outside of old-fashioned, constrictive marriages and, it turns out, born outside of the economic stability these old-fashioned, constrictive marriages afforded. Not even legalized abortion could stem the tide of out-of-wedlock births. It seems as though sexual justice, when ripped from its moorings of sexual morality, only boomeranged back to further perpetuate another kind of injustice – that of economic injustice.

Before we clamor for justice, we should always ask, “Is this justice moral?” And before we pontificate on morality, we should always ask, “Am I willing to turn my moral words into just actions?” Both are needed. Both are Scriptural. But neither are easy. And in a socio-political system where we all too often look for easy, or at least broadly palatable, answers to our society’s most difficult challenges, I’m afraid the hard hurdle of both justice and morality is one few are willing to try to jump.

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[1] George Washington, Farewell Address (1796).

[2] John Adams, Letter to Zabdiel Adams (6.21.1776).

[3] Benjamin Franklin, Letter to the Abbés Chalut and Arnaud (4.17.1787).

[4] Os Guinness, A Free People’s Suicide: Sustainable Freedom and the American Future (Downer’s Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2012), 99.

May 4, 2015 at 5:15 am Leave a comment

Spiritual Speech About Social Concerns

ConfusedLast week on this blog, I discussed a video showing some members of the Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity at the University of Oklahoma singing a racist chant. In my analysis, I cited Byron Williams of The Huffington Post and his use of theological language to address the incident:

America’s approach to the original sin of racism maintains an aspect of arrested development. It is too easy to temporarily transfer our moral indignation toward a fraternity at the University of Oklahoma that no longer exists than it is to take the more difficult path that could lead to a meaningful transformation …

The expelled students have already succeeded in dismantling their fraternity chapter. Shouldn’t they be given opportunity for redemption? In lieu of expulsion, could the university have found another way to educate all involved about the poisons of racism?[1]

Williams attaches a lot of theological freight to his analysis of this incident – and, I would argue, rightly so – with words like “original sin” and “redemption.” But I would also argue that he does not frame his theological terminology in a particularly Christian way. Williams’ description of “redemption,” for instance, is more closely aligned with AA’s call to make amends than it is with Christ’s redemptive work on the cross. To be clear, I by no means think that these students should not have to make amends. Indeed, I think such action would be extraordinarily salutary – both for the people they hurt and for the offending students themselves. I only point out Williams’ unconventional use of theological language as an example of how, while many in our culture still have strong theological instincts, such instincts are often not expressly Christian in their content or context.

In an article for The Weekly Standard, Roman Catholic theologian Joseph Bottum frames the issue of racism and its attendant issue of white privilege, as does Williams, in the theological terminology of original sin:

“All have sinned,” writes St. Paul in the fifth chapter of his letter to the Christians in Rome, even those who have “not sinned after the similitude of Adam’s transgression.” And so too are we all guilty of racism, even those who have never harbored an explicitly racist thought or said an explicitly racist word or performed an explicitly racist deed. “We have to get away from this idea that there is one sort of racism and it wears a Klan hood,” as Berkeley law professor Ian Haney-López explains. “Of course, that is an egregious form of racism, but there are many other forms of racism. There are racisms.” Racisms under which we all suffer.[2]

Bottum astutely notes that for all the talk of secularism’s encroachments on Western society, our essential impulses are still spiritual. Just look at how we talk about racism as not just a set of actions, or even as a worldview, but as a blight for which we must make atonement.

But as strong as our spiritual impulses may be, something is missing:

The doctrine of original sin is probably incoherent, and certainly gloomy, in the absence of its pairing with the concept of a divine savior – and so Paul concludes Romans 5 with a turn to the Redeemer and the possibility of hope: “As sin hath reigned unto death, even so might grace reign through righteousness unto eternal life by Jesus Christ our Lord.”  Think of it as a car’s engine or transmission scattered in pieces around a junkyard: The individual bits of Christian theology don’t actually work all that well when they’re broken apart from one another.

We are stuck in a societal Anfechtung, Bottum says.  For on the one hand, our culture does indeed have strong spiritual impulses.  This is why we confess and agonize over “original sins” like racism.  But on the other hand, our spiritual impulses do not lead us to the relief of Christ’s cross. Instead, our impulsive anxieties are left to stew in their own juices until they inevitably begin to search for relief and redemption in other ways – in our day, usually in the ways of our body politic. In large part, we in the West have traded the theologia crucis for legislative sausage making.

In many regards, this way of theologizing is merely the inexorable upshot of the liberal Protestantism of the twentieth century. As Bottum explains:

Early in the twentieth century … the main denominations of liberal American Protestantism gradually came to a new view of sin, understanding our innate failings as fundamentally social rather than personal. Crystallized by Walter Rauschenbusch’s influential Christianity and the Social Crisis (1907), the Social Gospel movement saw such sins as militarism and bigotry as the forces that Christ revealed in his preaching – the social forces that crucified Him and the social forces against which He was resurrected. Not that Christ mattered all that much in the Social Gospel’s construal. Theological critics from John Gresham Machen in the 1920s to Reinhold Niebuhr in the 1950s pointed out that the Social Gospel left little for the Redeemer to do: Living after His revelation, what further use do have we of Him? Jesus may be the ladder by which we climbed to a higher ledge of morality, but once there, we no longer need the ladder …

The Social Gospel’s loss of a strong sense of Christ facilitated the drift of congregants – particularly the elite and college-educated classes – out of the mainline that had once defined the country. Out of the churches and into a generally secularized milieu.

They did not leave empty-handed. Born in the Christian churches, the civil rights movement had focused on bigotry as the most pressing of social sins in the 1950s and 1960s, and when the mainline Protestants began to leave their denominations, they carried with them the Christian shape of social and moral ideas, however much they imagined they had rejected Christian content.

When I read Bottum’s analysis of our current situation, I can’t help but think of Rudolf Bultmann, the famed twentieth century German theologian, who sought to free Christianity from its so-called “mythical” trappings – trappings like Jesus’ miracles, Jesus’ teachings, and, ultimately, Jesus’ very resurrection. I wonder if this old liberal theologian isn’t smiling down on us right now. After all, his project of demythologizing Christianity has now been completed, probably more thoroughly than he could have ever imagined. For Christianity in secular society has indeed been stripped of all its mythical trappings – including, as it turns out, Christ Himself.  We are left only with the residual ghosts of Christian morality to convict us of socially abhorrent sins without the historical cross of the resurrected Christ to comfort us in all sin.

Of course, orthodox Christians cannot accept Bultmann’s project or its outcome. But even if we cannot accept it, it is important that we understand it. For if we do not understand the theological shape of our secular society, we will perhaps miss opportunities to offer our salvific rest of the story to our society’s guilt-ridden part of the story.

And that would be a sin.

_________________________

[1] Byron Williams, “It’s Not Unconstitutional to Be Racist,” The Huffington Post (3.11.2015).

[2] Joseph Bottum, “The Spiritual Shape of Political Ideas,” The Weekly Standard (12.1.2014).

March 23, 2015 at 5:15 am Leave a comment

Changing Racist Hearts

Credit:  AP / The Washington Post

Credit: AP / The Washington Post

It’s been a tough week for race relations in America. Saturday, March 7 began with a march, led by President Obama and Representative John Lewis, across the Edmund Pettus bridge in Selma to commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of the day 600 voting rights demonstrators, led by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., crossed this same bridge and were met by state troopers who attacked them with billy clubs and tear gas. Indeed, Representative Lewis was among those seriously injured in that fateful march. Reflecting on the events of fifty years ago, the president noted:

In one afternoon fifty years ago, so much of our turbulent history – the stain of slavery and anguish of civil war; the yoke of segregation and tyranny of Jim Crow; the death of four little girls in Birmingham, and the dream of a Baptist preacher – all that history met on this bridge.

It was not a clash of armies, but a clash of wills; a contest to determine the true meaning of America.

And because of men and women like John Lewis, Joseph Lowery, Hosea Williams, Amelia Boynton, Diane Nash, Ralph Abernathy, C.T. Vivian, Andrew Young, Fred Shuttlesworth, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., so many others, the idea of a just America, and a fair America, an inclusive America, and a generous America – that idea ultimately triumphed …

What they did here will reverberate through the ages. Not because the change they won was preordained; not because their victory was complete; but because they proved that nonviolent change is possible; that love and hope can conquer hate.[1]

If only the president’s final line rang a truer longer.

The very next day, a video surfaced showing members of the Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity at the University of Oklahoma singing a horrifyingly racist song on a bus. The University quickly denounced the video, suspended the fraternity from its campus, and expelled two of the students involved.

But then came this:

Attorneys and law professors have watched with interest this week as the University of Oklahoma moved swiftly to disband the school’s SAE chapter and expel two students on suspicion of leading the racist chant, which was captured on a now-viral video.

University President David Boren acted decisively in dismantling the chapter, but experts say the university may be on shaky legal ground.[2]

The issue at hand is whether or not the University of Oklahoma violated the students’ First Amendment rights by closing their fraternity and expelling two students simply because they sang a song that many find – and, I hasten to add, should find – offensive. As Terrence McCoy reports in an article for The Washington Post:

The expulsions immediately struck constitutional law experts such as professor Eugene Volokh, of the University of California at Los Angeles and the Volokh Conspiracy blog, as strange. Did the University of Oklahoma, a public institution, just punish speech that, while clearly abhorrent, was protected under the First Amendment? Was this a violation of the Constitution?

Private institutions – like Sigma Alpha Epsilon – can freely punish speech that breaches their codes or standards. But a public institution such as the University of Oklahoma, which takes public money, operates as an arm of the government under the law. “So, in effect, it’s not a university punishing a student for a racist video or social media post, it is the state itself acting against an individual – a person, importantly, with all the rights guaranteed under the First Amendment,” wrote the University of West Alabama’s Will Nevin on AL.com.[3]

This case is yet another example of how woefully inadequate civic laws can be to address the deeply moral aspects of the human condition and experience.

One the one hand, the First Amendment was put in place to serve an important common good – that of protecting this country’s citizens from being oppressed, even in their speech, by their government. This freedom is important and ought to be fiercely protected.  On the other hand, we must never forget that societal freedom is inevitably fraught with personal danger. Free speech, it turns out, does not always translate into right speech. Just because legally we can say almost anything doesn’t mean that morally we should.

An opinion piece by Byron Williams of The Huffington Post struck me as especially lucid in regard to this story’s moral entailments:

America’s approach to the original sin of racism maintains an aspect of arrested development. It is too easy to temporarily transfer our moral indignation toward a fraternity at the University of Oklahoma that no longer exists than it is to take the more difficult path that could lead to a meaningful transformation.[4]

Notice the explicitly theological and moral category Williams uses for racism: it’s America’s “original sin.” But notice also how Williams also offers a distinctly non-civic answer to his distinctly theological and moral framing of this problem:

The expelled students have already succeeded in dismantling their fraternity chapter. Shouldn’t they be given opportunity for redemption? In lieu of expulsion, could the university have found another way to educate all involved about the poisons of racism?

The ease with which one can easily sing a song for amusement that dehumanizes another cannot be eradicated by an expulsion that, in my view, is unconstitutional.

Because racism is a learned behavior, it can be unlearned.

Moreover, it could prove to be the most meaningful class the students involved ever take.

To answer what he refers to as an “original sin,” Williams proposes a path to “redemption.” Though he does not frame redemption in a particularly Christian way, his argument is nevertheless rich with not-so-subtle theological overtones and vocabulary. Racists, as Williams notes, “cannot be eradicated by an expulsion.” In other words, if we want to root out racism from society, racists will need something more than punitive measures. As Christians, we know that racists will need Jesus – even as all sinners need Jesus. And racists will need followers of Jesus who are willing both to stand up against them and to seek the transformation of them.

One student’s words on last Monday’s NBC Nightly News broadcast express my hope for the students of Sigma Alpha Epsilon: “I want this to be a rehabilitory time for them.”[5] I hope it is. Because although the First Amendment may be able to defend them legally, it’s only Jesus who can change them internally. And it’s only Jesus who can heal people left broken by these students’ words relationally. So let’s lift our eyes to that hope. After a week like this last one, it’s a hope that we need.

_________________________

[1] Chris Cillizza, “A single photo that tells the powerful story of the 50th anniversary of Selma,” The Washington Post (3.7.2015).

[2] Matt Pearce, “Is University of Oklahoma frat’s racist chant protected by 1st Amendment?Los Angeles Times (3.10.2015).

[3] Terrence McCoy, “Why expelled Oklahoma frat boys would have an ‘excellent chance’ in court,” The Washington Post (3.11.2015).

[4] Byron Williams, “It’s Not Unconstitutional to Be Racist,” The Huffington Post (3.11.2015).

[5] NBC Nightly News, Lester Holt reporting (3.9.2015).

March 16, 2015 at 5:15 am 1 comment

Scoring Points With Ferguson

Credit:  The New York Times

Credit: The New York Times

One week. That’s how long it’s been since a grand jury did not find enough probable cause to indict Officer Darren Wilson in the shooting death of Michael Brown. Following the grand jury’s decision, demonstrations were staged nationwide to protest the decision. Some were peaceful. Some were not. Some demonstrations were little more than thinly veiled excuses for looting rampages.

As I have been following this story over these past few months, I have been grieved by how the debate over Ferguson has unfolded. Everyone, it seems, has a particular point to make. Some are concerned for Officer Wilson. Why do so many refuse to believe a grand jury’s findings in spite of some pretty clear facts? Others are concerned with larger issues of racism. What has happened with Michael Brown, many say, is emblematic of the mistrust that the African-American community has with law enforcement, many times with good reason. Still others are concerned with widespread crime and violence within the African-American community. Generations of young black men have destroyed themselves through bad choices.

Here’s what bothers me about all of these points. They’re all, in some sense, legitimate. If Officer Wilson was only doing his best in a really bad situation, he should not be offered to protestors as a sacrificial lamb. The injustice of racism is not going to be solved or salved by more injustice against an officer. At the same time, we do have a problem with racism in this country. And we need to admit that. Indeed, it has choked me up to read personal stories of young black men describing what they have had to endure growing up. Take, for instance, this story. And this story isn’t from some bygone early 60’s era. Derek Minor was born in 1984. At the same time, widespread crime and violence within the African-American community – and in any community, for that matter – also needs to be addressed. Such sin is not always somebody else’s fault.  Sometimes, the blame rests at our feet.

All of these points are, in some sense, legitimate. But all of them also have the potential, in some sense, to render themselves illegitimate. Here’s why. Far too often, when we try to make one of these particular points, we refuse to acknowledge that another person trying to make another one of these points actually has a point. Those who are trying to defend Officer Wilson can sometimes refuse to acknowledge larger issues of racism. Those who are concerned with the larger issue of racism can sometimes refuse to admit that Officer Wilson may have just been doing his job. Those who are concerned with problems within the black community can sometimes refuse to acknowledge that there may be things outside the black community that need to change as well. But when we become so obsessed with making our point that we fail to acknowledge someone else’s point, we damage the very point we’re trying to make.

So allow me to add my point to these many other points: We need to stop trying only to make our point and start listening to the points of others and acknowledge that others may, in fact, have a point. In other words, we need to start having constructive dialogue and stop trying to merely win a debate.

I’m wondering when and if and when we will ever be able to admit that situations such as these are much more nuanced and complex than a single point can ever make them. And I’m wondering if and when we will ever be able to stop making points and start having generative conversations. Because if we’re only interested in winning a point, we may just lose the truth.

Just look at Ferguson.

December 1, 2014 at 5:15 am 1 comment

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