Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Race--Black and White in America

Black v White Racism in the US is a problem that perplexes many in the church. It has been said that 11:00 on Sunday morning is the most segregated hour of the week. That is less true today than in the past, but is still a fact. I want to share a perspective on why churches have not integrated nearly to the extent that other venues of American life have. It is not "race" per se, but a cultural difference that lies at the heart of it. Racism in America, between white and black people is unique in that it relates to the two groups vastly different "stories." Every culture, ever "group"--racial, ethnic, national, even denominational, has a "story." That is there is a past, somtimes with a "defining moment" that determines how the group as a whole views themselves and how they view life in general. For Jewish people the defining story is the Exodus--and today, the Holocaust as well. For the people of New Orleans hurricaine Katrina will define them for decades, even centuries to come. White and Black Americans have, each, a "story" about their past that fuels their view of the world, of life and what it is about, and even affects the way we read the Bible. "White" America lives out of a past built on the idea of "starting over in the New World" of "conquering the vast wilderness" of "finding opportunity and prosperity in 'a new nation, dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.'" The "pilgrim fathers" came to this land to find a new life, in the new Eden, to provide a better life for themselves and their posterity. The struggle was hard, but they succeeded! Each generation has had new struggles to face, but generally each generation has been even more prosperous and happy than the previous one. This is a story of triumph, of victory, of overcoming (overcoming the wilderness, overcoming the British, overcoming the "wild Indians" and the hard prairie sod, etc. etc.etc.). It is a story of success built on success and of enjoying "the blessings of prosperity and freedom." The African-American "story" is different. Their ancestors did not come to this country seeking a new life. This is not about "opportunity and prosperity. They live out of a past built on the reality of being torn from their homes, and brought to a place not of their choosing. It is the story of struggle, of bare existence, of defeat and servitude. Whatever the realities of today, for both groups, these are the stories that determine what is "normal"--not for every member, obviously, but for these groups as a whole. To this day, every white kid in America grows up hearing the pioneer story as "his" story. He expects, in his own life, to conquer the wilderness, to triumph (perhaps to conquer just a quarter acre in suburbia, but there has to be some reason for all the lawn fertilizer sold in suburban garden centers!). He expects victory and success. He expects his life to be prosperous and satisfying. This is why so many white folks are malcontent if, by the time they are forty-five, they have not achieved certain career goals, or are not happy in their jobs, home life, etc. The "story" for them is supposed to be about success and victory. To this day, every black kid in America grows up hearing that same story of the "pilgrim fathers" and the "bold pioneers." But he hears it not as "his" story but as "their story." His story is very different He expects life to be about "struggle" and about "hardship," and about "survival," not about "conquest" and "victory" and "triumph." It is a story of opportunity cut short, of privilege denied, of dependency and servitude. (This is broadly overdrawn, and there are a million exceptions out there on both sides, I know, but these are general trends). This is why Sunday morning is the most "segregated hour." The Gospel in a black church often focuses on the suffering of the cross. In a white church it focuses on "Triumph o'er the grave." In a Black Church, we experience "the fellowship of his sufferings." In a white church--Jesus conquered death--in a black church--Jesus suffered for us. In a white church we are "more than conquerors" and "soldiers of the cross" but in a black church we are "fellow strugglers in the cause." All of us, when we sing Amazing Grace, there is a point where the key changes and we all get louder .In a white church this happens on the verse that says "When we've been there ten thousand years!" In a black church this happens on "Through many dangers toils and snares I have already come!" In a white church, they sing "Victory in Jesus!" In a black church it is "We Shall Overcome--Someday!" Again this is broadly overdrawn and a million exception exist, but the general trend/perspective here is accurate, I believe. It also points to one more reason we need to listen to one another and hear the gospel through the ears of "the other." Our vastly different cultural backgrounds cause us to hear the gospel differently in many respects--we need to hear the gospel TOGETHER, and learn from one another "the whole counsel of God." Each group brings its assumptions about the possibilities, opportunities, and challenges that the Christian life presents--and in these days when so much in America is changing, economically, politically and every way, American Christians, of all kinds, can profit from sharing their experiences, their way of reading the gospel, and their way of relating it to life.


Anonymous said...

Good observations, Fred. An implied point you make is that Caucasian American Christians tend to be more outcome-oriented, while African American Christians focus more on process. - Catherine

Emily Hunter McGowin said...

I think your reflections are spot on. Really, I couldn't agree more. I think the truth that Christ is Lord over his entire church should compel us to listen carefully to the stories of "others." There is much to learn.

Also, I think we can take this sensitivity and awareness of "the other"--their different story, especially--to a global level, as well. For example, the experience of people groups who have lived through the (sometimes poisonous) combo of Christian mission work and Western colonization. Christians in China, India, etc, have a very different story, as well, one that is rather ambivalent about the role of Western Christians in their society. (We could even complicate matters further and talk about the stories told by the Christian women or peasants within these societies, which will, in many cases, differ considerably from that of the men and social elites.)

I don't see this as an embrace of "diversity" for diversity's sake, though. Jesus Christ is Lord and his Spirit is moving in his Church all over the world. So, in my opinion, we refuse to listen to the voices of our brothers and sisters at our peril. It doesn't mean we'll always agree--many times I imagine we won't. But, we're united in the agreement that there is no more important discussion/argument than what faithfulness to Christ means in our day, in our context.

Fred Smith said...

Emily, you are right about expanding the range of our "hearing." We need to hear from many different perspectives as we grown in knowledge of God's Word.

Let us remember, however, that the "faith once for all delivered to the saints" never changes, and transcends cultures. The problem that hearing other voices may help solve is that 1) I am probably missing parts of the truth of the Bible and 2) hearing others' experience of it may help me (a) contextualize the gospel better (b) understand my own relationship with Christ more fully and (c) be better able to teach the faith to the next generation of Christians.

However, we cannot hear "everyone." For one thing, one lifetime is too short, and for another, not "everyone" has as much to say as certain people. (That is, there are people who articulate the faith better than others, people who honestly know it better and who have thought about it more deeply. These then are people whose knowledge and experience is more valid than others'. This is why, for example, you use scholarly sources when writing a paper--not shallow popular treatments of a topic--the scholarly sources are actually worth more, objectively speaking, because the writers often know the faith better than lay people. No one seriously argues that every non-specialist ought to be "heard" equally, alongside Millard Erickson or Stanley Hauerwas)

One danger of even trying to hear "every voice" is that we may decide in our hearts that, since we don't know what every Christian has to say about the faith, we know nothing about the faith. I honestly believe that, in terms of the important matters of the Christian faith, it is likely that Augustine, Peter Abelard, Martin Luther and Balthazar Hubmaier knew as much or more than I do, even with my supposed "advantages." The truths of the faith are settled--the major voices out there, from different perspectives help us to understand aspects of them better than we would have otherwise. Those who have reflected deeply on the faith have more to say than those who have not--whether Black or White, or Asian or men or women.

Hearing "every voice" is an ideal. And no "voice" should be excluded on the basis of race, gender, nationality, etc.

Also we have to trust that our apprehension of the truths of the Bible is sufficient that we can know it even if we have missed some "voices" out there. I fear that sometimes we focus on perspective that others bring, rather than on how that perspective helps us understand the truth of God's Word. There are a million perpsectives, but only one Bible. We must keep our focus on the Word of God, and recognize that we share enough of a common humanity that we can all bascially understand it, if we reflect on it deeply enough, and that we can be helped in this mainly by those who have already reflected on it longer than we.

Emily Hunter McGowin said...

Dr. Smith,

I agree with almost everything you say. Certainly, there's a definite limit to the weight that should be given "other voices." I'm not a proponent of re-hashing debates over heresies or major doctrinal issues that have been generally settled for hundreds of years. And, definitely, I think that Augustine, Abelard, Luther, etc. are worthy of the respect due anyone who's study of the faith has endured for so long.

At the same time, I have a couple clarifying points. First, in regard to the theologians of the Great Tradition, I do think preference should be given to those whose ideas have been deemed worthy of repetition and study. At the same time, I don't want to be naive about the issues of power that have had some (note, I say "some") part to play in who has been deemed an authoritative or "great" voice. I'm not into conspiracy theories or Marxist interpretations of history, but I think a Christian view of sin suggests that we must be aware of "power plays" in church history.

For example, the 20th century has witnessed the re-discovery of a great number of manuscripts written by educated women mystics/theologians that were purposefully suppressed during the Middle Ages. Investigation has shown that from very early on, these writings were translated, copied, and distributed as important works (usually by Dominicans and Franciscans) for some time. But, when concern arose over the "unregulated" nature of the women's communities out of which the writings came, the religious authorities, backed by the Pope, began a widespread squashing.

This is not to say that just because these writings were squashed we should now privilege them over Augustine or Luther or whoever. But, I do think that due to the sinful tendencies of the church in all ages, we should always be discerning as to where truly great voices may have been overlooked or silenced for reasons other than orthodox theology. In the case of the women mystics I cite above, many of them were deeply critical of the church hierarchy, which was, in many ways, corrupt. No wonder the Pope didn't appreciate their writings!

Second, in regard to the "faith once for all delivered to the saints," you said that we must remember that it "never changes, and transcends cultures." I would say that the Word, Jesus Christ, never changes, and his normative status transcends cultures. But, I think that "the faith," as it is expressed in time and space never entirely transcends culture. In my opinion, this is because the faith is always incarnational--there is no non-cultured expression of the faith to be found.

So, for example, when Paul is working out the social implications of the Gospel within the earliest churches, he makes use of the rhetorical forms of his day (though, admittedly, with some significant changes). In this way, even the scripture evidences "culture." And, when the earliest churches were living out their faith in the Roman world, they adopted forms of life that were specific to their culture. So, refusing to serve in the military may have had more to do with not worshiping Caesar than it did any ethical proscriptions against Christians being soldiers. I think we would be mistaken to look at the early church and say, "See, they refused to serve in the military. This means that the faith always teaches not serving in the military because the faith transcends culture." (I know you're not saying this, but some do.)

We could even carry this over and talk about the earliest creeds and formulations of the faith. I, for one, am not looking to trade in Nicea or Chalcedon, but I think we have to recognize that our Christology and doctrine of the Trinity is in no way a-cultural.

Have I entirely missed your point, Dr. Smith? Or, are we talking about the same things?

Fred Smith said...

You have not "entirely" missed my point, but you have missed one point. Also, I want to comment on some other points you've made.

First the comments:

You said: At the same time, I have a couple clarifying points. First, in regard to the theologians of the Great Tradition, I do think preference should be given to those whose ideas have been deemed worthy of repetition and study. At the same time, I don't want to be naive about the issues of power that have had some (note, I say "some") part to play in who has been deemed an authoritative or "great" voice. . . . I think a Christian view of sin suggests that we must be aware of "power plays" in church history

Yes, you are right but we need to thing these things through just a little further. If preference should be given to those theologians of the "great tradition" whose work is worthy of repetition, etc. then it follows that they have said something worthwhile, even if they got their position due to church politics or powerplays. In other words, in no field more than academics ("letters") is merit more important to long term survival. Ideas that don't pass muster under critical examination just don't survive. Certainly many who have taught and written in ways that have shaped our theology "got there" because of influential friends, etc. (We can even agree that historically, worthy women have been passed over for less worthy men.) However, in the end, a mediocre theologian or scholar, who gets his position by back room dealing, is forgotten within a generation. Their work just does not survive. The "great tradition" survives because it is 1) engaging 2) theologically sound--mostly 3) helpful in udnerstanding both the history of the church and the biblical/theological ideas that are treated.

Certainly it is tragic that some worthy men--and women--have been passed by and never got to be heard. However, let us not too easily dismiss excellent theology and biblical studies simply because church politics was involved. Truth and Politics may interfere with each other and sometimes politics squelches truth--however, in the end, the two are different things and truth that is published survives even as politics moves on to other people and other issues.

Second, while a Chrisitan view of sin must make us aware of power-plays in church history, at the same time a Christian view of the soveriegnty of God must make us aware that by His intention, we have a Great Tradition at all. Let us assume that, despite the wickedness of men, the inevitable suppression of ideas by different factions at times in history, and despite the seeming haphazzardness of the process, in the end we have the theology, the tradition that God intends for us to wrestle with.

I will not dismiss a Martin Luther, simply because there is no comparable woman theologian of the same era--or African, or. . . or. . . or. . . . . I will thank God for Martin Luther (and for Augustine, Abelard, etc. etc. etc.) and carry on with my theologizing trusting God that I have what He intends and that nothing is left out, in His good grace and mercy.

I want to respond to a couple of other points and will do so soon.