Which Enemy? Which Doorstep?

It’s impossible to read this piece by The Atlantic’s Conor Friedersdorf and not think that anti-racist activism is in serious trouble of going wildly off the rails. I would encourage any reader who feels invested in advocating for racial justice to read Friedersdorf’s long retelling of a complete meltdown inside a very progressive New York school board meeting. It’s an astonishing narrative that gets more disheartening the longer it goes on.

On the other hand, it’s also impossible to listen or read to the testimonies of many pastors across the US, especially the South, and not think that American churches are in serious trouble of fomenting a deep and deeply spiritual racism. That’s disorienting. Which narrative should I buy: the narrative about elite progressive institutions slouching toward a woke form of segregation? Or the narrative about a conservative evangelical culture that appears unwilling to preach the Bible at its own culture of white supremacy and Neo-Confederate ancestral worship? Which is the real problem?

It depends on where you are.

A media age upends many things, but one of the first is place. If TV and radio dislodged political awareness from its local roots and biased it toward “the nation,” the internet burned the root entirely. In the world shaped by the internet all eyes are trained on that which is national and global. Narratives are useful to the degree they paint in broad strokes and give a sense of omnipresent problems. What most of us mean by “culture” is huge. We mean millions of people, saying and making and doing something on a massive scale. Our heightened consciousness of this kind of large-scale culture is almost totally engineered by media technologies.

And in that heightened consciousness, we tend to confuse what is most depicted with what is most real. Our concern is disproportionately directed toward things that loom large in the media hive, because that’s where our awareness of The World comes from. This is what I mean when I say that many evangelicals often engage culture reactively, from behind. Here’s the way I put it last year:

 [E]ngaging culture by centering one’s intellectual orbit around what comes out of elite journalism can lead Christians to perpetually express the public implications of our faith in the direction of people least likely to heed our message, and on current events least likely to be urgent in actual churches. In other words, if your idea of culture is dictated to you by The Atlantic, you might think the most important thing you can talk about as a Christian is why polyamory is sinful, or why Drag Queen Story Hour is a moral outrage. Assuming, though, that your local church is unexceptional, the odds are incredibly good that suicide, depression, smartphone addiction, and sexless marriages are much bigger issues for you than those. If however the agenda for Christian thinking is being set by elite media, concentrated in affluent coastal bastions of progressivism, the witness of evangelicalism is always from behind—reactive—and never from ahead.

Here’s the thing: You very well may be in a cultural context in which something like Drag Queen Story Hour is the most pressing moral issue on the docket. You might, for example, be an employee of public library that is considering hosting such an event. You might be the parent of a child who unexpectedly attended one. You might be a pastor of a church in a very progressive city where members are being asked for their opinions on it. But my suspicion is that Christians who talk most voluminously about DQSH are not in any of these scenarios. The actual life context they’re in is one dominated by anxious and depressed teens, porn addicts, dysfunctional marriages, 14 year olds being pressured to send naked pictures of themselves…and racism.

I’m guess I’m mostly talking to myself here, because when I read Friedersdorf’s piece I come away convinced that much anti-racist activism is going to create enemies out of allies and drill resentments and mistrust deeper into American culture. But when I talk on the phone with a friend who was fired by his church for saying that George Floyd should not have been killed, I don’t feel this way. I think evangelicals have failed on the topic of race so spectacularly that their failure has soaked through the fabric of society to the point of tearing. So which thought is true? Are the excesses of woke-ism going to tear us apart, or will the failure to address racism?

Well, both. Both theses have evidence to support them, and both are compatible. My point is that two things can be true at the same time, but in different places and because of different things. When a New York school system meeting finds members outraged that a white man can hold a black infant, that tells us something important about that meeting, what dynamics were present, and what that outrage may mean for other people close to those dynamics. It’s completely legitimate to infer that something in that meeting was broken: either, as Friedersdorf argues, the interpersonal laws of charity and goodwill, or, as someone like John McWhorter would argue, the actual beliefs about race and justice. We can come away from reading about this meeting dutifully concerned that a harmful ideology reigns among some New York school boards.

But that truth doesn’t cancel out others. We can also come away from watching Republican primaries dutifully concerned that a major political party appears to have surrendered wholly to racist conspiracy mongering. We can come away from watching American evangelicalism horrified at the vacuum of prophetic leadership on racism and public justice. From where I write, this is the pressing issue for most Bible-preaching ministers. The majority of pastors reading this blog have churches that are probably not reading White Fragility and How to Be Antiracist. Those congregations, especially the men, are more likely reading Breitbart and hateful email newsletter blasts from “Christian Youth Brigade.” The enemy of the doorstep is not the same enemy as the one that sits on a New York school board. We fail to see this only because we look with one eye closed.

Racism and the Reformed Church

I would urge you this weekend to find, or make, 50 minutes to listen to Duke Kwon’s address on racism and the Christian church. Andrew Wilson flagged it on his blog and called it the best message he’s heard all year. That’s not hyperbole. This is a powerful, uncomfortable, thoroughly Christian sermon on the history of racism within the evangelical Reformed community, and what true repentance requires.

At one point in the message, pastor Kwon makes a point about the racial legacy of the evangelical church that I’m ashamed to say has never before occurred to me. Making the point that biblical restitution requires us to be honest about how sin has injured others, Kwon argues that the cumulative effect of complicity in racism excluded–for centuries–black Christians from the life of the church, and has thus resulted in a liturgy and ecclesiastical life that looks radically different because of such exclusion than it might otherwise look. Kwon focuses his comments on the PCA, his denominational home, but everything he says could easily–in fact, more easily–be applied to the Southern Baptist Convention, my home (which was literally created for the preservation of racism).

Here’s the full quote:

In 1969 the National Committee of Black Churchmen asserted that, historically, the Christian church has served as the ‘moral cement’ of the structure of racism in this nation, and that therefore, the church should share accountability for the problem of racism in America. And they were not wrong. Two hundred and fifty years of providing the moral grounds for slavery, 90 years of complicity with Jim Crow, 60 years of blessing separate-but-equal, even in her pews, the church bears more responsibility for the racist heritage of the United States than we would want to believe.

For now, however, my attention is focused on the church’s responsibility, not out there [in secular society] more broadly–that is an important conversation that we must have–but for the church’s responsibility for providing and repairing marginalizing and racist structures within the church.

Have you noticed that in the evangelical and Reformed church, we tend to act as if the dearth of African-Americans from our communion is a morally neutral, sociological phenomenon? In fact, much of the absence of black members can be traced back to the active and passive participation in anti black racism by white Christians. What I mean is this. Evangelical and especially Reformed worship traditions aren’t alienating to black Christians and other Christians of color only because of mere differences or preferences of cultural perspective; they are alienating, in part, because of the racist legacy that not only kept them out of the pews, but also excluded them from the generation after generation development of liturgical life, community life, and confessional theology. The Presbyterian church is weak in addressing the core concerns of the black community because the Presbyterian church literally WAS one of the core concerns of the black community.

Let me say this again. The weekly discomfort that many of you feel, the weekly discomfort that an African-American feels in a mostly white PCA church, is not only the product of present cultural differences. That discomfort is also the byproduct of past immoral exercises of social and ecclesiastical power. We need to reckon with that.

Let this quote sink into your soul. And then, ask yourself: What would a Christian, confessional church culture that was never complicit in racism and hatred look like today? It’s difficult to even visualize, isn’t it?

That, friends, should make us weep with repentance.

Jesus vs the Confederacy

Amidst the violence and brokenness in Charlottesville, Virginia, this picture (I’m unsure of the source) has been circulating widely:

There’s a lot going on here, and probably nothing as striking as the image of a black police officer standing guard for the safety of a group that looks with nostalgia on the time when Americans like him were lynched. For that reason alone, this picture is worth a Pulitzer nomination.

But look a little bit more closely. To the viewer’s left of the police officer, a protester carrying a confederate battle flag in his right hand also carries a placard in his right. The sign reads, in part, “Jews are Satan’s Children.” More interestingly, the sign then lists some biblical passages, two of which are clearly readable: John 8: 31-47, and John 10: 22-33. The protester believes that these passages vindicate his racism, and of course, blogging atheists are all too happy to use this as more evidence of Christianity’s inherent bigotry.

But there’s a slight problem. The passages listed by this protester do not mean what he thinks they do. In fact, they mean something very close to the opposite.

Let’s look at the second reference first, John 10:22-33. I’ll admit to being unsure why this protester thinks this passage supports his claim. It could be that he’s referencing Jesus’ words in verse 26, in which he tells a group of unbelieving Jews that “you do not believe because you are not among my sheep. My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me.” The problems with appropriating this passage for anti-Semitic messaging should be obvious. The sheep that Jesus means are the sheep that believe in Him, which, according to John in both verse 21 and verse 42, includes many Jews. The difference between being one Jesus’ sheep and not being one of Jesus’ sheep is the question of response to Jesus himself, not ethnicity. To say this verse supports ethnic condemnations of Jewish’s people is a rather banal moment of illiteracy.

But what about the first passage, John 8:31-47? This passage is a bit more interesting, because Jesus does indeed tell a group of Jews that they are children of Satan. Verse 44: “You are of your father the devil, and your will is to do your father’s desires.” Does this passage vindicate this neo-Confederate protester?

Far from it. Look more closely at John 8, beginning in verse 39. “As he was saying these things, many believed in him. So Jesus said to the Jews who had believed him, “If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” This dialogue is a dialogue between Jesus and Jews who have made a profession of faith in him. This point is crucial, because Jesus’ goal is in this dialogue is to expose these people’s hypocrisy. They have appeared to believe in him, but they are inwardly resistant to what Jesus is saying.

How do we know this? Verse 33: “They answered him, “We are offspring of Abraham, and have never been enslaved to anyone. How is it that you say, “You will become free?” This group of alleged believers resents Jesus’ implication that they aren’t free. In fact, they expose their unbelief in Jesus in a startling way. They appeal to their ethnic ancestry as proof that they are already God’s people, and that they don’t need the freedom Jesus offers (verse 39: “Abraham is our father”).

The shocking irony behind all this is that Jesus’ words “You are of your father the devil” are addressed to people who have claimed to believe Jesus but whose real religion is their ethnic, ritualistic identity. When the claims of Jesus run up against what these people believe about themselves and their ancestors, they angrily dismiss Jesus and ultimately seek to destroy him (v.59)–just as Jesus himself told them they would (v.37).

So the news for this card-carrying neo-Confederate is doubly disappointing. It turns out that the Bible he claims to know doesn’t actually condemn Jewish people, or African-American people, or immigrant people as children of Satan. But to make it all worse, it turns out that when Jesus is talking about what it means to be a child of the devil, he’s actually talking about unbelief–an unbelief that looks quite a bit like southern white supremacy.

Virtue and Signaling

One of the responses I keep seeing to the Southern Baptist Convention’s statement about alt-right and white supremacy goes like this: “I agree that racism is bad, but this just feels like political correctness. It seems like the SBC just wants liberals to think they’re good people. Why aren’t we condemning all forms of racism, like [insert group here]? This just reeks of virtue signaling.”

Of course, the proper response to this objection is to ask the person saying this, “Do you mind explaining to me in this context what the difference is between virtue signaling and being virtuous?” That’s the correct answer because the burden of proof is on the one making the accusation of virtue signaling to explain why condemning a politically active group of racists is by definition performative, but condemning abortionists, LGBT lobbyists, and doctrinally wayward churches is not.

But too often, I see friends try to respond to this accusation by saying that it’s not virtue signaling, because racism is a serious threat, it matters how we as a denomination respond to it, and our black and brown brothers and sisters in the faith need to hear us call sin against them what it is. That’s all true, of course, and it all matters. But I don’t think that it’s the best response to the charge of virtue signaling, for two reasons. The first reason is pragmatic, and the second reason is philosophical.

The pragmatic reason is simple. If someone is trying to argue that denominational statements against racism or the alt-right are virtue signaling, you’re not going to get far with them by using arguments that emphasize how brave or necessary such statements are. You see, the trouble with accusations of virtue signaling is that when the stakes go up, the accusations get stickier and stickier. By saying this issue is just too important not to speak up on, you are merely ceding the fact that “liberal media” (by which most people who say this phrase mean everybody who is not in their sociopolitical in-group) determines what’s important to talk about. Like a conspiracy theory, it’s a vicious cycle: Of course you think it’s important to talk about racism, because that’s what the media keeps saying, and what’s important to you is being on the right side of the media, etc etc etc. You can’t defeat this line of thinking with logic, because it’s designed to entail every single response you can give to it. It’s a faith commitment, not a rational deduction.

The philosophical reason is more important, though perhaps less obvious. What makes virtue signaling morally dubious is the fact that it’s basically a synonym for hypocrisy. People who virtue signal are essentially performing virtue for the approbation of others. They either don’t really mean it or else don’t mean it as much as they’re letting on. They want to be known a certain way, and their desire to be approved far outweighs their intellectual commitment to what they’re saying.

That means that the person who is accusing you of virtue signaling because you explicitly condemned racist speech or attitudes is actually changing the subject. The subject has changed from racism, and those who promote it, to you–your motivations, your morals, your authenticity. Here’s the thing: Once the subject is changed in this way, it can’t un-change on its own. Once the issue becomes the where the info came from, instead of whether it’s true or helpful or necessary, that’s it. The conversation has calcified. We aren’t talking about black people, or white supremacy, or theology, or American culture anymore. We’re talking about you.

It’s this rhetorical move that has to be thwarted at all costs.

Part of the reason American racial politics are not better than they are is that both the Left and the Right have tried to change the subject in this way. When the conversation threatens to become about undue economic hardship in redlined black communities, conservatives have too often said, “But look at how liberals have benefited from gerrymandering!” When the conversation threatens to become about Planned Parenthood’s absolute ravaging of urban communities, liberals have too often said, “Conservatives only care about babies until they’re born!” The movement away from racial justice issues toward the motivations of those trying to parse them out is a cultural and political feature that has been devastating, because it has been so effective, and so few people know how to quit its cycle.

If I had 10 seconds to be broadcast on all major TV networks to say whatever I wanted to say to America, I’d say: “Jesus offers life, and don’t be afraid of finding truth outside your tribe.” The intense, life-crushing political polarization of our culture grinds the mechanisms of actual positive change to bits. And it’s due in large part to the fact that people actually believe “But what about them” is a good, morally responsible argument.

It’s not.

Proud

I’m grateful that my denomination, the Southern Baptist Convention, overwhelmingly passed a resolution at their annual meeting today condemning the white supremacy of the so-called “alt-right” movement. This was the right resolution at the right time for the right reasons, and it was the right decision to pass it. The resolutions committee’s decision not to take action on it last night created a storm of controversy. I’m glad it did, but it would be a mistake to singularly focus on the delay. The point is that Southern Baptists have made it explicit where they stand when it comes to the resurgent racism of a nativist, faux-conservative, viciously hateful group.

I’m sure there are people reading this who think my denomination doesn’t deserve laud here. After all, do you really get credit as a traditional evangelical body for saying that people who sling the most vile slurs and employ disgusting rhetorical tactics should be rebuked? Of course, in a sense, nobody deserves credit for that. It should be self-evident. But if the history of the Southern Baptist Convention teaches anything, it’s that people who are right about the deity of Christ can nonetheless be totally, abjectly wrong about the humanity of those with different skin. The point is not that Southern Baptists are great people for denouncing the alt-right. The point is that, for a denomination whose very founding was bound up in theological justifications for the destruction of other human beings, the real gospel–the gospel of the “one new man,” who wasn’t white and didn’t die to found a white church–that gospel has not been utterly lost.

For that, I give thanks.

photo via Craig Garrett