“Now what?” “What should we do?” Most conversations connected with race eventually arrive at some version of these questions. My concluding (but hardly exhaustive) response to this Theopolis conversation aims to propose some steps forward for Christian engagement with challenges of race. First, I thank my four interlocuters, as each response helps identify or set the stage for proposing ways to move forward.
Irwyn Ince’s essay reminded me that there remains an active and competitive marketplace of religious/cultural offerings in the African-American community. He observes correctly that the allure of the Nation of Islam remains; the attraction has not diminished just because Louis Farrakhan is not as often on the radar of the media or of white Christians these days (and with the Netflix documentary about the assassination of Malcolm X there may be an uptick in interest). Black Hebrew Israelites are growing in presence in prominence in communities, offering an alternative vision of the “authentic” religion for those of African descent.
While part of the challenge of competing religions (or cults) may arise in light of the theological failures I wrote about during my time in seminary, an equally large if not larger dimension stems from the perception of the church in African-American communities. As part of my Nevin lectures I mentioned Raphael Warnock’s The Divided Mind of the Black Church. The division to which he refers is related to the question of whether African-American churches should give prominence to matters of piety and spiritual concerns or to a prophetic dimension oriented toward sociopolitical concerns. Some who are drawn to alternative religions offer a critique of black churches as a version of “heavenly minded but no earthly good.” As with most traditions and denominations, there are churches that give greater attention to personal piety and others that emphasize public engagement.
Must a choice be made between these alternatives? Not at all, though it is important to acknowledge that circumstances in the life of a congregation may lead to greater attention to the internal life or to public life. For certain, a holistic faith (an undivided mind of the church) that is deeply biblical/confessional and winsomely public is necessary for conveying a Christian faith that offers a life of flourishing while it speaks to those vexed by questions of identity and deep suffering.
Ince’s final section of his essay calls for a willingness to see the entire truth of our past, even when there may be an experience of shame upon confrontation with the lesser angels of the past and present. One prominent challenge here is that there is often insufficient motivation to take the strong medicine prescribed. What does it take to face the history of the church, warts and all? This resistance is not unique to our time, but the fact that we live in a culture that loves pleasure and strategically curated versions of self and community. To be clear, this is a challenge for everyone, not only for those in the majority culture. Perhaps what we need here is a recalibration or reframing of how we understand the health of the church. In order for us to better understand ourselves and live into a gospel that reverses fractures and reconciles, we have to be willing to see where we are healthy and unhealthy – an unveiled and non-curated self.
This is where catechesis and liturgy can be helpful. What are we learning and teaching our congregations about how we are to see ourselves as God’s people? Do our practices of Christian formation and our liturgies lead us to ask God to search our hearts and to unveil the entire truth to us? Does our reading, singing, hearing and praying together lead us to be those who look at the bad news of the past and present of our communities? Does it as remind us of the amazing goodness of the gospel that gives us courage to see the fractures that remain and the grace of God that makes us a community of forgiveness and true unity?
Rich Lusk’s essay considers how we might arrive at “happily ever after.” His essay presents an important opportunity for considering how we engage each other around questions of race. About halfway into his essay Lusk states that he and I part ways in our understanding of what stands in the way of ending we all desire. He concludes when I wrote about “whiteness” in my essay that I am operating in the framework of Critical Race Theory. This is not the case. Before moving on, here it is important to state that I can understand why he might reach that conclusion. Currently, there is considerable discussion among some Baptists and Presbyterians about the usefulness or harmfulness of CRT. There are definitely some who use CRT as an explanatory paradigm for the way race functions and there are those who find its fundamental ideas problematic. I understand how he might think I am operating as a player in that conversation. But I am not.
If Lusk raised a series of inquiries as to whether I was espousing a set of conclusions that emerge from CRT (e.g. to be white is to be an oppressor regardless of one’s good intentions), that would be fine. But instead of asking what I mean by whiteness he concludes that I am operating from the CRT framework (he could also inquire why some find it a helpful explanatory tool). If that is not my framework, then what do I mean by “whiteness” in my essay? First, I direct readers to my essay, where I state that to the extent that whiteness operates as a cultural norm and operates as a sometimes hidden norm, it can play a role in the construction of theology and ethical commitments. I am well aware that it does not have to play a necessary role, nor did I say whites are unable to transcend the influence of cultural norms that make “white” the standard of normative humanity. I know people who do who hold such a view, but I am not one of them.
What I mean by “whiteness” is the way humans were categorized as part of the Enlightenment, such as when Linnaeus categorizes humans and those of European descent are characterized by wearing close vestments and governed by laws while those of African descent anoint themselves with grease and are governed by caprice. I also have in mind conclusions like those reached by David Hume when he said, “I am apt to suspect the Negroes, and in general all other species of men to be naturally inferior to the whites. There never was any civilized nation of any other complection than white, nor even any individual eminent in action or speculation.” Immanuel Kant was influenced by Hume and made similar conclusions about the superiority of those who are white and inferiority of those who are not (with “blacks” at the bottom). It is the influence of these types of persons that I have in mind when I talk about whiteness emerging as part of the modern world. This is a long time before CRT emerges from legal studies.
As I said, it is fair to ask if I define “whiteness” in accordance with some CRT thinkers (they do not all agree – it is a large field). I said there is opportunity; where is it? It is in this type of engagement where we must do the hard and sometimes very patient work of making sure we understand what is being communicated by each other. Another example: Lusk is concerned that I am on a path different from the colorblind aspiration expressed by Martin Luther King, Jr. in his “I Have a Dream” speech. When reading this part of Lusk’s essay, I could conclude that I know exactly what he means by “colorblind” and proceed to respond with certain claims about the implications of his use of the phrase. But I do not know exactly what he means, and I want to know what he has in mind. I do not know if he means that colorblindness is the half-measure of not holding a person’s race or ethnicity against them but with the liability of not getting to truly know them in their fulness (because to know anyone deeply includes knowing parts of them often associated with what is meant by race). I also do not know if he means truly getting to know people in their fulness while vigilantly resisting the ways race/color could lead me to rush to conclusions about a person’s capabilities. I simply do not know, and I refuse to arrive at a conclusion when it is not clear. We would need to do the work of asking lots of questions and seeking clarifications, and then I think we are likely discover that we have a lot in common in the pursuit of “happily ever after.”
Lusk observes that my original essay does not mention forgiveness. That is correct, but not because I do not think it is important. Christians ought to be leading the way in not only looking unblinkingly at the ways racism has been horrific in the past and present, but also in forgiving (which requires actually acknowledging why forgiveness is necessary) and truly saying “peace be unto you” to each other. Lusk also thinks “race rather than grace” is central to my account. Not exactly. At the end of my essay I speak of hope in the power of God to work among His people; this can only happen because of God’s unmerited favor working within us to transform us into people who tell the whole truth, offer forgiveness, remember the past without living in it, and pursue a future that shows a world where division is normal that unity can be embodied and practiced by those who allow God to work in our lives.
Alastair Roberts raises concerns about whether attention to whiteness will get us where we need to go. He makes a couple of observations I wish to highlight in this regard. First, he rightly observes what can happen even with the best understanding of the origin and function of our racialized society. Regarding the language of “whiteness” as concept, he says: “When such vague abstract concepts dominate, particular persons, realities, and events can be stripped of their particularizing features and employed as symbols of the abstraction.”
This is true. What could occur is that human beings are stripped of their concrete existence and this can thwart actually knowing persons. Put another way, abstract concepts can lead to the easy labeling of others, which sometimes leads to easily sizing up others and then quickly placing them on your team or with “the enemy.” One way this works in a racialized society is that sometimes those who have been harmed by racism can create a mirror image that easily sizes up others and neatly puts them into a category. Roberts writes: “It conflates many different demographics and dynamics by focusing on skin colour and through such conflations can reinforce some of the problems that it purportedly sets out to address.” When this occurs, this impedes the kind of genuine attention and engagement I suggest above in my response to Lusk’s essay.
That said, I do not think we need to set aside talking about how the dynamics of race have and continue to operate. Believe me, most minorities would rather not talk about it but their experiences with it lead them to either address it or become like a pressure cooker. We need to be wary of the pitfalls Roberts presents, but part of our engagement with the truth includes the work of seeing, describing and responding to various ways “race” functions as part of the DNA of our contemporary society and within the church.
It is further important to draw attention to Roberts’ observation that even with attention to “whiteness” there can be an obscuring of the oligarchic class which is more to blame for the problems of society than those of European origin who have less real influence/dominance in society. Given Roberts’s English background, I found myself wondering how those dynamics are operative in the U.K, where there is a stronger or more apparent division according to class (and, I imagine, less class mobility). Whether in the U.S. or the U.K., it is important to inquire after the greater culprits behind the various divisions in society.
A final observation: Roberts proposes African-American churches cultivate an approach to their faith and life that the counters the losses of identity and wounds that sometimes occur when participating in majority white churches. This is certainly necessary, if for no reason other than the ongoing cultivation and dissemination of the gifts of the “Black Church” to the larger church. While I agree there can be a way for African-American churches to fortify identity and display forms of confession and practice that convey a gospel response to the horrors of a racialized society, I think it is equally important that Christians across ethnic backgrounds (including and beyond the black/white binary) display a commitment to life together. I am not of the view that we necessarily need more intentional multiethnic churches but genuine forms of fellowship and practices of ministry together across ethnic differences. The world needs to see a glimpse of the multiethnic people of God worshipping and serving Him together. A position of strength and fortitude of African-American churches is an important element here, one that is not isolated but is a valued contributor to the common life of the church catholic.
Ronjour Locke’s essay presents us experiences that have brought him despair and delight. His experiences show us the ways the church struggles and soars when contending with the realities of racial and ethnic difference. Locke will not allow us to either look at the glass as only half-full or half-empty. We must look at it both ways. This is truly wise counsel, though difficult for some. Our experiences in the face of a racialized society can lead to some to say that we are at least half-full because we had a nearly empty glass for most of the history of the United States. “Look how far we’ve come,” one might say in this regard. There is truth in this view, but it can obscure the hard truths about the challenges that remain. Likewise, those who say the glass is at least half-empty will see what has not yet happened and possibly suggest that the glass is more accurately three-quarters empty because there is much duress remains. “Look at what hasn’t happened,” some might say. There is truth here because the current polarization in society has prompted some minorities to wonder whether we are going backward or have not come as far as imagined, but here it is important to pause and note the contrasts between the present and society in the first half of the twentieth century. Locke tells us to reckon with progress and the large vista that remains.
Eschatology teaches us that victory has arrived but will not fully arrive until Jesus returns to establish eternal shalom. Locke reminds us that we are in a truly messy situation where God’s people display both forestates of the victory to come and reminders that God’s people can fail spectacularly. The messiness of church life and the disappointments within and beyond the church can direct our attention away from the hopefulness. While we need to be honest in our recognition that negative information and experiences can be overwhelming and sometimes devastating, we also need to put these experiences inside the larger frame of hope based in the incarnation, death and resurrection of Christ and the anticipation of His return. It is immensely important to juxtapose the ways our encounters in a racialized society say “not yet!” about God’s kingdom with the greater truth of “Christ has risen, ascended and will return!” The mark of the people of God should be proclamations of hopefulness, perhaps especially when we are at our most discouraged about the prospects of the church’s witness on race. As stated above, catechesis and liturgy are vital for our formation. Hope is not only what we proclaim, however. It is equally important that Christians consider how to become agents of hope in their expressions of discipleship after they hear the words of benediction and enter the world of everyday life.
I thank Peter Leithart for inviting me to give the Nevin Lectures and to participate in the Theopolis conversation. It has been a privilege and joy. I thank my respondents for stimulating my thinking and offering challenges to consider as I think about how to proclaim and practice the Christian faith in a world that struggles with difference. I am confident in God’s power to work among His people in His time. God’s work within the church is not the neat trajectory of transformation that we prefer, but the Spirit is at work leading God’s people to
Dr. Vincent Bacote is Associate Professor of Theology and the Director of the Center for Applied Christian Ethics, Wheaton College. He will be speaking on the topic of race and the church at the upcoming Nevin Lectures.
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