Book Review: America’s Original Sin

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America’s Original Sin: Racism, White Privilege, and the Bridge to a New America, by Jim Wallis. Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2016. 272 pages

During the past several years, Evangelical Christians have been criticized for their lack of involvement in the fight against racial injustice. It’s said that Christians willingly and consistently engage in Pro-Life issues (and issues concerning the proper role of marriage and sexuality), but are glaringly absent when it comes to the issue and consequences of racial injustice.

In reacting to these criticisms, Evangelicals have attempted to increase their visibility and participation in the ongoing, national conversation on the topic of racial injustice. Recently, InterVarsity Christian Fellowship — an Evangelical campus ministry — held its Urbana 15 Student Missions Conference that had as a keynote speaker a social justice advocate and self-identified supporter of the Black Lives Matter movement. Last week, Wheaton College’s Center for Applied Christian Ethics hosted three members of the Ferguson Commission on a panel entitled Change, Healing and Reconciliation: A Conversation with The Ferguson Commission to discuss the findings of the Department of Justice’s investigation of the Ferguson Police Department, in addition to the Church’s response to what many perceive to be blatant and persistent forms of racial inequality.

This week Jim Wallis — author, political activist, and founder of Sojourners magazine offers his contribution to the Evangelical discussion of this culturally sensitive issue in America’s Original Sin: Racism, White Privilege, and the Bridge to a New America.

According to Wallis, this book serves as a “primer on the underlying racism that still exists in America,” and seeks to “talk honestly” about America’s original sin of racial discrimination and how it continues to impact various areas of American life. Wallis argues that white America is obligated to begin the act of contrition — repentance for participating in, and contributing to, racial discrimination against blacks and other minorities. In addition to repentance, Wallis argues that white Americans (which he conflates with white Christians throughout the book) should listen to their “black and brown brothers and sisters” when they tell their stories of racial injustice rather than disregarding these pain-filled experiences as unimportant. For Wallis, these are the necessary first steps toward racial justice and reconciliation.

The book explains that racism is a manifestation of sin — clearly using biblical and theological language to convey the moral evil of racial discrimination. Wallis rightly notes that sin is a theological problem that goes deeper than politics. The book also effectively explains the linguistic and theological contours of repentance. It stresses that repentance is much more than merely adopting an apologetic tone for wrongs committed. Repentance, which follows forgiveness, entails the sincere and complete change of direction of one’s mind (renewal), evidenced by one’s actions (restitution, loving one’s neighbor, etc.). Discussing racism in biblical (moral) terms rather than political terms is a refreshing necessity that should be adopted by Christians and non-Christians alike.

In addition, Wallis laments churches that have “baptized us into our racial divisions” rather than teaching and modeling that our baptism, and the Lord’s Supper, unites us in a way that transcends all earthly limitations. Wallis is spot-on here, and he would have done a great service by expanding the implications of this idea a bit more than the passing glance he gave it.

The book describes the underlying tensions contributing to the current state of race relations in the United States using Ferguson and Baltimore as parabolic examples of the consequences of racial tension. It also discusses in some detail the socio-economic disparities that exist between blacks and whites — including the lower quality of black life in the ghettos, “mass incarceration” and the disproportionate numbers of blacks represented in the penal system, the substandard public school system among other issues, arguing these realities are the result of white privilege and white supremacy. Wallis argues that the root of these disparities is unquestionably found in racial injustice that, because of the shifting racial demographic of the country, not only affect blacks but also other minorities.

That said, having read Wallis’ other work and knowing his political sensibilities direct his religious beliefs, the overall framework and content of America’s Original Sin was rather predictable.

For starters, Wallis says that white racism is an extension of white privilege, but he never explicitly defines “white privilege.” He repeatedly condemns white privilege as if what constitutes white privilege is self-evident. It isn’t. The term “white privilege” is just as intentionally ambiguous as the phrase “Hope and Change.” That is to say it can mean whatever the person invoking it wants it to mean, at any given time, risking contradiction from invocation to invocation. The closest Wallis comes to defining white privilege was to link it to white supremacy. But he didn’t explain how white supremacy — a thoroughly dated but deliberately provocative term — is defined in our contemporary setting.

Likewise, aside from not defining it — but confidently stating that blacks continue to suffer because of it — Wallis never explains how Asian, African, Indian and other immigrants to America without white skin, seem to avoid falling prey to the intentions and negative effects of white privilege. It’s as if they don’t exist so as to preserve the myth.

Throughout the book, Wallis repeatedly suggests that Christians should “talk honestly” about racial injustice, and should engage in “telling the truth about race.” But sadly Wallis doesn’t come close to living up to his own suggestion. As I read the book, I wondered if this truth was objective, or if it was in fact based on how he and others, who share his position on racial matters, (re)define it.

For example Wallis unquestionably claims that all of the socio-economic ills experienced by blacks and other minorities are sourced in the preservation of white supremacy and white privilege. He says this as if the fact that these discrepancies exist are in-and-of themselves, hard evidences of racism. How can Wallis be assured of this? Based on what proof? He gives a number of dizzying statistics that demonstrate the quality-of-life discrepancies between blacks and whites, but he doesn’t give any evidence that validates his claim that these statistics are singularly the result of racism. He does say that “black[s] and [other minorities] are disproportionately consigned to the lowest economic tier is a continuing proof of racism.” He also says that the “systemic and perverse character of racism” in addition to the “cold hard savagery of racism,” is responsible for the declining quality of life among many blacks. The academic and economic experiences of many blacks might contribute a lesser quality of life than their white counterparts — and I believe that in many cases to be true. But, if we’re being honest as Wallis suggests we should be, there are very clear reasons why blacks are academically and economically disadvantaged, and one can argue that racism is but one result. However racism as an explanation in totality, without clear evidence to support such a claim is irresponsible, especially by someone of Wallis’ stature.

(As a side note, the strongest area in which racism can be argued to be actively influential is in the area of education. The substandard education delivered to poor minority children in places like Los Angeles, Chicago, Detroit, New York, Philadelphia and other ghettos across the country is the result of teachers’ unions placing the priority of employing teachers over educating students. That doesn’t absolve black parents from their responsibility of emphasizing academic success by any means. But what’s allowed to happen to poor ghetto children when it comes to education is a national sin.)

Additionally, Wallis argues that blacks suffer these socio-economic maladies because they’re black (because that’s how racism works). No other contributing factors like values, attitudes, behavior and morality are given as reasons or predictors of black suffering. At the same time, whites are successful because they benefit from white privilege. Again, just like the lack of other variables that might explain black suffering, no other reasons are given as reasons or predictors of “white” success. For Wallis, minorities, especially blacks, are never-ending victims of external circumstances, not autonomous beings that are capable of forming ideas, attitudes and behaviors to reduce socio-economic disparities. Thus when Wallis blames all social and economic ills on white racism and ignores black involvement, he engages in the sort of condescending, racial paternalism that re-victimizes blacks, making them powerless when it comes to relying on self-determination to influence and change their own fate. Aside from handicapping blacks, having to constantly beg and depend on external help to solve their problems, he indicts all whites as racists, obligating them (through guilt) to engage in redemptive acts of black charity. That directly contradicts his earlier appeal to the biblical and theological understanding of forgiveness and repentance, which does more to nourish white resentment than it does to cultivate racial reconciliation. And it’s not very Christian.

By reducing the black role in racial reconciliation to the role of a disabled and victimized bystander, the book minimizes the black obligation of forgiveness and repentance. Blacks are not simply in a position to forgive white people for participating and sustaining white racism (where it exists); they’re also in a position to ask whites for forgiveness. Despite the book’s false claim that blacks can’t be racist because they lack the power to implement their discrimination (50), which minimizes black moral responsibility — if racial reconciliation is to become a reality in the church — blacks must be required to ask forgiveness from whites for assuming and projecting racism onto whites where it doesn’t exist. All church-based strategies that seek racial reconciliation and restoration will crash and burn if they don’t include blacks as equals in moral agency, as a result of being created in God’s image in addition to being children of God, and as brothers and sisters in Christ (Romans 8:15-15, Galatians. 4:5–6.)

Repeating the overused cliche’ and untrue narrative that blacks are permanent victims of white racism doesn’t make it any more true simply because it’s accompanied with Christian veneer.

America’s Original Sin argues that racism is a sin that’s deeper than politics, yet the remedy offered appears to be almost entirely political. Though effective change can happen through social and economic policy, the reality is our morality dictates our politics. The more Christian morality influences politics, the more impartial legislation can become. Regardless, Christians shouldn’t wait until politicians pass policies they approve of. Christians have to be epistles that emanate the gospel of Christ in our own communities, living as as ambassadors of redemption and in this case, racial reconciliation. In other words, Christians (regardless of color) should be disciples of cruciformity — conforming to the gospel of the crucified and resurrected Christ in pursuit of redeeming and restoring relationships that have been strained and broken along racial lines.

Ultimately, America’s Original Sin, in effect, attempts to Christianize recycled racial narratives without critically or courageously examining why racial, moral and cultural disparities exist between black and white Americans. Simply laying fault to a white racial boogeyman isn’t productive, nor is it particularly Christian. I can’t imagine too many Christians arguing that racism doesn’t exist. I also can’t imagine too many Christians who don’t want to reduce racial inequality or who’re against racial reconciliation. But attempting to provoke them into action through blame, guilt, bad politics and a watered down gospel isn’t a plan for lasting success because it trivializes both the problem and the solution.

In the age of Black Lives Matter and the social expectation to support its agenda or be slandered as racist, Christian contributions to racial reconciliation should approach this issue carefully. Racial inequality deserves the attention and engagement of Evangelicals but not through a superficial and self-righteous agenda that does more damage than good. It’s simply not enough for Christians to look busy while doing nothing in a self-congratulatory manner like Black lives Matter.

America’s Original Sin left a lot on the table, but should be read more for what it isn’t than for what it is.

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Evangelicals, Black Lives Matter and The New York Times

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Last week the New York Times ran an article discussing the trepidation some Evangelical Christians face when it comes to the Black Lives Matter Movement.

It notes that religious support for Black Lives Matter generally lies with Christians and denominations that are more progressive, like the United Church of Christ, the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) and the American Baptist Churches, whereas more conservative Christians, groups and denominations are much more cautious in supporting a movement with such a radical agenda.

Part of this tension is seen in the repercussions InterVarsity encountered last month after a keynote speaker, Michelle Higgins, spoke at the Urbana Missions Conference where she not only argued in favor of Christian support of Black Lives Matter, she insulted the sincerity and authenticity of the Christian commitment to being Pro-Life but seemingly ignoring the issue of adoption.

From the New York Times:

InterVarsity, one of the country’s leading campus Christian organizations, is known for its history of racial cooperation and integration. But many of its members and supporters are conservatives who oppose abortion, support law enforcement and are skeptical of the welfare state. And in her wide-ranging comments about social justice, Ms. Higgins did little to make her speech more palatable.

“We can wipe out the adoption crisis tomorrow,” Ms. Higgins said at one point. “We could wipe it out this week, but we’re too busy arguing to have abortion banned, we’re too busy arguing to defund Planned Parenthood. “We are too busy withholding mercy from the living,” she said, “so that we might display a big spectacle of how much we want mercy to be shown to the unborn….

Even had Ms. Higgins never ventured into the dangerous terrain of abortion politics, her speech probably would not have pleased many evangelicals, who consider Black Lives Matter to be a liberal movement.

“Consider Black Lives Matter to be a ‘liberal’ movement?” That’s like saying some people “consider” it lighter in the daytime than it is at night. And Black Lives Matter isn’t “liberal.” It’s a progressive movement, period.

More from the New York Times:

The historian D.G. Hart, who teaches at Hillsdale College in Michigan, noted in a blog post that the website BlackLivesMatter.com, a prominent one within the movement, expresses support for transgender and gay rights, issues that are problematic for conservative Christians.

“Some who support justice for African-Americans and oppose police brutality may wonder legitimately what Caitlyn Jenner or Dan Savage have to do with Freddie Gray or Tamir Rice,” Dr. Hart wrote on the website Patheos, contrasting icons of the transgender and gay rights movements, with black men whose deaths have galvanized Black Lives Matter.

The discomfort of evangelicals about Black Lives Matter goes beyond specific policies. Many believe that the church should not be intimately involved with politics.

In an interview, Dr. Hart, a member of the conservative Orthodox Presbyterian Church, said that he took police brutality and racism seriously, and that those concerns might affect his voting in local or statewide elections. But in general, he thinks the church should not be a political actor.

“I tend to be a Machen guy,” Dr. Hart said, referring to J. Gresham Machen, the Presbyterian theologian who died in 1937 and was known for his belief that political participation could sully the church. “He believed that the church doesn’t do politics, though individual Christians may.”

Mimi Haddad, an evangelical, leads Christians for Biblical Equality, which works for the equality of women, including those in the church. She signed an open letter, printed in the liberal evangelical magazine Sojourners, congratulating InterVarsity for showcasing Black Lives Matter.

The Times reasons that this conservative Evangelical cautiousness stems from conservative Evangelical groups, “support[ing] Republican candidates [and being] uncomfortable with the movement because of its embrace of liberal politics, associated with Democrats.”

An interesting read regarding the obvious fact that Evangelicals aren’t a monolithic demographic who think and act the same. Nevertheless, a few observations are in order.

It’s noteworthy that the piece argues that progressive Christians support Black Lives Matter because of the teachings of Jesus and Paul — a thoroughly religious reason, of course — but conservative Evangelicals don’t support the Black Lives Matter because of their unflinching loyalty to the Republican party — a thoroughly political, non-biblical reason. It’s a passive way to commend progressive Christians (and by extension, the author?) for their fidelity to the Bible and dismiss conservative Evangelicals as playing politics. The Times doesn’t hesitate for a moment to consider that one reason conservative Evangelicals refuse to support Black Lives Matter is that its leftist agenda and confrontational tactics contradict the gospel’s rendering of mercy, love, and reconciliation.

Put simply: progressive Christians, good; conservative (political) Evangelicals, bad.

Also, I’m not sure I agree with Hart’s assessment that the church should abstain from politics. How far should that go, exactly? Honestly, at some point or another, all of politics deal with morality. Is it moral, or right, for the government to penalize some people through burdensome taxation, simply because they make more than others? Why? Based on what system of morality? Doesn’t it violate the directive against stealing? Or, is it morally right to weaken a citizen’s right to defend oneself, one’s family and one’s property through troublesome and prohibitive gun laws that seek to disarm him or her in the face of danger? If so, based on what moral value system? And, isn’t it morally right to influence policies that seek to mitigate racial inequality — a justice for some that doesn’t come at the expense of others? Is it morally right to seek “justice” for one racial group, if it causes an injustice to another? Why or why not? Again, based on what system of morality?

Though I share Hart’s viewpoint concerning the danger regarding the intimacy of churches and political parties, I would argue that it’s because of the self-imposed limitation and silence of many churches and their pastors from discussing political issues that’s led to the declining presence of the church’s religious influence upon our culture. This voluntary withdrawal has created a moral vacuum in which movements like Black Lives Matter have filled. This void has facilitated a thick moral confusion among Christians and non-Christians alike, emotionally manipulating and intimidating people into supporting “black lives” in a specific way or risk being labeled a racist and/or non-Christian. It’s to the detriment of both Christians and culture not to speak out confidently — with a Christian perspective rooted in both the bible and church tradition — on pressing cultural and political issues.

Conservative Evangelicals have the unique ability to fix this problem of refusing to preach and practically apply God’s word to how we should live in the world. Jesus is our guide. There’s a reason why the overwhelming majority of Jesus’ teachings and parables dealt with life outside of synagogues and the Temple — because outside of religious centers is where we live the overwhelming majority of our lives. If Jesus was able to do it, so can conservative Evangelicals.

Conservative Evangelicals need to increase their presence to inform and teach others as to how racial inequality and racial reconciliation should be approached — and it doesn’t include Black Lives Matter. If the church was on the forefront of this issue — discussing from a biblical and theological perspective on why all black lives matter (and not just ones in police custody or killed in police-involved shootings) — it would be much clearer why there’s an obligation to reject the Black Lives Matter movement. The church should be saying that black lives matter because they are created in the image of God, not because they’re black — and if these ‘black lives’ are Christian, that their primary identity is centered in Christ, not in being black; that black lives matter means black families need to be restored, black abortion needs to be reduced and black children need a married mother and father; that black lives matter means black children deserve quality education not abandoned in failing schools; that black lives matter means instilling and reinforcing Christian values at home and at church to mitigate the self-destructive behaviors that lead to disproportionately high numbers of blacks imprisoned; that black lives matter means much more than an empty slogan and socially-provocative, self-aggrandizing, behavior.

If conservative Evangelicals believe Jesus is Lord of all, they should start acting like it. Engage culture and politics using the gospel and common sense. Don’t be afraid to reject Black Lives Matter — not because you’re racist, or you’re a Republican, but because it doesn’t square with the template of reconciliation found in the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

InterVarsity Seduced by #BlackLivesMatter, Compartmentalized “Justice”

Despite the incongruity between its activist agenda and what the name of the organization (and hashtag) superficially implies, the social current of #BlackLivesMatter has successfully swallowed a number of churches and Christian organizations in its supposed quest for racial and social “justice.” InterVarsity Christian Fellowship is the latest victim to be seduced by the cultural fad of “justice” — always compartmentalized — at the expense of biblical justice, which is supposed to permeate the totality of the Christian’s life.

During InterVarsity’s Urbana missions conference, Michelle Higgins, director of Faith for Justice, a Christian advocacy group — and herself a member of #BlackLivesMatter — lectured listening Christians about the need to be involved in the fight against racial injustice. Fighting against racial injustice, in addition to all forms of injustice, is a Christian obligation that’s firmly rooted in the mission of the church. The body of Christ is — and should be — the vessel of racial reconciliation, predicated on Christ having overcome all superficial forms of division and separation, including those based on racial and ethnic considerations.

But for Higgins, or any Christian, to conflate the fight against racial injustice with supporting the agenda, intent, and behavior of #BlackLivesMatter is “chasing after the wind” — a fool’s errand that leads many sincere Christians astray. Christian leaders have a tremendous responsibility to be voices and examples of reason. Christian credibility is at stake. So it’s a cause for concern when Christians engage in negligent and questionable behavior. Here it involves using racial guilt to manipulate Christians into supporting a movement that perpetuates a secular social and political narrative that consists of lies and racial paranoia under the guise of fighting racial inequality.

During her speech, Higgins sought to religiously justify support of #BlackLivesMatter in a manner similar to the Christians and theologians that used Christianity to justify the black power movement of the past.  Higgins said, “Black Lives Matter is not a mission of hate. It is not a mission to bring about incredible anti-Christian values and reforms to the world. Black Lives Matter is a movement on mission in the truth of God.”

That a Christian felt comfortable enough to say this with a straight face is disturbing. The fact that the audience was so embracing of her message, especially in light of the rhetoric and strategies used by #BlackLivesMatter activists is even more disturbing, reflecting poorly on Christians. The claim that #BlackLivesMatter is on ‘mission in the truth of God’ is about as true as the claim made at Michael Brown’s funeral — that he was “out spreading the word of Jesus Christ” before he was killed.

Brown was actually stealing a box of cigarillos from a liquor store shortly before he was killed.

Higgins continued, noting the presence of racism in various areas of life where she claimed the church is silent, including the racial disparities in education and the criminal justice system — obligatorily mentioning the cases of Tamir Rice, Sandra Bland, Eric Garner and Michael Brown. She then clarified what she wants people to think #BlackLivesMatter means, saying,

“Now, I don’t want all people of color to go scot-free for wrongdoing – I don’t want to see people of color never arrested for anything. Black lives matter doesn’t mean all black folk can kill people and steal stuff…. that’s not what we want, that’s not what I want. What do we want? Justice. And what is justice? Justice means my baby boy, my baby girl will not be tried, condemned… executed on the street. That’s justice. Justice means the burden of supremacy…is not up on you, because God is pleased with you. Therefore, you can be pleased with everyone he has made.”

Higgins added,

“BlackLivesMatter demands that we face facts and tell the truth…it demands that I know myself and that I see you, it demands that [we see] those that have been in prison… and executed… because of their skin color, and that we free them. It demands that white and black and brown and Asian and Hispanic brothers and sisters be treated as one. Redefine justice the way that God defines justice; your God is not white, he’s not Japanese or Congolese — your God is God.”

Ok, let’s face facts and tell the truth.

Here’s a fact. There are racial disparities in education and the criminal justice system. And there is a case to be made, at least in education, that the disparities are partially the result of substandard education intentionally delivered to poor black and Hispanic children. Deliberately giving poor children less access to quality education is a partial predictor of future dependency, contributing to a growing underclass. Chicago, Detroit and New York are perfect examples. This cause should be taken up by Christians, but #BlackLivesMatter has nothing to do with it.

Further, if the goal is to reduce the racial disparities in education, people should not only advocate that poor children receive better quality education, they should also encourage the redemption and reconciliation of the black family. Not only would that contribute to the mitigation of academic disparities suffered by blacks, increasing the number of intact black families would also mitigate the racial disparities in the criminal justice system. Blacks aren’t locked up disproportionately simply and only because they’re black. Blacks are imprisoned disproportionately because of the disintegration of the family and the collapse of the Christian moral value system.

Speaking of criminals, here’s another fact: #BlackLivesMatter valorizes black criminality and sanctifies black criminals. The lives of everyday blacks don’t matter to this movement, including the lives of blacks tormented by black criminals. This is why #BlackLivesMatter is a misnomer. The only black lives that matter to these social agitators are the ones killed by (white) cops, largely the result of the actions of the criminals themselves. Defending and honoring the lives of black criminals over the lives of blacks that aren’t criminals, but in need of our attention, is despicable and unworthy of being called or legitimized by Christianity.

Moreover, with the exception of Tamir Rice — who was shot and killed because he was playing with a toy gun that police officers mistook for real — Michael Brown and Eric Garner were killed because they attacked police officers or resisted arrest when their criminal behavior was confronted. (Sandra Bland also refused to listen to an officer’s command, which resulted in a physical confrontation.) This isn’t to say that they deserved to die, but they also weren’t “innocent” nor were the merely “victims” because of their race. There are consequences when one confronts police officers, is insubordinate to police officers or resists arrest. For Higgins to conflate their deaths with the possibility of her “baby boy” and her “baby girl” being “tried, condemned… and executed on the street” — presumably because they’re black and nothing else — trivializes any real understanding of what justice entails.

Further, where specifically has anyone, in modern America, been “executed” in prison only because of his or her skin color? That’s a heavy charge that deserves to be supported by very firm evidence, particularly when said by someone who self-identifies with the name of Christ. Without supporting evidence, it’s a lie. Additionally, why exactly should we “free” anyone in prison, as a rule, merely because of his or her skin color?

Now the obvious but compulsory disclaimer: fighting against racial injustice and inequality is the Christian thing to do; there aren’t many Christians that would argue against doing so. Christianity’s influence was responsible for ending slavery and was the moral motivator and sustainer of the civil rights movement — the last great moral movement in our nation’s history. Supporting #BlackLivesMatter isn’t the proper or most effective and practical way for Christians to meet the challenge of fighting the vestiges of racial injustice. In many ways, supporting #BlackLivesMatter contributes to racial discord and perpetuates racial acrimony.

Additionally, part of fighting racial injustice is to resist the reflexive urge to label every socio-economic disparity a result of racial injustice — a characteristic of #BlackLivesMatter. Purposefully mislabeling every racial disparity between blacks and their racial counterparts, the result of “racism,” trivializes actual occurrences of racism, preventing these occurrences from being appropriately addressed. It also stifles constructive strategies (which have nothing to do with race) that can be implemented to diminish socio-economic gaps that continue to exist.

Trying to address racial discrimination is one thing. Trying to do so facilitated by the dishonest rhetoric and antagonistic behavior of the #BlackLivesMatter organization should be of no interest to Christians. Christians shouldn’t allow themselves to be influenced by the kind of overt deception that #BlackLivesMatter espouses, and they shouldn’t legitimize the tactics and secular agenda of such a duplicitous organization.

Sadly, InterVarsity undermined its religious credibility by granting unearned moral authority to #BlackLivesMatter. Shame on Michelle Higgins for conflating the fight against racial injustice — a worthy cause — with the questionable and unworthy cause of #BlackLivesMatter. And shame on InterVarsity for legitimizing this error by giving Higgins such a big platform to mislead so many Christians