Tag Archives: racism

David Brooks again: How Paul’s “two tiers” apply to social action

Black Lives Matter surges in public approval (chart) - CSMonitor.com
From CS Monitor article. Click pic to see it.

We are thrilled with the possibilities of police reform and a new (hopefully effective) awareness of the scourge of racism. The chart above is thrilling to a guy like me who has been waiting for the tipping point for a long time. May all our years of work bear fruit.

Our excitement tempts us to live on the “second tier” of life in Christ,  the practical, relational interchange with the world around us — especially when our hope for change is activated. As a result, we can miss the deeper, “first tier” of relating to God in a transcendent and transformative way. Since so many people have thrown God out of reality, it is tempting to relate to them according to the worldview for which they are fighting, rather than joining with them in social action as our true selves in Christ.

Paul and the first church definitely did social action. The first churches, though they were a tiny, sometimes persecuted minority within the Roman Empire, started a movement that eventually overran it. Much of the church’s favorable reputation grew out of their alternativity: how they shared, how they loved, and how they managed to accept people of all classes and backgrounds into a dynamic whole.

But I don’t they were doing “social action” in the way most of us think of it. Paul does not have an idea of “social” or “action” in the way we do. For one thing, he did not know about the conceptual frameworks of the Enlightenment that spawned Hobbes and Rousseau arguing about the essence of the social contract and the state of nature without God. And I don’t think he had any democratic sense of his rights or responsibility to influence society as a whole.

Paul’s idea of social action, like all his ideas, started with his faith in Jesus. His motivation came from the Holy Spirit. His hope came from his trust that he lived “in Christ” which defined his present and guaranteed his future. He certainly does not have a theory of social action under which his faith is subsumed. I don’t think he ever imagined reforming the Roman Empire. His only power resides in the apparently powerless love of Jesus.

As Circle of Hope, we are sometimes unclear about the source of our action when we operate according to a sense of society donated by European rationalists and all their followers since their heyday. We sometimes start in tier two, even forget tier one altogether, when we relate to others and try to make a difference in the world. I think we should be more serious about our faith and about the revelation in the Bible whether it seems to “work well” or not. We should hold on to Jesus and revelation whether people label it as unacceptable speech or not. What Paul has going works a lot better than what we usually do. And what he builds will last a lot longer than the results of the latest power struggle.

Image may contain: text that says 'IF U.S. LAND WERE DIVIDED LIKE U.S. WEALTH 1% WOULD OWN THIS 9% WOULD OWN THIS 30% WOULD OWN THIS 20% WOULD OWN THIS 40% Would Own This Red Dot'
Click for a Pew Research article

The two tiers of our present social action

Our doing Theology team is still mulling over the rich dialogue we had about our approach to the coming election, so you’ll probably hear more about that before long. Until then, my mind has been drawn toward mulling over a previous dialogue we shared about Paul’s two-tiered outlook, as you can see by what I just said. In case you haven’t heard about this piece of theology, we reported on it and saved the material at the Way of Jesus site.

David Brooks, of all people (my strange new “friend” from the conservatives), got me thinking about how we are engaging in the present transformation of the police, in particular. He wrote another interesting piece in the New York Times last week. In it, he crystallizes a view of the social justice “religion” that is quite alluring to many of us. You can see it all over our mapping material this year, and also see people questioning it. Brooks says one of the five crises the U.S. is facing right now is:

“Fourth, a quasi-religion is seeking control of America’s cultural institutions. The acolytes of this quasi-religion, Social Justice, hew to a simplifying ideology: History is essentially a power struggle between groups, some of which are oppressors and others of which are oppressed. Viewpoints are not explorations of truth; they are weapons that dominant groups use to maintain their place in the power structure. Words can thus be a form of violence that has to be regulated.”

I don’t feel like I need to agree with David Brooks’ reduction or not. But I can accept his sound bite of a viewpoint and listen to it. He might be on to something.

In tier two, I think Jesus followers are out on the street demanding  real reform of the oppressive institutions that have grown up since Ronald Reagan, an end to half-measures regarding systemic racism, and economic justice that rightsizes the rich and their corporations. But I hope we all come to that social action from tier one, where we know Jesus is the way to the real revolution and know these power struggles are not the deepest response we have to what torments humanity. We come to society with the humility not to impose the latest ideological purity but to trust God in others to bring things to right.

Many people in the church have been damaged by powerful teachers handing down provisional solutions to sinful conditions as if they were mandates from God (like women needing to wear head coverings, or the Bible coming to a final form in 1611, or priests needing to be celibate, or America being a haven for righteousness – the list goes on). They make tier two into tier one. In the ultimate example of that grab for power, the church lost the miraculous influence it had in the beginning by taking over the rights and structure of the Roman Empire.

I want to be part of the church where it is not an outpost of the Empire, where it does not reference the Empire when it thinks of itself – for it or against it as if the nation or society is the ultimate context. Being free of that world would be authentic tier one living. To be free like that requires a preoccupation with listening to God and others. One thing I always love about our mapping process is how it brings up the need for discernment as a way of life. We need to listen to the voice of our Savior like sheep listening for their shepherd so we can find our way through perilous times and foment transformation along the way. Such discernment comes to us in many ways, not least of all in the voices of our partners in Christ, both present and gone before, so it is readily available.

The discernment we gain as we make our map, rarely gets boiled down to an ideology or something that seems simple. Love for God has an eternal “open end” to it. Love for others has a provisional sense of creating what is best together. So our listening is never shallow enough to merely win an argument or take power in the establishment. Besides, the resurrection of Jesus won the argument and “Who’s in power?” wasn’t the question, it was already a given.

Dahleen Glanton: White people, you are the problem

While we were collecting input for the church’s mapping process in one of my cells last week, we got to talking about racism. We noted everyone who showed up was of the dominant “race.” And though we were all firmly committed to stomping out the sin of racism, we all remembered times when we did not do what we could do to do the stomping personally.

Dahleen Glanton, Chicago Tribune

We had to admit we could not fully escape accusations like the ones Dahleen Glanton piled up in the Chicago Tribune on May 31. Here’s part of what she said:

“White people don’t like watching hardcore racism…. And while the stories make their way through the news cycle, you and your friends lament how awful racism is.

Then before you know it, your drive-by rage is over.

You conclude that the terrible incident doesn’t affect you directly. So you drift back into oblivion, convinced there’s nothing you can do about racist cops or the racist society that breeds them.

But you are wrong. White people, you are the problem.

Regardless of how much you say you detest racism, you are the sole reason it has flourished for centuries. And you are the only ones who can stop it…

Too many white people are satisfied doing nothing to bring about substantive change…. You should talk among yourselves and figure it out. In the midst of the civil rights movement in the 1960s, you managed to put a man on the moon. You could make the same commitment to stomping out racism….

Racists are counting on you to continue doing nothing. They are certain that before long, you will return to your blissful state of denial, where racism is somebody else’s problem. And you will not disappoint them.

Racists know some of you better than you know yourselves.”

We do know ourselves and each other rather well in our cell. So we don’t shy away from confessing. Last week we had to admit that doing the “little things “ when it comes to the big thing of racism makes more of a difference than we wish. We had to confess how easy it is not to get into it with people who threaten us or just disturb us with their racist behavior.

Philly police stood by as men with baseball bats ‘protected’ Fishtown. Some residents were assaulted and threatened.
Inquirer June 2 — Philly police stood by as men with baseball bats ‘protected’ Fishtown.

One of us started us off with a story. One time a man was getting raccoons out of our friend’s house. He asked the man what he did with the animals after he caught them. The man said he took them to a black neighborhood and let them go. Our friend confessed he did not confront him.

Another of us told the story about his neighbor in Fishtown. He had a nice relationship with the old man. A few weeks ago the man challenged him to get his bat and join him in protecting Fishtown, assuming he would go along. Our cell mate told his neighbor he was “not that way” and the man went ahead without him. The neighbor has not spoken to him since. We prodded our friend to follow up.

Another of us talked about his daughter spending her first year away at college. She realized her Philadelphia experience, including African American history education, was unique among her peers who lived segregated/sheltered lives (and who have trouble relating to aggrieved people of color).  As he reflects on his privilege and considers how to be a better ally, he is learning from his kids.

I personally went way back to my birth family, which was run by a genuine racist from Oklahoma. My father would have thought Tulsa was a huge city even in his day. He was born out on the panhandle a year after the massacre. My memory is that I never let one of his racist remarks go unprotested. I even wrote a short story in the seventh grade about the variety of names he had to slur every race and ethnicity under the sun. But the fact is, I only periodically had the courage to protest. In fact, the whole family codependently turned his hate speech into a joke, an odd trait of our otherwise useful breadwinner. My antiracism eventually became something others in the family would not confront. But I certainly know what it is like to take a pass because I can.

Like Dahleen Glanton says, we so-called “white people,” who can protest being lumped into a race because we have the privilege associated with that race, should talk among ourselves and figure stuff out. Christians, in particular, have an even deeper responsibility to risk what it takes to overcome evil with good, so we need to learn how to have a good dialogue, not just an argument. Even if the workman mocks us, if the neighbor cuts us off, if the school chums label us, or if the family is disrupted, we need to trust God and risk following Jesus, who not only loves everyone, but transforms them into his own likeness.

Racists are counting on people like me doing nothing – at least nothing that costs me too much, nothing that will cause conflict, nothing that will take too much energy. They are certain that before long, the streets will return to the homeostasis of the dominant culture and racism only be a problem the next time it explodes out of the fragile box of denial and apathy in which it is vainly kept.

Right now our church is having an appropriate eruption of righteous anger along with much of the rest of the United States. We’ll see what happens. Some angry people will run over others until their anger subsides. Some resistant people will cut others off and retain their privilege to let it all be about somebody else. We might get divided and need to regroup. People could lose their faith because influential people follow politics and not Jesus. Regardless, “white” people stuck in the U.S. need to figure this out, or die trying — especially people who say they follow Jesus.