Phil Vischer (of Veggietales fame) gives the answer.
Do watch this. (Thks TG)
“This didn’t happen by accident, it happened by policy …. What am I asking you to do? Care.”
Phil Vischer (of Veggietales fame) gives the answer.
Do watch this. (Thks TG)
“This didn’t happen by accident, it happened by policy …. What am I asking you to do? Care.”
Raging protests across America (and many other nations), raging debates, and sheer outrage (see the close of this John Oliver Last Week Tonight show) – the lid has been blown off the pressure cooker of systemic racial inequality going back centuries.
There are multiple factors at play – not least colonialism, slavery, Jim Crow, segregation, massive economic and social inequality, a reckless sociopath as President, and the militarisation of policing to a point where moderate white American professors of theology in their late 60s have concluded that America has become a police state.
In the last post I finished with a series of self-critical questions for predominantly white churches / Christians. In this post I’d like to push a bit further.
The questions in the last post focused on the church being an alternative community of justice to the world, not mirroring the world but being a unique place of equality for all in Christ – regardless of ethnicity, race or any other marker of difference. They also called for listening hard and well to black brothers and sisters.
But there is more to engaging with the realities of systemic racism and inequality than asking – and acting on – hard questions about our own attitudes and behaviour.
They should also provoke us to consider the issue of ‘whiteness’ itself.
I mean by this what’s been called the ‘invisibility of whiteness’. In other words, those who are white tend to think little about what it means to be white. I’ll put my hand up here and say I’m in my 50s and have rarely, if ever, thought seriously about the colour of my skin.
By ‘seriously’ I mean in thinking about how my racial identity shapes what I do, think, see, ask, and do not ask.
Yes, of course, in certain circumstances you are very aware of being white. Two examples stick in my mind. One in the south-west USA travelling through Navajo territory. The other in the Australian outback and camping in a predominantly Aboriginal town. The parallel in both was of a native population decimated and demoralised by Western appropriation of land, culture and identity.
[While America is (rightly) in the news, the Australian story of race is beyond terrible in its brutal history of extermination and and everyday contemporary racism].
The point though is that my whiteness only becomes ‘visible’ to me in exceptional circumstances – when faced with an experience of suffering and deprivation caused by white colonialism (i.e., invasion, massacre and discrimination in the case of the Navajo and Aboriginal populations.) In normal circumstances here in Ireland it’s the default – and you don’t think about the default, you take it for granted as the norm.
And Ireland does pretty well thank you on racism as well.
But of course if you are African-American or Aboriginal or one of multiple other non-white identities, you don’t have that luxury: you are forced to think about your skin colour relentlessly – everytime you experience different treatment because of your ethnicity. This from Tobi Lawal, speaking to white people in Ireland:
“Show that you can understand the struggle and understand your privilege, in the sense that you get up every day and go out; you don’t have to think about whether you’re going to get refused from somewhere, whether when you go to work you’re going to have to fight to get a new position; you don’t have to think about whether you go to a nightclub and someone is going to say something to you about your hair or your colour.”Tobi Lawal
Since this is a theology / biblical blog let’s look at this dynamic in biblical studies. David Horrell from Exeter University, and who comes to NT studies via a social-scientific angle, is one of the very few white NT scholars to broach this subject.
He did so via a plenary paper called ‘Paul, Inclusion, and Whiteness: Particularlising Interpretation’ at the British NT Conference in 2017 which happened to be held in Maynooth, the town where I live in Ireland. So I heard him give the paper. It was published in JSNT and a book will soon be published by Eerdmans called Ethnicity and Inclusion Religion, Race, and Whiteness in Constructions of Jewish and Christian Identities.
To cut to the chase, he argues that how you read the Bible is deeply influenced not only by your culture and personality, but by your whiteness.
And in biblical studies there has generally been a failure by scholars to recognise how their interpretation of the Bible has been shaped by their context of the white Christian West.
This isn’t to say that such white readings are without merit. It is to say that they, like any other readings, need to be understood as a particular reading, not as the obviously correct and normal reading.
He looks at the example of Galatians 3:28
“There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”
He covers a lot of ground (and you can download the full paper here) and I hope to return to his arguments in other blog posts. Here is his conclusion, shaped in the form of a question – one well worth reflecting on.
“Can we possibly imagine that our own reconstructions of the earliest Christian communities and exegesis of the Pauline letters are not shaped, inflected, by our contemporary social, political, religious and racial location? And though it may be uncomfortable to acknowledge it, is not our racialised identity one significant part of that complex intersection of facets of identity to which we should – indeed must – pay attention? Part of the force of whiteness studies is to insist that if we find it reasonable to think that, say, African-American interpreters, or other interpreters raced as nonwhite, might find their identity and experience relevant in shaping their reading of the New Testament, so too those of us raced as white should equally expect that our ethnic or racial identity constitutes part of the package of factors that shapes our reading. I may well be wrong in the way I have tried to identify some of the respects in which interpretation of Paul – and of Gal 3.28 in particular – remains enmeshed in the ideological particularity of the white, Christian West. But I would challenge those who think so to propose their own critical analysis of how this particularity becomes visible in our exegesis. Assuming that our interpretation is uncontextualised – unmarked, unlocated, unraced– is, I would suggest, no longer a feasible option.” (my emphasis)
And if this is the case, the point of ‘making whiteness strange’ is to become far more aware of the limitations and provisionality of our own perspective.
Once we get to that point, then we are at least open to the necessity of listening to voices other than our own in order to more accurately hear what the Bible is saying to us all today.
And if that is all rather technical and academic, here’s a picture that says it all:
It was painted by Chicago-based Warner Sallman in 1940 and became one of the most influential images of Jesus in American Protestantism, selling over 500 million copies. This was one of the first times that ‘Jesus went commercial’. Mass production and clever marketing made this image synonymous with who Jesus was in popular imagination.
How do you ‘read’ this image? For me it is white, polite, Western and non-Jewish. Very much like the Jesus of 19th century liberalism and not at all like the Jesus of the Gospels.
Comments, as ever, welcome.
[This article is also on the Jesus Creed blog on Christianity Today]
The death of George Floyd, killed by Minneapolis police responding to an alleged minor breach of the law, has revealed, once again, the deep racial fractures that divide America. Cities are under curfew and the police, equipped like an army, look like they are prepared for war with their fellow citizens.
Sin tends to be trivialised and individualised in ‘advanced’ Western culture. It’s a naughty desire that you secretly deserve to have fulfilled; it’s the self-indulgence of having too much cream with your strawberries; or, getting more serious, it’s using privilege and power to shame opponents on Twitter.
Christian theology has a lot to say about sin and its seriousness – and that’s why Christian theology also has a lot to say about racism and violence.
What follows are some theological reflections on what has been happening over the last week. I’m talking about America not because the US somehow has a corner on sin (we are all pretty good at being ‘original sinners’) or out of some crude anti-Americanism, but because of the events unfolding there raise theological questions for Christians everywhere. I’ve travelled quite extensively in the US, have many American friends and keep up to date with American politics – but I don’t naively claim that I, an outsider from Ireland, can arrogantly pronounce judgments (or solutions) from a distance.
If you’ve seen previous posts you will have noticed I’m reading Douglas Campbell’s Pauline Dogmatics. Chapter 5 is ‘Resurrection and Death’, and in it he says some remarkably relevant things to what is unfolding in the States – on both systemic racism and coronavirus.
From Genesis 3 on, death is inextricably connected to sin. One way of looking at this is death as ‘God’s solution to sin’ (102). In other words, sin is so toxic that God will not allow it to survive. It has a death-by date. Sin has no future, it will be destroyed for good and the new creation is virtually unimaginable to us because it is pretty well impossible to imagine a world without sin and death.
God is a trinity of love and justice, the author of love and peace and joy. Sin – hatred, violence, injustice, exploitation, selfishness, greed and so on – is antithetical to God’s being and good purposes. The two co-exist in the present, but only on a temporary basis. This is the fundamental shape of Christian eschatological hope.
In Galatians 5, this antithesis is pictured as the conflict between the flesh (see ‘the present evil age’ 1:4) and the age of the Spirit. They are utterly opposed to one another. Those who belong to the realm of the flesh will not inherit the kingdom of God.
So Campbell says this
“God absolutely refuses to give life to a cosmos that is contaminated with sin. Its existence must end. Death is God’s judgment on things that have been contaminated by sin. It is the refusal to give life to those things that have turned from life to evil …” 103.
Paul’s Jewish understanding of sin took seriously its deadly effects. Sin contaminates and much temple ritual is about purity and cleansing offending pollution. It is not to be allowed to spread. It must be atoned for and repented from.
We moderns who laugh at the outdated notion of sin should take pause. The Covid-19 crisis is a graphic picture of how sin works. God’s response to sin is like human response to a deadly virus (Campbell wrote this before Covid-19 – talk about a prescient illustration). Drastic measures are needed to contain it – and one day eradicate it from the world.
And in just this sense, God is implacably committed to the containment of sin within this world and this age, and to its ultimate termination, in death. The crippling and deadly virus of sin cannot be allowed to spread. Indeed, we are fortunate that God is so resolute in this opposition to something that we tend to treat rather too lightly. (103)
One of the many myths of modern capitalism is that individuals can exist in a nice consumer bubble, having their dreams and wishes fulfilled with no cost to the planet and in complete detachment from the anonymous and distant people who made those designer jeans somewhere far away and who may, or may not, be working in a sweatshop.
Likewise, some myths about sin insulate us from its reality in a comforting cocoon of private piety.
(i) it does not exist
(ii) if it does exist, it is little more than a euphemism for a poor personal choice that we will regret
(iii) or perhaps if you are a Christian, sin is a wrong action or attitude for which we need confess to God and repent from.
While (iii) is partially true, it fails to take seriously the power and systemic reach of sin. Every one of us is implicated in it. Every one of us is under its power. Every one of us faces death as a result.
What is happening in America shows that sin is real, powerful, destructive and deadly. It is not a myth or a primitive outdated idea. People who experience systemic injustice on an everyday basis know this first-hand.
And those who don’t have this everyday experience (generally those with White privilege) tend to resist systemic analysis of sin – they tend to limit sin to the individual sphere.
In contrast to this, listen to what Campbell says about sin – and I agree with him completely
Sin extends all the way across and all the way down. We are saturated with it – soaked in it. (104)
The diagnosis of sin as a virus reminds us that it’s highly infectious; it spreads death and once unleashed, it can’t easily be reined-in again.
Racism is inextricably connected to slavery; it is in other words a sin with a long history. It’s one of the great sins of the modern era, perpetrated by White colonial powers to prop up their expanding global economies.
You don’t need to be an expert on the history of slavery and race relations in the US (and I make no claim to be) to know that this original ‘great sin’ has shaped American history in all sorts of destructive ways and poisoned public life. (Again, this is not limited to America but takes a very particular form in the US).
The only ‘solution’ to the problem of sin for each one of us is to die – and somehow come out the other side of death, free of the power of sin. This is precisely what the good news of the gospel announces has happened. In the death and resurrection of Jesus, God has atoned for sin and defeated death. In this sense, sin has been quarantined – dealt with for good.
But here is one of the New Testament’s most surprising twists – this quarantining of sin and death is not only in the future. The future has already arrived. Believers are already ‘raised’ to new life through the Spirit; they are already ‘new creations’. This is technically called ‘inaugurated eschatology’ and is everywhere in Paul and the other writers of the NT.
If those ‘in Christ’ share in his resurrection life now, then the mission of the church is to bear witness to this reality. By its life, words and deeds, the church is to embody an alternative politics to that of the world. A politics of peace; justice; love; joy; of a self-giving community, transcending all racial and ethnic distinctions; of sharing burdens and resources; of together being conformed to the image of her Lord.
All while awaiting in hope the ‘Day of the Lord’, God’s final defeat of sin, death and all powers that oppose his good purposes, resurrection and the launch of his new creation.
If the above is the case – and I think this is a fair description of what orthodox Christianity believes – then this means at least three things for brothers and sisters in America, particularly predominantly White churches.
Again I offer these as observations, simply as a Christian looking on with grief at the suffering, pain and injustice experienced by so many black men and women – many of them brothers and sisters in Christ.
They are not meant to imply that the sorts of things below aren’t going on – I’m sure there are countless examples of where they are. The same sorts of questions could be asked of any church in its own national context of ethnic or racial division. [And some of this relates back to a book I wrote back in 2003 on how evangelicals in Northern Ireland responded politically and theologically within a violent conflict over national identity].
1. The primary calling for brothers and sisters in America is to embody a different story to the story of racial division, hatred, violence, suspicion and fear that is tearing the country apart. The church is to be a ‘window’ into God’s new creation, not a mirror reflecting back the sins of the world.
2. The first response then is not ‘outward’, locating fault in others, it is inward, involving difficult and searching self-critical reflection:
– How in our own contexts, can we actively seek to be agents of love, hope, peace, forgiveness and reconciliation in a broken and divided world?
– Where do we need to acknowledge our failures to act – especially where our ‘Whiteness’ has insulated us from the realities of the sin of racism?
– Where have we mirrored the world?
– Where have we failed to be communities where all are one in Christ, of equal worth and standing in God’s kingdom – regardless of skin colour, qualifications, nationality, gender, social status and where you live?
– How can we take steps to become such communities?
– Where have we mirrored the fears of our culture and its frequent trust in force and violence as a means to ‘solve’ issues of difference?
– How can we build understanding and listen to the experiences of brother and sisters who are suffering daily because of the colour of their skin?
3. Only from such self-reflection, might steps become clear as to what acting for justice might look like locally and nationally. But the primary calling of the church is to be the church, not to be a political lobby group to fix the world.