Theology and Race

Christian theology has white supremacist leanings.  Perhaps the majority of religious and philosophical systems do as well, but Christian theology definitely does—at least when it comes to its ideas about salvation and holiness.  James Baldwin has been all over our recent discussions of race in the U.S. because his take on racism has been about the deepest, most complex we’ve ever had.  But he also noted a very “simple” root of racism: the color of evil and damnation is black, the color of goodness and salvation is white. This is one of the major ideas in the VIDEO below, which shows a talk I gave at the launch of a pilot project called the Clergy Peer Reflection and Engagement Series (CPRES), aimed at helping United Methodist clergy in the Northern Illinois Conference be more bold to speak about anti-racism from the pulpit and to lead their congregations and communities in anti-racist activities.

Perhaps an unlikely prompt for theological reflection?

When I was younger, I was a church song leader, leading congregations in songs like: “Lord, Jesus, I want to be perfectly whole / I want you forever to live in my soul. / Break down every idol, strike down every foe. / Now wash me and I will be whiter than snow.” / Chorus: “Whiter than snow, yes whiter than snow. / Now wash me and I will be whiter than snow.”  White, white, white.  And beyond this that lust for purity and separation that is at the heart of all white supremacist thinking.  The root meaning of “holy” is to be “set aside,” separated from the unholy and profane.  White, white, white, and its connection to Holy, holy, holy is a drumming rhythm deep in the Christian soul, driving us away from blackness.  “Yes,” my pastor, Kyunhae Anna Shin, blurted out at a Zoom meeting of a ministry team we had just a day after I gave the talk below. “Right from the beginning, our theology makes us want to be white!”

The relationship to racism seems clear.  Whiteness, and its attendant purity and separation, is instilled very deep in our souls as the thing we want most of all.  And when we encounter blackness we react instinctively, either to try to wipe it out violently or— perhaps more subtly but eventually more “effectively”—to wash it clean: to make it acceptable by washing away its “contaminants” and making it as white as possible.

It’s often a surprise to many, especially white liberals, that people of color look on integration with a wary eye.  Liberals also love, along with “integration,”  other words people of color often care a lot less about, words like “diversity” and “full inclusion”  When people of color look at the sorry conditions of their childrens’ schools, for example, they don’t care as much about “diversity” and the rest as about just wanting schools to be safe, bathrooms to be clean, and instruction to continue an actual full day.

Also, “integration” often means people of color giving up large areas of their identity to try to fit in, or being forced into doing things whites want in the way whites want things done.  In the talk below I mention a podcast my wife Linda’s been listening to, and I’ve heard the bits and pieces she’s made me listen to.  It’s called Nice White Parents, about how a group of white parents come in to a struggling minority school and just take over, eventually leaving the interests of that school, its students, and its community in a distant second place—all while “meaning well.”  At heart we still love white saviorism.  We give Best Picture Oscars to white savior films like Green Book and Driving Miss Daisy, which won its Best Picture Oscar the same year Do the Right Thing came out.  But in a move confirming that Americans would rather talk about anything—anything—but race, Do the Right Thing was not even nominated!

In the VIDEO below, I propose thinking about integration differently, and consequently salvation and holiness differently as well.  I base this on much I’ve read before, and on Taoism, but especially the music of Ray Charles.  I tell of the moment I, as a kid, first heard him sing.  The song was “Georgia on My Mind,” and to this day I don’t remember ever being so still.  By the early 60’s, Ray Charles, perhaps the pre-eminent blues shouter in America, began recording and remaking white country music.  He even remade “You Are My Sunshine,” as if to say: Hear this! This is what white being integrated into black sounds like.  Ray Charles is probably an unlikely figure to inspire theological reflection, but his music said to me that people of color didn’t need to lose their identity to belong.  Instead, whites could integrate into us.

Whiteness didn’t need to wipe out blackness or try to clean it up.  It could integrate into blackness.  It could stop trying to lead and always take things over and instead accept an equal mutuality with blackness.  Writing in 1970, Robert Greenleaf, who started the field of Servant Leadership, said,  “…the next 30 years will be marked as the period when the dark skinned and…the alienated of the world assert their claims…” and not be “led by a privileged elite…It may be that the best that some of today’s privileged can do is to stand aside and serve by helping when asked and as instructed.”  He was off by a few decades but that time could be now, today, where who leads? is a question playing out in protests and other anti-racist actions all across the country.  The time for a fuller, more expansive vision of salvation and holiness is also seriously overdue.  The continuing narrowness of that vision—a vision so clouded by whiteness—is one of the deep things blocking our ability to be more truly anti-racist.

  Go to the first podcast episode of Nice White Parents.

  I recorded an introduction to myself played just before the talk I gave in the VIDEO BELOW.  See it here in a post titled “Retirement and Race.”  For a series on race based on another United Methodist event go to “Unpacking Racism.”  Go to the Teaching Diversity page on this site, and for a five-part video series on Ray Charles, go to “Me and Brother Ray.”  I would most recommend “Part 4: Signifying.”

  Though the talk below is not, strictly speaking, a sermon, there are several of my sermons on this site, including “It’s Not What You Know, But Who You Know,” “Searching for Prophets,” “Sacred Doing,” “Pentecost Means No Supremacies,” “Who Do You Stand With? A Sermon for Transfiguration Sunday,” and “Three Things to Stop Saying,” the last three most directly addressing race.

(For a pdf copy of the talk below go HERE.)

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The Neighbor Project’s 2020 Gala

Like many gatherings this year it’s VIRTUAL.  It’s also free, and there’s no place to get ready to go to, so it’s easier to attend than ever.  So please join us.  You’ll be helping your neighbors and your country.

LIGHT UP THE NIGHT with us
September 19th, 7:30 to 8:15 p.m.

The Neighbor Project helps hard working families >get out of debt, >save, and >buy homes so they can participate more fully in creating better neighborhoods for all of us.  Home ownership is perhaps the major way to help close our nation’s enormous, dangerous, and growing wealth gap.  You’ll be helping both individual families and our country as a whole.

Go HERE to register.

While Here watch an introductory VIDEO, find out how The Neighbor Project works, and how you  can get involved.  Start to know us better by attending our first-ever virtual gala.  There’ll be information and inspiration.  And if you’re so inclined, the website and the gala will give you ways to donate, from one-time or continuing gifts, to being a Sponsor, to…

OUR ALWAYS ANTICIPATED LIVE AUCTION, with the fabulous Peter Burchard, a show all by himself!  Bid on a short list of items ranging from small gifts to luxury vacations, and in between things for sports fans like an authenticated, signed jersey from soccer super star Pele.

It will be an info- and fun-packed 45 minutes.  BE THERE, BE INSPIRED, BE THE NEIGHBOR!

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D I G    D E E P E R.  Look at some of the history of The Neighbor Project, and some of the issues its work touches.

  Go to “Graphic Inequality” to learn more about our nation’s incredible wealth gap. If a one-inch line represented the $65 the average American has gained since 1965, the line representing what the top 1/10 of one percent has gained would be nearly FIVE miles long. One inch vs. five miles! Unbelievable—and dangerous for democracy.

  Go to “The Racial Wealth Gap and Home Ownership” and watch the short Netflix show Explained: The Racial Wealth Gap.  Much time is spent on the importance of home ownership for closing the racial wealth gap.

  Go to “Emmanuel House Becomes The Neighbor Project” to see how TNP was formed. And to “Emmanuel House in the Top 100” for news about Emmanuel House being named one of the Top 100 Most Innovative Social Change Organizations in the World.

  For a look back at earlier galas go to “The Neighbor Project Challenge: BE the Neighbor,” and for links to yet other galas and fund raisers go to the Emmanuel House/Neighbor Project main page on this site.  A couple of times American Idol finalist Danny Gokey gave us wonderful concerts.

  In articles about literary figures like Lorraine Hansberry, and in movie reviews like It’s a Wonderful Life, I also write about the importance of home ownership.

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Retirement and Race

The 1:45 VIDEO below is me introducing myself to a group of clergy and lay leaders of the United Methodist Church.  We’re working together on anti-racism.  Called CPRES (for “Clergy Peer Reflection and Engagement Series”), this group is launching a pilot program aimed at helping church leaders more effectively talk about race and, hopefully, lead their congregations and others in anti-racism efforts.  I made the video as an intro to a longer talk I’m giving at the initial session coming up soon this mid-September.

At the very beginning of the video I explain that I’m a “professor emeritus,” meaning I’ve retired from full time teaching—though I’ve taught 2 of the 5 terms I’ve supposed to have been retired.  After over 40 years in college teaching, I guess it’s a hard habit to break. The citation in the college’s 2018 commencement program spoke of me as “wildly resourceful,” with a lecture style “like jazz,” of me winning teaching and leadership awards, and creating “a vast array of programs that shaped virtually every facet of the campus community.”  You can read the whole thing Here if you’d like.  It’s beautiful.  It made retiring from full-time teaching worth it.  But retirement hasn’t been as peaceful as I’d imagined.  I know I’m saying this at a time when millions of Americans aren’t experiencing much peace either.  There’s the pandemic.  There’s the most current upheavals over racism, sparked by yet another, and another, and another, and another killing or maiming of a black person.

I was asked to tell the CPRES group why it was important for me to be with them.  The answer is much the same as I’d give for continuing to go back and teach a class here, a class there: it’s a hard habit to break.  As a man of color, I’ve had to deal with issues of race all my life, even as a kid.  And today it’s got to be all hands on deck, whether you’re retired or not.  Though many of us have been writing and speaking about systemic racism for decades, all the individual killings and maimings have led to what may be a critical mass of people suspecting there really is something going on deep down: a system that keeps racism going and going.  Beyond the horrendous violence of individuals being killed and maimed, there’s a broader, every day violence—and violence it IS—that places blacks and other people of color in positions of living in the poorer neighborhoods, enduring a flood of “smaller” indignities every day, of having less access to quality education, quality internet, even quality food, or access to good jobs, or healthcare, or—well the list goes on a long, long time.  It applies even to voting rights.  In virtually every aspect of life, systemic racism keeps people of color down.  Though there’s been some monumental legislation passed since Emancipation, it seems that only a little everyday progress has actually been made since then.  Like in the list I just gave above.  And here’s another one: actually being able to retire.  The title of this post alludes to it: yes, there’s a big retirement and race gap, something I’ll address soon.

But today a door may be opening that’s larger than any that’s ever opened in our history, including the Civil Rights movement. Who knows?  In “Walmart, Pence, and Politics as Usual,” I noted the rise of a new fervency, but also that so far little concrete policy for change has emerged.  As one reporter noted, even in Minnesota, where the murder of George Floyd started it all, partisan politics has ruled the day, blocking any concrete reforms—even on police using choke holds.  Despite all of today’s passion for reform, we have to think long haul.  I’ve been writing a lot these days that IF we work really hard, perhaps in the next 40 to 100 years we’ll see a less racist U.S.  IF.  That’s another reason I’m glad to be working with CPRES, glad my friend Amania Drane has dragged me into this and other initiatives, even though it makes retirement less retiring.  If the pilot succeeds, then every church leader in the Northern Illinois Conference of the United Methodist Church might be able to learn how to be anti-racist and help others be the same.  That’s an exciting prospect, because that’s a lot of people, but that’s still a long ways off.

Will the drive towards being a more just, equitable, diverse, and inclusive society continue for the long haul?  Hard to tell.  One night recently, I came across some poems from Ada Limón, and this line struck me hard:  “I cannot tell anymore when a door opens or closes, I can only hear the frame say, Walk through.”

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“Lay Your Head Down” – The 23rd Psalm in Blues

The music VIDEO below is of one of my earliest compositions, “Lay Your Head Down.”  It’s my take on the 23rd Psalm:  He leads me by still waters, restores my soul, anoints me so that my cup overflows.  Its tone and form, though inflected only slightly that way, pay homage to the blues.  It was written during a time of struggle, and many have told me it was a balm in their dark times, too—one of the deepest compliments any piece of music can ever hope to have.

This was recorded live sometime in the late ’70’s in a service at the University Baptist Church in Charlottesville, Virginia.  It has a lovely, though cavernous, sanctuary; and on this Sunday morning the echo was strong.  I’m on vocals and piano, and organist Robert Smith adds a ghostly organ version of an accompaniment I originally wrote for violin.

Many have asked why I hadn’t posted it on this site years ago.  It occurred to me the other day that in these difficult times posting it now would be appropriate.

For more music by me and other family go Here.

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Voter Suppression 21st Century Style

The VIDEO BELOW stitches together excerpts from three clips on Voter Suppression from 2010 to 2020, a decade which has seen voting rights seriously rolled back from its high point in 1965’s Voting Rights Act, an Act inspired by the courage of Civil Rights Leaders like the late John Lewis, whom we lost on July 17, 2020.

On March 7, 1965, Lewis was one of the leaders of peaceful protestors who, as they crossed the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama, were viciously attacked by state troopers, county sheriffs, and a horse-mounted posse.  Many were injured, including Lewis, whose skull was fractured.  The incident became known as “Bloody Sunday,” and the shock and outrage of many of those watching TV coverage was one factor in the passage of the Voting Rights Act later that year on August 6th.  About 19 months earlier, on August 28, 1963, John Lewis, then just 23, had been the youngest speaker at the famous March on Washington.

The Pettus Bridge was named for Edmund Winston Pettus, a former Confederate brigadier general, leader of the Alabama Ku Klux Klan…and U.S. Senator.  This year, ten days after Lewis’ death a bill was introduced proposing to name the Voting Rights Advancement of 2019 (H.R.4) after John Lewis.  It passed the House, but though nearly every Republican in the Senate paid tribute to Lewis—known widely as “The Conscious of Congress”—only one GOP Senator voted for the bill, and it was defeated.

John Lewis speaking at the 1963 March on Washington. He was just 23.

H.R.4 sought in part to remedy the damage done by a 2013 Supreme Court decision in Shelby County vs. Holder which struck down Section 5 of the 1965 Voting Rights Act. Details are in the VIDEO below, which also explains that within 24 hours of this decision three states began enacting suppressive voter ID laws.  The situation has gotten worse since then, though there have been legal victories attempting to counteract voter ID laws and other tactics meant to suppress voting, especially by people of color, the poor, and other marginalized groups.    

In April 2016, for example, the United States District Court for the Middle District of North Carolina ruled that the state’s new voter ID laws did not place unconstitutional obstacles between the state’s residents and their voting rights.  However, three months later, on July 29th, a three-judge panel for the United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth District overturned that ruling.  Here’s a paragraph of the decision, written by Judge Diana Gribbon Motz.  It contains the now famous phrase which I’ve italicized, bolded, and underlined.

“In response to claims that intentional racial discrimination animated its action, the State offered only meager justifications. Although the new provisions target African Americans with almost surgical precision, they constitute inapt remedies for the problems assertedly justifying them and, in fact, impose cures for problems that did not exist. Thus the asserted justifications cannot and do not conceal the State’s true motivation. ‘In essence,’ as in League of United Latin American Citizens v. Perry (LULAC), 548 U.S. 399, 440 (2006), ‘the State took away [minority voters’] opportunity because [they] were about to exercise it.’”

Those cures for problems that did not exist include voter fraud, which does exist, though in vanishingly small numbers—perhaps, according to one study, 31 in 1 billion votes: 0.000000031%!  Still, many Americans believe fraud is “rampant.”  “Dirty Tricks: 9 Falsehoods That Could Undermine the 2020 Election,” a piece from the Brennan Center for Justice, is a good summary of false notions about the integrity of elections.

Voter suppression tactics are often presented as rational, commonsense actions to “protect the integrity of elections,” but it becomes clearer each day that racism is at the root of them. The title of Grace Panetta’s article for Business Insider seems to say it all:  “Black Americans still face obstacles to voting at every step of the process.”  This piece is a good summary of those obstacles, obstacles that dishonor the legacy of John Lewis and everyone who has placed the Right to Vote at the center of their fight for Civil Rights for everyone.

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Other Resources.  After watching the VIDEO below, dig deeper.  First, three pdf’s of longer reports on partisanship, voting and democracy:  1) From the Economist Intelligence Unit — “Democracy Index 2019,” which calls the U.S. a “Flawed Democracy,” ranking it just the 25th best democracy in the world.  Though the link to Voter Suppression is not as strongly made as it could be, given the evidence cited, there is a significant indictment of partisan politics. 2)  From the Bipartisan Policy Center — “The 2018 Voting Experience,” which definitively cites race as the major demographic factor in voter suppression.  And 3) From the Brennan Center for Justice — “The Challenge of Obtaining Voter Identification,” giving exhaustive details on seemingly reasonable laws which actual target specific populations to take away their voting rights.  Finally, a Short Summary of the article above and the video below used for a Voter Registration Drive.

  Go to the TEACHING DIVERSITY main page.

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