Sunday, July 28, 2013

95 Theses for Christian Racial & Ethnic Unity: Introduction

Tomorrow I begin a series of posts on race and Christianity in the United States—one new post every day for 95 days. I’m calling it 95 Theses for Christian Racial & Ethnic Unity. The 95th thesis will post on October 31, otherwise known as Halloween. It is also the day Martin Luther posted his 95 Theses in 1517. 

I begin this series for two reasons. One reason is promo for my publications this fall. As I reported yesterday, Oxford University Press is publishing my co-edited book Christians and the ColorLine: Race and Religion after Divided by Faith. With fellow history professor Rusty Hawkins (Indiana Wesleyan University), I had the privilege to edit the essays of a host of accomplished scholars whose chapters build on the important work of Christian Smith and Michael Emerson’s Divided by Faith: Evangelical Religion and the Problem of Race inAmerica (Oxford University Press, 2000). Building on this research is my Christian Scholar's Review article “‘Will the Evangelical Church Remove the Color Line?’: Historical Reflections on Divided by Faith,” which comes out in the fall 2013 issue of the journal. Here’s the abstract: 

Sociologists Michael Emerson and Christian Smith asked in their book Divided by Faith: Evangelical Religion and the Problem of Race in America: will the evangelical church remove the color line? This article offers a “history” of Divided by Faith since its publication in 2000. This article traces out the book’s impact on scholars, accounting for its place in the fields of American religious history and religious studies. Second, the author gauges Divided by Faith’s impact on American evangelicalism, linking it to an increase in “racial justice genre” books published by evangelical presses over the last dozen years. Finally, an overview of Michael Emerson’s subsequent scholarship that followed Divided by Faith suggests that it remains salient for those interested in a nuanced analysis of race and religion in America.

The other reason for the series is that, in my opinion, most white evangelical Christian responses to Trayvon Martin’s death and George Zimmerman’s verdict have been largely toothless, flaccid, and predictable. I say responses have been toothless, flaccid, and predictable because they mostly focus on individualized solutions to racial conflict—conflict that results from structural inequality tied to the vicious and bedeviling existence of white supremacy. 

Let me say at this point that I am not maligning the motives of those evangelicals who have posted individualist commentary on the Martin-Zimmerman case. I am not trashing their proposals as such. My specific criticism is about how the proposals amplify white evangelicalism’s individualist ethos. (Read here and here.) However, other commentators, while cognizant of white evangelicalism’s individualism, have effectively addressed the structural realities that define the delicate matters of race and religion (Read here, here, and here.) While posted at Christianity Today the week BEFORE the Zimmerman verdict, Hope E. Ferguson's article "What Post-Racial America?" is a must read.

In terms of evangelical reporting on the Martin-Zimmerman case, since Martin’s murder took place only miles from its main offices, Charisma magazine reported early last summer on the situation, devoted the June 2012 issue to racism, and even produced a documentary. Following the Zimmerman not guilty verdict Christianity Today published a number of editorials and reports. Sojourners also posted several reflections on the matter. 

A large number of responses to the Martin-Zimmerman case counsel Christians to pray more, to build more relationships, or to conduct more dialog sessions about race matters, hence their predictability. Unfortunately, such proposed solutions animate the individualism that is central to American evangelical faith, as Michael Emerson and Christian Smith so ably documented in Divided by Faith. Moreover, the toothless and flaccid proposals referenced previously (and similarly framed proposals) work to obscure the structures of white supremacy upon which America’s—and American Christianity’s—foundation is built. These structures of inequality continue to divide Americans, and American Christians, along racial lines (not to mention class, gender, etc.). [Update 8/2/2013: Charisma is reporting that a multiracial coalition of pastors in Sanford, Florida, have issued The Sanford Declaration, a statement on racial reconciliation and relationship building. The Declaration speaks about “the need to address racism as a spiritual problem” and states: “The focus of our collective activities the next few years is to form relationships in order to end expressed racism within the church and society.” Emphasizing the impact of relationship building the Declaration goes on to proclaim, “We believe that the key to ending racism in the United States and in other nations lies in Christians developing and promoting genuine relationships among each other - just as it is being done in Sanford, Florida since the spring of 2012. As a result, Sanford did not experience the rioting, looting, and violence that other regions did after the July 2013 George Zimmerman not guilty verdict. Additionally, Christians should develop intentional relationships that will result from “living life together”…..” To its credit, the Declaration recommends “shared leadership” as well as pooling resources to alleviate poverty and fund scholarships—a gesture towards necessary structural changes—but the latter recommendations ring paternalistic, at least to my ear. Overall the emphasis of the Declaration on relationship building as the answer to racism illustrates the inherent problems I’m trying to highlight in this post.]

However, the evangelical responses to the Martin-Zimmerman case I cite above speak to larger realities about how white American Christians view matters of race and ethnicity. Put another way, for many white evangelicals racism and the racialized society pivots on the personal. That is to say, racism is merely personal animus against someone of a different race or ethnicity. As a result, the logic is that personal problems are heart problems that must therefore deal with heart solutions. Sociologists of religion as well as historians of American Christianity show that evangelicals excel at building and fostering relationships; but this also conditions evangelicals—and white evangelicals in particular—to remain oblivious to the social structures that frame relationship building. This is an utterly disastrous combination when it comes to making progress towards racial and economic justice. At the same time, historians and sociologists of religion—some of whose work appears in Christians and the Color Line—maintain that in order to pursue racial justice effectively, the social (i.e., individual) and the structural must work together. Meaningful relationships must include effective working towards structural changes while structural changes can work to shift the balances of power for more equitable and meaningful relationships. All of this, of course, gets very messy in practice.

So, back to the 95 Theses for Christian Racial & Ethnic Unity. 

During the research for my Christian Scholar’s Review article and for Christians and the Color Line, I collected provocative quotes and pithy observations about race and religion in the United States, so the 95 theses I’m posting are not my own original thoughts. What is original, I suppose, is how I am arranging and framing them.

Ultimately, I am not proposing any grand solution to America’s racial problems. Nor am I positioning myself as the sole expert on the subject. In addition, I am not suggesting simple, quotable answers to America’s racial problems that can easily pass for a catchy sound bite, Facebook post, or Tweet. I’m offering important voices from the past and present with the aim of encouraging critical reflection, patient pondering, careful listening, and above all, resolute action.

Here I am reminded of Rowan Williams' comments on the value of history in the life of faith; they apply to the situations the 95 Theses for Christian Racial & Ethnic Unity intend to address.

In Why Study the Past? Williams observed: “History will. . . at least start us on the road to action of a different and more self-aware kind, action that is moral in a way it can’t be if we have no points of reference beyond what we have come to take for granted” (p. 25). Moreover, for Christians who think critically about their individual relationship to the larger Christian community, Williams's commentary is equally apropos for the topic at hand: "If we begin [the study of history] from our axiom of common membership in the Body, there will always be gifts to be received from the past; we can expect that we shall find something that we had not grasped until a contemporary crisis brought it into focus" (p. 97).

So, at least for the next 95 days, let us receive gifts of wisdom and insight that history offers while listening to the past in a way that will pave new roads of action.

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