Charlottesville From a Cross Cultural Perspective

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A story is told about the Civil Rights movement in Charleston, S.C.  According to the story, a black pastor went into a Laundromat to wash his clothes. As he walked into the facility, he saw two signs, one on each side of the room. One sign said “Whites” while the other said “Coloreds.” So, being the law-abiding citizen he was, the pastor washed his white clothes in the machines under the “Whites” sign and his colored clothes in the machines under the sign “Coloreds.”

This was brought to the attention of the city council, who took the it up at their next meeting. The wise city fathers agreed that the signs were, indeed, not clear, and ordered that they be taken down. And that was the Civil Rights movement in Charleston.

I had the privilege of being stationed for most of my 20 years in the military in either South Carolina or Japan. For me, born and raised in Michigan, both locations were cross-cultural experiences. I discovered both cultures had something in common. In Asia it’s called “saving face,” in the American South it’s called “politeness.” Both cultures place a premium on not making the other uncomfortable in human interactions.

It strikes me that there is something for us to learn from this. The response to the unrest in Charlottesville has been direct and forceful. Racism is sin, and sin needs to be confronted and removed. Perhaps at least some of this response comes out of the culture of the American North (where almost all Christian Reformed Churches can be found) rather than a clear listening to Scripture. When Jesus summarized the law of God, it was not “root out all sin,” but “love the Lord your God . . . and love your neighbor as yourself.”  (Matthew 22:37-38). The Apostle Paul reflects this teaching in I Corinthians 13:  “If I have not love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal . . . I am nothing . . . I gain nothing.” “[Love] is not rude, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered,  keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protect always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. Love never fails.”

There is no doubt racism is wrong. The question for those of us in the Christian Reformed Church living above the Mason-Dixon line is, how do we face this wrong without keeping records? How do we challenge our nation to face our racism in 2017 (in both the North and the South) without hauling out the long list of racial sins of the past (which, according to the Gospel, have been atoned for on the Cross of Jesus Christ) to strengthen our case? How do we not delight in evil (so we can advance our political agendas?) but rejoice with the truth (that racism IS sin, that ALL are created in the Imago Dei, regardless of race, gender, or culture). 

Karl Marlantes, in his book What it is Like to Go to War (New York, Atlantic Monthly Press, 2011) writes “In any dispute both sides have a perspective that deserves to be heard, that neither side is totally right—each possesses a partial perspective. Both sides are flawed and fragmented; neither possesses absolute truth.” (p. 48) What strikes me is that this Marine Corps Vietnam Veteran understands and articulates what we in the Reformed tradition have maintained all along, but in the emotion of the moment quickly forget, namely that “all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23), that human depravity is universal, that “even our best works in this life are imperfect and stained with sin.” (Heidelberg Catechism answer  62), that “in this life even the holiest have only a small beginning of this obedience”  that God requires in the Ten Commandments (Heidelberg Catechism answer 114), that Christ Jesus died to save sinners [including Klansmen], of whom I am the worst”  (I Timothy 1:15 NIV), that there is such a thing as common grace, and that God “wants all people to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth” (I Timothy 2:4). 

Is it possible that the city fathers of Charleston understood something about the Gospel that we have lost? Too often we use the tools of guilt, and especially shame, to push for change. We in the North have shamed the South. Not only did General Sherman unnecessarily burn much of it to the ground at the end of the War (in the South, there was only one war), but we continue the shaming narrative that Southerners are all racists rather than pointing out the guilt in specific racist behaviors. Shame is a powerful tool, but it has no place in the arsenal of the Christian.

Years ago I attended an event where the Reformed theologian R.C. Sproul was the speaker. I will never forget the prayer he offered, which went something like this. “Lord, thank you for not revealing all of our sin to us at once, because we would not be able to take it.” As we engage in the spiritual battle against racism, I encourage us to be sensitive and loving to those who have been caught in its ugly claws. May God give us God’s heart for sinners whose transgression is expressed through the evil of racism.

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Participant

Thanks for this insightful post.  :-)

We cannot face racism without "keeping records."  And racism in this country has a long and spotted record.  This is not an individual, isolated event.  It is part of a long story of inequality and dismissiveness in the U.S.  And it has been most obvious in the South.  Saying that we must address an event, rather than its history or causes is like trying to treat an alcoholic by getting him to stop drinking only rum.  No, this is a systemic problem.

Participant

I think that approach, Kent, at least done as it is usually done these days, simply leads to increased racism.  Human history is one big "long story of inequality and dismissiveness," in the US and anywhere else in the world (perhaps even more so in other places in the world).  Someone recently recommended a Netflix documentary to me, Accidental Courtesy, "starring" Daryl Davis, a black American musician who has -- for decades now -- made it his practice to talk with, and befriend even, KKK's and other white supremicists (included or even especially their leaders).  A good watch.

Its funny how we preach forgiveness, over and over and over and over, but then as to some culturally pet wrongs, we make exceptions.  It might feel good, righteous even, but it doesn't make for progress, or even for justice or mercy, but rather the opposite.  Of course that doesn't mean we need to simply tolerate racism and do nothing about it when it occurs, but that is no different than what we should do for any other unjust "inequality."  

Do check out "Accidental Courtesy."

I checked out Accidental Courtesy.  

Perhaps what we struggle with here is the difference between sin and vice.  A sin can be forgiven, and the memory of it removed from our consciousness, as either an individual or as a people.  

A vice, however, is not eliminated by forgiveness.  A vice, like lust, anger, pride, or I think, racism, must be eliminated over a long struggle that changes attitudes and feelings, be they individual or corporate.  I don't think our church, or many others, has dealt with this as well as we have with individual acts of sinfulness.

But Jesus famously did, when he commented on the 10 Commandments in the Sermon on the Mount.  There he clearly showed that failing to perform sinful acts is not enough.  It does not address the root attitudes/vices.  Our thoughts, attitudes, feelings, and perspectives need to be converted as well.

So the question is not that of forgiveness only.  Forgiving an act of violence, for instance, leaves the perpetrator and the victim off the hook regarding the underlying anger or resentment that may lie below the act.  I wish we had been more well trained in the conversion of vices into virtues, not just in the forgiveness of particular sins.

And now I have a reading recommendation for any who wish to pursue this.  Miroslav Volf, The End of Memory: Remembering Rightly in a Violent World.

Participant

No doubt our inclination to "hate our neighbor" can be manifested by our dividing up people by "race," or by other criteria equally meaningless, and then by treating some groups created by that irrational division unjustly, but that is merely one of many ways to "hate our neighbor."  I buy the notion that we all have an inclination to hate others, but I don't buy the notion that all manifest that hatred by dividing according to skin color.  

Indeed, Daryl Davis seemed not to.  When as a child he was pelted with thrown objects marching in a parade and holding an American flag, it never occurred to him that anyone would throw those things at him because he appeared to be of a certain race.  And then Daryl grows up, talks with and befriends (even if he totally disagrees with) KKKers and white separatists, which suggests that Daryl himself does not have the claimed universal "vice" of racism.  And if Daryl is not afflicted with that universal vice, why could others not be also?

Personally, I think "classism" is a far greater problem in today's United States than racism, even if once upon a time it could have been otherwise.

Call "classism" a sin or a vice if you like, acting on that perspective is destructive, sinful, unjust and unloving.  And yet the CRCNA largely ignores it, or perhaps recognizes it but only when and where the victims of classism are particular races, which is itself racism, as Daryl Davis seems to understand.  The book, Hillbilly Elegy, is instructive as to this reality, as is, frankly, the election of Donald Trump.

It was interesting (and spot on I thought) that Daryl Davis saw fear as the underlayment for the KKK and white separatist/sovereignty groups.  I'd add of course our disposition to hate our neighbor, but I think Davis was quite astute in that observation.

I appreciated this article. However, it seems there's a key element that the author does not seem aware of - and that is that racism, racial oppression, and white supremacy are linked, systemic and ongoing problems that continue to affect millions of people of color around the country, including above the Mason-Dixon line.  He writes that we must try to right this wrong, "without keeping records."  The problem is that racism is not fully acknowledged and its impact not appreciated.  Sin that is unnamed can't be repented of.  Way too many Americans do not recognize the systemic nature of racism, and many truly racist people deny that they are racist.  Rather than ignoring our history of slavery and racial oppression, we should bring it to light so that people can experience the conviction of sin and recognize that their continued ignorance only paves the way for further oppression.  

Participant

But Benjamin, your claims notwithstanding, the "history of slavery and racial oppression" has been anything but "ignored."  To the contrary, the CRCNA beats it to death.  These days, one out of every _____ articles on the various CRC publications deal with racism.  Confessions, both individual and institutional, abound.

I really don't think all of this "recognizing" is doing much good in the real world.  After all we keep saying it and nothing changes except for the worse.  While racism is being more and more reported on and emphasized by the media, and by institutions like the CRCNA, the racial divide is clearly growing.

I don't think this author is an "unaware" as you claim.  Rather, I think he believes our focus might better if more turned to emphasize reconciliation, using methods that increase the chances for that, instead of our continuing to grind guilt and shame into the foreheads of the "bad guys" like a lighted cigarette.

This sin has never been "unnamed" -- as you state -- but rather named over and over and over and over again.  It's even named when it doesn't exist.  Our former president was quick to declare it even when it wasn't the case when the facts were more fully made evident.   You may want to solve the problem of "Way too many Americans [] not [wanting] to recognize the systemic nature of racism" but both this author (I think at least) and I would prefer the Daryl Davis route, a route that actually gets something done.

The phrase "not keeping records" comes from I Corinthians 13, quoted earlier in the article:  "Love . . . keeps no records of wrongs."

 

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