Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Differing Worldviews in Black and White

The recent controversy over Rev. Jeremiah Wright’s comments at the National Press Club on Tuesday, April 29 reveal how wide the divide still is between white and black Americans. I stumbled upon his comments while looking on You Tube for Rev Wright’s speech before the NAACP in Detroit the day before. In the National Press Club speech Rev. Wright outlined the prophetic role of the Black Church in U.S. history speaking not only of the work of James Cone (Black Theology of Liberation) and Martin Luther King, but also going back to days when slaves gathered in the woods to meet for worship. He linked this tradition to the prophets of the Hebrew Bible and to Jesus who often confronted the Pharisees and other powerbrokers of his day. Following the speech he was asked a series of questions about the controversial statements that had gained him so much attention in the past couple of months. Understandably he defended his statements and did not back down from what he had said previously. He also contrasted himself as a preacher answerable to God from Barack Obama who is a politician seeking to get elected. He pointed out that each was accountable to a different constituency. He was clear, forthright and truthful, even injecting a joke that he would be open to being vice-president.

So I was surprised and disturbed by the news reports that came out today saying he was “bombastic,” “defiant” and “incendiary.” Among his views that were criticized were statements such as these:

• "The government gives them [blacks] the drugs, builds bigger prisons, passes a three-strike law, and then wants us to sing 'God Bless America.' No, no, no. God damn America. That's in the Bible for killing innocent people. God damn America for treating our citizens as less than human. God damn America for as long as she acts like she is God and she is supreme."

• "We bombed Hiroshima, we bombed Nagasaki, and we nuked far more than the thousands in New York and the Pentagon, and we never batted an eye. . . . We have supported state terrorism against the Palestinians and black South Africans, and now we are indignant because the stuff we have done overseas is now brought right back to our own front yards. America's chickens are coming home to roost." (he also added that he was referring to a statement the U.S. Ambassador to Iraq at the time, Edward Peck, that the attacks may have been a response to U.S. actions in the Middle East).

• Louis Farrakhan is “one of the most important voices in the 20th and 21st century, that’s what I think about him… When Louis Farrakhan speaks, it's like E.F. Hutton speaks, all Black America listens. Whether they agree with him or not, they listen. Now I'm not going to put down Louis Farrakhan any more than Mandela would put down Fidel Castro..." [quoting Mandela from an interview with Ted Koppel when Mandela was asked about the Cuban dictator] "'You don't tell me who my friends are, you don't tell me who my enemies are.' Louis Farrakhan is not my enemy, he did not put me in chains, he did not put me in slavery and he didn't make me this color.

In his rejection of these comment Barack Obama distinguished his worldview for that of Rev. Wright’s. In fact what is at stake here is exactly that: a matter of worldview. For most white Americans such statements are outrageous and radical while for many African-Americans such statements have a ring of truth. While whites and blacks have lived and worked in the same land for 300+ years, our experience of that history is dramatically different and thus we see those events through dramatically different lenses.

For many white Americans it is fine for a President to close a TV address with “God bless America,” but do not ever suggest that God might condemn America for its actions. It is okay to criticize the government for its actions overseas, but don’t ever suggest that this government “of , by and for the people” would also implicate those of us who are its citizens. Patriotism means you not only love this country, but you don’t say anything critical of our consumptive lifestyle, or our expansionist military policies. Furthermore, anyone who is critical of the U.S. or its ally Israel, such as Louis Farrakhan, must be summarily repudiated. And while we can pay reparations to Jews suffering the Holocaust and Japanese-American interned during World War II, let’s not suggest that the legacy of slavery, Jim Crow ,segregation and racially based economic oppression do not need to be openly and publicly addressed.

Many of my African-American friends and colleagues would see things otherwise. While many, like Barack Obama, hope to move past the racial divide (as Obama said in his March 18 speech on racial issues in Philadelphia), we can’t move past something we have not as a nation truly admitted exists in the first place. While most White Americans recognize that slavery, Jim Crow, segregation and economic oppression happened, they are resistant to exploring the extent to which these historical realities still impact African-Americans today. Most White Americans don’t see, and therefore find hard to believe, that racial discrimination and marginalization are ongoing and present realities for most people of color in this nation. While there is much work to be done in the African American community around addressing issues such as family breakdown and counterproductive behaviors, like teenage pregnancy and drug abuse, this does not remove the historical and cultural forces that also impact people of color.

Unfortunately, what has happened in the last few months is that Barack Obama’s candidacy has confronted white Americans with the fact that we have not constructively dealt with the racial divide in our nation. The response to Rev. Wright’s comments has only served to bring to light the fact that many white and many black Americans see the world through widely different lenses. Until finger wagging can give way to honest dialogue, the divide will continue to exist and may even sadly widen.

Friday, April 04, 2008

What and How I Believe

Recently, I read two chapters from Marcus Borg's book, Jesus and was particularly interested in his discussion of the two paradigms of contemporary Christianity: the belief-centered and the emerging paradigms. I don’t read Marcus Borg often but when I do I find that I often agree with his analysis, but when it comes to interpretation/application he and I go off in different directions. When I begin to think that I might be becoming a theological liberal, Borg reminds me I really am not. However, I was also struck by the absence of a third, much more compelling, paradigm.

Borg first talks about what he calls the belief centered paradigm of Christianity. In that context he discusses the effect the Enlightenment had on the Christian understanding of belief. Prior to the Enlightenment belief or faith was synonymous with trust in and loyalty to God. The Enlightenment challenged the factual basis of Christian faith with its scientific worldview and critical stance toward anything that was not able to be grasped by the five senses. Thus, he says in Christian circles there was a shift from "belief in" to "belief that." In other words the trust/loyalty view of faith gave way to an affirmation of certain “truths’ and doctrines. I think that is a helpful discussion, and today it is true that for many churchgoers a "belief that" approach to faith is all that seems to matter. Many churchgoing folks seem to think that as long as they believe certain truths, that is all there is to being a Christian.

However, for most evangelicals this is a false dichotomy because the "belief that" leads to and supports the "belief in." So for instance, my belief that Jesus is a savior, leads me to entrust my life to Jesus; belief in a doctrine leads me to seek a relationship with God thru Jesus Christ. Borg rightly stresses the trust/loyalty dimension of faith as most important, but for many theologically conservative Christians, they are two sides of the same coin. Borg believes one can have a belief in God without a belief that certain things are true about God. I find it is sort of like building a house without a framework; one hangs on the other.

However, I was reminded recently at how middle class, educated and white this whole discussion is. Quite by accident I came across an article called "The Christian Revolution" (someone left it on the copier at work) from a book by Philip Jenkins called The Next Christendom: The Coming of Global Christianity. Jenkins points out that the plurality of Christians has shifted from Europe and North America to Africa, Latin America and increasingly Asia. He points out "beyond the simple demographic transition, there are countless implications for theology and practice." For instance, a major implication is that moving into the future the vast majority of Christians are and will be relatively impoverished and live life on the edge of material sustenance. As a result, their world and worldview is much closer that of the first century Christians. They know what Howard Thurman means in Jesus and the Disinherited when he says that the message of Jesus was a "survival strategy" for the oppressed. Writing as an oppressed person Jesus speaks out of and into their situation much more readily. Jenkins says that for the vast majority of Christians in the world, this is a truth that literally sustains them day to day. He calls those of us in North America to take notice that our way of thinking is not the only game in town and isn’t even the biggest or most important game. He calls us to reconsider our Enlightenment-based arrogance and blindness to the reality of the supernatural.

Jenkins points out that for most of the world’s Christians belief in the supernatural and the possibility of miracles, healings and other examples of God breaking into the natural order are not a troubling intellectual dilemma, but a life-affirming and life-saving strategy. Their testimony is that God is at work in the world in these ways. I see this same mindset in some of my students, who come from the underside of U.S. society. God's movement in their lives is real in a way that as an educated, white, middle class intellectual I find hard to accept. Even so I find their testimony compelling.

In the end Jenkins causes me to reconsider my framework --- have I so bought into Enlightenment thinking that I have become blind to what Jesus and the people of his day saw as a natural part of reality, and which people in the developing world have come to see is their lifeline to God? It is a question I can not shake.