What do we make of a Marxist who criticizes Marxism? Of one not entirely at home in capitalistic systems either—fully aware that neither system has manifested in an equitable and just society that well? What do we make of a Christian theologian deeply critical of Christian theology and practice? What do we make of a leftist who defends the sentiment of the Berkeley riots in the 60’s but staunchly criticized aspects of them as well? What do we make of a conservative-liberal-socialist? We make of them what we want, or we let them disappear, not likely out of maliciousness, but more because we do not know what to do with them. We could call this exile.
Some time ago I confessed to a group of fellow-ministers that I did not believe in the actual existence of the devil. Some of my doubts had to do with life experience—I had never encountered anything “demonic” that didn’t have at least five more compelling explanations. But mostly my doubt was instigated by the empty, superstitious, and often destructive theology in which angels and demons and “The Devil” take center stage.
The thing I want to focus on as a kind of conclusion is the fear and anxiety at work in this kind of engagement. There is a fear here that I will say something wrong and offensive, that my biases will be exposed, that I might be guilty of the blindness I am prone to see in others. The reality is that this may very well be true. I do not inhabit a morally or socially pure space from which I would be able to read what Copeland writes or respond in a way that will not be guilty of blindness or misunderstanding. The key is to admit that, to be honest, because the only way to overcome this is to go through it.
This is the issue of our times. And how our hearts and minds respond to this – do they open or close? – determines not only the fate of millions but our own fate as well. To spare ourselves this “inconvenience,” to keep our lives tidy, we’ll do the darndest, darkest things ourselves. And maybe lose our souls.
I submit that churches face a similar situation when it comes to race relations. We’re all staring at the same screen. We’ve got the same “information.” We read the same Bible; we have access to the same crime reports, police shooting data, and employment figures; we watch the same press briefings; we read similar newspapers and watch similar news programs (although this is becoming less the case than it used to be); we’re friends with each other on Facebook. But we’re seeing different things. A gorilla has ambled across our field of vision, but not everyone caught a glimpse of it. If the body of social science research is accurate, the United States has a problem with racial inequality, and this is the gorilla that many Evangelical Christians have missed.
Given the intractable and often mean-spirited public discourse swirling around issues of race and justice, I think it is fair to say that we do not understand one another. Michelle Alexander’s book, The New Jim Crow offers a starting point for understanding the roots of our present day conflict from a Black perspective. And those who are brave enough, or perhaps I should say Christ-like enough, to give it a charitable and open-minded reading will have a chance to become the peacemakers that Christ has called blessed.
Last week we faced a set of issues that seem to require us to think along the same lines. Is a deep, radical love compatible with an (albeit partially) socialized healthcare system? Is a deep, radical love compatible with a heritage haunted by racism and slavery? Is a deep, radical love compatible with embracing or excluding homosexual marriage—or indeed, homosexuals in the Church? I offer no answers here, and I’m not interested in hosting or sparking political debates. What I do suggest is that this book offers a great methodological starting-point for thinking through these questions. My suspicion is that, if we follow Jackson’s example of charitable thought, that our answers will resemble love in better and truer ways than they did before–no matter which side one lands on any given issue.
This illustrates an important point that Paul Ramsey and other defenders of Christian violent resistance argue: the right thing to do changes when it’s not just me alone in the equation, but also our neighbor. We might be able to stomach turning our own cheek, but are we called to turn our neighbor’s cheek also? My last post was on a book about Christian nonviolence, in the spirit of fairness this book is a defense of violent resistance from a Christian perspective.
Anyone who enlists pacifism as a badge of honor in some pollyannaish sentiment of good will is an idiot. (Full disclosure: I had to look the proper way to spell pollyannaish.) At the same time, the caricature of Christian “pacifism” as weak-willed, emasculated hippy-religion is equally false. Anyone sincerely interested in investigating the various ways in which Christians conceive, argue for, and practice non-violence would do well to start here. I hope that people read this book (or my representation of it) with an open, generous, but critical eye.
Thomas Merton, Life and Holiness New York: Doubleday Press, 1963. There are few more important persons and writers for our present world than Thomas Merton, for Christians especially, but in a way for the whole world. He was a libertine-turned Trappist monk who nevertheless considered his isolated vocation as a means to serve the world…