Tuesday, September 10, 2013

White dudes against racism: Be reconciled!

From Toledo, IA
Will Cambell (right) & Ralph Abernathy
on the day of MLK's assassination.
(Henry Groskinsky/Time & Life Pictures, via NYT)
This post is part of an ongoing series on the book Christianity, Democracy, and the Radical Ordinary, by Stanley Hauerwas & Romand Coles. This series is being authored by Jonathan McRay, Jonathan Swartz, & Brian Gumm. This post covers ch. 4, "Race: The 'More' It Is About," by Hauerwas.

I had never heard of the late Rev. Will D. Campbell before August of last year, when I read a post from "The Amish Jihadist," Tripp York: The Ballad of Will Campbell. York said there that:
Campbell is one of the few Christian thinkers who understands how (classical) liberal theology ultimately created both right and left-wing Christianity, and, because of this, his understanding of how Jesus does not fit into this matrix often proves to be an obstacle for some readers. This is not because his writings are dense, but because he is neither a liberal nor a conservative.
Then I come to find out that Hauerwas blames Campbell for "screwing up my life" (88). Recalling a time he saw Campbell speak at Yale Divinity School in 1962, when Hauerwas was a student there, he describes Campbell:
He was not wearing a coat or tie, and I am pretty sure that he was chewing tobacco, which he spit into an empty coke bottle. I do not remember much that he said, but I do remember thinking that this is my kind of guy... (80, emphasis added)
A southern white Baptist preacher/activist who saw through liberalism, hated racism (because it is a sin), took active part in the Civil Rights movement, but also took concrete steps to love his racist enemies...all while having a taste for whiskey and chaw? Sounds like my kind of guy, too!

Class dismissed: Race and poor whites

In The New Jim Crow, Michelle Alexander traces the early development of American slavery and the ideological construct of race which animated it. Before the slave trade developed, poor blacks and whites were subject to indentured servitude in the American colonies. But as the colonies continued to advance and develop (I should put scare quotes around those two words), the need for servants and slaves became more pressing. The mass abduction and importation of West Africans to the American colonies began, displacing the more informal practice of indentured servitude with a systematic, market-driven practice of chattel slavery. "Poor whites," Alexander notes, "suddenly had a direct, personal stake in the existence of a race-based system of slavery" (Alexander, 25).

Given the divide intentionally placed by elites between poor whites and blacks in colonial America, the formation of the Union, the division and civil war that broke out, and the legacy of American slavery we're still living with, Hauerwas notes that "Campbell knows well that one of the great tragedies of the South is the loss of voice for those who are poor and white" (90, emphasis added).

This hits close to home for Hauerwas' own modest Texan roots, and he notes that in his own struggle to come to grips with racism as a Christian, through which Campbell helped him, he saw that:
our identification with the black struggle against racism was right. But such an identification was false if it led me to forget that my people - poor white people - also suffered from a kind of slavery made all the more pernicious because their enslavement could not be recognized as such, because they were white and because whites, by definition, were free. (94, emphasis added)
If this is right - i.e. that race in America was appropriated as a mask to serve the economic interests of the powerful, and that one of many consequences has been the silencing of those who are poor and white (while not ignoring the ways that blacks have had it far worse) - these insights give me practical lenses for living and working in our local community in rural Iowa, a town which is mostly white and whose per capita income sits just above the poverty threshold for a 4-person family.

In other words, I deeply resonate with Hauerwas: poor whites are indeed "my people" in the sense of where we currently live, and my own family history (see the "From the inside out" section of my last post). Now I'm under no illusions: I am not poor, and my privilege (economic & educational) has increased greatly over the course of my life. But my family history, church upbringing, and the Anabaptist tradition have cultivated in me a sense of humility that helps me avoid "white/middle-class guilt" and will hopefully lead me into appropriate steps toward "downward mobility" and genuine relationships of solidarity, friendship, and shared work with my neighbors less privileged.

Conclusion: Racism as principality & power (redux)

Campbell rightly saw racism as a sin, but he often described it using "principalities and powers" language, which is how I've also spoke of it in a previous post in this series. He did so, Hauerwas argues, because:
he learned that the "lot more" of this "race thing" is sin and redemption... The sin therefore is that the whole issue of race is an effort to deny the sovereignty of God... Once a person has truly seen this truth, that person can no longer be a racist, and can no longer grovel in the agonies of self-pity. From that point on, the racist logic and desire for self-justification are terrifying. (98)
As I've said recently, it's been a slow, painful process having my eyes opened to the bedrock of American society that racism is, how I've benefitted from it, and will remain enmeshed in it. But it's been an intense "theopolitical vision" that's overtaken me by the grace of God working through the biblical story and many friends along the way, helping redeem me from this particular fallen Power, helping me battle it, and reconstructing my identity in Christ through whom God is reconciling all things, and in whose new creation "we are neither Caucasian, African, Asian, male or female, bond or free. We are a third race" (Campbell channeling Gal. 3:28, quoted on p. 99).

Where to from here then? Hauerwas starts his closing section by quoting Thomas Merton and Will Campbell, who were friends. Merton starts:
"Before you do a damned thing, just be what you are, a Christian; then no one will have to tell you what to do. You'll know." Campbell adds, "Do? Nothing. Be? What you are - reconciled, to God and man." Surely that is the last word, but because it is a word, it means there is more to be said. (Merton & Campbell, quoted on p. 101)
 And so the walking and talking continues...

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