Archive for May, 2021

Jesus, Critical Race Theory, and American Exceptionalism

American Flag

Photo by Aaron Burden on Unsplash

I ran through several titles for this post. This is what I ended up with. 

It is not quite as provocative as a bunch of others I thought about using, like “Jesus would support critical race theory and oppose American exceptionalism.” But I figured that titles along those lines would be presumptive, preachy to the point of arrogance and bombast. Lord knows we have enough of all of that. So I settled on something a bit less argumentative.

But here’s the nub of the issue. Critical race theory (CRT), which has been around for decades and never raised much fuss, has all a sudden set conservatives in an uproar. The Heritage Institute claims that “when followed to its logical conclusion, CRT is destructive and rejects the fundamental ideas on which our constitutional republic is based.” Evangelical pastors and their churches have also been set ablaze. In pulpits and bylines across America, they are supporting states efforts to ban mention of CRT in public education.  Scholars and theologians from the Southern Baptist Convention claim that CRT is “unbiblical” and inconsistent with Christianity. Others have called it “something of a Christian heresy.”

So what exactly is CRT? If you listen to a lot of conservatives or evangelicals you’d think it is the coming of the anti-Christ – a humanist theology seeking to replace Judeo Christian values. But that’s not the case. In one of the most informed and balanced pieces I’ve read on CRT,  Education Week’s associate editor, Steve Sawchuck, describes CRT this way:

Critical race theory is an academic concept that is more than 40 years old. The core idea is that racism is a social construct, and that it is not merely the product of individual bias or prejudice, but also something embedded in legal systems and policies.

That’s it. Racism creeps into legal systems and policies. This is a surprise?

No, CRT is not some Marxist plot or Satanic plot. CRT is more of a description, of what is than a prescription of what to do about it. CRT merely says that racism goes beyond individuals and eventually becomes systemic. That because people construct societies, and because in the process of constructing those societies people bring with them their individual biases and prejudices, these biases and prejudices infect and shape the institutions the societies create.

Makes perfect sense to me.

It also strikes me as consistent with what I know Jesus taught. Let’s start with the concept of sin and racism. 

Man’s sinful nature isn’t a new concept. It has been a central theme of Christian theology since – well – since the beginning. St. Paul. Augustine. Martin Luther. Calvin. All saw Jesus as the means to escape an inherently grim human condition. By the time this got to Calvin, he went so far as to describe our condition as that of “total depravity.” 

My read of scripture doesn’t go that far. The total depravity part. But I find the concept of “sin” and “sinner” experientially relevant. That is, I see it (sin) in myself and others. And our recognition and repentance of what constitutes these bad thoughts and behaviors – are central to Jesus’ teaching. 

When I was growing up in church, I was encouraged to publicly confess not only that I am a sinner but that my “sin” thing was largely an uncurable condition. I should seek God’s help and guidance to overcome it, but I’m sorta stuck with it. Sin, that is. And I did so because deep inside me I know that was a pretty good description of me and folks around me – even those that I admired. But Jesus provides hope because as Paul wrote, “while we were yet sinners” he sacrificed his life for ours.

So here’s the question: If Christians are ok with standing up and saying “I’m a sinner” why do they freak out when someone asks them to confess “I’m a racist”? Surely racism falls into the “sin” bucket. What makes it so hard for Christians to accept the reality of our own prejudice?

I think beneath the religious panic is political mythology.

Could it be that the real reason over the freak out of CRT is that it punctures the balloon of American exceptionalism. That CRT somehow makes Americans and American history look bad. That it is unpatriotic. It doesn’t quite fit into Lee Greenwood’s “God Bless the USA” Bible!

Any (good) student of U.S. history knows that Americans’ self-perceived “exceptionalism” has been part of our story since the colonies. It has been linked to our Puritan or Christian “specialness.” Winthrop had his “City on a Hill.” Jacksonian Democrats and Teddy Roosevelt had John O’Sullivan’s Christian-based Manifest Destiny. Ronald Reagan claimed America as “set aside as a promised land.”

America is exceptional. Perhaps by extension, God has a special thing for the U.S.A.

Here’s the problem. I’m not sure Jesus would agree with this either. 

Whatever happened to “red, and yellow, black, and white … they are precious in his sight”? It wasn’t just the American children that Jesus loved. As I remember it, it was the “children of the world.” It’s a big world out there.

Sadly, throughout American history, legitimate pride and patriotism have often fallen prey to nativism, imperialism and … you got it! … a sense of (white) American superiority. Sometimes it was even Christian superiority. Sometimes it was even the superiority of some types of Christianity (Protestantism) over other types of Christianity (Catholics). Not sure how aligns with Jesus’ views on the beauty of humility and the ugliness of pride. Humble was high on the “blessed” list in Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. Last I read in the books of Matthew and Luke, exceptionalism didn’t make the cut.

I’m reminded of Jesus’ parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector. 

It was the story of two people praying. The Pharisee was in the front of the church and thought pretty highly of himself. His prayer was – literally –  God, I thank you that I am not like other people.” He went on to say that he was especially thankful that God made him better than the scum tax collector in the back of the room. Sorta sounds a lot like exceptionalism to me. A bit like “I’m thankful God, you made me an American and not one of those awful socialist wussy Danish or Swedish types. 

Jesus wasn’t too happy with the Pharisee. Rather, Jesus sided with the tax collector – the guy in the back of the room who didn’t claim to be better than anyone. He simply asked God “to have mercy upon me, a sinner.”

[Sidenote: I also think that Jesus would likely challenge anyone who makes the claim that “I don’t have a racist bone in my body” or “they don’t have a racist bone in their body.” I do. You do. They do. We just need to deal with it.]

Finally, let’s put Jesus and Christian theology to the side for a moment, and just talk about American history. Facts. Truth. Stuff that actually happened.

I don’t want to pick on any one state but I find it ironic (that’s the nicest word I can come up with) that one of the biggest opponents of CRT is Senator Cotton from Arkansas. Arkansas is the state where in 1957, following the landmark ruling of Brown v. Board of Education, the Governor of the state infamously called out the National Guard to maintain segregation of white students from black students in public schools. 

That policy – the segregation of white and black communities – had been in place in the state of Arkansas and much of the nation for over 60 years or since Reconstruction. It was state law. It was institutionalized racism. Systemic racism. Whatever the label, racism was the rule of law. Add to that the fact that the state of Arkansas was admitted to the Union in 1836 precisely because it was a “slave” state. Its admission as the 25th state was meant to preserve the balance of slave vs. free states in the Union. By my math that means that Arkansas has been a state for approximately 185 years, and for approximately two-thirds of its history it was either a slave state or a segregationist state.

Are we to simply ignore the two-thirds of Arkansas’ history? Pretend that race wasn’t an issue? Pretend that race still isn’t an issue? In Arkansas and every other state in the Union?

CRT is a theory. It is not a religion, it is not a government, it is not a way of life. It is just a theory “which dates back to the 1970s, [and] holds that racism is systemic and embedded in policies rather than just perpetuated by bigoted people, creating barriers for people of color in myriad spheres of life.”

Makes sense to me. It is not a radical concept.

It is historically accurate and, based on my read of the Bible, quite in keeping with what Jesus and his disciples taught.

Choices

boots

Photo by Oziel Gómez on Unsplash

We have them. At least some of the time.

But are we the result of our choices?

I ask because I’m finishing up a course for high school teachers on what is called “The Economic Way of Thinking.” It didn’t take long for me to learn that it was mainly a course on how to teach or infuse history with the benefits of free-market, capitalism. Business=good. Government=bad.

A lot of their logic rests on the premise of choice. Indeed, the very first principle taught as part of the course was: People choose, and individual choices are the source of social outcomes.

Now I’m a big believer in personal responsibility. But when I read this I thought to myself, “there’s some amiss here.” It made everything sound so simple. Too simple. You choose and from those choices you make, stuff happens. Some good stuff. Some bad stuff. But whatever stuff it is, it is all the result of your choices.

As I read this decidedly conservative curriculum the more I wondered: “how much choice do people really have?”

Probably less than one might think.

There are a lot of things about which we have no choice. I didn’t get to choose my gender, ethnicity, or my race (I’m male and very white). I didn’t get to choose whether my parents had good or bad parenting skills (I got very lucky on this one!). I didn’t get to choose my lower-middle-class neighborhood outside of New Orleans (not too dangerous but sometimes sketchy). And I certainly didn’t get to choose my DNA or “natural talents” (missed out on most of those).

Now one might say that these don’t matter much. That regardless of whatever combination of the above factors – gender, race, parenting, neighborhood, genes, talent – regardless of any of that, each person gets to “shape” their own destiny. 

True in theory. But “conditions” shape “choices.” The latter makes the former either much easier or much more challenging. And for every story about a down-and-out, challenged individual who through pluck and effort made something out of themselves, I can probably identify dozens who made the same effort, worked just as hard, but found themselves at the wrong place at the wrong time with the wrong boss and under the wrong circumstances.

History is about choices. But history is also about circumstances and the chances and choices they afford. It is good, I believe, to recognize that because of their circumstances, some have much better choices – and therefore much better chances – than others.

I’m reminded of the exchange between reporter Sander Vanocur of NBC News and Dr. Martin Luther King in May 1967. Here’s the full interview posted by Josh Dance:

NBC correspondent Sander Vanocur:

What is it about the negro I mean every other group that came as an immigrant somehow? Not easily, but somehow got around it. Is it just the fact that Negroes are Black?

Martin Luther King:

“White America must see, that no other ethnic group has been a slave on American soil. That is one thing that other immigrant groups haven’t had to face.

The other thing is that the color, became a stigma. American society made the Negroes color a stigma. America freed the slaves in 1863, through the Emancipation Proclamation of Abraham Lincoln, but gave the slaves no land, and nothing in reality. And as a matter of fact, to get started on.

At the same time, America was giving away, millions of acres of land in the west and the Midwest. Which meant that there was a willingness to give the white peasants from Europe an economic base, and yet it refused to give its black peasants from Africa, who came here involuntarily in chains and had worked free for two hundred and forty-four years, any kind of economic base.

And so emancipation for the Negro was really freedom to hunger. It was freedom to the winds and rains of Heaven. It was freedom without food to eat or land to cultivate and therefore was freedom and famine at the same time.

And when white Americans tell the Negro to “’lift himself by his own bootstraps’, they don’t, oh, they don’t look over the legacy of slavery and segregation. I believe we ought to do all we can and seek to lift ourselves by our own bootstraps, but it’s a cruel jest to say to a bootless man that he ought to lift himself by his own bootstraps.

And many Negroes by the thousands and millions have been left bootless as a result of all of these years of Oppression and as a result of a society that deliberately made his color a stigma and something worthless and degrading.”

So in my lesson plans, I’ll include the “economic way of thinking” and give a tip of the hat to Adam Smith and free-market enterprise. 

But when it comes to choices and circumstances … I’ll be sure to include Dr. King’s perspective as well.