Posts tagged “God

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.

Church

Place of Worship

Church.

I go to one.

Church, that is.

I hear that going to church is becoming increasingly rare.  That’s according to the latest survey by Pew Research. They say the number of people going to church is dwindling.  Ok, they say it is dropping like a stone, actually.  The biggest drop off appears to be millennials, including millennials with young children.

I think that’s too bad.  I feel it is too bad mostly for reasons of faith and belief.  But there are practical reasons as well.

So for all the “nones” out there, even if you feel that church isn’t for you, I’d ask you to reconsider.

Let me give you three practical things you (and your children) can learn from going to church.  Or, for that matter, the mosque or synagogue.

First, at church you learn how to sit still for an hour.  This is an extremely practical skill.  It gets you ready for all those dreadful meetings and conference calls you will have to endure at work.  And for your children it is an absolute God send (pun intended). I teach a lot of kids and let me tell you, we’re losing the art of “sitting still.”

Sure, your kids are going to tell you that they are bored.  Hey, depending on what church you go to you might even be bored.  But haven’t you heard?  Being bored is a good thing.  In fact, all the latest studies show  that people’s besting thinking and creativity comes through boredom.

Go to church. Sit still. And yes, get bored. You’re best thinking depends on it.

Second, at church you learn the concept of giving and philanthropy.

In my faith we practice tithing or giving ten percent of our income.  This always leads to the question, “Is it ten percent of “gross” or ten percent of “net”? I don’t know the answer to that.  I do know that many boomers like me who were brought up in church saw Mom and Dad drop their envelop in the plate and were instructed at a very early age to do the same.

The idea of generosity, particularly for the poor and disenfranchised, is common across many faiths.  But church teaches you how to make this a habit, how to weave it into your lifestyle at an early age.

One of the many challenges charitable organizations face today is the decline of the institutional donor. The new generation of donors are “situational” donors.  That’s ok, but not great.  It is hard to imagine great organizations like Red Cross or American Cancer Society being built by situational donors. Church teaches you that you should give back and support causes even when there’s no earthquake in Haiti or drought in the Sudan.  That you should give all the time.  Regularly.  Dependably.  So that organizations that are doing good work can actually do good work.

Finally, church makes you think about big things.  At least it should. Mine does.

When I say big things, I mean really big things. Understanding good.  And bad.  Purpose. Meaning.  Destiny.  Love.  Sacrifice. Truth. Mortality.

Heady stuff.  Big stuff.  The most important stuff in life, really.

But if we’re honest with ourselves, most of us would admit these aren’t the things we spend most of our time thinking about.  We spend most of our time thinking about whether we left the iron on.  Or something like that.  And we think about stuff a lot.  At work we recently did a national study on what people think about most.  At number one was “friends and family.” That’s encouraging.  But at number two – by a wide margin – was “money.”  People think twice as much about money and finances as they do about life’s meaning and purpose.

I think that is too bad. Understandable, but too bad.

Church helps correct that.  Every Sunday here come all those really big things again.  Origin. Purpose. Meaning. Morality. Destiny. Good and Evil. Truth. Mortality.

It isn’t that church is the only place where a person can learn how to sit still, practice philanthropy and search for meaning.  But its track record is pretty good on all three fronts.  And you might even stumble over some of that faith and belief stuff.

So think about it.

 

Place of Worship via flickr under creative commons 2.0

Thanksgiving

Thanks Google creative commons

 

Today is Thanksgiving.

Thank you!  But most of all, thanks for all those not-so-great things in my life and the people who love me in spite of them all.

I am reminded of how Jesus’ taught how NOT to give thanks.  Actually, he was teaching people how not to pray but I put praying and “giving thanks” in the same general category.

In the Gospels, Jesus tells the story of how this one guy in church “gives thanks.” It went sorta like this …

“Thanks, God, for making me such a great person.  It is not so much that you’ve made me handsome, smart, and wealthy, which you did (thanks for that!) but you’ve also made so good and kind and wonderful.  And you know what?  I am!  I love my family.  I give to charity.  I do good works.  So thanks, God.  Great job!”

Jesus wasn’t a fan.  He did, however, like an other guy’s “give thanks” prayer which went a bit like this …

“God, I’m a miserable, wretched, no good schmuck.  Every now and then I do something right but it is more luck or someone else’s grace than anything I can claim.  Thanks for giving me all the things I never deserved.  Thanks for being nice and kind, even when I was a jerk (which, I am sorta all the time because, well, I’m human).  So thanks, God.  I’m grateful for all the good things you give because it isn’t what I really deserve.”

So here’s to being thankful for all things I don’t deserve.  For all the people who did nice to me despite myself.

For all those folks at work, at worship and at play who put up with my insecurities, pettiness and biases.  People who should go screaming out of the door during lectures, rants and a host of poor decisions on my part.  But who stay, work incredibly hard, and make good things happen despite all I do to make it otherwise.

Thanks to my children, their husbands and my children’s children for loving and caring for me even through those times when I was distant and unavailable.  Perhaps even more, thanks for being loving, kind and tolerant when I get preachy and judgmental.  And thanks for loving and caring for each other far above and beyond anything that I could have been responsible for.

And thanks most of all to my wife.  Who continually overlooks my many, many faults –my bad habits, my stubbornness, my moodiness.  Who is there for me throughout the many business trips and late nights working at home.  Who – like my work colleagues – has daily moments where she would legitimately merit running out of the door screaming.  Who I am convinced loves me in spite of who I am and all the stupid things I do.

This is what, I believe, God gives to us.  The ability to give, forgive and love beyond measure, beyond merit, beyond reason.

But as importantly, it is the ability to recognize that we are blessed and are to be thankful not because of ourselves, but rather in spite of ourselves.

So thanks to all of you out there.

And thanks be to God who sacrifices of himself for all of us.