The other day, as I was patting myself on the back for not being a white supremacist, this story came to mind:
Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood by himself and prayed: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.’ But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner.’ “I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God. For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.
The point of contact is that then, as now, there were people who were despised and rejected because of their sins. Then, it was tax collectors: they were traitors, collaborators with the Roman occupiers, who moreover do not appear to have been particularly careful not to overcharge. These were the people whom everybody hated. They were despicable. I imagine that in every age, some group of people has fallen into that category. In my time, in my social circles, that place is occupied by Nazis and white supremacists. Of course they are despised. Of course they are the villains.
The moral insight to take from the parable is that it’s easy to pat yourself on the back for not being a white supremacist. It’s particularly easy if, like me, you were not raised in a racially charged environment, you weren’t raised in a racist family, you’re geographically distant from the situation, and (here’s a kicker) your cultural and socio-economic position is such that your go-to response is to mock the protestors for their cultural backwardness. There’s irony in, on the one hand, thoughtlessly recapitulating your (sub)culture’s attitude toward a despised group, and on the other hand, puffing yourself up by feeling morally superior to such people.
And so the first questions to ask are—and I address these questions to myself and to everyone else like me: “Really, what the hell? You need to take credit for not being a Klansman? What kind of person are you that that’s your point of comparison?”
The real point of the parable—and we can feel the force of it better by putting modern characters into it—is that when we pray, the white supremacist who prays “God, have mercy on me, a sinner” will be forgiven, and not the well-educated centrist evangelical who prides himself on not being that far gone. That’s what Jesus thinks of my feeling of moral superiority.
Event such as these produce anger, which produces a justifiable sense of, “This cannot be allowed to happen.” It’s the feeling one has when protecting one’s children. It’s as if this is what anger is for.
Anger is often channeled unproductively. A momentary outburst is less effective than a sustained effort. A thoughtful response is better than a hasty one. It’s more important to address the fundamental problem than to make a superficial attack.
Below, I have some thoughts about how our outbursts of rage are (in all likelihood) part of the plan of the people who organized this event; it’s playing into their hands. But I think that’s a superficial analysis of the situation, so I have just tacked it on to the end of the post.
How do we get to the fundamentals of this situation? How do we smash, not just the racists of this generation, but racism itself? It’s heart work. Here’s Solzhenitsyn:
If only it were all so simple! If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?
So the first step is self-examination. I’m hesitant to say a great deal about this, because it’s a very personal matter. It’s easy to make disingenuous accusations. A self-aware person can probe his/her beliefs and attitudes.
Intellectually, there is an occasion to reexamine our reasons for rejecting racism. To speak frankly, I don’t believe that most people’s moral convictions rest on much more than social convention. On the one hand, it seems odd to interrogate the beliefs of a non-racist; but on the other hand, if the moral reasoning is sound, we can bring it to light and reaffirm our commitments by becoming more aware of their foundations. For me, the foundational truth is that humans are made in the image of God (Genesis 1:27); there is no mention of race in that verse, and men and women are explicitly included in the formulation (avoiding, if it need be said, a crude anthropomorphic masculinism). Throughout the Bible, only one race has received special attention from God; which He created for the purpose, out of nothing, as it were; and in the fullness of time even that distinction was smashed, as had been the purpose from the beginning (Genesis 15, all of Paul, etc.). So there is no basis for racial distinction, for the Christian.
In the other-centered ethos of the New Testament, we need next to consider the needs of others. The obvious starting point is the family. Any parent has an obvious moral obligation to address issues such as these with his/her children.
Outside of our own families, I think it’s fair to say that things get murkier. Being what we are, we need particularly to ask ourselves whether a given action benefits ourselves, or other people.
The immediate desire is to vomit the emotion onto Facebook, either to criticize and vilify, or to express solidarity. A reasonably self-aware person will as himself: whose interests does this serve? Am I trying to build up or correct others, or am I venting, or creating a little display of my own righteousness?
I don’t mean to say that venting is always inappropriate. When I smash my thumb with a hammer, I swear as loudly as the next person. I assume that venting has its place in a normal psyche; we just need to recognize it for what it is.
Creating little displays of righteousness is, of course, neither natural nor innocent. Righteous indignation becomes self-indulgent very quickly. Awareness of that danger alone will require even a minimally self-aware person to question his own motivations.
So then, the question we need to ask is how we can actually help other people. I think there are two subparts to this question. First, who can we realistically help? Second, how can we help them?
Who can we help? I think we need to be realistic and modest in our aims. How many people I am in a position to impact positively—whether offering an expression of solidarity, or a word of exhortation or correction? That is to say, for how many people would it be more about them than about me feeling good about myself? Let’s think first about offering correction or exhortation.
Here’s one way to ask the question: How many people are there who have enough respect for me to be challenged by what I have to say, and would be uncertain about my attitudes towards white supremacists? I think I can offer a pretty accurate estimate: zero. I don’t think there’s anywhere out there thinking to himself, “Wow, Adam’s a thoughtful guy and I try to take what he says seriously; I’d really like to hear his thoughts on whether whites are an inherently superior race, and whether that should be somehow reflected in our social and political structures.” On that basis, I conclude that my angry denunciations of racism on Facebook are unlikely to make much positive impact on the views of racists.
(So, to get self-referential: this blog is more or less about books and ideas that have influenced my own thinking, and that I think might have a positive impact on people who are (in my imagination) either in my sphere of influence, or developing along a parallel path.)
Now, that’s me. People with different circles of acquaintances may have an opportunity to speak truth into the lives of people who have these racist attitudes. But even here, I think a gentle word is going to be more effective than a combative posture. And better than both would be the simple witness of a life lived without racial prejudice—which is of course not merely the absence of prejudice, or the non-use of racial epithets, but having as wide a range of acquaintances as one’s location permits. For me personally, the existence of a single person who truly exhibits a virtue is far more powerful than volumes written on the subject.
Next, comforting or expressing solidarity. When a group is attacked or maligned in public, along with anger, there is a desire to comfort the people who were attacked. As far as public statements go, I think there is an obvious place for people in leadership to make statements of support.
For private individuals, I think again that wisdom is needed. For me personally, blanket statements of support for my demographic (white, evangelical, or whatever) would not be meaningful; I can easily imagine that that’s atypical, however—I’m not a very sentimental person.
If a blanket statement is made, then I think it should be oriented toward affirming individuals, or the group, rather than trying to build solidarity against the group by criticizing the aggressor. (That’s not to say that the aggressor is not morally guilty.) I find that I am most embarrassed by my fellow evangelicals when they adopt a persecuted, circle-the-wagons mindset; I would not want to encourage that in other groups.
Yet even there, I think that the prospects of doing good are fairly slim. From my perspective, the really damaging thing about racism (or any demographic-based discrimination) is that it flattens individuals, making them no more than exemplars of a social category. Suppose somebody were to say, “Black people are terrible.” I could rebut that by saying, “No, black people are great,” but that may win the battle by losing the war: I’m validating the initial assumption that “black people” are a monolith about which we can make generalizations. I’m still flattening individuals by refusing to treat them as individuals.
(Obviously that last paragraph is dripping with Western individualism; in other cultures, results may vary. The basis for my observation is my own experience of being an ‘outsider’; even when people in the host culture receive me kindly, their perceptions of me are dominated by my demographics, not by who I am as a person.)
So my own thought is that the way to affirm individuals is by treating them as individuals. The uncomfortable corollary of this is that we can’t affirm people that we’re not in relationship with. That’s an uncomfortable result, but one that I think is pretty straightforward. Is it meaningful to me, not knowing any Croats, to express solidarity with Croats? I don’t think it is.
And so, if I find myself desiring to express solidarity with African Americans—in Charlottesville, or however widely I might wish to cast the net—but I am not in a position relationally to do so, then rather than condemning the men with crew-cuts and tiki torches (even though they are entirely in the wrong and will be subject to judgment), I should begin by examining my own life. In particular, how have my decisions have contributed to the social position I find myself in? Am I being called to make intentional decisions to change that?
In all of this I am self-accusing. I have posted more than my share of sanctimonious Facebook posts; I have fought with strangers who have made stupid comments about groups of people I know and care about. In college I confronted a man gluing posters onto a newspaper stand. And I always end up feeling pretty good about myself after all these things.
But who’s it all for? What’s my motivation? What should I really be doing to make a positive impact in the moral situation?
I have a few final reflections on the role of individual incidents in the media and cultural discourse.
The first is simply a reality check. Protests are contrived events. I don’t know all the details about Charlottesville, but clearly this one was planned far enough in advance for word to get around, and for there to be a counter-protest. The location was not incidental: Charlottesville is a liberal college town. It was a provocation; it worked. We need to appreciate that this is the political equivalent of WWF and The Jerry Springer Show. The protest was not technically unreal, but it was contrived: we should all be cautious about drawing conclusions about the broader society when people are putting on a show for us.
Two further observations come out of my time spent in the Muslim world.
The first is to issue a general caution against constructing cultural narratives from individual incidents. This is more-or-less the besetting epistemological sin of our age. This was a contrived event, but even if it were a spontaneous outburst of sentiment on the part of these people, we should be cautious about assuming that they represent a significant portion of the American population. We should also, frankly, avoid representing these events to ourselves as a conflict between “the Left” and “the Right”. Conservatives are not closeted Nazis or fascists, and liberals are not closeted communists. And even when we have a tasty news morsel, we can refrain from attributing nefarious hidden motives to our political adversaries. C.S. Lewis has wise words on our reaction to stories in the news:
“Suppose one reads a story of filthy atrocities in the paper. Then suppose that something turns up suggesting that the story might not be quite true, or not quite so bad as it was made out. Is one’s first feeling, ‘Thank God, even they aren’t quite so bad as that,’ or is it a feeling of disappointment, and even a determination to cling to the first story for the sheer pleasure of thinking your enemies are as bad as possible? If it is the second then it is, I am afraid, the first step in a process which, if followed to the end, will make us into devils. You see, one is beginning to wish that black was a little blacker. If we give that wish its head, later on we shall wish to see grey as black, and then to see white itself as black. Finally we shall insist on seeing everything — God and our friends and ourselves included — as bad, and not be able to stop doing it: we shall be fixed for ever in a universe of pure hatred.”
The second observation is to juxtapose this event to events caused by the Islamic State. Part of the avowed program of the Islamic State (IS, ISIS, IS, Da’esh, etc.) is to radicalize Muslims living in the West by making removing the cultural middle ground that makes it possible to be both a faithful Muslim and a member of a Western democracy. This is painfully simple. First, commit an atrocity. This will create a prejudice against Muslims in at least some small percentage of the non-Muslim population. Every suspicious look or second glace communicates the message: you will never belong. This makes it easier for Muslims in the West to become socially isolated and then radicalized. Properly promoted, a small event can lead to a large social fissure—or at least, that is the theory.
A corollary of this is that when people like you and I make dismissive comments in social media, we’re playing into the strategy of the people we’re trying to oppose. There is some person on the fringe of that movement, sitting on the fence, and a well-aimed barb from a stranger will push him further into it. (Why was The Joker such a compelling villain in The Dark Knight?) You are the pawn in someone else’s game, a useful idiot in their plan. That knowledge need not necessarily determine our response, but we should take it seriously into account.
How do you fight against that? Not how do you fight against the Islamic State (or “Unite the Right”), but how do you fight against the strategy that they’re using? How do you avoid exacerbating division?
The damnatio memoriae is, I think, not a bad place to start. What if somebody got beheaded in Syria and it didn’t become a meme? What if something ugly happened in Charlottesville, and the churches and the civic institutions came together to handle things on a local level? There are countless examples of media and social media making bad situations worse.
The best antidote to prejudice, however, is to get to know people. It’s said that travel is fatal to prejudice; I think that knowing people personally is more effective. The other side of this is in allowing other people to get to know you. It’s far easier to reach that conclusion logically than it would be to (gulp) get to know white supremacist—or a political conservative—or a political liberal—or a white—or a black—or a Muslim—or whomever you are tempted to despise. That’s the only way to be subversive in this situation.