A False Dichotomy on Ferguson?
I’ve been looking for wisdom on events in Ferguson. I have tried not to confuse my white, redheaded, middle class perspective with a truly biblical perspective—not least because I have to preach on Sundays to a (tiny) half-black congregation, and I’d better speak as an oracle of God and not of the GOP. Or of the NAACP. Not that the GOP and NAACP (or white, middle-class redheads) have no wisdom to offer. But I’d prefer to listen to wisdom that is more reliably pure, peaceable, gentle, open to reason, full of mercy and good fruits, impartial, and sincere (Jas 3:17).
And one of my problems is that people generally characterized by that kind of wisdom have differed over Ferguson. They seem to stress one of two poles: individual sin, or systemic/structural sin. That in itself may be an oversimplification. I dunno. I feel like a dilettante when it comes to issues of race and ethnicity; I’ve given a lot of thought to them but not (yet) a lot of book reading. Just the basics.
So I have been looking to Thabiti Anyabwile as a trusted voice on Ferguson—because he’s shown himself to have “wisdom from above” in the past. And (sorry for burying the lede) he recently offered a helpful analog that, I think, reveals that the individual vs. structural debate relies on a false dichotomy. That analog is abortion. He points out, simply, that abortion has an individual level and a political-social-systemic level. American Christians don’t seem to have any trouble addressing both and keeping them appropriately distinct; why can’t we do the same for “racial” issues? I encourage you to read the whole piece. Thabiti speaks respectfully but, especially in other posts he’s written on the topic, he speaks with an angst and a perspective that I just can’t naturally share. And that’s immeasurably helpful to me. To be “impartial” is not to convince yourself that you don’t have a situated perspective but to do your best by God’s grace to understand the perspective of the Other. African-Americans in the US grow up knowing a good deal, I should think, about the white perspective. They can’t escape it. But to be white in America is generally to have the privilege of rarely having to think about your race, and of hardly bothering about anyone else’s. That’s not impartiality; it’s blindness, failure to love my neighbor. So listen to Thabiti, at minimum, to put yourself in the shoes of a black, doctrinally sound Christian.
Two more things I’ve watched/read and found helpful:
I really like John McWhorter as a linguist, and I watched this Bloggingheads.tv discussion which demonstrated that it’s not only Christians (and not only whites) who stress the individual responsibility side of the equation. McWhorter argued persuasively that stressing structural problems to the exclusion of individual sin is a failed strategy for bringing hope to low-income African-American communities. That’s because in stripping blacks of individual sinful “agency,” they also strip them of the agency necessary to do anything about their situation. If the tragic deaths of young black men are wholly due to factors operating upon black communities from the outside, then the solution has to come from outside, too. The people in the projects will just have to wait for the Man to decide to change.
The African Americans in my community can do something about the problems that face them. Individually, they can repent and believe the gospel. And, systemically/structurally, they can appeal to the moral conscience God says He gave to everyone, even the Man (Rom. 2:14-15). That’s basically what this 1988 essay by Shelby Steele says:
Non-violent passive resistance is a bargainer’s strategy. It assumes the power that is the object of the protest has the genuine innocence to morally respond, and puts the protesters at the mercy of that innocence. I think [the Civil Rights] movement won so many concessions precisely because of its belief in the capacity of whites to be moral. It did not so much demand that whites change as offer them relentlessly the opportunity to live by their own morality—to attain a true innocence based on the sacrifice of their racial privilege, rather than a false innocence based on presumed racial superiority. Blacks always bargain with or challenge the larger society; but I believe that in the early civil rights years, these forms of negotiation achieved a degree of integrity and genuineness never seen before or since.
In the mid-’60s all this changed. Suddenly a sharp racial consciousness emerged to compete with the moral consciousness that had defined the movement to that point. Whites were no longer welcome in the movement, and a vocal “black power” minority gained dramatic visibility. Increasingly, the movement began to seek racial as well as moral power, and thus it fell into a fundamental contradiction that plagues it to this day. Moral power precludes racial power by denouncing race as a means to power. Now suddenly the movement itself was using race as a means to power, and thereby affirming the very union of race and power it was born to redress. In the end, black power can claim no higher moral standing than white power.
I just had an African-American person who has faithfully attended my Sunday-morning Bible class for adults tell me that he/she recently resisted and then relented (under the ministry of regular biblical preaching) in admitting a significant, life-altering sin he/she had committed. Far be it from me to have said, “That ‘sin’ wasn’t your fault; you’re the victim of systemic forces you didn’t create.” No, instead I appealed to the first Beatitude I had just preached on—”Blessed are the poor in spirit.” That’s my job as a pastor. But one of my jobs as a citizen is to step back and look at those systemic forces that were indeed operating in his/her case. And I would encourage him/her to lend a voice to any societal efforts that call whites to administer true justice.
I don’t know the “balance” of individual vs. systemic factors in any given case like Ferguson. But I’m fairly sure that pitting the two against one another or picking one over the other constitutes an unhelpful dichotomy.