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Ferguson, Race, and the Evangelical Problem

By December 4, 2014 2 Comments

When the grand jury decided to not indict Darren Wilson, the police officer who repeatedly shot and killed eighteen-year-old Michael Brown, many Christian leaders expressed their shock, dismay, and outrage in writing. Twitter was ablaze, as was Ferguson. I read a number of thoughtful, justice-oriented, theologically-rich and -challenging pieces. I also read a number of proposals for undoing racism that potentially perpetuate it. They went something like this: If you want to do something about Ferguson and racism in the United States, become friends with a black person and listen sympathetically to them. On the surface, this may appear like sound advice, rooted in the gospel’s call. It might be a positive step toward racial reconciliation, but, on its own, it falls far short and has been proven to be ineffective.

Become friends with a black person. It is true that white Americans have racially homogenous friendships. It is true that this segregation inhibits the capacity to understand the presence and impact of racism. It is true that becoming friends with African Americans can open our eyes to the daily discrimination that they endure. In fact, I was forever changed in my early twenties by a close friendship with a woman and her biracial kids. When I took her kids shopping or out to the movies, I was treated differently, eyed with suspicion, spoken to with contempt. The energy changed in the interaction and I became a distrusted outsider. I felt in my body just barely a fraction of what they endured regularly.

However, friendship with a black person is not enough to undo racism. It’s not even enough to interpret racism adequately. Research has shown that it takes a network of contacts (a web of relationships) with African Americans, including colleagues, neighbors, friends, and family members, for white people to begin understanding the systemic, structural powers that promulgate racism.

The friendship strategy emerges from the Evangelical worldview, which is characterized by freewill individualism, relationalism, and anti-structuralism. (For the full argument, see Michael Emerson and Christian Smith, Divided by Faith: Evangelical Religion and the Problem of Race in America [Oxford, 2000].) Freewill individualism emphasizes personal agency, responsibility, and self-determination. Relationalism emphasizes transformation through personal relationships with God and others. Anti-structuralism is an outright rejection of the influence of social structures on personal choice and relationships. Sin, for instance, is solely an individual problem (between a person and God) and transformation occurs through personal relationship with Jesus (not by confronting and changing unjust and oppressive systems). Or if, institutions are unjust, then the only way to change them is to change the individuals operating inside them.

Regarding race, Emerson and Smith discovered that these elements of the Evangelical worldview lead to (1) explaining discrimination as an interpersonal phenomenon only, (2) a tendency to blame African Americans for the inequalities they experience, and/or (3) the outright rejection of the reality of racism (that is, it’s a convenient excuse, not a life-diminishing and life-inhibiting structural power).

Just Listen. Listening is essential to any learning and this is certainly true when it comes to understanding and responding racism. However, admonitions, such as “walk a mile in the shoes of another person” and “put yourself in their place,” no matter what the context, can be problematic. These admonitions potentially confuse sympathy and empathy, on the one hand, and potentially deny the duality of openness and closedness in human relating. Both of these are particularly dangerous when working for racial reconciliation.

Briefly, sympathy has to do with the feelings evoked in us when we listen to the experiences of another person or group. Sympathy is an innate capacity for sharing in the feelings of others—and herein lies its weakness as well. For when we are in a sympathetic mode, we can easily blur the lines between our own thoughts and feelings and those of the other. Empathy, in contrast, is a disciplined undertaking in which we seek to understand the other’s experience on its own and for its own sake. In empathy, we set aside our own interpretations and feelings so that we can hear and understand the other in all their uniqueness. It is not walking a mile in another’ shoes; it’s walking alongside them and understanding as fully as possible the particularity of their suffering. When it comes to understanding racism, empathy is far more preferable to sympathy, because it seeks understanding while recognizing difference and uniqueness.

My preference for empathy also comes from a firm conviction (to follow pastoral theologian Ray Anderson) that human beings are simultaneously open and closed to each other. We have a profound capacity to know one another; yet such knowledge is always incomplete and frequently tainted in some way. Even after many years of intimacy, the other remains, in some sense, a mystery to be respected. Empathy upholds this mystery.

Even with all this said, empathy is not enough. (As an aside, this is the reason that pastoral care is no longer construed solely as an individualistic therapeutic enterprise bur rather as public, communal ministry that includes advocacy and resistance.) Listening must be accompanied by analysis of the oppressive social forces impinging upon black lives. Willful blindness to oppressive forces keeps them in place. As Cornel West said, “To engage in a serious discussion of race in America, we must begin not with the problems of black people, but with the flaws of American society—flaws rooted in historic inequalities and longstanding cultural stereotypes.” To extrapolate from West, therefore, we might say that to engage in a serious discussion of race in America, we must begin with the white Evangelical problem.


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