Recovering Racists

crucifix1I have just returned from the 2013 Theology & Pace conference held in Chapel Hill, NC on “Lynching, Scapegoating and Actual Innocence.” The subject is difficult to work with but becoming aware of what we have done in our own country is a necessary step to finding ways to preventing the same kind of thing happening again. Two factors were particularly important to making the workshop a positive experience. One: a sense that we were exploring the issue as a group and coming to terms with it as a supportive group. Two: the forgiving tone of the speakers. Julia Robinson, who read a paper specifically on the history of lynching and the violent atonement theology that supports it, delivered her presentation in a gentle but firm voice, embodying forgiveness not only in word but from the depths of her being. Such an approach is modeled on the Gospel where Christ the victim forgives us so that we can begin to see our sin clearly and turn from it.

Paul Nuechterlein, the one speaker who was white, confessed to being a racist. This might sound strange, coming from a man who is active in race relations, but it echoed the same admission of a biology professor I had in college many years ago. As it happens, I have never heard a person who actually did show a racist attitude make this admission. It is sobering, but important, that it is not until we repent that we begin to see what we are repenting of and enter into recovery.

The most important thing about repenting and recovering is that we take personal responsibility for ourselves. We cannot take responsibility for the attitudes of others whom we consider racist. I remember telling a person what I had learned about the effect of racial discrimination on a daily basis and that person countered by telling me about a company run by black people who won’t hire whites. I cannot take responsibility for that company but that does not absolve me of taking responsibility for myself.

In entering into recovery from racism and sustaining that recovery, I need to become aware of small things where my own blindness emerges. An example of this blindness on my part came in an earlier entry on this blog post called “Selling Postcards of the Cross” where I wrote about James Cone’s book The Cross and the Lynching Tree. I used the phrase ‘”Cone shows us this truth in spades.” (I have now edited that sentence.) Of course, using this phrase about any writer who is not black would be the complement I intended it to be. I suppose one could say that some people are too sensitive about these things, but I have come to the conclusion that the important thing for me is to be more aware and sensitive and let other people take care of their own sensitivities.

Taking personal responsibility for being a recovering racist can only be done by increasing our awareness of the interaction of our own desires with those of others. Insofar as racism continues to be a strong element in our society, racist desires continue to seep into us at a pre-conscious level. On a more hopeful note, the desires of others to overcome racism also sink into us at this same pre-conscious level. By watching our thoughts, we can become more aware of what desires we are importing and seek to affirm the desires that seek to overcome prejudice, the desire to feel superior to some people, and complacency with misuse of power that keep some people down. Most of all, we must support one another.

See also: Knowing the Wild Things Between Us

Selling Postcards of the Cross

crucifix1“They’re selling postcards of the hanging
They’re painting the passports brown.”

White boys like me mostly didn’t know what Bob Dylan was singing about when “Desolation Row” first came out on “Highway 61 Revisited.” James Cone’s book The Cross and the Lynching Tree tells us it was about lynching. Lynching was a public spectacle where people took pictures and made postcards out of them.

Cone goes on to argue that the lynching tree was a series of grisly re-enactments of the crucifixion of Jesus. He also demonstrates on how very difficult it has been and still is for Americans to see this truth. Reinhold Niebuhr, arguably the greatest American theologian was, in spite of his social concerns, blind to this reality. Even black people have had trouble seeing this connection, though Cone shows how some black women, especially Ida B. Wells articulated it powerfully. He contrasts Niebuhr and all white liberals with Martin Luther King, Jr. who put his life on the line.

The dynamics of lynching as analyzed by Cone provide powerful confirmation of the theory of collective violence of René Girard. (See my article Violence and the Kingdom of God.) Girard argues that perpetrators instinctively fail to see what they are going. Cone shows us this truth in a powerful manner.

Dylan goes on to sing that “the circus is in town” and then catalogs Western Civilization turned topsy-turvy, suggesting that lynching does this, thanks to the “blind commissioner.”

Cone is right about whites’ blindness to this truth, but Dylan did write “The Ballad of Emmett Tell” in 1963, telling the story in stark terms, though without any Christian reference except to complains that the human race has fallen “down so god-awful low.” Then there is Mark Twain who wrote “The United States of Lyncherdom,” calling lynching for what it was and clearly discussing the human mimesis just as Girard was to do half a century later.

Cone’s book is written calmly, even gently. There is no mincing of words, yet the words are somehow full of forgiveness. The forgiveness in Cone’s words, the forgiveness proclaimed by Jesus, should be enough to undermine our trust in ourselves and our ability to see what we are doing. We must repent not only of lynching, but of our collective hatred of enemies today.