Tuesday, November 15, 2022

Reconstructing My Faith: Flywheels, Smokescreens, and The Medicine

I spent my formative years growing up in Orange County, California... pre-"The O.C." TV show and before the area became as culturally & ethnically diverse as it is today. I went to a middle-class/upper-middle class public high school that was 70%+ white students, with Hispanic & Asian students forming the rest of the cohort. Race wasn't a forefront issue in my mind - I knew being racist was wrong, but I didn't have to deal with many situations in which it was an issue.
Michael Emerson cites research that shows “Whites tend to view racism as intended individual acts of overt prejudice and discrimination.” According to this individualist view, “Groups, nations, and organizations are not racist; people are. Second, to be considered racist, the person must classify a group of people as inferior to others, and then whatever they say or do must result directly from that view. That is, they must mean for their actions to be racist for them to actually be racist. Third, racism is equated with prejudice (wrong thinking and talking about others) and individual discrimination (wrong actions against others). Finally, because of the other components of racism’s definition, if a person is a racist it is a master status, a core identity of who the person is, not just some passing act. In short, it defines the person’s essence.” (Interestingly, this individualist definition of racism is even more strongly held by white evangelical Christians than by other whites.) from a discussion guide on racism published by Baylor University's Center for Christian Ethics
Grappling with systemic racism didn't happen for me until I was actually doing ministry. For all of my positive experiences in church, serving churches brought me into my first exposure to virulent racism: the godly Sunday School teacher who sat on her front porch and calmly explained the "curse of Ham" to me, surprised by my rejection of this horrible false doctrine; the church I served that had an "unwritten rule" that the Family Life Center would close if local African-American students came by to play basketball; the fellow youth minister whose incredibly successful 5th quarter events were shut down by the deacons because the wrong color of students were being saved and baptized.
Most people of color, on the other hand, give a structuralist definition. “Racism is, at a minimum, prejudice plus power, and that power comes not from being a prejudiced individual, but from being part of a group that controls the nation’s systems. So while anyone can be prejudiced, only whites can perpetrate racism in the United States, for they hold and have always held most of the power in American institutions.” from a discussion guide on racism published by Baylor University's Center for Christian Ethics
I've found the following quote from Skye Jethani to be really meaningful in my own struggles to explain and understand this difficult topic.
I find it helpful to think of institutions as flywheels. A flywheel is a device that stores and dispenses energy. Consider a potter’s wheel. A person puts energy into the wheel by pumping a peddle with her foot. This irregular energy input is then stored in the wheel which dispenses the energy evenly over time by spinning the clay even after the potter stops pumping the peddle. Likewise, when we build organizations, governments, or institutions, they store up our values and dispense them over time—sometimes even over generations.

Consider the U.S. government. The founding generation “pumped” their values into the Constitution and created a system of government that respected individual rights, freedom of speech, religious liberty, and limited government. Over 200 years later, the system they created is still “spinning” and shaping the lives of over 300 million people. Of course, a flywheel can also store and dispense evil values over time which is why the Constitution had to be amended to end slavery, recognize African-Americans as full citizens rather than 3/5ths of a person, and give women the right to vote.

Once we see human institutions as flywheels, we can see why the current debate between personal and systemic evil is misguided. It’s not a matter of either changing hearts or changing systems. It’s entirely possible to have individual hearts healed and transformed by the gospel, and yet still have centuries of evil energy stored up within the systems we’ve created. Left unchanged, these flywheels will continue to dispense evil far into the future and hurt many people. Likewise, only changing evil systems isn’t sufficient if the people overseeing those systems are still pumping the evil and injustice of their hearts into the flywheel. Rather than fighting about hearts or systems, Christians who care about injustice and loving their neighbors should desire to overcome evil with good no matter where it resides.
The problem for me personally hasn't been a temptation to racist behaviors... it's been a temptation to pretend that the hard work of healing was accomplished during the Montgomery Bus Boycott or on the Edmund Pettus Bridge or with the election of President Barack Obama. It's that same inclination that seems to drive some evangelicals to militantly oppose CRT (whether or not they can define it) and attempt to ban or censor teaching about racism in America. 

Look... opposition by followers of Christ to discussing CRT (critical race theory) is a smokescreen that winks at racism (and doesn’t actually deal with CRT in any meaningful way.) Our brothers and sisters of color deserve better than a half-baked statement cooked up by six white seminary presidents. And if someone needs recent evidence for systemic racism, just look at the NFL finally backing away from “race norming” in settling claims about concussions.

The denomination I grew up in (Southern Baptists) has repented via resolution after resolution of the pro-slavery roots of its founding. Now, regardless of our denominational commitment and/or our proud non-denominational stance, we who declare the love of Christ must stop taking steps backward in the name of false unity. We must stop pretending that the hard work of fighting for civil rights magically fixed the problem and we can simply rest on singing "Jesus Loves the Little Children" at VBS. The Gospel is for all nations (Matthew 28:19)... more specifically (though it's hard to be more specific than "all") "every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages" (Revelation 7:9-10)

And that includes me... speaking truth in love.
In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.
Martin Luther King, Jr.

Extra credit reading from David French: Structural Racism Isn't Wokeness
Extra credit watching from Phil Vischer: Race in America & Race in America (part 2)
Extra credit watching from John Amaechi: What Is White Privilege?


Common Hymnal:

The Medicine

There's a sickness here that threatens to divide us 
And we're all afraid to say its name out loud
But, Lord, I know that you can heal us of this virus
So, we need you, we need you right now

There's a darkness here that's dangerous and aggressive
It getting harder every day to shake its power
But, Lord, I know that you can free us from oppression
So, we need you, we need you right now

Cause we don't know what to do
So, we turn our eyes to you
We've run out of words to say
But if you come and have your way
You can save us from ourselves
Before our wounds hurt someone else
We need you now

What does it mean to have compassion for another?
How can I claim to love a God that I can't see?
If I can find the will to harm and kill my brother
Cause he neglected to look like me

I can speak the words of men and songs of angels
I can give all my possessions to the poor
But if your love can't move the mountain of my hatred
Somehow, I missed you, and I need you so much more


Mark Johnson said...

Once again, Mark, thank you for your openness, your good heart, and your sharp mind as you analyze the intellectual and thelogical aspects of these issues. You are fantastic at explaining how this "thing" that we all think we know (even though we know it in different ways), has more depth, meaning, and layers.

Mark (aka pastor guy) said...

Thank you, Mark.