Saturday, August 16, 2014

Half Awake in a Fake Empire: On #Ferguson

I know the way I perceive the world is colored considerably by the fact that I am a white male. When I speak with friends who are female, or African-American, I worry that as much as I think I understand them when they share their stories of struggle with racism or misogyny, the truth is, my perceptions are so distorted by my experience as a white male that I will never fully be able to grasp the feelings some African-Americans have when they hear of or experience events in Ferguson.

The truth of this shapes everything we do, whether it is the work of the church, or formulations of religious doctrines. It's why I value reading an author like James Cone who argues that there needs to be a black theology that doesn't take its queues from white theology because white theology is so distorted by its own sense of entitlement and power that it simply can't legitimately critique black theology.

The same is true of all our experiences and the decisions we make about the truth-claims of others. There is a sense in which it is subjectivity all the way down, and what we perceive, the truth of situations, is colored indelibly by our experience.

The problem here is that, if I don't share the experience of others, it remains a puzzle to me how I should appropriately respond. Should I remain silent? What should I do?

If the topic is one of misogyny and abuse of women, if I speak up about it, or write about it, it might be an example of mansplaining. I end up explaining something as a white male that should have been transparent because of the explanations offered by members of whatever community it is I'm speaking up for/with.

Allies walk a fine line with paternalism.

I have the feeling this is the case because although Kierkegaard famously remarked, "Subjectivity is truth," in actuality it might be truer to say that "intersubjectivity is truth." What I mean here is that, if subjectivity is truth, then truth really does break down into an atomistic, relative thing. What's true is what is true to me, alone.

And it is worth us considering this, because it is the way most of us live in the world most days. What's true is what is true to us.

But if we are going to resolve, in any fashion, entrenched and endemic problems like institutionalized racism, we are going to need to shift to an understanding of inter-subjectivity as truth. Inter-subjectivity is two or more subjects arriving at an understanding of truth that takes into account the subjective experience of each.

In the recent Ferguson struggles, one issue, perhaps the major issue, was that the sides could not and did not understand the experience of the other. The white police force failed to understand what it feels like to be an African-American community that fears, in many cases, police action. Conversely, the protestors likely couldn't get into the minds of the police and what they were thinking in their para-military approach to the protests.

Notice that on Thursday, when leaders came in who understood the subjective experience of both sides better, peace prevailed. Ronald Johnson was both a Ferguson native AND Missouri Highway Patrol Captain. His subjective experience mixed both sides of the line, and made an incredible difference in how everyone approached the conflict.

It always amazes me that groups in power think they can hold a discussion on a topic related to an oppressed community without including that community. Straight people like to talk about the LGBTQ community without including them in the discussions. People develop opinions about Islam, or make truth claims about the Scriptures of other religious traditions, without reading those texts, or becoming friends with people from those traditions.

So if you/we are struggling, trying to identify how we should respond to the wide variety of very real problems we hear about in the news, from the recent surge of unaccompanied minors to our borders, to the race issues in our nation, or the sadness we feel when we hear of Robin William's death and his bipolar and depression, let me suggest that there are three steps we can take right away that will help.

1) Realize that anything you believe you know about race, immigrants, or mental health is colored by your subjective experience. You don't know what you don't know.

2) To gain understanding, engage in love of neighbor, the next step is to "subject" yourself to the truth of the other, especially the truth of oppressed or marginalized communities, to listen to them and trust that their experience is also true and valid even if it isn't your experience. In fact you may need to accept the possibility that their truth is MORE true than your truth.

3) Do the hard work of discovering the intersubjective truth that lies between you and the other whose truth is different than yours.

This, I think, is what Cone means when he says that white theologians will need to die to their whiteness in order to become black. Because to truly walk in faith, we have to die to sin (which in this case is the absolutization of our own subjective truth as if it were truth for everyone). H. Richard Niebuhr believed that the great source of evil in this life is the absolutizing of the relative. Individuals do it. Communities do it. Nations do it.

I think this shift to inter-subjectivity, dying to self in order to live truly in the neighbor, may be the best definition of true repentance, which of course is the first and most vital action we can take whenever we lament the struggles we hear on the news. Then, after repentance, we wake up, and go walk with those neighbors.

4) To fully take responsibility for entrenched racism, all of us need to move beyond the rhetoric of reconciliation, and instead consider reparations. For this, I recommend the recent book from Eerdmans, Dear White Christians.


  1. If we are truly sincere about the truth of racial relations and cultural conflicts, we cannot ignore the reality that all ethnic groups and societies, black, white, brown, yellow, and mixed, are tainted by sin. We cannot seemingly give a pass to African Americans because of a history of suppression and slavery, nor can we fan the flames of collective white guilt for the past. Violence and crime, as well as immorality, plagues the black community, and the police must deal with things white liberals merely read about. Whites also share common sins with all other races since the beginning. Right and wrong, Biblical truth, remain. People often choose to do wrong, and one cannot simply deduce it is a product of poverty or discrimination. If we look at people without regard to their skin color, we can begin to make progress, but if we continue social classification as our barometer, we will fall back on stereotypes and intelligent debate ends.

  2. In my experience, it is typically only white people who think becoming color blind is progress.

    1. I suppose I do not understand your underlying point, but in my personal experience, I have met people of color who were prejudiced against whites, and also whites prejudiced against blacks and other races. We cannot defend these positions if we are Christians, even as I know I have some bigotry of my own to struggle with.

    2. I don't know if getting to a color blind position ends up helping. I think it is more helpful to recognize that in fact we make decisions all the time based on our ethnicity. Awareness is better than blindness.

    3. Colorblindness is synonymous to sticking your head in the sand. Trust me. I know....Indian Lutheran here. ;)

  3. This is a truly awful statement that ignores historical and social realities.

    1. I have been known to ignore historical and social realities, often multiple times per day, but in this case the critique offers no insights into which ones, or how...