In his celebrated and controversial Between the World and Me (Spiegel & Grau, 2015), Ta-Nehisi Coates, a journalist and writer for the Atlantic and probably the most forceful and eloquent person writing on the issue of race in the U.S. – gives a brutally honest and even harrowing account, written using the literary device (as he explains here) of a letter to his fifteen-year-old son, of what it’s like to be a black man in America. Though I don’t agree entirely with his portrayal of America’s history (I think this is partly informed by his atheistic, materialist view of the world, where religion is “magic” and “myth” and all we have is our bodies, but not souls), I believe Coates is a voice that we must listen to, and listen with care and empathy. We should listen to him for at least two reasons. First, because in some ways he speaks for the many whose God-given dignity has been violated by the terrible sin of racism, and it’s important that we try to at least begin to understand this experience. And second, because, though an atheist, Coates describes racism and the evil it unleashes with all the moral clarity of one who knows that there is a God who hates this sin with all his being and who is totally committed to justice. In short, I highly recommend this book, especially for Christians, who must not look away as their brothers and sisters are sinned against in this most grievous way.
Some passages that struck me with the kind of force that Coates is known for bringing to the written word:
Racism is “the need to ascribe bone-deep features to people and then humiliate, reduce, and destroy them.” (7)
He tells his son that “all our phrasing – race relations, racial chasm, racial justice, racial profiling, white privilege, even white supremacy – serves to obscure that racism is a visceral experience, that it dislodges brains, blocks airways, rips muscle, extracts organs, cracks bones, breaks teeth. You must never look away from this.” (10)
“America understands itself as God’s handiwork, but the black body is the clearest evidence that America is the work of men.” (12)
“To be black in the Baltimore of my youth was to be naked before all the elements of the world, before all the guns, fists, knives, crack, rape, and disease. The nakedness is not an error, nor pathology. The nakedness is the correct and intended result of policy, the predictable upshot of people forced for centuries to live under fear.” (17)
Today many see Christianity as a detrimental social force that is opposed to progress, at least as defined by issues like abortion and same-sex marriage. Others point to the historical sins of the church – the Crusades, the Inquisition, and the Salem witch trials are favorite examples – to paint Christianity as a regressive, intolerant, and dangerous religion from which little good has come. In response, many Christian (and non-Christian) observers rightly note how the worst atrocities of the last century were committed not by religious forces but in the name of ideologies that explicitly rejected the Christian notion of God: Think Hitler, Stalin, Mao Tse-tung, Pol Pot. Then if we look at at history more fairly, we see that hospital and universities were developed by the church (universities came about in the Middle Ages, so see, they weren’t so dark after all!), we see Bible-believing, God-fearing Christians at the forefront of efforts to abolish the slave trade and slavery itself, as well as leading the American Civil Rights movement. And around the world today, we see some of the most effective, and riskiest, work helping the poor and the sick being done by Christians (many of them evangelical, as Nick Kristof wrote about recently).
Beyond these examples, however, we find more evidence of Christianity as a truly morally progressive religion in Francis Fukyama’s (of End of History fame) highly readable and ambitious The Origins of Political Order (FSG, 2011):
“If one wanted an example of a religion that, a la Marx, justified the dominance of a single, small elite over the rest of society, one would choose not Christianity or Islam, with their underlying messages of universal equality, but rather the Brahmanic religion that appeared in India in the last two millennia B.C.” (163)
“As Friedrich Nietzsche was to later observe, the introduction of Christianity was to have profound implications for morality after it was introduced among the Germanic tribes. Christian heroes were peaceful saints and martyrs, not warriors or vengeful conquerors, and the religion preached a doctrine of universal equality that ran counter to the hierarchy of an honor-based tribal society. Not only did new Christian rules on marriage and inheritance disrupt tribal solidarity, they also created the notion of universal community based on common faith rather than kin loyalties.” (255-256)
The above should not surprise those who know the Bible, because in it we find an equality that was radical for those of Jesus’s day. As the apostle Paul wrote,
“There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” (Galatians 3:28)
Many religious and non-religious observers have said that one remarkable trait that separates us moderns from ancient peoples is our belief that we are basically good. We’ll readily agree that “no one’s perfect,” but other than that, most of us have a fundamentally good orientation and are of a wholly different moral and psychological make-up from a Hitler, or a serial killer, or a rapist. From a religious and specifically Christian perspective, then, we have no need to be forgiven, much less “saved” from anything, since we haven’t done anything terribly bad. I would argue that this view is dangerously mistaken, however, and the excerpt below from Mike McKinley’s Passion shows this error in stark contrast to what is true. There is a place in this (so far) excellent and short book where McKinley argues that because God is perfect and holy, his anger at human oppression and injustice is completely justified and righteous; indeed, God’s wrath is “actually part of His perfection – not a suspension of it.” He then argues that if people are made in God’s image, then we would expect this righteous anger to be expressed at times by people. To illustrate this, he tells:
“A friend of mine recently told me about a time in an east Asian nation where his hosts drove him into the capital city. As they entered the city, they were confronted by a long line of young girls, lined up by the side of the road. These girls had been sold into slavery as prostitutes (often by their parents), and they would spend their lives being used and abused until they were finally cast aside when they were no longer desirable. My friend described his feelings as he saw these girls: an anger, a rage in his heart that made him feel as if his chest was going to rip in two. “…If that goes for humans, it goes for the God who made humans, too… [And here is the key part for us] But where we really run into a problem, where we really object to God’s wrath and justice, is when it comes to us. We may be happy with a God who punishes the rapists and the murderers, but we aren’t happy with a God who punishes us. But where would you draw the line? How much should He tolerate from you? How much of your pride, anger, deceit, manipulation and selfishness do you think God should overlook?… The Bible tells us where God draws the line: He demands perfection” (18-19).
He has told you, O man, what is good;
and what does the Lord require of you
but to do justice, and to love kindness,
and to walk humbly with your God?
– Micah 6:8
Before the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Gardner and the national controversy that ensued, I neither gave much thought to nor was I concerned about the state of our criminal justice system, much less about how the color of one’s skin makes it more likely that a person will fall into this system and be wronged by it. Then Thabiti Anywabwile, one of the pastors at my church, wrote a poignant blog post on his greatest fear about coming back to the States after pastoring a church in the Cayman Islands: That this country would “destroy” his young black son. This post and others he wrote stirred many in our mostly white church to think about how as Christians we should respond to issues of race and injustice, and to seek to understand the fears and struggles borne by many of our black brothers and sisters in the faith. These conversations suggested I give more serious thought to these issues, and then, as we were driving one day, my wife and I had a conversation about statistics she’d read showing how blacks and other minorities disproportionately fall victim to the uneven enforcement of harsh laws that have the power to ruin lives. As we talked, I decided that we should read a book to understand these issues better. Because I had heard of it recently, I first thought of Michelle Alexander’s well-reviewed The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, but before I settled on this choice I came across (on Twitter, so you see, it can be useful!) Bryan Stevenson’s Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption (Spiegel & Grau, 2014), a deeply personal and richly told story by a young lawyer who champions the cause of the condemned. I’m only forty pages into it, and already it’s a terrific read that has educated, challenged, and unsettled me about an issue that deserves more attention, especially from those of us who know a just and merciful God who commands us to fight for the rights of the poor and the oppressed.
Below is a brief but powerful and challenging excerpt:
“My work with the poor and the incarcerated has persuaded me that the opposite of poverty is not wealth; the opposite of poverty is justice…I’ve come to believe that the true measure of our commitment to justice, the character of our society, our commitment to the rule of law, fairness, and equality cannot be measured by how we treat the rich, the powerful, the privileged, and the respected among us. The true measure of our character is how we treat the poor, the disfavored, the accused, the incarcerated, and the condemned.
“We are all implicated when we allow other people to be mistreated. An absence of compassion can corrupt the decency of a community, a state, a nation. Fear and anger can make us vindictive and abusive, unjust and unfair, until we all suffer from the absence of mercy and we condemn ourselves as much as we victimize others. The closer I get to mass incarceration and extreme levels of punishment, the more I believe it’s necessary to recognize that we all need mercy, we all need justice, and – perhaps – we all need some measure of unmerited grace” (18).
“Only, they asked us to remember the poor, the very thing I was eager to do.” (Galatians 2:10)
Christ’s call of love and restoration encompasses our humanity in all its totality, and therefore it absolutely is concerned for the physical and material suffering of people. But is this concern evident in your Christian life? Does your budget or calendar show you care about those who are most in need among us? I don’t put forth these questions from a place of having “gotten” this; this is an area I want to grow in and which I want to partner in with my wife and eventually my family. I love how Matt Perman puts it in his excellent book, What’s Best Next: How the Gospel Transforms the Way You Get Things Done (Zondervan, 2014):
“Christianity teaches that we are to be concerned for the whole person, not just the spiritual dimension. As agents of the kingdom, we are to bring healing to all realms of life, not just the spiritual realm.
“Further, God’s call is that we make a large dent, not a small dent, in helping the poor, because the needs are large, not small. We live in a world where 26 percent of the population lives in extreme poverty. In addition to malnutrition and hunger, other giant problems like disease, lack of access to clean water, illiteracy, poor education, and corrupt leadership affect billions. As Christians, we are to attack these problems head-on. God’s call is that we bring the gospel to all nations and engage in the fight against large global problems. Anything else misrepresents the pervasive concern of God, who cares about all suffering and distortions of his handiwork” (313, emphasis mine).
Which do you think would most help you live a more purposeful and active life – focusing on the conditions, problems, and hopes of this world, or on heaven and hell, along with its realities of eternal joy and eternal torment? Sometimes you’ll hear the non-religious person say something like, if only Christians (and people of other faiths) focused more on the “here and now,” think of all that they could accomplish.
Yet countless examples of Christians show the reverse – the British lawmaker William Wilberforce comes to mind, who, even as he often meditated on eternal realities, passionately threw himself into myriad social causes, most famously the abolition of the slave trade, as I showed here. And though he didn’t have nearly the same kind of political impact on society, we also find a life of purpose and achievement in the great American pastor-theologian Jonathan Edwards. From Owen Strachan’s brief and delightfully instructive Lover of God (Moody, 2010):
“Though it seems strange to say in this age, we should think about hell. We should not direct our minds only to pleasant things and passing diversions. We need to take the spiritual world seriously, and to meditate on it and think about it in the course of our daily lives.
“… He [Edwards] studied hell and often remembered what God had saved him from. He did not simply think about where he was going after death; he though about where, but for the grace of God, he would sure have gone. This contemplation fueled his passion for the Lord and drove him to live a serious and purposeful life. Because Edwards looked deeply into the reality of eternal torment, he was equipped to live a life of great spiritual intensity that pointed countless people away from hell and toward heaven” (107-108).
In Chasing the Flame (Penguin, 2008) Samantha Power, who is now U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, gives us the enthralling, inspiring, and maddening story of Sergio Vieira de Mello. An international crisis man sometimes described as a humanitarian James Bond, Vieira de Mello was a brilliant and deeply humane UN diplomat whose combination of passionate idealism with hard-nosed pragmatism was repeatedly frustrated by forces larger than himself, including the shortcomings of his own organization, the UN. His was a thrilling life prematurely ended in 2003 by a bomb in Baghdad while he served as the UN chief of mission in Iraq.
This diplomat, who shuttled from one conflict zone to another to defuse international crises, was not only a man of action, but also a man of deep thought, a man after philosophy. A brief statement from early in his career reveals that for Vieira de Mello, philosophy not only provided the internal grounding for the bold pursuit of justice to which he devoted his life, but was also at the core of what makes us human. In his words below, he also echoes the ancients’ (was it Plato? It was probably Plato) insight that just as those who are most gifted have the greatest potential for good, they also have the greatest potential for evil. We’re reminded that this applies to the realm of thought and ideas as well.
After receiving the highest grades in philosophy at the Sorbonne in Paris, Vieira de Mello wrote to his ex-girlfriend:
“‘But for what?’…if he had studied economics or marketing instead, ‘some American company would have assured me a “happy future” strewn with dollars.’ He would never sell out, he told her, and ‘just short of dying of hunger,’ he would ‘never abandon philosophy.’ The philosopher, he wrote, could become either ‘the most just man’ or the ‘the most radical bandit.’ Either way, he insisted, ‘to do philosophy is to have it in your blood and to do what very few will do – to both be a man and to think everywhere and always.'” (21)