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)
In his excellent book on leadership The Conviction to Lead: 25 Principles for Leadership That Matters (Bethany House, 2012), President of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary Al Mohler urges leaders to embrace the digital world and social media to further their message and join the cultural conversation.
As an enthusiastic Twitter user (I once was firmly against getting an account, but boy, are things different now), I was pleased to see how Dr. Mohler uses it as a source of news, as I also do, and I thought he aptly captures the way the medium’s 140-character limit can force you to write more concisely than ever before – a skill that’s important in good writing, whether you use Twitter or not. See what he has to say:
“Twitter is fast becoming the leading edge of social communication. I let Twitter feed my Facebook page, and I work hard to inform my constituencies and Twitter followers day by day. Twitter is now my first source for news. Tweets announce headlines, and I follow the links to the news stories. It is a huge time-saver and alert system.
“A tweet may be limited to 140 characters, but users have brilliantly exploited that platform. The economy of characters is the charm, the most brilliant coercion of conciseness imaginable. If you are not on Twitter, and if you are not working and following it regularly, you are missing a massive leadership opportunity. Twitter, used wisely, can drive enormous traffic to your content, your organization, and your convictions. How can you justify leaving all that behind?” (180)
Confirmation bias is what happens when we seek out information which confirms our beliefs. Now, doing this isn’t always bad, and it doesn’t mean that what you believe is wrong, but if you only seek information that confirms what you already believe, or your biases, you risk having a very lopsided perspective on a number of issues. Worse, it becomes harder for you to think critically about these issues and to change your mind when it would be right or intellectually honest for you to do so.
Exposing yourself to a variety of sources not only gives you a more balanced and complete view of something, but it will also help you better understand your beliefs and defend them more ably. I first learned this in college from Father Schall, who in our political philosophy course would quote Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274): “You don’t really know something until you know the reasons against it.” I’m impressed by that quote.
Now, these insights also apply to our social lives and the people we surround ourselves with, as Clay Johnson writes in his excellent The Information Diet: A Case for Conscious Consumption (O’Reilly, 2012):
“We all live in our own social bubbles, which we create and empower through our social relationships – and interestingly, new research says that these relationships have profound impacts on us. The friends we select, the communities in which we work, play, and love serve as filters for us. It’s too high of a cognitive and ego burden to surround ourselves with people that we disagree with.
“If you’re a Facebook user, try counting up the number of friends you have who share your political beliefs. Unless you’re working hard to do otherwise, it’s likely that you’ve surrounded yourself with people who skew towards your beliefs. Now look beyond political beliefs – how many of your friends share the same economic class as you?” (60)
In Good and Bad Ways to Think About Religion and Politics (Eerdmans, 2010), Robert Benne offers the following excellent, basic distillation of the principle of religious freedom as it ought to be applied in the United States. This distinction is too often blurred, or simply omitted, by those who would remove all reference to religion from the public square in the name of the legitimate principle of separation of church and state, which addresses institutions. As Benne notes in the last sentence, thoughtful Christians will inevitably, and legitimately, engage their faith in the world of politics and policy:
“The state should not confuse separation of church and state, which deals with institutional relationships, with the separation of religion and politics, which deals with the interaction of religious values and perspectives and the political process. The latter is protected by the First Amendment, whose first freedom enables religious persons and institutions to bring their religious values to bear in the political process. Further, such interaction is inevitable when Christians take seriously the comprehensive scope of God’s sovereignty and their duty to that sovereign God” (55-56).
In his tremendously helpful Good and Bad Ways to Think About Religion and Politics (Eerdmans, 2010), Robert Benne lays out the two main ways to wrongly relate religion and politics – separationism, which calls for a strict removal of faith and religious values from the public square, and fusionism, which seeks to marry religion to politics in a way that has repeatedly proved toxic and destructive for religion itself. Benne then argues for “critical engagement,” whereby Christians critically participate in politics by seeking to move from the “core” insights of their faith (e.g. the fallenness of man, or the dignity of life in all its forms) to public policy, allowing for sincere disagreement on certain trickier issues.
In the excerpt below, on the problems of separationism, Benne shows how many of us do this – compartmentalize faith – in other areas of life besides politics. The right approach, he argues, and I would heartily agree, integrates faith in a way self-critical, thoughtful, and sensible way to all areas of life. But separate it must not remain, for if Christians had always practiced this – keeping religious values out of various spheres of public life – we wouldn’t have the likes of Isaac Newton, William Wilberforce, and Eric Liddel, whose Christian faith spurred their historical achievements in the fields of science, politics, and sports, respectively.*
“The vast majority of separationism…is not driven by faulty theology. Most is a product of practical tendencies to separate religion from ordinary life – Sunday from Monday through Saturday. People don’t have to be sectarians or dualists in theory; they just think and act in ways that separate religion and ordinary life, including politics. One major reason for such dualism is that since the coming of modern times…each sector of life is increasingly divided from other sectors of life, each being purportedly guided by its own autonomous principles. So practical wisdom gives the verdict that ‘religion and politics don’t mix.’ Religion and science don’t mix. Religion and business don’t mix. Religion and art don’t mix. Religion and sport don’t mix. So Christians segment themselves according to the sector of life that they inhabit at the time. They are bifurcated or trifurcated Christians.
“While there is some truth to this segmentation – there is a tentative autonomy to these various sectors – there is no final autonomy. From a Christian point of view all sectors are under the sovereignty of God, and he is active in them… There can be no areas that are free and clear from the presence and commands of God. Practical separationism is as bad as theoretical separationism. Both must be rejected by serious, classical Christians” (23-24).
* Wilberforce was the 18th-century British politician who led the campaign to abolish the slave trade, and Eric Liddel was the Scottish runner and missionary who famously refused to participate in an event at the 1924 Olympics because it would have forced him to compromise his Christian convictions (the film Chariots of Fire was based on this).
In The Meaning of Marriage (Dutton, 2011), pastor and author Tim Keller says that at the heart of marriage is friendship. So if we’re ultimately pursuing marriage, he says, we shouldn’t put such a high value on things like sex, chemistry, and attraction, which will change over time, but rather we should look for a companion – the kind of person we can walk alongside for decades in a mutually satisfying and meaningful relationship.
So how do we find this kind of companion? I like how Keller puts it:
“It often happens that you have a good friend of the opposite sex with whom you share common commitments. You trust this person’s wisdom and you find you can open up and share many intimate things without fear. He or she understands you well and listens to you and gives you great advice. But the person doesn’t attract you romantically. Maybe he or she doesn’t have the body type that you find appealing. You feel no sexual chemistry at all. Then imagine that you meet someone else to whom you feel very attracted. This person has the physical and social attributes you have been looking for and is interested in you, too. So you start seeing each other and you have a lot of fun together and things are moving along into more and more romantic intimacy. But if you are honest with yourself, this person you say you are falling in love with does not make nearly as good a friend as the one you already have, nor is that likely to change.
“You are in trouble. Your spouse has got to be your best friend, or be on the way to becoming your best friend, or you won’t have a strong, rich marriage that endures and that makes you both vastly better persons for having been it” (125).
“Look for someone who understands you better than you do yourself, who makes you a better person just by being around them. And then explore whether that friendship could become a romance and a marriage” (126).