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)
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).
What if a hospital refused to see you because last summer you volunteered for the political party opposite of that of your Governor? What if you were dropped by your insurance company because you signed a petition calling for the passage of a law opposed by the President? We would be outraged if these things happened in this country regularly and without consequence, and rightly so. Sadly, this has been the reality in Venezuela for many years under Hugo Chávez, and it continues today under his hand-picked and less talented successor, Nicolás Maduro.
In his timely and important book, The Dictator’s Learning Curve (Anchor, 2013), William Dobson gives us a glimpse of the abuse of state resources by government officials who target those who act to challenge the state:
“In one case documented by Human Rights Watch, a ninety-eight-year-old woman was denied medical prescriptions she had been receiving for years; when her family inquired, they were told it was because she had signed the referendum [for a recall vote challenging Chávez]. One person I met told me a similar story. Her fiancé required immediate medical attention and went to the emergency room of a government-run hospital. The hospital representative was in the process of admitting him, until she ran his voting identification card through the computer. He was told he would have to go someplace else…In a society ruled by patronage politics, being identified as an enemy of the state can have serious consequences…Venezuelans used the list against fellow citizens to decide everything from who is hired or fired to who gets a passport or is audited by the tax authorities” (100).
Though many of us think of slavery as a thing of the past, a shameful part of our history that has been rooted out in a world of increased equality and tolerance, the reality is that today there are millions of slaves around the world. Estimates put the number between 20 and 30 million – an alarming figure.
So what can we do about it? It’d be easy to become overwhelmed at the magnitude of the task when we begin thinking about it, but like me, you’d be surprised to know that the most effective thing you can do do help end modern slavery is in fact very simple.
In his important book Ending Slavery: How We Free Today’s Slaves (University of California, 2007), Kevin Bales tells the story of a college student who was given the assignment to determine the most effective thing a person can do to end slavery.
She spent weeks researching and analyzing the possibilities, organizing letter campaigns and fundraisers, and volunteering at human rights organizations. She came back to her professor with what to many of us may be a surprising conclusion:
“At the end of her analysis, one action stood head and shoulders above the others. According to her research, the most effective thing the average person can do to end slavery is this: Join an antislavery organization like Free the Slaves, and send it $10 a month.”
Bales goes on to say, “What the antislavery movement needs more than anything is for every person who wants slavery to end to make a small regular donation. When that happens, there will be a stable income needed to build the long-term projects that will roll back slavery around the world” (234).
So are you ready to start giving $10, $15, $20 a month to an organization that does the hard work of fighting slavery? If so, here are a few reputable organizations, faith-based and secular, where your contribution can go a long way:
International Justice Mission: http://ijm.org/
World Vision: http://www.worldvision.org/
Polaris Project: http://www.polarisproject.org/
Free the Slaves: https://www.freetheslaves.net/
International Organization for Migration: http://bit.ly/1dgWKci