Race, a black president, and the gospel

As I read, tears came to my eyes, my heart broke a little, and a sense of (what I pray was) righteous anger began to rise.

Bill Sanderson

I was reading Ta-Nehisi Coates’ latest piece in The Atlantic magazine, entitled “Fear of a Black President,” which looked at race, racism, and how both had thus far impacted Barack Obama’s campaign and presidency, and the pall that they continue to cast over the future of this country.

I was heartbroken and angered at being reminded that this is the world in which we live. Where racism still flourishes. Where politicians can’t speak the truth openly or address issues head-on because it will rile up a small but powerful base of people who prefer ignorance or to maintain a status quo that privileges them. Where we are reminded that sin and brokenness and evil are real, not only on an individual level but become enshrined and ossified on a structural and systemic level, that they can become a part of a nation’s history and culture. Where, despite all protestations to the contrary, despite all the declarations about liberty and freedom and equality, our actions and inactions demonstrate that our actual values fall far short of the mark. Where, though large swaths of the country declare their followership of Jesus Christ, neither he nor his prodigal love and grace and welcome are to be found in the public square: not in our policies or our politics or our practices, not in our treatment of the widow, the orphan and the immigrant, nor–to speak more broadly–of our fellow human beings.

I was heartbroken and angered because I am complicit in this, as are we all. I am not a black man; I will never fully know or understand or experience the realities of life as a black man. I can empathize, I can learn, I can fight for equality, I can preach the gospel of Jesus Christ that breaks down all the barriers that humans have built to divide us–race being not the least of these–the gospel that raises valleys and topples mountains, and I can pray for change to come in the hearts and minds and lives of all people by the power of the Spirit of God. But I am who I am, and I am not who I am not.

As an Asian American, growing up in Hong Kong and the United Kingdom, experiencing life in Southern California and now in Washington, DC, spending all of my life in cosmopolises, I have rarely been faced with overt racism. I suppose that in some ways, I have even benefited from it, perhaps unbeknownst to me, in the form of the myth of the model minority. I have never been told that I needed to be “twice as good” but “half as Asian.”

There is much in the Asian American experience to be mourned over too, much that remains largely hidden in the pages of history, not often brought to light, much that even I have yet to familiarize myself with. The Chinese people who came to work in gold mines and on the railroads. The internment of Japanese Americans during World War II.

But injustice is injustice, and the first step is acknowledging the reality of the world in which we live and our part in it. I’m reminded of Nehemiah, who, upon hearing of the state of Jerusalem, came before God to confess and repent on behalf of his people and their history of disobedience. He didn’t apologize simply for the sins of others–as if he were blameless–but recognized his own complicity in the situation: “we have sinned against you. Both I and my family have sinned” (Nehemiah 1:6).

The second step was to act: Nehemiah gained permission from the king of Babylon, whom he served, to return to Jerusalem and restore the city (Nehemiah 2).

Likewise, we are not called simply to be upset by the injustices of the world–whether it is abuse, modern slavery, sexism, or racism. We are called to partner with God in proclaiming the kingdom of God, in announcing–by the words that we speak, by the actions we take, by the lives we lead–that we are under new management, and that the God of the universe, who revealed himself most fully in the person of Jesus Christ, is at work to make all things new.

There’s a misconception that the concept of forgiveness means that the offense doesn’t mean anything any more, that there are no consequences. But true forgiveness is acknowledging the reality of the offense and understanding the full impact of the consequences, and then restoring and renewing right relationship. And this is possible for us as Christians because Jesus took on himself the consequences of our offenses.

Saying that race doesn’t matter, or “They should just get over it,” not only misunderstands the reality of the offense and the full impact of the consequences, it not only denies complicity in the system and culture in which one lives; it prevents true reconciliation, true restoration, and true freedom.

From the day God broke my heart over issues of injustice, and over the years, as I’ve continued to learn just how big God really is, how expansive his mission, how all-encompassing his love, and how far he goes to reconcile all things to himself, until the day that I die, I have chosen to follow, to love, to serve, and to obey Jesus–whatever that means, and in this case, whatever that means for race and racism.

To be humble, cognizant of my part in a system built on injustice and oppression. To be attentive, discerning the movement of the Spirit of God to bring good out of all things, even the most heinous. To be loving, welcoming and honoring of all human beings, created as we are in the image of God. And to let my heart be broken by the things that breaks God’s; to be angered and upset by the things that anger and upset God–wherever one of his children is denigrated and oppressed and marginalized; and to be at work wherever God calls me to be at work.

And all by the grace of God.

I’ve included some excerpts from the piece below, but I’d encourage you to read it yourself. It’s worth it.

The irony of President Barack Obama is best captured in his comments on the death of Trayvon Martin, and the ensuing fray. Obama has pitched his presidency as a monument to moderation. He peppers his speeches with nods to ideas originally held by conservatives. He routinely cites Ronald Reagan. He effusively praises the enduring wisdom of the American people, and believes that the height of insight lies in the town square. Despite his sloganeering for change and progress, Obama is a conservative revolutionary, and nowhere is his conservative character revealed more than in the very sphere where he holds singular gravity—race.

The irony of Barack Obama is this: he has become the most successful black politician in American history by avoiding the radioactive racial issues of yesteryear, by being “clean” (as Joe Biden once labeled him)—and yet his indelible blackness irradiates everything he touches. This irony is rooted in the greater ironies of the country he leads. For most of American history, our political system was premised on two conflicting facts—one, an oft-stated love of democracy; the other, an undemocratic white supremacy inscribed at every level of government.

Racism is not merely a simplistic hatred. It is, more often, broad sympathy toward some and broader skepticism toward others. Black America ever lives under that skeptical eye. Hence the old admonishments to be “twice as good.” Hence the need for a special “talk” administered to black boys about how to be extra careful when relating to the police.

… aggregating his findings nationally, Stephens-Davidowitz has concluded that Obama lost between 3 and 5 percentage points of the popular vote [of the 2008 election] to racism.

While Beck and Limbaugh have chosen direct racial assault, others choose simply to deny that a black president actually exists. One in four Americans (and more than half of all Republicans) believe Obama was not born in this country, and thus is an illegitimate president. More than a dozen state legislatures have introduced “birther bills” demanding proof of Obama’s citizenship as a condition for putting him on the 2012 ballot. Eighteen percent of Republicans believe Obama to be a Muslim. The goal of all this is to delegitimize Obama’s presidency. If Obama is not truly American, then America has still never had a black president.

What we are now witnessing is not some new and complicated expression of white racism—rather, it’s the dying embers of the same old racism that once rendered the best pickings of America the exclusive province of unblackness. Confronted by the thoroughly racialized backlash to Obama’s presidency, a stranger to American politics might conclude that Obama provoked the response by relentlessly pushing an agenda of radical racial reform. Hardly. Daniel Gillion, a political scientist at the University of Pennsylvania who studies race and politics, examined the Public Papers of the Presidents, a compilation of nearly all public presidential utterances—­proclamations, news-conference remarks, executive orders—and found that in his first two years as president, Obama talked less about race than any other Democratic president since 1961.

Thus the myth of “twice as good” that makes Barack Obama possible also smothers him. It holds that African Americans—­enslaved, tortured, raped, discriminated against, and subjected to the most lethal homegrown terrorist movement in American history—feel no anger toward their tormentors. Of course, very little in our history argues that those who seek to tell bold truths about race will be rewarded. But it was Obama himself, as a presidential candidate in 2008, who called for such truths to be spoken. “Race is an issue that I believe this nation cannot afford to ignore right now,” he said in his “More Perfect Union” speech, which he delivered after a furor erupted over Reverend Wright’s “God Damn America” remarks. And yet, since taking office, Obama has virtually ignored race.

The president’s inability to speak candidly on race cannot be bracketed off from his inability to speak candidly on every­thing. Race is not simply a portion of the Obama story. It is the lens through which many Americans view all his politics.

Justin

Hong Kong | London | California | Washington, DC

Christian | Theologian | Musician | Activist | Sojourner

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