Between the World and Me

Between the World and Me | Ta-Nehisi CoatesTa-Nehisi Coates has written a book that is beautiful, tender, and painful. Readers will wince for reasons that will depend on how they’ve experienced this country’s obsession with race. Between the World and Me ought to solidify Coates’ as our generation’s James Baldwin, something I’ve been saying for a couple of years though that comparison is way more credible coming from Toni Morrison. The book comes out tomorrow and there are already many thoughtful reviews; don’t be fooled by how many of them are glowing, bordering on fawning. Critical hyperbole aside, it’s simply a book that deserves many reflective readers.

One of the interesting things about Coates is his complete lack of religious faith. He was raised outside any faith tradition; Afrocentrism was the closest thing to religion given to him by his family. In this way he differs from Baldwin who grew up with a mean preacher as a father and who could engage with Christianity and its racist American expressions from firsthand experience, if from an agnostic’s distance. Because Coates writes comfortably within his atheistic vantage point there are natural points of reasonable confusion when he considers Christianity. Take, for example, his reaction in New York Magazine to the public offers of forgiveness offered by members of the murdered church members in Charleston to their loved ones’ killer. “Even the public forgiving, so soon after the slaughter, seemed unreal. ‘Is that real? Coates said, watching the service. ‘I question the realness of that.’”

Coates’ question about the authenticity of this forgiveness is understandable and he seems to wonder about it sympathetically. He’s not angry at these grieving families, just confused about their motives and intentions. In the same interview the author contrasts President Obama’s eulogy for Rev. Clementa Pinckney and its push toward grace with Coates’ own, less hopeful, outlook.

Coates’s writing takes an almost opposite position: that religion is blindness, and that if you strip away the talk of hope and dreams and faith and progress, what you see are enduring structures of white supremacy and no great reason to conclude that the future will be better than the past.

James BaldwinHere Coates begins to sound very much like Baldwin, whose fatigue with American Christianity was on full display in his 1962 New Yorker article, “Letter from a Region of my Mind.”

Thus, in the realm of morals the role of Christianity has been, at best, ambivalent. Even leaving out of account the remarkable arrogance that assumed that the ways and morals of others were inferior to those of Christians, and that they therefore had every right, and could use any means, to change them, the collision between cultures—and the schizophrenia in the mind of Christendom—had rendered the domain of morals as chartless as the sea once was, and as treacherous as the sea still is. It is not too much to say that whoever wishes to become a truly moral human being (and let us not ask whether or not this is possible; I think we must believe that it is possible) must first divorce himself from all the prohibitions, crimes, and hypocrisies of the Christian church. If the concept of God has any validity or any use, it can only be to make us larger, freer, and more loving. If God cannot do this, then it is time we got rid of Him.

The confusion and disinterest Coates’ shows toward religion generally and Christianity particularly can be chalked up to his distance from it, though I imagine he’s had more than enough exposure to America’s versions of Christianity. Baldwin is harder for Christians to explain away because his knowledge was personal. He wrote with an insider’s knowledge and what he’d seen wasn’t pretty.

There are many reasons to read Between the World and Me and probably even more to dig deeply into the Baldwin canon. But for Christians of all races these authors need to be listened to especially closely for the precise ways they reveal our deficiencies. What sort of deficiencies? Broadly speaking we might read these non-believing prophets for their ability to spot our hypocrisy. But we already expect this, don’t we? Perhaps more helpfully is how Baldwin and Coates reveal the weakness of our supposedly supernatural faith. Forgiveness and hope are central to Christian faith- there is no Christianity without divine forgiveness and eschatological hope. Yet for Coates, and undoubtedly many, many others, the beliefs that appear so radically central within Christianity have been displayed to those outside the Faith as little more than coping mechanisms, excuses to avoid dealing with the real world.

So which are they? Life-altering beliefs about the universe and its Lord or spiritual distractions to make a difficult life slightly more tolerable?

Christians, most of us anyway, want to believe the former but Coates and Baldwin won’t let us off so easily. I’m thankful for this. Their criticism is an invitation to a faith that is deeper and more true than what has often been expressed in this christianized and racialized country.

The Political Disciple

The Political Disciple | Vincent BacoteMy friend, Dr. Vincent Bacote, has written a book that ought to be of interest to a surprisingly wide selection of readers given it’s modest length- fewer than 100 very readable pages. Any book that discusses Christianity and politics is bound to raise questions so Dr. Bacote clarifies and limits his scope right from the beginning. “[T]he big question I am trying to answer is: Can there be Christian faithfulness in the public realm? If politics refers to our lives as citizens, then what does it mean to be Christian and a citizen of a county, state, country, or world?”

I say that The Political Disciple will be interesting to many readers – regardless of one’s interest in politics – because of how Dr. Bacote engages the topic. In large part this involves his own story of discipleship, including the questions many of us have asked about what aspects of so-called secular society, including but not limited to politics, are worthy of Christian engagement. By telling portions of his own particular story story Dr. Bacote invites us to consider our own interaction with the complexities of American citizenship. And while he’s quick to point to how ugly citizenship can be, giving a few pages to the sadness he felt at the not-guilty verdict at George Zimmerman’s trial, Dr. Bacote thinks American Christians have a long way to go in our thoughtful engagement with political life. “[W]e should at least begin with the commitment to be good citizens before resorting to revolution.”

Of course, what a particular Christian thinks being “good citizens” means will determine whether our non-Christian neighbors experience our citizenship as good or not. One such friend contacted me last week as he listened to a NPR story about conservative pastors running for political office as a response to the recent Supreme Court ruling about same-sex marriage. For this good friend, these pastors’ notion of being good citizens felt anything but good. Thankfully, Dr. Bacote ends the book with three areas of faithful citizenship that should resonate with Christians while remaining good for all of our neighbors. These areas are lament, tempered expectations, and humility that anticipates suffering.

You’ll need to read the book to see how he unpacks these three areas and I hope you will. American politics generally seems fractious and alienating and Christian involvement in politics often bears the same unimaginative characteristics. In contrast, the political vision in these pages is gracious, humble, and imaginative. Dr. Bacote had better watch out; if this vision catches on he might need to write a longer book.

America’s Absurd Logic

He meant for us to be encouraged. It was toward the end of an evening conversation in a neighborhood church where pastors and police leadership had gathered to talk about the recently-resurfaced challenge of police and community relations. The leader (let the reader understand) was talking about stop and frisk, the tactic employed by officers who profile potential mischief-makers. After explaining the advances in technology and data collection that allow officers to better distinguish criminals from citizens, the leader, in his would-be encouraging words, explained that the biggest challenge was educating the targets of these profiling stops. Once they knew how to respond to being profiled and the motives behind these stops he felt certain that any confusion would be cleared up. The officers wouldn’t feel misunderstood about their tactics and the profiled citizens would behave appropriately after being stopped for fitting the data spit out by this ever-improving technology.

Photo credit: Michael Fleshman (cc)
Photo credit: Michael Fleshman (cc)

As I listened to him talk – to his words and the optimism with which he said them – I thought about the poster than hangs in the lobby of the neighborhood field house where our church meets on Sundays. It’s an older poster that shows Michael Jordan in his car after being pulled over by a police officer. I can’t recall the text precisely, but the gist is that even Jordan, one of the most powerful people on the planet, needs to think about how he behaves – how he can make the officer comfortable – when he is pulled over. The poster’s tone is similar to the leader’s: No need to worry; just do what you’re told and things will be ok. Eventually.

The poster and the police leadership are mute to the fact that stop and frisk is directed almost totally at African Americans. A report released by the ACLU earlier this year showed that in Chicago, “African-Americans were subjected to 182,048 stops, 72 percent of all stops, yet constituted 32 percent of the city’s population.” I say that this racial disparity is left unsaid yet this impolite fact is just barely concealed. There’s a reason it’s Michael Jordan on that poster and not one of his white superstar contemporaries. There’s a reason I was one of the few white faces in the church listening to the leadership talk about data and tactics.

The obscene sense of inevitability behind racial disparity and its accompanying profiling felt especially heavy as the leadership spoke. The pull is strong toward accepting the logic behind the data and technology that spotlights black men while simultaneously making my white body almost invisible. (I was once pulled over for driving noticeably over the speed limit. After being given a warning by the officer and let go, my black friend shouted from the back seat: Are you kidding me?! Until that moment he’d been unaware that “giving a warning” was an option for police officers.) But though the logic may be rational, it isn’t true. There is too much evil it cannot account for, beginning, for example, with the very intentional way our government created the so-called ghettos that are now so heavily policed and profiled.

The obscenity feels heavier when I think about my two sons, beautiful boys whose blood points to ancestors from Africa, the Philippines, Puerto Rico, and Mexico. Lessons, like this video, about what to do when stopped by the police will not be curiosities to them but essential curriculum. The logic articulated by the police leadership in that church is the same that so many citizens around the country accept as a benign necessity. Yet this logic, despite its cloak of legitimate data, is built on centuries of deception and destruction. Agreeing to the pragmatism of stop and frisk is necessarily agreeing to the warped assumptions that make such tactics desirable.

You may choose to accept this country’s logic, but as the father to these particular sons it will never be an option for me.

The challenge isn’t to replace the police’s tactics with better ones. After all, this is why the leadership sounded optimistic that night. They were doing better, even acknowledging past mistakes. Yet the logic remained the same and so the tactics differ only by degree. No, the challenge is deeper than tactics. The challenge is truth. And we will get to the truth only when we make plain the utter absurdity that is this nation’s logic.

“… if a mother loves the child, she wont go through with it.”

This image has been forever burned in my mind. J knew what she was doing. And she did it out of love for her child. The state of Oklahoma gave J and her parents a lot of extra things to do. And they did them all.

There is a misconception about adoption that if a mother loves the child, she wont go through with it.

Adoptions get disrupted all the time for a multitude of reasons. And many mothers change their minds and make the decision to parent. And they have every right to do so.

(And there are many adoption situations that arise out of abuse or mistreatment. I’m not talking about those. )

Both the decision to parent and the decision to place your child for adoption can be loving decisions.

Many people have asked us about our relationship with Eliza’s birth family. And they don’t often understand what it must be like. If we’re honest, we don’t really either. We’re all figuring this out as we go. But the fact is, these people have become our very own family. We love them. They are a part of our daughter, they love her deeply and so they are a part of us. But it’s not just Eliza, they also love Jamie. We keep in touch and they are just as eager to hear how he is doing. They love him. They love me. They love Brandon.

A wonderful description of the courage shown by birth parents who choose adoption. Even though I understand the well-meaning sentiment, I cringe whenever I hear someone talk about birth parents “giving up” their children for adoption, as though choosing adoption was somehow a kind of resignation. Our experience with birth parents is reflective of what Amy writes above: We have consistently been amazed at the courage and utter selflessness as these parents make painful and sacrificial choices for the children they love.

Currently Reading

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The stack, more neatly ordered than normal.

It’s been a while since I’ve done this, but I noticed the other day how many books have accumulated on my bedside table, desk, and our coffee table so it seems like a good time to mention the titles here. Maybe you’re looking for something to read this summer. Maybe something here will fit the bill.

A few of these are collections of essays, my consistently favorite genre. This being the case, it seemed right to finally dip into the original. I like having at least one book that will follow me around for a few years and having finished The Black Metropolis it was time to begin The Complete Essays by Michel de Montaigne. So far so good, though I maybe should have gone with the two volume set; this edition could damage the reader who dozes off mid-essay.

The collected essays of James Baldwin is less cumbersome and thoroughly enjoyable. He seems no less prescient in these days of Black Lives Matter movements than he must have in his own day. A friend gave me John Jeremiah Sullivan’s essays, Pulphead. You’ve probably read Sullivan somewhere – this account in GQ of a Christian music festival is a classic – and if not this collection would be a good place to start.

Earlier this week Maggie gave me The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person’s Guide to Writing in the 21st Century by Steven Pinker. I’ve not read Pinker before, but this book was on my list and, after a couple of chapters, I think his perspective on a well-worn topic will help whatever small writing skills I have.

A friend from church and I are reading Howard Thurman’s classic, Jesus and the Disinherited this summer. There are stories of Rev. Dr. King carrying his well-worn copy of this book in his briefcase as he made his way throughout the south. A small taste from the first chapter:

To those who need profound succor and strength to enable them to live in the present with dignity and creativity, Christianity often has been sterile and of little avail. The conventional Christian word is muffled, confused, and vague. Too often the price exacted by society for security and respectability is that the Christian movement in its formal expression must be on the side of the strong against the weak. This is a matter of tremendous significance, for it reveals to what extent a religion that was born of a people acquainted with persecution and suffering has become the cornerstone of a civilization and of nations whose very position in modern life has too often been secured by a ruthless use of power applied to weak and defenseless people.

I think Thurman will compliment another book I hope to make my way though this summer, The Christian Imagination by Willie James Jennings. Jennings is one of a very few scholars who interacts with the theological roots of race and racism. It’s important and relevant work for our churches and Jennings writes clearly about topics that, by their very nature, mean to remain murky.

My friend, Dr. Vincent Bacote, kindly sent me a copy of his latest book, the slim and very readable The Political Disciple: A Theology of Public Life. This is a topic Dr. Bacote has thought about a lot and I hope the book will be read widely by Christians who want to interact more precisely with American politics. I hope Dr. Bacote won’t mind that his Abraham Kuyper-influenced book is brushing up a collection of writings from early pietists. My denomination, the Evangelical Covenant Church, has strong pietist roots and I’m enjoying dipping into the passionate writings of these men.

Finally, I’ve started Rescuing the Gospel from the Cowboys: A Native American Expression of the Jesus Way. I’m woefully ignorant when it comes to First Nations’ perspectives on Christian theology and Twiss, who died recently and unexpectedly, is proving to be a trustworthy guide.

Unquestionably, this is too many books to be reading at once. To be fair, a handful of these are simply available to visit occasionally. So how about you? What are you reading these days that you can recommend?