Crisis

English-only version

Alexander is, I suppose, to blame
For anguish in Nogales, Laredo,
McAllen, Del Rio, and El Paso—
Towns baked crisp under an unflagging sun
Yet wobbly with unspeakable horror:
Rachel weeping, weeping for her children.
More doctrine, or gall, than guns, germs, or steel,
One stroke of Inter Cetera venting
Europe’s pride onto what you don’t own,
Discovering so many things long known.

Thousands of years of solitude crashed
By a half-millennium of conquest
Could not unmake a people tethered to
Black soil, maize, potatoes, and rainforests—
To the land that they delight to show you,
A country flowing with milk and honey.
From Aconcagua to Ixtaccíhuatl—
No less theirs in Spanish than Nahuatl,
Quechua, Itza’, or Ngäbere.
Empires egress, yet here they remain.

Cortés and Pizarro and Balboa
Gave way to filibustering yanquís,
Manifesting their destiny beyond
Borders, national or rational, yet
Scott nor Taylor, Villa nor Zapata,
United Fruit, Contras, coups, nor mosquito,
Canal zones, cartels, Marines, Chavismo,
The CIA, foil blankets, nor cages
Instead of asylum can wrest dignity.
But, if we still have our bread and onions….

We cannot go back to where we came from,
Mostly because we’ve been here all along,
Standing in faith, bad faith notwithstanding,
Standing in judgment, silent as the years—
For the desert where you leave us dying
Remains our old, our most beloved home.
It is only in your cold-tempered hearts
Where place shatters and bad weeds never die—
We are your children, prodigals returned.
Look in the eye what you’ve sown, reaped, and burned.

Original

Alexander is, I suppose, to blame
For anguish in Nogales, Laredo,
McAllen, Del Rio, and El Paso—
Pueblos horneados bajo el sol
Y frente al horror indecible,
Rosita que llora por sus hijos.
More doctrine, or gall, than guns, germs, or steel,
One stroke of Inter Cetera venting
Europe’s pride onto what you don’t own,
Discovering so many things long known.

Thousands of years of solitude crashed
By a half-millennium of conquest
Could not unmake a people tethered to
Black soil, maize, potatoes, and rainforests—
La tierra que les ha mostrado,
El país fluye leche y miel,
De Aconcagua a Ixtaccíhuatl—
No less theirs in Spanish than Nahuatl,
Quechua, Itza’, or Ngäbere.
Empires egress, yet here they remain.

Cortés and Pizarro and Balboa
Gave way to filibustering yanquís,
Manifesting their destiny beyond
Borders, national or rational, yet
Scott nor Taylor, Villa nor Zapata,
United Fruit, Contras, coups, nor mosquito,
Canal zones, cartels, Marines, Chavismo,
The CIA, foil blankets, nor cages
Instead of asylum can wrest dignity.
Si ya tenemos pan y cebollas….

We cannot go back to where we came from,
Mostly because we’ve been here all along,
Standing in faith, bad faith notwithstanding,
Standing in judgment, silent as the years—
El desierto donde morimos
Es nuestro hogar más querido.
Solo está en sus corazones
Donde yerba mala nunca muere.
We are your children, prodigals returned.
Look in the eye what you’ve sown, reaped, and burned.

Image: Palo Duro Canyon, Texas. February 2018.

A View from The End of the World

Seeking “the meaning of life” is as human an activity as breathing, and wrestling with why things aren’t as good as they could (should?) be follows close behind. For better or for worse, I can’t stop reading books that propose to answer the pervasive sense of foreboding about the status quo that so many of us feel.

As someone who stands up in church every Sunday to confess that I believe in the resurrection of the dead and the life everlasting, this habit of watching for the end of a certain world seems a bit incongruous. I’d like to think I’m in good company with prophets (like Daniel, Ezekiel, and Micah) and apostles (like Peter and John) in looking for the Day of the Lord. They remind us that it is possible to raise up a Jeremiad with joy and to temper handwringing with hope.

So I keep reading and listening. This is true whether these works come from a political science perspective (like Patrick Deneen’s Why Liberalism Failed), a sociological perspective (like Charles Murray’s Coming Apart), a religious perspective (like Rod Dreher’s Benedict Option), a personal memoir (like J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy and Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me), the agrarian (all of Wendell Berry’s work), the poetic (like W.H. Auden’s Age of Anxiety), the dystopian (like P.D. James’ Children of Men), and even the historical (like Ibram X. Kendi’s Stamped from the Beginning). Look in any direction and it’s existential crises for days, but there’s always something to learn.

One thing all of these books have in common is an explanatory posture—they attempt to make sense of the loss and the dread and offer some semblance of a way to the good (looking back for some, forward for others, and grasping at things not yet seen for a few). Most start from a place of reminding the reader what society stands to lose if we’re not careful, a warning to the privileged that their inheritance is spending down faster than it is accruing value. Others point out that what we’ve inherited was never what we thought to begin with.

Of all the “here’s what’s gone wrong w/America” takes, however, Chris Arnade’s recent book Dignity: Seeking Respect in Back Row America is one of the most honest I’ve seen. Though the author (a former Wall-Street banker who also holds a Ph. D. in physics from Johns Hopkins) possesses greater privilege than many others in this group of writers, Dignity takes pains to  center with humility and humanness those for whom America has gone most wrong. Those who are being ground up get the focus and the voice here; those who’ve lost already, not those who merely fear what they may lose.

Some of this comes from the book’s format. It’s not an academic or even a narrative work, but rather a travelogue weaving episodes and itinerant thoughts with personal stories from all over the U.S. It’s also a sort of coffee-table book: Arnade is an accomplished photographer, and the faces and places he encounters feature prominently throughout the book, giving the words flesh and feeling.

At first, Arnade appears to be launching into memoir as he recounts the beginnings of this project in his long walks in New York, farther and farther afield from his Manhattan office. At some level, he never leaves this mode, stickA1UfDx8SR9L copying around to narrate, to tie together disparate interviews, and to offer an epilogue of his visit back to his hometown.

His voice, though, isn’t the thing you take with you. It’s the words of Takeesha, Imani, Luther, Jeanette, Beauty, Fowisa, Jo-Jo (all street names or pseudonyms to protect their identities), and the others you meet in these pages. It’s the drugs, chemicals of every kind that can be swallowed, snorted, smoked, or shot up. It’s the emptiness of homes, factories, cities, and towns that once held a fuller life. It’s the inexplicable persistence of community in McDonald’s, churches, bars, abandoned buildings, and parks. It’s the clear-eyed pictures of racial injustice that still pervade America and the ways its evil seeps into and drives other class and culture issues.

The photos-and-snippets motif Arnade chose invites comparisons to Depression-era narrative shapers like Walker Evans and Dorothea Lange. He is justly in their company in terms of his photographic eye, but his artistic aims are more subdued. He paints people not as victims in need of assistance or pawns in a political game, but as they are—human beings, broken and beautiful, navigating the life they’ve got with the tools they have. This gives the book a strikingly agenda-less quality. Yes, he addresses globalization, crony capitalism, automation, family fragmentation, drug policy and other macro-level trends that have contributed to the plight of his subjects in some way, but he shies away from any prescriptive action steps. Some may find this (and the attendant lack of concrete “solutions” to “problems”) frustrating, but I think it is a critical posture for the observations Arnade makes to be taken seriously.

Throughout the book, he presents the key divide in American society as that between the “front row” (educated, workaholic, powerful, cosmopolitan, upwardly mobile, rootless) and the “back row” (underemployed, powerless, bound to place, loyal, struggling). Arnade uses these terms descriptively, but neither is intended derisively—front row and back row America both have values and vices, but their cultural currencies and drugs of choice differ widely. Both can provide meaning and community, but both battle despair and can be toxic to outsiders.

It is in the question of values—or rather value—where Arnade makes his most helpful contribution to our national conversation. The front row, he says, lives by “credentialed” value. A person is welcomed into that community based on their gifts and abilities, their degrees, their accomplishments, and their contributions to others’ well-being and success. This world is competitive and rewarding, but also insecure. In the back row, value is “non-credentialed.” Your identity and worth comes from things you are born with (family, ethnicity, work-ethic, local roots) or from belonging to groups that are accessible to almost anyone willing to join (a church, a drug community, a gang, becoming a parent).

At present, the high places of cultural influence and power are open only to the front row, and the non-credentialed bona fides of the back row aren’t likely to earn you a seat at the table or a steady job. If there is an ax to grind here, it is Arnade’s persistent message to his fellow front-row-ites that the meritocracy at the helm of American society today is a much, much more closed system than they’d like to believe. His forays into the back row—whether in Bakersfield, Calif., Johnson City, Tenn., Selma, Ala., Portsmouth, Ohio, or even neighborhoods of front-row cities like New York—demonstrate how the solutions of the front row (“get an education,” “move away,” “get clean,” “learn new skills,” etc.) are much higher mountains to climb from this different perspective. What seems like common sense to one group is to another group a command to turn one’s back on everything they’ve ever known. The repetition of this theme comes both from his desire to make this known, but also because his interviewees so frequently have been confronted by this stark divide.

Dignity matters, not as another explainer of “how we got Trump” or a push for better government and nonprofit programs for poverty alleviation (though it has implications for those discussions), but as a step toward helping us as a country see all of our neighbors as brothers and sisters. Arnade does not claim to be a Christian, but he is implicitly calling us to recover the imago dei as the final arbiter of one another’s value.

Arnade’s lack of professed faith also makes his assessment of the real value of congregational life and earnest beliefs in the churches (and mosques) of the back row that much more remarkable. In an excerpt from the book published in First Things, he writes: “My biases were limiting a deeper understanding: that perhaps religion was right, or at least as right as anything could be…. On the streets, few can delude themselves into thinking they have it under control. You cannot ignore death there, and you cannot ignore human fallibility. It is easier to see that everyone is a sinner, everyone is fallible, and everyone is mortal. It is easier to see that there are things just too deep, too important, or too great for us to know.”

His chapter on religion hit closest to home for me and the work that I do. The churches he visited in the back row certainly don’t check all the theological or cultural boxes front row Christians deem necessary, but they all reflect the person of Jesus Christ in loving their neighbors and being faithfully present with them. Too often, front-row Christianity (whether conservative or liberal in theology, whether high-church or low-church in polity) has trouble doing this—we’re not quite sure what we’d do if someone from the cultural back row walked in and wanted to join. We don’t often have a story of change that would work for them. Doctrine, expected behaviors, and appropriate political positions we can get our minds around; Jesus gives us heartburn.

So where do we go from here? How do we build up? As I said, Dignity is long on observation and short on solutions. Many others are starting to digest the realities on the ground and work toward tying some of these threads together in ways that can repair the breach and bring people back to the wholeness we were designed to experience together. I’ve highlighted some of these on Twitter (that paragon of civil discourse), and in other writings, and I’m sure it’s a theme I’ll take up again. Moreover, this is no small part of the mission of the ministry where I work.

For now, though, let Dignity soak in and open your heart to those you might otherwise be tempted to forget.

Image: Abandoned farm equipment, Channel Islands National Park, California, June 2019

 

The Color of Compromise

The story of relationship between ethnicities in the U. S. is typically thought of by white Americans as something of a three-act play.

Act I starts 400 years ago, when English colonists in Virginia bought 20 or so men and women from Africa. These people had been stolen from their homes (likely in Angola) by the Portuguese before being seized by English pirates on the high seas and then traded unceremoniously for food on the shores of a strange land. They, their descendants, and millions of other captives would spend the next 246 years being defined down from human beings to chattels, governed not by inalienable rights but laws concerning property, treated with all manner of cruelty and made to extract untold wealth from North America for their captors. Even at that, we’re pretty sure it was mostly a Southern problem, and the national figures from that region that “owned” humans (like 5 of the first 7 presidents) were at least deeply unsettled about the morality of it, though they almost never felt the need to actually act on that feeling.

While we’re all (mostly at least) pretty certain that Act I is evil, we’d rather not really talk about it much. Act II begins with the Emancipation proclamation, the sainted martyr Abraham Lincoln, and the virtuous northern states defeating the menace of slavery in a fair contest on the cathartic battlefields of the Civil War. This is where things began to get particularly fuzzy. As the institution of slavery gave way to other forms of oppression, with the emergence of Jim Crow and the sharecropper system, we tend to localize blame in the South. And even though Southerners spent those decades mythologizing Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson, that must’ve been just remembering martial glories (and maybe licking their wounds a bit), so it’s probably OK that this habit continues into the present even though I’m not willing to participate in it personally. Because this was the time period that gave the world the Harlem Renaissance and DuBois and Hughes and Hurston and Jazz, though, life in the North must’ve been tolerable, right?

Act III looks like Martin Luther King, Jr. speaking on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, and the Civil Rights Act and Voting Rights Act, and we’re all fine now, right? Sure, Martin (and Malcolm, and Medgar, and…) was killed in the fight, and sure, some of my black acquaintances still talk about the ways their concerns aren’t being heard, and sure, the news keeps talking about the deaths of innocents, and sure, it seems like the legal system can’t wait to ruin a black man’s life. But racism is just an attitude, and if I don’t have that attitude personally, I’ve done all I can for the struggle (never mind the things Grandma says at Thanksgiving). Can’t we all just get along?

Of course, if you can’t tell from the tongue-in-cheek tone there, this isn’t a terribly accurate or complete telling. But it’s not all that different from a general narrative I absorbed growing up in the 90s, and one I’m sure I’ve parroted in full or in part until fairly recently. The real story starts long before 1619, and it’s not over yet, but to speak even these simple facts can stir controversy.

This is why, one of the best tools for shining a light on the African American experience (which is inextricably intertwined with systemic sins on a massive scale in the United States and the general history of this continent) is to look into the past. In the prudent exercise of history, the issues of today can be given context, and thus, their proper weight and understanding.

This is of particular value to the church, where most discussions of cross-cultural reconciliation have been carried on in the realm of theology, sociology, or personal narratives—all of which have tremendous value (would that we had all believed Galatians 3:28 and countless other passages firmly enough to avoid the mistakes of the past!). To avoid the roots of why there hasn’t been “conciliation” all along, though, it is necessary to understand the breadth and depth of sins committed in the past—sins of individuals and evil or cowardly actions taken by groups that flowed out of those sins. Only in this way can we really begin to build toward a humble, honest, unity in the family of God.

TTisby Coverhis is the task that historian (and trained theologian) Jemar Tisby sets his hand to in The Color of Compromise: The Truth about the American Church’s Complicity in Racism. If that provocative title invites a spark of indignation, it’s already doing some of work of the book as Tisby sets out to disabuse us of the notion that the church somehow floats above the historical currents in a society, untainted by the fray. Moreover, he pushes hard into examining how the church oftentimes shaped, not just reflected, the culture’s attitudes toward racial distinctions and white supremacy and the systems that have propped them up over the past four centuries.

Covering so much ground in a slim volume is ambitious, and Tisby, for the most part, pulls it off. He starts off with a short discourse about the discipline of history and acknowledges that his project here is to offer a survey, a necessarily shallow introduction to a massive subject. His goal is to illuminate the big arc of the story and encourage readers to go “upstream” into the multiplicity of deeper sources he cites.

Along the way, Tisby invites readers to consider the origins of chattel slavery in the Colonial and Revolutionary period, and how theories of racial stratification took hold in the Antebellum era as a way to justify continued enslavement and brutality. He critiques the ways that powerful outpourings of the Spirit during the First and Second Great Awakenings were channelled away from applying the Gospel’s implications toward justice for enslaved people, even as God raised up African American preachers, churches, and denominations. He excoriates Southern churches for their support of slavery and secession during the run up to the Civil War and their support of segregation during the development of the Jim Crow system (not to mention their damning silence on lynchings and KKK terrorism). At the same time, he breaks down the narrative of Northern virtue, detailing institutionalization of racism through redlining, real-estate covenants, etc., following the Great Migration.

Tisby is at his strongest in exploring the second half of the 20th century. His overview of the Civil Rights movement looks at how the church (North and South) began to shift from overt racial attitudes to a “moderation” (with Billy Graham and the beginnings of modern evangelicalism standing in as representatives for this phenomenon) that too-often shied away from supporting justice. His chapter on the development of the Religious Right in the 1970s and 80s carefully explains how there was much more continuity with segregation than the received narrative of the pro-life movement has been willing to acknowledge. This part is most helpful, perhaps because it has been most under-examined.

He concludes the book from there, tying together the political shift of much of the church toward the Republican party with a growing tone-deafness of American Christians toward the real-world concerns of our African American brothers and sisters in an age of mass incarceration, police brutality, poverty, and other systemic injustices from the 1990s to the present. His closing argument is for the church to stare this history in the eye, repent of the ways that we continue to ignore it, to lament the sins of our fathers, and learn anew to weep with those who weep so that we can also rejoice and glorify God together.

As a whole, Tisby succeeds admirably in his aims, producing a very accessible popular-level introduction to a vitally important topic. It is very engaging, and overall strikes a much more humble and conciliatory tone than I imagine that I would be able to muster covering such painful facts. If anything, though, I think the book’s length may be a slight disadvantage, as its attempt to be thorough in scope leaves many aspects of the story so abbreviated as to undercut some of the dramatic force of his arguments. My hunch as an editor is that there was a lot left on the cutting room floor—a few minor mistakes that slipped into the finished copy (i.e. last names stated before people are introduced, chopped sentences, etc) seem to indicate content removed and rearranged.

I know that publishing is a tricky game, and testing readers’ appetites for such a hard subject probably makes brevity the path of prudence. Still, I hope that Tisby (or others) will continue this project in greater detail. I would have enjoyed seeing a hundred more pages in this volume, and would gladly pay for a much more in-depth book from Tisby on the history of the Religious Right alone.

The audience that most needs to hear this story—theologically conservative Christians who profess a reticence to engage with justice issues and insist on a personally “colorblind” outlook on racial issues—may not receive it well, but I hope many among that group give it a hearing and respond with reflection and prayer. Public and private lament requires a knowledge of the depth and breadth of sins committed. We need to learn the story before we can bring it to God in the fullness of sorrow and hope, and experience the godly grief that leads to “fruit in keeping with repentance” (Luke 3:8).

Tisby very effectively asks why this subject tends to stand out as a blind spot for the majority of American Christians and urges us to look into the abyss not just to convict but to rejoice in the ways that God has preserved the witness of Christ among a people who had every reason to reject the religion of their oppressors. In particular, he asks readers to hold in tension the contributions of our ancestors and an honest reckoning with their sins.

Christians of all people should be able to understand this, for “all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God,” and it’s always possible to turn the orthodox religious observance into a sacrifice that God does not desire (see Isaiah 1, for instance). In many ways, we are denying the essence of the Gospel when we refuse to acknowledge that God has used, does use, and will use imperfect vessels (e.g. slaveholders like Whitefield and Edwards) to proclaim His truths—one can both appreciate and critique public figures whose sins become as well-known as their accomplishments, but continuing to whitewash their participation in evil as a way of “protecting” their reputation ultimately leads to people rejecting both message and messenger.

There is more I could say, but this is already a long review and I’d rather people read the book for themselves than have me explain it all. Perhaps the unstated message of The Color of Compromise is that we lose a lot when we fail to listen to our brothers and sisters from other cultures. Few if any of the insights Tisby lists here are unique to him. The evidence has been in plain sight all along, if we were willing to hear the voices that were calling out for us to listen. The fact that a book like this still needs to be written in 2019 is proof enough that hard hearts and stopped ears are more common in our houses of worship than we want to admit.

Image: Aaron Douglas, Harriet Tubman, 1931, oil on canvas. On loan to North Carolina Museum of Art from Bennet College for Women Collection, Greensboro, N.C. Photo by me, January 2019.

A Tribe of Grace

This morning, driving to work, I was between audiobooks and so tuned in to our local NPR affiliate.

Morning edition co-host Steve Inskeep introduced a bottom-of-the-hour human interest story about a husband and wife by alluding to Valentine’s Day. That’s pretty unremarkable, but something about it got my hackle up.

He said something along the lines of “It’s the day before Valentine’s Day—did you hear that? The day before. You’ve been notified.” It was a throwaway line, signifying nothing more than a popular radio host yukking it up for listeners, but my mind started to go toward how I perceived that nod to societal pressure to do something above and beyond for my wife because of the arbitrary yet sacrosanct commercialism of February fourteenth. Then I drifted to thinking of how single friends might feel about that, and before a few seconds had passed I was mad at someone I’ve never met about something I don’t really care that much about, all while trying to merge onto an interstate at rush hour.

Mercifully quickly, though, another thought pushed in, and I cut Steve the slack he’s certainly due as someone who spends a few hours each day with a hot mic stuck in his face.

In politically right-wing circles, a popular bogeyman is the politically correct, “woke”, “social justice warriors” who supposedly want to police our thoughts. On the left, people are equally incensed at the insensitive, boorish, racist, sexist, talk and actions emanating from locker rooms (and often the White House) these days.

Of course the traction these stereotypes get is due to the fact that their worst expressions do actually exist (though likely in much smaller numbers than either side perceives). In reaction, we keep pushing ourselves to ever greater hyperbolic contrast to distinguish our own virtue. In the froth, we’ve accelerated our sociopolitical sorting, with a default setting of anger at the other side (never mind that the lines between me and the “other” are ever shifting).

This isn’t news to anyone with eyes and ears in America today. But what hit me after my momentary bristling this morning is how much both broad camps that we’ve sorted ourselves into suffer the same core problem.

One group is so sensitive to any transgression against any historically oppressed group (or chosen identity) that the day is filled with microaggressions—many of which are very real, but many of which are as ephemeral as my NPR rage (call it “centering commercial-romantic synthesis” if you will). They cannot brook any dissent from their campaign to purge judgment and negativity from public discourse.

Another clustering of people is so self-assured in their own normalcy that can barely be bothered to extend sympathy to anyone who is different, broken, scarred, or scared. They increasingly delight in stepping on toes for the sake of breaking them, with “owning the libs” serving as more of a motivator than any substantive statement.

Both of these subsist on a failure of grace, practicing the same excessive self-interest—whether it is expressed as moral codes decoupled from repentance or stumbling blocks unhitched from a meaningful path forward. And as we pull in opposite directions, rifting an entire society, the legitimate concerns of racial injustice, family disintegration, lack of economic mobility, freedom of speech, mistreatment of women, care for the unborn (and their mothers), environmental degradation, etc., to just so many tribal shibboleths. And our media outlets act as gasoline on this fire, reducing the public square to all outrage, all the time.

This is getting us quickly into a hole that I’m not sure we can find a way out of, and the church of Jesus Christ too often hastens to leap in to the fray by joining one side or another rather than presenting a transcendent community that addresses earthly problems with the perspective of the kingdom of God. Neither trying to be right as a bludgeon nor trying to be kind at the expense of eternal truths does our calling any favors.

I’m not going to try to offer solutions today (though there’s plenty of other spots on this site where I’ve tried to do so). I’d simply like to say that I’m embarrassed by how seldom I think before I emote, and how my emotions are so culturally and politically malleable. It’s a complex world out there, and the complexity is a feature not a bug—designed to keep us humble, both dependent on and freely bestowing grace. As C. S. Lewis has a character put it in The Great Divorce: “‘But of course!’ said the Spirit, shining with love and mirth so that my eyes were dazzled. ‘That’s what we all find when we reach this country. We’ve all been wrong! That’s the great joke. There’s no need to go on pretending one was right! After that we begin living.'”

Steve, I’m sorry.

Image: North Carolina Museum of Art, “Swan Attacked by a Dog”, Jean-Baptiste Oudry, 1745. Photo by me, January 2019.