I love my son, I love (in a different way) the Christian faith, and I appreciate the efforts of the minister at an upscale, buzzing non-denominational church in Denver to draw one closer to the other. But from what I witnessed during a recent visit, I have to wonder if that’s happening.
The media-manufactured national crisis in Charlottesville was on everyone’s mind, or at least on this particular minister’s mind; so he jettisoned most of his notes on Saturday night (he said) and decided to let the Lord guide his words on Sunday morning. Now, I confess to being somewhat skeptical of the “give it to God” approach when dissecting moral or spiritual issues before a large audience. God gave us a rational intelligence, and He has also embedded in our mature nature an understanding of the distinction between self and other. A lot of times, when you really want to burst out with something, you don’t do so because you know a) that you haven’t thought it through on its own merits, and b) that you may be indulging a self-centered sentiment without adequately weighing how it’s likely to strike others. Belting out an opinion after announcing that you’ve given God the rein of your tongue usually doesn’t end well, in my experience.
And the violence that erupted at the KKK demonstration in Charlottesville actually begs for careful analysis. I myself, as a Southerner, am highly annoyed that the KKK presumed to come anywhere near General Lee’s statue. Lee freed his own slaves before the war began and was not in favor of secession—but felt honor-bound to fight on behalf of his country when it was invaded. By the way, Virginia was that country: it was an independent state which had surrendered some small part of its sovereignty to a central government, mostly for reasons of defense and over such commercial necessities as a common currency. A majority of Southerners who resisted the Union invasion also held this view. The slaveholders among them were a not-insignificant minority—but only a very small minority of these possessed more than five slaves.
That’s a history lesson for another day—and my intent is certainly not to defend the institution of slavery (although I might add that Lincoln’s parents had owned slaves in Pennsylvania, and that his Emancipation Proclamation in fact declined to free slaves held in Northern states). My point here is just this: the situation was represented in the broadcast media as a simple case of American racism rearing its ugly head over the issue of demolishing Confederate statues wherever they might be found. Extremely suspicious circumstances about this particular incident soon emerged, as well: e.g., the presence of a strong Obama supporter as an agent provocateur among the KKK ranks and an inaction bordering on incitement displayed by the Charlottesville police. Evidently, people in high places knew that the whole thing could be exploited for political gain. I wonder what gave them that idea?
Well, sure enough, our amiable man of God allowed the Holy Spirit to spring right off his tongue without attempting to secure any further facts about the case. I sat through a tirade about the evils of racism that, frankly, I found both demeaning and self-aggrandizing for all of us present. It was if we were being lectured on the wickedness of swerving out of your lane to run over a little child. White racists may compose about .002% of American society (unless you’re an academic who has ingenious ways of measuring these things, such as whether or not you’ve had an affair with a person of color). Naturally, everybody present in our church condemned and deplored racism: hence the self-aggrandizement. We could congratulate ourselves and each other because we were not among the wicked.
But not so fast. Our preacher foresaw this response and chastened it. We white folks—and he emphasized that the congregation was overwhelmingly white, as if pointing out that we hadn’t cleaned our plates after dinner—couldn’t just murmur, “Well, I sure don’t condone racism.” No; the fact that others of our race did condone it sufficed to implicate us. We must therefore make a point of seeking out the dark-skinned in our midst today and making them especially welcome. (“Oh, I didn’t notice that you were dark in the dim lights… I mean… hey, can I give you a hug? Well, or maybe a handshake and a big hound-dog howdy… I mean, because you’re… you know. And I really, really love you because you’re that way. I mean, more than I would if you weren’t. I mean….” Awkward, awkward, awkward, awkward!)
A young Hispanic couple that had squeezed into the row ahead of ours exchanged wry smiles in the dusky twilight. I had been trying to keep my eyes off the woman, because (speaking of “squeezed”) she was damn good-looking and wasn’t exactly dressed in loose sack cloth. Did the obvious fact that the surrounding Caucasian girls weren’t giving her any competition mean that, no, I really wasn’t a racist? Or did it just mean that I was a sexist pig?
But seriously, Reverend… you’re wrong. You’re just plain, flat, dead wrong. I am not responsible for the sins of Nordic people, or blond people, or even dark Celtic people like myself. I am responsible for nobody’s acts but my own. There is such a moral reality as communal responsibility, which involves multiple individuals allowing a dominant opinion to deafen them to their duty; hence even this is truly a lapse of individual responsibility. There is no such spiritual reality as communal sin, however. And as for congratulating strangers after the service for having dark skin… I’ll pass. It may just be that they attended your church thinking they might find a place at last where “content of character”, in Dr. King’s words, mattered infinitely more than tincture of epidermis. The way to welcome people into God’s house is to draw their souls into the transcending peace of the All Good—not to target them for special handshakes because they are black, or disabled, or dressed in sarongs.
The former welcome is that of a spiritual bridge-builder: the latter is that of a social engineer determined to create a secular utopia.