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Race Around the Web

Written by Mark Van Steenwyk : August 28, 2008

I direct your attention to two somewhat related posts regarding race and ethnicity.

The first post (on Emergent Village) by Anthony Smith challenges those non-voting white folks who encourage black folks to abstain from voting. Here’s a snippet:

Voting, as it is oftentimes seen by historically marginalized groups, is a precious gift. It is not seen, within the language game of the prophetic black church, as a form of violence. That voting is seen as means of violence can only come from Christians who don’t know what it is like to be without the gift. This is why the loudest voices for political disengagement on Gospel grounds tend to be of lighter hue. It is another form of advantage to eschew voting. I profoundly agree with Christians engaging in anti-imperial practices or pro-kingdom activities that give sign to another world in our midst. But understand my suspicion. I am postmodern, after all.

This is a great issue worthy of serious consideration. I’m thinking of a response to Anthony’s weighty and compelling article.

The second post is a forum conversation taking place at Submergent’s website regarding the ethnic mix of folks involved on that social website. The post is raising issues of unity and diversity, privilege and oppression, etc. In the comments, Eliacin Rosario-Cruz offers the following insight:

It is not enough to wait until gender diversity/multiculturalism just simply happen. To wait on that is to perpetuate the “Luxury of Obliviousness” in which white males can afford to be oblivious to the injustice and the marginalization of women and people of color. Women and people of color cannot afford to wait until the mono-cultural/mono-gender group decide when to “include” them. The embrace of the “other” need to be intentional from the beginning. If gender diversity and multiculturalism is not part of the DNA, then is a later add-on. Women and people of color are not accessories to be added later on. Many of us believe God’s Kingdom will be formed by a large multicultural multitude, if so, then we are called to represent that multitude and live in that reality now…The lack of voices/participation of women and people of color in the church represents a chromosomal disorder in the Body of Christ.

How do we meaningfully address the social/economic/racial/ethnic/gender within our communities, organizations, and movements?

How do we foster diversity among websites and web networks when a majority of users are still, it seems, white men?

Mark Van Steenwyk is the editor of JesusManifesto.com. He is a Mennonite pastor (Missio Dei in Minneapolis), writer, speaker, and grassroots educator. He lives in South Minneapolis with his wife (Amy), son (Jonas) and some of their friends.


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    Yet another interesting and provocative piece about race and ethnicity, this time about the lack of it in the new monasticism phenomenon

    Read here -
    http://blog.beliefnet.com/godspolitics/2008/08/...

    Paz y esperanza,

    Eliacin
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    There was something about this -- specifically the two pieces linked to -- that just really pissed me off today. I am a Lutheran seminarian (third year at LSTC in Chicago, doing my internship in a very unfamiliar place -- overly white and Lutheran northern Wisconsin) but I was, for about 15 years, a Muslim and for part of that time an aspiring jihadi and believer in political violence. I have been significantly influenced by my reading of Hauerwas, Yoder and Ellul, as well as my encounter with Jesus Christ.

    I'm not entirely sure where to start. First, I do believe that voting is pointless because politics is all about violence and the threat of violence -- who gets to force whom to do what or pay for what. (If it were really about cooperative effort, would guns and law justifying the use of guns be necessary? No.) While violence is inevitable when human beings live together, we who are called to follow Jesus Christ are called to give up violence and any claims we make on others through or with violence. That means we are to give up partisan political activity, in that all partisan political activity is about controlling the state and the sole thing that makes the state the state is its monopoly on legally (and thus morally) legitimate violence. (Again, if it were about cooperation, about us together, would guns be necessary?) As Stanley Hauerwas wrote, this is not being apolitical, because this is a very political statement.

    We are also forgiven if we can't or don't, but it should be clear that the Kingdom of God is not a political construct, not created by human political ideologies, not reflected in monarchy or democracy or capitalism or socialism, not made manifest in the welfare state, not something rightly guided human beings make ourselves. It is something that happens to us and is done to us. It exists sideways and we reflect it and live it and sometimes even realize that or experience it.

    Second, the post-Westphalia Enlightenment state makes claims on human allegiance that are akin to it claiming to be God -- it is like Pharaoh demanding that God's people serve it rather than God. This is actually truer if the state is "democratic" because sovereignty then exists nowhere but with "the people," and "the people" -- or those who exercise power in the name of the people -- can never be wrong and thus can never be checked. Now, the whole notion of popular sovereignty is a fraud, as it is impossible for "the people" to exercise their sovereignty in any meaningful way, so then actually power and privilege alights upon a class of managers who, to borrow Marxian terminology, gain the all benefits of having privileged access to the "means of production" but bear none of the risks of actual ownership. It is important that somehow, those who rule link themselves to those they rule over -- ideology does this, propaganda does this, and voting does too. Voting in liberal democratic (or social democratic) societies is not an act of self-government (itself also inescapable), but a semi-sacramental act designed to link the citizen to the state (and those who exercise state power) and confer moral legitimacy of the state and all it does. It is to put the state first, and all we do as human beings (or as children of the living God) second to the state. I think a good case can be made for voting as participation in an idolatrous religion of statism. By voting, we partake of in the worship of a false god.

    Third, there is the notion of citizenship. As far as I have read in the gospel, we are not called to be citizens of the polity, but disciples of Christ. That may make us "good citizens," but it may not. And it is irrelevant regardless. Citizenship is not a privilege, it is a legal right conferred upon human beings by accident of birth and affirmed by several major UN documents. It is the modern equivalent of being born in Christendom to Christian parents (or in Dar al Islam to Muslim parents); one was Christian by default, and there were no real choice but to be Christian, to be a member of the church and of the allegedly Christian polity. Our "citizenship" is with Christ Jesus, in Christ's Kingdom both here and now, and not on passports or ID cards. I would renounce my citizenship if it would make a difference, and may at some point do so. I'd rather sell it, but it isn't really my property, since I can't do that. Oh, but the state could strip me of it if it chose to.

    I understand African American history, but I don't really get why African Americans would want the alleged privilege of citizenship -- the privilege of compelling their fellow "citizens" or other human beings upon pain of death, of murdering them with legal sanction. Or is the morality here that of the book of Esther, in which is it bad to kill Jews but perfectly okay for Jews to kill?

    Part of this was also the author's appeal to Martin Luther King Jr. I must admit here Dr. King is not my favorite figure -- I am much more a fan of Malcom X. But my great problem has been with the church's adoption of King as martyred saint. Yes, he is a martyred saint, but of the American civil religion, not of Christ or of Christ's church. Nothing he "preached" strikes me as gospel, and if it was, it was heavily filtered through a very liberal understanding of Americanism, liberal American Christendom, American exceptionalism and American statism. King believed far too much in the founding promises of America (as if they were scripture given by God, which they are not), and in his speeches essentially said that the answer to the problems of America is more America. The values are good but we simply don't live up them. This is the gospel? No, this is the law, and bad law at that. Again, why would African Americans want to be part of a society that had systematically abused them for so long and proven its founding promises were at best convenient myths and at worst outright lies?

    Finally, there is the quote from the posting at the Submergent website:

    It is not enough to wait until gender diversity/multiculturalism just simply happen. To wait on that is to perpetuate the “Luxury of Obliviousness” in which white males can afford to be oblivious to the injustice and the marginalization of women and people of color. Women and people of color cannot afford to wait until the mono-cultural/mono-gender group decide when to “include” them. The embrace of the “other” need to be intentional from the beginning. If gender diversity and multiculturalism is not part of the DNA, then is a later add-on. Women and people of color are not accessories to be added later on. Many of us believe God’s Kingdom will be formed by a large multicultural multitude, if so, then we are called to represent that multitude and live in that reality now…The lack of voices/participation of women and people of color in the church represents a chromosomal disorder in the Body of Christ.


    Theologically, this view is reprehensible. The kingdom "will not be formed," it is already formed, and not by a "large multicultural multitude," but by Jesus Christ, who drags some of us kicking and screaming into this kingdom (because we had other plans). Whatever "mutliculturalism" means in this context, the truth is that multiculturalism as practiced in the West is simply another form of assimilationism that takes for granted all of the things that assimilationism takes for granted -- the moral legitimacy of the state and the society (the human community bounded by the state) and thus the threat or actual use of violence on those who do not wish to participate or accept multiculturalism for any reason. Like anything the state does, there is no saying no to multiculturalism. (Indeed, official multiculturalism is a good ruling ideology for American imperialists, be they liberal imperialists like those supporting Barack Obama or conservative ones supporting John McCain.)

    But there is in this, as in most of this kind of talk, a sense that those who are acknowledged victims of power are empowered to actually use power themselves to free themselves. They are privileged to use violence, or threaten violence, in their own liberation or in the liberation of others. Given that liberation theology looks little different from jihadism or ideas concocted by the Weekly Standard's editorial board to justify empire (neoconservatism is a type of liberation theology), all liberation theology by necessity leads to violence, or at least morally justifies it. (Gustavo Gutierrez missed his opportunity to write speeches for George W. Bush, as much of A THEOLOGY OF LIBERATION reads like the Michael Gerson-penned second inaugural.) There is nothing in the gospel that even suggests Jesus telling the powerless they are entitled to rise up and take power for themselves -- Jesus does not claim that privilege for himself nor does he advocate it for anyone else. The gospel is about surrendering to the violence of the world, and in that demonstrating its powerlessness over us. It is about making no claims on the world through violence. It is not about us seizing power, it is not about us running the state, or remaking the world, or putting who we understand are the last first and the first last (because then we've just made a new first and a new last, unless "first" and "last" are eternal and everlasting essences) -- God does all that through Christ, and demonstrates this very real kingdom of God in some of the most amazing and least expected ways. Be patient, and be willing to be surprised, by God's kingdom.
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    Wonderful response C.H.

    My one caveat is this; while it is true that Christ originates the church, and we are often dragged into it, the 'luxury of obliviousness' is still a valid point. Until persecution forced their hand there was a reluctance, even amongst the earliest church, to reach out to those outside their cultural group; to embrace the Greek and Ethiopian, the Roman and other Mediterranean peoples. Understanding that this is our nature, to seek comfort and familiarity, it is therefore doubly necessary to counter it with the desire of Christ's to "go forth and make disciples of all people". It's not a matter of checking the boxes, making sure you have your quota of Cambodians or whatnot, but rather a realization that, if given a choice, I'd probably only reach out to those that I spend time with naturally; my own socio-economic group/class/race/political preference/whatever.
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    And in this I have to say my experience is so radically different and atypical that I need to conscious of that and remember that. I spent 15 years mastering a language I did not grow up with (Arabic), learning to work and live in cultures I was not raised in (Saudi, Pakistani, African-American and Indian Muslim), and being the only one in the room with blond hair and blue eyes. Indeed, one of the reasons I embraced Islam and its cultures was because "mine" -- the race, class and politics I was raised -- was cruel, brutal and unwelcoming. I need to remember and be mindful that few others share this experience and this willingness to become a part of others and be accepted by them. Thank you for reminding me of this.
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    I hear what you are saying, but I'm not sure I agree in several areas. Voting, in itself, is not an act of violence - although I agree when there are few real choices it might end up like that. For me, accepting the benefits of my society requires participation in elections. Once the politicians get into power, the real work begins.

    Second, I'd like to hear more about what you say about Martin Luther King Jr, because from where I am sitting almost everything he uttered was profoundly gospel. I know little of Malcolm X, but was he not a proponent of the violence you decry above?

    Third, I do not accept that liberation theology leads to violence any more than Gandhiism led to the violence of partition. Liberation theology is not about taking power, but using the power that you have to overthrow great evils. Do you have any evidence to the contrary? As to the comparison with jihadiism, I guess that depends on which from of Islam you are comparing it to.

    It strikes me that your theology (as expressed here) is rather akin to a rigid belief in destiny. God will do whatever he wills, Inshallah. Whilst I would agree with you that the Church has no business enforcing power over people, I would argue that there is a strong vein of Christian theology that insists it is the responsibility of the Christian to stand up against evil and fight injustice.
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    Joet, how do you do that -- stand up against evil and fight injustice -- without becoming self-righteous in the wielding of human power, without demanding privilege for yourself or those you claim to be struggling with or for, and thus become evil and injustice ourselves? And what exactly is justice anyway? Who gets to say what justice is and which injustice gets dealt with, because clearly no one wakes up one day and says "today I shall do evil" or "today I shall be evil" or "today I shall be unjust." Lots of claims to dealing justice on evil in the exercise of violent state power, whether one supported the bombing of Serbia, the occupation of Haiti, or the invasion of Iraq. So who do you get to shoot, or threaten with shooting, and why do they deserve it? Why do you get to threaten violence but not someone else? Since we cannot agree on what "justice" is or who or what "evil" is, then whoever is loudest or strongest or most willing to use violence gets their "justice."

    Perhaps I don't believe so much in destiny as I believe in God's absolute sovereignty and humanity's utter incapability of morally altering the conditions of our existence. Thus, when I read much "liberation theology" or liberationist theology (socially and politically liberal theology inspired by liberation theology) I see an almost complete emphasis on human ability, particularly the ability of human beings to alter the conditions of human existence, that Kingdom change can and will (possibly even must) be wrought with and by human hands through deliberate human effort. That human beings can change human institutions, can remake human beings, can somehow deal away human sinfulness. I also see an abstraction of evils as "systems," forgetting that systems are made up of flesh and blood human beings who are often very committed to their "systems," and the sense that what they support and are a part of is right and good and just.

    God's sovereignty doesn't demand the world be remade, it remakes the world. We are called to live in that remade world, to live out that remade world, to be God's peace and thus make it a reality in a world that sees violence as its only hope for survival or accomplishing acts of great and noble good. Because God has done all the work, is doing all the work, and will do all the work.
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    Well, that is a fair question. I would say that most of the time you cannot fight violence with violence and claim it is godly - but I am not clear why you seem to link fighting for justice with violence.

    As an example: the other week I met a group of exploited women. They had irregular work, and when they had it, it paid well below the national minimum wage. Is it not justice to say that people should be paid properly for their work and then to enter into their struggle to feed and educate their families? That is no privilege, that is justice - isn't it?

    Ultimately, I would probably agree with you - we are screwed, there is nothing we can do on our own and our best activities are frequently tiny lights in the darkness. But to refuse to even try to do something when you have the resources to seems to me to be the antithesis of the gospel. If I have bread, I should feed the hungry not wait for manna.
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    Again, joet, it's a question of "whose justice"?

    We're coming up on the anniversary of Che's death. Many argue that he fought for a noble, even a just cause. He always caused, directly or indirectly, the deaths and hardships of a number of people.

    If you want to argue that it is merely the price of fighting for justice....how is that any different from deposing Saddam by force? It becomes merely a question of perspective, and warring definitions of justice.

    Does that make sense?
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    Errr... no not really. Ends don't justify means, just because Che arguably believed in a noble end does not have any bearing on the rightness of his actions. I'm sorry, I have a very limited knowledge of Che Guevara so had better not discuss that example in any detail.

    Similarly, whilst one might be able to argue that overthrowing a tyrant is just, bombing of a country back to the stone-age can rationally be argued not to be justice. I can see where you are going that one person's justice is another person's oppression - yet on a very basic level, the improvement of conditions for those at the bottom of the pile has got to be Godly justice, simply because God is on the side of the poor and the oppressed.

    The disagreement, as far as I can understand it, is on the level of how to justify certain actions when faced with unjust conditions, which at the extremes are pretty obvious. C.H. appears to be arguing that one cannot have a godly understanding of justice therefore no action is ever appropriate in the face of unjust conditions. And whilst I agree that there are a whole realm of actions which are inappropriate (and ungodly), there exist actions which are loving, godly and appropriate. Indeed, to do nothing seems at odds with the Jesus of the New Testament. That said, I can appreciate that my efforts to define that might be very similar to that used by any number of religious extremists.
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    I can see why it would seem I am making the following argument (in part because I am):

    The disagreement, as far as I can understand it, is on the level of how to justify certain actions when faced with unjust conditions, which at the extremes are pretty obvious. C.H. appears to be arguing that one cannot have a godly understanding of justice therefore no action is ever appropriate in the face of unjust conditions.


    What I am trying to say is that we can never know God's "will" with the kind of certainty needed when one is killing or threatening to kill. Now, I am a Lutheran, and thus I also believe such things are also inevitable, and thus we are forgiven our sins. But even if we are forgiven our sins by God, there are still human consequences to deal with, even if we think there shouldn't be, even if we believe our motives and intentions pure and noble. There will be those, the victims or survivors of our violence who will not see things our way.

    Let us speak of the exploited women. I will sidestep questions of what constitutes a living wage. I would have no problem agitating with them, standing with them as they make demands of those who employ them, of speaking with employers and reminding them -- especially if they Christians -- that they have an calling (some might obliation) to be kind and merciful and do right by their brothers and sisters. I would also warn of consequences, because there are consequences to human cruelty and indifference. But would I agitate for a law mandating the paying of a "living wage?" No. Because the law is violence. I may pray for, lecture, admonish and even condemn someone who refuses to treat a human being with decency and mercy. But I will never threaten such a person with pain, suffering or death.
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    I understand where you are coming from. We don't need government laws because we are called to observe a higher law. Anything less is meaningless.
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    Yes I would agree with you about 'agitating for a law', although I don't consider law to be violent in itself. The truth is that we have a law in place and that makes bugger all difference. I would not threaten anyone with death or violence, but would not hesitate to change the economic conditions affecting his profitability, given the conditions he imposed caused such suffering to others.

    As Dave Andrews has helpfully said, when faced with injustice there are a range of different approaches we can take - which might include organisation, agitation, confrontation, education, etc. The problem is the mindset that suggests the best solution to any problem is violence (or actually a fixed mindset that suggests any one approach is always correct).

    As I think we are broadly in agreement, I can only apologise to everyone else for exploring this interesting tangent!
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    Interesting conversation. C.H., I agree with your theology and also have a deep appreciation for Yoder, Hauerwas, et al. However, I'm uncomfortable with your application of some of it to the African American context. And thanks as well for your personal story, it gives me greater appreciation for the passion and perspective from which you speak.

    This quote of yours particularly struck me and I'd like to reply to it.

    "I understand African American history, but I don't really get why African Americans would want the alleged privilege of citizenship -- the privilege of compelling their fellow "citizens" or other human beings upon pain of death, of murdering them with legal sanction."

    An alternative interpretation of MLK and the Civil Rights movement might be like this. MLK did NOT believe more in America than he did in the Gospel. I think if you take a hearty dose of his sermons and writings you'll see that. But I think he had to contextualize that message for a country very much caught up in its own idealism, but unable to understand how to move beyond its faults and sins. He looked for the signs and clues to the Gospel written into America's founding documents and political philosophy, and called the country to account for its use of religious language and ideals. Paul took a similar track one could say with his reference to the "Unknown God" in Athens. In the American case MLK essentially said, 'You can't just say words like, "endowed by their Creator with inalienable rights" and get away with it.' And its really not just King that did this, but the movement as a whole. Yes its highly contextualized, but sometimes you have to meet people where they are.

    Another important point here is that for many African Americans (and I speak particularly of my parents and grandparents generation), the struggle for the vote was perhaps more important than the vote itself. It demonstrated that the community had a sense of self-respect and dignity, and were willing to confront evil without hating evildoers. It was an exercise in extreme courage given the social climate, and that can't be understated. The non-violent strategies of the Civil Rights Movement were a repudiation of the ethics of Esther, and of Rome. The power to vote, like the power to eat or sleep where one chooses, was more a defensive than offensive measure. Decisions were being made at a local level which affected African American lives without accounting for their self-stated needs or opinions. Seeking full secular citizenship was not so much about African Americans choosing Caesar over God, but rather seeking mutual respect and dignity in their social context.

    It is a bit peculiar that the majority of the those who denied full secular citizenship to African Americans before the Civil Rights Movement, went to Church every Sunday. Were they professed Christians? If so, why would African Americans expect anything different from them in their Churches? The secular denial was also a religious denial.

    I agree voting is an imperfect instrument. It can easily become a form of subtle coercion, one step away from the but I'd direct our attention to our congregations and denominations. What form of governance do they have? How do they make decisions? There are various mechanisms for voting in Presbyterian and Methodist Churches for selecting leaders and organizing programs. Consensus is used in the Anabaptist tradition. But what should be the guiding principles when Christians make decisions in community? What models do we have to give the world? I think the conversation we have about voting as violence also needs to involve the way the Church makes its decisions. After all can we really critique other decision making systems if we don't pay attention to our own. In the African American context, the ostracization was not just political, it was religious as well. Most of the historically black denominations we have in the US today were formed because white Christians didn't want to worship beyond their homogenous community, or preferred blacks in a position of subordination when it came to decision making. There is a Christian history to this "citizenship" problem that needs to be addressed. How can we encourage African Americans to disregard one form of citizenship, if what the Church is offering is more of the same, due to its cultural captivity? If we are not offering more of the same, then I think we owe it to confront our own history of complicity and explain how we will get beyond it.

    Thanks again for provoking some thought, I hope my comments help do the same.
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    They do, and I thank you for this. On better days I understand these things, and try to be cognizant of them. But thank you for reminding me. I appreciate the calm thoughtfulness of this response.
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    JMorrow, is there any way we can continue this discussion via e-mail? I have some questions based on this response, and I'm not sure how appropriate they are here. I can be reached at chfeatherstone (at) hotmail.com. Thanks.

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