Sunday, December 8, 2013
“Why Are Black Americans So Angry?”
I had only come by to drop off a book, but they invited me in for a chat. Personal friends of Francis Schaeffer, he was a committed deacon at our church and for years she ran a preschool that exposed dozens, if not hundreds, of unchurched children to the Gospel, touching more families for Jesus than most of the rest of our congregation, my wife and me included, combined.
As we chatted, she mentioned that a Kenyan friend—one of scores of saints they have hosted over the years—had brought his family to visit them years ago. Two things had stood out to her over the course of their time together: First was the assumption by their non-Christian neighbors that Africans could not voluntarily become Christians. Second was an impression they had gathered from living in a black American neighborhood for some time: though living at an economic level most Kenyans would die for, the black people in that neighborhood seemed angry with almost everything, which brought the Kenyan to ask, “Why are black Americans so angry?”
As my friends spoke I realized I had just read a thick book on just that subject and am hereby recommending it to them.
Randy Alcorn’s page-turner Dominion (Portland, OR: Multnomah, 1996), a whodunit set circa 1996 in Portland’s ghetto, is a gospel sermon on racial tension, which Alcorn (who is white) capsulizes in the words of one of the characters: “We don’t have a skin problem; we have a sin problem.” Alcorn considers the human heart the heart of any matter, and so while he spins an engaging tale of murder and detective work, his goal is clearly to put a conservative white evangelical readership in the shoes of a conservative black man whose experience in evangelical culture is increasing his skepticism about the gospel message. In doing so he introduces the reader to heroes as well as villains, but red and yellow, black and white, all have sinfulness to fight.
The sinfulness we have to fight is not only our own, but our ancestors’. As a white friend, Jake, tells Clarence Abernathy, the black protagonist,
I know if my grandfather stole from your grandfather it isn’t my fault. But if my grandfather used that money to buy a house and send my father to college while yours couldn’t go because he didn’t have money that was rightfully his, then not only did your family suffer from the stealing, I benefited from it. Without realizing it, I’ve been the beneficiary of the exploitation of slaves and sharecroppers. Their loss has been my gain. ...
[In Daniel 9, Daniel] confesses the sins of his forefathers as his own, even though he didn’t do those sins. Same with Nehemiah. ...
If [Jesus can hold the religious leaders of his day] responsible for the blood of prophets shed by [their] forefathers hundreds of years earlier, there has to be some kind of transgenerational responsibility. ...
Maybe the only way for descendants of oppressors to get out from under the curse is to face up to their ancestor’s [sic] sins, repent, and seek forgiveness from those they’ve wronged.
If we’re responsible for Adam’s sin, obviously we’re responsible for our grandfather’s.
Not all sins between blacks and whites are political—i.e., the product of government policy—but those that are and have been spill over into “everyday life” and give black people good reason to turn a deaf ear to “gospel preaching” that equates Christian discipleship with white American culture.
In short, the powerful see the world completely differently from the way those under their power see it. (“The guy looking up the barrel of the gun is much more eager to discuss the situation than the guy with his finger on the trigger,” as I like to say.) When Jake tells Clarence he has never thought about his own skin color, Clarence replies,
We had to think about it. With segregation, busing, voting, separate drinking fountains and restrooms and schools and what have you, we didn’t have the luxury of not thinking about it. I first went to integrated school in fourth grade. When I sat down, the chairs around me emptied like I was a pipe bomb. I was the brunt of jokes, was spit on, called names. Even the kids who weren’t cruel were always whispering about me. Most of the teachers weren’t really hostile, but they tolerated the meanness and that just encouraged it. The color of our skin chased us everywhere.
But Clarence has his own set of sins to deal with. Like this writer, he writes passionately about right and wrong as he sees them, is easily angered, and finds out the hard way that not only does he not always have his facts straight, he is as prejudiced as those Christians, true, false, and non, at whose hands he, his ancestors, and his contemporaries have suffered so much.
A thick book short on action passages and long on discourse will be preachy, but Jesus commands us to preach, and Alcorn is a dynamic preacher. He preaches what William Wilberforce would have recognized as the whole gospel: not only that all have sinned and salvation comes only through Christ, but what heaven will be like and how our view of heaven should affect our lives on earth, particularly how we treat our neighbors—those we know in our families and circles of friends, and in our churches, but also strangers whose lives we affect in chance encounters and especially through our political systems. His message to white America is essentially, You’re not responsible for the injustices of slavery, Jim Crow, and the welfare state, but you have benefitted from it, and blacks still suffer from it. You don’t have to think about race because you’re the dominant race, but race affects everything your black neighbors do.
This hit home to me for many reasons, but one that’s not so shameful I can’t bear to share it is that twice during my commute to Philadelphia I was walking on the street and came to places where either a black person or I would have to stop to let the other pass. Though I was clearly the one who should have stopped, before I had a chance to get my mind around the situation, the black person simply stopped well short and let me pass: a black man let me cut in front of him when I crossed the street in the middle of the block onto a narrow sidewalk, and a black woman stopped halfway down a staircase when I could have easily moved over to make room for her at the bottom. In both cases, the expression on their faces made me think they were doing it not because they were being polite but because they felt I expected them to, and I was so disoriented I didn’t even thank them.
Alcorn presents anecdote after anecdote of interracial sin, mostly white on black, but also black on black and black on white, in conversations on earth and in scenes viewed from heaven. Whether heaven will be as Alcorn describes it is certainly open to question, but I for one am open to the idea that we will be shown the consequences of our actions so that we may be rewarded for the good and truly repent of those sins Jesus has forgiven. And if Jesus taught by telling stories, Alcorn is certainly within his rights to do the same, and he does it in a way that should keep anyone from teens to antiques engaged.
Having preached, I’m a-gonna meddle a bit.
If Clarence Abernathy, who lived the American rags-to-riches dream, finds white US Christianity hard to swallow, is it any wonder that those who don’t make it out of the ghetto, let alone the projects, shun the church? If blacks are disproportionately targeted for drug law enforcement and sentenced more stringently than whites—let me state here that Alcorn is no foe of the War on Drugs—is it any wonder that Islam is spreading much faster among blacks than Christianity in US prisons?
It is fashionable for white Christians to disparage the black community for its illegitimacy rate and for playing the race card at every opportunity. But have whites ever really taken seriously the residual effects of slavery and Jim Crow?
If we have been guilty of excusing white people’s sin against black people in the past, is it possible that we are now excusing our sin against blacks or against some other group of people that is “not our kind”? I know I have been: in the weeks after 9/11, I was all for bombing the Kaaba, the Mosque of Omar, and every Muslim city from Marrakesh to Jakarta, one at a time, after any event that could be taken as Muslims taking revenge on the US for US revenge for 9/11. After all, they had attacked us.
However once I considered the possibility that a federal government that has committed atrocities against its own people—Roe v. Wade and No Child Left Behind, not to mention the conquest of the Confederacy, Prohibition, Social Security, and the War on Drugs, and such atrocities against others as the murderous Trail of Tears and the executions at Wounded Knee—might commit atrocities against Muslims overseas, somehow the idea that 9/11 was a response to Uncle Sam’s evil didn’t seem so far fetched, and I wondered aloud whether the question might at least be worth considering by the elders of any church that prayed for the troops fighting the post-9/11 wars.
It seems, though, that just as Bible Belt Christians never wanted to shine biblical light on slavery and Jim Crow, today’s US Christians don’t want to consider the possibility that overseas Muslims have legitimate complaints against Uncle Sam. My prediction is that just as the barbarism of the Obama presidency can be traced back to centuries of injustices and careless subjugation of blacks in this country, God will place much of what is today US territory under Shari`a law by exposing the hypocrisy of the church in regard to such things as nationalism and collateral damage.
Meantime, Alcorn’s book is a great read and belongs in the library of any primarily white church that seeks to reach out to the disaffected black community.