Respectability Politics and Redemptive Suffering

I wrote this piece last semester, as a discussion post for an online class on the New Testament.

I see respectability politics and redemptive suffering as two sides of the same coin in America’s race relations.

In her essay, Barbara Reynolds invokes the memory of civil rights leaders from the 60s “dressing in church clothes and kneeling in prayer during protests” as a deliberate tactic to employ respectability as a way to gain public sympathy. And she is right, in a sense. The MLK movie that came out a couple years ago did a good job of conveying how the image of well-dressed African Americans marching in Selma being attacked by dogs and white police officers swung public opinion and helped bring about the Voting Rights Act. But it didn’t go much further than that. As Shannon Houston points out, “She states this as a truth, as though such practices have always been proven to exact complete change, as though once white Americans saw all of those well-dressed, non-violent blacks on television getting murdered in the streets in the 1960s, empathy flooded into all of their hearts and racism finally subsided.” No such thing happened, obviously.

fergusonprotesterOne only need look at the state of race relations in the ensuing decades to see the limits of respectability politics. A nice suit didn’t stop that bullet from killing Dr. King. Racial inequality and animus is still all around us. Reynolds mentions the example of Dylann Roof’s victims’ families forgiving him and the fact that “in the wake of that horrific tragedy, not a single building was burned down.” And yet, 18 months later, we elected Donald Trump as president and watched white nationalism get a new shot of energy. The respectability of Roof’s church-going victims, and of their families’ beautiful (even Christ-like) display of forgiveness did not save America’s soul. This isn’t to say they are to be dismissed, or that the work of Dr. King and others was inconsequential. Far from it. Rather, the point is that their work has been co-opted by the power of white supremacy.

The respectability of black protesters has become something white America uses to cleanse the guilt in our own souls. We see the civil rights generation’s respectability juxtaposed against the protesting youth of Ferguson, and we are able to dismiss their suffering as in some sense self-wrought by their “hate speech, profanity, and…sagging pants that show their underwear,” all while patting ourselves on the back for the scraps thrown at black America in the 60s as an example of our own merciful and righteous beneficence. In this view, the suffering of the Selma marchers redeemed America’s racial sins.

Similarly, the suffering of the Ferguson protesters confirms our latent systems of oppression as justified to “protect” us. Those people suffered decades ago so that our consciences’ can have peace today. Respectability becomes redemptive. It allows us to feel like we’ve made so much progress, and place the blame for those left behind on their own shoulders. The suffering isn’t redemptive for them; it’s made redemptive for the rest of us.

In Cross-Cultural Paul, Dr. Cosgrove writes, “As an ideology, ‘redemptive suffering’ is the rationale by which a dominant group justifies imposing a way of pain and deprivation on a less powerful group. By contrast, Paul presents Jesus as one who embraced the way of love, risking and accepting suffering as a freely chosen path, not as an imposition on him by society. His suffering was not culturally conforming but countercultural.”

Paul writes of the “foolishness” of God as a humbling agent for those in places of arrogant power. I think too often we think of the “weakness” he writes of by picturing Mark’s Jesus, going silently to his fate as the sacrificial Lamb of Peace. We forget that to get there, he first had to get Rome’s attention by turning over some tables and disrupting the lives of the comfortable and secure. As Houston notes, “One moral of these New Testament retellings is that everyone has a breaking point. And there’s something incredibly judgmental and inhumane about looking at a person—or a group of people—at his or her breaking point, and chastising them for not pulling up their pants and behaving nicely. There are times when turning the other cheek or praying or dressing up in a suit and tie for a sit-in just isn’t enough. If it were, all problems and all progress in the world would have been achieved in such a manner.” Eventually, respectability gets folded into the status quo; the presence of respectable beggars for justice gets accounted for as a given and thus forgotten. Sometimes, it takes shock and awe to get the attention of the powerful and arrogant – and of the masses who don’t question them.

It isn’t Jesus’ suffering death that saves us; it’s our emulation of his life – both the crucial nonviolence at the center of his practice but also his righteous indignation at injustice and his prioritization of human life over capital and assets. His death was merely an extension of that, a reminder that the world will react violently and mercilessly at disruption. But it’s also a reminder that that disruption, and the way of love it represents, wins in the end. Jesus is resurrected, his message of love and mercy and justice lives on, and in the end, wins.

So it is today, in the reality of American institutional racism. It isn’t the respectable who will get results. The respectable are part of the fabric of American culture; the “Weak and despised” are young African American men, with sagging pants and loud rap music, throwing rocks and bottles. It is they who will, in the words of Paul, “bring to nothing things that are, so that no human being might boast in the presence of God.” Their deaths won’t save us; their work in life for justice and dignity will.

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