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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MLK Wasn’t a White Idol

This piece was originally posted on MLK Day 2016, here. It’s been lightly updated for 2018.

It’s Martin Luther King Jr Day. A federal holiday, celebrated by all Americans, white and black, conservative and liberal, religious and secular, honoring the great civil rights leader. A day when we focus on the things he said and did.

mlk beyoond vietnam--spiritual deathExcept we have a rather narrow focus when we as a nation remember MLK. We focus on quotes like, “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.” Because quotes like that one make MLK tame and safe and part of the establishment. It makes us think about racism as this thing that’s about overcoming a bad reaction to dark skin. It makes the civil rights movement an ascethic dispute that we won because no one hates black people for being black anymore, right?

But here’s the thing: Martin Luther King Jr was not a cuddly teddy bear.

MLK didn’t live to make white America feel better about itself by giving them a black person they could point to as that friend that makes them not-racist.

MLK didn’t act in non-political, safe, widely-popular ways. He didn’t do and say things that the white, conservative-and-liberal, majority establishment embraced. He didn’t make us feel self-righteous and vindicated.

MLK was a prophet in the truest sense, in that he came to challenge us and make us uncomfortable and show us our ever-present racist and bigoted ways.

Most importantly, MLK didn’t come for white America. MLK came from and for black America, and our posthumous adoption of MLK as a balm to ease our own guilt and sin is a terrible (but perfectly representative) example of the white tendency to culturally appropriate the things we like about minority culture, while ignoring the deeper meanings and values.

During his life, MLK fought for the equal rights of black America, not just in places like Birmingham and Selma and Memphis, but in Detroit and Washington DC and Chicago. All of white America was convicted, not just southern KKK members.

And he didn’t challenge white supremacy by asking us to be nice. He challenged it by identifying and calling out the inherent, systemic racism present in our governing structures and civil society. He called out the white privilege of all people, that we walk around with everyday, in all that we do. He not only identified the structural racism, he worked to ease it’s effects by supporting anti-poverty measures and equality legislation like the Voting Rights Act. He was targeted not just by the KKK and other racists, but by the FBI and our very own political leaders.

He understood that the liberation of his people was bound up with the liberation of all oppressed people, including poor working class whites and peasant villagers in Vietnam. That is why, during the last years of his life, he also spoke out strongly against the war in Vietnam and in support of anti-war efforts. It’s why his last work was the Poor People’s Campaign, an effort to raise living standards for all Americans by fighting for a higher minimum wage and the rights of workers to unionize and engage in collective bargaining. When MLK was shot and killed in Memphis, he was there to stand in solidarity with unionized sanitation workers who were on strike for higher wages and better benefits.

Martin Luther King Jr worked for social justice and equality and the rights of all people to live and work and vote in a free society. And specifically, he worked to give black America the means to free itself from the shackles of white America. That fight is not over. If he were alive today, there is no doubt MLK would be in the streets of Ferguson and Baltimore and Oakland, standing in support of Black Lives Matter. There is no doubt he would be working against the continued austerity and attempts by elected officials to dismantle our safety net and measures he supported during his life like the Voting Rights Act and Medicaid. There is no doubt he would fight against income inequality and for universal health care. There is no doubt he would be marching against white supremacists in Charlottesville, and calling out the blatant racism and white nationalism being buoyed by our president. There is no doubt he would join the calls to remove the Confederate flag from government buildings, and for stricter gun control. There is no doubt he, too, would be kneeling for the national anthem, and supporting Colin Kaepernick. There is no doubt he would be standing against hate and bigotry towards our Muslim brothers and sisters, and the call for more war overseas. He would not, in short, be a middle class white totem of good feelings and confirmation of our biases. He would still be the object of scorn and hate he was for most of white America when he was alive.

Today, let’s remember Martin Luther King Jr, but more importantly, lets feel convicted by his words and his actions, and know, his fight is on going and we, white America, we are part of what he was fighting against. That’s the first step to supporting his fight. MLK is not our security blanket, or the symbol of our progress. He was, and is, our accuser, and only be recognizing that, can we begin to move towards the America he envisioned.

What Good Can Come from Nazareth?

The next day Jesus decided to go to Galilee. He found Philip and said to him, “Follow me.” 44 Now Philip was from Bethsaida, the city of Andrew and Peter. 45 Philip found Nathanael and said to him, “We have found him about whom Moses in the law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus son of Joseph from Nazareth.” 46 Nathanael said to him, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” John 1:43b-46

Can anything good come from a shithole like Nazareth? Can anything good come from a shithole like Haiti, or El Salvador, or Tanzania, or Chad?

Or, maybe a better question is, can anything good come from a shithole like 5th Avenue, Manhattan?

26219510_10214854747462811_269950785460915258_nThe sad little man serving as President of the United States confirmed everything we already know about him, calling Latin American and African countries “shitholes,” and asking why the people from there are allowed in our country. By doing so, he confirmed that he is completely without empathy or knowledge of anything outside his own tiny bigoted worldview. He is unable to feel respect for any human being who does nor have direct utilitarian value for him in whatever moment he is in. He is unable to imagine why countries like Haiti or El Savador might be so-called “shitholes,” how U.S. and European colonialism and hegemony led directly to the high poverty and abysmal living conditions of people in those places.

And, he is completely unable to imagine anything good coming from those places, other than maybe bananas or chocolate or beaches or something. He has a stunted moral imagination, limited to utilitarian conceptions of money-making potential for himself.

Similarly, in John’s Gospel, Nathanael expresses a sentiment towards small, impoverished places, far from the glitz and glamor of the city. Nazareth is an out-of-the-way village, never mentioned in any ancient sources aside from the Bible. It is, to use the phrase of our President, a “shithole.” The prevailing attitude was that nothing good, certianly not a prophet or messiah would come from a place like Nazareth. Nazareth had value in as far as it could continue proving disposable laborers for Herod’s building projects in nearby Sephoris. Prophets and messiahs would come from Jerusalem or Caesarea Maritima, surely. Never a shithole like Nazareth.

When our president dismisses places like Haiti as “shitholes,” he dismisses a whole history, culture and, most importantly, a people, as unworthy of respect or thought. He helps lay the ideological groundwork that makes those people and places disposable and unworthy of our time or money. He contributes, in short, to dehumanization and hate, things as un-Christlike as you can possibly imagine.

God chose to appear in the world via the shithole of Nazareth, in the form of Jesus of Nazareth. Likewise, God today makes God’s self known in the shitholes of the world, not in the places of power and beauty and prestige. God is found in Haiti. God is found in El Salvador. God is found in Africa, in the form of every human being denigrated and disrespected by the likes of Donald Trump and every one else who thinks those places unworthy. God chooses shitholes as God’s home on earth, rendering them instead holy and beautiful. God eschews the boardroom for the hut.

Maybe, the next time our president wants to throw rocks at the least and the forgotten of the world, he should be mindful of his own glass house.