Saturday, December 22, 2018

Reading on Race in 2018

At the beginning of the year, I made two personal commitments concerning the subject of race and racism: (1) to read more deeply about race, racism, and racial reconciliation and (2) to not "look away" when I see something offensive and odious in history or the current situation. It is much too easy to skip over problems that seem intractable, convicting, or painful, but our Lord says that the truth will set us free.

This is a summary of the highlights of my reading (which also branched out to listening to good resources, as well) with some bits and pieces copied from my reviews.

Under Our Skin by Ben Watson

I started out on a high point with this professional football player's excellent both/and treatment of the current unsatisfactory situation and also the heart of the problem which is the problem of the human heart. Watson writes, “What is under our skin, and under the skin problem in America, is a spiritual problem. Every time we point at someone else or at an entire race–reducing them to a single story, diminishing them by stereotypes and assumptions–we overlook our own failure. When we point outside ourselves and say, ‘You should have done this...’ or ‘You were wrong to...’ we miss the point. When we focus on another person’s skin, we miss the reality of our own sin” (pg. 188-189).And he does an excellent job of pointing us toward the answer to our sin problem, too–the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ. At the same time, he doesn't give any simplistic answers or let anyone off of the hook for working towards solutions.

Why We Can't Wait by Martin Luther King, Jr.

I wanted to focus on some primary sources this year, and who better to read than Dr. King himself? This book tells the story of the Civil Rights Movement, especially the events of the year 1963. It centers on the events in Birmingham and includes King’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.” King explains what their aims were, what philosophy guided them, what tactics of direct action through nonviolence they employed, and what the results were. He does a masterful job of carrying the reader along, reasonably dealing with the objections that naturally arise, and persuading, always persuading.

I struggled as I read it to know what I would have done if I had lived in those days and in those places. My best guess (and maybe I still give myself too much credit) is that I would have been a passive bystander, sympathetic but too hesitant to be of much good. King speaks directly to folks like that, and I found myself looking at my shoes, shuffling around, trying not to be ashamed.

Douglass was, amazingly, the most photographed man of his time.

The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass Written by Himself

Douglass’s autobiography is hard to read and hard to put down. His commitment to minceless truth-telling of the disturbing realities of American chattel slavery makes reading it painful. It would be far easier to look away. But the writing is straightforward, clear, open-eyed. I was drawn into his story and was surprised when it was over so soon.

The Gospel, Compassion and Justice, and the EFCA

In February, our association of churches held an entire theology conference around the theme of the gospel, compassion, and justice. Racism was a major theme, and we were even treated with two talks by John Perkins. I was privileged to attend and listen to all of the lectures which are now available for free online. The whole thing is worthwhile, but if you only have time for one, make sure you listen to Jarvis Williams on "The Cross and Racial Reconciliation" which goes deeply into the biblical and theological truths that are at stake.

After the conference, the primary conveners Greg Strand and Alejandro Mandes talked about what was discussed and what kind of next steps are needed.

Slavery by Another Name: The Re-Enslavement of Black Americans from the Civil War to World War II by Douglas A. Blackmon

I’m ashamed that I didn’t know hardly anything about the shameful forced labor of African Americans from the Civil War to the second World War. I knew that Reconstruction was incredibly hard and that sharecropping was backbreaking work for very little if any profit. I knew that prejudice continued unabated, that blacks were hated, lynched, disenfranchised , segregated, and mistreated. But I did not know they were re-enslaved in massive numbers through fraudulent, sketchy, brutal and high-handedly evil practices. Even worse, I didn’t know how hard these cases were to prosecute and to reach any semblance of justice. Honestly, I didn't want to know this, but I'm glad I do now. It helps to know the truth, and it's encouraging to see how far we have come, realizing just how short the time really is. Blackmon has done readers a great service.

I never wrote a review of this one. I'm still trying to understand what justice actually is, and this short introduction to the topic by a Harvard professor explains how different schools of philosophical thought have understood it. I made some progress, but I didn't emerge with a solid definition.

Thabiti Anyabwile Adams Lectures at Southeastern Theological Seminary

More helpful for me in getting at biblical understanding of justice were these 3 lectures by Thabiti Anyabwile at SEBTS which I listened to while stacking wood for the our outdoor furnace. Anyabwile is a prolific author and writes in a pointed straightforward way on these issues. He was recently interviewed at Christianity Today on the subject of the controversial Statement on Social Justice and the Gospel which was released this Fall [highlights summarized here]. I don't always agree with (or understand) Anyabwile, but I'm always helped by his gracious yet relentless gospel-centered approach to getting at the truth.

MLK500: Gospel Reflections from the Mountaintop

This Summer, I also listened to nearly all of the talks from this special MLK event convened by the ERLC and TGC (so many initials!) in Memphis in April. I was struck by the earnestness and hope that was present but also by the underlying dissatisfaction with the current relationship between evangelicalism and people of color. (To learn more about that, I recommend listening to this Cultivated interview with Lecrae and Mike Cosper. And also to catch what John Piper was saying about this stuff, too. Piper's thinking about racism and systematic racism has been very formative for me. If you are wondering if social justice is a gospel issue, I think Kevin DeYoung is helpful here.)

The Civil War and Reconstruction Era, 1845-1877 lectures by David W. Blight

This Summer, I downloaded this open course from Yale of lectures delivered by historian David Blight back in 2008. I had listened to these a decade ago while traveling to and from my classes at CCEF. It's riveting stuff. Blight is an excellent teacher on top of being a Civil War expert.

It seems to me that we are still coming to terms with the American Civil War. I know that I am rediscovering how awful it truly was and how awful its true cause was. Blight explores the many facets of its origins, key persons, turning points, and fallout. I'm almost done listening to the 27 hours again, and things are much clearer now for me.

Blight doesn't do a lot with the theology at conflict in the Civil War, so the next book I hope to read is The Civil War as a Theological Crisis by evangelical historian Mark Noll. I hope to get it for Christmas (hint, hint for any family out there reading this).

The Killer Angels by Michael Shaara

To get a sense of the horror of the war, I read the historical fiction The Killer Angels by Michael Shaara. It recounts the events of Gettysburg from the perspectives of the commanders on both sides. I couldn't put it down.

Serendipitously, at the same time I reached the part in the lectures by Blight at Yale on Reconstruction, The Southern Baptist Seminary released a report on slavery and racism in the history of SBTS. The report is a model of truth-telling and not looking away from hard realities. I'm thankful for Albert Mohler and his leadership in commissioning this report and leading in the lament that appropriately accompanies it. For me, it was fascinating to read about SBTS's missteps in parallel with learning about the broader historical events.

Uncle Tom's Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe

I'm finishing up 2018 by reading the classic abolitionist novel Uncle Tom's Cabin. I don't think I've ever read it before, yet everything in it is familiar. (Perhaps it was read to me when I was young?) Stowe's sweetly subversive storytelling grabs the reader and forces them to make eyes-wide-open moral choices. I shouldn't be surprised at how good it is, seeing as it was the bestselling novel of the 19th century, but it's a real page-turner.

What amazes me most as I read it is that it was written before the Civil War. Stowe doesn't know what is going to happen in American history after she writes this. The closest thing I can ever remember reading is Twain's Huckleberry Finn. When you read Huck Finn, the story takes place twenty years before the war, but it was written twenty years afterwards. So there is some luxury of historical perspective. But this was written before the war, and is, in fact, one of its human prompters. Stowe isn't just sitting on a tinderbox. She is helping to write the tinderbox into existence.

2019 and Beyond

Of course, while I've been focused on this subject quite a bit in 2018, I've only begun to scratch the surface, and I'm not done learning and hopefully growing. I want to learn to be a man of God who is not afraid of the truth and committed to living in love and pursuing justice.

"He has showed you, O man, what is good. And what does the LORD require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God" (Micah 6:8).