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What Can The Church Say Today?

Catholic priest in St. Louis defies angry mob, defends statue of St. Louis King of France (Leonitix/Youtube)
A white Evangelical reader writes:
It was a combination of things that culminated with reading your “Republicans Who Deserve to Lose” that brought me some clarity to my growing despair at the utter implosion of Christian leadership and laity with regard to the BLM indoctrination sweeping the nation and beyond. I need to vent but not sure I have many people with ears to hear so sending to you. Even if you don’t read it, I’ve gotten it off my chest.
I’ve been watching how the Christian community is responding to All Things Racist. The first thing was understandable and ignorable: black boxes on my Instagram feed from my church-going friends, a smaller number posting pics of protests they attended (including a prayerful protest my family joined), and more posting their commitment to “listening and learning.” After that came the awkward sermons of acknowledgment and sadness, trying to appease the angriest parishioner without ignoring the gospel. While I waited for some sharp gospel-filled article or a voice of authority on the subject in toto, I was momentarily encouraged when a friend who had been part of a large meeting of mostly black ministers and execs of mercy ministries relayed their hopefulness that “this time is different” re the white churches’ positive response.
But then the arguing started: Christians espousing what amounts to either a “there’s no racism in America anymore” disclaimer or “how dare you question Robin DiAngelo” retort. I kept thinking this was just the emotion of the hour and when reason prevailed, we could have a more nuanced, productive conversation. Then last night I read a missive written by Dr. Tim Keller regarding “The Sin of Racism.” This article was essentially an Intro to Christianity book report on what the bible says about racism (yes, racism exists; yes, it’s a sin; no, it didn’t start in 1619; yes, you should repent and do something about it). I sat there, read it through, read it again, and began to despair. This is the highly regarded, retired pastor of a leading Evangelical church of very smart movers and shakers,  Important People doing Important Things, and this is what that community needs to hear? This is all Christian leaders are capable of? At first I thought it was ghost written, just to get something official from him out there. But the more I’ve thought about it, as I consider the initial responses and subsequent discourse in other Christian circles, I’m beginning to think that this is actually all the general Christian community can handle. We are so badly catechized that we can barely muster basic Christian facts. Another representative sermon this week was encouraging us to look within ourselves for our racism and to consider where we’ve been blind. All very well and good for junior high youth group, I suppose, but, Oh My God, while we’re all on our personal listening tours, Satan has taken the ball, changed the rules, and is heading home with the trophy.
There is no way on earth the church at-large is prepared to respond to the evil cancel-culture religion sweeping the country, which will only exacerbate the race problem that the muddled Christian mind is just now discovering. Right after I read the Keller piece, I read John McWhorter’s latest article, “Kneeling in the Church of Social Justice,” on what he calls the religion of third-wave antiracism. I guess I shouldn’t be surprised that an atheist can recognize a new religion better than the average church-goer, when that church-goer barely registers that they’re in a religion themselves. There should be Christians responding to the DiAngelos from a Christian perspective, they should be talking to politicians with a gospel-centered response to the evil of racism. There should be tangible steps articulated by Christian leaders to help heal our nation. Without the basic tenets of Christianity included in the process going forward, it will not succeed. Instead we get Church 101, and frankly, it’s not encouraging. Those black Christian leaders may need to reassess their hopefulness. I think they’ll have to go it alone and hope it’s not too late by the time the rest of the church catches up.
This inspired me to set down some thoughts of my own about what the church has to offer to guide our thinking about what’s happening now. It’s how I’m using my own faith, and personal experiences, to think through this moment.

Most of you readers know that I was born in the late 1960s, in a small town in the Deep South. I was in the first generation of kids to go through fully integrated public schools. Though we were no longer formally segregated, blacks and whites were de facto segregated, socially, for many years. When I graduated high school in the mid-1980s, the town still had separate proms.

There is no way that any reflective white person who grew up in the South, and who knows anything about its history, can deny the fact of racism — and not only the fact of it, but the fact that its shadow is very long. As I grew older, and learned more of this history, I grew in awe of the spiritual power of the Civil Rights Movement, and of the black pastors who led it. Even before I became a serious Christian myself as an adult, I saw in the writing of Martin Luther King, Jr., and the willingness of the Civil Rights activists to bear suffering without seeking vengeance, something life-changing and holy.

Here is a link to a 1957 sermon by MLK. The whole thing is breathtaking, and piercingly relevant to our crisis. Look at this part:

A second thing that an individual must do in seeking to love his enemy is to discover the element of good in his enemy, and every time you begin to hate that person and think of hating that person, realize that there is some good there and look at those good points which will over-balance the bad points. I’ve said to you on many occasions that each of us is something of a schizophrenic personality. We’re split up and divided against ourselves. And there is something of a civil war going on within all of our lives. There is a recalcitrant South of our soul revolting against the North of our soul. And there is this continual struggle within the very structure of every individual life. There is something within all of us that causes us to cry out with Ovid, the Latin poet, “I see and approve the better things of life, but the evil things I do.” There is something within all of us that causes us to cry out with Plato that the human personality is like a charioteer with two headstrong horses, each wanting to go in different directions. There is something within each of us that causes us to cry out with Goethe, “There is enough stuff in me to make both a gentleman and a rogue.” There is something within each of us that causes us to cry out with Apostle Paul: “I see and approve the better things of life, but the evil things I do.”

So somehow the “isness” of our present nature is out of harmony with the eternal “oughtness” that forever confronts us. And this simply means this: That within the best of us, there is some evil, and within the worst of us, there is some good. When we come to see this, we take a different attitude toward individuals. The person who hates you most has some good in him; even the nation that hates you most has some good in it; even the race that hates you most has some good in it. And when you come to the point that you look in the face of every man and see deep down within him what religion calls “the image of God,” you begin to love him in spite of. No matter what he does, you see God’s image there. There is an element of goodness that he can never slough off. Discover the element of good in your enemy. And as you seek to hate him, find the center of goodness and place your attention there and you will take a new attitude.

I could not in a thousand years have articulated it like that, but this is what I believe, and what I try to live up to, though I often fail. What other choice do we have?

I came to this through my reading of Scripture, through contemplation, and the practice of the Christian faith. You don’t need me to tell you what the Bible has to say about racial hatred. That is — or should be — Christianity 101, as the letter-writer said. The Bible is not going to give us a 50-point plan for Ending Racism In America. For as long as there are human beings, there will be prejudice. We are wired that way. It is impossible for most Americans to detect any difference at all between Serbs and Croats, but these ancient rivals very much see the difference between themselves. I could not detect the difference between an Ulster Protestant and an Ulster Catholic, but men have killed each other over that difference, until fairly recently, and, God forbid, may do again. The black writer Thomas Chatterton Williams today, in a thread about why it makes no sense to capitalize the B in “black” but not the W in “white,” said:

Hell, when I was a kid, I knew that the white people who lived across the creek in East Feliciana Parish were different from us white people in West Feliciana Parish, and that you kind of had to watch out for them. I knew this though nobody ever told me that. The kid growing up in East Feliciana knew the same thing about us. I had no idea why. There was no visible difference between us at all. We were all pretty much of Anglo-Irish stock. A few years ago, reading a history book, I learned that the people who settled West Feliciana were mostly planters from the south of England, sometimes via Virginia and the Carolinas, and the people who settled East Feliciana were mostly smallholders from the north of England. It was Albion’s Seed

My point is, people will always identify differences among each other, and rally around sameness to oppose what is different. I bring it up here simply to say that if we think we are ever going to create a world in which no racial bigotry exists, we are setting ourselves up to fail, and not only to fail, but to be embittered by that failure.

Besides, Christianity teaches that there is no one who is fully righteous, not one. Another way to articulate that point is Solzhenitsyn’s famous line about the line between good and evil running down the center of every human heart. That is the most important thing that the Church can bring to this moment: the capacity of all of us to do evil, and in turn the need all of us have for a Savior, who teaches us the vital importance of mercy, of forgiveness. There is no other way out of the endless cycle of vengeance. Anybody who thinks that financial reparations would settle the bill once and for all is dreaming. It is a bill that cannot be paid, ever.

It is also true, and useful, to remember that because everyone is made in the image of God, and therefore has inalienable dignity, everyone is also susceptible to deformations of virtue — that is to say, sin. This ought to make us all clear-eyed about human nature. American history shows us how some of the most outwardly righteous whites were outrageously wicked to black people, and didn’t perceive the difference. In my own personal experience, as I’ve written here many times, I have learned that some of the men I looked up to as a child — all of them dead and gone now — were almost certainly involved in Klan activity in the 1950s and 1960s. The hearts of men are exceedingly complex, as are their lives. Men who were capable of great good and decency were also capable of the exact opposite. One does not cancel the other. That is a very, very hard lesson to learn, especially in American culture, which insists on simple, clear, moralistic narratives. But it’s true.

This is not a popular truth to say right now, in this time of moral hysteria and purity trials, but it remains true. The color of your skin does not guarantee virtue or vice. Rather, as King taught, and as the Bible teaches, it’s what’s in your heart. Jesus condemned the Pharisees as “whited sepulchres” — tombs that were gleaming on the outside, but that concealed foulness within.

Most of us — black, white, and everybody else — are neither pristine saints nor incorrigible sinners. Power and money only exacerbate the virtues and the vices we already have. I say that because I am well aware of the terrible things white people have done to black people. But I don’t believe that being black makes you pure of heart either. Al Sharpton and his thuggish followers helped lead protests against me in 2001. I received multiple death threats, and had to hide in my apartment for over a week. My bosses at the newspaper, who had assigned me to write the column that set Sharpton off, ended up rattled, and saying publicly, “We support Rod Dreher’s right to his opinion.” I saw up close and very personal the power of racial demagoguery in the hands of one of its most skilled practitioners. When your photo appears in the paper with your column, and you have people leaving you messages on your voice mail saying, “We know which door you come out of in your building, and we’re going to come up behind you and cut your motherfu*cking throat, and you won’t even know what hit you” — well, you pay attention to things like that. Riding on the subway was terrifying for the two days this went on, until my bosses told me to stay at home and don’t leave the house.

I bring this incident up in this context not to compare that unpleasantness for me with the murderous racial terrorism that whites for centuries inflicted on blacks in this country. I bring it up only to make a point about how a mob ginned up on race hatred works. Sharpton, as everybody has known for a long time, has been very good at this in New York — and I have no illusions about it. It’s human nature. White demagogues did the same thing in the segregated South. This is not a vice particular to black people or white people. It’s people. It’s the mob. The same mob that demanded the death of Jesus, and the release of Barabbas. The same mob that any one of us, whatever our race, could find ourselves standing in, pumping our fists and shouting, under the right circumstances. All of us could be tempted to pick up the stones and hurl them at a great sinner. Stones come in many shapes and sizes. If you don’t think you could brain a sinner with one, or egg on the stone-throwers, then you don’t know your own heart as well as you should.

These are some of the things the Church has to say to the public right now. We are all under judgment. We are all under mercy. There is none righteous, no, not one. But the One who was and is righteous — through obedience to Him, we can be healed.

Racial hatred and tribal violence is endemic to the human condition. Cain slew Abel, and it’s been downhill from there. If you want to see the particular horror of living in an “eye for an eye” society, with no way of stopping blood feuds and vendettas, read this about modern Albania. And here, from 1999, is a longer piece in The New York Times about the 500-year-old culture of blood feuding in Albania, and how it imprisons the present and the future in the past. Excerpts:

I have come to believe that a key ingredient of the Balkan poison — perhaps the key ingredient — is a different kind of schism, one that largely disappeared from the rest of Europe a half-century ago: that between urban and rural, between village and city. In contrast to all but the most isolated pockets elsewhere in Europe, the gulf of experience between the city and the village in the Balkans represents an awful chasm. The cities of Sarajevo and Belgrade are — or were, until only yesterday — emblems of European sophistication and cultural fusion. The typical Balkan village, on the other hand, has always been a hard and pitiless place, one where ancient feuds are nursed and passed on for generations, where change and outside influence is deeply mistrusted. What’s more, so ingrained is the Balkan village’s medieval code of honor and loyalty — and this is true for Muslim and Christian villages alike — that even many of those who have escaped its grip and become city dwellers seem to return to its thrall in moments of crisis.

This was true, I think, of Radovan Karadzic, a university-educated psychiatrist — a Modern Man — who grew up in a tiny mountain hamlet so grim and remote that it essentially consisted of his own extended family. Only slightly larger was the home village of Karadzic’s military commander — and fellow indicted war criminal — Gen. Ratko Mladic. Indeed, when looking at the backgrounds of those most responsible for the Balkan slaughters of this decade, including both Serbia’s Slobodan Milosevic and Croatia’s Franjo Tudjman, who died earlier this month, you can’t help noticing that all of them came from villages or small towns. When crisis came — and the economic stagnation and political fracturing that befell Yugoslavia in the 1980’s was surely a crisis — it was to the primitive laws and passions of the village that these men reverted.

More:

Communism never actually modernized Albania, but merely put the old ways, the village ways, in a kind of deep freeze — much as Tito did in Yugoslavia following World War II. The collapse of the state and the national economy has led many Albanians to once again openly embrace the traditional laws and loyalties of the village. These are spelled out in the kanun (pronounced ka-NOON), a book of rules and oaths. By the dictates of the kanun — there are actually several versions, most of which came into being centuries ago — one’s primary allegiance is to clan and community, not to the state. In accordance with this allegiance, taking revenge in order to defend the honor of one’s family is not only permissible but also a sacred duty. Of course, unlike medieval times, now that duty can be carried out with modern weaponry like assault rifles.

And:

At the northern end of the valley, a narrow path leads over open fields to three stone houses. One belongs to Leka Rrushkadoli, the killer of Shtjefen Lamthi. Since the murder, his house has sat empty. Just up the slope from Leka’s house is that of his 35-year-old cousin, Martin. Martin and I sat on his stone terrace one afternoon, eating olives and sipping raki, the homemade Albanian version of grappa, as his half-naked children scrambled about in the warm sunshine. But every few moments Martin turned to glance down the path. Caught in the act, he gave an embarrassed smile.

”Even sitting here,” he explained, ”sometimes it makes me nervous.” He grabbed the arm of his youngest child, a 3-year-old boy. ”Even this one, he has to worry, because after all this time we still don’t know the terms of the blood.”

Since the murder in Rus Square, Martin and all the other males of the extended Rrushkadoli family — some 50 just in the Thethi environs — have been ”locked,” confined to their houses as they wait for the Lamthi’s to take their revenge. In that time, Martin has barely left his tiny patch of land; when he does, he always carries his Kalashnikov assault rifle with him. ”We are all afraid, just waiting for the peace to be done or. . . . ” He glanced down the path again. ”Well, if they come for me and I kill them first, then I am free. By the kanun, they can’t come for me a second time.”

Taking in the limited view from the terrace — a few fields and then the enclosing wall of cliffs — I tried to imagine what it would be like to stare at that, and little else, for more than a year. When I brought this up with Martin, he seemed puzzled. ”It’s dull,” he finally managed, ”but I am luckier than most. My relatives in Shkoder, they can’t even go outside their houses.” Despite a life that amounts to a form of captivity, one in which death may be just around the corner, he has no anger toward Leka. ”Leka had to do it to restore the family honor,” he said. ”He had no choice.”

We are reverting to this primitive culture today — despite our wealth and sophistication. It doesn’t involve blood yet, just “cancellation,” and fear of cancellation. Everybody is afraid. The Gospel speaks to this fear! It offers a way out, and a way forward!

But who is bold enough to preach that Gospel today? Church 101, as the white Evangelical reader calls it, is like trying to put out a brush fire with a squirt bottle.

Those are my ideas about what the Church (= all the Christian churches) can uniquely bring to this angry discussion. I welcome yours.

about the author

Rod Dreher is a senior editor at The American Conservative. He has written and edited for the New York Post, The Dallas Morning News, National Review, the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, the Washington Times, and the Baton Rouge Advocate. Rod’s commentary has been published in The Wall Street Journal, Commentary, the Weekly Standard, Beliefnet, and Real Simple, among other publications, and he has appeared on NPR, ABC News, CNN, Fox News, MSNBC, and the BBC. He lives in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, with his wife Julie and their three children. He has also written four books, The Little Way of Ruthie Leming, Crunchy Cons, How Dante Can Save Your Life, and The Benedict Option.

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