Neither Saviors Nor Demons, But Neighbors — Just Neighbors
A long time ago, I was in a city called Bukavu preparing to serve as a Peace Corps volunteer in a country that was then called Zaire and is now known as the Democratic Republic of the Congo. On a weekend walk into the city, I walked past a church with some other trainees. It had a statue of Jesus on the cross. It was a memorable statue because of how white Jesus was. The Jesus who hung on that cross was no olive-skinned Jew from first century Jerusalem, but a whiter-than-white, almost ghostly apparition of the redeemer.
I have since concluded, albeit not with 100 percent certainty, that the crucifix was put in place by Belgian priests who had colonized the Congo in the previous century and who wanted to make sure that their parishioners knew who and what they were worshipping — an all-powerful white messiah with magical powers.
The message offered with that statute was very clear. If people wanted to stay on the good side of this messiah, they needed to submit to the colonial rule imposed by the white Belgians who were known to chop limbs off villagers who had failed to provide their quota of rubber to their overseers. I was no liberation theologian and hadn’t even heard of James Cone, but I had a pretty good idea that deploying an image of Jesus like that in the Congo was no innocent thing.
Several months later, after recovering from a terrible bout of gastroenteritis which had me doubled over in pain until a fellow volunteer mercifully shot me in the rear end with a heavy dose of a morphine derivative and took me to the hospital almost 200 kilometers away, I was brought into the back room of a Zairian Presbyterian church down the street from my house. (Having grown up a Protestant in the U.S., I went to a Protestant church in Zaire.) I sat on the mud floor with several pregnant and elderly women while the pastor prayed for our wellbeing during our times of trial. I couldn’t understand much of his prayer, for he was praying in a local language different from Tshiluba, the lingua franca I had been taught in training. (But let’s face it, my command of Tshiluba wouldn’t have been up to the task of deciphering his prayer if he had been praying in that language.)
Still, I knew pretty well that when he said my name — Kazadi — and placed his right hand on my head and said the word Nzambi (“God”) he was summoning down a heavenly blessing on me and I was thankful.
I needed it.
I was a naïve white kid who was in way over his head in the middle of Africa, exposed to suffering that I had no real ability to fix and surrounded by people who thought by virtue of my white skin that I had that special something they needed to solve their problems. I was in desperate need of the pastor’s proclamation of God’s restorative love for humanity.
The process of smashing this delusion of my being a white savior — a delusion I shared — was a profoundly painful process for both me and the Zairians I had come to help. That pastor’s petition for God’s healing on my behalf was not answered right away. Things got a lot worse in the months ahead.
Nevertheless, I have, in the years since, looked back on that moment as one of many crucial beginnings of a conversion experience that continues — by fits and starts — to this day.
The pastor saw me for what I was, a young man in a tough situation. He did not view me as a magical savior, nor did he view me as a reincarnation of King Leopold, the Belgian monarch whose minions had enslaved and murdered his fellow Africans in the 19th century.
It was a miracle of seeing. And by some miracle, I saw his seeing.
These days, the image of a white man being blessed and prayed for by a black pastor seems laughable, contemptible even. Ta-Nehisi Coates and other African American writers have portrayed white people about the same way that antisemites have traditionally written about Jews — as irredeemable sources and beneficiaries of cosmological evil, personally responsible for the suffering of their neighbors even if the causal chain between them and this suffering is counterfactual, torturous, and convoluted.
For example, in his book, Between the World and Me, Coates recounts the story of a black police officer working for a police department in Prince George’s county, Maryland, a black majority jurisdiction, shooting and killing Prince Jones. Jones was one of Coates’s fellow students from Howard University. The headline to one newspaper account of the tragedy declared, “Black Victim, Black Cop, Black County.”
“The officer who killed Jones was black. The politicians who empowered this officer to kill were black,” Coates writes. How does Coates connect the dots between the actions of a black police officer working for a police department managed by black politicians with white racism? By declaring that the “officer who killed Prince Jones, like all the others who regards us so warily, was the sword of the American citizenry” and that “the problem with the police is not that they are fascist pigs but that our country is ruled by majoritarian pigs.”
With his vague and incendiary logic, Coates can admit that in Prince George’s county, the majority of voters and politicians — like the police officer who fired the bullet — are themselves black and still claim the fault for Prince Jones’s death lies with white people, or more accurately, “people who think they are white.”
Coates is not alone. He and other writers, such as Nikole-Hannah Jones and Otis Moss, III (who lie by omission about the United States in their respective versions of its history) delineate a singular and unbreakable causal chain between black suffering and white guilt in modern America. They do this in part by promoting a counterfactual narrative of police officers indiscriminately shooting African American men in our cities to do it. Most of these shootings and killings have taken place in Democratic run cities. Some of these cities have black majorities, black police chiefs, and white progressive or black mayors. But by Coates’s logic, these shootings are the fault of white majoritarian pigs.
This demonizing narrative is dishonest and unfair, but that hasn’t stopped significant numbers of white people from embracing its tenets, declaring for example, that “our cities are filled with racist power-hungry cops that kill black Americans at an alarming rate.” (This allegation, bereft of any evidence, is a direct quote from a comment left on my Facebook page a few months back. I see comments like this, and worse, on social media a lot these days, most of them from virtue-signaling white folks who live in mostly white suburbs with Black Lives Matter signs on every corner.)
In the narrative told by these writers, broadcast by activists from Black Lives Matter and internalized and acted upon by the white radicals in ANTIFA, white people have become the inverse of the magical white savior depicted on that church in Zaire thirty-three years ago — all powerful demons responsible for all manner of suffering over which they have no direct control.
Some white intellectuals, particularly those who run institutions of higher education and liberal protestant churches in the U.S., internalize this message and use their privileged positions to pass off the shame and loathing onto the lower-status white members of the communities they lead. Embracing this crippling self-loathing has become a requirement for white people to remain members in good standing in these communities. Career advancement is predicated on toeing the party line of critical race theory which portrays white people as the eternal oppressors and blacks as perpetual victims.
Fortunately, there is a growing number of black commentators who are willing to confront the totalizing and demonizing narrative told about white people in the United States and about the republic itself.
These commentators include Wilfred Reilly, a political scientist at Kentucky State University, who has challenged the narrative of white cops indiscriminately killing black men in the United States in Taboo: 10 Facts [You Can’t Talk About] (Regnery, 2020). In this text, Reilly declares that, “Simply put, there is no epidemic of specifically black people being shot by police. However, as authors dating back at least to Aristotle have noted, things which do not exist — Greek gods, for example — often have as great an impact on society as those which do.”
And the impact of this false story, which Reilly describes as part of a “Continuing Oppression Narrative” (or CON for short), is not good: “The most obvious real-world effect of the fictional BLM narrative has been that cops are doing less police work and are retreating from the effective broken windows policing that so dramatically lowered crime rates in the early 1990s, due almost entirely to fears of being labeled racist. In my home city of Chicago, discretionary police stops dropped by an astonishing 90 percent between 2015 and 2016 as, to quote a widely circulated DNAinfo headline, “Gun Violence Skyrocket[ed].’”
The false narrative of cops indiscriminately shooting black men is putting black lives at risk, but that hasn’t stopped guilty white folk from repeating the story, now has it?
Why? Because guilty white virtue signalers are all about the feels, not the reals.
Then there is Jason D. Hill, a philosophy professor at DePaul University, who has argued that the United States is the scene of three foundings, the first being the establishment of the republic on moral principles in the 1700s, the second being the American Civil War which brought an end to slavery, an institution that violated those principles, and the third being the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s, which promotes a political solution to the moral challenges still facing the country. Hill leaves open the possibility that the country may need another founding and portrays the country’s citizens as up to the task of reform. Apparently, in optimistic Hill’s view, the fact that the country is not perfect does not justify its demolition. (Somebody tell ANTIFA.)
Hill is relentless in his criticism of Ta-Nehisi Coates declaring, “that he has emerged as the most racist and misanthropic public intellectual of any race in the 21st century, whose hatred of life and of white people is veiled under a pseudo-sentimental appeal to some nebulous form of struggle.” Hill is equally brutal in his assessment of white liberals who view themselves as white saviors for downtrodden African Americans, declaring, “If your existence is predicated on relieving my suffering, you need me to suffer indefinitely.”
Very tough stuff.
Along these lines, Hill has also declared in his 2018 text, We Have Overcome: An Immigrant’s Letter to The American People, “that Coates and other black writers in the U.S., “posit a cast of black sufferers who eternally remind a certain type of white reader of the centrality of the unending potency of his or her white agency and the never-ending destructive power it wields over black victims.”
Out of Exile Through Covenant Fidelity
If the events of 2020 have demonstrated anything, it is that the United States and its citizens are in desperate need of old-new habits of living together that if embraced by enough people, could presage a fourth founding of the American republic. We need a great awakening in which people from different communities can look at and deal with one another neither as saviors, nor demons, but as neighbors — just neighbors.
One place to look for clues on how this can be done is Race and Covenant: Recovering the Religious Roots for American Reconciliation. This book, published by the Acton Institute in 2020 and edited by Gerald McDermott, provides readers with a sense of what Americans must do as a people to fix the problems we face as a nation.
The underlying message in this collection of 14 essays is that viewing the American republic and its history through the lens of covenant theology can provide a path out of the exile that we currently endure. The model for this restoration, is obviously enough, the covenant between God and Israel.
Viewing American history through the lens of covenant theology offers America a path to restoration that its critics often deny it. As Joshua Berman puts it in his essay, “Covenant, Race, and the Nations in the Hebrew Bible,” religious communities must “lead the way to demonstrating how our relationship with the Almighty can serve as a resource to recalibrate our relationship with one another.”
Identity politics, which promotes a permanent victim mentality, as described by Rabbi Mitchel Rocklin in his essay, “Exile and Return in Israel and America,” is an obstacle to the reconciliation and covenant renewal. It is also contributes to antisemitism, he writes.
The perpetrators of a permanent victim mentality in the United States tend to hate Israel. Their anti-Semitism is bound together with the refusal of the Jew — including both liberals and conservatives — to become victims. For we are not victims but dignified human beings. To insist on remaining victims is to not only to hinder our own development, but to crush all hope of reconciliation through changes in our national covenants. Because we can see the repentant descendants of perpetrators as individual human personalities and not as simply members of a transgenerational tribe, we can find it easier to reconcile with those who reject the evils of their predecessors.
Historian Mark Tooley addresses the issue of forgiveness in his essay, “National Covenant in American Churches,” declaring that “Our nation is routinely excoriated by academic and media elites for alleged racism, homophobia, and imperialism. But for these critics there is no atonement, since there is no personal deity in the new popular religion of secular culture — only impersonal forces of progressive history that judge and condemn but never forgive.”
Christians who believe in the American project, Tooley writes, “need to discover a deity who offers both judgement and mercy.” Currently, the U.S. is “awash in racial grievance, anguish and guilt — whose roots are often justified by history but for which no healing solutions are typically offered.”
One of the more bracing essays in this collection is titled, “Martin Luther King, Jr. and the National Covenant.” In this essay, James Patterson, associate professor at Ave Maria University, describes how MLK used the logic of covenant to challenge white people in the United States to confront the sins perpetrated against blacks. “When he called for Americans to love one another, he was calling them to keep their covenant with God.” Relying on the writings of another contributor to this collection, Jacqueline Rivers (see below), Patterson declares that because of failings in his personal life, “King was a hero for civil rights, a powerful preacher of the gospel, and a grievous sinner,” adding that for all the good he did, “he should not be canonized, but neither should he be thrown out of the history of the civil rights movement. Instead, his example should be a warning against idolizing political figures.”
Another essay of note is “Undermining the Covenant of Marriage: Racial Injustice and the Black Family,” by Jacqueline C., Rivers, executive director and senior fellow for social science and policy at the Seymour Institute for Black Church and Policy Studies. Rivers argues that “a complex interaction of structure and culture” has damaged the institution of marriage in African American society with negative impacts on the welfare of black children in American society.
Clearly, part of the problem is rooted in the history of slavery, which affected the ability of blacks to form permanent bonds of marriage by keeping spouses separated from one another. Slavery also allowed for the rape of black women by white slave owners which further undermined marital bonds between man and wife. These tragedies affected the pattern of relationships for future generations of African Americans.
The problems continued into the 20th century. Rivers reports that African Americans — whose families were suffering the after-effects of slavery — were denied access to “the most important developments that created the white middle class” because “the New Deal was deliberately limited by racists Southern Democrats in Congress.” She adds that “the labor categories in which blacks were most heavily represented, domestic workers and farm labors were excluded from social security and unemployment insurance.”
And when the GI Bill was unfairly administered by state and local officials, blacks were often excluded from its benefits which included housing and education benefits, Rivers reports. “The result of this combination of systemic and ad hoc exclusion was that African Americans were vastly disadvantaged economically” and marriage stability in this community was badly affected.
The way forward, Rivers argues, is to reduce mass incarceration and come up with alternative sentencing for non-violent crime, job training programs and improved educational opportunities for black boys. Non-governmental actions, such as increased church attendance will also result in more stable families, Rivers states.
“With the right social policy levers and church-based action, it is possible to begin the long, slow process of shifting marriage patterns in the black community and in the United States more generally,” Rivers writes. (On this score, Rivers’s essay is a welcome challenge to the Black Lives Matter movement which on a now deleted webpage expressed a desire to “disrupt” the nuclear family, because most of the goods humans need to flourish — as children and adults — are provided in the context of nuclear families.)
In a bracing, hold-onto-your-seat essay titled “Racial Supremacy and Covenantal Reconciliation,” political scientist Carol Swain challenges the “divisive back-and-forth weaponized dialogue that harms our nation and weakens any possibility for racial reconciliation.” She posits that “rediscovering the Golden Rule, to do unto others as you would have them do unto you, would go a long way toward bringing understanding to people of goodwill regardless of their race or religious background.”
Swain makes a number of hugely important points in her essay, but one of the most compelling is the importance of individual autonomy. Individuals, she writes, “make choices about how they are going to spend their time and money. What they believe about the world influences their actions, and if they believe the wrong story, it can limit their opportunities.” Blacks are absolved from responsibility for their lives, Swain argues, by those who encourage young people to “constantly look in the rearview mirror to explain the unequal results we see in the world. They presume that all whites are recipients of undeserved privileges that enable them to benefit from the sins of their ancestors. This is usually untrue, but it provides a convenient excuse for those on the left.”
In his essay, “Exile and Return from Slavery,” Glenn C. Loury, Professor of the Social Sciences, economics and international and public affairs at Brown University, argues that American national salvation “lies mainly in our redefining identities, not in redistributing resources.” By dividing ourselves into distinct races, “we have deceived ourselves into ignoring the social obligations of the covenant” that forms the basis of the American republic.
In a searing passage, Loury declares “The plain fact is that black Americans are vastly overrepresented among those suffering the maladies and afflictions of social marginality, however measured.” He continues:
Some districts in the middle of our great cities, occupied almost exclusively by blacks, are among the most miserable, violent, and despairing places in the modern, industrial world. The prisons are filled to overflowing with black men. Blacks as a group experience lower life expectancies, higher infant mortality rates, less academic achievement, higher poverty rates, and greater unemployment than do other Americans. Historical trend lines give us no reason to anticipate that these disparities will attenuate in the near future.
In light of this reality, Loury argues that it’s time to “entertain the possibility that the civil rights revolution, so welcome and so overdue, did not fully vindicate the virtue of our democratic traditions. A great deal of work remains. Responsibility for doing this work falls upon all Americans.” (Emphasis added.) The work Loury describes is the creation of social capital or the creation of “informal resources that individuals require to develop their human potential.”
The problem is that while this problem is the responsibility of all Americans to fix, much of the work will have to be done by African Americans themselves because, “no one can come into our intimate gender relations, into the families and neighborhoods where our children are being raised, so as to reorder those cultural institutions in such a manner as would be more developmentally constructive.”
That being said, Loury writes, it “is morally superficial in the extreme to argue, as many conservatives have done, that ‘those people should get their acts together.’” The American people,” Loury writes, “bear collective responsibility for the form and texture” of their social relations.” Some folks supported Great Society policies that made the problems worse in the inner cities and others “advocated for tough on crime policies that led to a massive growth of a prison industrial complex that adversely affected our fellow citizens. And then there are sins of omission, like not trying as Christians to discuss race and partner with black churches,” Loury writes.
Loury writes Americans cannot ignore the behavioral problems of the African American community in our cities and that “we should discuss and react to them as if we were talking about our own children, neighbors and friends, which is to say: This is an American tragedy. It is a national, not merely a communal disgrace.”
Identity politics is not the way forward, Loury declares. Fixing the disgraceful conditions in our urban centers, Loury writes, can only be done with the creation of a political majority. “And, if American recent political history teaches us anything, it is that such majorities cannot be built in an explicitly racial manner,” Loury writes. “Therefore identity politics, where Americans are defined and typecast by race, is not the answer. The majorities we need must be built across racial cultural lines through cultural centers such as synagogues and churches.”
Bracing and demanding commentary such as this could not come at a better time. Critical race theorists may not have figured it out, but they are operating in an environment where promoting feelings of grievance on the part of African Americans and eliciting feelings of guilt on the part of white Americans is not the winning strategy it once was.
Viewing modern-day white Americans as the reincarnation of King Leopold makes about as much sense as it does for whites themselves to view themselves as white saviors. The way forward is not through reification, rooted in counterfactual historical narratives and symbolism, but through neighborliness, just neighborliness and the miracle of seeing.