Thursday, December 4, 2008

NCC Speech from November 2008

I believe this is an important statement:

Social Ethics for Social Justice: Renewing an Ecumenical Tradition
By Gary Dorrien

Ed. Note. Gary Dorrien is the Reinhold Niebuhr Professor of Social Ethics at Union Theological Seminary and Professor of Religion at Columbia University in New York. These remarks were made before the annual General Assembly of the National Council of Churches and Church World Service in Denver, Nov, 11, 2008.

It is a singular honor and delight for me to address this assembly. I’ve been asked to relate the social ethical heritage of ecumenical American Christianity to our current social and political situation, and on both sides of that assignment I will emphasize two subjects: economic justice and racial justice.

The idea that Christianity has a regenerative social mission is as old as the biblical message of letting justice flow like a river, pouring yourself out for the poor and vulnerable, and attending to what Jesus called “the weightier matters of the law,” justice and mercy. In this country, the great evangelical and liberal movements of the 18th and 19th centuries were rife with temperance, anti-slavery, anti-war, and other social causes. Throughout American history, many American churches have taken for granted that the church must be a steward of a good society.

But the Progressive era introduced something new to American Christianity. In the early 1880s, proponents of what came to be called “the social gospel” founded what came to be called “social ethics” and the first institutions of ecumenical social Christianity. It was not a coincidence that the social gospel, social ethics, socialism, Social Darwinism, and sociology all arose at the same time; also corporate capitalism, the trade unions, the ecumenical movement, and the term “social justice.” For social ethics was essentially a departmental subset of the social gospel; the social gospel was based on a doctrine of social salvation; social salvation employed the sociological idea that there is such a thing as social structure, which gave rise to the concept of social justice; the rise of industrialism raised new social issues for the churches; the churches created new ecumenical organizations; and the social gospelers had to figure out how to say yes to Darwinism as science while saying no to an ascending Social Darwinism. Only with the social gospel movement did the church begin to say that it had a mission to transform the structures of society in the direction of social justice.

The social gospelers that history remembered were bracing personalities with a missionary spirit who reached the general public: Walter Rauschenbusch, Washington Gladden, Jane Addams, Richard Ely, John Ryan, and Josiah Strong. They got to be renowned by preaching the social gospel as a form of public homiletics. The social gospelers that founded social ethics were not as famous, because they operated primarily in the academy: Francis Greenwood Peabody, William Jewett Tucker, J. H. W. Stuckenberg. They urged that society is a whole that includes an ethical dimension; thus there needed to be something like social ethics, a self-standing discipline of ethically grounded social science. This discipline would be a central feature of liberal arts and seminary education. It would succeed the old moral philosophy, replacing an outmoded commonsense realism with a socially oriented idealism.

Intellectually the founders of social ethics belonged to the American generation that reconciled Christianity to Darwinism, accepted the historical critical approach to the Bible, and discovered the power of social ideas. They believed that modern scholarship had rediscovered the social meaning of Christianity in the kingdom-centered religion of Jesus. As early advocates of sociology, they also believed in the disciplinary unity of social science and its ethical character. In the social gospel the world became the subject of redemption. If there was such a thing as social structure, salvation had to have a social dimension; personal salvation and social salvation were intrinsically interlinked.

Francis Greenwood Peabody was an apostle of this theme and the originator of social ethics. His father was a prominent Boston Unitarian pastor; thus, Peabody grew up knowing Harvard professors, whom he found to be a rather stuffy, insular bunch, and who didn’t improve after he enrolled at Harvard. As far as Peabody could tell, Harvard professors prized their detachment from the world as a virtue. They bored their students with deadly recitations, took no interest in anything besides themselves and their texts, and barely acknowledged that a school must have students.

Proceeding to the Divinity School, Peabody found it equally depressing. He later described his three years of divinity training as “a disheartening experience of uninspiring study and retarded thought.” In theory Harvard Divinity School was nondenominational, not Unitarian, but in reality a fuddy-duddy brand of Unitarian orthodoxy prevailed. Historical criticism was practiced sparingly, philosophical idealism was spurned, classroom lectures seemed purposely dull, and theology and ethics were taught as subjects of “doctrinal desiccation.” Reaching for the strongest way of conveying a bad memory, Peabody recalled: “The fresh breeze of modern thought rarely penetrated the lecture-rooms…I cannot remember attaining in seven years of Harvard classrooms anything that could be fairly described as an idea.”

That was slightly hyperbolic, but it conveys the feeling that launched Peabody into social ethics. As a graduate student he was struck with an idea—that a religious philosophy might be validated by its history. One might derive a religious outlook from an inductive study of human nature, ethical activity, and the work of reformist institutions.

Peabody expected to preach and write about such things as a pastor, not an academic. Following his father’s footsteps, he was called to a flagship Unitarian parish in Cambridge. But Peabody suffered from persistent illness, and after six years, he concluded that ministry was too strenuous for him. Sadly, he resigned himself to a lower, less important, less demanding vocation: teaching at Harvard Divinity School. There he founded social ethics, just as the social gospel movement was taking off.

The social gospel happened for a confluence of reasons that impacted each other. It was fed by the wellsprings of eighteenth century Enlightenment humanism, the nineteenth century Home Missions movement, and the post-Civil War activism of the evangelical and liberal anti-slavery movements. It took root as a response to the corruption of the Gilded Age and the rise of industrial society, goaded by writers such as Edward Bellamy, Stephen Colwell, Richard Ely, and Henry Demarest Lloyd. It took inspiration from the Christian Socialist movement in England. It rode on the back of a rising sociological consciousness and literature. 6

Above all, the social gospel was a response to a burgeoning labor movement. Trade unionists blasted the churches for doing nothing for poor and working class people. Christian leaders realized it was pointless to defend Christianity if the churches took an indefensible attitude on this issue. To change American society, the social sciences and Christian ethics had to be fused together, mobilizing the churches to effect progressive social change.

The social gospel movement had many faults and limitations. Most of it was sentimental, moralistic, idealistic, and politically naive. It preached a gospel of cultural optimism and a Jesus of middle-class idealism. It spoke the language of triumphal missionary religion, sometimes baptized the Anglo-Saxon ideology of Manifest Destiny, and usually claimed that U.S. American imperialism was not imperialism because of its good intentions. The social gospel helped to build colleges and universities for African Americans, but only rarely did it demand justice for blacks; it supported suffrage for women, but that was the extent of its feminism. Most social gospel leaders vigorously opposed World War I until the U.S. intervened, whereupon they promptly ditched their opposition to war; after the war they overreacted by reducing the social gospel to pacifist idealism.

In the 1930s and ‘40s, Reinhold Niebuhr blasted the social gospel for many of these things. Niebuhr taught, wrongly, that the social gospel had no doctrine of sin, and more justly, that it was too idealistic to be a serious force in power politics. After Niebuhr’s generation had passed, liberation theologians judged that the social gospel and Christian realism were too middle-class, white, male-dominated, nationalistic, and socially privileged to be agents of liberation.

Yet for all its faults and limitations, the social gospel movement produced a greater progressive religious legacy than any generation before or after it. Christian realism inspired no hymns and built no lasting institutions. It was not even a movement, but rather, a reaction to the social gospel centered on one person, Reinhold Niebuhr. The social gospel, by contrast, was a 60-year movement and enduring perspective that paved the way for modern ecumenism, social Christianity, the Civil Rights movement, and the deep involvement of the ecumenical movement in the Civil Rights movement. It had a tradition in the black churches led by Reverdy Ransom, Ida B. Wells-Barnett, Benjamin E. Mays, Mordecai Johnson, and Martin Luther King Jr. It had anti-imperialist, socialist, feminist and theologically conservative advocates in addition to its liberal reformers. It created the ecumenical and social justice ministries that remain the heart of American Christianity. And it expounded a vision of economic democracy that is as relevant and necessary today as it was a century ago.

To put it in contemporary terms, the social gospel was a response to the first historic wave of economic globalization, the clash between a burgeoning corporate capitalism and a rising labor movement. Social gospel theologians urged that modernity surely had a stage beyond laissez-faire capitalism. If modernity was a good thing, which they did not doubt, it had to have a stage beyond capitalism.

In 1908 approximately thirty-one Protestant and Eastern Orthodox denominations banded together to form the Federal Council of Churches. There were a few conditional and associate members, which explains why the precise number ranges between twenty-nine and thirty-three, depending on how you count. The churches could not agree on doctrine; thus, there were many denominations. But the social gospel leaders of the Federal Council--Frank Mason North, Samuel Zane Batten, Charles Macfarland, Harry Ward, Charles Stelzle, Reverdy Ransom, Alexander Waters, Washington Gladden, Walter Rauschenbusch, many others—contended that American Christians should be able to agree about social justice and do something for it. So the first thing they did was issue the Social Creed of the Churches of 1908, which advocated “equal rights and complete justice” for all human beings; the abolition of child labor; a “living wage as a minimum in every industry”; social security; an equitable distribution of income and wealth; the abatement of poverty; and eight other planks focused mostly on economic justice.

The Federal Council became a vehicle for the transmission of social gospel ideas into the churches and society; the Social Creed reverberated with the values of social and economic democracy; and the idea of economic democracy was intrinsic to the social gospel. To the social gospelers, democracy was indispensable in the political, social, and economic spheres, and for the same reasons: to provide equal opportunity, to safeguard the rights of citizens, and to prevent any group from attaining too much power. Most social gospelers spoke a “third way” language of cooperatives and community ownership. A more radical group, following Walter Rauschenbusch, explicitly called economic democracy “socialist” while rejecting state socialism. Before the 1930s there was also a small group that advocated state socialism; George Herron and Vida Scudder were prominent among them.

In the 1930s, Reinhold Niebuhr blasted all of these groups for their moralism and idealism. For radical state socialists like Niebuhr, economic democracy was serious only if it meant government control of the economy. Wrongly, radicals like Niebuhr equated socialization with nationalization; wrongly, they rejected production for profit; wrongly, they claimed that state planners could replicate the pricing decisions of markets; wrongly, they wanted government planners to organize an economy not linked by markets.

On these issues Rauschenbusch ended up looking better than the radicals that panned him for being too idealistic. He contended that democracy was the heart of the matter and that markets cannot be abolished in a free society. He had a strong concept of personal and collective evil coupled with an overcoming message of social salvation. But even Rauschenbusch recycled the totalizing rhetoric of state socialism and trusted too much in the overcoming tide of social idealism.

One of the ironies of modern theology is that the social gospelers of the 1930s are nearly always treated as naïve idealists, because many of them were pacifists, while Niebuhr is treated as the hero of the story. Yet Niebuhr was wrong about the New Deal and the social gospelers that dominated the Federal Council of Churches were right. The social gospelers supported the Emergency Banking Act of 1933, which allowed the new Reconstruction Finance Corporation to buy bank equity. Suddenly that sounds familiar. Over the next year, the RFC bought over $1 billion of bank stock, about one-third of the capital invested in U.S. banks.

The social gospelers advocated mixed forms of worker and community ownership, select public ownership, social security, and public infrastructure projects. In 1932 the Federal Council issued a new version of the Social Creed that called for “subordination of speculation and the profit motive to the creative and cooperative spirit”; “social planning and control of the credit and monetary systems for the common good”; the right to organize for collective bargaining and social justice; equal rights for all people, specifically including all races; “repudiation of war”; “drastic reduction of armaments”; and the “building of a cooperative world order.”

The social gospelers told a story about the necessity of gradually democratizing society; Niebuhr told a more dramatic story, that history would either move forward to state socialism or backward to barbarism. There was no third way. In his telling, the social democratic reforms of the Social Gospel were Band-aids and the New Deal was a form of quackery. Not until the 1940s did Niebuhr change his mind about the New Deal; in 1945 he gave up on Socialism; and he adopted a welfare state realism that put him in the mainstream of liberal Democratic politics. Niebuhrian realism became a strategy of countervailing power relations between capital, labor, and an assertive national government. Internationally it was a theory of countervailing power relations among sovereign states. In both cases, it emphasized the power of states and the relative balance of power, and it was tremendously influential in the late 1940s and 1950s.

Today we are witnessing a second historic wave of capitalist globalization. Karl Marx, foreseeing the first one, famously predicted in The Communist Manifesto: “Everything that is solid melts into air.” Suddenly that has an existential ring. But Marx wasn’t warning merely that the stock market might vaporize your pension, mortgage, or job. His point cut deeper, that global capitalism commodifies everything it touches, including labor and nature, putting everything up for sale.

Nothing is exempt from the pressure of competition. Social contracts and places of rest have vanished under threats of obsolescence and ruin, while the global market exploits resources, displaces communities, and sets off wealth explosions in wild cycles of boom and bust. Thomas Friedman, a celebrant of the second wave, calls it “turbo-capitalism.” Economic globalization—the integration of national economies into the global economy through trade, direct foreign investment, short-term capital flows, and flows of labor and technology—has “flattened” the world, Friedman says. In a flat world you either compete successfully or are run over.

Today we are recycling first wave debates about the possibility or limits of taming capitalism, but this time it has truly globalized. In the U.S., manufacturing jobs have disappeared and downsized workers compete for minimum wage jobs in the service sector, while the global economy is an amazing boon for economic winners. American-based corporations roughly doubled their wealth between 1994 and 2004, paying ample rewards to employees and stockholders and huge rewards to top performers in lucrative industries, while the global economy stokes a culture of celebrity.

Friedman argues that global capitalism reduces national politics to minor tweaks. There is no third way in political economy anymore; there isn’t even a second way. Any nation that wants a growing economy has to wear a one-size-fits-all “golden straightjacket” that unleashes the private sector, keeps inflation low, minimizes government bureaucracy, sustains a balanced budget, eliminates tariffs on imported goods and restrictions on foreign investment, abolishes quotas and domestic monopolies, privatizes state-owned industries and utilities, deregulates capital markets, and allows direct foreign ownership and investment. Once a nation takes this path, Friedman says, “its political choices get reduced to Pepsi or Coke—to slight nuances of taste, slight nuances of policy, slight alterations in design to account for local traditions, some loosening here or there, but never any major deviation from the core golden rules.” Friedman wants the U.S. to spend more on green technology and science education, but he advises us to give up on nostalgic dreams of social justice and equality.

This perspective is so widely shared that in much of the literature on globalization it is treated as mere common sense. And it is true that globalization shrinks our politics; at least, it did until last month. But Friedman exaggerated the futility of political attempts to channel economic forces, and now, suddenly, the ground is shaking beneath us. The counsel to simply accept turbo-capitalism overlooks that some societies do better than others in regulating the financial sector and in dealing with the maldistributive logic of the market.

Governments still play a key role in managing globalization and shaping socio-economic outcomes. Thus we have contentious battles over free trade agreements, labor rights, ecological standards, immigration, control of labor flows, and now, the nationalization of the financial sector. Government policies on technology and direct foreign investment have immense impacts on the kind of economy that a nation develops. If short-term capital flows aren’t regulated by somebody, turbo-capitalism is vulnerable to the kind of meltdown that occurred in East Asia in 1997, which threatens us today.

A month ago I went around the country saying that because our banks don’t know what their assets are worth, and it’s impossible to sort out the toxic debt, we might as well half-socialize the banks to unfreeze credit lines. Then Gordon Brown did it in England, France and Germany followed suit, Paul Krugman said we should do it too, he won the Nobel Prize, suddenly Henry Paulsen agreed, and on October 13 the Bush administration invested $250 billion in senior preferred bank stock in nine major banks, take it or take it, there was no choice. We’re bailing like it’s 1933. The financial meltdown is so enormous that it will severely impede whatever plan President Obama had for his presidency. The next several years will be devoted to cleaning up the financial mess and coping with a bad recession.

But this crisis also puts into play questions of national purpose and vision that have been off the table politically for decades. Instead of the usual Pepsi-or-Coke options, and the usual fixation with trivia, there is an opening for larger concerns. What would a good society look like? What kind of country should we want to be?

In the 1980s Sweden and Japan had national discussions of that sort that revolved around the tolerable limits of inequality. Swedish conservatives and liberals debated whether the wage differential between corporate executives and laborers permitted by the nation’s solidarity wage policy should be increased to eight to one or maintained at four to one. In Japan, where worker shareholder plans are commonplace, a similar debate occurred over the tolerability of allowing more than the existing ratio of sixteen to one.

In the United States the ratio climbed to 145 to 1 and there was no debate. The right to attain wealth was exalted over other values. In the 1980s the U.S. cut the marginal tax rate for individuals from 70 percent to 28 percent and cut the top rate on capital gains from 49 percent to 20 percent. These measures had very large effects on the kind of society the U.S. became, fueling a huge surge for inequality. By the end of the decade, the top fifth of the population earned more than half of the nation’s income and held more than three-quarters of its wealth while the bottom fifth received barely four percent of its income.

Today these numbers look rather moderate, because we have just had 20 years of unleashed greed in the financial sector and 8 years of tax policy redistribution for the very wealthy. First, Wall Street fell in love with derivatives—financial instruments that allow investors to speculate on the future price of something without having to buy it. Then the Clinton administration tore down the regulatory walls between banking and investment firms. Then the Bush administration refused to enforce protections within the law, cut the capital gains rate to 15 percent, and gave enormous tax windfalls to the top five percent of earners. In the past eight years virtually all of America’s economic growth has gone to the top five percent, while the middle class has been saved from drowning only by taking on greater debt. But now the debt resort has reached its outer limit; and people are losing their homes, jobs, and pensions.

From the perspective of Economics 101 the current meltdown is just a bigger version of the dot-com bust of the 1990s, with the usual lessons about financial bubbles. But this one is harder to swallow, because it starts with people who were just trying to buy a house of their own; who usually had no concept of predatory lending; and who had no understanding of the derivatives-scheme on which sub-prime lending was based. It seemed a blessing to get a low-rate mortgage that saved you from drowning. It was a mystery how the banks did it, but this was their business; you trusted that they knew what they were doing. Your bank resold the mortgage to an aggregator who bunched it up with thousands of other sub-prime mortgages, chopped the package into small pieces, and sold them as corporate bonds to parties looking for extra yield.
Your mortgage payments paid for the interest on the bonds.

This scheme was fantastically lucrative for a while, but it ensured unaccountability. If nobody knew what was in the packages, nobody could be blamed for what happened to them. When the housing bubble finally burst, the bonds lost value after people couldn’t pay their mortgage or sell their house, Lehman Brothers went down, and the entire system cratered because the banks don’t know what their assets are worth. Eleven years ago there was no market for credit default swaps: private contracts in a completely unregulated market that allow investors to bet on whether a borrower will default. In the past decade that market has soared to $55 trillion dollars, and it is at the heart of the current crisis.

The speculators gamed the system; the regulators looked the other way; people everywhere get anxious if they’re not making as much as others around them; and we must not shy away from saying: This is what comes from greed running amuck. This is a story about greed being stoked and celebrated to the point of self-destruction. The banks got leveraged up to forty-to-one and still couldn’t resist the lure of higher yield, never mind where that was leading.
We are witnessing the end of an era, when the winning strategy was to denigrate government and assure that wealth from the top would eventually trickle down. The current trade and budget deficits are staggering; the entire cost of invading and occupying Iraq was put on a credit card; all of us have to start living within our means, and we face colossal environmental problems. The economy is physical. There are limits to economic growth. Global warming is melting the Arctic ice cap at a shocking pace, as well as large areas of permafrost in Alaska, Canada, and Siberia, and destroying wetlands and forests around the world.

Actually dealing with these problems throws us way beyond Pepsi-or-Coke options. Today we have a new Social Creed that addresses the fearfulness and global complexity of our time. You passed it last November. It calls for “full civil, political and economic rights for women and men of all races.” It demands the “abolition of forced labor, human trafficking, and the exploitation of children.” It supports “employment for all, at a family-sustaining living wage, with equal pay for comparable work.” It stands up for the right of workers to organize, opposes the death penalty, calls for the abatement of hunger and poverty, and endorses universal healthcare, social security, and progressive tax policies. It commends immigration policies that protect family unity and foster international cooperation. It stresses the necessity of adopting simpler lifestyles; living within our means; protecting the earth’s environment; and investing in renewable energy. It supports equitable global trade that protects local economies, and advocates a foreign policy based on international law and multilateral diplomacy. It calls for nuclear disarmament, reductions in military spending, and the abolition of torture. And it calls for cooperation and dialogue among the world’s religions.

The new social creed features a Trinitarian structure of Creator, Christ and Spirit that correlates with faith and creation, love and incarnation, and hope and relationship. It re-commits American churches to the work of creating a society that nurtures moral character; shares more and consumes less; and prizes equality, peacemaking, and community. Since the world has gotten terribly complex and interdependent, the new social creed is longer and more verbose than the earlier ones, but it is a superb statement, and it squeezes into a single page.
Christian Iosso and Michael Kinnamon were the key players in producing and pushing through the new social creed. For the past year I’ve been citing it on the lecture circuit. Every week pastors ask me, sometimes sharply: “Why have I not heard of this? Why are the churches not getting behind this statement?” A number of my friends who work in social justice ministries have a depressing answer: The ecumenical churches today are weak and defensive, lacking in self-confidence, and fearful of seeming political. The NCC is weak and defensive too; it operates by a 1950s corporate model; and it cannot mobilize for action because it operates by consensus.
Thus you shouldn’t expect the churches or the NCC to push very hard for the Social Creed or for anything that provokes controversy.

I hope you find that impression disturbing, if not maddening. Like many of you, I treasure the social ethical witness and tradition of the ecumenical movement. It is the heart of my teaching, scholarship, and social activism. When I think of the National Council of Churches, the first thing I think of is its deep involvement in the Civil Rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s. That witness drew me into the church and the ordained ministry, in the 1970s. But how many young people today are attracted to the church by our clear, prophetic, visible, energetic social justice ministry?

Today our churches need to be spiritual strongholds of social justice conviction and zones of multi-racial diversity. They need to be strongest, however, in the very areas where our traditions are weakest. The point of ecumenical social ethics has always been to get Christianity on the side of social justice and peacemaking. For that reason I love the social ethical tradition that I teach and write about. But in the area of racial justice my field has not done so well; it had a moment of glory during the King years; it had a brief moment of renewal during the anti-apartheid struggle; and now we are entering a moment, as a church and nation, when the redemptive possibilities are palpable.

The ecumenical movement during the social gospel era was good at helping to build colleges and universities for blacks, an achievement that should not be slighted. It was difficult work that sometimes required moral courage. But after segregation hardened in the 1890s, the social gospel rarely spoke for the rights of blacks, and often it said nothing at all. On this topic there were four social gospels among white church leaders. One was brutally racist, as in the bestselling writings of Thomas Dixon Jr. A second perspective, closer to the mainstream, was the right-leaning cultural chauvinism of Josiah Strong and Lyman Abbott, which advocated black assimilation to an Anglo-Saxon ideal. Abbott was the chief player in making Booker T. Washington famous. Another mainstream group, the left-leaning assimilationists, also lionized Washington and the vocational path to progress, but with a stronger recognition of the rights of blacks; they included Joseph Cook and William Channing Gannett. The fourth group, spiritual descendants of the abolitionists, strongly defended the dignity and rights of African Americans. They included Herbert Seeley Bigelow, Algernon Crapsey, Harlan Paul Douglass, and Newell Dwight Hillis. But there were never enough of them, and they had little influence.

Until the Great Migration most social gospel leaders had little acquaintance with African Americans; they felt awkward about addressing a problem that was remote from their experience; and only the bravest of them publicly repudiated the prevalent American assumption of black inferiority. Some of them fought against the restriction of black suffrage, but most social gospelers focused solely on education, and for some that meant vocational education only. Peabody, for example, gave many years of service to the Hampton Institute. He was committed to vocational uplift, but regarding justice for blacks, he spoke for glacial slowness.
Peabody was willing to offend his white audiences when they denied that blacks were educable, or when they fantasized about colonizing African Americans in a “Negro state” (Texas was the usual candidate). Sometimes he spoke with feeling about the humanity of blacks. But always he spoke with a whiff of white supremacy and a stream of stereotypes.

Two years ago I tracked down the writings of Reverdy Ransom, most of which are hard to attain. That he is forgotten is incredible. Ransom was the first black church leader to identify with the social gospel. He was a theological liberal and democratic socialist who played a leading role in the Federal Council of Churches, and served in his later career as an AME bishop. He was a liberationist and Afrocentrist before these terms had currency. His rhetorical eloquence was stunning. Often he observed that American blacks got nothing from Christian America despite being faithful Christians and loyal Americans. American blacks wanted to believe they would gain equal rights if they went to church, got an education, and learned a trade: “But their disillusionment is almost complete, since they find that Christ has not been able to break the American color line. If Jesus wept over Jerusalem, he should have for America an ocean of tears.”

W.E.B. Du Bois wrote that Ransom’s powerful speeches “erected a monument in the history of African Methodism, the U.S., and the world” that [would] last through “time and eternity.” On the contrary, he was almost completely forgotten. Ransom wanted to work in large interracial organizations that built a cooperative commonwealth for all people, but there weren’t any for him to join, so he opted for survival work, worn down by the relentless hostility of the dominant society.

This year we have witnessed a presidential candidacy that carries the burden of America’s entire history of racial prejudice and exclusion. Regardless of which candidate you supported in the election, it is undeniable that Barack Obama’s election represents an historic breakthrough in the American experience, symbolizing the hope of an American society that affirms and celebrates its multiracial diversity. That hope reverberated in the enormous cheering crowds of mostly white people that convinced him to run for the presidency sooner than he had expected.
Obama ran an assiduously post-racial campaign. He talks about racial justice as little as possible; he plays down the racial prejudice that his campaign encountered; and he required his campaign workers to follow his example. Yet he does not regard himself as a symbol of “post-racial politics,” for on the few occasions that Obama has explicitly addressed the issue, he has stated that it’s premature to imagine such a thing in American society.

Obama was a civil rights lawyer, and as a law professor he specialized in civil rights. He understands acutely that we still need civil rights lawyers because racial discrimination is still pervasive in the United States. His very argument for not rubbing the noses of white Americans in the reality of white racism is that the problem is too entrenched in white attitudes and social structures to be remedied by race-specific policies or any appeal to white guilt. He puts it plainly in his book The Audacity of Hope: “Rightly or wrongly, white guilt has largely exhausted itself in America; even the most fair-minded of whites, those who would genuinely like to see racial inequality ended and poverty relieved, tend to push back against suggestions of racial victimization—or race-specific claims based on the history of race discrimination in this country.”
Since even the most fair-minded whites have a low threshold for anything smacking of black grievance, better not go there in a political campaign. Better play down anything pertaining to racial justice. But bear in mind that these very guidelines reflect the persistence of the problem. Obama’s favorite image of how we should think about racial justice is a split screen. One side of the screen holds in view the just, multi-racial society that must be created; the other side shows the existing America that is far from a just society.

Now we have an historic opportunity to change the second half of this screen. Last week the world changed, and we woke up in a better country. A veteran of the Civil Rights movement said to me joyfully, “It feels like Selma, only happy this time.” But another treasured friend of mine, Pastor James Forbes, told me last week: “I have a word of warning for Obama. There is a dubious distinction in being the first one. I pray that my fellow ministers will stand up for Obama when he pays the price for being the first one.”

Many of us grew up believing that overcoming our country’s racist past and present is mostly a matter of eliminating racial bias. But the problem of racial justice is something deeper and more structural than mere bias—it is the very culture of white supremacy. Wherever white people are dominant, white culture is transparent to them. It is hard to see because it is everything that is not specifically African American culture, Native American culture, Mexican culture, and so on. More precisely, it is hard for whites to see because white supremacy makes white culture normative. White supremacy is a structure of power based on privilege that presumes to define what is normal. If you live in this society without being constantly reminded of your race, and don’t have to worry about representing your race, and can worry about racism without being viewed as self-interested, and don’t have to worry about being targeted by police for your race, then you are a beneficiary of white supremacy. Its privileges are your daily bread and environment. Today the shape of this inheritance is complicated immensely by the immigration of Asians, Latin Americans and others from every part of the world into the U.S. Some of them move right into white privilege; some struggle to get a piece of it; some have no chance of getting any; all are affected by the ravages of America’s original sin.

I grew up in a semi-rural mish-mash of lower class and working class families in Michigan, where nobody talked about going to college, the middle class families on television seemed to live in a foreign country, and there was no consciousness whatsoever of possessing any cultural privileges. I know very well how any talk about white privilege goes down in such areas. Its reality is also widely denied in the white middle class. Even in ecumenical churches and activist organizations it is very difficult to talk about.

Long before I joined a church, I worked in activist organizations that struggled to achieve even token diversity: “We’re so inclusive and we want to be more diverse: Why don’t they join us?” It took me years of asking that question before I realized that to become more diverse, we had to privilege the issues of people of color. And that began by building bonds of trust across racial lines. Most activist organizations and religious communities are not willing to do it. Usually there is an established agenda and ethos that militates against anything stronger than weak gestures toward diversity.

But there are significant exceptions in our churches, in the history of this organization, and in the work of church-based activist organizations like the Industrial Areas Foundation and the Gamaliel network. In the best of these organizations, white and racially diverse religious communities are deeply bonded with black, Hispanic, and Asian communities to address local problems. Along the way, culturally privileged Christians come to see marginalization and exclusion that they did not see previously.

The social gospel generation did not do very well in this area, and too many of us have to harken back to the time of Martin Luther King Jr. to remember when we felt a surge of hope about new possibilities. Now the hope is renewed. We need new forms of community that arise out of but transcend religious affiliation, culture and nation. All our religious traditions have propensities for dogmatism and prejudice that must be uprooted. If those of us who are Caucasian fail to interrogate white supremacism and its privileges, we will resist any recognition of our own racism. If those of us who are male fail to interrogate our complicity in sexism, we will perpetuate it. If those of us who are Christian fail to repudiate anti-Semitism and Christian supercessionism, we will perpetuate the evils that come with them. If those of us who are heterosexual fail to stand up for the rights of gays and lesbians, we will have an oppressive church. If we sign up for militarism and empire, we will betray the way of Christ. We need a wider community of the divine good. The future belongs to God, and after all our work is done, it is God who will make something new in the world out of our struggles for justice and peace and the flourishing of life.

Photo by George ConklinNCC News contact: Philip E. Jenks, 212-870-2228,

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In this my personal Christian blog, I hope to be discursive and now and then critical. What I write here is tentative and tensive. I post thoughts, feelings, and observations somewhat randomly and often in immediate response to current events and posts on other blogs.

"Serendipitous Creativity" from Gordon Kaufman

"I suggested that what we today should regard as God is the ongoing creativity in the universe - the bringing (or coming) into being of what is genuinely new, something transformative; …

"In some respects and some degrees this creativity is apparently happening continuously, in and through the processes or activities or events around us and within us(…) is a profound mystery to us humans(…) But on the whole, as we look back on the long and often painful developments that slowly brought human life and our complex human worlds into being, we cannot but regard this creativity as serendipitous …

"I want to stress that this serendipitous creativity - God! - to which we should be responsive is not the private possession of any of the many particular religious faiths or systems …

"This profound mystery of creativity is manifest in and through the overall human bio-historical evolution and development everywhere on the planet; and it continues to show itself throughout the entire human project, no matter what may be the particular religious and or cultural beliefs."

Gordon Kaufman, Mennonite Life, December 2005 vol. 60 no. 4

Melville is a rational man who

"Melville is a rational man who wants God to exist. He wants Him to exist for the same reasons we all do: to be our rescuer and appreciator, to act as a confidant in our moments of crisis and to give us reassurance that, over the horizon of our deaths, we will survive." (John Updike)

And that is a problem for me.

Fragmented Notions

Fragmented Notions
Copyright © 2007 Jean and Alexander Heard Library, Vanderbilt University

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