By Alan Bean
The United States of America is an uncommonly religious nation. More to the point, we are an uncommonly Christian nation, at least insofar as stated religious affiliation is concerned (whether we actually reflect the soul of Jesus Christ is another matter altogether). In the midst of startling ethnic diversity, three great cultures dominate: Latino, African American and Anglo. Many things divide these three segments of the human family, but religion is not one of them. Brown, Black and White, we are all overwhelmingly Christian. In theory, we should all moralize and vote in a distinctly Christian fashion. We should share a common moral discourse.
But we don’t.
Latinos, Blacks and Whites bicker are all divided by internal political and ideological disputes, of course, but valid generalizations are possible. For instance, Latinos, as a group, are deeply concerned about mass deportation, Blacks agonize over mass incarceration, and Whites, for the most part, give little thought to either issue. Stout walls have gone up between us. These fortifications simplify our moral worlds by ensuring that we don’t have too much worry on our plates. But these walls that divide lock us into tiny, constricted little worlds. We are deep in denial, imprisoned by fear and self-imposed ignorance.
There is nothing surprising in this. Humans have a limited capacity for pain and complexity. We worry more about our dogs and cats than the plight of the poor and the prisoner because puppies and kittens rub against our legs and demand our attention. We love our immediate families with a singular intensity because we share a common history and anticipate a shared destiny. We don’t care so much about other people’s kids because we don’t know them and most likely will never know them.
Similarly, Latinos care about immigration issues because the lives of uncles, sisters, sons and lovers are haunted by the fear of deportation. African Americans care about the criminal justice system because cousins, nephews, sons and grandsons are doing time in the great American Gulag. White people are largely indifferent because, for the most part, the people we love don’t have to worry about these things.
When I meet a white person who cares about the war on drugs, the proliferation of prisons or the patent unfairness of the criminal justice system, I always ask why. Inevitably, I learn about a young white man who ran afoul of the law. It is often assumed that I must be Black because I write and speak about mass incarceration and the New Jim Crow. Why would a White person care about such things?
From a sociological perspective this makes sense; but it is very bad theology.
In Paul’s letter to the church in Ephesus, the Apostle Paul announced that the ancient war between Jews and Gentile was over. Jesus Christ is our peace. He has made us one. He has broken down the wall of hostility that divided us. Because we are fed and inspired by one Spirit we can no longer see one another as strangers and resident aliens. We’re all family. From now on, Jews must see the world through Gentile eyes and Gentiles must transpose their life-music into the key of Moses.
All of this works better in theory than in practice, of course. Reinhold Niebuhr’s “Christian realism” teaches us to approach all forms of utopian aspiration with caution. We are a fallen race. Our reach exceeds our grasp. We build castles in the air but never live in them. Gentiles don’t identify with the concerns of the Jewish world. Anglos don’t give a damn about African Americans and Latinos. Black people regard Brown people as the competition. The racial strife of the prison yard is a microcosm of our larger society. Only a fool would expect it to be otherwise. We are not angels after all.
But must this be an either-or proposition? Is morality a zero-sum game in which we abandon the game in the opposing team is formidable. Sure, a team featuring the combined talents of intolerance, ignorance and indifference will score its share of points; but we’ve got weapons of our own: moral courage, intelligence, empathy and the miracle of human love. If our religion means anything at all, I should be able to taste the salt in your tears and you should be able to taste the salt in mine. Our religion won’t make us perfect, but it should give us hope. Right?
It all depends what we mean by religion. Do we enlist God’s Spirit to help us with our personal struggles, or has the Spirit enlisted us to fight battles of God’s own choosing? If Jesus a personal valet or a field commander? Is religion a means of getting our needs met, or can religion unite our spirits and make our hearts beat as one?
It’s really a bit of both, isn’t it? There’s nothing wrong with a therapeutic religion that helps us make it through the night. We are weak and troubled spirits who need all the help we can get. But the therapy doesn’t work unless we are caught up in a higher and brighter vision than mere personal survival.
For Christians, the question is particularly pointed. Has Jesus Christ broken down the dividing wall of hostility that separates Anglos, Latinos and African Americans? These walls don’t just divide us, they serve as prisons. If we don’t believe that, we should toss our Bibles in the recycling bin and go shopping. If so, we must see the Christian Church as a Common Peace Community where we share and bear each other’s burdens, as individuals and as ethnic groups.
Again, it’s all nice in theory. My work with Friends of Justice means I move from Black to Brown to White society on a regular basis. The segregated moral discourse I stipulated in my introduction doesn’t come from reading books, columns and blog posts; this is my day-to-day experience. Black people almost never talk about immigration; Brown people aren’t worried about the New Jim Crow; and White people give little thought to either issue, unless it’s to thank God for prisons and the Border Patrol.
This is a matter of personal observation. If your experience is different, I am thrilled. But I doubt it is.
Re-entering the World of White can be disheartening. It isn’t that White people are mean or hostile. Quite to the contrary, they are generally friendly, polite and gracious. But they speak only of what they know (as one would expect) and they know next to nothing about having an undocumented cousin who could be deported at a moment’s notice or about the nephew doing twenty years on a drug charge. White people break the rules on a regular basis, but they rarely experience the consequences. Drug abuse on Wall Street has reached epidemic proportions, but have you ever heard of a drug bust at the stock exchange? You never will.
I am not condemning White people. I am one. I know how it feels to be White. I fully understand why we good, well-intentioned people can be so indifferent to the agony of people on the other side of the dividing wall of hostility. Out of sight, out of mind. That’s the way the race is wired. But
So, how do we move from crisis to Kingdom? If Jesus wants to build us into a Common Peace Community where do we sign up?
And that might be the problem—there is no place to sign up. If not, we need to create one.
Friends of Justice is experimenting with the Common Peace Community idea. That’s our name for it. Martin Luther King spoke of a “Beloved Community” rooted in the solidarity of the human family. It’s the same idea. We want to create a safe place where Latinos can talk about the issues they care about, African Americans are free to share their dreams and nightmares, and White folks learn to listen.
We have selected Waco, Texas for a starting place, largely because we have some motivated and well-connected board members living in that town. We have held two meetings already, and a third is scheduled for just after the election. Once we have learned from our successes and failures in Waco, we will be introducing the Common Peace Community in other Texas towns.
The dividing wall of hostility that relegates Latinos, African Americans and Anglos to siloes of mutual ignorance must come down. We live in a no-man’s-land between the demons of indifference and the angels of aspiration. Hope wrestles with realism. Progress is never inevitable. In fact, if we do nothing, the walls that divide us will grow higher, thicker and stouter.
But genuine Christians are always dreamers. Genuine dreamers are always doers. And genuine doers change the world. Always.