That Nagging Racism Problem

A friend of mine (who is not American, but who has lived in the US before) asked the following question on FB:

Aside from prayer, what is your specific solution or concrete and actual suggestions to end the racial problem in the US?

It is hard to give specific, concrete and actual “anything” on FB because of the limitations in that format. I guess I would like to give three modest suggestions.  All of them are targeting Christians in the United States. If Christians in the US were able to get past racism (and knowing that a nice majority of Americans at least describe themselves as Christians), the US would be on the right path.

Teach good Theological Anthropology in church. That is, “What is Mankind in terms of relationship to God, ourselves, and Creation?”  Some churches may teach the Falleness of Man, but to do this they must also emphasize the “Falleness from What?” Some churches speak of the Goodness (or potential goodness) of Man, but must also emphasize what fulfilled goodness would look like in society.

This is not to say that this will come easily.  The early chapters of Genesis undermine the foundations of racism, yet much of the Hebrew Bible points to the challenges the Israelites had with racism, nationalism, and exceptionalism. That disconnect between Israelite view of other peoples and God’s view is the theme of the book of Jonah. In the New Testament, the Gospels and the Acts of the Apostles reemphasize God’s love for all peoples regardless of ethnicity, nationality, language, and tribe, and call on the church to break down these barriers. Revelation shows Paradise where all peoples dwell harmoniously, and in harmony with God and Creation. Yet racism has endured.

Still, I remember when I was young and would hear about how the “three races of man” came from the three sons of Noah, and that one of the three (Ham) became the father of “cursed races.” This and other “cursed race” beliefs may belong in Mormon theology, but certainly not Christian theology. Some of these beliefs I heard in church, although at least not preached in the pulpit. In other churches in the US, some learned of “British/American-Israelism” or “Lost Tribe Theology.” Some of these and other teachings actively support racism or national exceptionalism, while others may simply support the status quo.

Just as bad as bad theological anthropology is,  teaching NO theological anthropology may be worse. Some churches actively do NOT teach theology. For some it is seen as not important while for others it is seen as divisive. Unfortunately, if we don’t teach a theologically (Biblically) sound Doctrine of Man, Christians will be getting their beliefs on gender, race, national identity, and more from sensationalizing journalism and hatemongering politics.

Teach Cultural/Social Anthropology in Church. While some churches attempt to train their people in Theological Anthropology, few teach Cultural Anthropology. When I am speaking of cultural anthropology, I am speaking of this topic as seen through a Christian lens. This topic is taken very seriously as a topic of Missiology. It is, however, rarely brought into the church. It is the praxis side of Anthropology. If we are to love all people and share the message of Christ to all people, how do we do so in a way that is understandable to them. How can Christians honor their own birth culture, while being a good Christian, and challenging what is flawed in their own birth culture? How can churches be relevant to their culture— expressing the best of that culture while guiding people to live out that culture as God desires? How do we love all people when some people act and think very different from us?

Cultural Anthropology is not simply doctrinal— meaning in this case imparted to memory.  It must be taught and modeled.

A final suggestion would be to Separate Theology from National Identity. Churches in the US love traditionally to have patriotic songs in their hymnals, a national flag next to the “Christian flag,” behind the altar and pulpit. They love to have fervently patriotic sermons certain times of the year. Some preachers actively bring nationalistic themes into their sermons. I recall one pastor at a church I was attending at the time preaching on the 2nd Amendment of the US Constitution. He said that as a Christian there are some beliefs one should be willing to die for— the inerrancy of the Bible, the Trinity, Deity of Christ, the Blood Atonement, and the Right to Bear Arms. Some churches seem better at honoring those who have died for their country than at honoring those who have died for their faith.

But why would this help? Nationalism is not the same as Racism. Agreed, but I believe that mixing national and religious symbols creates a civil religion, and a civil religion, traditionally, supports the status quo. Christianity should be a faith WITHIN American culture, but it never should be seen as the faith OF American culture. In my mind, we have millennia of evidence in Church history and outside of Church history of problems associated with state-sponsored religion, “court prophets,” and religious movements joined uncritically to political movements. The church must have a clear understanding of what its boundaries are and challenge those both inside and outside of those boundaries. It is hard to be a light in darkness, when we find it politically expedient to call the darkness light.

The Cult of Ares

A few months ago, the movie “Wonder Woman” had as the main villain, or villain behind the villains, Ares, the Greek god of war. Some were surprised or disappointed by the choice of actor to play that role. They felt that the character did not fit the larger than life image of what they pictured as a God of War. Yet, in Greek Mythology, Ares was looked down upon by most Greek storytellers. Outside of at Sparta and a few cities in Northern Greece, he was rarely worshiped. Most of his stories were ones involving his humiliation. He, siding with Troy, lost in the Trojan War against Athena, who sided with the Greeks. Athena was linked to the “glorious” side of war, while Ares was linked to the thuggish side— always linked with his relatives– Fear, Terror, and Discord. The Greeks normally did not see Ares as larger than life. Rather, he was smaller than life.

fig_ares_fig03

I feel the movie was successful in its image. It was nice to have a seemingly pleasant, somewhat unassuming man, be Ares– evil secreted within the mundane. Likewise, the fact that Ares showed up hiding in the public arena on the side of the “Good Guys” should give one a reason for pause. Further, Ares is not portrayed as the master controller of mankind, but a rather petty manipulator of already flawed, violent, sinful humans. Of course, all of these characteristics can be applied to Satan. The devil doesn’t make us do much of anything… we ultimately do it to ourselves. The devil may not look as we expect, and may even not be working with the people we think of as the bad guys.

Christians have struggled with war as well as fascination with it. Jesus told soldiers that they should behave in a just manner, but did not say they can’t be soldiers. On the other hand, the early church often felt that military service was incompatible with being a Christian. Today, a lot of American Christians really seem to get into military and war.

From my own denomination, the following is a line from the latest version of their articles of faith (Baptist Faith and Message, 2000). It is not meant to be creedal… although some treat it as such.

It is the duty of Christians to seek peace with all men on principles of righteousness. In accordance with the spirit and teachings of Christ they should do all in their power to put an end to war.

The true remedy for the war spirit is the gospel of our Lord. The supreme need of the world is the acceptance of His teachings in all the affairs of men and nations, and the practical application of His law of love. Christian people throughout the world should pray for the reign of the Prince of Peace

The wording is a bit vague, but still generally commendable, I suppose. But among the Baptists, and many other Evangelicals, I have seen the other side. There are a lot of Hawks among Conservative Evangelicals. Back in 1984, I attended a big conference in Washington DC, “Baptist Fundamentalism ’84.” Definitely not my scene but I played saxophone for Cedarville College Symphonic Band that performed one of the days of the conference. We were not performing the day of President Reagan’s speech, but were in the audience. During his speech, several people stood up on the left side of the hall raising a banner yelling “Bread, not Bombs!!” “Bread, not Bombs!!”

Quickly, they were grabbed and ushered out of the hall. A couple of my fellow bandmembers were sitting in the vicinity of the protesters. They said that as the protesters were manhandled roughly, some Baptist Fundamentalists spat on them.

It kind of makes you think— or at least it should. Why would Christians behave in a manner that was so inconsistent with Christ’s call to love everyone… including enemies? And, why would these Christians be so angry about a slogan that seems so obviously commendable. I served in the military for a few years, but even I can see the good sense in identifying food as a greater human priority than military armament. Even in the closing chapters of the Cold War, that really should have been obvious. Of course, maybe the crowd was incensed that a speech was interrupted. Frankly though, the protesters did much to make the conference much more interesting.

I feel that many in the crowd were part of the cult of Ares. More recently, many Christians on FB seemed to be so angry that some players are not standing up for the US National Anthem in NFL and NBA games. I can’t really connect to the concern much. I live in the Philippines, so we don’t do the US National Anthem– rather we do the Philippine National Anthem. Even though I am a foreigner, I would never consider sitting down for the “Lupang Hinirang.” My goal is that “whatever state I am, therein to be content”… and respectful. But why would Christians be getting disturbed about whether one stands or sits (or anything else) during the National Anthem… or whether they say or don’t say the Pledge of Allegiance. As a Baptist, the Anabaptists are my spiritual siblings. Many of them refuse to participate with these rituals on the belief that they are idolatrous, or violate the call of Christ not to make vows. Why would so many Christians become so angry about things that would put us in conflict with fellow Christians? One might say that it is about Patriotism or Nationalism. But really it is not about that, but conforming to societal norms… or actually conforming to a very specific vision of what some wish to be a societal norm. That, of course, begs the question of what that vision is.

The US is interesting because Patriotism is often linked so much with war. I read a little article recently (I hope it is true… there is so much opinions reported as actual news). It showed the history of having the national anthem played at games goes back to World War II, and the having players be seen to respond to the National Anthem goes back to Department of Defense military recruiting. (You can read the article and decide for your self HERE.) Of the four major patriotic holidays for the US are Presidents Day, Memorial Day, Independence Day, and Veterans Day, three of those are dominated with war themes.

I am not a pacifist, but things seem a bit out of control. In recent years I have had a number of people say to me “Thank you for your service to our country” when they found out I served in the Navy. I never had that happen during my time of military service, or for many years after that. Frankly, I did it as a job and as a duty. I feel good about my time in the Navy, but I believe that through my role in Christian ministry I have been much more involved with real service to my country, and many other countries than I ever did through my time in the Navy. Maybe as Christians we can try to find a balance between the extremes of the Vietnam War period (people spitting on War veterans) and this time of jingoism.

I remember sitting in a church in the US when the pastor suggested that the right to bear arms be considered by Christians to be a non-negotiable viewpoint along with the divinity of Christ, the Trinity, and salvation by faith. That view certainly is some weird sort of syncretism, and “The Cult of Ares” seems as good as a term to describe this loose mixture of Christian virtues with a weaponized Americanism.

I feel like this blogpost is a bit rambly… but it is still an area that I am thinking about. Ultimately, however, any view of Christianity that follows a Jesus who is anything other than the “Prince of Peace,” does need some soul-searching. The gods of war (note: the gods of war, not those who serve) are more deserving of ridicule and humiliation, than of adulation— much like Ares.