Words have power.
As every Jew and Christian should know (for the Bible tells us so), the loquacious Lord Almighty creates and destroys with nothing but words, and, as creatures made in this God’s image, our words too have the power “to uproot and tear down, and to overthrow, destroy and bring disaster, to build and to plant.”
Not only does God create everything from nothing by nothing but speech, speech is so constitutitive of God’s identity that the Gospel names the second person of the Trinity as the Word which worded all of creation in existence.
Jesus, John testifies, is the rhetoric of God.
The creeds remind Christians every Sunday that Christianity is primarily a language. Discipleship is extended training in learning how to speak Christian. Words matter. Words matter more so for Christians, for we are the peculiar people who call God “Word.”
Therefore, the words we use to speak about racism matter too.
And because words matter, story matters too.
Story is exactly what is at stake in a culture that seeks to avoid difficult stories by telling us the lie that we’re free to choose our own story. Black and brown Americans have a particular, peculiar story to tell that can be neither lost nor obfuscated if America (or, even, the Church in America) is to be a truthful people.
The rhetoric of Black Lives Matter, for example, matters because it recognizes how African-Americans share not only a common story but a story which reminds them how they need one another and need each other to remind them of the Enemy they face. Meanwhile, the problem with rhetoric like All Lives Matter is that it emerges from no peculiarly shared, community-bound story. All Lives Matter, at best, is a universal principle, and as a people who worship a God who took particular flesh in a specific crucified Jew, Christians refuse to speak in terms of generic universal truths.
But white Americans— at least, white Christians who happen to live in America— should not feel threatened by the imperative felt by black and brown Americans to remember and retell their own story. The felt threat is a symptom of our inability as Americans to grapple truthfully with how we are a slave nation and how the Civil Rights movement was not the success our self-understanding as white Americans requires it to have been. That many feel threatened by the stories of brown and black Americans and do not how to locate themselves within that ugly story demonstrates, I think, how conversations about race and racism become unintelligible to the extent they get abstracted away from the particular language of sin and redemption.
Without the language of the Church, and the low anthropology with which it views the old Adam that in every one of us, we’re left instead with the American myth of moral progress as our alternative. The presumption that we’ve progressed past racism becomes a part of how we understand ourselves as Americans. Thus, many of us feel compelled to deny the abiding presence of racism in America (and in us) for the very reason that it threatens our self-understanding as Americans.
Yesterday I saw many friends on social media share the “surprising” story from the Independent that Amy Cooper, the white woman who threatened a black birder in Central Park, is not a conservative MAGA supporter as so many apparently presumed but is in fact a progressive Democrat.
What accounts for people’s surprise over this bit of Cooper’s biographical detail? That many progressives believe they have progressed beyond racism such that they are uniquely immune from its contagion is but a version of the hagiography many conservatives spin about American exceptionalism.
As Joe Winters argues in Hope Draped in Black, the narrative of moral progress is not only a false narrative it is, like all lies, a pernicious narrative, for it’s “truth” relies upon minimizing conflicts and contradictions.
The stories of brown and black Americans agitate against the myth of moral progress, requiring the telling of stories in tension with it.
This is why, as Stanley Hauerwas says, so many white people in our culture are angry. They no longer know how to tell their story. To this extent, conservatives who wish to lament the alienating effects of secularism on our culture are correct in a way they themselves do not appreciate. They’re right that white Americans no longer have a story to call their own; they’re wrong in assuming that white Americans’ former story— which was the “American” story— was a story sufficient to narrate a good life.
There are only two options in dealing with a wrong so wrong, like slavery and racism, it seems nothing can be done to make it right. The first option is to forget it, which the glory story of American moral progress unintentionally invites us to do. The only other option is to frame the story of the wrong within a story of sin and redemption.
The tragedy of white Americans’ racism is that white Americans— at least, white Christians who happen to live in America— are not without a story.
White Christians already possess their own particular story, not the generic story of All Lives Matter, but the story of the One who died for sinners and rose from the dead for their justification. White Christians in America, who ought to be confessing their badness every Sunday, should be the last white people in America offended by or defensive of the notion that they too are racist in ways visible and invisible to them; likewise, they should be the people most ready to hear the testimony of those whose stories undermine the story in which Caesar attempts to condition us. White Christians already possess a story which punctures the stifling myth of moral progress which we learn every day is a lie. That story frees us to hear truthful testimony from others, for it insists White Christians already possess a story which punctures the stifling myth of moral progress which we learn with every Floyd and Cooper story is a lie. That story frees us to hear truthful testimony from others, for it insists that the sin that still ensnares us is not insurmountable.
As Stanley Hauerwas argues:
“Racism is a sin that can only be dealt with by the gifts of the Holy Spirit. If slavery is a wrong so wrong there is nothing you can do to make it right, the only alternative is to be drafted into a history of God’s redemption that makes confession and forgiveness a reality. Only those who are willing to be called sinners can be forgiven and only those who are willing to be forgiven are those who can seek reconciliation with those they have harmed.”
For American Christians to be a truthful people, white and black and brown Christians must share their stories with another, testing their testimonies against the truthfulness of the cross. Just as God’s siding with the enslaved Israelites is part of God’s rescue of his entire creation, so too white Christians in American should have the courage of their convictions to see how within the particular stories witnessed to by black and brown Christians in America is a story that includes their redemption too.
Martin Luther believed the way we make moral progress as Christians— the only way to sanctification— is by a daily dying; that is, by returning over and again to our justification, the news that we’re sinners graced by God.
In other words, words couldn’t matter more.
To the extent then that white Christians shut our ears to the painful and angry stories of others who do not look like us, insisting that their stories corraborate our own, we risk not only truthfulness but our own holiness.
And thus, our salvation.