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Sunday, August 09, 2015

Colorblindness, Privilege and Inspiration

Dependability is a great thing.

Whenever I find myself with nothing obvious to write about, it’s a huge relief to know that in a pinch I can always rely on Rachel Held Evans to say something worthy of polite dissection. Today is no exception.

The inimitable Ms Evans holds forth here on the subject of her own “sincere ignorance and conscientious stupidity” after an unfortunate non-PC slip of the tongue at Princeton Theological Seminary.

Now I maintain that whenever someone waxes eloquent about their “sincere ignorance”, the principle of benefit of the doubt requires we take them at their word. In this case, however, I suspect Ms Evans and I might disagree over what it is that makes her sincerely ignorant.

A Monumental Faux Pas

Let’s hear about Ms Evans’ “offence” in her own words:
“I ran headlong into my own ‘sincere ignorance and conscientious stupidity’ just two weeks ago when I gave a lecture for a writers [sic] conference at Princeton Theological Seminary and in reference to Jesus’ parable of the vineyard workers, described God as a ‘generous master’ whom we serve with our faithful work. Afterwards, a black woman approached me and with far more grace than I deserved, reminded me that to African American listeners like her the image of God as a cosmic master is not only discomforting but frightening and oppressive.”
Evans believes her problem is “privilege”:
“In this case, and in so many other cases, the problem isn’t that I hate black people. I don’t. The problem is that being white in America means I get to be oblivious. I get to be ignorant. I get to be ‘colorblind’ when it suits me, and that luxury is exactly what keeps me and so many other well-intentioned white people from doing more to confront, repent of, and combat white supremacy and racial injustice in America.”

Guess What? We’re All Racist Too

As regular readers of her blog will almost surely anticipate, Ms Evans dutifully self-flagellates over her faux pas only long enough to legitimize her claim to sincerity before turning on the rest of American Christians:
“This selective ‘colorblindness’ is a mighty convenient approach to race in America for white people, for it allows us to paper over America’s troubled (and decidedly anti-Christian) history, to discount racism as a thing of the past for which we are no longer responsible, and to ignore persistent racial injustices like mass incarceration, police brutality, voting rights issues, white flight, and economic inequality, all while consistently benefiting from an oppressive system we claim we cannot even see.”

Sensitivity and Selling Out

Enough of that, I think. Here’s the problem, and it’s not privilege. If anyone goes out into the world thoroughly determined to avoid hurting the tender feelings of the various members of identity groups she encounters, it is undoubtedly Ms Evans. She is positively desperate to please, accommodate and grovel. Only the heartless could take her to task for embracing the sins of her fathers. If Ms Evans suffers from white privilege, be assured she will check that privilege at the drop of a hat as she does here, finishing by recommending book after book to her fellow believers in the hope that we will all become more enlightened as to the historical, theological, religious and experiential context of black life in America today.

So the problem is not Ms Evans’ overweening sense of privilege. The problem is her willingness to throw the imagery of scripture under the bus to avoid a few over-tender feelings. With all respect to the African American members of Evans’ audience, if the (exceedingly biblical) image of God as Master is “discomforting”, “frightening” and “oppressive”, imagine how it must have seemed to its original audience, many of whom were actually experiencing the privations of slavery at the time (as opposed to merely trading on the suffering of their great-great-grandparents to nudge a white speaker back into lockstep with today’s social justice agenda).

The Slave Metaphor and Scripture

As I lay out in this post, the Lord (and the apostles, for that matter) used the slave metaphor in a social environment in which it was surely far more toxic and potentially offensive to their audiences than it could ever be today.

Were they looking to antagonize their audiences? It’s not impossible. The Lord clearly used statements like “Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me, and I in him” to polarize his listeners and to drive away the dilettantes. On another occasion, he compared a needy Canaanite woman to a dog to draw out her faith for all to see.

Imagine trying to explain that to a modern, PC audience!

Those who come to Christ come only as repentant sinners, owning a Lord to whom we can make no claim on the basis of the conditions in which we were born. Racial trump cards may be played successfully on affluent caucasian Christians, but they carry no weight with a Master who owes us nothing and has no obligation to confer upon us any dignity other than that which may become ours by virtue of being in his Son. Further, complaints about indignities dealt out to others 150 years ago look a little weak alongside a human experience that began in a stable and ended on a cross.

In any case, servants do not dictate to their Lord how he is to refer to them and what metaphors he may or may not employ to describe them.

Imitation vs. Quotation

Now of course for the Christian community today, there is little or nothing to be gained in deliberately imitating those aspects of the Lord’s ministry that may give offense to people unaware of their status before God. In fact, there is plenty of danger that our fallen nature might turn our attempts at following the Lord’s example into occasions for insensitivity or abuse. Ms Evans has the correct general idea about not giving unnecessary offense; she simply has not learned to draw the lines in the right places, much like David Hayward, the pastor who is offended by the sheep metaphor used so often in the word of God.

Imitation is a bad idea when it leads believers to go beyond the words of Christ and apply the teaching principles he used in ways that are unwise or inappropriate.

But quotation is something else entirely. The Holy Spirit-inspired word of God says what it says. It uses the metaphors it uses. These are the very words of Christ himself. We have no license from our Lord to rewrite the Bible to bolster our social justice bona fides, and every caution against doing so.

If there is anything offensive about such language, we may trust that such offence was fully intended by its Author.

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