Do We Need Hope to Fight for Justice? Ta-Nehisi Interrogates Christian Resistance

Ta-Nehisi tweeted a few pointed questions about Christianity and moral resistance.

His main point:

In short, Coates is saying that Christians fight for justice because of the outcome (meek will inherit the earth), and Coates wants to fight for justice simply because it is right and inherently worthy of our sacrifice. When you fight because of the outcome, your attention is oriented towards the future; when you fight because of the principle, then you are suspended in the present, careless of what the future holds.

But it seems to me that a “Christian framework” is concerned about both the future and present, about both outcome and process.

 Dietrich Bonhoeffer is one of the first Christians that come to mind when we think of role models for resistance. A bright, young German pastor and theologian who initially went to America to escape the rising Nazi regime, he quickly returned to Germany because he felt that he had to "share the trials of this time with my people." He was later imprisoned in 1943 for conspiring to rescue Jews, and executed in a concentration camp a few weeks before the Allies liberate it.

This is what he writes, while in prison, about who will stand fast in the face of evil:

“Who stands fast? Only the man whose final standard is not his reason, his principles, his conscience, his freedom, or his virtue....”

It is not that Bonhoeffer is against moral principles. On account of them, he condemned Hitler’s treatment of the Jews, America’s treatment of African-Americans, and so on. For Christians, moral principles matter a lot, for they are not the abstract creations of humans, but the very structure that, by the Creator’s design, undergirds the world. But Bonhoeffer led a complicated life in Germany: he had to lie and deceive almost everyone in his life to play his part as a double agent in a larger conspiracy to assassinate Hitler. So for him, his resistance went beyond standard moral principles.

He concludes that passage by saying the only man who will stand firm is "the responsible man, who tries to make his whole life an answer to the question and call of God."

So he fought and resisted because he felt called to do so.  

We have a name for this type of resistance: “faithfulness.” One might be responsible to a principle or to an outcome, but one is ultimately faithful to a Person, who is the source of all that is good. And sometimes He calls us to resist. And when we do so, we do it because it is good and important to do so, but, more importantly, because we are accountable to the One who calls us, whose voice doggedly persists even in our most humanly isolated moments. There is no neutral, distanced response to the voice; we either love or hate it. Resistance, then, possesses a relational dynamic. 

Does this “relationship” lens change much of anything? After all, yes, in the future, cosmic sense, all that Coates said about Christianity is true: God will overcome, bring the meek along with him, and usher in justice. But this eschatological future is ultimately God’s business. Our business is Now.

Oliver O’Donovan, an Anglican theologian and scholar known for his work in Christian ethics, warns in Self, World and Time that while the Kingdom of God is a real promise, "we must not think that we can reach out and grab it… I may hope for, but cannot plan to bring about, the coming of the Kingdom of God." Even the Son of God, Donovan notes, does not know the date and time in which the Kingdom will come.

What then do we focus on? "The possibility that lies open to our action… The price of agency is to know the future only indirectly, that we may venture on it as an open possibility."

So we faithfully act within our present sphere of responsibility, and let God handle what consequences may come. This is, ultimately, a freeing thing. You become fearless, for you know that whatever he calls you to is worth it, even if you fail.

I think of Bree Newsome, reciting these verses as she climbed up a flagpole to take down the Confederate flag:

"You come against me with hatred and violence. I come against you in the name of God. This flag comes down today… The Lord is my light and my salvation. Whom shall I fear? The Lord is the stronghold of my life. Whom shall I be afraid?"

Coates writes that he suspects “process is underrated. The value of the fight, itself, is underrated.” For Christians, process is actually invaluable; it is the means by which God shapes and transforms us. For God cares not just about what we do, but who we are. Think of the transformation that Moses or Mary, biblical characters, personally experienced in their own lives as they followed His call. 

“Calling is not only a matter of being and doing what we are but also of becoming what we are not yet but are called by God to be.”  

- Os Guinness, author and social critic  

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Sarah Ngu (@sarahngu) is a freelance writer and an alumni of Trinity Forum Academy and Columbia University. Based in New York, she writes regularly here and elsewhere on faith and culture, and produces thought leadership for businesses.   

"Stop Explaining Away Black Christian Forgiveness"

In an article for Christianity Today, I respond to critics who refuses to seriously take the faith of the Charleston Nine Families who extended forgiveness to Dylan Roof.

The confounding forgiveness of the Charleston Nine families has led some to ignore its motivation and propose their own... Hanna Rosin, for instance, seemed to suggest that black forgiveness was a legacy of white supremacy. Others turned the conversation to whether or not forgiveness provided an easy out to the public, allowing whites to move on from the systemic injustices and racist doctrines that permeate much of our society. By the end of Roxane Gay’s op-ed in The New York Times, the autonomous, self-initiated (to our knowledge) motivation of the black family members was replaced with uncited references to “demands for forgiveness” from “white people,” and a universal declaration that “black people forgive because we need to survive.”

Is it really that difficult to imagine that these families forgave for reasons other than to please white bystanders or advance a social cause? If the family members identified their forgiveness with their faith, is it right to insist that their willingness to forgive is a result of their race? They did not forgive to express the values of their race or to represent the character of their country, but to be faithful to their God.

... Explaining away black Christians’ exercise of their faith, and equal access to Jesus, has deep roots.

Read on here.

Should We Celebrate When Racists Get Fired?

There has been a lot of critical buzz on online shaming, silencing, censorship – you name it – of deviant opinions and behaviors, from Kirsten Powers to Jon Ronson. There are many shades of public shaming – shaming corporations vs. individuals for instance – so let me focus on one kind of shaming in particular: Racistsgettingfired.

Racistsgettingfired is a Tumblr where people do the following:

·      You find a racist post on social media by Person X

·      You take a screenshot of it and send it to this tumblr

·      You figure out, via social media, where Person X (has to be over 18) works or studies and you call/email/tweet at them with the screenshot as proof, asking their employer or college to take action

Here is a list – it is called “Gotten” – of all the racist people that have been successfully fired as a result of grassroots (or mob, depending on your slant) justice. It sometimes includes pictures of the people who have been fired.  

I find this Tumblr fascinating for a variety of reasons. 

1.    Going for the jugular. Unless you are famous, powerful or work in PR, being publicly shamed or criticized on social media is not going to ruin your career.  But basically everyone has a job that it will be costly for them to lose, so by going for the organization whom they work for that does have a brand and public image that it has to maintain is brilliant.  

2.    An online scarlet “A.” The creators of the Tumblr seem to see firing racists as a way of removing a weapon from their hands. The FAQ reads: “By holding individuals accountable to their actions in public, we force change and remove dangerous individuals from positions of power from which they could do harm.” While that is true, they also minimize what firing someone is: making them lose their main source of income. The creators assume that getting fired will not be a big deal because “the majority of these individuals will resume employment without much to impede them since they’re white.” They will have an easier time relative to non-white people, but that does not mean they will have an easy time finding another job, especially since their racist behavior will always follow them online. Hester Pyrnne carried an A on her dress to remind everyone all the time that she was an adulteress; a permanent, online record of their racist behavior could very well become a similar mark. Maybe losing their job will be the wake-up call that causes them to really examine their attitudes; it is entirely possible that this might be the only way, which is part of why I am sympathetic to Racistsgettingfired. But maybe it will just make them embittered and hire a PR consultant. 

3.    You bring dishonor to us all. Cyber-vigilantism has been analogized to the old days of public shaming in small villages. But community accountability, at its best, is exactly what we would hope for when someone tweets something racist. When small communities have to deal with misbehavior, they can weigh the fine nuances of the case – was this a one-time incident or a repeated habit? – and what penalty is appropriate given the offender’s situation. While featuring Racistsgettingfired, BBC interviewed a man, fired for a racist Facebook comment, who was struggling a few weeks later to find another job, while supporting a three-year-old kid. Moreover, communities can choose to educate the offender, offering her or him a second chance (Prison Fellowship in Rwanda often brought perpetrators and survivors together to meet each other and offer a chance at forgiveness).

In the case of Racistsgettingfired, because of the PR concerns faced by most colleges and companies, one racist behavior is likely sufficient reason to let the offender go, especially if she or he is a low-level employee. Forget weighing the nuances of the case and the appropriate penalty. Do you want to be known as a company that employs racists? No.  

In this way, cyber-vigilantism functions much like legal accountability, which as we saw in the case of Walter Scott’s failure to pay child support, is blind to nuances and inflexible: you do this, you get this. There is no contextual understanding. It is more concerned with penalizing than restoring. So it is like our legal system, except, of course, for the “due process” bit: the offender does not get to testify as to her or his side of the story in court. Take Justine Sacco, a PR executive, who tweeted on her way to Africa, “Going to Africa. Hope I don’t get AIDS. Just kidding. I’m white!” It was meant to satirize Americans who live in a bubble separated from the rest of the world, as Sacco tells Jon Ronson in an interview for the NYT. But her company fired her within 24 hours, not because she was being racist (because she wasn’t), but because their name was linked with hers. Her mistake was not that she was racist, but that she, to frame things from an Eastern lens, brought “dishonor and shame” to her company. 

4. Companies are the new families. If we are holding companies responsible for penalizing racists, does that mean companies are also responsible for training people to not be racist? Companies are taking responsibility in limited fashion. I used to work at a company within the ethics and compliance industry which sold courses ranging from how not to break the law to how to do the right thing (e.g. respectful communication). We don’t just want to shame and penalize the individual; we want to shame the companies – what kind of company are you if this person is one of your employee? In the days of the “small village,” we would ring up the family to complain one of their members’ behaviors. Now we ring up their corporate family. The truth is that, due to legal concerns, the people behind Racistsgettingfired advise people to not get in direct contact with the offender and their families, for fear that would edge into “illegal territory” (verbal harassment or threatening could occur). The only option left, then, is their workplaces. What a world we have come to where companies become the new moral training grounds—the new families.

Sarah Ngu (@sarahngu) is a freelance writer and an alumni of Trinity Forum Academy and Columbia University. Based in New York, she blogs on faith and culture, and produces thought leadership for businesses.   

Ad Hoc Justice and #KellyOnMyMind

Kelly Gissendaner has the perfect redemption story--without the ending, as of yet.

She is, for those of who are unfamiliar, awaiting execution by the state of Georgia for planning the murder of her husband. More than 500 Georgia clergy and other faith leaders have signed a petition asking for clemency based on evidence that she has experienced a profound spiritual transformation and has changed her life and the lives of others for the better.

Christianity Today published an editorial asking for her life to be spared because she has "turned her life around," citing her confession of guilt, her stated faith in Christ's redemption, as well as testimonials from inmates, overseers and officers. Neither the editorial nor the petition addresses the legitimacy of the death penalty.

The framing is clear: the plea for clemency is not about whether capital punishment is legitimate, but rather it is about making a special exception for those transformed into new persons. It is an intuitive argument, especially for Christians, but it is ultimately incoherent. One cannot plead for clemency for Kelly, without pleading for clemency for all.

First, let's recognize that the only way most of us know about Kelly's story – and thus have the opportunity to petition, protest, and tweet with the hashtag #Kellyonmymind  -- is largely contingent on factors outside of her control. She happened to have access to a theology studies program for prisoners run by several divinity schools in Atlanta. Her teachers have testified to her genuine transformation in her clemency petition, rallied Georgian faith leaders, and have connected her to the renowned theologian Jurgen Moltmann, who became her pen pal and wrote a letter in support of her clemency, resulting in a feature in the The New York Times. We are pleading for clemency for a case that is circumstantially cherry-picked. What about other inmates who have similar stories of transformation but are alone in jail cells with a single bible?

Moreover, what about other stories of repentance that do not look the "perfect" Christian redemption narrative: those who are repentant but who are Muslim or hold no faith, or those who repent but are simply not as saint-like as Kelly, who was described as "an amazing beacon in a very dark place” by a correctional officer? Melissa Browning writes that she likes Kelly’s story because, as a Christian, she "love[s] a good redemption story.” Lets also admit that we prefer redemption stories that fit our faith-narratives, even though repentance is certainly not an exclusively Christian act.  

Of course, one might counter, other stories probably exist and likely merit our advocacy as much as Kelly's does, but it is humanly impossible to fully know them because we are not omniscient and objective. Sure, but if we acknowledge that we do not have the capability to "objectively peer into people’s hearts" and thus cannot accurately determine all those who are truly repentant, then why are we in the business of (selectively) choosing who gets pardoned and a chance at life? Moreover, if we lack the ability to determine who is genuinely repentant, then that throws into radical doubt our ability to "objectively peer into people’s hearts" to decide who is truly guilty (an estimated four percent of defendants sentenced to die are innocent). 

We, of course, have to make judgments about the intentions of others; there is no escaping this fact. But it is quite another matter to do so with life and death at stake, which means we cannot avoid the larger question, in petitioning for Kelly's pardoning, of whether we, through the institution of the state, have the authority to essentially rationally gamble with someone's life in the act of pronouncing them "guilty" or "repentant."

We, through the state, have the authority to mete out punishment for those who break our laws, or the “terms and conditions” for living in our society. Our authority means that we can, as punishment, legitimately exclude people from our society (e.g. deport) or relegate them to the margins (e.g. imprison), but as a society, we do not have the authority to exclude people from the human race. 

Christians have the additional question of what kind of authority God has granted to the state. The debate tends to hinge on Romans 13 where Paul writes that if you "do wrong, be afraid, for [the ruler] does not bear the sword in vain." As Chaplain Dale Recinella points out, the word for "sword" used is "machaira," which means a dagger; it was not used for decapitation. "Rhomphaia" is a broadsword, which was what was used to execute criminals, indicating that Paul was using the word "sword" to indicate the authority to inflict punishment in general, but not explicitly capital punishment. There is still, obviously, disagreement among scholars as to the implications of "machaira" versus "rhomphaia," but it is worth noting that, according to N.T. Wright, "almost all the early Christian Fathers were opposed to the death penalty, even though it was of course standard practice across the ancient world."  

So what are we really asking when we are asking for Kelly Gissendaner to be pardoned? We are asking, legitimately, that she not be executed – not because of her now-virtuous life, but because her life, or anyone's, is simply not ours to take.  

Sarah Ngu lives and works in New York City as a freelance writer for businesses. She was a fellow at the Trinity Forum Academy and a graduate of Columbia University. She writes occasionally for Fare Forward. 

Dispatches from Europe #2 (UK)

The second post in a series of reflections on travel to the UK and Paris by Michael Wear