This is the first Christmas I can remember when the news was all about cops and race. The current conflict it fuels is now poised to last long into the new year. Christians should have addressed that conflict more forcefully over the holidays. They did not, but they should do so in 2015. Our failure to extend human fellowship across the races reveals not just the limits of public policy, but the power of religion in American life.
Though this year’s uproar has been fueled by a sad string of particular incidents, it has been dominated by two abstract ideas. One blames black Americans as a race; the other, racism as a social structure. Despite their differences, both presume the only sufficient way to address “the race problem” is through political and economic policy.
Americans on the left are becoming convinced that cultural training for whites is no longer enough; on the right, Americans are growing certain that the same is true about blacks. Representing the change among self-described liberals, The Week’s Ryan Cooper suggests not only that “educating the privileged has reached a point of diminishing returns,” but that “attacking racist outcomes with structural policy can make that education unnecessary.” Meanwhile, notes Jamelle Bouie at Slate, the likes of Rudy Giuliani opine that president Obama should spend “fifteen minutes on training the [black] community to stop killing each other”—quite a laugh line, at least for those who’d lock up black America long before such “training” could ever set in.
Abandoning progressive re-education on the one hand and reactionary re-civilization on the other, we no longer want to change hearts and minds. Society itself must be changed, right out from under our hopeless cases.
But conservatives haven’t shown how they would mend and not end today’s “broken” system, nor liberals how they’d replace a system that isn’t broken after all, but “built to work this way,” as they often pessimistically put it.
Yet who has stepped up to ask whether our disillusioned mania for the power to dictate policy is the inevitable result of railing at the heart and the mind, but falling silent before the soul?
Among African Americans, the likes of Al Sharpton, Jesse Jackson, or Jeremiah Wright cannot do it. Among whites, the situation is also bad — in some ways, even worse. Pat Robertson wants to talk about the extinction of the gays. Joel Osteen wants to talk about muting your cell phone at the dinner table.
Even those Christians who do want to minister amid the rancor of race and policing are missing the mark. At Christianity Today, Peter Chin claims Christians should preach peace instead of bogging down in the particulars of race. But relative to centuries past, America is a marvel of domestic tranquility. The promise of Christianity is not earthly peace, but unity in human fellowship — however systemic, targeted, or racial is the violence in our lives.
Racism persists because of the memory of race slavery—a badge of inferiority so deeply and violently ingrained over generations and centuries that even the coercive force of the federal government, in the name of supreme moral principles, has not been able to wipe it away. Racism has debased more than its fair share of Christians. But in black and white history alike, Christianity’s particular claims have ushered in personal and social transformations beyond the scope of abstract ideals.
That is a distinction with a sociological difference—for many, an uncomfortable one to consider. Christianity isn’t important to American politics because it’s cosmically correct, but because it serves a social role that Americans can’t seem to replicate in other ways—no matter how adequate to our personal lives we might find other modes of spiritualism, or none, to be. Over the centuries, that could possibly change. For the foreseeable future, to say the very least, it’s poised not to.
Nevertheless, Christianity’s force is in its unique ability to ground egalitarian moral principles by asserting the ancient personal authority of a name (Jesus). Today, the authority of a name retains some currency in the business world — bow down, consumers, to Steve Jobs, Jeff Bezos, or whomever. But the last national figure to wield ancient personal authority in an explicitly religious way was Robert F. Kennedy.
In Indianapolis to campaign before a predominantly poor, black crowd, Kennedy was instructed to avoid the city’s police chief — and abandoned by his police escort to break the news of Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination. Then he quoted Aeschylus by heart:
Even in our sleep, pain which cannot forgetfalls drop by drop upon the heartuntil, in our own despair,against our will,comes wisdomthrough the awful grace of God.
Kennedy showed that we need not always summon forth Jesus to command one another to mercy — the forgiving, mutual act that draws us together in a transformational relationship. But the authority of his name far exceeds that of our own, famous or obscure though we be.
At any rate, policy can enforce equal rights and foster equal opportunity. But it never has been the site of equal mercy, and it never will be. Policy is about wielding power, while mercy is about transcending power by renouncing it.
That is decidedly not to say that politics and economics are irrelevant.. Breaking Jim Crow meant flexing federal muscle. A Civil Rights Act meant an act of Congress. In fact, these kinds of advances helped give religion another huge window of opportunity for racial reconciliation in the 1960s. And black fury toward cops today is fueled by historic economic disparities and by the economic disaster of the past decade plus.
Yet politics and economics have not just failed to “solve” the “race problem”; they have failed to draw the races together in the way that Christianity fitfully began to do in the 1960s, but had mostly ceased to do by the 1970s. Christianity in the civil rights movement was eclipsed by Marxism, militarism, and other secular visions that placed more faith in power than in spiritual authority; whites, meanwhile, embraced forms of Christianity that mapped well onto the logic of white flight.
So this is Christmas, as the song goes, and what have we done? If mercy is not preached by a national figure we take seriously, our battles over policy power will grow ever more merciless. Can our acid political culture accommodate such a person? We tend to think not, but the rise of King, Kennedy, and Lincoln was unlikely, too. There are always surprises—thank God.