EARLIER THIS YEAR I heard Rev. William Barber of the Moral Mondays movement in North Carolina use the phrase “Mr. James Crow, Esq.”
Since hearing the phrase, I have been reflecting on the revised and updated name for Jim Crow, the comprehensive and brutal system of racial segregation, discrimination, and terrorist violence against black lives and bodies—explicit in the U.S. South, and often implicit in the North, throughout the 20th century.
I have been thinking about this new and more-sophisticated Mr. James Crow, wearing a white shirt and a tie instead of a white sheet and a hood and inhabiting the back rooms in state legislatures and corporate offices instead of rural backwoods lynching sites.
I’ve also been thinking about Mr. Crow’s strategy for the 2016 election and the years ahead.
Mr. James Crow’s biggest concern now is the transformational demographic shifts occurring in the United States, which by 2040 or so will see a significant milestone: For the first time, the U.S. will no longer be a white-majority nation and, instead, will be made up of a majority of minorities. That’s one of the most important facts in American political life today. This fundamental demographic shift in racial and cultural identity is underneath almost everything in U.S. politics—including the presidential election.
So with a suit instead of a sheet, how does Mr. James Crow, Esq., enact his strategy? And what are the servants of Mr. Crow saying to one another?
THIS NEW VERSION of Jim Crow has a clear, systematic strategy to protect white supremacy and promote racial segregation, discrimination, and even violence. He knows that even he, with all his power, can’t prevent the racial demographics of America from evolving. But he thinks he can obstruct and delay the changes that new racial demographics will bring to American life and politics. In apartheid South Africa, we saw that even when a racial group is in the minority, it can wield the power to oppress other races and protect its own supremacy.
Mr. James Crow’s five-part strategy includes:
“WE CAN'T LET our status as nonprofits turn us into non-prophets.” My old friend Rev. Timothy McDonald III, senior pastor of First Iconium Baptist Church, said that at a town hall meeting on racism that we had in Atlanta’s Ebenezer Baptist Church last spring, on the anniversary of the murder of Martin Luther King Jr.
In McDonald’s “prophetic” way, he was pointing to a real dilemma that many of us as church leaders are having with this election. Namely, how do we speak to the clear Christian issues involved in this election without violating our status as a nonprofit organization? (Under IRS regulations, so-called 501(c)(3) organizations such as ours are prohibited from participating in political campaigns.) How do we raise up a morally independent stance, as opposed to a politically partisan position?
Sojourners has always sought to change the conversation of election debates by lifting up the voices and interests of those outside of traditional political discourse: the most vulnerable, who are often of least interest to those looking for votes or campaign contributions. We have never endorsed a candidate for president but have always raised the moral issues of poverty, peace, justice, and the dignity of every life during election campaigns and asked Christians to vote according to those values.
I spent three days in early September with three different groups of faith leaders who were trying to bring their faith to bear in this election. These meetings, which featured leaders from many faith traditions, ethnicities, and theological backgrounds, focused on how to respond to the divisive and dangerous racial rhetoric in this presidential election campaign. We sought to discern how to remain independent of partisan political causes, faithful to the transcendent Christian values that are clearly at stake in this election, respectful of Christians who are led to different voting preferences in every election (which is a healthy thing), and civil in our own public discourse in an election environment that seems to have lost all civility.
WITH ONLY a month left before the start of the annual war on Christmas—my Bill O’Reilly desk calendar keeps me up to date on all the seasonal liberal conspiracies—there is still time to plan this year’s shopping, starting with a new president.
Despite the fact that most voters are in critical need of a discerning hand to guide their choice—a choice that requires more thought than is possible during the commercial breaks on “Dancing With the Stars”—Sojourners is forbidden from providing that guidance because of restrictions from the Internal Revenue Service.
But this election is too important for us to quietly surrender to 501(c)(3) rules, since acquiescence is the final sanctuary of the coward, if he knew how to spell it. This year, with our nation so divided, it is time for Sojourners to issue a clear endorsement of one candidate, regardless of the consequences (a word that uses the letter “c” with laudable efficiency).
WE HAVE committed acts of civil disobedience before—getting arrested for protests against South African apartheid, the secret wars in Central America, and the immoral budget priorities of Congress, and, in a lesser known act of conscience, loudly objecting to the watered-down beverages on tap at our neighborhood bar. (Always the clever one in the group, I called it “tap water.”) The pizza was also horrible, but we let that one slide. The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice. Unfortunately, justice is probably going to get bent long before they add more pepperoni. You just can’t rush bad pizza.
But where was I? Oh yes, our brazen act of defiance against restrictions of our 501(c)(3) status. It should be noted that 501(c)(4) nonprofits are allowed more leeway, as long as their work is educational and contributes to the “social welfare” of the country. The fact that many 501(c)(4)s are mainly promoting the social welfare of industrial polluters, gun manufacturers, and other groups of interest to Karl Rove is beside the point.
Sexism is dead. So sayeth most men, according to a national survey in August. Women, on the other hand, aren’t quite convinced.
The poll by the Pew Research Center found that 56 percent of men, and only 34 percent of women, said they thought that “sexism no longer was a barrier” to women in this country. (A pair of adjacent headlines on washingtonpost.com summed it up: “Sexism is over, according to most men” immediately preceded “It’s 2016, and women still make less for doing the same work as men.”)
So, welcome to “post-sexist” America.
I imagine it will look a lot like the “post-racist” America that Barack Obama’s election in 2008 supposedly ushered in. At that time, a few days after Obama’s historic election, The Wall Street Journal wrote that “Barack Obama’s election as the first black U.S. president promises to usher in a new era of race relations.”
The paper quoted a senior Obama adviser as saying, “People say he is a post-racial candidate. When people say that, they seem to suggest that we are beyond the issue of race, that issues of race don’t matter.” But Obama will tell you, she continued, that “he thinks race does matter.”
Turns out the president was right.
AND NOW, if the country elects its first woman president this fall, will it be seen as a sign that the country has moved into a new era regarding justice and equality for women?
The campaign itself, of course, hasn’t been encouraging. Some wonder if the level of vitriol aimed at the first woman to receive a major-party presidential nomination is due in large part to the fact that she’s, well, a woman.
Over the last 50 or 60 years, overt sexism—like overt racism—has been made less and less socially acceptable. But a look at basic statistics for, say, women in leadership positions—from CEOs at top companies (4 percent) to members of Congress (19 to 20 percent)—should dispel the delusion that we live in an egalitarian society.
YOU HAVE TO feel for Dean Kamen, inventor of the Segway, who probably gets tired of hearing about his own death.
Kamen, still very much alive, introduced the self-balancing vehicle in 2001. But since 2010, when new Segway Inc. owner Jimi Heselden accidentally drove a Segway off a cliff to his death, popular memory has conflated the tragedy with its creator.
There are any number of plausible reasons for this case of false identification, but one of the most persistent deals with moral comeuppance: A person invents an obnoxious, silly vehicle; a person dies from the frivolous invention. It isn’t kind, but that sort of morality tale is enduringly satisfying. When we despair for humanity, our inner cynic appreciates when humanity gets what’s coming.
Kamen isn’t the first victim of misapplied poetic justice—fascination with the archetype of the doomed inventor stretches back to Greek myth, punctuated by names from Hamlet (whose snide “’tis the sport to have the engineer / hoist with his own petard” unwittingly championed his impending demise) to Alfred Nobel, who, despite popular myth, did not actually have many regrets about inventing dynamite.
John Sylvan, inventor of the Keurig single-cup coffee dispenser, is a recent case of the regretful kind—he publicly laments having introduced the waste-belching quick-fix to bulk coffee, and later designed a fully recyclable prototype that would remedy the environmental concern. But most of us only know (or care?) about that first part.
There’s something viscerally satisfying in the demise of a technological Icarus. Such falls let us root for our own inertia—a triumph against the hubris of building something nonessential, and the idealism of thinking it could change the world. To stop at a moral tale of disaster is to keep the focus on poetic justice and our own wisdom. It also, conveniently, keeps us from having to face the complexity of, “What do we do about it now?”
These are turbulent times. 2016 was a turbulent year. But the waters of baptism invite us to hope. We hold our breath, the water splashing against our skin. We hold our breath, anticipating what is to come. We hold our breath, we remember our baptism, and we have hope.
“You want it to be meaningful not only to your president-elect, but you want it to be meaningful also to the nation,” Graham said.
“I’m taking time just to pray and ask God to give me wisdom and guidance because it’s a responsibility that I take very seriously.”
This is the third inauguration Graham will have attended, he noted. The first was to assist his father Billy Graham at the second inaugural of President Bill Clinton in 1997; the second, to offer the invocation at the first inaugural of President George W. Bush in 2001.
Southern Baptist ethicist Russell Moore, who has drawn praise and pans for his critiques of President-elect Donald Trump, has apologized to Southern Baptists who think he was critical of anyone who voted for the Republican candidate.
“There’s a massive difference between someone who enthusiastically excused immorality and someone who felt conflicted, weighed the options based on biblical convictions, and voted their conscience,” he said in a column published Dec. 19
Now that the election is resolved, both the media and politicians have moved to “normalize” the president-elect, even if his personality and practices are far from normal. Let’s call this the great Washington “suck up” to power which goes far beyond the peaceful transition of power, which is an invaluable American democratic tradition.
But this is not normal. None of this is normal.
Like many people in the nation, I was deeply disturbed when I stayed up late watching the election results on Nov. 8. This country elected Donald Trump to succeed the nation’s first African-American president — a deed that was in no way coincidental. President Obama’s election was an historic moment: the United States sent a black family to live in the house that slaves built as a residence for the highest political office in the land of their captivity. And with the election of Obama to that high office, the White House became home to free ancestors of the slaves who built it. Obama’s election felt like an earthquake of sorts. When the dust settled, it seemed that some old, terrible things had been demolished, and other things were moved around. From all appearances society had been recalibrated.
Arrival is an intricate, beautifully-realized story reminding us that, especially at a moment of great clamor in our society, it’s important not just to talk, but to listen to each other — and not just to listen, but to listen with intentionality and compassion.
We’re part of a community of people who are using cameras and pens and microphones to explore our differences — and I think that’s what keeps our differences from being explored by knives and bombs and all these other forms of destruction. What you’re doing with a publication, what we're doing with film, it’s all part of the same effort.
That’s where you see democracy at work, and that’s really what we’re rededicating ourselves to.
This is the world as it is: a world that a robust doctrine of sin should teach us to expect but which idolatry seduces us into forgetting. The chasing after idols is always foolish, but some have the luxury to indulge such foolishness at no physical cost to themselves. The election of Trump is a wake-up call to remember what those who are black, brown, queer, disabled, or a religious minority can only forget at their peril: that oppression is likely to get worse, but the struggle goes on; that the absurd becomes normalized, but must nevertheless be ridiculed even to the point where ridicule feels absurd; that love is more real than hate, but real love means hating what is evil; that the space between the world as it is and the world as it should be must be grieved in order to find the hope to go on; that a truly good, happy and meaningful life cannot involve leisure built off the domination of others. No form of life can be good if it does not have in its institutional forms and ends justice and generosity for all, and pursues this in such a way as to foster the agency of everyone, especially the vulnerable and dependent.
As members of the left, we find ourselves wanting meaning, now, no less than did those who voted to Make America Great Again. We want a theodicy. We want answers. We want, in a sense, a religious explanation for how to proceed next.
It would be intellectually satisfying to come up with new narratives. It would also be lazy.
As Christians, what we are called to do is sacrifice that. We go on living. That’s it. We donate, if we choose to; we participate, when we can, in acts of goodness and solidarity and defiance; we rage against racism when we see it; when men grope women on subway platforms we follow the women to comfort them, as happened to me earlier this week. We do dull, good things, and we vote. We love, but do not soothe ourselves with the softness of that love. We deconstruct our own narratives, especially when they make us feel good.
We cry out in the wilderness. But we do not expect answers — not yet, and maybe not ever. If we are called to anything, now, it is do the work of living without them.
Trump has painted a picture of America where walls loom, refugees are banished without a merciful glance, families are torn apart, people of color are killed more frequently and with even less consequence, and the suffering are left to suffer all alone. I find myself praying for a presidency that is only bad rather than catastrophic. And I find myself resolved with a new certainty to never let the vision Trump has painted come true.
While I mourn how this election threatens to erode the progress that’s been made over the last eight years, I am reminded this is not our whole story as a nation nor as citizens of the kin-dom of God. There is a better story yet to be written.
Storytelling is at the heart of all movements. If we have ears to hear and eyes to see, stories can inspire us to listen deeply and to compassionately respond to the voices and lived experiences of those on the margins of society.
"Both sides are terrified of the other side," Colbert said. "... How did our politics get so poisonous? I think it's because we overdosed, especially this year. We drank too much of the poison."
A diverse group of Christian leaders — including Bishop Claude Alexander, Dr. Barbara Williams-Skinner, Rev. Joel Hunter, Rev. Traci Blackmon, Dr. Leith Anderson, Jim Wallis, and dozens more— issued a statementthis afternoon calling for the presidential candidates and all Americans to respect the process and outcome of today’s elections. The statement was authored by Bishop Claude Alexander, who is the senior pastor at The Park Church in Charlotte, N.C. In issuing this statement, dozens of signers from across the theological, racial, and political spectrum have come together — before the election results are known — to support the integrity of the election process and call for Congress as a body to “… put partisan politics aside and end the toxic gridlock.”
This is another form of racialized terror for a black woman to endure. Our call in this 21st century is to be faithful in the small things, follow the ways of Jesus, and resist empire and oppressive systems at all cost. This is the cost of discipleship, as Dietrich Bonhoeffer teaches. The active resistance to systems that perpetuate terror and oppression is what we are called to do. This is part of being faithful in the small things: resisting systems that perpetuate the logic of dominance and that do not conform to the eschatological hope of collective liberation.
"Saturday Night Live" has been having a great run this season, thanks to historic nature of this election cycle. But besides flat-out mockery and spot-on impersonations of the candidates, the show has also provided some excellent fodder for discussion, including last month's "Black Jeopardy" sketch, which found common ground between black Americans and a Trump supporter.