Race and Church (the hidden wound)

Many of you know my “Holy Ghost ipod shuffle” phenomenon theory. I can tell you that I believe the principle also applies to book selection, at least when you are walking in the Spirit.

As Amanda and I were gone on vacation driving along coastal Maine and Canada, we went in as many used bookstores as we could.  It’s my vice.  Interestingly enough, of the hundreds of books I sorted through, only 2 jumped out as “gotta haves:” inexpensive first editions of Martin Luther King Jr.’s Strength to Love (a collection of sermons) and Wendell Berry’s The Hidden Wound.  Both books are in essence about race in America from a Christian perspective, written about 7 years apart.  Both brought me back into a world of ideas I believe in and am passionate about, and yet both did so with a sense of discomfort.

I’m very comfortable with my convictions about race and the gospel, but not altogether sure I’ve ever figured out entirely what to do about them.  Berry’s book is interesting in that he explores the “hidden wound” that racism has left on white people.  The premise can be summarized in these words “If the white man has inflicted the wound of racism upon black men, the cost has been that he would receive the mirror image of that wound into himself…I want to know, as fully and exactly as I can, what the wound is and how much I am suffering from it.  And I want to be cured.”

The unsettling things about reading these books in tandem, being tag-teamed by their haunting beauty, is the sense that the Spirit is stirring me to action in ways I do not yet fully understand.  I think I still tend to fall prey to the common evangelical tendency to focus on the soul/spiritual reality to the exclusion of the body/implications for real life.  And if there is any place where Berry won’t let you off the hook, it is here.  The most moving section of the book for me was when Berry addressed the role of preaching in supporting the institution of slavery:

If a man wanted to remain a preacher he would have to honor that division in the minds of the congregation between earth and heaven, body and soul.  His concern obviously had to be with things heavenly; unless he was a saint or a fool he would leave earthly things to the care of those who stood to benefit from them.

Thus the moral obligation was cleanly excerpted from the religion.  The question of how to best live on the earth, among one’s fellow creatures, was permitted to atrophy, and the churches devoted themselves exclusively and obsessively with the question of salvation…

The mystical aspects of Christianity completely overshadow the moral.  But it is a bogus mysticism, mysticism as wishful magic, a recipe by which to secure the benefits of eternal bliss without having to give up the benefits of temporal vice: corrupt your soul and save it too!

…When the ministers of these churches turned their attention to the world, they did so…violently opposing such ‘sins’ as drinking, failure to attend church, and ‘immorality’–sins of somewhat questionable status in the first place, and which the church found it easy enough both to condemn and to live with, and to the practice of which its condemnation added little more than a certain spice…

Detached from real issues and real evils, the language of religion became abstract, intensely (desperately?) pious, rhetorical, inflated with phony mysticism and joyless passion.  The religious institutions became comfort stations for scribes and publicans and pharisees.  Far from curing the wound of racism, the white man’s Christianity has been its soothing bandage–a bandage masquerading as Sunday clothes, for the wearing of which one expects a certain moral credit.

Of course most everyone now agrees with Berry’s critique–insofar as you limit the conversation to the church’s silent and sometimes explicit consent of slavery and racism historically.  But by no means was this always obvious.  And my sense is that most of our glaring sins are not terribly obvious when you are living in the thick of them.  The most dangerous rebellion is always that which is right under your nose.  I offer no solutions, only a troubling question: where might we still be perpetuating this same body/soul division in the church now?  In what ways are perpetuating sin within our systems, especially towards the poor and weak among us, and yet become so comfortable that we are oblivious to the voice of the Spirit to convict us of them?  Might there still be latent racism lurking beneath the surface of our cheerful verbiage that God still wants to disrupt?  Is the racial unity God is calling His church far more violent, disruptive and ultimately wonderful than we have had the imagination to envision?

“Search me O God, and know my heart…” Psalm 139.23