Thursday, September 17, 2009

Racism is the Demon

Then the whole town came out to meet Jesus; and when they saw him they begged him to leave their neighborhood.
Matthew 8:34

I said they refused Jesus, too, and he said, “You’re not him.”
Bob Dylan

They asked Jesus to leave because he had been casting out demons.

The Gospel stories of demons and demon possession are hard for us to understand. The pre-scientific world view of the first century is in many ways very different from our own. But the demon stories leave us with some enduring truths:

1. The demons recognize Jesus. They see the truth in him and they are afraid.
2. He names them and by this naming and identifying, he takes away their power.
3. People get nervous when demons are cast out.

This last point has been apparent in the response to President Jimmy Carter’s recent remarks. He correctly identified the demon of racism, which has possessed our country for so long, and he has been vilified for it. I watched video of Jimmy Carter, his shoulders hunched and his posture bent by age, as the commentator talked about him “intimidating” and bullying those who disagree. When someone has the courage to name the demon, we say that he or she is “playing the race card.” The one who names the oppression is called the oppressor. That is our way of begging Jesus to leave our neighborhood.

Racism does not surprise me. What surprises me and troubles me, is the inability (or unwillingness) of people to call it what it is and cast it out.

Recently the Providence Journal ran an editorial comparing Bob Dylan’s encounter with a police officer in Atlantic City with the Henry Louis Gates incident in Cambridge. If only Professor Gates had been as calm as Bob Dylan, they argue, there would never have been a problem. And that makes sense, because except for a few small details, the circumstances are remarkably similar:

--Bob Dylan was trespassing on someone else’s property, while Professor Gates was in his own home.
--Dylan was wandering in the middle of the night and Gates was coming home in the middle of the day.
--Dylan was dressed like a street person and Gates was dressed like Henry Louis Gates.
--Gates showed his identification, and Dylan had no ID.
--They both got a ride in a police car. Gates was handcuffed, Dylan was not. Gates was taken to the police station to be booked. Dylan was taken to his hotel to see if someone could verify his identity.
--And in the Dylan case, the police officer apologized.

Other than those minor details, the cases were identical.

In an interview with Brian Williams, President Carter said, "I think an overwhelming portion of the intensely demonstrated animosity toward President Barack Obama is based on the fact that he is a black man, that he's African American.” He has named the demon and there are lots of people who want him to leave the neighborhood.

When President Bill Clinton undertook healthcare reform sixteen years ago, and Hillary Clinton led that effort, there was enough opposition to eventually derail the program. What was different was that the opposition did not have what President Carter called “intensely demonstrated animosity” currently directed toward President Obama. It was not as personal, nor was it as intense. It was on the issues. We expect debate. And we expect that debate to be heated at times. But this goes way beyond lively debate.

Racism is difficult if not impossible to prove. Maybe it’s just a coincidence that the first time a member of the House of Representatives interrupted a Presidential address by shouting, “You lie!”, the President was Black. And the interrupter was a defender of the Confederate Flag. And that he had condemned Strom Thurmond’s Black daughter for smearing the late Senator by publicly saying that he was her father. That could all be coincidence.

Maybe Joe Wilson just had a bad day. And maybe the people carrying signs telling the “Lyin’ African” (juxtaposed with a “lion in Africa”) to go back to Africa are not racists. And maybe the people carrying pictures of the President as a witch doctor would have done the same thing if John Edwards had been elected.

President Carter is not calling it racism because he disagrees with those who criticize the President's policies. He is naming the demon. We need to have the courage to cast it out. Then we can get back to debating the issues.


  1. That was a great post Bill.

    I think it is significant that Rep. Wilson's outburst came in response to the mention of illegal immigrants and health care.

    When we talk about immigration, "intense animosity" is right up front.

    After all, when people are talking about immigration problems, they aren’t talking about Canadians (eh?). When people are complaining about immigration, they are usually complaining about non-whites who do not speak English. This is granting, of course, that there are many non-white Canadians but that isn't the image that comes to mind. This in itself could be racism at play.

    No doubt there are probably more illegal immigrants from places south of the border than there are from Canada but if you listen to talk-radio talk there are two issues that are brought up the most. (1) There are people who complain that Spanish speakers don’t learn “our language” (even though the U.S. does not have an official language) and (2) there is a fear of a time that whites will become a minority in this country.

    Racism is a tough thing to own up to. I think we all participate in the fear of those who are different than we are even though we don't want to admit it.

  2. Keith
    It's ok to call them Mexicans. This group has yet to decide it is degrading to be called one. Have no fear of the language barrier. When they become the majority, it will be the whites who will have the shoe on the other foot. Hope they/we enjoy the fit.

    Reminds me of how we should treat others as we would like to be treated!

  3. Actually I didn’t call “them” Mexicans because I wasn’t talking about just Mexicans. I was talking about people who are of non-European heritage that speak Spanish. I would say the prejudice against such people in “white society” is not just limited to Mexicans but extends to those from Central and South America as well.

    >>> “When they become the majority, it will be the whites who will have the shoe on the other foot. Hope they/we enjoy the fit.”

    Am I wrong in reading that you believe in a “White society” which could then be “taken over?” Do you assume a "White nation" that will have to undergo a paradigm shift? What about people who have ethnic roots in China, Japan, Korea, India and Africa? These are Americans too. What shoes will they be wearing? Will they fit?

    If the majority of our country was not white and spoke a different language would that be so terrible? I would point out that the historical Jesus was not Anglo-Saxton nor did he speak English. I still think he is worth putting in charge.

    If the assumption is that we are a society run predominately by people of European decent which worries about being "taken over" (by population or force) then perhaps we need to challenge our assumptions about the nature of an equitable society and whether or not there is any racism in the system. Perhaps it does need to be the case where we live into “treat others as you would like to be treated” a little better.

    I find the image of a particular ethnic group “taking over” to be the heart of fear that fuels racism. This week I was listening to Jay Severin (talk show host) bring up the “facts” about the high rates of murder and kidnapping in Mexico City and then tried to offer a connection to the high levels of murder in Phoenix, Arizona. He then brought up a situation at the border where a van of people smashed into the border patrol booth and then made a break for it. He talked about how this was an assault on America. He simply presented these issues as "facts" but his entire rhetoric was centered on the idea of "bad people" connected to immigration. Ultimately he was pushing the idea: Illegal immigrants are dangerous!

    Of course SOME illegal immigrants are criminal and dangerous BUT there are many more American citizens that are equally (if not more) criminal and dangerous. Proof of citizenship is not a measure of your moral character.

    We need to abandon the model of dominance and fear --- those who are not in power fear those in power and those who are in power place barriers in place so they do not lose power.

    I think that is the importance of the Christian vision. We need to become less about labeling each other and who will be in charge and more about looking for the common good of all people by seeing each other as children of God. I believe this is a central message that runs through the entire Bible. It starts with Cain’s question of “Am I my brother’s keeper?” and is answered by Jesus when asked “Who is my neighbor?”

    There are no illegal immigrants in the Kingdom of God.

  4. Let me give a brief revision to that last statement "In the Kingdom of God no one is labeled as an illegal immigrant."

    The more I thought about it, "There are no illegal immigrants in the Kingdom of God" sounded like the Kingdom of God had a strong border patrol.

    On a related note though, it is interesting that people often borrow from The Revelation of John in depicting the Kingdom of God having walls and a gate. A great deal of theology (too much) is then spent on knowing who gets to go in or not.

  5. In regards to your comment about the Clintons not being similarly pilloried when pushing public healthcare coverage, I clearly remember that Hillary Clinton was disregarded and demonized as an uppity woman. The detractors committed to maintaining male supremacy used similar tactics to the racists of this time. They were not nearly as vitriolic and demeaning as the current strain of racists but they emerged from a similar fear.
    Jane Emmons

  6. Be kind whenever possible. It is always possible.

    Hillary has proven again she is ahead of her time. Good for her!

  7. Thank you for speaking up. You have pure eyes, that see the truth and you speak it boldly. May God protect and strengthen you, increase your platform and humiliate your enemies, in the All-powerful Name of Jesus Christ. Amen.