A Common Household book review
Trouble I've Seen: Changing the Way the Church Views Racism, by Drew G.I. Hart. © 2016.
I recommend this book to white American Christians.
Dr. Hart points out the inability (or unwillingness) of white Christians in this country to be able to see life from the perspective of people of color. This inability supports prolonged systemic racism, both in the church and in the country. In white American churches, racism is often only addressed every now and then, in a sermon here or there, based on some national event. Hey, we mentioned racism on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, so now we can move on.
This book has tough words for white Christians to hear. Will we have the heart and energy to persevere in looking at our role in the continuation of racism, in the face of such condemning words? I found it worthwhile to continue reading, and hope that you do, too.
This book makes the point, also seen in other recent books on racism, that racism goes much deeper than individual acts, such as “saying the ‘n-word’. The perspective of white Americans, when it comes to racism, is shallow and short-termed, whereas the perspective of black Americans is more comprehensive and takes a long view of history. Are we white Christians willing to try to change our perspective?
Dr. Hart shows how a “whitened” Jesus supports American empire and racism. At the time of Jesus’ birth, “Rome was the ruling empire over the Jews, and consequently all of Israel understood what it meant to be oppressed – what it meant to live life with someone’s foot against your neck.” (p. 59) Throughout American history, white Christians have used a false understanding of Jesus to support oppression, rather than to free the oppressed.
But Jesus is a subversive. “In his life and ministry, Jesus found solidarity with the poor, with the oppressed, with vulnerable women, with the socially rejected and marginalized, with ethnic Samaritan outcasts, with the demon-possessed, and with the blind or physically sick.” (p. 61) Jesus stands against Caesar and against the existing social order. We should consider that Jesus wants us to take a stand against the oppressive aspects of our existing social order, which includes systemic racism.
When trying to start a conversation with white Americans about racism, the author usually gets these kinds of reactions: defensiveness, antagonism, color-blindness (“I don’t see color” is essentially an inability to recognize racism). White people discount his experiences. Sometimes he experiences someone who has good intentions, but who questions the author’s perspective on what racism is. I think this intense emotional discomfort renders white Americans unlikely to persevere in addressing racism.
Hart writes, “Dominant cultures have a way of disguising their own oppressive practices from themselves with strong proclamations of innocence and benevolence and universal principles of equality.” This is amply described in another book I read this year - Mistakes were made (but not by me): Why we justify foolish beliefs, bad decisions, and hurtful acts , by Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson , © 2007, 2015. Humans have a basic psychological need to justify their own actions and to view themselves as worthy and innocent. It is partly this basic human need and partly the socialization of the dominant white culture that prevents us white people from seeing racism. It’s very hard for the dominant portion of society to see oppression.
The last chapter, “Where Do We Go From Here?” proposes seven “Jesus-shaped practices for the anti-racist church”. I urge you to read all the way through to the end.
There is one criticism I have of this book. There are a few pages in Chapter 3, “Leaving Behind the Whitened Jesus”, where I see anti-Judaism on display. Hart espouses the theology that basically sets up all Jews in the earthly time of Jesus as idiotic bad guys because they failed to recognize Jesus as Messiah.
Jesus [says] “You will not see me until you say, ‘Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!’ (Luke 13:35). Most of his listeners would have been anticipating a visitation from God as Jeremiah prophesied, and many would have also expected a messiah who would come and deliver them from their unrighteous oppressors. This would happen in Jerusalem. Yet when the time came, they did not recognize God in the flesh.
Isn’t that something? They could not recognize that it was God manifested in Jesus. They attended synagogue and served the torah their whole lives. Yet when God took on human flesh, somehow Jesus looked nothing like many people’s projections of the divine one. (p. 70)
I don’t like this theology, nor its mocking tone. I think it is a dangerous and wrong theology (a view I probably got from reading Jewish New Testament scholar Dr. Amy-Jill Levine, and from being married to a Jew). I believe that Hart is trying to make the point that the Jews (“God’s people”) in that time could not recognize their own complicity in living counter to God, just as today’s white American Christians cannot recognize their complicity in racism. But I think that Hart’s condemnation of all Jews in first century Palestine is condescending and wrong. Is it even true that “all Jews” in that time did not recognize their role in society’s ills? Is it even true that “all Jews” were living “counter to what God was doing on earth as manifested in Jesus Christ.”? The gospels tell us that many Jews did believe that Jesus was the messiah. Most of the first Christians were Jews.
And the Jews who didn’t believe that – who can fault them? The Christian claim that a man is God is completely anathema to Jewish theology. In many ways, Jesus did not fulfill the traditional qualities of messiah. Can we give first-century Jews some credit for actually sticking to their principles? Also, let’s recognize that the gospels are polemic documents which portray the enemies of early Christians in the worst possible light. Given the anti-Semitic history of the Christian church, I really wish Hart had not put this damaging theology in his otherwise excellent book.
Maybe Hart’s theology here just shows that the gospel of Luke is anti-Jewish, but these pages left a bad taste in my mouth, and I thought that making first-century Jews the bad guys is not necessary for Hart to make his larger point that we white Americans need to recognize how we contribute to racism – either intentionally or unintentionally.
Again, I recommend that white Christians read this book – it’s time for us to do this incredibly hard work (just don’t adopt the theology on pages 69-70).