Sunday, May 19, 2013

Does Being a Jerk Automatically Make You Racist?

I recently ran across a wonderful series of blog posts about "Listening Well as a Person of Privilege" by Christena Cleveland.  As a straight, white, educated, middle-income male, I am such a person of privilege.  In a previous blog post I have recounted my introduction to the idea of privilege a long time ago.  I don't want to have privilege at others' expense, but that doesn't change the fact that I do.  And I don't want my attempts to be an ally to those who do not have my privilege to be clumsy and counter-productive, but surely they sometimes are.

A few days ago Cleveland posted "We Have the Best Version of the Gospel," which began in this way:
Last month I heard a prominent leader of a national movement of mostly white Christians give a talk in which he compared his group’s beliefs to various other Christian groups (including more ethnically-diverse groups). While extolling the virtues of his group’s beliefs he proudly proclaimed, “We have the best version of the Gospel.” Now I’m not interested in busting any one person’s (or group’s) chops, and in fact, I give him a lot of credit for saying publicly what many of us say behind closed doors and in our hearts.  But as a minority group member sitting in the audience, I found his statement to be unfriendly to diverse voices.
 The unnamed prominent leader wound up being Tony Jones, who posted this comment to the blog:
You got the quote wrong. I said, “We have a better version of the gospel.”
“Best” would foreclose discussion and conversation. Thus, I would not say that.
“Better” was clearly aimed at the conservative, evangelical, penal substitutionary model that is regnant in America today.
Your misquote of me makes all the difference. But it seems a misquote works in your favor.
Cleveland updated her blog, changing the word "best" to "better" (except in the URL), but, as far as I can tell, she changed nothing else.  Jones later posted "I'm Tired of Being Called a Racist" to his own blog, which has fueled much heat on the intertubes.  The whole thing is somewhat reminiscent of a previous brouhaha surrounding a post of his entitled "Where Are the Women?" in which he wondered aloud why his blog audience is overwhelmingly male.

Until the end of the conference in question in which he gave this talk, every online interaction I've ever had with Jones had been prickly.  In those various interactions, he accused me of misrepresenting him.  He ignored my most scathing Socratic questioning of his positions (obviously because he had no response; victory is mine!).

And I was part of the chorus of Twitter criticisms of the very talk of his mentioned by Cleveland.  I don't have a photographic memory or anything (what's the aural equivalent of that?), so I don't know for certain that Jones said "better" rather than "best."  But he posted his notes for that talk the day after he gave the talk.  Those notes read, "We have a better version of the gospel than the regnant view of the gospel in the West today."  This matches up with something he wrote earlier this year: ". . . I think that progressives have a better version of the gospel than conservatives. . . ."

That seems to me to be something entirely and categorically different from "We have the best version of the Gospel," and it doesn't seem at all to me that he "compared his group’s beliefs to various other Christian groups (including more ethnically-diverse groups)" as Cleveland claims.

It's been a few days, and I haven't read anyone actually engage what he said, so I tweeted that sentiment last night.  I've had a few responses, some of which linked to posts that the respondent thought addressed what Jones actually said.  None of them do so, though.  Every one of them indicate that he said he has the best version of the Gospel or some paraphrase of that misquote.  None of them quote him or characterize accurately what he actually said.  Not one.  Zero.  I'm drawing this out intentionally.  NONE of them accurately report what he said.  Some people whom I read regularly and whom I respect are still perpetuating the inaccurate quote and are inexplicably (to me, anyway) pointing me to the posts with the inaccurate quote as if those posts are engaging what he actually said.

When I point this out, I get three kinds of responses:

1) "Better" is no better than "best."  It's still the same.
2) Jones is a jerk in general and in his response to Cleveland in particular, which proves Cleveland's point.
3) Cleveland is a person of color and, if she says Jones's comment was racist or racially insensitive or antagonistic to diversity, then it was.  She gets to decide.

Response type # 1: "Better" is no better than "best."  It's still the same.

Cleveland herself says almost the same thing in her response to Jones's comment on her blog: "I think a key to welcoming diverse voices involves active, intentional and demonstrative 'interpretive humility' that would tend to shy away even from adjectives like 'better.'"  Really?  The Emergent movement isn't better than Pat Robertson?  This is what Jones was saying, not that his version of the Gospel is better than that of "more ethnically-diverse groups."

I'm a mainliner.  We have our own problems, including racism both personal and systemic.  I don't self-identify as part of the Emergent movement, and I'm neither an evangelical nor a post-evangelical.  There is a critique of Emergent that it is led by white males and that it excludes other voices.  That's a related conversation and one that is worth having.  That's not what I'm addressing, though.

Trying to overcome racism is better than perpetuating it.  Becoming aware of one's implicit racism is better than remaining blind to it.  Accurately quoting someone is better than misquoting them.  Am I discouraging diversity by saying out loud these things I believe to be better than others?  If so, so be it, but I tend to think not.

Response type # 2: Jones is a jerk in general and in his response to Cleveland in particular, which proves Cleveland's point.

It's hard to be on Jones's side in all this, and when he reads what I say here he might wish I hadn't taken up his cause.  He really is, as I've characterized him above, prickly.  He quite often sounds hostile, defensive, and overconfident in his own Ivy-League education (a 2-degree Ivy Leaguer).  As a person of privilege, he has not listened well to Cleveland.  But neither have others listened well  to him.  It's hard to listen well to someone who is pushing your buttons.  I don't know whether he has pushed Cleveland's buttons, but it seems to me that he has done so for those who point to his jerkiness as proof of what Cleveland says about him.

As one respondent to my tweet said, "I’m just unclear about whether or not the comments were racist or not is the conversation," to which I replied, "Ah, I think that was my original point."  The conversation has become about Jones being a jerk, which somehow proves he's a racist or that he discourages diversity.  Is this actually true, though?  I don't see how.  His responses to Cleveland's post and his subsequent responses to others in the conversation cannot determine whether the initial charges are true.  Regardless of whether Jones is a jerk, no one is talking about what he actually said in the talk.  That is apparently, to some people, not the question, but it's my question.

Response type # 3: Cleveland is a person of color and, if she says Jones's comment was racist or racially insensitive or antagonistic to diversity, then it was.  She gets to decide.

I was once privileged to attend a National Workshop on Christian-Jewish Relations.  I think it was in 1990.  My (mainline) seminary sent me, along with two other students.  In the Q&A at the end of one of the sessions, someone in the audience, who I later learned was Cornel West, used the word "holocaust" to describe the experience of African-Americans.  One of the Jewish attendees objected, saying that for West to use that word in reference to anything other than the Jewish holocaust was antisemitic, designed to diminish what the Jewish people have suffered.  Was it?  If so, was it antisemitic because of the inherent content of West's statement, or was it because a Jewish person in the audience said it was?  If one of the African-American attendees had decided that the Jewish person's objection was racist, would that have made it so?

People of privilege certainly must learn to listen well, and I don't think Jones has done this at all.  But the corollary to that cannot be that anything a person of color declares to be racist or antagonistic to diversity automatically and uncritically is so.

So is it "unfriendly to diverse voices" to say what he actually said, "We have a better version of the gospel than the regnant view of the gospel in the West today"?  Or is it even a comparison with "more ethnically-diverse groups"?  For the life of me, I can't see how.

I'm willing to listen, and I want to listen well.

Saturday, May 11, 2013

My Meditation at the Union College Board of Trustees Meeting, Spring 2013

David Miller
Union College Board of Trustees, Spring 2013

In 1986 (I think), Union held a Methodist Heritage Day in the chapel.  President Phillips spoke a bit about our Methodist heritage.  The District Superintendent was here, and he had a few words.  There was music and a performance by Dr. Pettys’s Oral Interpretation class.  I was a member of that class, and we presented a group oral interpretation of James Weldon Johnson’s poem “The Creation,” which ends in this way:

Then God sat down –
On the side of a hill where he could think;
By a deep, wide river he sat down;
With his head in his hands,
God thought and thought,
Till he thought: I’ll make me a man!
Up from the bed of the river
God scooped the clay;
And by the bank of the river
He kneeled him down;
And there the great God Almighty
Who lit the sun and fixed it in the sky,
Who flung the stars to the most far corner of the night,
Who rounded the earth in the middle of his hand;
This Great God,
Like a mammy bending over her baby,
Kneeled down in the dust
Toiling over a lump of clay
Till he shaped it in his own image;
Then into it he blew the breath of life,
And man became a living soul.
Amen. Amen.

The passage of Scripture from which Johnson took his inspiration contains the two creation myths found in Genesis.  Dr. Eric Elnes, who will be our Staley Lecturer in the Fall, explains the message of Genesis 1 & 2 in relation to another, influential creation myth existing at the time the biblical story was being told, written, and edited.  He says that Genesis contains creation myths written in conversation with the creation myth of the Babylonians.  He says, if we read only the Bible and not also the Babylonian myth, it’s like hearing one side of a telephone conversation.  We can only make sense of Genesis if we hear the conversation it is having with this other text.  So let’s listen in to both sides of the conversation.

The Babylonian myth says creation is the result of a storm god’s slaying of an ocean goddess, symbol of chaos, in the form of a dragon or sea serpent.  The heavens and earth are created when her body is cut down the middle.  Creation is violent and chaotic.  Genesis replies back, the heavens and the earth are created when God speaks.  Creation is rational and orderly.

The Babylonian myth says only the king is created in the image of the gods.  Genesis responds, all of humanity is created in God's image.  The Babylonian myth says human beings are formed by the gods from the clay of the earth and are infused with the blood of the slain chaos monster.  Genesis says, yes, we are formed from the dust of the earth, but we are filled, not with the blood of a chaos monster, but with the very breath of God.  The Babylonian myth says we are darkness.  Genesis says we are light, so let our light shine!

I think a liberal education functions in a similar way.  I don’t want to make some false equivalency between the Bible and higher education, but I do believe an analogy can be made.  Students are inspired to see themselves as possessing a depth and breadth and height that other voices whispering in their ears would deny. 

Some voices tell students they are no more than consumers.  Service learning says they have the capacity to give.  Marketing tells them they are nothing more than their demographics.  Enlightenment philosophers say they are individuals possessing inexhaustible potential.  Materialism says they are nothing more than biochemical processes.  Performing “The Creation” at a chapel service says they are living souls.  When they read Faulkner or discover their capacity for reason when a professor uses the Socratic Method or excel when no one had believed in them before, these false voices of darkness are revealed to be lies.  Our students are light!  Let our light shine! 

A liberal education reveals to students that they are more than they have been led to believe.  The depth and breadth and height of the human spirit are revealed to students in their studies and other collegiate experiences.

But, as the following stories in Genesis attest, we are fallible human beings, so sometimes our collective voice joins the chorus of the false voices.  This happens when we fail to expect students to fully experience the depth or the breadth or the height that we know they possess or when we treat them as means to an end, perhaps an institutional end—and we know we all sometimes do both of these.  We can also do this when we, whether members of the board, of the administration, the faculty, or the staff treat each other as merely means to institutional ends or to personal agendas—and we know we all sometimes do this too.

Despite this fallibility, an important part of what we are engaged in at Union is the development of the soul, both in the biblical and in the classical sense.  A liberal education inspires students to see themselves in a different light, to bring to light aspects of themselves they never knew existed.

Union College students, staff, faculty, and board members, we are created in the image of God.  Let our light shine!  Amen.

Wednesday, May 8, 2013



Clorox bottle stuck in a tree
twenty feet above the waterline.
Come on in.  The water’s fine
as long as you don’t mind the shit and the pee
streaming from the straightpipes.
What keeps me up late nights,
though, is the knowledge that I drink this stuff.
Even with a filter,
this is out of kilter!
What’s even worse than that is the slough
from the mining runoff.
This is no one-off.
It pours into our water supply every day.
Heavy metals.
Regulator settles
for a pittance, considering the way
we have to swallow
what flows into our hollow.
Seems like it’s the case that the trash in the river
is the least of our worries.
EPA’s in no hurry.
They make their promise, but they rarely deliver.
Government’s been bought.
Don’t do what they ought
to.  And we all just accept that’s the way it is.
Well, maybe not all of us.
Some fools say, “Follow us
down to the river for a daytrip
cleanup.”  And other fools get arrested
trying to get the water tested.
And even other fools line up in front of the Whitehouse,
zipties on their hands,
calling out, “Clean up our land!”
You know, maybe those fools are a lighthouse,
revealing the danger,
trying to arrange our
response to mind-numbing irresponsibility.
Will it work?
Regardless, I can’t shirk
my duty to try with all my ability.
Pick up that trash.
Make a splash
in the halls of the powerful by pestering
them.  Call attention
to their pretension.
If we don’t do something, this will just keep on festering.