The Christian Ethics of #BlackLivesMatter: An Interview with Dr. David Gushee.
One of our editors, Ryan Kenji Kuramitsu, had a chance to interview Dr. Gushee and chat about ethics, protest, and a faithful response to current events.
RKK: You’re widely regarded as one of the leading evangelical ethicists in America. In the foreword of your most recent book, Brian McLaren jokes that people might not associate evangelicalism with deep ethical reflection, just like they might not have heard of “Northern hospitality.” Is that because ethicists haven’t found a large home in evangelicalism?
Dr. Gushee: There actually are several dozen professional ethicists who are serving at evangelical schools. I know them through the Society of Christian Ethics. And then, there are other ethicists and other people with moral interests who are writing and teaching about ethics-related subjects in evangelical schools. But in general that particular discipline has not been a specialty for evangelicals, that’s true. In fact a lot of times, in evangelical institutions, the way they tackle modern moral issues is…I mean, it seems like the only specialties that really seem to matter sometimes are Bible and Theology. They feel like if you can exegete what they think are the relevant passages or do some theological deduction and then you’ve got all the ethics that you need, and I think that that has regularly proven itself to be inadequate.
RKK: And you’ve published works on various subjects within the field of Christian ethics. I know recently that Changing Our Mind and the conversation around LGBT affirmation have been interest areas. You also wrote Righteous Gentiles of the Holocaust, which was an important part of your recent address at the Reformation Project Conference in D.C. Do you see any parallels between the talk you gave at that event and current conversations on the Black Lives Matter moral movement?
Dr. Gushee: I’ve completed 20 books in 22 years, and there is a thread that unites the most important ones running from Righteous Gentiles of the Holocaust to Kingdom Ethics, which was a 2003 book, to Sacredness of Human Of Life which was a 2013 book, and now Changing our Mind, 2014. I’m interested deeply in the Christian faith as either leading to profound commitment to justice and human dignity for all, or, tragically, as underwriting indifference, complacency, and privilege. I think that the message of Jesus and the ministry that he undertook and the kingdom of God that he preached should lead to the first: justice and dignity and rights. But often it has not, I think mainly because of having been captured and domesticated by the politics and interests of privileged groups.
So on the issue of race, Christianity has had such a long and terribly tangled history of how it is implicated in issues of race. You know, in the hands of the European and American (North American, Latin American) colonizers and slave-owners and -traders and -holders, Christianity once again became a domesticated force underwriting oppression, among the most profound oppressions there is, which is to enslave another person.
Christianity has had such a long and terribly tangled history of how Christianity is implicated in issues of race.
But the same religion in the hands of the oppressed themselves — the indigenous peoples, Africans, or African Americans — became the vehicle of empowerment and liberation and dignity. I think we need to be aware of that and to realize when we say the word Christian or the word Christianity, we’re not just talking about one thing. We’re talking about different versions, often related to where people stand in the social hierarchy. No version of Christianity worth anything can be indifferent to the injustices experienced by African Americans in our society for 400 years, including today. But all too often Christianity is indeed — that is, some kinds, some forms of Christianity, are indeed indifferent to that injustice and that suffering.
RKK: I think particularly what we’ve seen in recent months has been a sort of collective disengagement from many white Christians and white churches, whereas other white evangelical leaders such as yourself have spoken up — I saw one tweet where you called the Ferguson unrest “the most troubling racial crisis in the US” since at least the Rodney King riots of 92, perhaps since 1968. As a white evangelical ethicist, what can you say about the disengagement we’ve seen from this wing of the church?
One of the dynamics that I’ve studied in various venues, whether it has to do with Christians and Jews during the Holocaust or white and black people under racism or even straight and gay people in relation to the LGBT issue, is if you are on the bottom of a social hierarchy in which you are mistreated, you will feel viscerally and daily the impact of your subjugation and mistreatment. Unless you somehow find a way to anesthetize yourself or get out of that situation, which is pretty unusual. If you are privileged, the only way that you will viscerally feel and care about the suffering of the other is if you somehow enter in to that suffering so that it becomes your suffering, or at least so that you are able to empathize in a way that really matters to you, that affects your thinking and your behavior.
I actually believe that that is indeed what the incarnation is about, that God entered in to the human experience in Jesus Christ and, as the scriptures say, took it upon himself and fully experienced the suffering of human beings, notably human beings at the bottom of power in the Roman empire. And so, those who follow Jesus are called to thoroughly learn how to empty themselves, or set aside at least, the privilege of not feeling, the privilege of not caring, of not being viscerally affected because well, it’s not my group, not my people. I am called to identify with the suffering so that in a sense it does become my people and my group. Because I love them or because I’m related in meaningful community with them or morally, emotionally, relationally, I am in community, standing in solidarity.
The disengagement of white churches and white leaders is really…you might say it’s only possible if one manages to avoid entering in in a profound or meaningful way to the experience of say, black Americans in the case of the Black Lives Matter and Ferguson situation. Sadly, here in 2014–2015, that’s exactly where a lot of white Christians remain, in essentially homogenized, set apart white communities without meaningful contact with black Americans.
That’s exactly where a lot of white Christians remain, in essentially homogenized, set apart white communities without meaningful contact with black Americans.
“It’s happening to somebody else, it’s remote from my experience and I’m able to move on the day after Michael Brown gets shot.”
“It didn’t really happen to my people and therefore it’s not really my problem, so on that next Sunday I just go about my business as usual.”
I think that that is revelatory of a profound failure in community and in empathy and in Christian love on the part of white Christians, and it needs to stop and needs to change. For some it is changing.
RKK: It sounds like you’re talking about the kind of repentance that theologians like James Cone have called white Christians to (and I know you studied at Union Seminary as well, so I’m sure you’re familiar with his work). Can you speak to what the ethics of this kind of engagement should look like for Christians who come from that background?
Dr. Gushee: You mean on the part of white Christians?
RKK: I do, yes, but black Christians as well if you’re comfortable with that.
Dr. Gushee: Yeah. You know, I teach at a seminary which is roughly 50/50 African American and white, with some people from different backgrounds, but it’s definitely a Southern, Atlanta school, where that’s the makeup. One of the things I find admirable, in fact staggering, is the patience of black Christians with the consistent obtuseness and distance of white Christians from their experiences. There’s a patience and so often a willingness to forbear, to forgive and to give us 2nd, 3rd, 30th, and 40th chances to really care and to really be in community. I think that is really one of the most admirable things about the black Christian community that I have encountered consistently over my lifetime. But you know, when you actually get into deeper and more probing conversations (we had one actually at my school this past week, McAfee School of Theology) the sense of hurt on the part of black Christians, and the sense of a weariness at having to bear this burden so often alone. And the kind of clanging, clanging indifference and silence of the white churches, I mean that weariness is palpable. So that patience may not last forever, and I would understand if it didn’t.
That patience may not last forever, and I would understand if it didn’t.
Repentance is something I’ve been thinking a lot about lately. You know, of course when I was originally exposed to the concept it meant turning away from being a lost sinner and now believing in Jesus. But now I see that repentance is a changing of mind and heart that is at least as much about heart as it is about mind. A lot of times it is a breaking of the heart where it has been hardhearted or indifferent and entering in to the suffering of others, like I was talking about earlier. That certainly happened to me in relation to LGBT Christian brothers and sisters and it has happened to me…in relation to injustice experienced by African Americans in our society. I think it should be the pattern of Christian discipleship.
There’s a lot repenting still to do and I also think that there’s something indispensable about deep interpersonal connections, so that when you’re really connected to somebody and you really love them, what happens to them does happen to you. There is no more existential distance, you are in the same camp. You are having the same experience because you genuinely are connected to each other in that way. You no longer have to be prodded anymore to care. You just care because you are in a relationship, a relational nexus, in which if it happens to them, it happens to you.
There’s a lot repenting still to do.
RKK: In your work Righteous Gentiles of The Holocaust: Genocide and Moral Obligation, you document the stories of some of the “righteous gentiles,” as you call them, who did not stand by while their neighbors were being persecuted, but who risked their own selves in that kind of outpouring you described, who engaged to create positive change and really opened themselves to the other.
Do you see any connections between these folks and the “good white people” and those who don’t come from communities affected by events like Ferguson, but who have invested themselves and their energy in the movement?
Dr. Gushee: Yeah, I do. “Righteous Gentiles,” that’s actually a term that comes out of the Jewish tradition and became the official term given to rescuers who, when Jews were being hunted down, offered help with no ulterior motive. They took them into their homes, provided false documents, hid them, did all kinds of things in order to keep them away from the Nazis. Sometimes this process of help took days, sometimes it took weeks, sometimes it took years. In certain parts of Europe…it was always dangerous, but in certain parts of Europe, especially in the East if you were caught sheltering a Jewish person you would be killed along with the Jewish people that you were sheltering. So it was literally life threatening.
There have been moments in the US in which that solidarity also has involved risk. You know the movie Selma documents exactly that when at last a significant number of Jews and Christians of all types, white people, came to Selma and marched with the marchers and risked something in doing so. Some paid with their lives. So solidarity has also been demonstrated in the protests of this fall, and people risking their freedom in terms of jail time or risking any kind of harm that would ensue when you’re out in a protest situation. So, I think the dynamics are similar. Righteous Gentiles are to be honored, especially in the sense that they were risking their lives on a daily basis. But there have been other moments in our own history when to stand in solidarity with African Americans did involve the risking of life. But of course the greater honor, in the sense of greater empathy, goes to African Americans themselves who in many times and places risk their freedom and their lives just trying to go about their daily business in America.
The greater honor…goes to African Americans themselves who in many times and places risk their freedom and their lives just trying to go about their daily business in America.
RKK: Now, you also recently wrote on Reinhold Niebuhr’s Moral Man in Immoral Society and quoted him saying “however large the number of individual white men who do and who will identify themselves completely with the Negro cause, the white race in America will not admit the Negro to equal rights if it is not forced to do so.” You observed that this was said 82 years ago and agreed with his quote. I was wondering if you could talk about what it would look like to “force,” or encourage, or foster those conversations, on the part of black Christians.
It’s a very compelling line from Niebuhr. What he’s saying is that self-interest is a powerful force, and group self-interest is an exceptionally powerful force. It was one of the early articulations of something that is now more of a commonplace observation: privilege blinds one to the privilege one actually has. Often, people get delusional about their privileges, they don’t know that they’re privileged, or they don’t acknowledge that they are. Privileged people don’t voluntarily give up their privileges without pressure. Some kind of pressure must be involved. Moral pressure or protest pressure, or some other kind of pressure — even metanoia, conversion, in which privileged people empty themselves of privilege.
So I continue to see white privilege as a powerful force. It’s exceptionally powerful because we’re unable so often to acknowledge that we have it. It’s something you only know about, as a white person, when and if you are in conversation and meaningful relationship with people who don’t have that privilege. You realize, oh, it’s not everybody who can drive in a car and not worry about being stopped, or walk into a store and not be followed because the assumption is that they’re probably going to steal something, or not have to worry about being mistreated by the police on the basis of the color of their skin. It’s taken-for- granted-privilege, it’s invisible to the one who has it.
We need to acknowledge privilege, that it’s intoxicating and that hardly anybody would give up that power without having some kind of process of coming to see why they should want to. Groups rarely will give up power voluntarily. So what protests do is they place pressure on privileged groups, especially if those privileged groups have, you might say institutional power behind them. Including the power of the criminal justice system in this case to continue to keep the status quo as it is. Protests become absolutely necessary to force awareness of the injustice and to force some kind of change eventually. Which is of course what happened in the civil rights movement and needs to continue to happen.
Protests become absolutely necessary to force awareness of the injustice and to force some kind of change eventually.
RKK: Now when you say “continue to happen,” I just want to follow up on that: some have claimed that the conversations about women’s ordination that happened in many denominations some years ago and current conversations over LGBT affirmation (particularly in the evangelical tradition) have often served to derail issues of racial injustice.
My question is: what do you say to Christians who suggest that we should focus on these kind of conversations, or that we’ve already fought the battles and had the talks on race? How do you respond to those claims?
Dr. Gushee: Ha. Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Tamir Rice, and Eric Garner would tell us a different story. All the statistics related to the mass incarceration problem and to the disproportionate experience of social ills on the part of people of color in the United States would render such claims naïve. Not to mention the obvious evidence of white backlash towards the presidency of Barack Obama and just in general towards the growing multiculturalism and gradually shared power in the United States. We’re not done with this. You don’t reverse 400 years of systemic power relations…you don’t do that overnight. And these are conversations that are not over.
These are conversations that are not over.
In some ways I think we can now see what the civil rights movement did was a very costly series of battles that led to some provisional victories, but did not lead to the complete transformation of American society and a society of racial justice. The struggle continues, and the conversations need to continue as well. I think that the only thing one can be at all even a little bit happy about coming out of the sad events of 2014 on the criminal justice front is it has caused a lot of people to pay attention to the continuing existence of racial injustice in our society, so that it’s become harder just to say “well, everything was taken care of in 1965 and so now we can move on.”
RKK: Final question: can you tell me about a time when the personal implications of your role in this conversation — your actions or inactions or complicity as a white Christian, has just cut you to the bone or caught you off guard and taught you something? The learning moment, I suppose, or one learning moment in this journey.
Dr. Gushee: Particularly in relation to race?
Dr. Gushee: Well, one moment was when I just first started at Union Seminary as a student in 1987. I was in James Cone’s Third World Liberation Theology class, and the first day in class, my first day at seminary, he presented on the broad themes of Third World Liberation Theology, which included a systemic challenge to European, American, and White privilege. His language was forceful. I remember feeling like I’d never heard anything like that before, feeling a little bit threatened. I was the first person to ask the challenging question (I might have been the first person to ask any question at all) and I remember him saying, “You know, our white students come here and they assume that the kinds of privileges that they’ve had in previous educational settings will carry forward here, and that their perspectives will be privileged as they have always been before. In this class, I want you all to experiment with not being the majority, and with not having your perspective privileged, and I want you to listen a whole lot more than you talk.”
That cut me to the quick. I was angry at first, but it was an important learning experience and kind of the shoe on the other foot, you know? What it felt like, to not just be the white male guy who walks into the room and can assume that he’s essentially in charge, and that everything is going to be conducted in my discourse style using my terms of reference with me being in charge. That was not gonna happen in that classroom, and that was really good for me to learn. It was also good for me to learn, to get a taste of what it feels like to be on the outside looking in, of how the power was going to work. I’m reminded the more and more I read and the more and more I get to know what it feels like to be a woman in a predominantly patriarchal structure, or a person of color in white America, or intersecting, like a black woman in white male-led institutions, or now it could be a gay person in heterosexual-dominated institutions. To always be having to keep quiet, to subjugate oneself to other peoples’ power in terms of framing or conducting community or conversation. I’m learning how it’s easy to not notice all that when you’re THE group, or a part of THE group, that is always in charge.
I think that some people, some white men especially, find that experience so threatening that they in some ways spend their lives trying to ensure they never have to have such an experience again. Creating these kind of hermetically-sealed worlds of where it’s just me and my kind hanging out. And so that was an experience that was important and helped to contribute to a journey, hopefully, of greater sensitivity to realities of power. The vision is, of course, nobody being subjugated but everybody having a voice and every voice mattering, and every person being treated with dignity. That’s what I’ve tried to advance in my own work.
“I want you all to experiment with not being the majority, and with not having your perspective privileged, and I want you to listen a whole lot more than you talk.” -James Cone
Dr. David P. Gushee is the Distinguished University Professor of Christian Ethics and Director of the Center for Theology and Public Life at Mercer University. He is widely regarded as one of the leading evangelical ethicists and moral scholars in American Christianity, and his nationally recognized works include Righteous Gentiles of the Holocaust, Kingdom Ethics, and most recently Changing our Mind.
This November, Dr. Gushee delivered a landmark address called “Ending the Teaching of Contempt Against the Church’s Sexual Minorities,” calling for the church to address its unique legacies of violence and oppression of LGBT peoples.