The topic for today is “racial defensiveness.” I’m against it.
The Russian spy (Mark Rylance) who was captured and tried in the movie “A Bridge of Spies” had a recurring line that made me like him immediately. In the first use of this line, his lawyer (Tom Hanks) asked him, as they were about to enter the courtroom, .”Are you nervous?” The spy said, “Would it help?”
That is the question for today. I’m going to land a little hard on Peter W. Marty, editor and publisher of The Christian Century, but it isn’t because of any animosity toward him. He just represents the last straw.
His editorial in the current issue is called “Letting go of white defensiveness.” He is in favor of letting it go although he doesn’t give any reasons why. I sense more and more that I am a pragmatic sort of person and I keep looking for some good outcome that will make all this wrestling worth while for us all. I didn’t find it here.
“I’ve noticed,” he says, four paragraphs into a six paragraph editorial, “that few subjects spark defensive behaviors among white people quite like white privilege.” “Defensive behaviors” are bad things, apparently. Marty wishes we would get over them.
Black people have to deal with “weighty psychic burdens” every day. White people should understand that. They don’t and they should. I wonder if it would help.
At the fifth paragraph, Marty turns the corner and begins to consider the effect Christian faith might make in this fraught area. He has some good news to share with his “defensive-minded friends.” Here is the good news. “You have some tools in the toolbox of your faith life that are exciting to put to work in our world of racial inequity. Start by letting go of defensiveness.”
It could be argued, I suppose, that having constantly to defend yourself is taxing, particularly if it becomes a mind set–a kind of permanent mental crouch. I can see why anyone would want to be free of that burden. But as a mental health matter, it seems it would be easier to stay from the people who keep accusing you of being white, but not adequately grateful. WBNAG? There are plenty of people available for whom that is not a high priority; there are churches for which it is not a high priority. Racial sins—such as inadequate gratitude for instance—are no more sinful than economic or political or interpersonal sins, after all.
The question that is not addressed here or anywhere else in the editorial is, “Would it help?” I have read that the traditional military training favored by the Prussian officers was brutal. The idea was that soldiers who were trained in a brutal way would learn that they were able to do more than they thought; they bonded with each other under the common brutality. They became, as a result of that kind of training, better soldiers.
I don’t really know anything about how German soldiers were trained and I have no great love of brutality even in military training, but I do understand this practice because it is aimed at an outcome that the officers value. They will have better soldiers and will, presumably, win battles that lesser soldiers would have lost. When I come to them with my question, “Will it help?” they have an answer.
The editorial in The Christian Century does not.
Defensiveness, Marty says, “is a constrictive survival response that only separates you from God.” Does he think that God cannot forgive defensiveness?
“According to Jesus,” Marty says, “relinquishment is a ticket to abundant life.” To think that “relinquishment” as such is a virtue is beyond silly. Marty is counting on the context of racial injustice here, but nothing about tacking that value onto the teaching of Jesus helps the argument. There are many things we ought never to relinquish, hope being prominent among them. Setting “relinquishment” up as a virtue and tying that virtue to the teachings of Jesus hurts my ears.
“We no longer have the luxury of living racially unaware lives,” says Marty. That’s probably true, given the near ubiquity of racist and anti-racist speech, but no one lives a more “racially aware life” than a Klansman in Alabama. So I wonder “Would it help?”
“Where you feel uncomfortable,” Marty says, “disempower it.” I understand that advice to be that we ought to make ourselves more comfortable about our discomfort. That would be easy to practice, if you are interested. Glue a tennis ball to your pajama top right between your shoulder blades. And as you lie there, becoming more and more uncomfortable, practice getting comfortable with your discomfort.
You might remark that that is a silly thing to do and you would be right. You might ask just how it would help anything if you learned to be comfortable with the discomfort that the tennis ball is inflicting. My question exactly.
There are a few more, but I am ready to let this go now. It might be true that the racial injustices and inequalities we suffer in this country would be made better in some way if liberals were less defensive; if they reached into “the toolbox of their faith life” and got hold of some tools that would make them more comfortable with their discomfort. Or it might make everything worse.
I don’t know and Peter Marty doesn’t even wonder.
I make it a practice to ask, about proposals that are said to address the current racial crisis, “Would it help?” Some of the answers I get provoke discussion and some don’t, but I think it is always better to ask than not.