“What Will Peace Among the Whites Bring?”


Frederick Douglass, Public Domain via Wikimedia

“If war among the whites brought peace and liberty to the blacks, what will peace among the whites bring?” Frederick Douglass, July 5, 1875.

I came across this statement by Frederick Douglass in David W. Blight’s biography of Frederick Douglass. He was speaking at a July 5 picnic in the black section of Anacostia, called Hillsdale. Douglass, escaped slave and abolitionist had spent the ten years after the end of the Civil War working with Republicans, especially under Grant, in advocating for the full civil liberties of Blacks in the South under what is known as Reconstruction. One of the things that broke his heart was the tendency of Northern whites to reach accommodations with those in the South–accommodations that turned a blind eye to lynchings and the suppression of the vote and hindered black citizens in their efforts to get educated and make economic progress. These accommodations were the “peace” to which Douglass referred, and what Douglass foresaw were all the odious outcomes of Jim Crow.

I wonder if things have really changed. I would contend that whenever a white person points out evidence of the continued racialization of our country, and our unwillingness to truly face the original sin of racism that has passed from generation to generation in our country North and South, one can expect a smackdown. Whenever one speaks against abuses of civil rights of people of color, whether it is racially-profiled traffic stops, the shooting of unarmed “suspects,” or keeping refugee children in cages, one can expect pushback.

On social media, this often comes in the form of “trolling” and “gaslighting” comments that are broadsides interested neither in substantive discussion nor truth. I’ve had this happen when I’ve written on such things. The social pressure is to toe the line, and stick to posting cute pet videos.

One thing I notice when this happens. All of the people making these kinds of posts and applying this social pressure are whites as I am. Increasingly, this makes me wonder what they are afraid of losing or what injustices they are complicit in that they just do not want to face. I wonder why they are so bothered they feel the need to do this. Have I disturbed their peace?

I’m a middle child, and so peacemaking comes natural. But Douglass alerts me to a kind of peace we cannot make. We cannot make peace when it allows the exploitation or subjugation or unjust treatment of other human beings. Making this kind of peace, “toeing the line,” as it were means turning my back on the suffering of fellow human beings whose difference from me is something as superficial as skin pigment.

I’m not one of those who is constantly writing on issues. I prefer writing about books I’ve enjoyed or my beloved home town of Youngstown. But there are times when I realize that refusing to write to keep the peace (as well as engaging in other forms of advocacy and engagement) is to buy my peace at the expense of others.

Someone has said, “may the peace of Christ disturb you.” I think that is right. We should be disturbed when we see people Christ loves being excluded from the wholeness, the flourishing, that biblical peace involves.

So don’t be surprised if I don’t pay attention to your attempts to get me to keep the peace and toe the line. It’s not that I don’t like peace. I just like it for all human beings and not just “my kind.”

Review: Raise Your Voice

Raise Your Voice

Raise Your VoiceKathy Khang. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2018.

Summary: Explores both why we stay silent and how we may learn to speak up about the things we most deeply care about, particularly in seeking a more just society for all.

Kathy Khang grew up as the child of Korean immigrant parents, writing in a journal given her by her father at an early age. She eventually became a journalist who learned to use her voice in interviews, in getting stories, and yet struggled with the tension of breaking with cultural norms that often rewarded one for silence, and gender norms that labelled outspoken women as “aggressive, arrogant or abrasive” or “a witch” or another term that rhymes with it. Raising one’s voice can be costly.

This book captures Kathy’s experience of both the forces that pressure us to silence our voices, and how we might learn to speak up, to raise our voices. She begins with silencing, in this case where a supervisor literally covered her mouth in a meeting with senior leadership when she was going to voice hard truths no one in the room was saying. Often, though, we silence ourselves, believing “the imposter syndrome” when, like Moses, God sees us, is with us, and sends us. Like Esther, we need to remember we are also Hadassah, the Jewish girl who will be identified with her people, and in remembering who she is, risks her life as an advocate. She explores the excuses we give for silence–we don’t understand (even though we sense there is something very wrong in what we witness), we say, ‘let God take care of it,’ or because our silence preserves a pretty good status quo for us.

She also considers how we may learn to speak up. It starts with who our IRL (in real life) audience is–from our “underwear family” to neighbors and church and workplace, and the kinds of issues we need to think about with each. She also considers our online lives, and the challenges to real conversation when so often these degenerate. She talks about working with friends in discerning how to engage an issue online–not just jumping out there on your own. Her “Learn from My Mistakes Page” is gold with a critical piece of advice being that what we post online stays forever, and we shouldn’t post anything we wouldn’t want those closest to us to see, or see in public media like the New York Times. I have nowhere near the social media presence Kathy does, but everything here rings true.

She concludes by talking about the different ways, according to different gifts, by which people speak up. Her book is such an encouragement that all of us have voices, and while we use them in different ways, they all are meant to be used and heard.

I had to laugh (because she nailed it) at her description of “Midwest nice” as “a superficial collegiality with a touch of passive aggressiveness,” or as Soong-Chan Rah, who she quotes says, Midwest nice is like “a dog that licks your face while peeing on your shoes.” I’m guilty as charged here, living in the Midwest, particularly in allowing my voice to be muted into placative efforts to achieve superficial peace that fails to come to terms with what radical gospel justice looks like. I’m often tempted to maintain a peaceful status quo.

As a white male, one of the most important lessons of this book is listening to what those who are women, or who are ethnic minorities wrestle with in finding their voices and using them. Khang’s narrative encourages me to stop man-spreading, and man-splaining, and listen to the chorus of our female and ethnic minority brothers and sisters. I sing in a choir and one of the first things we learn is that if you can’t hear other voices, or your section can’t hear other sections, you are singing too loud! White men have been singing too loud for too long in the American church, suppressing the voice of the rest of the “beloved community.” I need Kathy’s voice, as uncomfortable as it has sometimes made me feel, if I am ever to shake off “Midwest nice.” I’m glad she has used, and raised, the voice God has given her.

Literary Advocacy


Harriet Beecher Stowe

A book group that I am in, the Dead Theologians Society, has just begun reading Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin. I think this has always been a controversial book. In its own day, it galvanized opinion around the abolition of and defense of slavery. Later, it was debated on its literary merits (and perhaps still is). More recently, there has been a discussion of its racist stereotypes, even while being a key anti-slavery work. I am not qualified to opine on any of these matters and so I will leave them to others.

What intrigued me in this week’s reading was a statement by Stowe in her Preface to the work:

“The object of these sketches is to awaken sympathy and feeling for the African race, as they exist among us; to show their wrongs and sorrows, under a system so necessarily cruel and unjust as to defeat and do away the good effects of all that can be attempted for them, by their best friends, under it.”

If awakening “sympathy and feeling” was her object, Stowe wildly succeeded. In the first year of publication (1851), the book sold over 300,000 copies in the U.S. and over one million in Great Britain. It was the best selling novel of the nineteenth century, and second only to the Bible in overall sales. It is legend, not fact that when Lincoln met Stowe in 1862 he said of her, “So this is the little lady who started this great war.” Slave-holders in the South roundly criticized the book, even while it helped fuel the growing abolitionist sentiment in the North. Part of the impact of the book was the exposure of the systemic evil of slavery enshrined in law, that permitted cruel slave owners to do their worst and diminished even those kindly disposed.

The question I am curious about is whether literature, and particularly the novel form, could still have such impact? Or has visual media (or something else) displaced the written form? I’d love to hear from others on this, particularly on the visual media question, because I would confess I am pretty ignorant of what is happening in that world. I really am a book guy. I am aware that there is both a genre of apocalyptic writing (much of it popular among young adults) and series like Game of Thrones that explore dystopian worlds. What I am curious about is how this translates into discourse about our own society.

It strikes me that there are certainly contemporary published works that have led to significant public conversations. On the question of race, I think of Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow, and Ta-Nehisi Coates Between the World and Me as well as his other books and Atlantic articles. Both have evoked significant national conversations (and controversy) around race, incarceration, and other issues. But are there works of fiction that have provoked similar, and widespread conversation?

Someone in our group noted that sales of George Orwell’s 1984 have spiked after weekend controversies over “alternative facts”. The Associated Press reports that Signet Classics has ordered an additional 75,000 copy press run of the book, which portrays a totalitarian society controlled by “newspeak.” What is intriguing to me is that this is not a current work creating a conversation, but an older work, in which people are recognizing resonances with our current situation.

It strikes me that part of the challenge is the divide between popular fiction and serious literature. To this day, Uncle Tom’s Cabin is criticized in part because it is a popular work. In addition to the invidious stereotypes, others criticize its sentimentality at points. But readers loved it. I wonder if there is a bar against exploration of serious issues in popular literature, one that Stowe transcended?

Finally, while I don’t think you can blame the Civil War on Stowe’s book, it is striking that it contributed to inflamed feeling all around, and to a breakdown of political discourse leading to southern states withdrawing from the Union and the outbreak of hostilities. One wonders what the consequences of a book like Uncle Tom’s Cabin, or a popular video equivalent, would be given the fragile state of our public and political discourse?

I don’t know the answers to any of these questions. I sense we are in a time of great ferment. Can fiction, as well as other forms of writing “awaken sympathy and feeling?” And to what ends. What are your thoughts?




Review: Faith-Rooted Organizing

Faith Based OrganizingFaith-Rooted Organizing, Alexia Salvatierra and Peter Heltzel. Downers Grove, InterVarsity Press, 2014.

Summary: Most advocacy and activism efforts have been organized around secular principles. The authors explore what organizing and advocacy work that is deeply and thoroughly rooted in Christian principles would look like and illustrate this from their years of experience.

Many community advocacy efforts have been organized around principles first developed by Saul Alinsky in the 1930’s. They hinge on an oppositional model that sees the other as “enemy” who needs to be forced or compelled to act justly by law or the pressure of a people movement.

Salvatierra and Heltzel do not deny the place of these efforts and in fact talk about both “serpent” and “dove” power as Christians make common cause with other activists. But they also contend that Christians have deep resources in their faith in which their organizing activities ought and may be rooted.

They begin with a historical survey of three justice movements: the civil rights movement, justice movements in Latin America and Cesar Chavez work in advocating for migrant crop workers. And one of the revelations of this book to me was to learn what a deeply spiritual man Chavez was, regularly fasting, and living at the level of those for whom he advocated.

The book then takes each step in the organizing process and re-roots it in faith-based practices:

  • Goal setting as dreaming God’s dreams.
  • Starting place: hearing the call of the poor, which if done well results in a dance of solidarity between poor and privileged.
  • Strategy: discerning the kairos issue at the root of the deep lies that perpetuate injustice and combating these with the truth. This also means addressing issues of power and hope and speaking prophetically.
  • Recruitment: what does it mean to both practice and mobilize Christ-centered community, mobilizing all the gifts of that community.
  • Leadership development: this not only involves discerning the gifts and calling of others but modeling the servant leadership crucial to organizing.
  • Sustainability: the importance of cultivating the deep spiritual practices and rhythms that sustain hope and energy.

As mentioned in the summary the authors illustrate their principles with stories from their years of organizing. At the end of each chapter, Alexia addresses a “letter” to her daughter and another young woman that sums up the chapter in her hopes for their organizing work.

It has struck me increasingly that a significant form of gospel witness is when Christians come alongside others making common cause around matters of justice and human flourishing and thoughtfully and graciously contribute the distinctive perspective that is shaped by their faith. Salvatierra and Hetzel give us a marvelous example of what this looks like in the nitty-gritty of organizing.