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More than a vision: A vision also demands accountability

An organization with a truly inspirational vision, Progressive Christianity “presents this vision in a way that is clear, direct, without compromise or apology”, wrote Dr Rick Herrick in the April 22nd Article on ProgressiveChristianity.org.

So true, and a clear motivating vision is essential. However, we Progressive Christians must not allow this to justify paying no attention to the past. In good Christian tradition, we need also to acknowledge our past sins, confess them, make clear our repentance and then do whatever we can to make some kind of restitution.

And that restitution can’t be limited to mere lip service as we increasingly acknowledge at the beginning of worship services that we and our buildings are standing on unceded land. While it may make us feel good admitting that, do we realize, are we clear in our own minds, what unceded even means?

It means our indigenous peoples never ever ‘handed over’, yielded, the land to us. Which means we’re essentially trespassers, still. So, do we just blithely repeat that statement, then blissfully carry on as though it weren’t even so, or it makes no difference?

For one thing, they couldn’t hand over to us what wasn’t theirs to hand over. They had, and have, a radically different idea of the land than we do, even yet. Not property to be owned, either as a group nor especially not individually, rather it was a gift for which they were grateful. It offered everything they needed for life. Their role was to be trustees, guardians, caretakers, entrusted with its perpetual care, so it would continue to serve their people for generations to come.

After we took it (some would say stole), then we kept pushing then further and further towards the edge, trying to make them extinct by every means possible. If only we had listened to them, began to see nature from their perspective as “all our relations”. They also understood agape love far better – “understanding, redeeming goodwill for all, purely spontaneous, unmotivated, groundless, creative, the love of God operating in the human heart.”(Martin Luther King Jr)

Given all they’ve had done to them, they still keep the faith, hold little bitterness and keep working to regain their equality and value, cruelly ripped from and denied them.

The same could be said of our black citizens.

White Too Long: The Legacy of White Supremacy in American Christianity (2020) by Robert P Jones should be required reading for every white Christian. Especially by its leadership and most particularly by those of us who claim to be Progressives. Trying to find answers for his own questions having grown up southern Baptist, Dr Jones, founder of the Public Religion Research Institute, did extensive research. The results surprised even him.

Various in-depth surveys were done with 3 different White Christian identities – Evangelical Protestant, Mainline Protestant, Catholic, plus Religiously Unaffiliated – regarding racist attitudes and Christian identity. Astonishingly the results found that negative racial attitudes indicated support for white supremacy – white social dominance and control. Adding Christianity to the average white person’s identity moved them towards more affinity with white supremacy.

Furthermore White Christians think of themselves as people holding warm attitudes towards African Americans, while simultaneously embracing a host of racist and racially resentful attitudes inconsistent with those warm feelings. Harbouring more racist views is a positive independent predictor of White Christian Identity and more regular church attendance did not make them (us) less racist. Rather there was a positive relationship between holding racist attitudes and white Christian identity; moreover the more racist attitudes a person holds, the more likely they are to identify as a white Christian.

His research data suggested that all 3 white Christian groups served as institutional spaces for the preservation and transmission of white supremacist attitudes. Rather than deconstructing racist ideology, they protected it with theological garb, gave it a home in a respected institution! Whatever Christian formation and discipleship is happening is not impacting white supremacist attitudes, now deeply embedded in the DNA of white Christianity today, making it a key conduit of its transmission. Which explains why all the civil rights ‘successes’ have not mitigated the continued effects of slaveholding on contemporary attitudes.

Very little of the 19th century theology and practice, designed precisely for coexisting comfortably with slavery and segregation, has been reformed. From colonial America on, white Christians have literally built – architecturally, culturally and theologically – white supremacy into an American Christianity that held an a priori commitment to slavery and segregation. At key potential turning points, for the most part, white Christians not only failed to evict this sinister presence, history confirms they continued to aid and abet it. Thus, consciously or not, sadly most White Christians continue to transmit and reinforce white supremacist attitudes among new generations, not just in the south but nationwide.

Two hundred years ago, Frederick Douglas observed a positive correlation between white supremacy and Christianity. Dr Jones suggests White Christians have been Cain in the story.

All this should give us pause, if not take our breath away and cause much blushing.

The next challenge for us, Dr Jones suggests, is to deal with the paralyzing notion that this historical weight is so enormous, meaningful action is impossible, or that discussions will be too painful. (For whom exactly?) We must move beyond the forgetfulness and silence that allowed this to flourish for so long. We might believe the goal of racial reconciliation is achieved through mere white confession and black forgiveness. But this concept is a strategy for making peace with the status quo – a very good deal if you are white.

Neither can we hide behind all the good we’ve ever done, in an attempt to justify, excuse, erase or obscure the terrible reality of this and indigenous great wrongs.

“The true shame is not in the discovery of a terrible event, but in the refusal to acknowledge and learn from it”

Progressive Christians must add this crucial challenge to our vision. Failing to deal with it will not only be a major sin, but will drain hopes for healing, as well as nullify our vision attempts.

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