Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Time for Benign Neglect

A Moynihan Moment?

Daniel Patrick Moynihan

Daniel Patrick Moynihan was a Democrat who served four Presidents, John Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon, and Gerald Ford. He was elected to the United States Senate from New York in 1976, defeating the incumbent Conservative Party Senator James Buckley (to whom his brother William F. Buckley used to refer as "the sainted junior senator from New York"). He was re-elected three times until he chose not to run in 2000.

While serving Nixon as Counselor to the President for Urban Affairs, Moynihan produced a memo in 1969 on the subject of race. He wrote: 
The time may have come when the issue of race could benefit from a period of "benign neglect." The subject has been too much talked about. The forum has been too much taken over to hysterics, paranoids, and boodlers on all sides. We need a period in which Negro progress continues and racial rhetoric fades.
The last 45 years prove that, however that advice was received in the administration, society has surely not (benignly or not) neglected the subject of race. It seems to be one subject about which we cannot stop talking. 

Jemar Tisby produced two blog posts addressing the need for an indigenous African-American Reformed movement. I linked to and responded to these posts here and here. Mr. Tisby continued to share his thoughts along these lines with his blog about race and the recent General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in America. He writes of what might be called a cloud of hope the size of a man's hand which he hopes will turn into showers of greater diversity. 

After finding hope in presentations that were made, Mr. Tisby offers this cautionary note:
What I’m Not Saying
As I said, if all I knew of the PCA and race was gleaned from these presentations I would be encouraged. But don’t hear what I’m not saying. There’s more to the story than what went on in these few sessions. In fact, the historical presentation revealed disturbing facts about factions inside and outside of the denomination that were angling to perpetuate racist practices. Even in 2014 when every national group listed by the U.N. is currently represented in the United States, the thousands of faces bobbing by were still overwhelmingly white. I still felt the pressure to speak and dress a certain way because little cultural diversity was observable at all. It’s going to take a whole lot more than a few talks once a year to see substantive change regarding diversity in the PCA.
Mr. Tisby's hopes are tempered because "I still felt the pressure to speak and dress a certain way because little cultural diversity was observable at all." Now I can identify with Mr. Tisby's discomfiture. My wife and I recently  celebrated our 45th wedding anniversary in a hotel dining room, and I felt quite intimidated by both the maitre d and the waitress. Heck, even the person who poured our water intimidated me. I kept waiting to be asked to leave. 

But I wonder how Mr. Tisby would have dressed and talked if he had not felt the pressure or had there been more diversity at the meeting. I mean in the context of ministers dressed in khakis and polos did he want to wear baggy pants, a cap with flat brim turned sideways, and gold chains? Did he want to converse with urban street dialect? I do not mean this question to offend or to employ a stereotype. I am serious. I am trying to figure out what he means. 

In general dress has gone to hell in this country - for all of us on all occasions. In fact, if any group in this country still has some standards about dress for church meetings, it is African Americans, at least those who are older. Tom Wolfe blames the loss of dress standards on the bright young iconoclastic engineers in the Silicon Valley who were not going to have those stuffy East Coast types dictate work attire. Apparently Mr. Tisby feels that he would be more comfortable if he did not feel the pressure to conform to the dress down standards of this "majority" culture. But what he wants to wear, I do not know.

(I digress, but before I move on, let me add that Dr. Morton Smith himself cast me out of a classroom into outer darkness, where I wept and gnashed my teeth, for dressing down by wearing Bermuda shorts to take a systematics exam. He seemed to think it clinched my agreement with his disapproval when he told me he would not appear in downtown Jackson without his suit jacket on. Now I shall not go on, though I could, to speak of a now seminary president who almost thrown out of a class by a certain Dutch professor because he placed his bare feet on top of his shoes.)

Back to Mr. Tisby. He wrote a blog last December welcoming the appointment of Dr. Sean Lucas to the regular faculty at Reformed Seminary Jackson:
In fact, one of the most glaring deficiencies in Reformed seminary curricula is the lack of cultural diversity. I took Dr. Lucas’ History of Christianity class this past semester and I was surprised to find How Africa Shaped the Christian Mind by Thomas C. Oden as one of the required readings. Not only was it required reading, but our longest writing assignment was a response to the book. Dr. Lucas also devoted a significant portion of class time to fielding questions and discussing reactions. Assignments like this one give seminary students an appreciation for the global and cross-cultural history of Christianity.
These remarks led me to read some review material of Dr. Ogden's book. One reviewer summarized Dr. Ogden's points about the contributions of northern African churches and theologians as follows:
Long-standing prejudices about the unimportance of Africa (and even possibly stark racism) have stood in our way. Oden sees the prejudice of nineteenth-century liberal German historians and theologians (Harnack, Schleiermacher, Troelsch, etc.) as at the crux of this distortion. But Oden suggests that Africa distinctly shaped the Christian mind in at least seven ways: (1) the western idea of the University was conceived in Alexandria, where an unrivaled library became a model for universities all over Europe, (2) Christian exegesis first emerged in Africa, (3) African biblical interpreters shaped a majority of the important Christian doctrines, (4) Africa birthed the pattern of ecumenical conferences that settled major scriptural controversies in the Patristic Era, (5) the monastic movement arose first in Africa, (6) Christian Neo-Platonism emerged from Africa, and (7) Rhetorical and dialectical skills which were later so important in Europe were first developed in Africa. In summary, he notes that “during the formation of early ecumenical Christianity, Africa was more like a creative intellectual dynamo than a submissive sycophant.”
Augustine of Hippo
What strikes me is how western this all seems. I suppose there is no surprise about that as nothern Africa was part of the Roman Empire and thus was included in Graeco-Roman civilization. University forerunner institutions, libraries, Biblical exegesis, Patristic theology, church councils, creeds, heresies, rhetoric and dialectic - so much that underlies western civilization. (Please do not tell me that the accompanying picture of Augustine is misleading because he was black. The picture may very well be inaccurate, but he was not a black man. Not that it matters at all unless it shows somebody's sensitivity about the subject.)

I don't give a rip about your genetic make-up or skin color. I do care about civilization. And to the extent that culture reflects civilization I care about culture. We do nobody at all any good when in the name of diversity we denigrate western civilization and and the cultures that have been shaped by it. Nothing has surpassed the western tradition, and unless its setting sun reverses course, we may well be headed for some kind of intellectual and civilisation-al dark ages.

Booker T and the MGs
Lately I have been on a Sam Moore kick (Dave, too, when they were still together). This led me to viewing on YouTube a documentary about Stax Records of Memphis. Stax was founded by a white brother and sister, but it quickly became the haven of Memphis Soul music. Steve Cropper (who with Duck Dunn made up the two while members of the four member Booker T and the MGs) commented that things changed after the assassination of Martin Luther King: "I can tell you that prior to that, as far as I know, there never was any color that came in those doors, didn't happen. But it never was the same - ever." Understandably Blacks were hurt and angry after Dr. King's murder. Understandably, though tragically, they determined to make Stax more "indigenous." No longer was it about blacks and whites playing the music. Increasingly it was about race. Eventually that coupled with bad business decisions killed the record company. 

As I heard Steve Cropper say those words, I immediately wondered if there is not something to be learned about the calls for indigenous theologies. We've got the theological music, classical though Mr. Tisby finds it - the catholic Creeds and the Protestant Confessions. I think we should forget about race and play the music.

I care if you call me a racist. I don't care if you call me a culturalist. But, I think about Christianity what I think about the whole country. We could use some benign neglect about race and just get on with it. It's not that we are not conscious enough about race or don't talk about it enough. Just the opposite.

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