Thursday, February 07, 2008

One Kind of Folks

I have been disturbed by some of the political coverage regarding the Democrat presidential nomination. I haven't followed it all very intently, but as I write this, Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama seem to be in a "virtual tie", with Sen. Obama holding a slight edge in the number of delegates needed to claim the nomination.

Sen. Obama is a decent man with a sincere faith in Christ; he also overflows with charisma and is one of the most inspiring American politicians perhaps since Ronald Reagan. I disagree with his stated positions on several issues, but I think he might make a fine national leader (as I've posted before, a candidate's personal character ought to be a key reason for support or non-support, and Sen. Obama seems be a man of integrity). I may well end up voting for him in November (I haven't yet decided; November's a long way off).

What bothers me is the way in which "the race issue" has been portrayed in the media.

Some analysts have said that many are voting for Sen. Obama because of his race; some may be rejecting him for the same reason. Some analysts have been echoing familiar words, saying that people are (or should be) voting for the Illinois senator because "it's time" to have an African-American president.

In short, their data suggests that some people are voting for Sen. Obama just because of race.

Hearing that, I was reminded of Annual Conference last year. As we were getting near the end of the voting for General Conference delegates, it occurred to some attentive folks that our delegation was - so far - all white. It seemed that clergy were voting for representatives largely based on theology, rather than race. More than once, I heard well meaning sisters and brothers say, "We need to have a person of color on our delegation."

While I certainly support diversity, the questions in my mind became:

"What if the only candidates of color have theological commitments with which I'm uncomfortable?"

"What if we have no appropriate candidates of color?"

"Should we vote for someone just because of their race?"

"Is inclusiveness now such an important theological issue that it may even trump historic Wesleyan doctrines such as, for example, Incarnation or holiness?"

I posted these words last June:
"If we fail to be racially inclusive, we fail to be the Church. This is not a political matter; it is a spiritual and theological matter. But, is inclusivity a greater concern than, say, doctrinal faithfulness, or effective leadership, or relational gifts? Inclusiveness is a part of orthopraxy; it surely does not comprise the totality of orthopraxy."
Mind you, the sisters and brothers who were concerned about race are good people. They are fine pastors who do excellent work. But, I still wondered if it was appropriate to vote for someone just because of race.

Isn't that the same sin as rejection because of race?

"Racism: Discrimination or prejudice based on race."
- The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language.
Copyright © 2006 by Houghton Mifflin Company.
Published by Houghton Mifflin Company. All rights reserved.
So, to discriminate based on race is, by definition, racism.
"Discrimination: Treatment or consideration based on class or category rather than individual merit."
- The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language.
Copyright © 2006 by Houghton Mifflin Company.
Published by Houghton Mifflin Company. All rights reserved.
The problem becomes obvious. In our well-meaning efforts to fight institutional racism, which is very real, and exists both in secular government and in the Church, we may sometimes act in ways that could be deemed racist.

In our efforts to fight this sin, in both Church and society, have we made the mistake of practicing the sin?

That's my fear.

I often think about and refer to the great words of Martin Luther King:

"I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character."
Do we dishonor King's legacy when we judge someone - well or poorly - by the color of their skin? Shouldn't character (and, in the Church, theology) have more to do with it?

One of Robyn's favorite books (and it's a favorite for our son Christian, as well) is the classic To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee. There's a quote in the book that sticks with me as I think about judging or voting based on race:

“I think there's just one kind of folks. Folks.”
A beautiful statement. How true it is. Can we get past the politics of race and judge by character (and, in the Church, theological commitments)? Should we? Or does the notion of "inclusiveness", which isn't bad or incorrect, eclipse the imperative to judge based on merit, character, and, when appropriate, policy or theology?

My prayer is that Americans ask themselves these questions throughout this election year. I'd like the next president to be elected because he or she is viewed by the people as having the highest integrity and best ideas of all the candidates in the field. I'd like our Conference in the future to vote openly, without anonymous letters crafted out of fear of bureaucratic reprisals, without "discernment processes" designed to elect any particular delegation. I'd like us to have the confidence and assurance and love to openly talk about "hot button issues" like theology and sex, trusting one another to practice prayerful discernment when we cast our votes.

My prayer is that we can celebrate race without fear. I am proud of my Scottish heritage; I am certain that Sen. Obama is equally proud of his own heritage.

I remember the words of Bishop Thomas Bickerton at our Annual Conference last June:
"I love you. I love you when I like you, and when I don’t like you. I love you when I agree with you and when I don’t. I love you when you lift me up and when you make me hurt. This is at the center of my theology.”
May these words resonate in the Church in 2008, regarding race and other equally difficult issues. And, through love, may we finally come to the place where we recognize that there is truly only "one kind of folks".


Greg Cox said...

Good stuff, and your picture of eggs made me hungry. I personally like brown eggs better.

Jeff Kahl said...


Good thoughts.

I remember reading an account of a theological discussion between Walter Brueggemann and an African-American theologian whose name I unfortunately do not remember.

At some point the discussion turned to the theme of "suffering," and the African-American said to Brueggemann, "You are a white male. What do you know about suffering?"

In my opinion, that is as much of a racist statement as anything said about "minority" races. The African-American was making a judgment about Brueggemann, purely on the basis of race, without even thinking of what personal suffering Brueggemann might have endured in his life.

Sorry for the venting....I guess what I'm trying to say is: Amen, brother!


Eric Park said...

Thanks for these thoughts, Keith, and for the deep sense of conviction with which you share them. My most recent blog post, entitled "Red and Yellow, Black and White," is my extended response.


Unknown said...

From my observations, the Clintons have been at the forefront of trying to put race into the debate. They have been using a lot of code language and trying to make Obama the "black" candidate. It seems their effort is to try and drive white voters away from Obama.

Keith H. McIlwain said...

I think that's true, but the media have been more than happy to help.

Brett Probert said...

Amen, and Greg, good. Eggs are a great, healthy, natural source of protein to supplement your normal diet when you're training for a triathalon. And, even better, the one brown egg amongst the white egg illustration is curiously prophetic about the hues of your mostly white T-shirt after the big run, if you catch my drift.

Unknown said...