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Honor, Shame, and the Gospel in the American South, Part II

In “Honor, Shame, and the Gospel in the American South, Part I,” I identified several challenges that the mimetic rivalry that race-based slavery and segregation presented to the violence perpetuated, and violence avoiding, culture of the American South. Fundamentally, the oppression of slavery and later, Jim Crow, could only be maintained through violence. This violence was justified by the threat of greater violence should the system be brought down. So strong was the threat of this violence — the idea of a race war, or the softer threat of losing what one had (for poor Southern whites), one’s personal or family status being diminished, or simple alienation from family and neighbors — that it drove the sense of the necessity of violent reprisal to slights real or perceived. To not respond to insults or transgressions of the social order — to not attempt to reestablish the settled equilibrium — was to invite violence or exclusion upon oneself or loved ones.

Jackson Wu, whose comments about sharing the gospel in honor-shame cultures sparked the thoughts for the first essay, offers this instructive Chinese idiom to explain issues of “face”: “People want ‘face’ like a tree wants bark.” Consider what benefit bark is to a tree. Bark protects the tree and makes it identifiable. Likewise, face or honor serves to protect the more vulnerable aspects of personality. Wu writes: “One’s ‘face’ refers to how people value him or her.” So honor and respect do what we would readily conceive, i.e. bringing praise to the person who receives them, but they also do something we might not expect: they offer protection of some sort for our deepest selves. Consider how this reflexive need for self-protection might play out in an honor-shame culture like the American South, with the issues of race added to the mix.

In part one, I shared Gary Ciuba’s observation that “Honor made self-estimation into nothing but an imitation of how the southerner was esteemed by others. And since southerners desired such mimetic validation, they copied the desires of the other so that they would regard themselves as especially well-favored in the looking-glass of communal approval. The result was that the community of honor was a network in which each member was at once a model for everyone else and a disciple of everyone else” (Desire, Violence, and Divinity in Modern Southern Fiction, 21). The construction of this community of honor required that everyone’s behavior, and especially behavior touching upon race, was tightly controlled with transgressions triggering violent responses.

It is disheartening enough that Christians would be caught up in such a system, an even greater condemnation that the Church — in its Southern institutional forms including through its clergy — would perpetuate the system for the same reason that a person such as the overseer in 12 Years a Slave might respond with violence to a perceived insult: out of fear of loss of station, or in order to avoid being subject to violence. As Ciuba notes, “in seeking to ‘curtail violence,’ the upheaval that might come if churches undermined the social order, southern religion served as a bulwark for a culture founded on violence” (Desire, Violence, and Divinity in Modern Southern Fiction, 39). This leads to the challenging question of how the South might move from being Christ-haunted to being Christ-transformed, and by extension, how some of the tools unearthed in such a process might be used in other contexts, helping other Christians to truly wrestle with the realities of our national sins, past and present.

Recognizing the sins of our past and addressing the challenges of our present begins with recognizing the humanity of others, that they are loved by God and created in the divine image, and are therefore of infinite worth. Such recognition can inspire repentance for past sins, the rejection of present injustice, and both the willingness and ability to carve out spaces where people of divergent beliefs and opinions can acknowledge their differences and disagreements without fear of reprisal or dehumanization. Christians must focus on the creation of two such spaces, with the recognition that others will emerge organically whenever the second is achieved and nourished: a church that can endure and thrive in disagreement (sometimes called “contestation”) — even over serious matters — without denying the Christian faith of others, and the creation or maintenance of a pluralistic democracy in which such a church can faithfully function.

An environment in which the church can most fully and faithfully honor its commitments will necessarily be one in which citizens of all faiths or none can freely engage their fellow citizens and government. It may be a particular genius of the Anglo-American democratic tradition that needs to be revived and nourished, with its basis in common law, wherein healthy religious, cultural, ethnic, and other organizations form a third space that buffers the individual citizen from the weight of a flattened and flattening state, while in turn the pluralistic liberal state protects the rights of the individual from infringement, whether by the government, other individuals, or communities and entities to which the individual belongs. We speak a lot about checks and balances in our system, but the checks and balances offered by a robust civic space are too little discussed or advocated.

Having mentioned the necessity of a broad church that embraces disagreement, as well as the importance of a pluralistic public square where ideas freely mingle — and are expressed by individuals, as well as by collections of citizens, including those formed around philosophical or religious ideals, some of which will find expression in diverse ways of living — it seems important to lay down markers for ideas that can’t be fully explored here. Namely, in regard to a church that can bear disagreement in the manner required to inculcate the necessary habits to resist society-wide evil that dehumanizes those who disagree or who are otherwise different, which, as we will see later, requires the ability to be a community that is good at disagreement. This means putting some value over and above shared ideas as constitutive of identity. George Lindbeck argued that Christians could learn something from our Jewish siblings, in that they have something about belonging to teach Christians. It is, of course, a distinctive characteristic of the Christian faith that one does not have to be born into it. That’s essential to our identity because it is central to the expansiveness of the gospel. However, that doesn’t exhaust what it means to be a Christian.

Sometimes Christians have been too quick to de-church each other over doctrinal and intellectual disagreements — to say nothing of cultural disagreements that don’t touch on doctrine. Lindbeck writes: “What Christians need is an Israel-like sense of common peoplehood sufficient to sustain the loyal oppositions that make possible the persistence through time of those continuing and often bitter arguments without which otherwise divided communities do not survive” (“What of the Future? A Christian Response” in Christianity in Jewish Terms, ed. Tikva Frymer-Kensky, David Novak, Peter Ochs, David Fox Sandmel, and Michael A. Signer [Westview Press, 2000], 364, cited in “The Church and Israel”).

Regaining the church as a people formed by God rather than by humanity may be a beginning. Jesus says to us, “You did not choose me, but I chose you” (John 15:16). We do not receive a veto over who Christ calls and chooses. We are simply called to abide together and deal with one another. This perspective is a corollary to what is referred to as the cultural-linguistic turn that Lindbeck (along with Episcopal priest Hans Frei) advocated, and which has been shot through the various elements of the post-liberal or Narrative Theology movement. It is part and parcel of reflecting on the nature of Church-as-Israel, not in a way that supersedes the Jewish people, but as wild branches grafted onto the one people of God, Jewish and Gentile.

In regard to forming the sort of state capable of this sort of resistance to widespread systemic evil, it must be pluralistic not simply to be welcoming but in order that power may be diffuse and located with individuals, institutions, and communities that exist within the state as a whole — and significantly, sometimes, across the boundaries of various states — which then hold the state and each other to account. Such a thick civic culture is consistent with the positive aspects of the vision of America’s founders, and has the happy consequence of helping us resist oppression in measure relative to how many individuals, groups, and communities enjoy equal access to the public square, public space, and public institutions. At its best, the Anglican tradition is both well suited to, and particularly interested in, nurturing both of these realities for the common good of all.

This provides a glimpse of the direction we need to go. But we cannot get there without looking back and unearthing the reality of our historic wrongs. Ephraim Radner notes the importance of acknowledging the wrongs in which the church is or has been complicit as the church, because people have made decisions — even wicked ones — as Christians. In A Brutal Unity: The Spiritual Politics of the Christian Church, which wrestles in part with the Rwandan genocide, he notes the way that Pope John Paul II’s refusal to say that the church was responsible as an institution arguably undercut its legitimacy and authority. “In the eyes of many, if the Church will not accept responsibility, in some concrete and identifiable way, then her religion itself is suspect.” Playing this reality out means that “If religious violence is a myth, then so is Christian blessing” (A Brutal Unity, Kindle Location 780 and 882).

Despite the evident success of the church in America, much of it has been built on a deeply flawed unwillingness to address the national sins of slavery and its descendant racialized ideologies. It is not too great a jump to wonder if the clay feet that have lately been revealed across almost all majority white denominations are in fact a result of, and perhaps a judgment on, this unwillingness and complicity. Not long ago, some denominations contented — or even commended — themselves with the idea that it was a progressive/conservative divide that explained the decline of the church in the United States. The decline was confined to the old mainline denominations that were losing adherents and influence because of their Laodicean temperament and cultural liberalism. Ultimately, however, the culture wars have been little more than an extension of and a distraction from these foundational fissures in the American character. The early enlistment of the various churches of the South in the perpetuation of evil, in the name of avoiding violence by maintaining an unjust equilibrium, continued through the civil rights movement — and it is worth asking how such actions may continue today, as a result of the moral captivity of the church. And it is here that I shall pick up tomorrow.

1 COMMENT

  1. Your written words are beautiful. God and his written words are here to save us from the devil’s work that includes deadly work of hands. God told me what to do about the guaranteed sabotages and set up to fail and cause and create damages and health hazards all ignored. Insulation CAUSED by work of hands to be floating around entire homes interior. Not one thing safe or right about the SET up on AC alone can be found by any person on planet about the SET up used in manufactured homes ONLY. If asking why done so differently for mobile homes ONLY, they say because we can and it was MADE LEGAL in manufactured homes ONLY. Double standards and guaranteed problems CAUSED AND CREATED are FACTS and the exact same facts that say NEVER DO TO ANY AC or controlled environments. Just the fake set ups DESTROYS the AC equipment as a weapon. Warranties broken INSTANTLY. God’s COVENANT and all TEN COMMANDMENTS BROKEN and ignored. The Bible and God’s written words of life are needed for the mistakes of our most recent forefathers and elders. God’s name above all and treating others the way you like to be treated are main issues for sure. God does not care about men’s names. I have written much since God spoke to me in HIS Temple and has had his hand on mine for a guide and better understanding to his written words. This generation is the one that I believe will not pass until God’s work is know and used and done correctly per God’s ways only. That probably means the same science all the real AC people use to make sure clean air in and clean air out. With laws and codes of safety and rules even ethics if can’t decide what to do.

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