June 17th, 2020


On Bees and Bonnets

A friend shared my blogpost (You keep using that word…) and someone replied, dismissing my thoughts, saying, “This author has not spent time understanding systemic racism.” He then gave an example of what America looks like to “a poor person of color.”

Well. It’s true that this author is not a poor person of color. That limits one’s perspective, but I am willing to listen and learn from anyone. All experience is valid; all persons are to be respected when describing their experiences. But it is also true that I’ve spent nearly fifty years studying and dealing with ideologies of all sorts. What I don’t know about ideologies and ideologues ain’t worth knowin’.

I started out as an undergraduate majoring in Political Science. There I met Locke and Hobbes, the Rosencrantz and Guildenstern of the social sciences. We didn’t talk much about race in those classes, but the 1970s were the decade of Black Power, and moving from a small, all-white town to a university where there were people of different backgrounds to share space with provided new experiences. I eventually graduated with a degree in English, with minors in Poli Sci and History. The History minor required me to take non-Western history courses: I took a course in African History, and one in History of the Middle East taught by an Arab nationalist. We wrestled a lot with Communism in Poli Sci (though not, interestingly, with Marxism – that was Economics).

I was originally going to become a lawyer. I participated in local politics, too. But with a year to go, God called me to ministry. I reoriented myself toward divinity, graduated early, and went off to seminary. There in Church History I met Locke and Hobbes again, along with a lot of other thinkers. I was ordained and set to work. I served in many kinds of churches and many kinds of settings. I served a university community. I served an inner-city church. I’ve ministered to the affluent, to the poor, to coal miners and farmers, in towns and cities and the open country. And, of course, I worked as a member of an Annual Conference and of a denomination in which theology and ideology (which were frequently indistinguishable from each other) often determined advancement and power relationships.

Working with people of all sorts, you find out what people really believe in. I’ve met a few racists, and more than few bores, conspiracy-mongers, religious cranks, and those awaiting the Revolution. Working with my colleagues, I’ve heard the official patter about systemic racism and I’ve participated in the mandatory diversity seminars. Since I don't fit the usual cultural mode of an evangelical, progressives have sometimes assumed that I'm one of them, and have talked quite frankly to me about how they view the world and the people they see as reactionary or bigoted; since I've usually served conservative churches, evangelicals have often assumed that I'm one of them, and have talked quite frankly to me about how they view the world and the people they see as ungodly. Meanwhile, The UMC has been convulsed over gay marriage and related matters, which has exposed the different belief systems (theological and ideological) operative in the church, and I’ve been an engaged participant in denominational politics.

When I went back for my doctorate years ago, I discovered that in the dozen years since I had last been in an academic environment that the whole tenor of Academe had changed. The young radicals had achieved tenure, and were now engaged in remaking the universities in their image. Political correctness was on a rampage. I took a course in American Thought, which led me to start investigating Edmund Burke and Thomas Paine. I took another course taught by a disciple of Eric Hobsbawm (gawd ‘elp us). And I took a School and Society (i.e., sociology) course that introduced me to Critical Theory Sociology. Whether the course was History or Psychology or Sociology or Secondary Education, I kept meeting the same kind of thinking. It made me realize that intellectual movements aren’t confined to a single discipline. They move across all the disciplines.

Some people, of course, talk the latest talk and haven’t really thought about what it all means. They just repeat the latest buzzwords. But there are those who mean what they say and say what they mean, and among the Awokened, when they talk about systemic racism, they aren’t talking about a system in which racism occurs, but about a system which creates and sustains racism (and other forms of oppression) as its founding principle. For them, America is founded upon racism, and all its talk of liberty is just a means of justifying that racism. And they mean that.

Interestingly, the people I’ve heard most strenuously advocating intersectionality, etc., have been highly educated whites in the church hierarchy and bureaucracy. Maybe that’s because I haven’t had these conversations with my black colleagues; maybe it’s because Woke Culture is more a preoccupation among elite whites than among African-Americans. I'd be interested in exploring that question and learning from others.

In any case, all this has made me constantly re-examine my own beliefs and experiences. I have continued to read across the disciplines. And I have been clear about my own standards. Politically, I’m an Old Whig and an admirer of Edmund Burke. Theologically, I’m an orthodox Methodist with a serious interest in Church History. And I am always sensitive to humbug, wherever I find it.