Rethinking Incarceration - A Review

Mass incarceration is a significant problem in the United States. The sheer number of people who are currently in the custody of the various levels of government is staggering. According to one advocacy group, approximately 2.3 million Americans were in some form of corrective custody in 2017. This is a dramatic burden to the population through expended tax revenue, but has an even greater cost for the families of those behind bars, for the communities decimated by this phenomenon, and the individuals who will be permanently marked with the status of ex-con or felon.

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The problem of mass incarceration is complicated by unequal racial outcomes, which indicate that approximately 1 in 3 ethnic minorities will pass through the judicial system and spend time in some form of corrective custody. This inequity helps continue the perpetuation of negative images of minorities and accelerates what amounts to a downward spiral in some communities. A large number of minorities are imprisoned; therefore, they are perceived to be dangerous, then they are watched more closely and given fewer breaks, which leads to a larger number of incarcerations. This has negative effects of the general population’s perception of minorities and the perception of the judicial system and police force by minorities. Add in some cases of real corruption and legitimate hostility on both sides and you have something like the stand off we find ourselves in now with people arguing about the importance of black lives versus blue lives.

With that background, the recent volume by Dominique Dubois Gilliard, Rethinking Incarceration: Advocating for Justice that Restores, is timely and takes on a very important topic. The book consists of two parts.

Part one lays out various aspects that contribute to the problem of mass incarceration, with chapters on the war on drugs, a history of racial bias in law enforcement, an overzealous enforcement of law, issues with mental health and immigration, and the so-called school-to-prison pipeline. This portion of the volume is largely sociological and helpful in highlighting important elements of a significant source of injustice in our nation.

Part two is a theological argument intended to move readers of the volume to a doctrinal foundation that Gilliard believes will undermine mass incarceration. In this section, Gilliard offers chapters on Quaker involvement in American prisons, prison chaplaincy, penal substitutionary atonement, restorative justice, and a concluding plea for activism in dismantling mass incarceration. This section of the volume is less helpful and less well done.

There are two apparent theses in this book. First, that mass incarceration is a problem with underlying systemic injustices in the American legal system. Gilliard handles that element of the book well. He researched that section well and puts together a solid argument that has potential to convince a skeptical reader.

The second thesis of the book is that the doctrine of penal substitutionary atonement is the cause of the problem of mass incarceration. Unfortunately, Gilliard’s attempt at supporting this thesis is, at best, poor. By any fair measure, the theological argumentation of this section of the book is anemic and riddled with fundamental methodological errors, many of which should have been corrected prior to this book’s publication. These errors and the nature of Gilliard’s plea for rejecting the substitutionary atonement significantly diminish the value of this volume, in some cases making it more likely to cement bias against judicial reform among some conservative Christians than convince anyone of the issue’s importance.

Rethinking Incarceration is a useful book in that it raises awareness of a significant issue of systemic injustice. The work Gilliard does in highlighting the racial aspects of the history of mass incarceration is helpful. Unfortunately, by introducing a second thesis and calling for a rejection of a common, orthodox theory of the atonement and by doing so very poorly, Gilliard undermines the good work he does in the beginning of the book. My hope is that a better book from a more careful author will follow this book and lead to a continuing and more theologically robust discussion of this vital topic.

Note: I received a gratis copy of this volume from the publisher with no expectation of a positive review.

Dream with Me - A Review

John Perkins is a hero of the faith. I have little doubt that within a few decades he will be featured in biographies written for children as an example of someone who did a great work for the glory of God.

His is far from a household name in many circles, unfortunately. In fact, it has only been in recent years that I’ve encountered his story which typically isn’t flashy, but exudes the powerful, life-changing reality of the gospel.

For those new to John Perkins’ story, he is an African American man from Mississippi. If that doesn’t tell you enough, know that his brother was killed by police officers decades ago, he himself was severely beaten while in police custody, and his son suffered mightily as one of the forerunners of the school integration efforts in the ‘60s.

This is a man who has every reason to be bitter, angry, and to despise whites. He’s been given reason upon reason to reject the offers of reconciliation and partnership from the ethnic groups who were responsible for so much of his pain.

He has not reacted that way, though. Perkins came to Christ as the result of his son’s invitation to attend Sunday School. Hearing the gospel turned his heart away from the natural bitterness of his experience and led to the changed heart who has influenced many for Christ. It also set in motion the work Perkins has done in making society more just.

His recent book, Dream with Me: Race, Love, and the Struggle We Must Win, is an autobiography. At 86 years old, Perkins offers this book as a self-conscious reflection on how God has worked in and through him for decades. The volume has fourteen chapters, which move in roughly chronological fashion. The chapters are thematic, telling pieces of Perkins’ story, along with a great deal of thoughtful reflection along the way.

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Like most autobiographies, the best parts of this book are not the histories that he recounts, but his explanation of his perspective. Listening to an aging man explain why he did some things and not others, and what he would have done differently is pure gold. This is distilled, bottled wisdom for those who are fortunate and diligent enough to read it.

One of the most powerful aspects of this book is Perkins’ reflection on some of the sources of the vicious discrimination African Americans faced prior to and during the civil rights movement, when public displays of racism were tolerated and encouraged. Perkins notes that some of the worst racial violence came from poor whites in the South—people who were in much the same economic straits that many blacks were in during that time. However, those poor whites had something that the blacks didn’t—white skin.

Instead of commiserating and cooperating with people in similar economic straits, some poor whites cashed in on the only asset they possessed—the cultural cache of being white—using it to gain positions of relative power, like prison guard, deputy sheriff, etc. They also took opportunities to reinforce their “superiority” over people of color, living out the idea that pushing someone else down could lift them up. The reality, of course, is that such actions simply made everything worse for everyone.

Perkins is able to reflect on this condition retrospectively with grace. He’s a better man than I am, I’m sure. Instead of being angry about how poorly he was treated and how much pain many whites caused his family and friends, Perkins demonstrates a gospel-fueled love.

That’s a big piece of Perkins’ life message and the message of this book. Love, the sort of love that comes from the regeneration of hearts by the love of Christ and the power of the gospel, has the power to change things. It’s easy to forget that. Or, perhaps it’s hard to believe that when crowds are shouting at you, death threats are coming, and you simply want the equal justice the law requires. In Dream with Me, Perkins gives an example of what it looks like.

I’m not always a fan of autobiographies, but this is a book that deserves to be read. It will serve as an encouragement and lodestar for many engaged in the slow moving process of gospel reconciliation.

Note: I received a gratis copy of this volume from the publisher with no expectation of a positive review.

Enduring Truth - A Review

Aaron Lavender of Carver Baptist Bible College, Institute, and Theological Seminary has recently released a book with B&H Academic that, I believe, provides a much needed word for all Christians of all times. His book is directed toward the particular context of improving the theological quality of African American preaching, but most of the examples and lessons are applicable to any ethnic context.

Summary and Analysis

Enduring Truth: Restoring Sound Theology and Relevance to African American Preaching contains four content chapters bookended by an introduction and conclusion. Lavender begins by addressing the problems he sees with biblical preaching in African American pulpits. He notes that many African American churches have suffered due to the segregation of theological training and social segregation over the previous generations. As a result of many theologically conservative colleges and seminaries excluding or restricting access by African Americans, Lavender argues some bad theological tendencies have developed. He describes a significant mishandling of the Word of God that is widespread and has lead to the propagation of Black Liberation theology and the Prosperity Gospel instead of sound, biblical teaching. In other cases, showmanship and style have replaced substance in African American pulpits. This amounts to a crisis in African American churches.

In Chapter Two, Lavender moves to discuss the goal. Having stated the crisis, he unveils a vision for exegetical preaching, including its importance and its methodology. This chapter is concise and worthy of reading by prospective preachers of any ethnicity. In particular, Lavender tackles the issue of single versus multiple meanings as it pertains to exegesis of Scripture. Progressive evangelicals regularly assault conservatives for believing there is one primary meaning intended by the God-inspired authors of Scripture. Lavender defends the singular intended meaning, but also clearly notes that a given text may have diverse implications and applications in varying context. Lavender handles this issue and other similarly complex issues clearly, carefully, and concisely, which help to make this a good introductory volume.

Lavender builds a brief theology of preaching in the third chapter. Here he moves the reader to understand that preaching is more than simply regurgitating the results of Bible study, but it is a performative act in which the clear content of Scripture is presented clearly as a message of good news to a particular audience. However, Lavender cautions against preaching turning into a performance: “[The preacher] has not been called to entertain or mesmerize his listeners.” Instead, he should seek to reprove, rebuke and exhort. Scripture is to be the center of the preaching, because it is the message of Scripture not the charisma of the messenger that is intended to reshape the lives of the listening congregation. In this chapter, Lavender also considers some elements of preaching that are unique to an African American context. He evaluates both the strengths and pitfalls of “whooping” (“when the preacher’s words begin taking on a musical quality”) and “participatory proclamation” where the congregation is vocal in response to the preacher’s message. The purpose of this chapter is to frame a vision for expository preaching within the particular contours of the African American context.

Chapter Four closes the body of this brief volume by discussing the ever important search for relevance in preaching. In this chapter the author skims the surface of postmodernism, providing a critique that should keep the biblically informed from delving into the allure of epistemology murkiness. Lavender also discusses the importance and dangers of contextualization, which functions as further buttressing against a full-throated Black Liberation theology. Lavender urges his readers to contextual well, but cautiously. Seeking to apply the Scriptures to the lives of the hearers without diminishing the central message and authority of the Word itself is a challenge that every faithful preacher must navigate carefully. Lavender provides sound advice for his audience. This chapter concludes with a question an answer section, with a variety of seasoned African American preachers explaining their approach to the craft of preaching.

Conclusion

At under 100 pages of text, this is the sort of resource that could be useful in mentoring prospective young preachers in any context, but particularly within an African American context.

One of the clear messages that I received from this volume as a white evangelical Christian is that within the African American context, Aaron Lavender has the same concerns about biblical fidelity and faithfulness to the message of Scripture that I have had in a predominately white context. As we continue to work toward racial reconciliation, this makes it clear that conservative Christians of various ethnicities should be able to work together in the common cause of redemption of biblical preaching, even when styles and techniques differ.

Finally, this is an important book that should be read across ethnic lines. Within the African American context, it will provide a focused critique and corrective to possible errors. Within the majority evangelical context, it has the potential to provide an introductory understanding to some of the distinctive aspects of African American preaching (like “whooping” and congregational response), which can seem distracting initially, but which have a historical and theological foundation within that tradition. If you are a white evangelical seeking to be a bridge builder to theologically aligned African Americans in your community, this book will help you understand their context better.

Note: I received a gratis copy of this volume from the publisher with no expectation of a positive review.

Worth Reading - 10/8

Here are some of the more significant posts and podcasts that I've come across this week.

1. A history and overview of the Gregorian Calendar from Vox. Likely not the most important thing you'll read this week, but one of the more interesting. We are due for something a little lighter and more interesting right now, I think.

The fundamental problem that anyone making a calendar has to grapple with is the fact that it takes just a shade more than 365 days for Earth to make a full trip around the sun. More precisely, it takes 365.24219 days. . . .
This dilemma was grasped early on by astronomers in Alexandria, Egypt, who helped Julius Caesar devise a new calendar in 46 BC. Until that point, the Roman calendar was a messy hodgepodge, with months based on the cycles of the moon and extra days tacked on in February every now and again based on the whims of politicians. Caesar wanted a steadier, more reliable way to mark the dates.
But the new Julian calendar that resulted was still flawed. It had a leap day every four years, which turned out to be an overcorrection. The average year now had 365.25 days in it — just a shade more than 365.24219.
By the 1570s, those slight differences had added up. The calendar was now out of sync with the solar year by about 10 days.

2. This is not new, but it has been making the rounds of late. It is a satirical academic article poking fun at the textual critical methods often used to denigrate the validity of Scripture. This time, however, it's being applied to the works of A.A. Milne. A worthwhile article for a chortle, and it exposes some of the tomfoolery that goes on in higher critical circles.

Since on the earthly level the chief focus of attention in the corpus is the hero Pooh, on the mythological plane great importance must be attached to the deity whom he worships. Pooh is of course a devotee of the goddess Honey. The stated time of her service he observes with unfailing regularity – as we learn from H 5.82 it is 11am (a traditional time for divine service). He speaks of this hour as the time when 'I generally get home. Because I have One or Two things to Do.' Naturally he speaks indirectly of his faith when addressing an unbeliever (Rabbit), but the capitalization makes plain that the things to be done are the performance of sacred acts. Pooh is no ordinary lay worshipper of Honey, but obviously a priest dedicated to her service; his so-called 'house', liberally furnished with 14 or 15 cult-objects (pots) (H 3.35), which he speaks of as 'comforting' to him (H 3.36) – which is the very function of religion – is undoubtedly a sanctuary, a 'house' or temple, of Honey.
Honey is a fertility goddess (cf. the use in the common language of 'honey' as a synonym for 'love', and the frequent use of terms for sweetness as endearments). She is referred to in the old gnomic saying, 'What is sweeter than Honey, what is stronger than a lion?' (originally, 'What is stronger than a Tigger?'). She is frequently alluded to in the Pooh corpus by reverential periphrases such as befit a deity of her statue, e.g. 'a little something' (W 8.116; H 4.56), 'a little smackerel of something' (H 1.2). I should like here to make the suggestion that we have in the figure of Honey a clue to the enigmatic inscription to be found in one of the primitive illustrations (W 1.18) Bath Mat. This is surely the Hebrew bath me'at 'Daughter of a Little', a well-known Semitic idiom for A Little Something.

3. A few weeks ago, mega-church pastor Andy Stanley leaped into his latest controversy by declaring that the Bible is an impediment to evangelism. Since he likes seeing people saved, he tries to avoid referencing the bible in his "sermons" on Sunday. His defenders argue that his methods work and he stills says the right things. His less rabid attackers have continue to push on the problems of stripping the Bible from the congregation. Jared Wilson picks up some of the more significant problems in this post.

If I may speak to another issue I believe central to the more recent debate about the sufficiency and reliability of the Bible in worship gatherings and in evangelism and apologetic conversations with unbelievers: I think if we trace back some of these applicational missteps to the core philosophy driving them, we find in the attractional church a few misunderstandings. The whole enterprise has begun with a wrong idea of what — biblically speaking — the worship gathering is, and even what the church is.
In some of these churches where it is difficult to find the Scriptures preached clearly and faithfully as if it is reliable and authoritative and transformative as the very word of God, we find that things have effectively been turned upside down. In 1 Corinthians 14, Paul uses the word “outsider” to describe unbelievers who are present in the worship gathering. He is making the case for our worship services to be intelligible, hospitable, and mindful of the unbelievers present, but his very use of the word “outsider” tells us that the Lord’s Day worship gathering is not meant to be primarily focused on the unbelieving visitor but on the believing saints gathered to exalt their king. In the attractional church paradigm, this biblical understanding of the worship gathering is turned upside down—and consequently mission and evangelism are actually inverted, because Christ’s command to the church to “Go and tell” has been replaced by “Come and see.”
Many of these churches—philosophically—operate more like parachurches. And the result is this: it is the sheep, the very lambs of God, who basically become the outsiders.

4. The Winning Slowly podcast did a good job covering the nature and problem with civil forfeiture. It isn't the highest injustice on many people's list, but it does have a significant negative impact on people. It's worth listening to this brief discussion to get an idea of what the concept is and how you can help.

5. A University of Toronto professor refuses to use the neutral "they" for individuals who label themselves transgender. This has, obviously, caused a great deal of hoopla and accusation of bigotry. His argument is careful. He is not a prude, nor even opposed to the sexual revolution. It's worth reading the argument to see how he responds. The last paragraph, which I quote here, has significant explanatory power for contemporary politics and may present a view of the future.

It's not the role of society to make people feel included. That's not the role of society. The role of society is to maintain a modicum of peace between people. It's not the role of society to make people feel comfortable. I think society is changing in many ways. I can tell you one thing that I'm very terrified of, and you can think about this. I think that the continual careless pushing of people by left wing radicals is dangerously waking up the right wing. So you can consider this a prophecy from me if you want. Inside the collective is a beast and the beast uses its fists. If you wake up the beast then violence emerges. I'm afraid that this continual pushing by radical left wingers is going to wake up the beast.

6. This is even more significant in light of the latest damning evidence about Trump's character. A young conservative explaining why he feels betrayed by the conservatives that have backed Trump in this election.

Many claim a vote for Trump out of desperation, and I can understand a desperate vote. A conservative should only vote for Donald Trump like a fox gnawing off a leg stuck in a trap. But publicly urging support for a candidate, even “given our choices,” is another matter. Conservatism has always wanted to win elections. It has been willing to compromise on candidates and platforms. But behind conservatism lay real principles, advocated not simply because they were popular or would win at the ballot box, but because they remain good and true. We should not promote a candidate who is the opposite of those principles in the hope that we are actually furthering them.
Others claim that Trump might advance the causes conservatives care about. Perhaps, but when conservatives I’ve trusted endorse Trump, it brings to mind Jack Sparrow's words from Pirates of the Caribbean: “Me, I’m dishonest, and a dishonest man you can always trust to be dishonest. Honestly, it’s the honest ones you have to watch out for. You never can predict if they're going to do something incredibly stupid.” We can trust that Trump will continue to be dishonest. He is not worth pledging the honor of our movement.
It also brings to mind Doug Kmiec, the Pepperdine Law School professor who traveled the country making a Catholic case for Barack Obama. My friends and I thought that secular progressives were not going to take their cues from Catholic thought. Clearly, we were right. For his services, Doug Kmiec was made ambassador to Malta, but President Obama has never relied on Catholic leaders for advice as President Bush did. Before long, the Department of Health and Human Services started issuing mandates, forcing Catholic universities and religious orders to fight for their rights in court.

7. Even given the tense and especially rancorous election season, Trevin Wax provides a good word on how Christians should handle this election season. Give lots of space and grace.

Christians, of all people, should remember that politics is not ultimate. There are more important things in life, truths that unite us across party lines into one body of Christ. Most of the issues we debate at the dinner table must fade away at the Table of our Lord.

So should we resort to publicly shaming people who decide to vote for one of these candidates? Twist the arms of those who, out of conscience, withhold their vote? Pounce on people when something happens you think makes them regret the decision they’ve made?

When we blast people who have come to a different ethical conclusion about the best way forward this election cycle, we give the impression that this year’s choice is ultimate. We look just like people on the Right and Left who live and breathe politics because they don’t see anything higher.

This won’t do. I have too many friends and family members and fellow church members on all sides of Election 2016 to let their choice in the voting booth affect my affection for them.

8. Trillia Newbell wrote a very good post for the ERLC about the problem of apathy when it comes to issues of race.

My point is there are plenty of stories about race today that should cause each of us to pause and ask hard questions.

Part of my friend’s struggle to care seems to me to be apathy. It’s simply easier to coast through life not worrying about others who aren’t immediately associated with you. It takes effort to know those not like us, to study history and ask hard questions. This apathy could be masked by the thought, “Haven’t we all moved past racism now?” But the stories above prove otherwise. We get used to “our own” and can soon fall into the temptation to be partial.

James, inspired by the Holy Spirit, spoke strongly about the temptation to be partial toward others, reminding us that it’s ultimately about the second of the great commandments—to love your neighbor as yourself. He wrote: “My brothers, show no partiality as you hold the faith in our Lord Jesus Christ, the Lord of glory. If you really fulfill the royal law according to the Scripture, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself,’ you are doing well. But if you show partiality, you are committing sin and are convicted by the law as transgressors” (James 2:1, 8-9 ESV).

9. Bruce Ashford raises some important points about religious liberty (note the absence of scare quotes) and why we really need a world where we can believe differently and live those beliefs out. This is too important an issue to allow the progressivist antagonists to silence conservatives of good will.

Religious liberty is a first freedom because it stands at the center of what it means to be human. As a Constitutional freedom, it declares each person has value and dignity, each person is free to hold his or her own convictions about ultimate reality, and each person is guaranteed the liberty to align his or her life with those convictions. And just as importantly, each of us is free to do so openly, without fear.

When religious freedom is threatened, every other freedom is threatened as well. Religion alone can check the government’s perpetual intrusion on the liberties of individuals, groups, and mediating institutions. For that very reason, however, certain governmental and non-governmental actors in our nation wish to restrict religious liberty. Confining religion to the realm of privately held beliefs and semi-public houses of worship, would allow government to function in all manner of capacities beyond its Constitutional mandate. This is the very outcome being sought by certain progressive organizations and political actors.

Speaking of Ethnicity

Race relations in the United States is becoming a third rail topic. Better to discuss politics and religion than to suggest there might be ongoing patterns of systemic racism in some circles.

If social media is any indication, some groups seem to think that by even discussing racial differences, others are fomenting and accentuating racism.

In extreme cases this is true. However, in most cases, the people discussing racial issues are dealing with the real difference between the minority and majority experience in the United States.

The Myth of Color Blindness

One of the arguments against discussing race is the argument that society should be “color blind.” The term means that we should not consider the color of people’s skin when making evaluations of people and their work.

Image Credit: Old Couple, used by CC license,  http://ow.ly/oA8T303zFnk

Image Credit: Old Couple, used by CC license, http://ow.ly/oA8T303zFnk

I believe that most people engaged in discussions of race relations see “color blindness” as a desirable outcome in the long term. In Martin Luther King, Jr.’s iconic “I Have a Dream” speech, part of his dream is that people will not be judged by the color of their skin. Someday a future generation may reach that point.

Despite the desire to have a world in which skin color does not matter, that world does not exist now. We have a world in which ethnicity and skin color still do matter much more than they should.

At this point, there are some who will swoop down onto my argument like a vulture to point out certain statistics. What I’m speaking of here is more than just statistics—whether the statistics support certain percentages of killings by ethnicity or disparate academic outcomes.

I’m speaking of the observed reality that my middle-class, professional, African-American friends have on average been pulled over many more times than I have for no more apparent cause. I’m speaking of the reality of my own observations of minority males of color being treated differently than me by authorities even while we were both in uniform. I’m speaking of the internal impulse in my own mind to make snap judgments about people based on their appearance.

I like statistics (in fact they are a fun part of my job), but they don't always tell the whole story. Sometimes they tell a different story than reality.

To claim that skin color does not influence societal evaluations is foolish. It’s like a person ignoring an infection in a limb.

Our Wounded Reality

Imagine if you get a cut in your finger while working a dirty job. You ignore the pain and keep working. You tell your hand that it is OK and that it is just like your other uninjured hand. Both hands are equally valuable to you, therefore it should stop hurting. Meanwhile it gets infected. However, you don’t clean the wound or treat it. You tell your hand that the cut was inflicted a couple of days ago and that it hasn’t been cut recently, so it should stop aching. Slowly the infection may heal, if conditions are right. Or, quite possibly, ignoring the legitimate needs of your hand could cause the infection to spread and perhaps even blood poisoning to set in.

At best, the neglected hand heals itself but may scar significantly or take longer to fully heal due to the lack of medical care. At worst, the blood poisoning spreads and kills the individual with the injured hand. In both cases consequences could have been avoided by taking timely, appropriate action.

Few people would ignore an injured hand. Instead, most people react to a cut by getting first aid, keeping it clean, and treating the injured hand differently for a time. The common sense understanding is that the wounded hand may have different needs for a time.

There is wisdom in recognizing there is a difference between the hands and taking care of the wound.

Our contemporary reality of race relations is something like this analogy.[1]

The Reality of Injury

To provide just one example, African-Americans were economically and socially harmed by American society by being enslaved and later by unjust laws that were in place in the middle of the last century. There are enough evidences of ongoing negative racial bias that we need to accept that such bias continues to exist in some cases. (See: the alt-right movement)

There has been legitimate injury done that will necessarily take time to heal. It may also take focused attention to promote healing, which includes at least being free to talk about racial differences without being accused of fomenting division.

Until healing occurs, we need to recognize that there are differences in society between the experiences of people of different ethnicities. Stereotypes built on generations of observed behavior, depictions in entertainment media, and self-selected identities all impact the experience of people in the United States. It takes time to change these deeply seated societal ideas, but the first step is to recognize they exist. Someday we may be able to be “color blind,” but we aren’t there yet. In many cases we really aren’t that close.

Moving Toward Change

We should long for the day when ethnicity is a point of interesting difference, like discussing where people grew up and what their favorite home-cooked food is. However, the experience of racial minorities in the United States is often significantly different than that of the majority. If you want to know what sorts of differences exist, talk to a few minorities. Their experiences will be unique, but some common patterns will tend to emerge if the sample size is large enough.

Unless we address the injustice of some of those differences, the healing process will not progress very quickly. Unless people are free to explain what is wrong without being accused of hate and division, we can never have meaningful conversations.

We can certainly have meaningful discussions about the best ways to deal with our differences. There is no simple solution for undoing the intentional harm inflicted in and by previous generations. There is no single, easy method of eliminating the often obscure, but deeply seated biases of contemporary perceptions.

However, until people are allowed to have open, charitable conversations about the existence of differences because of ethnicity, society will be unable to move to the next phase of healing.

[1] The analogy obviously breaks down at some point. I am not inferring that racial minorities are somehow infected limbs that should be removed from society. Quite the reverse. I am hopeful that this analogy will illustrate the interconnectedness of society and the value in promoting social healing for overall health. Just as one does not blame the hand for being wounded, we should not blame minorities for past ills inflicted by society.

Under Our Skin - Benjamin Watson Discusses Race in America

When Benjamin Watson, a Tight End in the NFL, wrote a Facebook post in the aftermath of the Ferguson, MO decision, some hailed it as a “race-baiting” others saw it as an attempt by at least one person to try to make sense of the racial tension in our world.

The thing is, whether we all like to admit it or not, race is still an issue in the United States. For the most part we’ve gotten over the biggest obstacles to living with one another: Jim Crow has been repealed, discrimination based on ethnicity is forbidden, and society doesn’t generally tolerate overt racists.

However, that doesn’t mean that the issue is settled. It isn’t. And the reason that we need to talk about it is so that we can identify and begin to root out subtler forms of bias against other races.

Benjamin Watson’s book, which was co-authored by Ken Petersen, tries to bring gracious light on the issue from the perspective of one African-American. This is a book that will make you think, even if you don’t agree with all of the details. That is, it will make you think as long as you take the time to read it and try to see what Watson is really communicating.

Summary

The book includes an introduction and eleven chapters. The topics of ten of the chapters come directly from the bullets in Watson’s original, viral Facebook post.

Watson begins with anger, but he recognizes what it is and boiling it down into a gracious tone. He invites the reader in to his perspective on the status of race relations in general and the Ferguson decision in particular. This chapter shows that our starting point can shape how we view the justice of the ending point. Instead of arguing with his readers, he tries to show why he arrives at his perspective.

That’s really the point of the book. It makes the reader aware that there is another perspective and that it is rational. In the end, the reader chooses to believe it or not, but a fair reader should walk away with a better understanding of Watson’s view of race in the United States. Although he certainly doesn’t speak for all African-Americans, his perspective is authentic and winsome. It can’t hurt much to think about things from his point of view.

In much the same way, the remaining ten chapters examine emotions that Watson experienced in response to the Ferguson decision. Introspection, embarrassment, frustration, fearful confusion, and sympathetic sadness are among them. Add to these things feeling offended and hopeless, but at the same time encouraged and empowered. Watson walks through how all these emotions were a part of his response. He does this without giving into any of them or becoming so rational that he discounts the power of the emotions.

Reaction

This isn’t a book on theology with a linear argument that I can critique. Even if it was, that isn’t the point of the book. The point of the book is to get the discussion about race going. It is intended to get one side to see that there is more to the conversation than facts and figures; simply showing that overt racism has been banned is not the end of the story. It is intended to show the other side how to begin a discussion without so much anger that your words can’t be heard.

I think that Watson succeeds in providing a gracious beginning point for conversation.

Watson’s book helps me, a white man, to better understand what it’s like to see things from his perspective. He puts into gracious terms some of the bits and pieces of testimony I’ve heard from friends that are part of racial minorities. I can’t have ever experienced these things, but I can certainly appreciate his perspective better now because he presents his case so carefully.

It is shameful that for many people on the political right simply talking about race has become a divisive political issue. Of course, often that idea is intentionally promoted, as some try to use racial division to paint the other side into a corner. But the issue is too important to allow it to driven by politics.

When we are talking about race, we are talking about people made in the image of God. We are talking about how we treat one another and whether justice is being done. Those are gospel issues, not merely political issues. This is a conversation that we can’t afford to skip out on. This deserves a deep discussion and consideration of where we are as a society, not merely a cursory head nod to equality.

I am thankful for Watson’s book and that he took the time to write it. He’s making enough playing football that he didn’t have to take the time, and yet he did. I’m thankful for the way he engaged the question so that I could benefit from his perspective.

In the end, I’m hopeful that reading this book has helped me see things a bit more clearly and gives me the ability to have a bit more empathy. I’m hopeful that others will read the book and have a similar experience.

Note: I received a gratis copy of this volume in exchange for an honest review.

Here is a video Watson did with The Gospel Coalition on this topic: