Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Narratives and Results

I read Ta-Nehisi Coates' Between the World and Me this weekend. He's an influential thinker in matters of race and society (although that seems to limit the kind of things he thinks and writes about), come to greater prominence in the last year specifically addressing policing and prisons in the country. Obviously, I'm white, so it's difficult to process everything in the book, which is written as a series of letters to his 15 year old son, but reads much like a memoir.

I appreciate his statement that the white struggle to deal with issues of race in our past and present is not a struggle someone else can do for us. It's not a sentiment you hear often, but something I resonate with - that there is not one struggle, but many, from every perspective and position. It's challenging.

Perhaps more challenging, though, is his assertion that the brutality and violence we often rue in our police and prison system is not a regrettable anomaly, but the natural output of our society. Yes, race is mixed up in this pictures because race is mixed up in everything we've ever done as a society, but by presenting the large picture of "you act as you are," Coates addresses a bigger picture that should concern even those deniers of race disparities.

He argues we have a militant and aggressive police force because we are a militant and aggressive country. We might outsource most of that over seas, but it still represents the core of who we are as a people (and if it truly doesn't, then we need to act differently toward the rest of the world). This argument has given me pause to look at all those things we decry in our society:

We hate that our political leaders have entrenched themselves in intractable positions, unwilling to talk or make real progress because they perceive it as some kind of moral or ideological defeat. Yet we have a nation that blunders blindly into war just about anywhere we can frame an ideological message and keep throwing money at problems long after it makes any sense (I'm thinking Syria, but there are a lot of foreign policy moves that would fly here).

The same thing plays out across society. We hate that our attention span is so short, that our people don't seem to care about real issue or knowledgeable arguments. We prefer sex and violence to plot and narrative in our entertainments. Our most vocal and consistent support in sports is for a game in which grown men (and sometimes children) literally kill themselves and each other on the field, then we pat our backs for being mildly outraged when they do the same thing off the field (although not so outraged to stop employing them).

Coates takes an interesting tactic, though. He advises his young son to stick to his own struggle. He doesn't advocate trying to change the system or change the world, but to deal with the situation he's found himself in (as an advantage black man in the 3rd generation since the 60's) and address the world as best he can from that position - even if its not enough to change things, it is the very best that he can do.

You read Between the World and Me searching for glimmers of hope. There's a sense in which Coates has hope, even though he can't rationalize it. There are certainly no words of hope, other than the thankfulness of having one generation in a slightly better position than the last. There is, however, an undercurrent of expectation - something I'll label latent hope. Coates acts as though he expects things to improve, even though there's no real evidence to have such faith, simply because there's not much option outside nihilism, and no one wants to pass nihilism on to their children.

As a Christian, it's a challenge, partly because, while Coates respects the place of faith in Black American history, he doesn't believe in a god. I do see a Christian response in his advice to focus on one's situation to make a difference that might count. Nothing pains me more than Christians who adopt the persona and narrative of conservative and liberal, those who take on the mantra of Republican or Democrat and play the partisan game of our nation. I say that with intention. Nothing makes me more upset. Poverty, rape, slavery, addiction - those things are far more terrible, for sure, but in playing the political games of nations, Christians are, whether consciously or not, giving up on the Church as the hope of the world.

I've said it before; I'll say it a lot more. The message of Christ was for anyone who has any respect for his life or teaching to live as an alternative to the narrative of nations and power. It is only through a alternative lifestyle that we could ever hope to tackle the horrors of poverty and injustice in any meaningful way. The message of Christ is essentially the same message Coates gives to his son at the end of Between the World and Me: live your own struggle. The narrative of the world you've been given will not resonate with the narrative that speaks truth to your soul. Don't get fooled. Skip that national narrative and struggle with the one in your heart.

Coates and Christ might not preach the same narrative (then again, they might be closer than were comfortable with), but it's good advice. We need to speak into the world, with our words and, more important, with our actions, from our own narrative, not adopting one of the positions made available to us by the narrative of power. Participating in the society we have will only continue to produce the results we're unsatisfied with. Playing the game means we've already lost.

The great myth of power is that there exists no alternative; the challenge of the gospel is to live into that non-existent alternative and, through our lives, make it real.

*And I fully admit, Coates will likely be as disappointed with what I've gotten out of his book as he is with all the other people who seem to miss the point. I'm thankful either way and highly recommend it.

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