Text Study for Luke 6:17-26 (Part Five)

God wants from us what is good for us. This simple principle is derived from our Christian understanding and experience of God the Giver. If God is good, then God wants what is good for all of God’s creatures. If God is not good, then why bother with such a god at all?

The Sermon on the Plain can be read as a prescription for human flourishing. It is not a list of things to do in order to avoid damnation. It is rather a description of life practices that lead to fully flourishing humanity. When we resist those practices – when we focus, for example, on being rich, full, laughing and praised – we become less than human. And we reduce the humanity of those we impact with our behaviors.

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I would recommend, as I have before, Heather McGhee’s excellent book, The Sum of Us: What Racism Costs Everyone and How We Can Prosper Together. McGhee outlines in detail the ways in which anti-Black racism has ended up costing everyone in America (except the powerful, privileged, positioned, and propertied White elites) access to and the use of multiple public goods and amenities.

The lie that has been told to poor White Americans since the 1670’s is that Black people are out to steal “their” stuff and don’t deserve to have it. As a result, lower class White Americans have been deployed for centuries to police, restrict, oppress, and hate many of the very people with which they share so much in common.

This has been accomplished by convincing lower class White Americans that economic life is a zero-sum game. If Black Americans gain any public goods, then lower class White Americans will lose out in the end. That story has been used to weaponize lower class White Americans and to use them as a buffer between the elites and all others who might wish to access the public and private goods which those elites regard as their rightful entitlements.

“The old zero-sum paradigm is not just counterproductive; it’s a lie,” McGhee writes. “I started my journey on the hunt for its source and discovered that it has only ever truly served a narrow group of people. To this day,” she continues, “the wealthy and the powerful are still selling the zero-sum story for their own profit, hoping to keep people with much in common from making common cause with one another” (Kindle Location 267).

That sort of zero-sum thinking is essential to the worldview of first-century Mediterranean people, the people who spoke and wrote, heard and read, the Christian scriptures. Malina and Rohrbaugh describe this as a “limited good” view of life. They note that in our modern economies we assume that, in principle, goods are in unlimited supply. We can always produce more.

“But in ancient Palestine,” they write, “the perception was the opposite: all goods existed in finite, limited supply and all goods were already distributed. This included not only material goods, but honor, friendship, love, power, security, and status as well – literally everything in life. Because the pie could not grow larger,” they suggest, “a larger piece for anyone automatically meant a smaller piece for someone else” (page 324).

Therefore, in the ancient world, a rich person was proverbially regarded as either a thief or the son of a thief. And, in the ancient world, it was also a proverb that “the poor will always be with us.” If someone accumulated a large amount of the good stuff, that meant that others, the poor, would have to go without. This understanding was used to justify a defensive strategy, where everyone was always extremely zealous to keep whatever they had – goods, reputation, and status.

While Malina and Rohrbaugh argue that the contemporary Western system is not a limited goods system, history does not really bear out that conclusion. We see now that the goods of this life are unlimited for the powerful, the privileged, the positioned, and the propertied. The goods of this life are severely limited for everyone else. It would seem that the world of the Sermon on the Plain is not quite so distant from us as we might have thought.

The problem is that this zero-sum, limited good perspective makes life worse for all but a few people at the “top.” It is not a formula for human flourishing. McGhee uses the historical fact of public swimming pools as a way to understand how this has worked in American social history.

When segregation of public accommodations was made illegal in the United States in the 1950s and 1960s, the response of the White public was wildly irrational. Rather than share public goods and accommodations with Black people, White communities closed swimming pools and parks by the hundreds – thus depriving poor White people of those same public accommodations.

At the same time the construction of private pools skyrocketed. Private country clubs replaced the functions of public parks and recreation facilities for those who could afford such amenities. In addition, public schools were sometimes closed rather than integrated. Public schools in a county in Virginia, for example, were closed for five years rather than being integrated. At the same time, there was a boom in the opening of private “segregation academies” for those White students whose families could foot the bill.

“But did white people win?” McGhee asks, “No, for the most part they lost right along with the rest of us. Racism got in the way of all of us having nice things…. It is progressive economic conventional wisdom that racism accelerates inequality for communities of color, but what if racism is actually driving inequality for everyone?” (Kindle Locations 228, 231).

Why are the rich, the full, the laughing, and the praised being warned in the Sermon on the Plain? First, the accumulation of such power, privilege, position, and property by the few does not produce human flourishing. It may result in a very good life for a few. But it also results in a very bad life for the many. That bad life is a consequence not only for the visibly oppressed but for all the non-elites who have been coopted into supporting that system of oppression.

I would refer you to a CNN editorial written by Rev. William J. Barber II and Jonathon Wilson-Hartgrove. “Since the murder of George Floyd sparked mass protests across the country,” they note, “many conservatives have responded by appealing to White Americans’ fear and suggesting that collective efforts to address systemic injustice are anti-White.” That suggestion is the latest installment in the four-centuries’ long effort by White elites to use other Whites to control Blacks and to violate their own rational self-interest.

“But this is the big lie White supremacy has always told to sustain itself,” Barber and Wilson-Hartgrove write, “and history shows the fight for equality is not a zero-sum game. Americans must learn Black history if for no other reason than to understand that Black political power has been good news for many White Americans” (my emphasis). They argue that one of the reasons for the current rage against a full and fair teaching of American history is the elite fear that the majority of White Americans may come to realize that they have been duped.

“We cannot allow reactionary campaigns against critical race theory to frame Black history as a threat to White Americans,” they argue. “Though poverty disproportionately hurts communities of color in the United States, more White women are living in poverty than any other demographic in the country. Black history helps us see that it doesn’t have to be this way.” Human flourishing is a zero-sum game only if we make it one.

“When Black people have fought for the promises of democracy, all Americans have benefited,” Barber and Wilson-Hartgrove conclude. “If it were not true, then the narrow interests committed to dividing us for their benefit would not be investing so much money in their anti-CRT campaigns.” This is how you can tell when the truth is being told – when the powerful, the privileged, the positioned, and the propertied expend real energy to call it a lie. Of course, in some eras, telling that truth can get a person crucified.

In the Sermon on the Plain, elites (whether outside of the Lukan congregations or inside) are warned that they are working contrary to God’s intentions for full human flourishing for all. They have what they want now, but that’s not satisfactory to God in the end. Jesus puts up a stop sign and calls the elites to change their behavior while there’s still time (remember the Rich Man and Lazarus?).

Finally, when we treat other people as less than fully human, we become subhuman ourselves. This is why I think it’s helpful to see the “woes” are warnings. There is still time for the elites to rejoin the human community and to make life better for all. The Lukan author doesn’t call upon the rich, the full, the laughing, and the praised to give it all away and become poor. Instead, he invites them throughout the text to use their resources for the good of all, as God has intended from the beginning.

Good news for the poor is good news for all. Good news just for some is not good news at all. Dignity for some is not dignity. Dignity for all is blessing for all. This is built into the very fabric of Creation, at least from a Christian perspective.

“Since this country’s founding, we have not allowed our diversity to be our superpower,” Heather McGhee concludes, “and the result is that the United States is not more than the sum of its disparate parts. But it could be. And if it were, all of us would prosper” (page 289). I like it. I know, it makes me sound like a damn socialist. I’m ok with that. God wants from us what is good for us.

References and Resources

Botha, Pieter J. J. “Community and Conviction in Luke-Acts.” Neotestamentica, vol. 29, no. 2, New Testament Society of Southern Africa, 1995, pp. 145–65, http://www.jstor.org/stable/43048218.

Channing Brown, Austin. I’m Still Here. The Crown Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

Chen, Diane G. Luke: A New Covenant Commentary. Cascade Books, an Imprint of Wipf and Stock Publishers. Kindle Edition.

Gonzalez, Justo L. Luke: Belief, A Theological Commentary on the Bible. Westminster John Knox Press. Kindle Edition.

Harvey, Jennifer. Dear White Christians (Prophetic Christianity Series (PC). Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co. Kindle Edition.

Malina, Bruce; Rohrbaugh, Richard L. Social Science Commentary on the Synoptic Gospels. Kindle Edition.

McGhee, Heather. The Sum of Us. Random House Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

Swanson, Richard. Provoking the Gospel of Luke: A Storyteller’s Commentary, Year C. Pilgrim Press, 2006.

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Racism Makes Us White People Stupid, Irrational, and Subhuman

Why have non-wealthy white people consistently voted against their economic self-interest to one degree or another since 1964? That question came to a head with the election of Donald Trump in 2016, but it hasn’t gone away. The answer, when controls for other factors are included, comes down to the fear of losing racial supremacy, dominance, and privilege. This fear is framed as “losing our way of life,” and some white politicians suggest that violence may be the only way to maintain that so-called “way of life.”

This is what racism does “for” non-wealthy white people. But do we non-wealthy white people think about what racism does “to” us? We are impacted in a variety of ways that make the “white wage” of racism (as W. E. B. DuBois named it) a bad deal for all but a few white people. To receive the white wage, we pay a variety of “white taxes.” Those taxes come in several forms:

  1. Documented and demonstrated costs in economic growth, public amenities, voting access and rights, and government services and benefits,
  2. Trauma responses based on Perpetrator-Induced Trauma Syndrome,
  3. Self-dehumanization of white people as a result of participation in the historic and ongoing systemic and institutional racism in America
Photo by Kelly Lacy on Pexels.com

1. “Why can’t we have nice things?” Heather McGhee asks in the first sentence of her new book, The Sum of Us: What Racism Costs Everyone and How We Can Prosper Together. The reason, McGhee argues, is racism.

Racism in America is maintained, in large part, by a zero-sum story that asserts any gain for Black, Brown, Native, and/or AAPI folks means equal and opposite losses for White folks. This story serves the interests of the few white people in power. “The zero sum is a story sold by wealthy interests for their own profit,” McGhee writes, “and its persistence requires people desperate enough to buy it” (page 14).

White people have been told a story that says they will lose resources if people of color gain resources. The story serves the wealthy white people who continue to accumulate power, privilege, and property at the expense of everyone else. It is perpetuated to make sure that other white people do not align themselves with people of color – people with whom they share numerous social, economic, and cultural interests.

McGhee uses the master metaphor of the fate of public swimming pools when segregation was outlawed in the United States. In numerous towns and cities across the nation, these formerly “whites only” public amenities were closed, neglected, abandoned, filled in, and paved over rather than being shared by citizens of all colors. Not only were people of color denied the use of such publicly-funded amenities, lower-class and poor white people were deprived as well.

“A once-public resource became a luxury amenity,” McGhee observes, “and entire communities lost out on the benefits of public life and civic engagement once understood to be the key to making American democracy real” (page 28).

The areas where lower-class and impoverished whites are caught in the racist blast radius include the closing of public amenities and services as listed above; the reduction of government safety-net protections, especially beginning with the Reagan administration; access to affordable higher education including grants rather than loans; the war on drugs and mass incarceration; the cash bail system; access to healthcare resources and benefits; hospital closures in rural and small-town settings; and predatory lending practices and evictions.

This is not an exhaustive list, but it is complete enough. It is certainly the case that , on average, white people have come out better than people of color on every element of that list. But “better” is not the same as “good.” In her discussion of the financial crisis of 2008, for example, McGhee notes, “There is no question that the financial crisis hurt people of color first and worst. And yet the majority of the people it damaged were white. This is the dynamic we’ve seen over and over again throughout our country’s history, from the drained public pools, to the shuttered public schools, to the overgrown yards of vacant homes.”

McGhee demonstrates in a variety of ways that there is what she calls a “Solidarity Dividend.” Cooperation, collaboration, sharing, and synergy produce greater wealth and opportunity for all who don’t currently have such benefits. The zero-sum story is false and dangerous. Diversity, equity, and inclusion make good economic, political, and social sense for all Americans who are not currently in the 1%. We get more, she concludes from “the sum of us” than by promoting just “some of us.”

Racism is a stupid strategy for almost all of us white folks.

2. The Zero-Sum Fallacy is stitched into the very founding of the United States, and before. McGhee writes that from the country’s “colonial beginnings, progress for those considered white did come directly at the expense of people considered nonwhite. The U.S. economy depended on systems of exploitation,” she continues, “on literally taking land and labor from racialized others to enrich white colonizers and slaveholders. This made it easy for the powerful to sell the idea that the inverse was also true,” McGhee concludes, “that liberation or justice for people of color would necessarily require taking something away from white people” (page 7).

Mark Charles and Soong-Chan Rah, in their book, Unsettling Truths: The Ongoing, Dehumanizing Legacy of the Doctrine of Discovery, describe and detail the process of creating this system and writing it into the founding documents, foundational court decisions, and political turning points in American history. They point to the possibility that white people have been and are traumatized as perpetrators of this ongoing, systemic, and institutional crime against humanity.

They point to the work of Rachel McNair, who wrote Perpetration-Induced Traumatic Stress: The Psychological Consequences of Killing. McNair has studied “Perpetration-Induced Traumatic Stress (PITS), a form of PTSD symptoms not caused by being a victim or rescuer in a horrifying event but by being an active participant in causing the event” (page 174). McNair studied soldiers, executioners, police officers and others who were expected to kill other human beings and identified traumatic stress responses analogous to those suffered by victims of such events.

I say “analogous to” because McNair does not draw any equivalency between victims and perpetrators. Nor do Charles and Rah. Instead, they see similarities in the responses that might be instructive. Those similarities include the multi-generational nature of some traumas and the complex nature of traumas that are systemic and institutional.

“Is it possible that PITS also has a complex version for people who lived their entire lives perpetrating dehumanizing violence against people of color?” ask Charles and Rah. “This version would include,” they suggest, “slave owners, soldiers participating in genocidal battles against Native peoples, and white settlers moving west and pushing the removal, and even extinction of indigenous tribes” (page 176).

Commentators have noted the irrationality of white behavior in voting and acting against their clear self-interest. This irrationality confounds any number of “rational actor” models of human behavior. What if the irrationality arises from the historic and multi-generational trauma of enacting and benefitting from the systematic dehumanization and destruction of Black, Brown, Native, and AAPI people?

“In short,” Charles and Rah ask, “are whites experiencing the phenomena of a generational trauma that can be labeled ‘the trauma of white America’? White America could not perpetrate five hundred years of dehumanizing injustice,” they conclude, “without traumatizing itself” (176). Again, there is no equivalency between perpetrators and victims here. This is no plea for sympathy. It is, rather, a tool for understanding that might lead to honest reflection, repentance and repair initiated by white Americans.

Without such honesty and effort, the first response to trauma – denial – will continue to be the only response most white Americans will make. Charles and Rah point to school textbooks in Texas and Oklahoma which may be edited to exclude any reference to “slavery.” If only that were limited to other states. We know from recent work by students in a local district that such whitewashed history is a current reality in Nebraska. “Institutions established by whites,” Charles and Rah write, “are so ashamed of their own past that they are unable to even publish accurate history” (page 177).

Racism makes white people stupid and too traumatized to admit it.

3. Racism dehumanizes not only the victims but also the perpetrators. Social psychology research in the area of self-dehumanization continues to reveal that treating others as less than human requires that I see and treat myself as less than human in most cases. In “Losing Our Humanity: The Self-Dehumanizing Consequences of Social Ostracism,” Bastian, et. al., tested the effects on the perpetrators of committing acts of social ostracism.

They “provided empirical evidence that people see themselves as less human when engaging in the social ostracism of others” (page 164 of Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin 39-2). They note that some people who dehumanize others will minimize their personal responsibility for the behavior and even think more highly of themselves.

These people are likely to commit further damaging acts and may even spiral into psychopathy and narcissism. In these cases, it is certainly possible for someone to lose their humanness altogether. The more severe the damaging act, the greater the chance of this outcome, I think.

However, when people are aware of the damage they do to others, a couple of things happen. We tend to see ourselves as less human. Perhaps this is a way to deal with the cognitive dissonance we have created. Fully human beings don’t treat others in that way, so we must be or have been less than human in order to do such things.

The second outcome is that when people are aware of the damage they do to others, they are more likely to engage in actions to return to the community of real humans. “Self-dehumanizing in response to interpersonal transgression,” they write, “appears to allow for and facilitate repentance, reconnection, and rehabilitation” (page 165).

Key to this process is direct awareness and acknowledgment of the harm done. “Maintaining a sense of ourselves as human is indeed important,” the authors conclude, “however when we have harmed others, recognizing that we have lost some of that humanity is an important process in motivating reparation” (page 165).

In the experiments conducted, the subjects could not escape or deny their responsibility for and active participation in the bad behavior. Most of us white people now can delude ourselves and deny our responsibility for the effects of racism. I never owned slaves. I never stole land. I never redlined a neighborhood. I never lynched a black man. So, we can maintain the illusion of our humanity.

Or can we? Here Charles and Rah are correct in pointing to the multi-generational and systemic trauma of Whiteness. It takes tremendous work to deny our corporate responsibility. And perhaps the amount of energy required is no longer worth the return on investment. It is destabilizing for me as a white person to continue to confront my history of oppression, abuse, and genocide on this continent. But I am also freed from the need to deny and delude.

A real reckoning with racism for me as a white man opens the possibility of reclaiming my genuine humanity.

Racism makes white people stupid, too traumatized to admit it, and less than human in the process and as a result.

All of this in order to be able to say, “I May Not be Much but at least I’m Better Than (Generic Person of Color).”

That’s a bad deal. For all of us.