01 December 2016

Good News and identity politics, part two

Winter takes a firm hold...

Why we use canes. (Photo source, Krasnoyarsk.)

Fryazevo station, coming home from Moscow.

Our courtyard.

(Part one, written four weeks ago, is here. Part three is here.)

Mark Lilla, writing in the New York Times, asserts that a concern for identity politics was a factor in Hillary Clinton's loss in last month's USA presidential elections.
Hillary Clinton was at her best and most uplifting when she spoke about American interests in world affairs and how they relate to our understanding of democracy. But when it came to life at home, she tended on the campaign trail to lose that large vision and slip into the rhetoric of diversity, calling out explicitly to African-American, Latino, L.G.B.T. and women voters at every stop. This was a strategic mistake. If you are going to mention groups in America, you had better mention all of them.
He goes on to advocate that liberals (who, he implies, are those for whom Franklin Roosevelt's Four Freedoms are core values), focus on what unites people across those identity categories.

Slate's Michelle Goldberg cautions,
There is truth in this analysis, but also a very real danger that it will be used to dismiss demands for equality for women and people of color. We are entering a moment of reaction that will reshape not just our politics but also our culture. Liberal assumptions that had become part of the atmosphere—that female leadership is desirable, that dismantling racism is an urgent social imperative, that diversity in gender expression constitutes progress—will likely fall out of fashion. In the 1970s, feminism seemed unstoppable; after Ronald Reagan’s election, it was treated as an embarrassing anachronism. If you haven’t lived through a cultural backlash before, you will be stunned by how quickly and how profoundly the intellectual weather can change. And none of us has lived through a backlash as severe as the one we’re facing.
I don't need to agree 100% with one side or the other of this debate to appreciate the conversation. I encountered these specific articles via a podcast, the DoubleX Gabfest, during which I felt that the panelists gave Lilla's arguments and Goldberg's observations a fair and thorough examination. To my relief, the far-left thought police, with its typical one-upping and public-shaming tactics, came in for its fair share of criticism, but so did Lilla's column as an alleged expression of white male assumptions that their (my!) point of view sets the norm and their comfort level defines the limits.

One of the Gabfest panelists lifted out an important observation from Lilla's article: "Identity politics, by contrast [with Bill Clinton's focus on policies that benefit everyone], is largely expressive, not persuasive. Which is why it never wins elections — but can lose them."

The distinction between persuasive and expressive is useful. It links with my perennial theme of the division of labor within the Christian community. Some of us are gifted pastors, elders, teachers and organizers. They are, in a way, stewards of identity. They cannot do their work without referring to specific identities, honoring them, helping them heal from bondage, if necessary. The concept of being made in the image and likeness of God is a beautiful abstraction, but it must also be activated in specific human beings -- individuals and groups -- who find and encourage each other through free expression. That expression may well be full of anguish and anger. The discomfort of others, including would-be allies, should not muzzle that expression.

Those who serve in this ministry of identity affirmation will inevitably develop tools and approaches that will irritate others, especially as their analysis begins to identify systemic patterns that we ourselves might be participating in. Organizers and activists have a vocabulary that is easy for conservatives to mock, but conservatives have their own in-group references as well. Within the church there is no excuse for dismissing each other because we get irritated with each other's cliches! Yes, push back if you think that my operating assumptions are degenerating into intellectual laziness or tribalism -- and I'll do the same -- but let's make an effort to understand!

So: within the church's division of labor, there are those who encourage the expressiveness associated with identity politics. They should be in a mutually accountable relationship with those others who emphasize persuasion, or as it's called in the church, evangelism and prophecy. Evangelism has a universal perspective: the Good News is for everyone, regardless of their life experiences of oppression or privilege. The Gospel invitation to "repent and believe the Good News" and its consequent radical hospitality must not be compromised by any evidence of favoritism, no matter how worthy or tactically urgent such a stance might seem. At the same time, the identity affirmers and the universal persuaders must stay in touch (no matter how irritated they get with each other) because, like it or not, every audience is different.

John Perkins (Mendenhall, Mississippi, 1975)
I've just finished devouring Parting the Waters: America in the King Years, 1954-1963, the first volume of Taylor Branch's civil rights trilogy. Back in 1975, during my summer internship at Voice of Calvary in Mendenhall, Mississippi, I remember John Perkins telling us that Billy Graham had given support to their work. Branch's book mentioned the friendship between Graham and Martin Luther King, and included details I hadn't heard before about the practical behind-the-scenes help Graham's organization provided for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.

Billy Graham himself has reported on their division of labor :
Martin Luther King suggested to me that I stay in the stadiums in the South and hold integrated meetings because he was probably going to take to the streets. He said, "I'll probably stay in the streets and I might get killed in the streets." But he said "I don't think you ought to, because," he said, "You will be able to do things I can't do, and I can do some things you can't do, but we're after the same objective."
Their distinct roles of expressive identity politics and the persuasive ministry of evangelism in a relationship of mutual accountability changed many individual lives as well as the course of a country's history.

Repentance makes a comeback. (And my own take on repentance.)

Why did Obama win more white evangelical votes than Clinton did? He asked for them. If this article is right, where does it fit in the identity vs commonality conversation?

BBC Culture: How falling in love can help you learn a language.

Denis Karagodin and do-it-yourself de-Stalinization.

What if social networks had existed during the events leading up to the Russian revolutions of 1917? Here's what it might look like (in Russian).

Sister Rosetta Tharpe teaches.

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