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Contending With the Long Shadow by Vincent Bacote

Vincent Bacote, Director of the Center for Christian Ethics at Wheaton College writes, "As much as evangelicals holding the traditional position might want to distance themselves from the nightmares of our history on race, what we discover is that it is not as simple as our the assertion of our will, because we live in a society with other people who only see current conversations about religious freedom as simply another case of using the Bible to support discrimination." Bacote goes on to argue that the path to a more vibrant public practice begins by starting with repentance.

Last week a noose appeared on the Duke University campus. While the culprit has been discovered and while there was an admirable response from the university administration, the event itself serves as a reminder of the persistence of race-related problems in the United States. The appearance of the noose is like a specter that emerges to haunt us while we seek to have a society that lives up to all of our rhetoric of flourishing and freedom for all persons.

The United States remains haunted by the long shadow of our history with race. Though we are certainly not in the same place we were fifty years ago, the appearance of nooses and videos of racist fraternity chants appear and remind us that we inhabit a country where some persons believe that freedom and flourishing should only be possible for some citizens rather than all.

This haunting is also a significant complicating dimension in the the discussions related to the exercise of religious freedom that we have seen in response to the laws recently passed in Indiana and Arkansas. An initial response may be ‘these laws have nothing to do with the legacy of race’, but we find ourselves in an environment where these are unconvincing words.

Very often the conversation about discrimination related to sexual orientation evokes comparisons with the laws such as those that outlawed interracial marriage or the legalized forms of discrimination associated with Jim Crow laws. These laws related to race were also linked to forms of religious justification, as some Christians firmly believed that the Bible mandated a separation of races. Although this justification was based on faulty biblical interpretation, the deep wounds in our country’s history related to race has an unfortunate effect on other attempts to make biblical arguments about prohibitions against same-sex relationships.

As much as evangelicals holding the traditional position might want to distance themselves from the nightmares of our history on race, what we discover is that it is not as simple as our assertion of our will, because we live in a society with other people who only see current conversations about religious freedom as simply another case of using the Bible to support discrimination. As much as I or others might want to say “it is not the same thing” or “it just isn’t true”, we have to reckon with the way that history echoes unbidden in this situation. The ghosts of biblical misuse damage the possibilities for more faithful, diligent and winsome interpretations that might have plausibility in the public.

This conversation about religious freedom is more of an opportunity than may be recognized at this moment; those of us who take the Bible seriously can make strides in coming to terms with the ways that our faith has been put in the service of horror in this country. There is a path of repentance for us that might open the way toward a more humble but vibrant public practice, where we lament the dark side of our tradition and pursue a slow, patient process of developing a range of strategies to deal with difference in our society. We are in an interesting time when it may seem counterintuitive to publicly acknowledge complicity in horror. In truth, it is only as counterintuitive as the gospel; now is a time for creative public action that shows we are searching for and developing ways to reveal we can be trusted when we say we truly want to love our neighbors as ourselves.