With Hurricane Katrina, the thin veneer called American equality peeled away from the water-logged homes of black Americans in New Orleans. Left exposed was something American Christians are ill-equipped to deal with: structural racism.
Many white Americans will dismiss this as a baseless claim. No one intended any harm or discriminatory treatment of New Orleans’ poor black community. Instead, we reason, what we have is a tragedy of nature, economics, disaster-relief management, poor civic planning or all of the above.
Already we can see the cultural machine at work, moving more quickly than the shovels that filled the levee breaks, to suffuse all charges of racism.
Yet, judging from the intensity of the impassioned volleys crossing political, cultural and social boundaries, a deep moral divide has been exposed. I believe this divide to be theological, as well.
Race has thoroughly blinded American Christians to the sources of black suffering, even in this time of natural disaster.
In order to understand the nature of the moral leviathan now stirring, American Christians must craft the courage to ask the right questions.
The white church in America must open itself to the possibility that racism is a fundamental contributor to this tragedy. We must consider our role in this parable-in-the-making. We, the white church, should consider whether we are once again Bathsheba’s David, the object of Nathan’s charge of reckless and selfish sin.
In the eyes of God, David killed Uriah, even though David had hidden that truth within the theological discourse of the royal court. David, as the story goes, was outraged that anyone could conduct such abominable acts and was stunned to learn that he was that man.
The lesson to be learned for white America is that racism, too, has been closeted away within a myriad of uniquely American discourses. One of these rationalities is the notion that racism is a disposition of the individual heart.
Racism is structural sin that absorbs individuals and must be understood in more than individual, volitional terms. Because this is a hard conviction for Protestant Americans, we become blind to its reality. However, we must accept the witness of our black brothers and sisters that racism is alive and well, even if unintended.
Our efforts to ensure that this tragedy never happens again will really be feckless in the face of black suffering. Unless, that is, we pay attention to the racism’s pervasive current running subterranean through our cultural institutions.
This new way of seeing and listening is not easy for us white Christians. We have been formed and shaped by the rhetoric of freedom and liberty smattered with a dangerous form of theological identification with God’s chosen. We unequivocally believe that American interests are God’s interests. With this vision, we are thoroughly blind to the effects of our various practices on the poor and the black.
We must consider the reality of racism, as it has been a formative story in our American lives. It is a story that shapes our assumptions about issues like administrative structure, political ideologies and economic practice.
Jesus made no bones about wrong assumptions and convictions. He, like Nathan did for David, exposed the gap between the faith intentions of the rich young ruler in Luke 18. The norms by which he lived—the tenets of his faith—not only fell short of giving him full life in God, but they also contributed to the material exclusion of the poor from this “full life.” How much more will we grieve if we learn what that man learned? Will we walk away?
The sights and sounds of New Orleans have exposed a terrible sin that continues to beat down black people, despite our most sincere objections against “race-card” tactics.
We must take the posture of sinners in the face of this tragedy. By no means do any persons deserve the suffering they have experienced. Religious fanatics are absolutely wrong to describe Katrina as a punishment for sin. That is, of course, the easy way out of thinking about exactly what it is that is our sin.
And sin is what we are called to confess. Stanley Hauerwas is right when he says we have to learn that we our sinners. However, I fear our blindness to structural racism denies us this education—denies us full reconciliation—full healing.
Racism must be the subject of theology now, as it must be at all other times. Hopefully, Katrina will not let this conversation pass.
Andy Watts is an assistant professor of religion teaching ethics at Belmont University.