Friday, October 30, 2020

Racism or the Tao?

The following is a chapter-long excerpt from my new ebook, Letter to a "Racist" Nation: 


Chapter Four: The Tao of Right Living

"Black Lives Matter!"  Reads a sign in front of the pretty Methodist church a few blocks from my house, its white spire backdropped by a granite mountain made famous in the TV show Twin Peaks.    

I helped take the census in this town ten years ago, so have some idea of its demographics.  Occasionally I hear Chinese spoken at the main store in town, and I know there are a few other Asians here besides those in my family.  One of four restaurants in town is Mexican, and I interviewed other Hispanics scattered around.  There may be a few African-Americans in our community, but I have yet to enjoy the privilege of meeting them, except when I subbed in local schools.    

The value of black contributions to American society is heavily emphasized in those schools, and I have helped teach in every public school in this and a neighboring district.  I have never heard anyone in my town deny that in fact the lives of black citizens hold value.  

So what it the point of the sign?  

Does the pastor of that church think some black community member is being persecuted by the rest of us?  If such a thing were to happen, I would hope she would go to those responsible, and rebuke them as they deserve.  I would be willing to join her.  Anyway, the young people in our district hear this message constantly in local schools.  So why dominate your front yard with a sign preaching a message that we have all heard thousands of times before, with which we whole-heartedly agree, and that we can seldom apply to those we meet on a daily basis?   

Wouldn't "Thou shalt not commit adultery?" be more practical?   

A less-prominent banner hangs across the second floor of the church, offering a version of the Ten Commandments that seem to come half from the Bible, half from the Democratic Party platform: 

"Be the Church!"  

"Protect the Environment!" 

"Care for the poor!"  

"Forgive often!"  

"Reject racism!"  

"Fight for the powerless!"  

"Share earthly and spiritual resources!"  

"Embrace diversity!"  

"Love God!"  

"Enjoy this life!"  

This seems to reflect a richer set of values than posters at the average BLM demonstration, odd as it may be to see "Love God" ninth on a church's list of fundamental values.  But even thus fortified, the toolbelt of our soul seems poorly-equipped to construct a village. 

The Tao 

In Abolition of Man, C. S. Lewis described what he called the "Tao," a transcendent set of moral truths of which he believed all humanity was aware. 

The term Tao or Da( has been used for thousands of years in China, Japan and Korea to mean "road" "path" or "way."  Long before the founding of Taoism by Lao Zi, it had evolved from its primary meaning of "route," then "to speak," to emerge as "the principal of reason," "all truth," or the "Way of Heaven," terms the great 19th Century translator James Legge used to translate passages in the pre-Confucian classics.  Confucius himself used the word to mean "the Way," "right principles," or "the proper course:" a model of life exemplified by divinely-appointed sages. 

Lewis described the Tao as a universally-recognized set of moral principles and truths flowing from some principle of ultimate meaning:

"It is the reality beyond all predicates, the abyss that was before the Creator Himself.  It is Nature, it is the Way, the Road.  It is the Way in which the universe goes on . . . It is also the Way which every man should tread in imitation of that cosmic and super-cosmic progression, conforming all activities to that great exemplar" (28).

In an appendix, Lewis gathered quotations from around the world to illustrate the Tao as recognized in many cultures.  He classified fundamental moral duties as general and specific beneficence ("Do unto others as you would have them do unto you"), duties to parents, elders, ancestors, and children, the "Law of Justice," including honesty and sexual justice, good faith and veracity, mercy, and the "Law of Magnanimity" which for Lewis seemed to include courage ("Death is to be chosen before slavery and base deeds.")  His point was that like mathematics or logic, basic moral intuitions are truths outside our minds, not ideas cultures invent, but facts about right and wrong which we discover.  (Though different cultures may stress varying duties and form clearer or less clear ideas of these truths, just as some people work out mathematical laws in more detail.)  

"Do not be a racist" might be classified as one precept within the "Law of General Beneficence."  Lewis argued (quoting Confucius!) that a single law cannot stand alone, but derives validity from the whole.  

The fact that you obsess on one narrow statute, and forget the Tao from which it gains validity, reflects both moral progress and regress.  

Your concern about racism reflects progress, because the ancient Romans seldom recognized a duty to the poor and marginalized.  In his magisterial work Dominion, historian Tom Holland argues that our care for those on the margins of society comes from the Judeo-Christian tradition, in particular the teachings and life of Jesus.  I think one can find buds promising a similar blossoming on the stems of early Buddhism (the Dhammapada), the writings of Mozi, and to lesser degrees Confucius and Lao Zi, along with Greek and Roman Stoics.  (And the ethical nursery where Jesus no doubt picked up his own shoots before nurturing them to verdant blooms, the Hebrew prophets.)

But what all these pre-scientific thinkers held in common were well-stocked tool belts, not one sad hammer with which to pound like Bam Bam Rubble.      

The Tao encourages no narrow obsession.  Whether in Stoic, Buddhist, Confucian, or Christian forms, it provides a vastly richer and more positive worldview than either "Black Lives Matter" or even the New Ten Commandments hanging from my neighborhood church.   

Take Confucius for example.  A standard Chinese high school textbook accurately describes his philosophy as the "mainstream" of Chinese thought.  In True Son of Heaven: How Jesus Fulfills the Chinese Culture, I argue that the staying power of Confucius, and his influence on East Asian culture, depended on virtue deriving from humility pointing in four directions: above (loyalty to parents, magistrates, and God), beneath (kindness to children, disciples, and other subordinates), within (humility), and outward (curiosity and the thirst for education that Confucius taught a quarter of the world, and allows East Asian cram centers to print money like the Mint to this day.) 

The Tao allowed for progress, Lewis insisted.  Where feet were bound or widows burnt, followers of Jesus brought it.  The Tao may be as universal as the sky, but like the universe itself, it creates space for seekers of truth to expand into.  

Even St. Paul's most pared-down tool belt of virtues is both oddly formidable, and remarkably useful:  

"Love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control."  

Social scientists have come to recognize the civilization-building power of the final item on this list.  Max Weber's classic The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism linked such religious virtues to secular success.  The fruits of the spirit may include patience and self-control, but to apply those virtues in the workplace, will bring money in the bank.  Likewise, Mona Charen's Sex Matters, and Heather MacDonald's War on Cops, demonstrate that a lack of self-control and sexual faithfulness undermines one's power to express love, destroys peace and joy, and creates a ruthless subculture of predators and prey. 

It is for want of "fruit of the Spirit" that murder rates soar on the South Side of Chicago.  

Virtue is power.  It is the reliable child who is given the flag to direct traffic.  Sexual self-control creates families and gives them strength.  Scrooge's hard work and careful saving allows him to buy a Christmas turkey for the Cratchits.  (Dickens' own father lost his son’s esteem by wasting his earnings.)  

Am I boring you?   Would you rather drive a "Black Lives Matter" sign into the front lawn of your church, and gain cheap grace?   Do you fear that telling men and women to get married before sleeping together will sound "patronizing," "bigoted," or "racist," because those are the only tools left in your belt?  Or are you afraid you might have to follow Paul’s code yourself?  Restrained sexuality may build civilizations, but it frightens a Roe Vs. Wade generation.  

The concept of "racism" is a valuable tool.  Without it, some sudden gust of prejudice might blow the shingles off our roof and drench us all.  We must keep this hammer within easy reach, and be prepared to use it.  We do not want to return to the worst crimes of our past, which betrayed every "fruit of the spirit" on the deepest level.  

"That's just your pampered white reality!”  I hear a voice saying.  “Stop hiding your head in the sand!  Even if you don’t experience it in your suburban cocoon, listen to the news, and you'll know that acts of gross white-on-black racism occur in America every day!"  

I bet Pentheus wished he had hidden his head in the sand, before his mother tore it off his neck.

If America is really still a racist society (in the only sensible sense, a country that commonly and systematically mistreats people for their color), why have you fallen for every race-bating scam that has come down the pike in recent years?  

The word “racism” has become a powerful weapon to control Americans of all races, and keep them at one another’s throats.  This is why when you hear the word, you jump, like one of Pavlov's poor, reactionary hounds.   



Charlie1976 said...

I think I understand and even agree with your thrust re: the Tao and virtues etc. However, it does seem as if you are angry at this sign because you see it as maligning your town. As I see it, it seeks to show some empathy with the experience of others, even if it is different to that of your community. The words only express one thing and do not tell you the inner state of the writer, their virtues nor their understanding of the Tao. However limited it is in its own terms, it is only the tip of an invisible iceberg, unless you know much more about the person who posted it than you let on.

Why does it provoke you so much?

I note that you say nothing about the death of e.g.; George Floyd and seem to struggle with the idea that there is systemic racism. In the formal sense, there may not be institutional systems that uphold racism in the same way as Jim Crow or apartheid, but the fact that black people do suffer disproportionately at the hands of the police and legal systems seems obvious to me. The fact that white men are often "talked down", even when armed and some black men are shot and killed, even when unarmed is all to apparent.

To talk of virtue and the Tao in the abstract is well and good, but virtue is not abstract in its exercise. In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus explained His teaching with highly specific examples, turning the cheek, carrying the load, etc. which made sense in that context. Paul, in the epistles, gives theological teaching and speaks of behaviour generally, but also addresses specific issues, some of which are so specific that we struggle to see how they apply to us - meat served to idols comes to mind.

In the 19th C. William Wilberforce found himself challenged by a single issue, that of slavery - a literal question of do black lives matter? His work on this issue was not a repudiation of his faith, nor of the virtues or the Tao, but arose precisely from those sources.

In mid-19th C. America, just pre-Civil War, an evangelist stated that "repentance is always specific" and made rejection of slavery part of the "repentance" that follows true conversion. We can go back to the Catechumenate, where much of the teaching was ethical and highly specific.

Of course, God and the whole of the virtues matter, but sometimes ethics means a focus on the issue of the moment - think Barth and Bonhoeffer and Nazism - so I do not see wrong doing in supporting BLM, even if it is not an issue in your town. The fact that racism is not an issue for you should surely sensitize you to the pain of it happening elsewhere?

I struggle to understand this paragraph "If America is really still a racist society (in the only sensible sense, a country that commonly and systematically mistreats people for their color), why have you fallen for every race-bating scam that has come down the pike in recent years?"

1) This suggests that America can only be a "racist society" if it meets your sensible definition. But I don't think anyone is suggesting the same sort of "systematic" racism as in South Africa or pre-Civil Rights deep South. A black friend in his 90s says it is harder for young people to combat prejudice now than in the 50s, because, then, the racism was overt. Now, the racism is disguised and unacknowledged.
2) it is perfectly possible for America to be racist AND for some people to fall for "race-baiting" scams.

After all, America is both the world's wealthiest nation and a leading democracy and the home of people who rejoice in their lack of education and their willingness to vote for a president and party that does not have their best interests at heart.
3) The question implies that a negative answer is possible, that America is not racist. But this flies in the face of the experience of the minorities who suffer. Jim Wallis's "America's Original Sin" comes to mind.

David B Marshall said...

Hi, Charlie. Thanks for commenting.

I recommend that you read the whole book, "Letter to a 'Racist' Nation." It's only $3.50, and fairly short, and will answer most of your questions, I think.

I'm not sure "angry" is the right word. I do find the compulsion preach a sermon that everyone hears constantly, about a sin no one seems to commit, when other sins are far more popular, pretty bizarre, though. One whole chapter of the book describes how incidents of fake racism went viral and national. I argue that on the Left, there is far more demand for white racism than America can now supply. The Left NEEDS racism to justify itself, including its own intolerance.

So I cite the sign not because it "provokes" me emotionally, but intelectually. It is, literally, a "sign of the times."

Two chapters are dedicated to George Floyd and other victims of police shootings: another sign of the times.

You are mistaken about the facts. In fact, the police are extremely restrained, and almost never kill black or other suspects unless they are armed and committing or threatening violence. Read the book! You have been fooled by weak and misrepresented anecdotal evidence.

There is also a chapter dedicated to the Sermon on the Mount.

I am a big fan of William Wilberforce. I, myself, have worked to liberate people of another race from slavery.

But one must face and defeat the evil of one's own day. The lying about, and scapegoating of police, and then witchhunts against them, which came in with BLM's famous slogan (related to the justified killing of a violent young man named Michael Brown), is IMO one of the greatest and most harmful evils of our day.

David B Marshall said...

So because of the evil done in the name of BLM, both against police, and against innocent members of society who die due to the attacks on police (the "Ferguson Effect,") I have to confess, yes, I am angry. But not necessarily at that particular pastor.