Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Voted Off the Island: The New Segregation

Robert Jensen, All My Bones Shake: Seeking a Progressive Path to the Prophetic Voice. Soft Skull Press, 2009.

Because I am not Christian, you could make the case I am not qualified to review this book. Tough noogies. Here’s my credential: I sometimes turn off the television's screaming heads in mid-shriek and sit in appalled silence. It's like I’m still hostage in my fourth-grade dirt schoolyard, circa 1964, where the Christian children are screaming because I was a white liberal child who spoke against the segregation of the races in schools. Their church elders were teaching them to fear and hate me. As I recall, they danced like wraiths on what they had been told would be my grave of assured damnation. Now they seem to be all grown up and they own their own television channels, but they still seem illiterate and proud of it. I am qualified to review this book because I have had a lifetime of watching class hatreds masquerade as holiness, and I do feel someways tired, children.

All My Bones Shake is a deliberate act of provocation, written by a man who, contrary to the ways of his profession, joined a church that tried to segregate itself from him. As Robert Jensen jokes about it, he says he was "voted off the Presbyterian island." But the segregation wasn’t about race, it was about some new perceived threat to the church: Jensen's refusal to damn those who disagree with him.

Describing that experience, Jensen seems to be nailing some radical ideas to a church door:
Humans created religion; religion did not create humans.
Inanimate matter created life; life did not create inanimate matter.
To the fundamentalists on both sides: Grow up.
To the moderates on both sides, Buck up.
How did the world come to be?
What is our fate after death?
How shall we live while we are here?
You can be a man, or you can be a human being.
You can be white, or you can be a human being.
You can be an American, or you can be a human being.
You can be affluent, or you can be a human being.
There is no God, and more than ever we all need to serve the One True Gods.

Jensen would like to see an end to the church's practice of segregating itself from those who disagree with it.

In the Deep South of my childhood, segregation was enforced via homemade pamphlets with blurry ink and misspellings, the white robes, the shunning, the full gun rack in the pickup truck outside the elementary school, the clear message that you were not welcome if you questioned the rules of the church elders. In our digital age, a new segregation entrenches itself in mass-media "share" demographics. Christians have their truths. Liberals have theirs. Christians have their broadcast news. Liberals have theirs. Christians have their schoolbooks, liberals have theirs. The inevitable result is segregation, but not of the racial kind. We all retreat into a kind of autistic Amishness in the face of anyone who disagrees with us: we shun them, we write them off. We refuse to drink from each other's fountains, we're forever trying to force the other side to the back of the bus. Jensen has had enough. He wonders, what's possible?

One compelling moment in All My Bones Shake is Jensen’s description of a trip he made to a golf course in Tucker’s Town, Bermuda, during a racial reconciliation initiative. It was one of those typically local field trips at conferences, this one to see a historic black cemetery that happens to be located smack dab in the middle of a posh golf resort. Mindful that Bermuda was the site of a "lawful" transfer of primo real estate from the native, black, fishing class to the non-native, white, golfing class, Jensen becomes emotional and disgusted at what he sees: "white people were raining golf balls down on the graves of black people… it was exactly the banality of it all that took my breath away. It was something about the ease with which we who are privileged can train ourselves not to see, the way in which a simple act of humanity that costs nothing is sometimes too much for the underprivileged."

Jensen has put his finger on the New Segregation here. The terrible split we now face is between those who can turn off emotion about the true cost of material profit, and those who cannot.

Too early to tell, but All My Bones Shake could prove to be an important book, especially if it can get liberal readers like me to tolerate Christian perspectives more. I'm much more likely to talk to somebody who can entertain the concept that I, a non-believing liberal, have human worth. But this book’s real value is in its refusal to prescribe a single new world view. It simply asks that we let ourselves dream big about a common future. Jensen argues we all deserve better, but we are not likely to get that if we don’t try to envision it, together, first. If Jensen is the future of Christianity, well, let's hope they throw open their doors to thinkers like him.

Robert Jensen teaches journalism at the University of Texas in Austin. For more about Robert Jensen, his previous books, and this book, go here.

(art credit: The portrait of Robert Jensen above was painted by Robert Shetterly as part of the series Americans Who Tell The Truth.)