Race, Religion, and the Trouble with Modern Identity

Demonstrations in Minneapolis following the death of Freddie Gray in police custody in Baltimore. Photo by Fibonacci Blue, posted on Flickr under Creative Commons license, which can be found here: https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/legalcode
Demonstrations in Minneapolis following the death of Freddie Gray in police custody in Baltimore. Photo by Fibonacci Blue, posted on Flickr under Creative Commons license, which can be found here: https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/legalcode

Editor’s Note: We are between terms, so as we wait for the fall term to start and bring new posts from students, we have a post from a professor and colleague, Ted Vial. Dr. Vial has recently published a book that on the subject of race and religion, which can be found at the website of its publisher, Oxford University Press.

By: Ted Vial, Professor of Theology and Modern Western Religious Thought, Iliff School of Theology

Headlines and social media feeds seem to swing back and forth between disastrous images of religion and disastrous images of race: Trump suggests Ghazala Khan (mother of  U.S. Army captain killed in Iraq) was not allowed by her religion to speak at the Democratic convention; no charges will be filed against Baltimore police officers in the death of Freddie Gray; terror attack in Nice, France; Alton Sterling in Louisiana and Philando Castile in Minnesota shot by police;  five police officers gunned down in Dallas. Before that terror attacks in Turkey and Bangladesh and Iraq and Saudi Arabia and Brussels and Paris. Before that Michael Brown. As David Brooks wrote recently in the New York Times, it feels like “the crack of some abyss opened up . . . .”

Why does this keep happening?

There are many reasons, of course. Most responses I’ve seen to the abyss are some version of, “We have to live up to our ideals better.” Let’s commit to being nicer, better police training, more education. A friend posted on Facebook: “I am overwhelmed and so very sad by what is happening in our country. The only thing I know to do each day is to be as kind as possible in my interactions and to have an open heart.”

I won’t speak against kindness, but kindness won’t cut it. The very principles we use to define kindness have a dark side. The modern world is a package deal. Our idea of human dignity, and what it takes to treat someone as fully human (a fancier definition of “kind”) stems both from Enlightenment ideas of human autonomy, but also from the generation following the Enlightenment. This generation taught us to put cultural identity at the center of who we are. Dignity includes the dignity of belonging to groups that endow life with purpose. In the modern world our identity, the sources of the modern self, include race and religion (as well as gender and nationalism and class, but that’s for another post).

The cultural identity that lies at the root of how we think about ourselves and others leads us down certain paths when we think about religion and race. We might celebrate diversity, or we might think some religions and races are better than others. But even the celebrate folks (among whom I count myself) almost inevitably make certain cultural assumptions about what groups are like.

Don’t believe me? Take the implicit bias test at Harvard. It doesn’t take long, it’s free, it’s confidential. You probably will say, explicitly, that you don’t hold negative views of African-Americans. But the test most likely will reveal that there are implicit biases at work. Sadly, this implicit bias also often operates in blacks.

I’m guessing that the rate of racism in police, explicit and implicit, is the same as the rate of racism in the rest of the population. Better training and policing techniques might help. But at the end of the day, in the heat of the moment, the implicit biases are still active. Friedrich Schleiermacher (1768-1834), famous German theologian/philosopher/political activist and an important architect (I argue) of the modern world preached a sermon entitled, “On Making Use of Public Disasters” (1806) right after the Prussians got crushed by the French in the famous battles of Jena and Auerstädt. In it he says, “Many say, it is not my mistake, but the generals’, or the soldiers’, or those who hold the reins of power. This is to make a new mistake, to make a sharp distinction between the individual and the whole.” Ta-Nehisi Coates makes the same point, in our context: “The truth is that the police reflect America in all of its will and fear, and whatever we make of the country’s criminal justice policy, it cannot be said that it was imposed by a repressive minority.

As far as religion goes, the way we think about identity contributes to radical Islamic terrorists believing that their religion is incompatible with western culture. And it leads westerners to lump Muslims together, despite the fact that Islam is amazingly diverse and has over 1.6 billion adherents (23% of the world).

We haven’t always sorted out our identities and social arrangements using race and religion. In fact, scholars argue, both concepts are relatively recent. The idea that there are 11 or 12 living world religions, roughly equivalent, each appropriate to its culture, is a product of the 19th century. As for race, biologists agree that it has no biological basis. The idea that there are large families of humans “of common blood and language, always of common history, traditions and impulses” is also a product of the 19th century. (The definition is Du Bois’s, who studied in Berlin at the university largely founded by Schleiermacher. See Kwame Anthony Appiah’s recent book on Du Bois and race.) These categories of race and religion seem like natural kinds to us, simple and unavoidable facts about the world. Even those who know that biology doesn’t support the idea of race can’t help but sort people they meet on the street into racial groups. And probably make some cultural assumptions about them, as the Harvard test shows.

So we might ameliorate the problem with better police training or mandatory religious studies for political leaders. We can do better by our modern principles, but religion and race are at the root of modernity. Just doing modernity better won’t solve the problem. The problem at the deepest level is not the police or the scare tactics of self-serving politicians. The problem is us. The solution will require deep and brutally honest introspection and dialogue as well as self-righteous proclamations on Facebook.

"When we are born we are all equal. What we become during our life is ..."

Race, Religion, and the Trouble with ..."
"The only answer is segregation."

Race, Religion, and the Trouble with ..."
"Case in point...it is a violent religion."

The Holy and the World
"A parallel to "caring" about 7 billion people is sort of like laying the Manhattan ..."

The Holy and the World

Browse Our Archives

Follow Us!

What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment