Ezra Klein Interviews Ta-Nehisi Coates on Race, Justice & the Tragic Imagination

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Ezra Klein interviewed Ta-Nehisi Coates recently and the audio is up on the Ezra Klein Show podcast. Here are a few quotes & a comment about it.

Klein credits Coates for having what he calls a tragic imagination—a sense that things don’t always turn out well in the end. Sometimes things go tragically wrong and that’s the end.

Klein and Coates both contend that a tragic imagination is one of the major differences between a Christian and an atheist. The atheist is under no obligation to assume things will turn out well. Coates, in fact, rejects Dr. King’s famous statement that the moral arc of the universe bends toward justice.Coates and Klein seem to say that other black political leaders like Obama and Corey Booker seem to embrace King’s idea because of their Christian faith.

Can Christians have a tragic imagination?

That assumption has really been messing with me since I first heard them make it yesterday. Are Christians really under the obligation to end every conversation with hope? Do we have to reject the tragic imagination? I don’t see that in the prophets. Hope eventually, maybe, but not always hope right now. Christians are under no obligation to say, “everything will be fine.”

Coates says that “everything will be fine” is the very self-deception that keeps us from actual reality. Most of the reasons we are struggling as a society are not really that difficult to know. They are just incredibly painful to know. So we find more convenient things to believe. For instance, why is it that by far the largest risk factor for spending time in jail is to be black, male, and uneducated? Coates says,

“What I came to feel was that the answer’s actually not that hard. It’s actually quite knowable. But it’s terrible! It’s terrible to contemplate. It’s terrible to consider. And so we fall back on all these other explanations.” – Ta-Nehisi Coates

Klein gives Coates credit for mining these realities and actually reporting on things that seem too terrible to contemplate. Klein says, “There are some things in American politics, in American life, in American culture, some true things that it is very inconvenient to believe, it’s maybe even counterproductive to believe even though they are true.” For instance, on matters of race, Klein says:

“There is a story about racial progress and unity in America that is not just convenient to believe, not just pleasurable to believe, but actually in some ways effective to believe. It might be the thing that is best to believe in terms of getting the sort of outcomes (like having an African American president) that you want. And then there is a story that is true and in some ways better at predicting day to-day events—certainly right now—that nobody wants to hear. To me the last year or two has been a collision of these two visions.” – Ezra Klein

Are Christians really under the obligation to end every conversation with hope?

If there is a difference between the story that is convenient to believe, and the story that is actually true but is too terrible to contemplate, then isn’t it the work of the church to make that case? Aren’t we the ones who give voice to reality?

That’s the voice of the prophetic arm of the story. We have to be the ones who are willing to say everything’s not just automatically going to be fine. If you scapegoat immigrants. If you abuse the environment. If you continue to imprison black men at alarming rates, then things will not be fine. Things will, in fact, fail in epic proportions. This is inconvenient to say, inconvenient to believe, but so is resurrection, right?

If you don’t want to listen to the whole interview, I think the first 15 minutes are well worth your time.

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  • https://littlegreenleafinthewoods.wordpress.com charlesburchfield

    I totally agree with this!!
    “Most of the reasons we are struggling as a society are not really that difficult to know. They are just incredibly painful to know.”

    This is a check list of all those things that are happening and going to continue to happen and escalate:
    ✔scapegoating immigrants.
    ✔Abuse of the environment. ✔Continuation of imposing unfair sanctions, imprisonment and Murder by vigilante groups and individuals like KKK and the police of a disproportionate number black men, political dissidents, and all who oppose the current regime and in other ways are victims of hegemony.

    Things will, in fact, fail in epic proportions. What can one do in the face of such discouragement? In my humble opinion acceptance is the key. When one can begin recognizing one’s powerlessness one is done bargaining and trying to manipulate outcomes. then the void looms large in one’s path and the Holy Spirit enters Like A Mighty Wind and offers the solution!!

  • Iain Lovejoy

    I can’t see how “everything will be fine” is the Christian message: quite the opposite. As an atheist it is possible to believe that sin and injustice do not matter, that with skill, luck and cunning we can do what we will and get away with it, that there will not ultimately be a reckoning, that indeed “everything will be fine”: as Christians we know that God is not mocked. If we have an optimistic message it is because we say injustice, oppression and selfishness are doomed, not that “everything will be fine” despite them.
    If we, however, are the unjust, the oppressors, the selfish, then we should be in no doubt that tragedy will be the ultimate end.
    That being said, for sinners the resurrection is the ultimate hope: even when we do spectacularly mess things up, that is never the end if the story: it tells us that there is nothing we can do (even killing him) that will cause God to abandon us, nor which God cannot turn (eventually) to good.

  • jekylldoc

    Wise as serpents = recognizing that stuff happens, that people will abuse each other.
    Innocent as doves = ready to suffer for what is just, whenever the alternative is to inflict suffering in order to have the power to make the decisions.