Inclusive and Racist?

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In a recent interview on Keith Olbermann's "Countdown," actress, comedian, and self-styled peace activist Janeane Garofalo suggested that presidential candidate Herman Cain is being paid to run for President and is suffering from Stockholm syndrome.

He's a businessman. . . . Who ever pays him. And there may be a touch of Stockholm syndrome. There may be a touch of Stockholm syndrome in there because anytime I see a person of color or a female in the Republican party or the conservative movement or the Tea Party, I wonder how they could be trying to curry with the oppressors. Is it Stockholm syndrome or does somebody pay them?

There are TV regulars now on both sides of the ideological divide who appear as features of what is described as "entertainment news." Are we supposed to take them seriously? Are they offering genuine analysis on the events of the day? Are they surrogates for their respective networks, charged with saying things that the anchors and hosts of the programs are loath to say? Frankly, apart from the damage their presence does to journalism's credibility—and that is considerable—the answers are not all that interesting.

The nature of Garofalo's criticism of Herman Cain is noteworthy, however, because it repeats the logic of criticisms that have been lodged against a growing list of African American noteworthies whose political and social views have a conservative bent. That list includes Bill Cosby, Thomas Sowell, Stephen Carter, Clarence Thomas, Walter Williams, and Shelby Steele.

The message is starkly racist and paternalistic: "You are free to believe what you want to believe, but don't leave the political plantation. If you do, then your integrity and, or your mental health will be declared suspect." Racism of this kind is not uncommon. As Kai Wright observed some years ago in a review of Clarence Thomas's autobiography, "Race means nothing, yet everything. It has shaped every facet of modern American life, yet we steadfastly insist that we've transcended it. The resulting gap between the rhetoric and reality of race in America can be crazy-making . . . "

And Garofalo's views are crazy-making.

Nonetheless, her comments serve to underscore the limits of political inclusion and they point to the importance of reconciliation and its spiritual underpinnings. The difference can be described in this way perhaps: Because its inspiration is horizontal and political, "inclusion" tends to focus on belonging granted by a group to its own distinctive confines. If a specific political cohort believes that it is the sole guarantor of that inclusion—or they believe that the tenets of their group embody the attitudes that make for inclusion—then it is more likely that the members of that group will insist on compliance with the group's views.

Reconciliation (from a Christian point of view) is God's work. While it has horizontal or social dimensions and necessarily involves people, it is not the work of a single group, nor can any group claim the unique capacity for reconciliation. Reconciliation is God's work and it is done on God's terms.

As such, the ideological bent of the group is not the issue. In fact, just as God gives freely, so, too, those who are reconciled to God are granted freedom—and that includes the freedom to think as we see fit. It is this difference that is missing from the logic of any individual or group that condemns others for thinking differently from them. The notion that any group "ought" to think in one way leads to group think and unexamined bigotry. It also means that we begin to think of one another in categorical terms that suppress or ignore our right to make and express our judgments about the world around us.

How did we get here? There are undoubtedly a number of factors, some of which in the current environment have to do with nothing more than the non-stop efforts to galvanize political support on the left and right. But clearly for some the battle against racism is not just a battle for freedom, but also a battle to craft a specific political culture into which people are freed, but then beholden.

What, then, are the implications for Christians?

We need to practice perennial vigilance. Prejudice endlessly reinvents itself and while progress can be made in social and political terms, it is also a battle that has to be fought on several fronts and at multiple levels. It is a battle that is never "won" in the final sense of the word and it is inescapably individual as well as social in its dimensions.

We need to acknowledge that racism, racist behavior, and racists are not necessarily one and the same. (I doubt that Ms. Garofalo is a racist.) But racist assumptions and patterns of behavior are another matter. No one can blithely assume that by virtue of their political or religious affiliation they have forever eradicated the possibility that they might fall prey to it.

Finally, we need to remember that freedom is not ours to grant or give. It is our responsibility to recognize it in one another as something given to us by God. No qualifiers. No exceptions.