‘But if it takes effort to understand: three’

‘But if it takes effort to understand: three’ July 22, 2021

One of my favorite poems from Wislawa Szymborska is “A Word on Statistics,” which reads almost like a short stand-up comedy set. She establishes a premise in the first line and then riffs on it rat-a-tat for 18 sharp, grimly funny stanzas.

Out of every hundred people

those who always know better:

Unsure of every step:
almost all the rest.

Ready to help,

if it doesn’t take long:

Always good,
because they cannot be otherwise:
four—well, maybe five.

Able to admire without envy:

Led to error
by youth (which passes):
sixty, plus or minus.

Those not to be messed with:
forty and four.

Living in constant fear
of someone or something:

Capable of happiness:
twenty-some-odd at most.

Harmless alone,
turning savage in crowds:
more than half, for sure.

when forced by circumstances:
it’s better not to know,
not even approximately.

Wise in hindsight:
not many more
than wise in foresight.

Getting nothing out of life except things:
(though I would like to be wrong).

Doubled over in pain
and without a flashlight in the dark:
eighty-three, sooner or later.

Those who are just:
quite a few at thirty-five.

But if it takes effort to understand:

Worthy of empathy:

one hundred out of one hundred—
a figure that has never varied yet.

The tongue-in-cheek concreteness of Szymborska’s made-up “statistics” is a kind of mocking challenge to take her assertions and observations seriously even though they lack the reductive measurability we sometimes mistakenly think is the only basis for authority. The arbitrary precision of these “statistics” is presented with a twinkle in the eye that says, “No, of course I haven’t quantified this, but do you really want to tell me I’m wrong?” She toys with this pretense of precision, sometimes openly admitting this “data” is pure approximation, before suddenly, in that final stanza and punchline, offering one actual, measurable, verified statistic.

The bit from that poem I’m thinking about today is this one-two punch here:

Those who are just:
quite a few at thirty-five.

But if it takes effort to understand:

There’s a lot going on there with “quite a few.” In what way does 35 out of 100 — barely more than a third — amount to “quite a few”? Well, look around at what we accept and abide as the status quo. You might not guess that in such a world the unjust only enjoy a 2-to-1 advantage over the just. So there’s a brief glimmer there of something like optimism from Szymborska — a hint that 35% is “quite a few” and perhaps even enough to make a difference.

But then there’s a “but”: “But if it takes effort to understand: three.” There’s an echo there of the earlier line about not-quite half of us being “Ready to help” provided “it doesn’t take long.” And perhaps, too, an echo of the Beatitudes and that bit about “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst after justice.” Hungering and thirsting for justice might do the trick, but only if we’re committed to putting in the effort to understand what it means.

Those lines are sitting with me now because I’d just re-read this poem yesterday when I came across Andre E. Key’s exploration of Promise Keepers 2.0: “Promise Keepers Are Back and Looking to End Racism Via ‘Trickle-Down Racial Reconciliation.’

I closely followed the original rise of Promise Keepers back in the ’90s, viewing it with great hope. It seemed like a sign of a nascent, but growing consensus in evangelicalism that Racism Is Bad. Yeah, that’s the babiest of baby steps, but it still seemed like a big improvement over the earlier consensus in white evangelicalism, which was that saying “Racism Is Bad” was “controversial.”

The group was founded by Bill McCartney, the white evangelical former coach of the University of Colorado’s football team. He seemed genuinely in earnest about making “racial reconciliation” a non-negotiable pillar and priority of this manly men’s movement. McCartney’s apparently heartfelt passion seemed to come not from the church, but from his years in sports — from a life shared with Black friends and colleagues and students he had cared enough about to have listened to, investing and intertwining his life with theirs.

McCartney wasn’t just repeating the all-too-familiar motions of a white evangelical leader defensively posing for a photograph with John Perkins to prove that he had a Black friend and thereby hoping to prove that he was One Of The Good Ones, inoculated from the taint of racism. For most white Christian leaders in the ’90s, that was seen as sufficient and effective, because back then most white evangelicals were only dimly aware of the massive taint of their long, immoral history of Being Wrong. Racism was then, for the white church, still primarily perceived as a problem of perception that could be overcome with a bit of aspirational rhetoric about unity and repeated reminders that white Christians, whatever their past missteps, are still morally superior to Satanic baby-killers. But McCartney didn’t seem to be playing that pointless game. (See this 1996 piece from Adelle M. Banks: “Promise Keepers focusing on racial reconciliation.”)

Alas, McCartney also did not seem able to provide any meaningful alternative. He grew frustrated at the pushback he encountered for emphasizing racial reconciliation and seemed unable to respond to that pushback with anything more than the same misleading individualistic, sentimental, nominally “color-blind” ideology that motivated it.

After McCartney withdrew from the group to care for his ailing wife (and his own failing health), Promise Keepers shrank to the sidelines in the early 2000s, leaving little in the way of a legacy or long-term impact regarding “racial reconciliation.” The headline for a recent Christianity Today piece — “Promise Keepers Tried to End Racism 25 Years Ago. It Almost Worked” — is hilariously overstated. Both sentences there are, objectively, false.

Out of 100 Promise Keepers 25 years ago, quite a few, about 35, sincerely wanted “to end racism.”

But after they realized it would take effort to understand: three.

And it didn’t “almost work.” It didn’t work at all.

It was, rather, a repeat of the futility Reinhold Niebuhr described more than 25 years before that in an interview with Commonweal:

Along comes Billy Graham for his great evangelistic meeting. His manner is bland and he’s a great biblicist. He speaks in a convincing way and, while the choir sings softly, he tells the people to pray and to give their heart to Christ and sign the decision card. He tells them in the words of St. Paul that “if any man be in Christ, he will be a new creature.”

This is fantastic, because it shows the weakness of Protestantism: individualism. It deals with collective sin, particularly the race question, in purely individualistic terms. You can’t overcome race prejudice by simply signing a decision card. Yet Billy Graham tells them that if they sign the decision card they will become “color-blind.” Why is it that we see no evidence of the color-blindness when these people leave the evangelistic meetings?

But beyond this flaccid individualism, another reason Promise Keepers utterly failed 25 years ago was the very framework and language of its goal: “racial reconciliation.”

This framework of mutual reconciliation is the only form of racial equality that white evangelicalism is prepared to consider: Equal guilt, equal blame, a perfectly balanced equal need for repentance and re-education on “both sides.”

“I sit on a man’s back, choking him” and pleading with him to apologize, repent, and be reconciled to me, all the while assuring him that I, too, will be willing to meet him half way, once he demonstrates his willingness to concede that our situation is wholly the same.


Imagine a recovering addict who decides to replace the Ninth Step with “reconciliation.” Instead of seeking to make amends, he approaches those he has previously wronged with talk of “unity” and mutual forgiveness. “Let’s not get bogged down in who-stiffed-who on the rent or who-pawned-whose-stuff. We were roommates! Let’s hug it out!”

“Racial reconciliation” is, I think, a barrier to whatever it is people are hoping for when they talk about “racial reconciliation.”

And in the case of the revived Promise Keepers, it doesn’t seem like they’re hoping for much at all.

There were plenty of red flags early on, as seen in this RNS piece from last summer, “Promise Keepers stages a comeback on screens instead of in a stadium.” Adelle Banks (still at it!) reported then that PK’s new rallies include promotion of the Trump Republican “My Faith Votes” agenda. And when she asks the group’s new CEO, Ken Harrison, if PK will maintain McCartney’s commitment to “justice,” he responds with an Anti Kitten-Burning Coalition rant on “sex trafficking.”

Yes, sex trafficking, like burning kittens, is wrong. But no, expressing indignation about sex trafficking and/or the burning of kittens does not make you exceptional or heroic or morally exemplary. And if you feel the need to identify yourself as exceptional and heroic and morally exemplary because you’re emotionally horrified by sex trafficking, then it suggests you may be otherwise unwilling to address your complicity in other injustices other than that by repeatedly reminding us that you’re relatively moral if compared against the kind of people who sexually traffic children.

And, again, I’m pleased to see white evangelicals in America now nearly unanimously opposed to selling children for sexual exploitation. That’s a positive development compared to what most white evangelicals in America had to say about the matter prior to 1865. But Harrison, like most white evangelicals, expresses his opposition to “sex trafficking” in the same breath as he expresses his opposition to legal abortion, thereby declaring his support for a judiciary that refuses to recognizes the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments which, among other things, finally made it illegal to sell children in this country. So.

There’s more grounds for concern about the Promise Keepers reboot from Roxanne Stone’s RNS article last week, “Promise Keepers says it has changed. The times have changed more.” Stone details a multitude of links between the new PK and a host of MAGA culture-war figures. And Harrison — a “former Los Angeles street cop” (ahem) — demonstrates a disturbing native fluency in the right-wing white-nationalist jargon of Fox News.

As to whether any good can come from such an organization, I think the conclusion of the article is devastatingly conclusive:

When asked to comment on Jan. 6 and the number of men sporting Christian symbols among the rioters, Harrison said he wanted to stay out of it. “I wasn’t there. I don’t want to run around condemning anybody.”

“Condemn is such a strong word,” he added.


The conclusion of Andre Henry’s essay isn’t much more hopeful:

Finally, consider the friends and associates of the rebooted Promise Keepers. Since its inception Promise Keepers have presented themselves as apolitical, despite the fact that the group’s featured podcast, “On the Edge with Ken Harrison,” has featured such decidedly right-wing guests as Oliver North, Eric Metaxas, and Rod Dreher. It also maintains close relationships with James Dobson and the Dobson Family Institute as well as white nationalist Steve Bannon. Simply put, these are not the names that come to mind when considering an organization committed to improved race relations.

Ultimately, I don’t envision Promise Keepers’ right-wing racial reconciliation relaunch getting too far. They may once again fill sports stadiums with energized worship and moments of interracial joy and exuberance for those gathered. But just as with their ‘90s forebear they will fall short on fulfilling their promise of unity and meaningful racial reconciliation. Instead, the intoxicating and self-serving belief in racism as personal sin will not age well and will once again not be fit for consumption.

My guess is that some future version of Christianity Today will be able to publish a headline summarizing this that says “Promise Keepers Tried to Dismiss Racism 25 Years Ago. It almost worked.”

Harmless alone,
turning savage in crowds:
more than half, for sure.

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