‘We Have a Race Problem, Mr. President’
In an excerpt from her new memoir published in Newsweek, former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice says she didn’t think much about dire Hurricane Katrina warnings when she left Washington D.C. to watch U.S. Open tennis in New York in August 2005. Turning on the TV after a trip to an upscale shoe store in the city, she saw the devastating images of mostly black faces in New Orleans and knew right away that she should have never made the trip.
“Mr. President, I’m coming back. I don’t know how much I can do, but we clearly have a race problem,” she recounts telling the president. “I wasn’t just the secretary of state with responsibility for foreign affairs; I was the highest-ranking black in the administration and a key advisor to the President. What had I been thinking?”
The Lingering Wound of Katrina
Rice admits that Katrina was “the first in a spiral of negative events that would almost engulf the Bush presidency” and says the federal response was slower and more flawed than anyone, including George W. Bush, wanted. Yet, for her, the “lingering wound of Katrina” is that “some used the explosive ‘race card’ to paint the President as a prejudiced, uncaring man.”
“It was so unfair, cynical, and irresponsible,” she writes, saying she remains “appalled” that it was necessary to defend him on this issue.
The Moral Case for Opposing Tyranny
In an interview with The Daily Beast about the book, Rice defends the Bush administration’s “Freedom Agenda,” framing it as both a moral and practical pursuit.
“We pursued the Freedom Agenda not only because it was right but also because it was necessary,” Rice is quoted as writing. “There is both a moral case and a practical one for the proposition that no man, woman, or child should live in tyranny. Those who excoriated the approach as idealistic or unrealistic missed the point. In the long run, it is authoritarianism that is unstable and unrealistic.”
Gadhafi’s “Black Flower in the White House”
A New York Times review of No Higher Ground focuses on clashes between Rice and Vice President Dick Cheney over the war on terror, but includes the curious revelation that recently deceased Libyan dictator Col. Muammar Gadhafi was “eerily fascinated” with her and “made a video showing pictures of her while a song called ‘Black Flower in the White House’ played.”
Rice’s Biggest Regret
Neither Katrina nor Freedom Agenda challenges top Rice’s list of regrets, however. In a Q&A with readers of the Charlotte Observer this week, the former Secretary of State answered a question about what she would change from her White House tenure if she could by saying she wishes that the Bush administration had been able to pass comprehensive immigration reform in 2007.
“Because resolving our massive immigration problem is essential to securing a prosperous future for generations, I truly wish we had been able to see those reforms come to fruition,” said Rice.
Asked what has built character in her life, she told readers that throughout every season of her life, “the Lord has built character in me as I rely on Him.”
What do you think?
Was George W. Bush’s Katrina “race problem” the beginning of the end of positive public perception for his administration? Is his record on race defensible?
“Integration” and “diversity” do not express God’s purpose for reconciliation deeply enough. What we need is a fresh paradigm that declares our new culture in Christ.
A workshop last month in Cincinnati at the Christian Community Development Association conference (CCDA) confirmed my conviction that Christians need fresh language regarding our mission and identity in a divided world.
During my workshop, I remarked that as “reconciliation” becomes both increasingly popular and contested, and as such potentially unhelpful, the critical question is “reconciliation toward what?” I mentioned two dominant paradigms.
• Integration is the first paradigm — overcoming oppression through social equality and access to mainstream benefits. There has been deep progress in this area, at the same time the fierce historical opposition to racial and economic integration in American life is a sign of a captivity which is yet to be overcome. Yet as early as the 1956 Montgomery bus boycott Martin Luther King Jr. argued that integration would not go far enough to heal America: “The end,” preached King, “is reconciliation, the end is redemption, the end is the creation of the beloved community.”
Notions of integration easily lead to “equal and separate” and avoid even more difficult and holy work. As Charles Marsh has argued in The Beloved Community, “[W]hile the civil rights movement defeated segregation and forever changed American society, the nation has experienced precious little repentance, reconciliation, and costly discipleship.”
• Diversity has been the other dominant response to “reconciliation toward what?” Over the last ten years there has been an explosion of initiatives and literature around “inclusiveness” and “diversity.” Some Christian denominations and institutions are diversifying their leadership and constituencies in ways which are transformative and to be celebrated. Pastor Mark DeMaz pointed out to me recently the traction that “multi” has gotten in the evangelical world: “multi-ethnic” (InterVarsity Christian Fellowship), “multi-cultural” (David Anderson of Bridgeway Community Church), “multi-racial” (sociologist and author George Yancey). This is long overdue, and Soong Chan Rah’s much-discussed book The Next Evangelicalism shows how far there is to go.
Yet at CCDA I said that “multi” does not capture the work of the Holy Spirit within history powerfully enough. The story of creation and humanity as diverse and good must be completed by the story of God’s redemption of the ways the fall deformed the gift of difference through the trauma of sin. The trajectory of the Christian story is an interruption and transformation of historical identities and fixed groups (Jew, Greek, male, female, slave, free) toward a fluidity of identity and culture: when the Antioch church becomes a new people across these lines, a community and politics (where Jesus is Lord, not Caesar) comes into existence that is so strange, it requires a new language. It is at Antioch that the disciples are first called “Christians.”
If Integration and Diversity are insufficient paradigms for “reconciliation toward what” in an increasingly multicultural America and world wracked by intensifying polarizations, what’s the alternative?
“Consequently, from now on we regard no one according to the flesh; even if we once knew Christ according to the flesh, yet now we know him so no longer. So whoever is in Christ is a new creation: the old things have passed away; behold, new things have come. And all this is from God, who has reconciled us to himself through Christ and given us the ministry of reconciliation…” 2 Cor. 5:15-18
What’s the alternative? I believe we find it in the above passage.
At the CCDA, I suggested that we consider the implications of “New Creation.” New Creation breaks beyond tribal self-sufficiency to a “toward what” grounded in the story and power of God’s gift in Jesus Christ which interrupts the ground of injustice and divides with conversion toward a new community, new desires, and a new Lord.
New Creation is a call to being changed (metanoia) in a visible new way of life and sharing together (koinonia, including a new economic life between rich and poor, see Acts 2 and Acts 4, and including life with strangers who become companions). This is why, for example, I prefer to speak of “interracial” churches. In saying “interracial” (e.g. interracial churches or interracial marriage) instead of “biracial” we point to a cultural intimacy, interdependence, and mutual transformation which is a sign of a “new humanity.” There is a rich literature around “transcultural” or “third culture kids” who make up a kind of “new people” who don’t fit into the homeland their parents left nor the culture they are living in. As a missionary kid who grew up in Korea, I identify profoundly with this.
Yet the English language may itself be so ridden with dichotomies that it cannot capture how New Creation interrupts us in the “sluggish in between” of human life between Jesus’ resurrection and return. But another language does.
Here is how Duke Divinity School scholar Edgardo Colon-Emeric expresses it:
According to the seer of Patmos [John’s vision in Revelation 7:9-17 of a multitude from every nation, tongue, language, worshipping the Lamb], the Church is a mestizo assembly gathered from every nation in praise of the God of Abraham, Issac, and Jacob, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.
Reflecting on this Spanish word mestizo, Edgardo, who is also the director of Duke’s Hispanic House of Studies, adds:
Mestizo … refers literally to a mixture. The term was first used to describe the children of the violent encounter between European fathers and Amerindian mothers. Neither European nor Indian, these children belonged to a new people, a people of mixed heritage. But this mixed heritage is not simply a historical or ethnic marker; it is also the goal of Christian existence. In the words of Mexican-American theologian Virgil Elizondo ‘the future is mestizo,’ not because of ethnic mixing, but because the new humanity in Christ is a mestizo humanity of Jews and Gentiles.”
My friend Edgardo goes on to say, “The church needs leaders who have eyes to see that all ethnic ministries are provisional because the future is mestizo.” To repeat the key claim, “this mixed heritage is not simply a historical or ethnic marker; it is also the goal of Christian existence.”
As I told those who attended my CCDA workshop, I am not advocating being blind to or forgetful of the history of oppression and how this trajectory deforms community, institutional, and church life. A notion of cheap “reconciliation without memory” leads to assimilation into the dominant culture and its values. This is exactly why New Creation matters: We are freed from captivity through shared journeys and communities of conversion which make difference meaningful in an exchange of gifts and a vision of mutuality which is both truthful about the grip of sin and reaches toward a new place of life together.
Through the ministry of Maggy Barankitse in the east African country of Burundi, orphans of violence between rival Tutsi and Hutu groups have lived for years together at Maison Shalom (“House of Peace”). On top of former tribal killing fields, they share intimate daily life with the multiplicity of people who come there including from the “Twa” minority, nearby Congo, and “Muzungus” (outsiders) from Europe and the U.S. Over time, their identities become reshaped and quite confused in this new community. When questioned about her ethnic identity, one orphan speaks of herself as being a “Hutsi-Twa-Congo-Zungu” — pulling all these peoples into a kind of one new humanity.
Integration and Diversity do not state the power of the Holy Spirit’s interruption of history deeply enough. To emphasize Edgardo’s point, “all ethnic ministries are provisional because the future is mestizo.” Diversity and integration lack a telos, a goal, a “for what purpose?” New Creation and a mestizo vision properly understood within God’s work of “reconciling all things in Christ” (Col. 1:15-23) offer a fresh paradigm of “toward what” that is not only deeply transformative but beautiful, a bit scary, and subversive to the way things are. Not to mention a deeper way to holiness and vision which requires God.