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Monday, December 17, 2018

Imagery and Narrative: Reflections on Racism, the Flesh and the One New Man. by Michael Philliber


Imagery and Narrative
I had recently retired from 20 years in the Air Force and became the stated supply (the regular student preacher) of this small-town church. There he was, one of my elders in his late 70s, and he was appalled that I, his minister, had purchased a Toyota. When I asked him what was so wrong with having a Toyota, he replied; “It was made by the Japs!” Needless to say I was startled by his comment, and so I stammered my way through the question, “Why does that matter?” The response was just as shocking as his statement. As he put it, he had grown up during World War II, and recounted how the government propaganda in the news during the time and on posters, hammered into him that the “Japs” were evil. And now there he was in 1999, some 54 years later, and he still couldn’t bring himself to purchase anything Japanese. Similar stories could be recounted from World War I and the way the imagery and narrative about the horrible “Huns” affected and infected social perceptions of Germans.

Imagery and narrative were coupled together and employed to speedily answer the “why” questions for both wars, and to construct a ready resilience in the American population for the war-making machinery. This is an important concept to keep in mind when trying to decipher peoples’ responses to various ideas. It’s important to ask: How have diverse media, agencies, governments, and movements merged together imagery and narrative to pragmatically build consensus and results? A case in point might be the word “racism”.

The term “racism” has been fused with portrayals and plotlines of lynchings, burning crosses and bloodshed on the silver screen, television, print, newscasts, textbooks, and other platforms. There appear to me to be at least two results from this merger of imagery and narrative; (1) it “others” racism, “Why, that’s what those other people do.” And (2) when saying that racism is still alive in our country and churches, the marriage of those images and accounts of lynchings and burning crosses burble up and evoke strong reactions that spawn a deafening defensiveness. Add to these two results the way certain groups use the expression to shut down conversations or intimidate people who disagree with them and their particular religious/social agendas, then you can begin to understand why resistance becomes rampant. None of this is my sole imagination. Ta-Nehisi Coates observed the connection between imagery and narrative back in 2008 when he wrote, “In some measure, the narrowing of racism is an unfortunate relic of the civil rights movement, when activists got mileage out of dehumanizing racists and portraying them as ultra-violent Southern troglodytes. Whites may have been horrified by the fire hoses and police dogs turned on children, but they could rest easy knowing that neither they nor anyone they'd ever met would do such a thing.”1 Therefore, I would like to posit a different word and another approach.

Flesh

My suggestion is to place racism back inside the biblical continuum of “flesh”. This is not to denude or deny the term, or take away any of its importance. Rather, it is intended to give that concept a location inside a different narrative, as part of an extensive storyline that has a Christ-centered remedy. By doing this it will help to show that racism, and its resolution, has been on God’s radar for a longer time than any of us, or our forbearers, have been around. To make my case, I am going to come at this subject from two slightly different angles.

Teamed Together

To begin with I will take us somewhere else to gain an example. Christians normally affirm that according to Scripture sexual aberrations are errant. And yet to pull one erotic anomaly out of the biblical continuum and to obsess over it, preach against it every other Sunday, and regularly demonstrate against it at State Capitols, creates an unhealthy over-emphasis. That unhealthy over-emphasis ends up forming an environment that feels hostile to those trying to tackle and tame their sensual attractions. It also fosters the impression that the rest of us are okay (or think we're okay) because we don’t engage in “that sin”. Therefore, to keep peccadilloes in their biblical context helps all of us to realize that when we point one finger at someone else, there are three more pointing back at us.

For instance, when Paul lists sins he often teams them together. In 1 Corinthians 5 the Apostle moves the Corinthian church away from targeting sexual immorality by itself, and itemizes it along with greed, idolatry, reviling, drunkenness, and swindling. He does this again in the very next chapter, “Or do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: neither the sexually immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor men who practice homosexuality, nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God” (1 Corinthians 6.9-10). Clearly, when we point one finger at someone else’s sin there are three more pointing right back at us!

By following the Scriptural pattern of keeping vices generally teamed together it helps save us from self-righteously thinking we’re okay because we don’t practice “that sin”. It also enables our churches to be redemptive, restorative fellowships for people who are overwhelmed by their own weakness. With this in mind we can step on over to my second thought.

Litany

The Scriptural category “flesh” encompasses a whole range of immoralities, iniquities and injustices, to include what we have come to call “racism”. Here’s how the apostle addresses it: “Now the works of the flesh are evident: sexual immorality, impurity, sensuality, idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, fits of anger, rivalries, dissensions, divisions, envy, drunkenness, orgies, and things like these. I warn you, as I warned you before, that those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God” (Galatians 5.19-21). If we keep the storyline and emphasis of Galatians in mind, then we can see how many of the different aspects of “racism” are mentioned in this litany called “the works of the flesh”.

The issue that provoked Paul’s ire and roused him to write this letter was that certain people who claimed Jesus as Lord also demanded of everyone else either ethnic assimilation or racial apartness. These Jewish disciples of the Messiah mandated that Gentile followers of Jesus had to believe in Jesus plus become Jewish; and if they would not then they were to be placed outside of “our” fellowship. One of the results is that this assimilation-or-apartness shattered communion. No longer were the Jewish disciples eating with the Gentile disciples; they were pulled apart and the fault line was tribal, ethnic, and clannish (Galatians 2.11-14). And so Paul declared that this segregating “conduct was not in step with the truth of the gospel”! The remainder of the letter was written to counteract this fault by exposing how harmful it is (5.19-21), and by exhibiting the ways justification works out and works into our relationships and churches, and turns tribalism on its head (3.26-29; 5.22-25).

Therefore the “works of the flesh” encompass a wide spectrum of sins and sinful tendencies, many of which promote assimilation-or-apartness: enmity, strife, fits of anger, dissensions, divisions, “and things like these.” By returning racism to the range of actions listed under “the flesh” it does several things. For starters, when we are tempted to point out other people’s prejudices, we can humbly recognize that our own favorite sins are marching in lock-step with the other’s bigotries. We come to perceive that the category "works of the flesh" is like a laundry basket filled with our soiled linen.

Further, by keeping “racism” inside the works of the flesh, it is no longer narrowed down to a 20th and 21st Century class struggle but is shown to be something every Christian throughout the ages must address in themselves. We’re in this together, and we all need God’s help with this issue together, since “in Christ Jesus you are all sons of God, through faith. For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. And if you are Christ's, then you are Abraham's offspring, heirs according to promise” (Galatians 3.26-29).

Next, it moves us away from depending on fashionable secular remedies, or modern-day pluralistic resolutions. By keeping “racism” in the spectrum of “flesh” it reminds us that we’ve been here before, thus one of the reasons Paul wrote Galatians, Ephesians, Romans, etc. And if we’ve been here before, then we are not here alone. Over the last two thousand years, there have been several moments where this sin has been properly handled, and times when it has been mishandled, and we can learn from those who have gone before us. And we can also take up a stance of humility. As Christopher Hutchinson observes,
“Regarding the past, believers look with horror upon the sins of slavery and Jim Crow, and rightly condemn both institutions. But do they really think that many believers today would have avoided the cultural pressures that captured so much of the church at that time? Would most of today’s white Christians really have been among that small, persecuted minority in the antebellum American South who actively opposed slavery? (…) When today’s believers evaluate the sins of past generations, humility and empathy are always in good order, even as they speak the truth and hold to the standards of God’s Word. Christians might also consider what future generations will say about today’s church when believers look back at our cultural accommodations. All have sinned and Fallen short of the glory of God.”2
Additionally, returning “racism” to the “works of the flesh” places our prejudices, and locates our congregations and denominations back into the rocky, rearing rodeo called “sanctification.” Here in this biblical framework of sanctification we find that “the work of God's free grace, whereby we are renewed in the whole person (both individually and collectively) after the image of God, and are enabled more and more to die unto sin, and live unto righteousness” (Westminster Shorter Catechism 35) is still being applied to us by God. Since these racial biases are part of the works of the flesh, which God is amending through his Spirit’s work, we become freed from faddish, state-of-the-art resolutions that are divorced from any recognition of total depravity and expect heaven-on-earth in our time. We become liberated to be freshly charitable and patient, knowing that ultimately the satisfying conclusion to the works of the flesh will finally come when Christ returns, when in the fullness of time the Father will “unite all things in Christ, things in heaven and things on earth” (Ephesians 1.10). All of these thoughts bring me to my conclusion with one more observation.

The New Imagery and Narrative: One New Man

When we approach racism as somewhere inside the realm of “the works of the flesh” we are given a new imagery and narrative. In Ephesians 2 Paul is again challenging the assimilation-or-apartness divide. And there he brings it to the cross in a similar, though slightly different way. “But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For he himself is our peace, who has made us both one and has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility…, that he might create in himself one new man (ἕνα καινὸν ἄνθρωπον – hena kainon anthropon) in place of the two, so making peace, and might reconcile us both to God in one body through the cross, thereby killing the hostility” (Ephesians 2.13-16). Christ’s redemptive work draws together disparate tribal groups to Christ giving us a whole new way of being human – together; we become one new man!

Paul plays this out a little later when he calls on the Christians “to put off your old self (τὸν παλαιὸν ἄνθρωπον – ton palaion anthropon), which belongs to your former manner of life and is corrupt through deceitful desires, and to be renewed in the spirit of your minds, and to put on the new self (τὸν καινὸν ἄνθρωπον – ton kainon anthropon), created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness” (Ephesians 4.22-24). Part of our redeemed vocation is to strip ourselves of the old way of being human (the old man Ephesians 4.22), that way that enfleshes tribalism as well as falsehood, stealing, corrupting talk, bitterness, wrath, anger, clamor, slander, malice and unforgiveness (Ephesians 4.25-32). Instead, we’re to live out into the other direction, to live out a whole new way of being human, the new man, together.

The new cross-shaped, Christ-bought imagery and narrative is that together in Christ, we are part of Christ’s new way of being human; we are engrafted into his new humanity (the new man and the one new man), which gives us a new identity together and a new way of interacting and engaging with each other together. It liberates us from our palaion anthropon, that old way of being human, with its vindictiveness and tribalism, ego-centricity and ethno-centricity. And being raised together with Christ, and seated together with him in the heavenly places (Ephesians 2.5), we are beginning to be what we will one day be completely, a new humankind!

This paper is property of the Rev. Dr. Michael W. Philliber

The WWII Propaganda picture was accessed on 17 December 2018 at https://study.com/academy/lesson/anti-japanese-propaganda-poster-during-world-war-ii.html


1. www.slate.com/articles/news_and_politics/hey_wait_a_minute/2008/03/playing_the_racist_card.single.html (accessed 2 June 2017).
2. Christopher A. Hutchinson, "Rediscovering Humility: Why the Way Up Is Down," 204-5.

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