Back in January, President Trump set off a firestorm of criticism for allegedly calling certain immigrants’ countries of origin sh*tholes. Shortly after these remarks were made public, I denounced them on social media as racist and evil. But here’s where it got interesting for me.
My politically conservative friends agreed that what he said was wrong. But they felt I went too far in calling it evil or racist. It may have been rude and in bad taste or even hurtful in a sticks-and-stones, jerk-faced kind of way. But even so, they argued, it still wasn’t racist.
But his words were racist. They were just racist in a way that was too hidden for my friends to pick up on, due to the fact that they were hiding with the president’s well documented propensity to shame.
What is shame?
Shame is one of those concepts that is difficult to pin down.
Perhaps the best and most coherent definition is from Brene Brown.
“[Shame is]…the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing that we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love and belonging – something we’ve experienced, done, or failed to do makes us unworthy of connection.”
Or to put it even simpler, it’s the intensely painful sense you get when you are made to believe that you don’t belong here.
For example, I grew up in Philadelphia and was highly involved in the church I attended. In 2000 I left to do youth ministry in Atlanta. When I came back to Philly in 2005, I rejoined the praise team (who really were a great bunch of ppl despite what I’m about to say). But I was actually a bit older than most of the team. As such, they would tease me mercilessly about my choice of music (80’s). I don’t think they realized that every time they mocked my music they were sending a (tribal) signal, however unintentional, that I didn’t belong there (music is a tribal marker).
Here’s my point. ‘You don’t belong here’ is a terrible and hurtful message for anyone to hear. But that’s the message we send when we mock someone’s music, or style of dress or culture or country of origin.
Now, from a Christian standpoint, why is this message so hurtful?
It’s because the foundation and conduit of all human blessing is collective “oneness”.
Oneness, the foundation and conduit of blessing
The Hebrew word for oneness is “ehad” (אֶחָד).
In Dt 6:4, God is described as one (ehad). In Gen 2:24 the Bible describes marriage as two becoming one (ehad) flesh. The point is that a marriage is a collective unity, as are families, people groups, communities and churches.
To belong to a family, to have friends, a supportive community, to be in covenant with God Himself-THESE are all collective unities that are sources and conduits of the God ordained blessings and benefits of living.
To be cut off from these collective unities is a spiritual death that the tragedy of physical death points toward.
Think I’m being melodramatic?
The ancient Jews believed that the real problem of death was being cut off from these collective unities. This is why God’s Heaven is cosmologically portrayed above the heavens whereas the realm of the dead (Sheol) is portrayed as below the depths of the sea. An observant Jew’s covenantal unity with God is the archetype, source and foundation for all of the blessings that these other collective unities give us. But when you die, you couldn’t be any further from God as when you reside in the Abaddon of Sheol (Ps 88).
Thus, when you put what Brown is saying through a Christian lens, you find that shame is the sense that you do not deserve or are somehow unworthy of ehad.
So when Trump utters such language, the real issue isn’t rudeness. It’s his unwillingness to establish ehad. Or to put it in layman’s terms: Trump made a declaration from the highest office that if you are from these particular countries, you actually don’t belong here. The thing that makes all of this racism (besides the obvious use of race to determine whose country is a shithole) is the shame that is being levied, shame that one has little to no ability to deflect.
Levying Shame is a defining characteristic of racism. We know from Psychology how devastating it is to human wellbeing. Perhaps understanding the link between shame and racism will help us to be less myopic about its instances see just how serious even micro-expressions of this stuff can be.
So why IS racism so hard to see?
Why is that so many of my socially conservative friends are having problems seeing the blatant racism not only in the President’s words but also its prevalence in this country?
It’s because the most common expression of racism isn’t the use of slurs, violence or racist policies. The most common expression of racism in everyday life is usually in how we dispense grace as opposed to law.
Just this past January, the Philadelphia Eagles blew out the Minnesota Vikings in the NFC title game. After the game Mike Zimmer, the coach of the Vikings, was too distraught to speak to the media. Being the censoriously ungracious fan I am, I scoured the internet to see what the pundits had to say about this. But much to my surprise, there was little to no discussion about this.
The reason this was troubling to me was that a few years back, the Carolina Panthers were also bounced from the playoffs in the NFC title game. Afterwards, Carolina quarterback Cam Newton was similarly too distraught to speak to the media. Shortly thereafter, Newton was labeled as immature and incapable of leadership. Cam was 22 at the time.
So what happened here?
Could it be that the sin inside of us often causes us to extend grace to certain people who are more “like us” and law to others who are “not like us”?
The rules were that Cam, who is black, was obligated to meet with the press afterwards and to lead his team even in defeat. Zimmer, who is white, was obligated by the same rules, but for some reason, he was given a pass.
But that’s the funny thing about grace. It’s completely undeserved. Law, on the other hand is a universal obligation. This means that in theory, no one can ever complain about not receiving grace (cause its undeserved) even if someone you know, in the same exact situation received it. Furthermore, law is equally straightforward. No one can complain about being held to the standards. If you did the crime, you deserve to do the time, so to speak.
But the problem here is that we tend to extend “grace” only to those who are “one of us” and “law” to those who are “not one of us”. Furthermore, we are probably using race as the winnowing tool to identify who “one of us” actually is.
But Biblical grace is giving family blessings and benefits to strangers and (tribal) enemies in hope of creating ehad. This is how God did it with us (Rom 5:8) The way we’re doing it now doesn’t create ehad, but rather leaves people in shame.
This is what we need to turn around.
Working to make people know they belong, even in our incidental language, is a good start.