Reading through a biography of Edmund Burke, I came across a quote that couldn’t help but remind me of the importance of reframing submission as a virtue, a frequenttheme here. The quote is taken from Burke’s speech at the impeachment trial of Warren Hastings in 1788. Against Hasting’s claim to have exercised arbitrary power, Burke argued that such power is something that no human possesses because all human power is derivative.
We have no arbitrary power to give, because arbitrary power is a thing which neither any man can hold nor any man can give. No man can lawfully govern himself according to his own will—much less can one person be governed by the will of another. We are all born in subjection—all born equally, high and low, governors and governed, in subjection to one great, immutable, preexistent law, prior to all our devices, and prior to all our contrivances, paramount to all our ideas and to all our sensations, antecedent to our very existence, by which we are knit and connected in the eternal frame of the universe, out of which we can not stir.
This great law does not arise from our conventions or compacts; on the contrary, it gives to our conventions and compacts all the force and sanction they can have: it does not arise from our vain institutions. Every good gift is of God, all power is of God; and He who has given the power, and from whom alone it originates, will never suffer the exercise of it to be practised upon any less solid foundation than the power itself.
Burke intends this as an argument of political philosophy to avoid excesses in governmental power, and he makes no explicit mention of submission as a virtue here. The implication is sufficiently clear from this powerful premise, however, to make the point an easy one to draw out. If all power is God’s alone, then submission is the appropriate posture of humans. Toward God, certainly, but also as a general principle, submission is a virtuous expression of our nature. To the extent that humans exercise authority, they do so in only one of two ways: on behalf of God and with God’s empowering consent or in rebellion against God as a perversion of human nature.
Submission (or, in Burke’s word, “subjection”), in contrast, is almost always an expression of the best parts of humanity’s primordial, foundational nature–with the exception only of submission to false gods. It is through this state of submission that “we are knit and connected in the eternal frame of the universe, out of which we can not stir.” To the modern, liberated individualist this will sound oppressive; to me it is extremely comforting.
Roughly a decade ago, I gleefully passed on encouraging news out of Turkey about the return of seized Christian properties and the consequent easing of the burden of producing spiritual leaders for the Turkish church in accordance with Turkish laws. I took these to be signs of progress in a positive direction and even indulged in a momentary fantasy about the return of properties seized before the twentieth century–particularly the Hagia Sophia cathedral.
Fast forward to 2020, and the dueling dark clouds of global pandemic and systemic racism broke apart just long enough for news to slip in that–rather than letting Hagia Sophia return to its original role as a church–a Turkish court has ruled that the 1934 decision to let it exist as a museum open to all faiths was illegal. The ruling paves the way for Hagia Sophia to revert to being a mosque, as it had been under the Ottomans. According to the BBC:
Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan called for the change.
Islamists in Turkey have long called for it to be converted to a mosque, but secular opposition members have opposed the move….[T]he Council of State, Turkey’s top administrative court, said in its ruling on Friday: “It was concluded that the settlement deed allocated it as a mosque and its use outside this character is not possible legally”.
With Greece, Russia, the UN, and various Orthodox bodies joining secularists within Turkey to express their strident opposition to the move, it remains to be seen whether or not Hagia Sophia will in fact be closed to Christians, but the way this year is trending it’s hard to be optimistic. Ten years of taking it for granted later, I’m left now to indulge in a new fantasy, one that involves me visiting the old heart of eastern Christendom while it was still open to me.
Yesterday morning, as if on cue, Politico Magazine published the kind of reasoned discussion of memorials and racism that I had called for the day before. While I agree with the titular premise–that we don’t need to “cancel” George Washington–I can’t help but think the main thrust of the argument is deeply flawed.
Isaac J. Bailey, a public policy professor at Davidson College, claims that the reason so many people resist the demystification of Washington and Jefferson is that they have failed to recognize slavery as an absolute evil. To make his case, he contrasts the way society treats dead slave holders with the way society treats anti-Semites, namely Louis Farrakhan and Wernher von Braun.
Both von Braun and Farrakhan promoted an ideology that killed six million people and has caused unquantifiable harm throughout history. Our conversation about whether to include them as historical figures of note begins from the premise that anti-Semitism is an unmatched evil. And, from there, we decide the roles these two men played in those prejudices and institutions are too great for us to acknowledge any good in their legacies.
We say Washington is rightly celebrated despite his prominent role in one of the world’s great evils—and any argument that his legacy should be re-evaluated is immediately dismissed….We say despite the good some say Farrakhan accomplished and the technological advancements von Braun helped make possible, Farrakhan and von Braun are evil men who should be revered by no one. We say that it would be immoral to use taxpayer dollars to honor them or to put statues of them in public spaces.
If we drill down into why, it’s this: Because Americans have never viewed race-based chattel slavery as an unequivocal evil.
The argument is hard to swallow, no matter how attractive the conclusions. The problem is one of false equivalency, not (as Bailey expects) because Washington and Jefferson’s accomplishments dwarf those of Farrakhan and von Braun (although they do) but because he is comparing those who committed these sins centuries ago to recent (and in one case living) perpetuators of anti-Semitism. The antiquity of Washington and Jefferson does not excuse their sins, but it does explain and contextualize them in a way that it cannot for Bailey’s two examples. If he wants to make his argument stick, Bailey would need to find more distant examples to consider.
Consider as a more appropriate choice Martin Luther, one of the founders of Protestant Christianity. He is arguably a figure whose historical contributions to Western civilization match or eclipse those of Washington and Jefferson. Never a slave owner, Luther has been rightly accused of the kind of “virulent anti-Semitism” that Bailey says Americans would never brook the way they do slavery:
“Set fire to their synagogues or schools,” Martin Luther recommended in On the Jews and Their Lies. Jewish houses should “be razed and destroyed,” and Jewish “prayer books and Talmudic writings, in which such idolatry, lies, cursing, and blasphemy are taught, [should] be taken from them.” In addition, “their rabbis [should] be forbidden to teach on pain of loss of life and limb.” Still, this wasn’t enough.
Luther also urged that “safe-conduct on the highways be abolished completely for the Jews,” and that “all cash and treasure of silver and gold be taken from them.” What Jews could do was to have “a flail, an ax, a hoe, a spade” put into their hands so “young, strong Jews and Jewesses” could “earn their bread in the sweat of their brow.”
If Louis Farrakhan ever said anything worse than that about Jews, he is to some degree indebted to the intellectual legacy of Luther as undoubtedly one of the great theologians of Western anti-Semitism. He vocally advocated for hating Jews in a way that Washington and Jefferson never did for slavery.
Yet Martin Luther is memorialized freely and openly in the United States and Europe, in the same uncomplicated way that Washington and Jefferson are and for presumably the same reason–“despite his prominent role in one of the world’s great evils.” Statues of him stand in Minnesota, Texas, Iowa, Kentucky, Michigan, Illinois, Pennsylvania, and even Washington D.C. One in Maryland is on public land and managed by the city of Baltimore. There are undoubtedly more statues than these, but they will suffice to prove the point. Clearly there is no distinction between the moral evaluation of anti-Semitism and racism/slavery the way that Bailey imagines. Americans will overlook anti-Semitism along with racism, whether because of ignorance or because of the magnitude of the accomplishments being memorialized.
The simple fact is a good historian could likely dig up as many anti-Semitic presidents as racist ones (and undoubtedly more than those who actually owned slaves). Americans continue to memorialize notorious anti-Semites closer to home (both in time and place) whose accomplishments are considerably less world-altering that were Luther’s. Henry Ford and Charles Lindbergh both spring readily to mind as having been evangelistic in their anti-Semitism and enjoying an entirely uncomfortable number of historical linkages to Nazi Germany and to Adolf Hitler personally. Both men have prominent statues in public places in the US.
There are more such offenders with prominent memorials besides these, but the occasional attention they are receiving now is still much less pronounced than the new ire directed at Washington and Jefferson. So Bailey’s final conclusions are welcome: “Washington and Jefferson, who did not die fighting explicitly for a white supremacist state but had a hand in creating one, are more complicated [that Confederates]. Their monuments shouldn’t be destroyed, but their myths must be.” His defense of that position, however, leaves a lot to be desired. Anti-Semites like Luther, Ford, and Lindbergh enjoy the same unexamined legacy that Washington and Jefferson do. They also enjoy some of the same benefit of an anti-Donatist approach to memorialization. Lindbergh is not primarily significant for his role in Hitler’s Germany; neither is Ford. Lutherans probably need to come to terms publicly with their namesake’s role in the history of anti-Semitism (if they haven’t already), but grappling with that legacy does not and should not require the toppling of Luther memorials. He did not, as Bailey would say, die fighting for the cause of anti-Semitism.
So now that it seems at least some people are ready “to pause the debate, deepen and re-center a discussion we’ve never really had,” let’s work a little harder to develop a still more sophisticated approach to public memorailzation before we undo the good work that’s been done and can still be done.
A couple of weeks ago, I sat in my in-laws dining room, spending my first trip since the quarantines started lifting trying to explain to my wife’s well-meaning but generationally-challenged parents what was happening with regard to race in this country. Steeped as they were in Fox News talking points, it was hard to get beyond the frequent refrains of “affirmative action is racist against whites” to try to make sense of the protests, the righteousness of black anger, and the difference between history and memorial. This last point was a particular point of contention, as they feared (I thought irrationally) that if we let protesters tear down statues of Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson that they’d come for George Washington and Thomas Jefferson next. I tried to explain to them the difference between someone who participated in racial injustices but was memorialized for their other contributions to a society and someone who is famous (and therefore memorialized) wholly because of their actions in defense of racial injustices. I seemed to be getting through. Then, a week later, statues of Washington and Jefferson started coming down.
Last August, I bemoaned the fact that a new kind of cultural Donatism seems to have become entrenched in the twenty-first century, one that fails to make even the most rudimentary distinctions between actor and act, between the whole value of a person and any particular defect in that person. It’s all oddly reminiscent of a debate that Christians supposedly settled over a millennium ago.
In the middle of the fourth century, Donatus Magnus took to his cultural equivalent of Twitter with his cultural equivalent of a hashtag activism, calling on Christians to #boycottbadpriests. The Donatist heretics believed that the character of sinful priests had a negative effect on the sacraments they administered, so much so that people baptized by corrupt priests (particularly those who had renounced the faith to save their lives during the Roman persecutions) should not be admitted to the church. The character of the individual, they argued, corrupted the character of the act.
The Church Fathers–perhaps realizing that all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God–swooped in to set the record straight.
I’ll reiterate what I said last year, namely that my point is not that the drafting of the Declaration of Independence or the leadership of the continental army are like sacraments or even like works of righteousness. Obviously they aren’t. If I tried, I couldn’t imagine caring less about the memorialization of either of these Founding Fathers, who for me are compromised as much for being politicians as for being slave owners. But for those who care (like my in-laws), the point remains the same. The racist acts of Jefferson and Washington are context for their contributions to American society; they are not the substance of it.
Therein lies the distinction between Lee/Jackson and Jefferson/Washington, one that protesters should keep in mind–if rational deliberation and protest could ever effectively be married. If not for the sake of logical consistency, they should be mindful of it for the sake of optics. They are actively undoing the good work that is happening around countless kitchen tables, as those of us who are not in the streets try to pry open the minds of the very people the protests most need to enlighten.
As I mulled this in recent weeks, I held off committing my thoughts to writing waiting to hear back on an issue that is closer to home and about which I care more (if only marginally). At the start of these protests, students at my alma mater, Harding University, began to circulate a petition to rename the main auditorium on campus. The auditorium is currently named after George Benson, who petitioners complained had vocally and actively resisted the desegregation of Harding. They proposed a timely alternative namesake: Botham Jean, the Harding alumnus who was murdered in his home in 2018 by an off-duty police officer. (In case the pattern wasn’t clear in US history yet: he was black, she is white.)
In casual debates with other alumni I tried to press the above point. Benson was a flawed human being and a product of his times, but his significance for the Harding community is not his role in the process of desegregation (though he did eventually oversee Harding’s desegregation while president). Botham Jean deserves to be memorialized, for no reason more so than the role his tragic death played in waking Harding up to its own past and present issues with racial justice. But it didn’t need to be an either-or proposition. Benson and Jean are equally a part of Harding’s legacy, and that means it is okay to celebrate Benson in spite of his role in that legacy at the same time we celebrate Jean because of his.
A few days ago, Harding made this their official stance with a message that I believe shows the wisdom of a thoughtful Christian approach to this issue and contrasts favorably with the hot will of some aimless activism, in and outside the church. The full message can be read here, but what follows gives a clear sense that Donatism will not hold sway on Harding’s campus and that Benson’s acts of righteousness will not be undone by his capitulation to the oppressive systems of his time.
The name of George S. Benson will remain on the auditorium that now bears his name. Rather than remove his name, the University needs to tell the more complete story of Dr. Benson – both the high points and the low points, the inspiring and the painful – his childhood on the Oklahoma frontier, his graduation in Harding’s inaugural year, his mission work in China, his establishment of the Canton Bible School, his 29-year tenure as Harding’s second president, his landmark testimony before the Congress of the United States in the 1940s, his resistance to integration in the 1950s, his integration of Harding in 1963, his fundraising for numerous Christian colleges, his work in establishing the George S. Benson Teachers College in Zambia during the concluding decades of his life, and the numerous students who came to Harding from around the world as a result of this work. We need to tell the larger, complicated, multi-faceted story of this national icon that the Harding family knows as “Dr. Benson.”
We recognized a major oversight as a result of the recent discussions. Today, we are embarrassed that African-Americans were not welcomed as students at Harding until 1963. I confess to now being embarrassed that even though African-Americans have been an important part of the Harding community since 1963, there are no buildings or landmarks that celebrate any of those alumni who have made such a contribution to our University family. That must change.
What follows is a passage from a 1943 educational pamphlet produced by several faculty at Columbia University on behalf of the American Association of Scientific Workers. I won’t pretend that what follows hasn’t been pieced together in such a way as to minimize any indignation that our present standards of judgment would visit on an eighty year old text about race, but the point of presenting it here is not to highlight how progressive the author’s were in the 1940s but to highlight how backward we are in the 2020s. In the end, this was a text designed to teach a confused people that all races were one people, that we shared the same blood and biological parentage, and that race (the hard lines between “colors”) was a myth. We’re still in need of those lessons:
Our country would be poorer in every phase of its culture if different cultures had not come together here, sharing and learning the special contributions each had to offer. NEVERTHELESS there is race prejudice in America and in the world. Race prejudice isn’t an old universal “instinct.” It is hardly a hundred years old….The twenty-first century may well look back on our generation and be just as horrified. If that century builds its way of life on the Atlantic Charter—for the whole world—our era will seem a nightmare from which they have awakened. They will think we were crazy. “Why should race prejudice have swept the western world,” they will say, “where no nation was any thing but a mixture of all kinds of racial groups? Why did nations just at that moment begin talking about ‘the racial purity’ of their blood? Why did they talk of their wars as racial wars? Why did they make people suffer, not because they were criminals or double-crossers, but because they were Jews or Negroes or non-Nordic?” We who are living in these troubled times can tell them why.…Conflict grows fat on fear. And the slogans against “inferior races” lead us to pick on them as scapegoats. We pin on them the reason for all our fears.
Freedom from fear is the way to cure race prejudice. When aggressions like those of the Axis are made impossible by guarantees of collective security, those guarantees must cover countries of all races. Then Nazi race tactics will be outmoded. In any country every legal decision that upholds equal citizenship rights without regard to race or color, every labor decision that lessens the terror of being “laid off” and gives a man self-respect in his employment, every arrangement that secures the little farmer against losing his acres to the bank—all these and many more can free people from fear. They need not look for scapegoats.
The tragedy, or the irony, of course is that the twenty first century cannot look back with any meaningful judgment on the 1940s. We have our own heirs to Nazi racial theories today, and they hide in plain sight, if at all. We should match the full measure of their hope in us as twenty-first century peoples with an equal measure of shame at how much we still need to be reminded that diversity makes us stronger, that racial purity and division are disastrous myths of our own making, or that treating each person with justice redounds to the benefit of us all.
As I write this, news is just breaking about how a protest in Albuquerque, NM escalated into violence, with a member of a civilian militia shooting a protestor. Presumably information more reliable than what is available now will be trickling out in the days and weeks to come. It will be drowned out by other stories, other confrontations, other tragedies. I’ve forgotten what everyone was appalled by yesterday. I can’t imagine what it will be tomorrow. It is clear though that everyone is appalled. The right is appalled that police stood by while protesters committed planned and coordinated acts of vandalism against a public statue. The left is appalled that the statue of Juan de Oñate–a convicted war criminal (and that’s by 17th century standards)–has been allowed to exist for so long and now to be protected by armed civilians with assault rifles. Americans are more united than ever in their divergent outrages.
I’m appalled to, but I confess that for the last several days I have mostly been appalled by the way that the idea of “peaceful protest” continues to be wielded like a cudgel against demonstrators or, alternatively, held up by them as a shield. The racial dimensions of “rioting” are already reasonably well understood, but it’s not always clear how its seemingly complimentary counterpart suffers from the same flaws. If you listen at all closely, there is a sacred reverence that Americans seem to have for peaceful protest, but only when we’re talking about protests post-1945. By black people. For civil rights. It’s a phrase that gets trotted out only when protests cease to be peaceful as a way to shame demonstrators not living up to a ever-shifting standard of right resistance. The valorization of “peaceful protest” is rooted in the same racist discourse that creeps out every time someone kneels (but it’s the wrong way to protest) or puts up a fist (but it’s the wrong way to protest). We (by which I mean white people) lionize violent protests for less noble and, at times, positively ignoble causes as long as they are being performed by white people in the service of advancing our history.
As an educator who overwhelming teaches US history (lately) I have a mandate to celebrate those violent protests. In a variety of the side jobs I do in the summer between terms, I have been deep in the history of the American War for Independence, and I cannot sustain any longer the cognitive dissonance of going to work in the day to teach about the noble protest of the Founding Fathers and coming home at night to hear about how the failure of protesters to remain wholly peaceful betrays or undermines their cause. Let me give you a quick refresher on what you learned in school (and what I, at least in the summers when I don’t have control over my curriculum, still teach in school):
In order to protest taxes, the revolutionary generation wrote letters, gave speeches, assembled in the streets and town squares, and called together congresses to coordinate responses. And the British ignored it.
In order to protest taxes, the revolutionary generation burned and hanged their political leaders in effigy. These events were memorialized and celebrated in the media. And the British ignored it.
In order to protest taxes, the revolutionary generation harassed government officials, burned down their homes (often without checking or caring who was inside), and assaulted them with hot tar and feathers. And the British paid a little more attention.
In order to protest taxes, the revolutionary generation assaulted the law enforcement officials sent to protect government workers. They threw snowballs, rocks, and other debris at them. When the soldiers fired in a panic, their attack on less than peaceful protestors was memorialized as a “massacre.”
In order to protest taxes, the revolutionary generation destroyed private property of private companies (and did it while disguised, not with masks but with racial costumes). And the British got mad.
In order to protest taxes, the revolutionary generation fired upon military personnel in the lawful performance of their duty and celebrated it, quite grandiosely as a world altering “shot.” And the British decided to send in the military, dominate the battle space (as it were).
Finally, in order to protest taxes, the revolutionary generation set up autonomous zones free from oversight by their lawful government, first in Massachusetts and then in the remaining thirteen colonies, run by deliberately decentralized structures of authority.
That should all be very familiar to you. If not, as we rush headlong toward a very tense birthday season for America, it may be time to brush up on your favorite revolutionary moments: the Boston Massacre, the Boston Tea Party, Lexington and Concord, the Declaration of Independence, and so on. This country loves its violent protests, as long as it is white people protesting for the right to remit less of their income to their lawful government. Don’t ever forget that the protesting, the looting, the assault, and the rebellion was all over taxes, specifically the mechanism by which taxes would be levied (viz., never without “representation”).
We shouldn’t need to dwell on that subset of those most angry about the inadequate peacefulness of the current protests–the Confederate flag waving, Lee and Davis monument protecting bunch. The absurdity of being outraged by violent protests that are trying to tear down statues of those who are famous for violently protesting–for arguably the most indefensible of reasons–is too much to sustain.
The real issue for me, the one I just can’t shake, is how can we teach our children to worship heroes who protested in the most unacceptable ways to achieve greater control over their tax code and yet descend into self-righteous tsking at people protesting for their lives, for the right to exist in normal ways without fear, for the freedom from tyranny that the Founding Fathers so gloriously wrapped their tax revolt up in.
I’ll never advocate for violent protest, but I also repudiate the War for Independence as much as I do the CHAZ in Seattle. I usually celebrate the Fourth of July by leaving the country (meaning this year I’ll just have to put in headphones and try to forget). For the rest of you though, if you intend to celebrate this country’s primordial violent protest on Independence Day, you better be prepared to celebrate the current protests in the meantime because these protesters stand squarely in what is arguably the proudest tradition of American heritage, the protest against an oppressive state. If you cannot support that, I encourage you to ask yourself who you are in this latter day revolutionary reenactment. If you are standing on the side of private property, of government officials, of law enforcement, of the military, and of those who would quash protest with state violence, you’re George III. Turn in your flag pin and your bald eagle tank top and head north like the Loyalists of the eighteenth century. Maybe Canada will have you.
As I write this, there are whispers that the protests sparked by the death of George Floyd are beginning to ebb, though they very much continue to dominate the headlines. There is a part of me that is encouraged by how long they have already lasted and saddened if they really are winding down. Thankfully, there has also been increased attention to the various ways that people can remain engaged in the processes of racial healing, reconciliation, and justice even as the anger of this moment subsides. Those tactics best suited for achieving structural reform–like civil disobedience and voting (especially in municipal, county, and state elections)–are beyond the scope of regular or appropriate Christian behavior from my perspective. There has been, however, a parallel push to recognize the significance of the work done by those who are revisiting or for the first time engaging in critical self-reflection, education, and productive dialogue with members either of their own community or of other races. Christians can embrace these activities alongside and as productive of vocal advocacy, community outreach, and charitable giving.
To that end, I’d like to offer (and commit to update periodically) the following list of resources for self-education and discussion. What follows is overwhelmingly drawn from materials I use in my US and World history courses to engage my students on questions of black history and race (specifically as it applies to the African diaspora). Anyone looking for an introduction to the history of African Americans in this country, particularly those who feel under-informed by their high school or college educations, should commit to reading and watching as much as they can in an effort to understand what is truly a massive and complex problem in American history and contemporary society.
What follows is divided up based on the kind of source and arranged within as near to chronologically as possible.
This list is incomplete (and likely always will be), but I am resolved to update it as I encounter new generally accessible resources and as I modify or expand the materials I assign to my students. If anyone has suggestions or comments, they are most welcome. However concentrated my effort to teach the significance of slavery, race, white supremacy, and civil rights for American and world history, none of these is a field of special expertise to me (at least not in this context). I am always grateful to be educated.
In a comparatively rare move, I invoked Martin Luther King Jr. in my previous post, whose comments on violence both help to explain the violent responses to racial oppression and police brutality that we are seeing now and serve as a warning to choose a higher path. In conjunction with a coincidentally timed discussion I’m having with my students right now about the riots that followed King’s assassination, I wanted to share here a longer version of a quote I shared with them, excerpted from King’s speech to the Southern Christian Leadership Conference in 1967, less than a year before his death:
Now what has happened is that we’ve had it wrong and mixed up in our country, and this has led Negro Americans in the past to seek their goals through love and moral suasion devoid of power, and white Americans to seek their goals through power devoid of love and conscience. It is leading a few extremists today to advocate for Negroes the same destructive and conscienceless power that they have justly abhorred in whites. It is precisely this collision of immoral power with powerless morality which constitutes the major crisis of our times.
I’m concerned about a better world. I’m concerned about justice; I’m concerned about brotherhood; I’m concerned about truth. And when one is concerned about that, he can never advocate violence. For through violence you may murder a murderer, but you can’t murder murder. Through violence you may murder a liar, but you can’t establish truth. Through violence you may murder a hater, but you can’t murder hate through violence. Darkness cannot put out darkness; only light can do that.
And I say to you, I have also decided to stick with love, for I know that love is ultimately the only answer to mankind’s problems….And I’m not talking about emotional bosh when I talk about love; I’m talking about a strong, demanding love. For I have seen too much hate.
When I invoke love, peace, and self-sacrifice as the only Christian path through the darkness, it is this kind of love I have in mind. A love that demands something of the beloved–the way that God love does for us. A peace that is more than mere artifice but is rooted in a proleptic experience of divine justice. A self-sacrifice, not of quiet resignation, but salvific on behalf of the other as Jesus modeled for us. Now is the moment for Christians to develop a robust response to the trials of our time because white churches cannot afford to continue to stand by in flat-footed ignorance and indecision waiting for the judgments of God and history. Something more is required.
Violence is the language of the state, and the state should not be surprised when, after hearing it for generations, the people become bilingual. This is not an endorsement of the destructive and violent protests that have erupted in major cities across the country this week. It is an observation. Righteous outrage is everywhere overflowing in decidedly unrighteous ways—in Louisville over the murder of Breonna Taylor, in Atlanta over the murder of Ahmaud Arbery, and in Minneapolis over the murder of George Floyd, not to mention elsewhere in solidarity—but there are no clean hands here. The party of law and order needs to understand that the liberal use of violence to enforce the social order invites the parallel use of violence to secure the liberty of those oppressed by that social order. It doesn’t matter that violence cannot secure liberty. It matters only that the state has taught the people the language of violence, and even if they don’t speak it as fluently as the police or the national guard, people will gladly take their pidgin version into the streets until they feel heard or until there is no one left to hear them.
Yet, as Jesus told Peter in the garden and as Martin Luther King Jr. told an earlier generation of protesters, violence can only ever beget violence. Racism is not the sole—or even the greatest—disease. It is a comorbidity. There is a more primordial sin that can be addressed only through love, through peace, through self-sacrifice. May God help Christians find a way forward through these alone.
Colorado’s governor, Jared Polis, took a bold stand this morning on Fox News Sunday with Chris Wallace: the presence of teachers in classrooms is irrelevant to student learning. The point came in the context of a question from Wallace about students falling behind grade level as a result of the crisis. It seems like that should have been a softball question. Teachers are concerned about it. Parents are concerned about it. The governor just had to say he was concerned about it and promise to use the full force of his office to ensure students succeed. You know, standard political pablum. Here’s what we got instead, according to Politico:
Pressed by Wallace on whether children will face setbacks in their educational attainment due to this spring’s abrupt transition to remote learning, Polis said: “There’s really no excuses in the business of education.”
“I made that very clear to our superintendents, I hope other governors across the nation are doing that,” he added. “You need that social side, right, and it’s a little bit harder to get that social side in an online setting. But academically, there are no excuses for every kid not to be able to accomplish their grade-level work.”
Polis, in other words, is confident that the physical presence of students and teachers in the classroom should have no bearing on academics. Sure, there is whatever the “social side” is, but that’s clearly less important than academics, irrelevant to learning.
I didn’t know much of anything about Polis this morning, and I clicked on the article nor for him specifically but to hear general perspectives on plans for the fall, which is an understandably hot topic in this particular household of educators. I like most of what Polis had to say early in his interview and was heartened thinking about my family in Colorado with elementary school children. But for a Democrat and a former member of the state board of education, this was a pretty appalling position to be taking–even on Fox News.
I sought out the full interview hoping for some redeeming context, but the context only seemed to make it worse (even if you don’t watch far enough to see the objectively unsettling explanation for why hundreds of Coloradans who died with COVID-19 as a contributing factor have been purged from the rolls of those who died of COVID-19). In the full version, Polis insists that students can universally “learn as well as better online” (which may be true, provided “as well as better” is the standard). He goes on to taut those “few percentage” of students who were online learning even before the pandemic.
All of this raises the question for me, if students are learning just as well online, why worry about thecostly overhead of school buildings, maintenance staff, teachers trained in curriculum design (rather than curriculum facilitators, which is what online school teachers often do), nurses, school resource officers, and administrative or disciplinary staff. The answer, taken again from the broader context in the rest of the interview, is that physical public schools serve as free day care for parents so they can work. Polis knows that schools being open is necessary for parents to be working, making money, and spending money in his state. Kids need to be in school not so they can learn but so that Mommy and Daddy can have money for Broncos games. (I’m beginning to despair of the Rockies, etc., playing in the foreseeable future).
There’s a truth to that–the kind of truth you expect to hear from an economist much more than an elected public official–but it comes with the attendant truth that the whole educational apparatus of public schools is for something other than learning. So there is the message to you teachers, straight from the governor’s mouth: your primary function in the classroom is not really academics. It’s economics. Teachers often feel like glorified babysitters, but I’m not sure if it is reassuring or insulting to hear Polis confirm it publicly and with a proud smile. In either case, at least Colorado teachers know where they stand now.