The Gospel According to Ta-Nehisi Coates: Part 5, Guilt, Grace and the Powers

There is very little in Ta-Nehisi Coates's Between the World and Me about "racial reconciliation" or forgiveness. Given the history of oppression, exploitation and plunder it's not black America's job to extend that olive branch.

And yet, here and there in Between the World and Me Coates talks about issues of guilt and forgiveness in ways that do connect with Christian theology.

In the wake of the deaths that have rocked the nation--from Trayvon Martin to Michael Brown to Eric Garner--America has tended to approach and react to each incident as a moral drama. And the focus in this moral drama, as it plays out on social media and cable TV, is to debate and determine who was right and who was wrong. Who was at fault? Consequently, everyone rushes to pick sides and locks onto the parts of the emerging narrative that confirm how we'd like to assign blame, guilt and responsibility.

Who was to blame in Ferguson a year ago? Darren Wilson or Michael Brown? We enter the moral drama playing out on social media and cable TV to debate and assign the blame.     

According to Coates, framing these incidents as isolated moral dramas taking place between two persons is a profound missing of the point. These aren't moral dramas or theaters of virtue. These deaths are, rather, the predictable outworking of a system that places black bodies at greater risk. To focus on who should have done this or shouldn't have done that in the drama--to debate who was more at fault--misses the heart of the issue, the systemic and structural forces at work in the background.

Coates is willing to admit that black persons make mistakes in these incidents. As we noted in Part 4, Coates tells his son that he will make mistakes (p. 95):
But you are human and you will make mistakes. You will misjudge. You will yell...Not all of us can always be Jackie Robinson--not even Jackie Robinson was always like Jackie Robinson. 
This is the same point I made in my recent post "Black Heroism and White Sympathy." Our empathy in these incidents cannot be contingent upon the innocence and heroic saintliness of the victim. That's an impossible standard. Not even Jackie Robinson was always like Jackie Robinson. 

So Coates is willing to admit error on the black side of the ledger. His outrage doesn't require the innocence of the victim. Because the guilt or innocence of the victim is missing the point. Coates writes (p. 131):
Michael Brown did not die as so many of his defenders supposed. And still the questions behind the questions are never asked. Should assaulting an officer of the state be a capital offense, rendered without trial, with the officer as judge and executioner? It that what we wish civilization to be?
Some readers may want to debate that question, but I'm bringing it to your attention to show how Coates deflects attention away from the moral drama toward the systemic and structural background.

And if Coates marginalizes the guilt of the victim he also does this for the police officer. Blaming the police officer as a rouge actor, like blaming the victim, is missing the point.

Which brings us to the observation I want to make about guilt and forgiveness, a point I made last year in my post "More Than Three Minutes: Resistance and Grace in Ferguson."

Because the guilt of the police officer isn't the critical issue there is no pressing need to forgive the police officer. Why? Because forgiving (or not forgiving) the police officer doesn't change the system. Again, the issue isn't moral, it's systemic.

For Coates, to focus on forgiveness is to keep our attention fixated on the moral drama. Our attention should, rather, move away from the guilt or innocence of the actors in the drama to focus on the social forces that regularly produce these lethal outcomes. Our attention should be upon those social forces and fixing them.

In reflecting upon the death of his friend Prince Jones, who in 2000 was shot by a police officer sixteen times, Coates writes (p. 78):
I know that I have always felt great distance from the grieving rituals of my people, and I must have felt it powerfully then. The need to forgive the officer would not have moved me, because even then, in some inchoate form, I knew that Prince was not killed by a single officer so much as he was murdered by his country and all the fears that have marked it from birth.
As Coates goes on to describe, the shootings and deaths that have unsettled the nation are not the product of a few bad police officers but the outworking of policies that reflect the democratic will of America:
At this moment the phrase “police reform” has come into vogue, and the actions of our publicly appointed guardians have attracted attention presidential and pedestrian. You may have heard the talk of diversity, sensitivity training and body cameras. These are all fine and applicable, but they understate the task and allow the citizens of this country to pretend there is real distance between their own attitudes and those of the ones appointed to protect them. The truth is that the police reflect America in all of its will and fear, and whatever we might make of this country’s criminal justice policy, it cannot be said that it was imposed by a repressive minority. The abuses that have followed from these policies—the sprawling carceral state, the random detention of black people, the torture of suspects—are the product of democratic will. 
The problem isn't with the guilt or innocence of the police officer. Or the victim. The problem is with the democratic will that creates policies that produce these lethal outcomes, along will a collective unwillingness to confess that connection (the "apparatus of innocence" we discussed in Part 3).

Our job, to bring us to the theological point I want to make, is to reckon with how America focuses on the sins of the actors to persistently overlook our collective sins and how those sins bring into existence and orchestrate these lethal encounters. 

When a police officer and a black teen make contact in a ghetto in America--as two deeply flawed human beings--there is a long, long backstory that tips that encounter--and plays upon their personal flaws--toward fear, suspicion and lethality. And to focus on the moral drama of the officer and the teenager--to focus on their mutual flaws--is to miss how the nation is complicit in tipping that encounter toward death. For over two centuries that encounter has been flowing, inexorably and predictably, toward tragedy.

In Ephesians 6 St. Paul says that our battle is not against flesh and blood but against the principalities and powers, against forces of wickedness in high places. This shifts our focus away from flesh and blood to place judgment upon the principalities and powers, similar to what Coates does in Between the World and Me. Such a shift looks past the moral failures of individuals to focus on systemic and structural sins. Which creates room for a more gracious response to the actors in the drama, grace for the mistakes made on both sides.

But the price of that grace is a much harsher indictment of our collective sins. And that is a price we're not willing to pay.

We'd much rather blame and scapegoat the actors of the moral drama. Laying upon them the sins of us all.

Part 6

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