Why Do People Say They Love God but Are Racist?
Romare Bearden, The Cardplayers, 1982
I was thinking today about religion and repression. How so?
I think there is a way in which many parents who claim to be religious - Jewish, Christian, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, Mormon, etc. - often are only religious consciously, while unconsciously they harbor a multitude of discriminations, assumptions, and judgments that would frighten the pants off any self-respecting authentically religious person. For example, think of a Christian parent - this example is endemic to the United States - who raises their child to worship Jesus Christ, yet considers the child weak or a "faggot" if they are interested in the arts, or dress differently, or doing really anything outside the box of an idea about what a person is, or should be, or how they should think, feel, live, or conduct themselves.
I think these kinds of unconscious judgments, which cloud our ability to think or see clearly, or for that matter even to love our children, our friends, our partners, our neighbors, our communities, and even in some sense our country, are themselves the result of certain misunderstandings, often of a religious kind. For example, I am Jewish, although I am interested in Christian teachings. One teaching that to my mind seems perennially misunderstood is the notion of "turning the other cheek." I do not think this means being passive if one is being bullied, nor do I think it means adopting a willingness to be sacrificed, like some kind of dozing adult Isaac. Yet it also does not mean, to my mind, choosing violence as a means of retaliating. So what does it mean? How does one respond to being bullied - whether that be because of racists, antisemites, sexists, trolls of all varieties, and just generally people who do not practice what they preach?
First, I think I should add that - again, to my mind - many Christians, because they misinterpret "turning the other cheek" as an endorsement of a kind of lazy passivity, wind up using that phrase as a means to condone their own repressions. In other words, if Jesus said we should (better yet, can) turn the other cheek, that means that I can ignore things, or be permissive, since I won't be held accountable for these things. What happens then is that people do not examine their unconscious beliefs, and then repression happens, and then things start to get weird. I see it all the time. I'll be at a cafe, and someone will walk in who is African-American, or Muslim, or Asian, and sooner or later there will be a kind of tell by someone in the room, a sense that they are uncomfortable, or suspicious, or something of that nature. Maybe they literally move to a different seat. Maybe there is something strange in their body language, or the way in which they look around the room, or seem eager to find allies to exclude the person they perceive as "other" in a negative sense. But the important thing to realize is that this is only the michigas of that person. And behind the smugness, or the feaux-confidence, is a scared child who is afraid to look at his or her own worldview, and the consequences of this worldview. In other words, a form of pride.
Culturally, I think this sense of pride comes from a feeling of losing control or being displaced. The election of Donald Trump, to my mind, was a result of this. Many white Christians, as well as many of his electorate from other religious and ethnicities, seem fearful of the diversity of our country, but rather than acknowledge this, they repress it, and then it comes out in weird ways, like encouraging children to worship Jesus and be racist at the same time. They fear they will lose their jobs; they fear they will be outclassed by Indians who are smarter, or Muslims who work harder; they fear their own identifications - with the American flag, with a certain idea about what America is or means - would be displaced by alternative narratives. But rather than own up to this fear, they hide behind it, and then exclude anyone who does not fit into the tiny area of that fear.
It is foolish to claim that people are not ethnocentric. And there is nothing wrong with loyalty, or protecting one's own, one's family. People are utterly ethnocentric, and will always be so. But the point of life to me seems to live in such a way as to widen that net in an authentic way. On the left, there was a time when we heard a lot of talk about diversity and inclusivity, especially before covid, but sometimes it felt like these words lost their meaning, and became empty shells that could be used for a kind of tepid acceptance. "Oh, you're Jewish! I accept you." I once spoke to a man at a bar who worked as an chief fireman, and he told me a story that resonated a lot. He said that he worked for years - 30, 40 years - with the same group of guys, all mostly white men. There was one man who was Black, who worked with them for all these years. After decades of work together, the Black man retired, and they held a party for him. At the party, his entire family came. The fireman said he had never met the man's family the entire time he worked there, and that when he saw the family, it was like a shock of cold water, even a sort of sobering revelation. There they were, an entire family, all Black, mothers, fathers, daughters, sons, nephews, aunts, uncles, about which none of the firemen knew anything. Dinners, lunches, children, a house, a feeling in the house, the feeling of a life, looking back out at the chief.
These things - Blackness, Jewishness, Asianness, Muslimness, Indianness - they are authentic differences. We cannot appreciate similarities until we appreciate differences, and we cannot appreciate differences if we do not know where we come from, if we do not examine the positive and negative aspects of our own cultures, autobiographies, and communities.
When we repress - when we refuse to look at the painful parts of our life, or the things we do that harm people in subtle and visceral ways - then we perpetuate the cycle of violence and leave the world the same as it's always been. We start making our children feel guilty for being themselves, nor matter who they are, regardless of the people they choose to love, the occupation they choose to have, the ideas they choose to fall in love with, the politics they choose to embrace, the life they choose to live. Why? Because we've judged ourselves first, and that means we're judging others at that exact moment. And until we stop, the judgments keep on, and people suffer, and people get killed, and people are not held accountable. In culture, tepid forms of acceptance replace actual acceptance, which is much harder to come by, and involves both forgiveness and the unwillingness to forgive, or remembering in order to forget, or forgetting in order to remember.
There are some things it is not our responsibility to forgive, just as there are some people we have to learn to tolerate, even if we cannot accept them fully if they are bullies or refuse to examine their unconscious assumptions and simply repeat them over and over again. It is a fool's errand to try and change people, and it is doubly a fool's errand to try and change people who do not change. If we work on ourselves, and become inwardly strong, I think we start to see real change happen, because it starts with us, and starting with us means changing our unconscious assumptions. When we do that, we stop repressing, because repressions are things we hide in our unconscious. When we stop repressing, we figure out ways of fighting back against the bullies without resorting to either violence or other forms of toxic sneakiness. Then we can be authentically religious, and love people for who they are, rather than who we think they "should" be.