Race and Storytelling: Uplift vs. Creation

Race is a mathematical discontinuity. We have drawn a solution-line for our social equations, and we have an approximation for every point along that line -- but when we get to actually solving the equations for the real world, we find that at every point the value we think there should be ... simply isn't there. Instead, we get this vertical line running from positive to negative infinity, with a white line stretching asymptotically upward toward the "good life," and a black line stretching asymptotically downward toward a bad death.

Oh, and the folks on those lines are every color, every "race" and ethnicity -- but the lines themselves are a white and a black norm. Star Jones and "Skip" Gates and Barack Obama get pretty high up on the white line of privilege and power, closer on that asymptotic approach to that impossible bar that conveys power and privilege without question. And yet not high enough -- Gates gets arrested like any black man. Jones can talk about a post-racial society because of her social power and privilege, But the white folks who can pass without any questions -- who have been passing since day one -- as a society will just as quickly see them on that black line pointing asymptotically downward. Prosperity preaching, even when it comes from Herman Cain in a wholly secular economic context, and even and especially when it comes from Ron Paul, attempts to erase that downward asymptotic curve toward death by declaring that the real line is an upward slope from wherever you are to the heights of power and privilege, and all you have to do is climb. (However you want to define "climbing".) Which is simply to say that everyone belongs somewhere on that white upward line, conforming to power or failing. Even charitable schemes belong, so often, to this parable of uplift.

But what is the creation mythology, really? What do the exilic people Israel tell themselves? Do they believe that the Roman gods, the Egyptian gods, the Persian gods, the Assyrian gods -- are God? Oh, some do, and take their place in the social climbing where they are. But the people in their dominant story in exile tell themselves into a very different story of the world. Their God has gone with them, out of the land into the world. They remain a people of a god, a people whose God cares for them and refuses to give them up even in punishment for injustice and apostasy. An integral, separated and selected people, in whom the goodness of the world is being restored, who belong to the order of God's goodness and therefore the goodness that truly is, under the world's corruption. Who belong to the order of original goodness that may be obscured by sin in the world, but which is being restored even today, and will come again in full glory, as God achieves the inbreaking restorative and redemptive work in which the people are caught up.

There is a difference, and that difference is as much as to say that God is with, rather than above. That we aim toward wholeness and integrity where God is -- and God is working that among the people, or we are left to work it for ourselves toward God.

Addendum: the ordo salutis is deeply connected to this concept of "uplift" stories. There is an advantage to "creation" stories in which salvation is achieved as God's prior "Yes" tending to God's ultimate "Yes," and in which the realm of activity is communal ethics. These stand opposed to "upwardly mobile" stories in which salvation is set within a process as an achievement (again, however "achievement" is conceived), and in which the realm of activity is always therefore climbing toward salvation, even if we conceive of God as the agent of our climbing.


  1. You should read "Death And Life": An American Theology" by Arthur C. McGill (if you haven't). The themes he develops resonate quite well with what you're getting at here. The first half of the book sketches what he calls the "Bronze People," which would fit into your "upwardly mobile" category. The second half of the book is its juxtaposition through developing The Gospel of John's Theology of Glory and the ecstatic life that is received through death to self in Christ.

    Anyway, great post; I like it!


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