“Woke” to a New Reformation: The Razor’s Edge of “Identity Politics” as the Way to “Truth and Reconciliation”

Woke is a political term of African American origin that refers to a perceived awareness of issues concerning social justice and racial justice. It is derived from the African American Vernacular English expression “stay woke,” whose grammatical aspect refers to a continuing awareness of these issues. Its widespread use since 2014 is a result of the Black Lives Matter movement. — Wikipedia, “Woke”

For Lent 1B in 2018 I began a regular feature at my website titled “Elements of a New Reformation.” The idea of this feature is not just a new call to reform the church but to be “woke” to the New Reformation that’s already underway. I believe the term “woke” to be appropriate here because it is movements like Black Lives Matter in which I see the New Reformation to be be underway. Unfortunately, the church, still slowly waking up from its collusion in Christendom, is not a leader of the New Reformation; it has been a follower in some quarters and still an obstructionist in many others.

In July I began a regular preaching stint again as an interim pastor. The Second Reading that day was Ephesians 2:11-22 (Proper 11B) — the perfect text on which to begin preaching on the theme of New Reformation. Combined with Ephesians 2:8-10 it is easy to see where the Reformation failed. The latter was right to emphasize grace in passages like 2:8-10, but then it not only missed the point of grace in the verses to follow (after the “therefore” in 2:11) but proceeded to make matters worse. (For more on Eph. 2 and healing tribalism, see my recent blog “Healing Tribalism.”)

‘Creating one new humanity out of the two’ (Eph. 2:15). This is what the New Reformation must be about. In the language of our current moment in history, it is about God’s spirit working in the world to heal tribalism. The Reformation ended up multiplying the tribes by which human beings lived out their tribalism. I’m sure that was not the aim but it was the result. Why?

I think that much depends on the razor’s edge of what today is called “identity politics.” The online Merriam-Webster dictionary offers a helpful definition:

politics in which groups of people having a particular racial, religious, ethnic, social, or cultural identity tend to promote their own specific interests or concerns without regard to the interests or concerns of any larger political group

What I’m calling the razor’s edge of identity politics is that a first step essential to healing tribalism is to be ‘woke’ to how identities are malformed in history that structurally favor one group over another in a society’s institutions and culture. In short, some form of identity politics is necessary and good. But the razor’s edge is to fall off to one side or the other. One side is to lose the larger aim of “the interests and concerns of any larger political group” — what is sometimes called the “common good.” This is what is most often referred to pejoratively as “identity politics.”

Take the Black Lives Matter movement as an example. Black Lives Matter can sometimes fall short of the razor’s edge if it misses the longer-term aim of lifting everyone toward the common good by instead pitting black lives against white lives. It becomes another entrenchment of tribalism.

But I would propose that falling off on the other side of the razor’s is actually much more often the case — namely, by refusing to recognize the positive side of identity politics — in this case, that black lives have mattered less than white lives in the historical structures of a White Supremacist culture. Healing of this centuries-long tribalism cannot begin to happen without being woke to a proper diagnosis. The most common outcome to conversations about race continues to be the label of “identity politics” as a justification to not have the conversation about race at all, thus falling short of reaching an historical diagnosis which might lead to genuine healing.

One of the places that I see New Reformation happening in our world is in South Africa. Like all reform movements it has certainly come with it ups and downs. On the positive side is the effort at “Truth and Reconciliation.” The very name implies that one cannot come without the other. We cannot get to reconciliation without some form of telling the truth of the disease of tribalism in need of healing. Sometimes, the overall aim is reconciliation, but the efforts at truth-telling are too quickly labeled as “identity politics” and then used as a justification to short-circuit truth-telling and move straight to reconciliation. For my part, I most often experience the cry of “identity politics” in this obstructionist sense of thinking we can move to reconciliation without truth-telling. Conversely, I most often experience movements like Black Lives Matter as a means of truth-telling on the way to any hopes for reconciliation. If Black Lives Matter is “identity politics,” then it is so in the positive step toward striving toward the interests and concerns of the larger political group. It is a striving toward the common good of reconciliation, of healing the tribalism that has become known as White Supremacy.

Theologically, the cry of “identity politics” as obstruction to truth-telling is akin to thinking we can have the forgiveness and reconciliation of resurrection without going through the painful truth of the cross. Anthropologically, especially in light of Mimetic Theory, it is akin to thinking we can move beyond the deeply embedded effects of the Scapegoat Mechanism without any solidarity with the victims who are the product of that mechanism. What has been the truth of structuring human community founded on losers and winners, on those sacrificed and those who carry out the sacrifice? Too quickly labeling prophetic justice movements as “identity politics” means remaining largely blind to the mechanism at the foundation of all our human worlds, which the cross and resurrection is revealing under the continuing work of the Paraclete.

In Mimetic Theory, James Alison has called this element of curing the blindness of the dominant viewpoint of a culture the “intelligence of the victim” (in many of his books, beginning with the first, Knowing Jesus); and Andrew McKenna the “epistemological privilege of the victim” (Violence and Difference). Here I’m suggesting that it’s simply the positive form, or the razor’s edge, of what is so often (too quickly) labeled as “identity politics.”

This raises a matter of disagreement between myself and my mentor, René Girard, when he commented in several places on “identity politics” (primarily the interview books When These Things Begin and The One by Whom Scandal Comes). He certainly has some truthful things to say about “identity politics” in the form of falling off on the one side of the razor’s edge into increased mimetic conflict between groups. But here’s the problem I’ve encountered with those remarks in my own work: Girard never made substantial comments on the razor’s edge of identity politics in the positive sense of diagnosing the institutional, systemic, and cultural embeddedness of the Scapegoat Mechanism in the isms of our time — racism, sexism, capitalism, etc. So I believe Girard left the door open to falling off the razor’s edge on the other side: calling something “identity politics” and then never getting around to the deeper truth-telling required for reconciliation, for healing the tribalism hidden since the foundation of the world. Antiracism work, for example, is not “identity politics” in the pejorative sense when it remains focused on the goal of healing racism for the common good. Yet the necessary first step is to provide a diagnosis of the problem which is too often hastily labeled as “identity politics” — as a justification for trying to get to reconciliation before there has been genuine truth-telling. I fervently believe that the most urgent need in furthering Mimetic Theory is precisely to help shed light on the manifestations of the Scapegoat Mechanism which continue in this world through things like racism, sexism, militarism, and economic injustice.

The greatest gift to me as a student of Mimetic Theory, and as a practitioner of peacemaking based upon it, has been the slow, gradual curing of my blindness (still ongoing!) as a educated white male in Euro-American white culture. It has opened me to listen to those who are oppressed in our culture. The analysis of the Scapegoat Mechanism as embedding sacrificial thinking and practices into a culture has made it easier for me to hear and understand movements like Black Lives Matter and inclusive language for gender. It inspires and motivates me to participate in things like the Poor People’s Campaign and ongoing antiracism work. These are the kind of movements which I experience as New Reformation — a sort of ‘virtual church’ of which the institutional church is now sometimes a follower.

Such work has increasingly become the work of Theology and Peace in recent years as we are now building a partnership with the American Bible College to live into Beloved Community. Please consider joining us in 2019 for “Beloved Community as the Way from Scapegoating to Ubuntu.”

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