12.12.13

What Are We Going to Do with Our “Crazy Confederate Uncles”?

I hate to say my uncle “Sonny” was my favorite uncle growing up. I hate to say it because all my uncles were great dudes. Uncle “Whimp” was the coolest. Had that deep lean and one-open-hand steering thang down in those big hoopties he used to drive. Uncle “Topper” was the most generous. Every Friday, when the eagle flies, he’d bring me home a bag of Sweet Sixteen doughnuts. My lips and cheeks would be white for a week eating those things!

But uncle “Sonny,” or “Sonny Boy” as my grandmother called him, was different. He was and is schizophrenic. He had his own room at the back of my grandmother’s house. The door was almost always closed and no one except my grandmother went into this room. But even she did so with palpable hesitation. My uncle Sonny came and went as he pleased. Since his room was near the back of the house, the back door was almost a private entrance. Many days I watched him, heavy winter coat in North Carolina’s humid August, walk the streets of my hometown, sometimes talking to himself, sometimes tipsy, and always alone.

Uncle Sonny was and is gentle—except when you try to make him do something he doesn’t want to do. Then he’s the strongest man in the world. I’ve watched him toss my two other uncles and a brother (all big men) like rag dolls whenever they’d try to cut his hair or get him to bathe before a doctor’s visit. It would begin with a kind of intervention. The men in the family would show up and give a strong lecture. Sonny would mostly ignore them until he got impatient. Then in a voice loaded with resolution he’d say, “I’m not telling you again. I’m not going to the doctor.” By this time he’d normally be cornered and the attempt to walk away would end in lots of wrestling, scuffling, “Hold his arms!” and my mama’s knick-knacks getting knocked over. Sonny was never hurt. Usually the other guys walked away with scrapes and bruises. In the end, he’d have his haircut, take his bath, and see his doctor.

“Uncle Sonny was and is gentle—except when you try to…”

As a boy, when I asked about uncle Sonny, adults would basically say, “He ain’t quite right.” No one knew the term “schizophrenic” or what to do. So we just managed around him. Tried to keep him from hurting himself or others and included him as much as we could. Because he never bothered anyone, we fought to make sure nobody bothered him. I think all of my family has a story about fighting or standing up for uncle Sonny because someone tried to hurt him in some way. After all, he was family—whether he was “not quite right” or not.

There are several points I suppose I could make drawing from uncle Sonny’s life. I could say something about the necessity of mental health services in the African-American community and the community taboos that still keep many from getting help. I could make a point about the role of extended family.

But this morning, following Tony’s excellent piece yesterday, I want to make a theological point, a point about theological families. It’s very simply this: Every theological family has, if you’ll permit me the term, their “crazy uncles.” The uncles who are “not quite right,” who normally keep to themselves in their own rooms and usually don’t bother anybody, but occasionally need an intervention. The family knows they’re there and wish they were better, healthier, and able to join the rest of the family in the regular routines of the tribe, but for everybody’s sake leave them in their rooms.

For us theologically reformed types, I call these folks our “crazy Confederate uncles.” Somehow they’ve managed to hold onto the old blending of southern Presbyterianism or Reformed theology and are trying desperately to keep the old world in this new one. So, they make videos and give speeches about the South being the “greatest Christian civilization” or slavery “not being that bad.” They show up with flammable comments whenever “racial issues” dominate the news, like when a South African president dies or a teenage boy is killed. And it seems that our “crazy Confederate uncles” have been out of their rooms a lot lately, talking crazy about Christian hip-hop, interacting with the town folks and leaving a lot of people aghast. Even as a family member, I’ve been pretty embarrassed and sometimes angry.

But, “They don’t know no better.”

Here’s why—at least in theological part. Our “crazy Confederate uncles” suffer from a deep split in their Christian personality inherited from the early days of the Protestant Church in America. When much of the “white Church” decided that Christian theology could be conceptually and then practically separated from Christian ethics, a kind of spiritual schizophrenia developed. Much of the “white Church” came to believe that a person could hold the “right” theological views while refusing to do the right things. So, one could be “Christian” (whether “Reformed,” Arminian, Universalist, Deist, etc.) and hold slaves, for example. One could be “Christian” and segregationist. One could be “Christian” and a racist. One could be “Christian” and insist the oppressed “fight” (a better word would be “wait”) for freedom on the terms of their oppressors. One could be “Christian” or “Reformed” or “Conservative” or “Evangelical” and oppose interracial marriage and so on.

So, in this view, one could study systematic, historical or biblical theology and give very little reflection to ethics—what to do with all that theology besides write more theology. Theology became something for the head and occasionally the heart but very seldom the hands—especially if those hands were going to be lifted to help the poor, marginalized, and oppressed.

Since the time of Lemuel Haynes (at least) and Frederick Douglass, African-Americans have recognized this as “not being quite right.” We’ve seen our brothers and sisters as “a little off.” On the underside of history and society you tend to see how belief must be married to behavior, how theology and ethics must walk hand in hand or they’re both crippled. It’s not that we don’t understand that the best of men are men and best (hence Mandela or King or Washington have their serious flaws). We’re all imperfect at living out the faith. But some inconsistencies are more glaring. Some inconsistencies amount to poor mental health, spiritually speaking. We see our uncle Sonnys and our “crazy Confederate cousins” and we recognize, as the Black Church has always recognized, that there’s a great deficiency in the very conception of Christianity held by some of our white brethren. There’s a significant and almost fatal schism in their thinking. There is the willful ignorance that manfully resists both common sense and common progress toward what’s right, just and good. That’s why our “crazy Confederate uncles” have so often and so painfully been on the wrong side of history and justice issues. They don’t have a category for justice unless it’s simply the reification of their own individualistic and culturally-centered views.

As a consequence, many in our family who see themselves as the heirs of Dabney and company find it difficult to embrace life as it really is, as it has become following centuries of hard-won victories in the cause of justice. They find it difficult to see the Bible’s repeated emphasis on justice, deliverance, and liberation without running and yelling in clinically diagnosable tones, “Liberation theology! Liberation theology!” And they suppose identifying the liberation Martians who want to put chips in everybody’s head is equivalent to keeping the faith pure and fighting for the best kind of justice while they try to roll the clock back or at least revise our view of slavery, slave owners and even the slaves themselves with rosy pictures and soothing stories.

“Every theological family has their ‘crazy uncles.'”

Meanwhile, as Tony so eloquently pointed out, Black Christians feel ourselves held at arm’s length—not just arm’s length from our crazy cousins, but from the deep truths of the Bible these cousins so adamantly insist they know and represent.

What’s the family to do?

Well, we can’t join our “crazy Confederate uncles” in their delusions. We have to remain firmly planted in reality—the Bible’s reality and the world as it really is. This means you can’t treat the uncle Sonnys of the world as though they’re actually lucid during their episodes. You can’t answer with rational argument because that only affirms their sense of being right and in their right mind when they are neither. You can’t answer the question, “Are not some cultures superior to others?” as if “cultural superiority” isn’t just another term for “white supremacy” and as if white supremacy is something other than the live-in girlfriend of racism. How can we even ask that question when we’re talking about a “society” that brutally enslaved millions of people made in God’s image unless we’re first guilty of severing theology from ethics? In dealing with such views, we must remember palatable labels for ugly ideas do not a polite conversation make. The odd moments when they are “crazy” and correct (and it does happen) can tempt us to treat them as if all their ideas and attitudes deserve our attention. But, as the cliché goes, even a broken clock is right twice a day. The wider family must refuse to join the delusion and we must refuse to give backward opinions legitimacy by debating them as if they were worthy.

Also, we sometimes have to wrestle these folks to the ground and insist they shave, get a haircut and bathe. Even the demoniac when healed by our Lord attended to the sanitary customs of the day before he sat “in his right mind” with the Lord and the others. You can’t come out the back room tossing everyone around like rag dolls and demanding to be treated as a socially respected peer. Nor can you come out of the room blasting the family and then cry “Foul!” when the family responds with the necessary sharp rebuke. We all have to “act like somebody,” as my grandmamma would say to uncle Sonny. The rest of the family must insist our “crazy Confederate uncles” stay in their rooms until they can join the family productively. And that’s why I’m glad that the Internet has also been filled with so many other family members writing so eloquently and tweeting so prolifically to oppose inappropriate statements and views.

Finally, we have to insist that the fundamental problem receive the most attention and treatment. Here’s where things get difficult for our uncles because it means they actually have to listen to and learn from people they don’t want to listen to and learn from. My uncle Sonny never wanted to visit the doctor and often refused to take his meds. But seeing the doctor and taking meds was the path to well-being, to seeing life as it really is, to joining the family more fully. Our “crazy Confederate uncles” will have to listen to some people who’ve actually thought a lot longer about the joining of theology and ethics and about what biblical justice entails across racial lines. They’ll have to visit and take some medicine from quarters of the Church they’d like to ignore but who actually hold the remedy to much of what ails them. And it’s a family responsibility to insist that they do.

I love my uncle Sonny. To this day, when he sees me he gives me a slight smile, asks me how I’m doing and whether I still live in Raleigh. I’ve not lived in Raleigh for nearly 15 years now. But he remembers Raleigh intimately. It was the home of the State mental illness hospital where he from time to time was hospitalized. It was the place name used as a threat to get him to comply with some treatment for his good. I’m sure my having lived in Raleigh gives him happier thoughts about the place, maybe even helps him conquer some painful memories. He’ll then ask me for a couple of dollars. I always refuse because I know he’ll misuse it. I love him too much to aid him in self-destruction.

When our “crazy Confederate cousins” talk as if it’s 1813 rather than 2013 we have to remind them of the dates and times. When they ask us for some currency that would further their self-destruction, in love we must refuse. Our “crazy Confederate uncles” deserve and need our love, too. I know some people will wince at making the comparison to my uncle with schizophrenia. But I’m not disparaging my uncle when I say he has schizophrenia. Nor am I disparaging our “Confederate cousins” when I compare them to my uncle who I love dearly. It’s an analogy about the patience and firmness required for dealing with people who in one way or another have lost contact with the reality most of us share. If we love this way then in time and with patient effort the family gets better. I know my Uncle Sonny has. And I pray the Father’s family gets better, too.

Thabiti Anyabwile
Thabiti Anyabwile serves as a pastor of Anacostia River Church (Washington DC). He is the happy husband of Kristie and the adoring father of two daughters and one son. Holler at him on Twitter: @ThabitiAnyabwil

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