027 Colson, Steele, Sykes

I’ve read most of Chuck Colson’s books, often recommend them to students, and I consider his latest, The Body : Being Light in Darkness, with Ellen Santilla Vaughn (Dallas: Word Publishing, c. 1992), one of his best. He’s concerned not with specific Christian churches but with the Church of Jesus Christ, and he demands that the Church be the Church! So he divides this treatise into three sections: 1) What is the Church?; 2) The Church versus the World; 3) The Church in the World.

The Church in America faces an “identity crisis,” Colson thinks. Though nearly half the people in this nation “attend” church services, few of them seem deeply transformed in the process. “The hard truth is,” he says, “that we have substituted an institutionalized religion for the life-changing dynamic of a living faith” (p. 31).

At the heart of the problem lies the understandable desire to “succeed,” to amass impressive statistics, to count in a calculating culture. In the midst of such endeavors, the Gospel slips away. For example, the fastest growing church in the world today is found in Japan. It’s called the “Perfect Liberty Church,” which declares: “we are all children of God who find The Way to eternal peace and welfare by freely exercising our individuality” (p. 39).

Now that’s the kind of a church lots of us could get into! If only we could believe it’s true! You do your thing and I’ll do my thing and we’ll all move happily heavenward! In our “narcissistic,” consumer culture, churches easily swell their crowds by appealing to “felt needs” (the desire to be happy) of individuals. Standing as a symbol for this, Denver’s Full Gospel Chapel recently changed its name to the “Happy Church,” a strategy which needs no other defense than the fact that it “draws people,” the pastor says.

Marla Maples, glued to Donald Trump’s side (and now pregnant with his child) once chatted with reporters about her religious beliefs. A bit piously, she insisted she believed in the Bible, but added, “you can’t always take [it] literally and be happy” (p. 124). So, by all means, be happy!

Reacting to such incidents, Colson says: “as alien and archaic as the idea may seem, the task of the church is not to make men and women happy, it is to make them holy” (p. 46). That’s a stiff dose of distasteful medicine, I suppose, but it’s probably what we need to hear and heed! Certainly we in the “holiness” tradition should be emboldened by Colson’s concern (especially since he usually takes a Reformed theological stance).

One of the book’s heroes, Father Maximilian Kolbe, a Polish monk who founded a Franciscan center which attracted hundreds of followers in the 1930’s, then later sacrificed his life to save another man’s in Auschwitz, challenged his brothers thusly: “‘I insist that you become saints, and great saints! Does that surprise you? But remember, my children, that holiness is not a luxury, but a simple duty. It is Jesus who told us to be perfect as our Father in heaven is perfect. So do not think it is such a difficult thing'” (p. 320). The way to do that is, Kolbe declared, quite simple: totally yield your will to God’s will.

The church seems to be most healthy, in Colson’s judgment, when believers like Kolbe must struggle to survive, where people often pay a heavy price for their faith. He provides up-to-date illustrations of this: in Romania, Timisoara’s Hungarian Reformed Church played a central role in challenging and ultimately overthrowing the tyrant Ceausescu; in Czechoslovakia, playwright Vaclav Havel spent years in prison before being elevated to the leader’s role in a liberated land; centuries earlier, launching the Reformation, Martin Luther dared stand up for his convictions.

Not all of the heroes are far away in time and space, however. In the United States, Colson praises Joe Gibbs, coach of the Washington Redskins, who in word and deed makes it clear how central Jesus is to all he does. Four days after winning the Super Bowl in 1992, Colson called Gibbs to see if one of the Redskin players could speak for a Prison Fellowship meeting. Gibbs himself volunteered!

Five hundred prisoners enthisiastically greeted Gibbs. And he told them this: “‘A lot of people in the world would probably look at me and say: “Man, if I could just coach in the Super Bowl, I’d be happy and fulfilled . . . .” But I’m here to tell you, it takes something else in your life besides money, position, football, power, and fame. The vacuum in each of our lives can only be filled through a personal relationship with our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Otherwise, I’m telling you, we’ll spend the rest of our lives in a meaningless existence. I’ve seen it in football players’ eyes, and I’ve seen in it men who are on their deathbed. There’s nothing else that will fill that vacuum'” (p. 377). Quite a testimony! That’s Colson’s notion of being salt in our society, making it clear where we stand as Christians.

Here, as in other lands, whether or not believers suffer overt persecution, wherever the Church is the Church, people like Gibbs take seriously Jesus’ call for self-sacrifice (not self-fulfillment) and live out the Gospel, whatever it costs.

This is a fine book! It contains lots of stories, appropriate for use in sermons and lectures. It focuses on a truly significant issue, the health of Christ’s Body, the Church. It’s rooted in Colson’s considerable personal contacts and remembrances of the corridors of power, as well as a familiarity with the basic theological truths central to Christianity

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Dissenters often prod us to think differently, in that they call attention to their cause, though their own course of action may not necessarily be wise to follow! In one such work, The Content of Our Character: A New Vision of Race in America (New York: St. Martin’s Press, c. 1990), Shelby Steele sets forth his “new vision,” a viewpoint at odds with the mainline civil rights establishment.

Steele, an “African-American” English professor at San Jose State University, challenges us to envision new paths for America’s racial minorities. One path he rejects is the newest exercise in political correctness, adopting a new label in the quest for self-identity. The now-in-vogue “African-American” label is, he thinks, “yet another name to the litany of the names that blacks have given themselves over the past century” (p. 47).

While understandable, “This self-conscious reaching for pride through nomenclature suggests nothing so much as a despair over the possibility of gaining the less conspicuous pride that follows real advancement. In its invocation of the glories of a remote African past and its wistful suggestion of homeland, this name denies the doubt black Americans have about their contemporary situation in America” (p. 47).

New names change nothing and will not suffice. (Incidentally, it’s academics who most strongly insist on the right labels–few American Indians prefer the name “Indian” to the “Native American” resolutely demanded by politically correct intellectuals).

What’s needed is a new way of acting, Steele says, a new (or is the old Booker T. Washington strategy?) way of taking the initiative to live creatively and well, of accepting responsibility for one’s actions, one’s successes and failures. In the 1990’s, the antiquated agenda of the 1960’s (appropriate though it was in that decade) no longer suffices. In particular, he argues, it’s time for blacks to stop blaming whites for their problems and get on with the business of personal and cultural achievement.

The book’s title, “the content of our character,” comes from a speech of Martin Luther King, Jr. “What made King the most powerful and extraordinary black leader of this century,” Steele says, “was not his race but his morality” (p. 19). What black leaders need today, he believes, is a recovery of King’s moral stance, an emphasis on integrity and responsibility rather than ethnic victimization. King’s message had power because it transcended race, binding men and women of all kinds together in a common endeavor. King’s message had power because it was, in fact, not a “black power” message.

Unfortunately, too many black leaders routinely capitalize on white America’s guilt, asking for special treatment, thereby reducing themselves and their followers to inferiors needing a helping hand. Tragically, “the price they pay for this form of ‘politics’ is to keep blacks focused on an illusion of deliverance by others, and no illusion weakens us more. Our leaders must take a risk. They must tell us the truth, tell us of the freedom and opportunity they have discovered in their own lives” (p. 174).

Steele himself represents–and seeks to speak for–the growing middle class black community. What astounds him is the persistence of racial sensitivity even in his own circles. “As a middle-class black I have often felt myself contriving to be ‘black.’ And I have noticed this same contrivance in others–a certain stretching away from the natural flow of one’s life to align oneself with a victim-focused black identity” (p. 106).

In a way, he argues, blacks choose to see themselves as inferiors, an inferiority rooted in alleged social discrimination rather than genetic factors, because it allows them to escape responsibility for competing and achieving as individuals.

Blacks lack power in America not simply because prejudice excludes them but because power comes to those who accept responsibility. “Personal responsibility is the brick and mortar of power” (p. 33). The longer a group marches to the drumbeat of a victim, even though it may elicit sympathy and applause and even reparations from the crowd, the longer it remains subservient and impotent.

This is not to excuse injustice, which abounds in America. It is to insist that despite obstacles minorities can succeed here. “Whites must guarantee a free and fair society. But blacks must be responsible for actualizing their own lives” (p. 34). Steele nowhere argues American society is fully free and fair! He’s encountered discrimination. Prejudice still stains our national life. But it must be honestly portrayed, not exaggerated as an excuse for immobility, not milked to preserve politicians’ power bases.

We need not deny the injustices of the past to admit that “when today’s black college students–who often enjoy preferential admission and many other special concessions–claim victimization, I think that it too often amounts to a recomposition of denied doubts and anxieties they are unwilling to bear” (p. 61).

Illustrating such preferential treatment, Steele cites Penn State University, which has a program which “pays black students for improving their grades–a C to C+ average brings $550, and anything more brings $1,100” (p. 90). Minority students at Stanford University seized control of the president’s office several years ago, determined to make known their grievances, among which were complaints about their inadequate financial assistance–which for some amounted to $15,000 a year!

Though he teaches in a large state university, Steele appreciates the value of small black colleges. Only 16 percent of black students enroll in them, but they graduate 37 percent of all black graduates. “Without whites around on campus, the myth of inferiority is in abeyance and, along with it, a great reservoir of culturally imposed self-doubt” (p. 136). Consequently, black students in black colleges take more responsibility for their studies, work harder, and accomplish more.

More broadly, if blacks can move beyond their “racial identity struggle” and begin to live as individuals in American society, Steele thinks this nation offers “a remarkable range of opportunity if we were willing to pursue it” (p. 168).

This book is highly personal, both in its style and its interpretations. It clearly reflects the experience of only one black man in America. Yet it’s worth reading, for it makes some important observations and offers some positive suggestions, though they do not lend themselves to political action.

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Somewhat similar in its focus, in its concern for the moral fabric of this nation, A Nation of Victims: The Decay of the American Character (New York: St Martin’s Press, c. 1992), by Charles J. Sykes, probes the increasing tendency of all sorts of groups to claim singular standing and privileges on the basis of mistreatment (to their ancestors if not themselves).

Sykes is a journalist, and he excels (evident in his earlier portrayal of higher education in America, Profscam) in the arresting illustration, the telling anecdote. He begins this book with the story of a man who stole a car from a parking lot and was killed while driving it. His family then sued the parking lot proprietor for failing to prevent such thefts! That’s “victimization” with a vengeance!

Unfortunately, Sykes thinks we’re turning into a nation of victims. For every problem we encounter, every setback we suffer, there’s surely someone to blame, and doing so makes us feel self-righteous as their victims. To some social scientists, virtually every American family is “dysfunctional,” so every child (and probably wife) is the victim of some familial disorder. “The National Anthem,” Sykes quips, “has become The Whine.”

We’re told, for example, by Yoko Ono (the late John Lennon’s wife) of all persons, that woman is “the nigger of the world” (p. 124). Shulamith Firestone, claiming to speak for fellow feminists, insists the life of suburban housewives resembles that of the victims of the Nazi Holocaust! That’s because living in a patriarchal society suffocates women. So Firestone asserts that feminists must “question not just all of Western culture, but the organization of culture itself, and further even the very organization of nature” (p. 181).

Given the fact that neither nature nor culture change simply because angry writers desire it to, feminist intellectuals urge the women of America to feel forever victimized by their sexual situation. To be a woman is to be oppressed. The media capitalizes on such feelings: half of the made-for-television movies two years ago featured women being mistreated in some fashion. Explaining this, one of the producers, Steve Krantz, said: “Though I hate the notion, it’s prototypical of women’s roles in society to see themselves as victims. So there’s a high identification factor” (p. 177).

In fact, women have dramatically advanced in American society. Educational and vocational doors have opened to women thus inclined. “One third of the MBAs are earned by women (as are one-half of the nation’s law degrees and a quarter of the medical degrees). Fully half of the entry-level management jobs are now filled by women, as are half of the officer and manager spots in the country’s top fifty banks” (p. 180).

However, such success has elicited not an increasingly secure sense of achievement but “an increasingly insistent and shrill campaign to regard women as victims, a program that seems particularly urgent to those groups that claim to speak for women and that use the victimization of women as their reason d’etre” (p. 180).

Students too have beomce “victims.” Many public schools now seek to enhance each student’s self-esteem, so low grades and critical evaluations disappear from the educational agenda. Teachers often try to avoid giving too much work or embarrassing them. One of the gurus of the 1960’s, Charles Reich, in The Greening of America, insisted that in high schools “an examination or test is a form of violence. Compulsory gym, to one embarrassed or afraid, is a form of violence.”

Indeed, “the requirement that a student must get a pass to walk in the hallways is violence” and “compulsory attendance in the classroom, compulsory studying in study hall, is violence.” As one might imagine, Reich concluded that “the amount of violence is high school is staggering” (p. 99). One wonders what Reich would say to the real violence which haunts America’s schools 30 years later!

Still more: churches encourage “growth-groups” and therapy sessions, where no one ever confesses “sin,” but everyone targets someone else for causing them grief. To confess sin, of course, is to admit responsibility for wrong, something excluded by therapeutic thinkers. For example, after a woman donned army fatigues and shot a number of people in a shopping mall, killing some of them, a Swarthmore College psychology professor, Kenneth J. Gergen, argued she was not really to blame; the crime “should not be attributed to the individual alone but to the array of relationships in which he or she is a part”–to what he calls “the complicities of daily life” (p. 145).

Schools seek to build self-esteem. Churches encourage self-esteem (what Robert Schuller called the “new reformation”). And popular psychologists amplify the message. Walt Whitman once declared: “The whole theory of the universe is directed unerringly to one single individual–namely to You.” This quotation graced the frontpiece of Wayne Dyer’s Your Erroneous Zones, one of the best-selling manifestoes of the therapeutic culture. If, in fact, you are the most important person in the world, if the universe exists simply to provide you a place in its spotlight, certainly you’re entitled to a vast (if not infinite) storehouse of pleasures and privileges. When frustrations ensue, obviously someone’s responsible for your pain. And you’re free to whine about your misfortunes!

Just as Shelby Steele insists blacks must cease looking for reasons to feel like victims, so Sykes demands that Americans forsake the victimization charade. For he agrees with Steele in arguing that when you label yourself a victim, you relinquish not only responsibility for your life but the sense of dignity which comes with living responsibly.

A Nation of Victims must be read and used with care. It is an illustration of a tendency in America which needs attention–something I’m reminded of on a daily basis just by reading the headlines. But its truth could be employed as ammunition to deny there are injustices and blame the truly wounded for their injuries. The book reads easily, has lots of fascinating illustrations, and renders some important observations concerning contemporary culture.