Today Dallas is host to a clerical "summit" called "The Reconciled Church: Healing the Racial Rift," put on by T.D. Jakes of the Potters House in Dallas and Harry Jackson, pastor of Hope Christian Church in Beltsville, Maryland. Something about it seems powerfully counter-intuitive.
Rift-healer Jackson is a right-winger who delivers his sermons dressed in camo clothing, often inveighing against the "radical homosexual agenda" in America. So we are left to assume Jackson is not against all rifts, nor is he opposed to all forms of bigotry and oppression, only the kind that affects him personally.
For me personally, that would raise a series of questions to which I would need answers before I could muster much enthusiasm for his own brand of rift-healing. First, I'd like to see a list of any other rifts he supports and promotes in sermons while wearing combat clothing. If somebody promotes oppression based on sexual identity, then I want to know how he feels about oppression based on religious identity, national origin, physical or mental challenge, or, you know ... hairstyle?
My own experience is that people like Jackson who promote their own favorite form of bigotry simply do not understand the universal evil of all bigotry. Because they don't understand that all bigotry is an assault on basic human dignity, they are unable to offer a valid theory even of the bigotry from which they themselves suffer, only that somebody is giving them grief and it pisses them off. I can't see somebody suffering under that kind of moral intellectual debility having anything to say about racial rifts that I would find remotely persuasive.
Jakes is one of America's most successful prosperity preachers. The only time I heard him speak in person, it was in a discussion of poverty and race in Dallas in which Jakes, a movie producer, argued that Dallas should provide tax incentives for movie producers. You can sort of see where he's coming from.
See also: Stumbling at the Color Barrier
On the other hand, maybe we need to listen for the worthwhile things people say, even if we think they say some stuff that isn't. Dallas Morning News columnist James Ragland had a column in the paper yesterday in which he quoted Jackson -- without mentioning the, ahem, camo business -- talking about the division within the African-American community.
"If you're black and you've had the right opportunities and exposures," Jackson told Ragland, "you can do pretty well in this country today. But if you're black or brown and you've grown up in the barrios or a ghetto situation, that lack of exposure and training handicaps you if you add on the burden of looking different."
We have talked here about the special poison brewed up in cauldrons of segregation like the Dallas public school system and in big, poor, racially segregated urban communities. All bigotry may have the same moral valence in the end, but each kind gets there according to its own wicked wiles. In Ragland's column, Jackson correctly points to the isolation of the ghetto -- what I call the culture prison -- as the cause of stunted dreams.
What I am left wondering is this. This man who preaches scapegoats, this demagogue who raises money by offering up whipping boys for his faithful to flog, is he capable of bridging his own gap on race?
The historical origins of the racial gap and racial barriers in our nation are white. White people bear enormous responsibility for helping to bridge that rift and open those doors. But Jakes and Jackson fully understand that even when the doors are open, poor people in bitterly deprived circumstances must lift themselves up and walk themselves through those doors. And the ability to do that is entirely a question of values.
What is worthwhile in the prosperity doctrine is the teaching that life will get better for you when you get better at life. That's not bullshit. That's what every white Kansas grandma has told her grandchildren since covered wagon days. And, yeah, most Kansas grandmas were prosperity preachers, too.
But we all also know that nobody poor in South Dallas is going to listen to some white dude preaching at him about his values. The bitter legacy of white history in this country is that black people often don't see white people as bringing a whole lot of authority to the question of important moral values.
So here is what I want to know and wait to see. Is there some point soon when prosperous, successful black Americans will go into a Ferguson, Missouri, and tell some truth that people there might listen to about values and about taking full responsibility for your own destiny?
My grandma could have done it and would have done it on a bet, but nobody in Ferguson would have listened to her, and anyway she's dead. So what I'm asking about Jakes and Jackson is this: They clearly see the growing divide in black America. Do they have serious intentions about healing that rift? And how would Jackson bring any legitimacy to the question without healing his own inner moral rift first?