Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Illogical Ontology - How We Misunderstand Ourselves

In the 1970’s, I visited a picturesque Philadelphia neighborhood of well-kept row-homes owned by middle-class Black folk.  Noticing a forest of “for sale” signs littering the front lawns, had I not known better, I would have assumed the proliferation of signs was due to “White flight” – but these were Black homeowners.  When I inquired about the reasons for this “Black flight,” the residents pointed to the rumor that underclass people were moving in – those displaced by the gentrification of downtown’s South Street.  I had heard the exact same arguments articulated by their White counterparts in other neighborhoods: “Our property values will decline,” “Our schools will go downhill,” etc.  This observation shook me to my foundation; I never dreamed that “Black flight” was possible.  It was then that I realized that I had imbibed the intoxicant of ontological Blackness – believing that we were immune to certain behaviors I had always associated with Whites.

As more African Americans entered mainstream life, those who assimilated into the dominant culture had the advantage over those who did not.  However, acceptance of Eurocentric standards did violence to the African American sense of human aesthetics.  To remove this obstacle, the African American sense of aesthetics needed reforming.  This was accomplished through the Black Consciousness Movement under the mantra, “Black is Beautiful.”

Aesthetics reform was a positive development and it had an empowering effect.  Values that seemed to affirm the new sense of aesthetics were embraced, and those that seemed to negate the new aesthetics were excluded. 

As time progressed however, some thinkers who saw the limitations of aesthetics Blackness began to push for “ontological Blackness.”  They began to think of African Americans as different kind of “beings” than Whites. 

Unfortunately, many advocates of ontological Blackness assumed all values held by Whites to be hostile.  They made no distinction between Eurocentric aesthetics and positive values some Whites happen to hold.  They were right to reject the former, but wrong to reject the latter.

The neglect of this distinction was due in part by the observations of many Black militant thinkers of the early 1970s.  They noticed a righteousness differential between the oppressor and the oppressed.  In such a situation, the oppressed tend to be more righteous than the oppressor.  Since oppression is imposed sin, when the oppressed justly resist it, they resist sin itself, and resisting sin is always more righteous than yielding to it.

As the oppressed focus on resistance of external sin, their own sin is driven beneath the surface as it becomes drowned out by the righteousness of the cause.  When liberation comes, however, their own sin resurfaces with all its negative effects.  Israel learned this lesson under the Judges.  They disobeyed God in the first place by not driving out the Canaanites.  The Canaanites regrouped, regained their strength, and came back to oppress the Israelites.  Israel resisted.  They cried out to God for help, sought God’s ways, and were delivered from oppression.  However each time they were liberated, their sin resurfaced, and they betrayed their call to be a light to the nations.

Without biblical wisdom to undergird the movement, those who advocated ontological Blackness misinterpreted the righteousness differential.  They didn’t understand that this differential manifested only within the oppressed/oppressor relationship.  Thus, they did not see the righteousness differential for what it was, i.e., relative and temporary.  They saw it as ontological and permanent, thus ascribing to the concept of “Blackness” more than it could bear.

The ontological ideologues hoped that the awareness of the righteousness differential would be transformative.  It was, but not in a positive direction.  The concept was doomed to fail because it was based on a flawed understanding of human nature. 

Perhaps this partly explains why so many of us are stuck in the 1970’s mode of ‘group-think.’  Perhaps this accounts for our decline of critical thinking as we exclusively focus on our external obstacles (bad economics, racism, etc.) while ignoring our internal ones (faulty value systems, etc.).

As we look to the future, it would be wise to remember the limitations and shortcomings of human nature that we all share across the cultures and races.  Perhaps it’s time for a paradigm shift, even a new movement that will truly be transformational.

Black is beautiful, and Christ is perfect  that’s good enough for me.

Dr. Carl Ellis, Jr. is a theological anthropologist and Assistant Professor of Practical Theology at Redeemer Seminary in Dallas, TX.  Follow Dr. Ellis on Twitter: @CarlEllisJr

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