The Puzzle Box Top:
Seeing the Big Picture of Racism and American Evangelicalism
A Feature Review of
The Myth of Equality: Uncovering the Roots of Injustice and Privilege
Reviewed by Cynthia Beach
My puzzle pieces were disparate. My African American student who overnighted with us and who, when he wandered the grocery aisles in my small (white) town, perspired heavily—as if he was distressed. Or that essay by Brent Staples, the African American who, when he roamed midnight sidewalks, would whistle Vivaldi to lessen the fears others had assigned his skin color. Or Hidden Figures when a smart woman’s heels click-clacked as she rushed out one building and into another to use the colored ladies restroom. I held the pieces, but not the picture until I read Ken Wytsma’s The Myth of Equality.
This Oregon pastor’s fourth book handed me the proverbial puzzle box lid that helped me fit together pieces to the disturbing puzzle, our American racism and white privilege. Finally, the picture was clear. When I finished this potent book, I thought, Now I get it. Now I see it.
Equal opportunity and equal outcomes are myths. And says this white writer, the white evangelical church is complicit.
Wytsma, also president of Kilns College that prizes the Socratic Method, asks muscular questions. What is racism? When did it emerge? And who benefitted?
He reveals historical moments where American decision-makers welded racism into governing structures. Take the post-Civil War prison system that slid into convict leasing. This court-based system imprisoned men and children for up to ten years for minor offenses like vagrancy—laws that, Wytsma says, specifically targeted blacks—and allowed the economic gears that had run on the grease of slavery to continue shifting. “[Convict leasing] would last for sixty years across the South,” Wytsma notes, “enslaving hundreds of thousands of African Americans and generating millions of dollars for state governments, white-owned corporations, and wealthy individuals.”
Or take redlining. What helped me understand this term as a systemic problem was learning that most Americans rented their homes before Franklin D. Roosevelt formed two governmental bodies that let us be owners: the Home Owners’ Loan Corporation (HOLC) and the Federal Housing Authority (FHA). But with investors now involved, the HOLC was tasked with creating maps for realtors and lenders. Wytsma explains, “On the FHA/HOLC maps, neighborhoods outlined in green were marked with an A and described as areas that ‘lacked a single foreigner or negro,’ while neighborhoods with blacks living in them were given a D rating and made ineligible for FHA backing. D neighborhoods were outlined in red—and thus the term redlining was born.” And thus African Americans were excluded from early governmental efforts to ensure private home ownership.
Even the values of the Land of the Free are tainted, Wytsma believes, with an ironic fascination with aristocracy. He mentions evidence of this fascination in pop culture like Downton Abbey and the colonization-fantasy depicted in the music video for Taylor Swift’s 2015 “Wildest Dreams.”
Wytsma makes another valid point. “There is a strange connection between our human aspirations and entertainment, where entertainment not only reflects many of our desires but also shapes and reinforces many of those same aspirations.”
He uses more of his muscular questions: “Do we have a worldview that allows us not to have to deal with the moral implications of the aristocratic enterprise? Is the church itself a vehicle of the empire, an institution that perpetuates the dominant worldview and doesn’t allow it to be called into question?”
A quote from beloved theologian Walter Brueggemann answers this last question affirmatively: Even churches, Brueggemann says in The Prophetic Imagination, can become an empire.
Wytsma warns us, “Privilege, being situated comfortably within the empire, is easy to see when other people have it, but it’s often hard to recognize when we have it. If our imagination is captured by the empire rather than by Christ, we will defend the empire—even if we are inadvertently defending it against Christ.”
Early colonialization certainly showed how the church had formed an unholy union with empire-building. A soul-shaming moment: the colonizers would read a warning in their language to the natives that if they didn’t become Christians then the trespassers could “do you all the mischief and damage that we can.”
Obviously, the language barrier shuttered understanding. Wytsma asks, “Can you dream of a more ghastly or horribly ironic way for Christians to greet strangers in the name of Christ?”
I could not.
Wytsma lifts the history of ideas lens to examine 20th century revival practices and language that may limit our understanding of the Christian life. “…over time, many evangelicals created a shorthand version of the gospel that focuses on Jesus’ death on the cross, the forgiveness of our sins, and the salvation of our souls.” Wytsma worries over the subtext that this abbreviated message may send: Justice is a great work, if you’re interested, but all is complete in your choice to let Jesus in your heart.
Wytsma returns us to the prophets who advocated justice—the quality of life for others—and reminds us that Jesus, in his day, was social as well as religious dynamite.
Later, he offers this: “Like Aslan coming into Narnia, with winter melting away and the flowers of spring appearing underfoot, it is an inextricable part of the person, nature, and work of Jesus that the good news includes real change—both spiritually and materially.”
It’s a careful case he makes, not strident. I suspect his target audience is white people like me who are fairly blind to this system since this system has worked for us.
And Wytsma doesn’t leave the reader floundering in “Well, what can I do about racism or privilege?” He challenges white readers to divert energy from defensiveness to exploration. Listen, he urges. Lament. Confess, too. And perhaps the most challenging: “Lay down privilege.”
After all, Wytsma asserts, “Perpetuating a system we inherit is the same as creating the system anew for those who come after us.”
This puzzle picture of a book let me see, and in seeing, I am moved to act. I must.
Cynthia Beach is a longtime English professor at Cornerstone University and author of Creative Juices, a book on writing. Her #ChurchToo novel, The Surface of Water, will be available this fall. She cofounded Breathe Christian Writers Conference and founded Breathe Deeper, A Writing Retreat. Visit her at cynthiabeach.com.
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