The late Cecil Sherman taught me about Baptist history and values, but the iconic Baptist leader also demonstrated a type of reasoning that has been instructive for me in thinking and preaching about racist attitudes and rhetoric within American culture and American churches.
I had the pleasure to have Sherman as my professor for a class on Baptist history and heritage. Sherman was a longtime pastor in Texas and North Carolina and the first chief executive of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship. He taught at Baptist Theological Seminary at Richmond following his retirement in 1996. He died in 2010.
The colorful Sherman, known for his outspoken support of integration during the Civil Rights Movement and his vigorous opposition to the “fundamentalist takeover” of the Southern Baptist Convention, was famous within the BTSR community for what many students and colleagues endearingly referred to as “Shermanisms.” By the end of the semester, a few friends and I had compiled an entire journal of his quirky sayings.
“Denying one’s racism is a proven behavioral pattern of racist groups and individuals, who fail – or refuse – to see their own racism.”
One popular Shermanism was a perfect example of abductive reasoning – a form of logical inference which starts with an observation or set of observations then seeks to find the simplest and most likely explanation for the observations. Sherman, a slow-speaking native Texan with a Princeton Ph.D., often said, “If it looks like a duck and talks like a duck, then it’s probably a duck.”
Abductive reasoning can be used in any number of ways. Take misogyny, for example. Misogyny is simply engrained dislike for and prejudice against women. Recently at a local denominational gathering, an older pastor came up to me and jokingly said, “So, I see you’ve been beating your wife again.”
He waited for my reaction, gesturing to the wrist brace I was wearing for carpal tunnel pain. I suspect he wanted me to laugh. Instead I looked at him and said in anger, “That’s not something to joke about.”
He walked away sheepishly. But, looking back, I don’t know if he picked up that I was not offended that he made fun of my wrist brace, but by his misogynistic and inappropriate statement demeaning women and making light of spousal abuse.
If a man talks like a misogynist and jokes like a misogynist, then chances are he is a misogynist.
Abductive reasoning is also helpful in terms of identifying racism. If people consistently display prejudice, discrimination or antagonism against those of different ethnicities, then they aren’t just “talking tough” or “playing hard ball” or “telling it like it is.” They are a racist.
Some people claim that abductive reasoning isn’t foolproof because it yields a plausible conclusion but doesn’t verify it. For that we turn to deductive reasoning, which produces reliable results by using facts, definitions and rules to arrive at conclusions. Deductive reasoning looks like this:
Major Premise: Racism is prejudice, discrimination or antagonism against those of different ethnicities.
Minor Premise: A politician displays prejudice, discrimination and antagonism against those of different ethnicities.
Conclusion: Said politician is a racist.
Perhaps abductive reasoning and deductive reasoning are not enough to convince some. Enter inductive reasoning, which uses observation of patterns to develop a working theory. Inductive reasoning might look like this:
Observation: Person says racist stuff.
Pattern: Person repeats the same behavior over several decades.
Tentative Hypothesis: A possible cause of the pattern is that the person is racist or race baiting to gain something personally.
Theory: Considering a decades-long pattern, there is a high probability the person is a racist and using race as a divisive tool for personal gain.
One cannot say on the one hand, “I don’t have a racist bone in my body,” and on the other repeatedly exhibit racist behavior.
As Ibram Kendi, director of the Antiracist Research and Policy Center at American University, stated recently, “Every group of racists in America’s history have condemned bigotry and racism in all forms except their form.” Denying one’s racism is a proven behavioral pattern of racist groups and individuals, who fail – or refuse – to see their own racism. Reason would show that observable patterns of racist speech and behavior far outweigh defensive claims to the contrary.
“Do we have the capacity to discuss issues of racism and racial justice candidly in our churches?”
Which leads us back to abductive reasoning. Let’s apply the “duck test” to presidential tweets and language repeatedly invoked at political rallies. If the president consistently tweets like a racist and talks like a racist, he’s probably a racist. It’s amazing how easily reason can be applied to various situations.
Do we have the capacity to discuss issues of racism and racial justice candidly in our churches? More conservative congregations might object to honest discussion because this is “too political” or “too divisive” or because of a denial that racism is alive and thriving today. Liberal white churches also struggle with conversations around race. There is plenty of white fragility to go around.
How do we enter conversations with our children about race and racism? How do we respond when the leader of the free world so brazenly displays resentment for people with brown or black skin? How do we respond when white adults in our church suggest that racism is no longer a problem, that racism died with the passage of the Civil Rights Act or that white people of today bear no responsibility for, or complicity in, the systemic racism that has existed in American culture since the first slave ships landed 400 years ago?
Sadly, there has been little to no response to the president’s repeated expressions of racism from many of America’s elected and religious leaders and some news media outlets. The clear teachings of scripture and the life and teaching of Jesus aside, we live in a so-called “post truth” world where reason and logic may not suffice to establish a shared cultural reality. I wonder what Cecil Sherman would say about that.