So every mistake has a purpose. This Juan Williams fracas is reminding me that when the UUA took up a Christian anti-racism curriculum called “Journey Toward Wholeness,” I complained that our sacramental austerity left us unprepared to deal with the model of confession and reconciliation.
Shirley Sherrod and Juan Williams, however, come out of a tradition in which confession and reconciliation are the highest form of religious integrity. The individual confesses, strives to do better, and the authority figures — both clergy and community — supported by a theology of a forgiving God — join in. They agree that we ALL have a long way to go, and they hold up the individual who has confessed and recommitted as a model for us all, as we all face our demons, both common and particular.
Interfaith literacy is key to multicultural communication. We whose stripped-down protestantism joined with Judaism to create secularized so-called “universal” institutions must always be aware of how these institutions reflect our original particular experiences, theologies and rituals. Fox television is not my medium of choice, but I am quite sure that its audience are familiar with the model Williams was using, just as I am sure the NAACP audience knew what Shirley Sherrod was doing when she spoke openly about her Journey Toward Wholeness. If they are going to use that framework successfully to improve their contributions to the public conversations, a little multi-cultural ear training is in order. We liberals, whose over-whelmingly white non-confessional culture has apparently lost track of this difference between black and white, need to spot this ignorance before it festers into a universal fear of being accused of “reverse racism.”
There’s no question that Juan Williams has over time made personal mistakes. But this was not one of them. It’s time for NPR to follow the footsteps of Tom Vilsak and Barack Obama, to apologize and see where Williams sees himself fitting into their mission. He may have been an “analyst” rather than a “commentator” so far, but it seems he has more to say… and we need to be more careful about hearing him and not framing his words through either his heritage — or his platform.