There is so much pain and strife that’s now surfaced in a way no one can ignore (at least for now) – it’s been here all along, for as long as racism has been on these shores, but it’s unmistakable now, along with beautiful illustrations of humanity and moral courage. These are times of crisis as well as times of urgent opportunity.
I pray that what I offer here may be of some benefit, especially to my fellow White American Christians. These are some of my reflections as a White Christian Minister on racism, power, and democracy in America which I hope show that it is a matter of discipleship to be dedicated to overcoming racism not only in ourselves, but in our churches and our public democratic institutions. This is building from my sermon last week. This is work for a lifetime, and much longer.
Your thoughts and comments and questions and criticisms are most welcome. I hope for us to keep working through this together.
I’m going to try to lay things out step-by-step, build from a foundation.
The foundation for us as Christians in this, as in all things, is the saving reality of God’s Grace, which we’ve come to know through Jesus Christ. A Grace that is not a cheap and easy grace, but a Grace that calls us to change of heart, repentance, seeing the hard truths about ourselves and our society, grieving the pain of it and courageously seeking a better way.
To ground us in that, here are some of the words of Archbishop Desmond Tutu, from his book about the truth and reconciliation process in South Africa after the fall of apartheid. The United States, I should say, has not remotely done something like that with our living legacy of racist violence and policy. Here is Desmond Tutu on Grace:
“What we are, what we have, even our salvation, all is gift, all is grace, not to be achieved but to be received as a gift freely given… Ultimately no one is an irredeemable cause devoid of all hope. No situation in this theology is irredeemable and devoid of hope.
“God does not give up on any one, for God loved us from all eternity, God loves us now and God will always love us, all of us, good and bad, forever and ever. God’s love will not let us go for God’s love for us, all of us, good and bad, is unchanging, is unchangeable …
“Those who think this opens the door for moral laxity have obviously never been in love, for love is much more demanding than law.” – (Desmond Tutu, “No Future Without Forgiveness,” p.85)
The knowledge of that love and grace of God, I find, allows us to be free from self-absorbed guilt or reactive judgment as we embrace the demands of that love to be to be completely honest with ourselves and with others about the reality of sin in our individual lives and our collective lives. This way we can approach repentance and reconciliation in a forthright, upright way, by the light of the love of God.
So, let that be our foundation.
The second step is about the reality of that sin.
It may seem old fashioned to talk about sin, it’s a word that’s too often used in a damaging way. Remember: Grace has taken the guilt out of it, and we do all bear the image of God in ourselves. I think our natures incline us to both the good and the bad. But as I’ve lived, I’ve found that the Christian idea of sin at its best is good and wise and helpful. We need to be really honest about those forces in humanity and in each of us that are morally corrupting.
But the big problem with sin is that it easily amplifies with power. Power really can corrupt.
There have been psychological studies that show that even just with a pretend sense of power over someone else, people are more inclined to dismiss other people’s needs, to think we’re better than other people, hold ourselves to double standards, and be more inclined to be cruel.
And when we’re with a group it can get even worse, especially if we have power. We are very clever at giving each other excuses and denying responsibility for the bad things we do, of being blinded by our own sense of righteousness and entitlement.
“A bad apple spoils the bunch” is folk wisdom about how group psychology can allow sin to spread.
A group of regular people can do far more harm than an evil individual.
This is why the prophets in the Bible, and Jesus, and his followers are concerned not only with the individuals’ sin, repentance, reconciliation, and righteousness, but also with their nation’s collective sin, repentance, reconciliation, and justice. That’s why they all pay special attention the people in their society who do not have power, do not have social standing – how are they being treated? This is also why the prophets and Jesus also pay special attention to the people in their society who do have power and standing – how do they treat others? How are they using or abusing their power?
This brings us to the third step – grace, sin – and now, the need for democracy and accountably.
Reinhold Niebuhr, the great public theologian, wrote, “[Hu]man[ity]’s capacity for justice makes democracy possible, but [hu]man[ity]s’ inclination to injustice makes democracy necessary.”
Because sin is an ingredient in humanity, societies do need some laws. That means we need people to make laws and we need people to enforce those laws.
But there is tremendous power in being able to make laws and being able to enforce them. That power can be used in good ways and it can be used in bad ways.
Because sin is an ingredient in humanity, and because sin can easily amplify with power, we can expect that the power to make laws and enforce laws is easily abused.
Democracies developed because people got fed up with, you know, sometimes you get a king who’s just, sometimes you get a king who’s cruel, sometimes you get a king who likes your tribe, sometimes you get a king who wants to rid the land of your people. And all the king’s horses and all the king’s men make that all happen.
Democracy is about making power accountable to the people, all the people. Democracy says there is enough goodness in human nature that we can work together to be sure the power to make laws and the power to enforce laws is used in a way that is just and fair for everyone.
But the sin part of human nature doesn’t go away when we have some democratic structures. It’s going to keep seeking out ways to abuse power. This is an ongoing struggle for real democracy.
Law enforcement is at a particular risk because it’s empowered to use force to detain people, sometimes violent force, which are things that are illegal for the rest of us to do, for good reason. That’s a lot of power.
Then add to that, police regularly go into dangerous and stressful and at times confusing situations. There are traumatic experiences. They’re exposed to the worst of what people can do to each other.
Who among us – if we have the courage to step into such a position – who among us can guarantee that the worst of ourselves wouldn’t break loose sometimes? And who among us can guarantee that our own racial prejudices wouldn’t at times flash out?
So, when it comes to policing the question isn’t “Are police officers good people or are they bad people?” Of course, it’s like with any position of power and responsibility: there will be people who do it out of the highest integrity and dedication to public service, and personal discipline. And, there will be some people who are seeking out a power trip.
That’s the reality for clergy. That’s the reality for any position of responsibility.
The core question is, are we as a democratic society doing enough to hold the power of law enforcement accountable, to support its moral health, and to ensure that it’s used everywhere in a responsible, fair and just way?
The answer is, No.
And it’s our Black and Brown siblings who have been trying to get that across for a long time.
That leads to the last step in what I have to offer today.
We started with Grace, moved to sin, then to democracy and accountability, and now to the living legacy of racism in our country.
The reason it’s our Black and Brown siblings who have been sounding the alarm and crying out in unspeakable grief about the deadly lack of democratic accountability in law enforcement in our country, is because of that living legacy of America’s original sin of racism. The institution of slavery helped to build this country and it along with then Jim Crow and then the multiple evolutions of racist policy have helped to shape this country and the severe exclusions from how and for whom its institutions work.
Black folks have had to fight and struggle to even have a chance to be at the table in the democratic workings of power in our country. For so long the law-making powers and law enforcement powers have not just excluded Black and Brown folks, but have been explicitly or implicitly about dominating them. This hasn’t somehow magically gone away.
As Christians, we need not fear being honest about this living legacy of our country’s original sin and the ways it pervades our lives. Because we are rooted in God’s grace we can be upright and forthright in being honest about this sin, and sincerely seeking repentance and reconciliation, and struggling for the transformation of our democracy and society.
We will all benefit from this process. Just as we have all benefitted from the contributions of Black Americans to our culture, to our institutions, and indeed to our very understanding and expression of our Christian faith.
I began with a word about Grace from Desmond Tutu. Let me end with another:
“This is a moral universe, which means that, despite all the evidence that seems to be contrary, there is no way that evil and injustice and oppression and lies can have the last word. For us who are Christians, the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ is proof positive that love is stronger than hate, that life is stronger than death, that light is stronger than darkness, that laughter and joy, and compassion and gentleness and truth, all these are so much stronger than their ghastly counterparts.” (Desmond Tutu, “No Future Without Forgiveness,” p. 86)
For this I give God thanks.
(Delivered June 6, 2020 by Rev. Nathaniel Mahlberg for the community at First Congregational Church of Walla Walla)