First off, the above quote is not mine, but was lifted from a friend of a friendI have had the opportunity in my life to make a great many friends from highly varied and vastly different vocations: from engineer to professor to grocer, and from many different outlooks: from Christian to pagan to atheist. I believe that I have been blessed in every sense of the word to receive the considered (and sometimes not so considered) opinions and thoughts of this cadre of friends.
Every once in a while I see something posted on Facebook. I say every once in a while because I don't frequent social media all that much as I find it to be a tremendous waste of time. That said, I do occasionally see something that rings true to me, that lights up my sense of I'm not sure what, maybe morality would be the best descriptor. Yesterday I was on and I happened across a post from an old colleague of mine and I had that flood of recognition. This particular old friend, Brady Marston, I met in Fort Smith, Arkansas when we where both attending the U of A campus in Fort Smith. He was getting a degree in Mechanical Engineering while I was torturing myself with relearning the Calculus that I had forgotten in the 15 or so years since I dropped out of Graduate school to follow my... heart? Completely different story. Anyways, it appears that at some point, he became a pastor (don't worry, I am getting to the point). So from the point of view of a pastor and friend of mine:
Personally, I'm not a fan of playing cause whack-a-mole. Rather than find individual problems and address them, I'd much rather look at the big picture and address overall problems. I say that to give some background when I say that I think I understand people's hang-ups around systemic racism.
Why is racism all anybody wants to talk about right now? Why talk about black poverty and not just poverty? Why talk about racial bias in the criminal justice system when we all know that it's broken for everybody?
The answer I've found is that the conversation (the argument) happening right now isn't really about these small issues and it really isn't about racism. While these are important issues, I think we get stuck in the weeds when we discuss them in too much detail before we get on the same page on the overall, big picture issue, racial injustice. Or even more generally, systemic injustice as it relates to race.
Left unchecked, all systems tend towards injustice. Without concerted effort, all experience is profoundly private and it's incredibly difficult for those who run systems to understand the perspective of those who work under it.
I think we've all experienced a boss who is completely incapable of understanding the actual needs of employees. This is because even if the boss was once an employee for the company, the boss is no longer in that position and must put out extra effort to understand the needs of the people being managed. (This is the entire premise of Undercover Boss)
Another important factor is that self-preservation is an incredibly powerful force. Unless held accountable, people at the top, with some exceptions, will work for their own self-interest instead of the good of the whole organization. This is why our system of government has so many checks and balances and ethics rules.
Finally, the larger the system, the slower change occurs. The wheels of government turn slowly. A few well-meaning people who want to make a difference will quickly run up against this fact and that's why so many promising reform-based political careers sputter out when politicians arrive in Washington.
So far, my point has been that systems tend toward injustice. Even without open hostility, the people at the top don't understand and, thus, don't address the concerns of the people at the bottom. They don't have much incentive to and when that incentive does show up in individual leaders, it usually doesn't outlast the slow pace of change. Left to itself, systemic injustice will persist or even worsen.
This is why the Bible has such a profound concern for the people on the underside of the system. In the parable of the sheep and the goats, the sheep are the ones who feed the hungry, give water to the thirsty, invite in the stranger, clothe the naked, care for the sick, and visit the prisoner. The sheep are the ones who care for the ones who wouldn't receive care otherwise.
This is what's at stake in Jesus' statements about the sick needing a doctor. In first century Jewish society, "sinner" wasn't so much a designation of immoral activity, but of social status. A sinner was out of fellowship with the synagogue and not allowed to participate.
Good Jews weren't to associate with sinners and, as a result, sinners were permanently stuck on the outside of Jewish society. Jesus pushed back against this system in both his actions and his words.
He spent his time with sinners. He told the religious leaders that the good shepherd leaves the 99 to go after the 1. He told them that the guest list at the great banquet of the Lord would be made up of sinners that had been gathered from the streets. The people who had been excluded by the synagogue were the people Jesus sought out to make insiders.
Widows and orphans aren't some magic categories of people that God cares about above all others. They are the people consistently marginalized in patriarchal systems because they have no patriarch to speak up for them. Mary's song in Luke 1 praises God for lifting up the humble and bringing down the rulers from their thrones. The activity of God is profoundly activity against systemic injustice.
It is a historical fact that the society of European immigrants in North America has had racial injustice baked into it from our very early years. For centuries, the majority even looked at this injustice as a net good. This isn't a uniquely American phenomenon. This isn't the only injustice baked into American life, but racial injustice was objectively a driving force behind our early economic success.
Europeans were able to thrive in the Americas because of free labor in the South (and on the Caribbean islands). It was one giant economic system and without southern slavery, the whole thing looks completely different.
This isn't a reason for shame. Very few Americans hold slaves today or have close ancestors who did. This is, however, how American systemic injustice took on a profoundly racial shape.
Americans, on the whole, are people of good conscience and for 250 years, we had to live with ourselves while slaves were held in bondage on our shores based almost entirely upon their race.
This need to justify ourselves resulted in all kinds of biases and assumptions regarding the natural order of things. Slave owners in the South rightfully grew fearful of their slaves who outnumbered them. These biases, assumptions, and fears persisted and grew for generations.
I said earlier that systems tend toward injustice. The slaveholding United States didn't just tend toward racial injustice, it was actively pushed in that direction.
In my understanding, there have been two successful pushbacks against systemic racism in our history in both the 18 and 19 '60s. Both were moments of great conflict and distress, but both resulted in objective gains for black Americans.
Since the 1960s, black and white Americans have been largely explicitly equal under the law. Unfortunately, the years since haven't been characterized by continued pressure against systemic racial injustice in America.
In the long term, rather than make us more aware of the injustice, the civil rights movement of the 1960s has allowed us to tell ourselves that racial injustice in the United States has been dealt with and doesn't exist anymore.
Systems have memory. Systems change slowly. Racial injustice was been baked into American life for 350 years. If the last 50 years was characterized by stamping the remnants of racial injustice out wherever they could be found, we might be able to declare victory today.
Instead, we've taken our foot off the gas. We've pushed back against other injustices, but basically declared victory on racial injustice and moved on.
It didn't take 100 years this time, but it seems that we've reached another crisis point in America's struggle with racial injustice. The explicitly legal racial injustice in our nation was dealt with 50 years ago, but now it's time to deal with the biases, assumptions, and fears that have been baked into our system for 400 years head on.
I don't know what the solution is right now. I don't think anybody does. I think we're all framing the problem imperfectly. What was helpful for me was realizing that the problem isn't so much a problem of racism as a problem of our American brand of systemic injustice--systemic injustice that is profoundly racial in character.
The first step in finding solutions is for us to acknowledge that the problem exists. Nobody needs to be ashamed of things they didn't do. What we need to be is determined to not let another generation of Americans experience this kind of injustice.
The consistent call of scripture is to be people who see the injustice around us and actively push back against it. The consistent call of scripture is to be a people who freely repent of our old ways of looking at things and seek to have the eyes of Christ who had compassion for the suffering of others. The consistent call of scripture is to be the hands and feet of Jesus and to help those in need. The consistent call of scripture is to use whatever power and influence we have to advocate for those who aren't being heard.
At its best, the call to recognize systemic racism in America isn't a call to shame. It isn't a call to start frantically putting Band-Aids on all the problems we can find. It's a hope that people will hear the cry of the oppressed, accept that it's real, and commit to pushing back against it again. The work wasn't completed in the 1960s and 400 years is long enough. Let's do this.
"But let justice roll on like a river,
righteousness like a never-failing stream!"
Now, the reason that I posted this is not because I am a religious person. I was, once upon a time, then I was atheist, now I do not know what is going on, so I make no claims. But in this instance, I gain insight into how people work and how people should work. If that insight came from scripture, that is well and good. That it comes from one whom I consider a friend, that is better. I will take insight into the human condition on any day.
Thank you Brady for letting me use your writings as a jumping off point for discussion.