Can we do justice to this moment? Romans 8:18-25.
It’s been a week, it’s been a three weeks, it’s been a year, it’s been a three and a half years of national turmoil which has finally reached this boiling point, perhaps (hopefully) this tipping point, as popular demonstrations in the streets have again brought to the surface America’s long wrestling match with its own soul.
That’s it, you know, we are witnessing our national soul struggling with itself to bring our fallible selves into line with our democratic aspirations. But it is an uneven and lately very turbulent moment, with our history popping up in surprising and inconvenient ways. In 99 cities, Americans took to the streets in revulsion, in disgust, in a towering rage at who we are as a country--a nation unable yet to harmonize individual freedom with moral obligations, so we privilege some lawbreakers (like the impeached President and some police who go unconvicted for excessive force) but harshly penalize others like anyone born with dark skin.
But Americans have always had a tough assignment—how difficult it is for us to reckon with our history because there is this contradiction, you know, this fatal flaw, as it were: we flourished only because of an extraordinary dependency upon forced labor and stolen land which makes it very hard to square with our claims of independence and fair play. It’s a moral quandary which we have never owned up to and diminishes our claims to uniqueness.
Well. America is unique alright, but not in the way exceptionalists like to think. America was uniquely born and raised in violence. America was uniquely nursed on competitiveness and the hustle. America, in its adolescence, uniquely did not resist the lust to satisfy our material appetites. America uniquely showed off our grown muscles in two world wars and proudly claimed the admiration of the world. America then proceeded to master the globe under a tsunami of transnational businesses reinforced by 600 to 800 military bases in 70 different countries.
All this while our not-so-hidden assumptions of white supremacy played a well-executed game of keepaway such that today the networth of white families exceeds that of black families by a factor of 10.
How can the most diverse nation in the world be so immature as to promote the xenophobia and racism which presently cripples our country? I don’t fathom it, myself, but for sure we won’t attain maturity until we are able gratefully to acknowledge our racial interdependencies and celebrate—no, revel—in our diversity. We are poised at the brink of that maturity this week as the world sees us humbled and convicted nationally of subjecting our black nation under the knee of our white nation. But will America attain maturity before we self-destruct? Will we do justice to this moment? Or will America let the moment pass? Or embrace it but not follow through, as happened after Eric Garner’s murder?
But all of a sudden the wires are hot; corporations and nonprofits are retooling their programs, editing their advertisements; district attorneys are calling for legislation. The courts are getting on board. Then here came Juneteenth the day before yesterday, people turning out in a spirit of celebration it seems like in every city. Suddenly (finally), making it a national holiday is being discussed. People marched in Boston, in Newton, and in cities across the country. A healing day has followed directly upon the trauma of the last month.
It’s all happening so fast, and we could hope we are turning some kind of corner.
What of the churches? Many are starting anti-racism campaigns, or reviving old ones.
Eliot Church has our own—1) a congregation wide viewing and dialogue about “Just Mercy,” the film about Bryan Stephenson’s work with death row inmates (June 30); and 2) installing a banner on the front lawn to memorialize those since Eric Garner killed by white police officers.
But churches have an additional role, particular to us, I believe, because this struggle is not only political but moral, and not just moral but religious. Because what evil so profound as racism can be met only by human effort and good will? This problem is so wide and so high and so deep as to resist rational comprehension.
American racism needs repentance for the wrongs—the crimes—committed. American racism necessitates asking forgiveness of God and promising never to sin again. It means being willing to come back to the fountain of forgiveness again until we are truly renewed and remade.
We understand all this at a personal level, of course, but is there such a thing as national repentance? Is there any way that a nation can confess its sins, repent, and ask forgiveness of God and be freed from the bondage of our sin? Can a nation promise never to sin again and be renewed and remade as we should be? Can the United States become one nation under God after having riven a continent’s worth of people over a period of 400 years into opposed and opposing races?
And when will we come to the African-American peoples for forgiveness? Only if we repent, but what does national repentance look like?
Take, for one example, Germany, which by the time of its third generation after WWII was able to look itself in the mirror and confess the sins of the Third Reich and the horrors they committed upon Jews, gays, the disabled, Roma, the continent of Europe, the helpless citizenry of Britain, the people of Russia, the armies of the Allies including the United States, and its own German population. They overhauled the entire educational system, and installed physical reminders at cultural and historical sites across the major cities!
Can we do something like that—as a nation? It’s a question worth asking, and it is up to the churches to ask it over and over and over again.
We could start by passing H.R. 40 in the U.S. Congress which seeks funding for the study of what reparations to African-Americans might look like. Only such a study will bring about the kind of dialogue and self-scrutiny that can meet and vanquish the beast that racism is.
St. Paul puts our travail into the widest possible perspective today when he wrote that “the sufferings of the present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us,” meaning the forthcoming freedom that comes with forgiveness which creation waits for with eagerness. We thrash about in futility, Paul wrote, until the time when we experience freedom from our bondage to entropy and decay.
God’s purpose is for us and everyone to enjoy that freedom fully one day. All human societies groan in the labor pains which will, most certainly, deliver our freedom. I interpret the groaning of this American moment to include those who are resisting the breakthrough to the higher consciousness—like those in the present administration and their supporters Saturday night in Tulsa, Oklahoma—the ultimate freedom being that which God is revealing.
And it is not only us humans but also the whole of creation that has been groaning in labor pain until now—witness the planet itself in travail as we sort out what kind of a nation we want to be.
We are only at the first stage of the spiritual life, Paul assures us, having been visited by Christ, as we proceed toward ultimate release from our racism.
We can live in hopeful expectation with patience—with impatient patience, if you will—even though we do not yet have the end in sight. If there is any life left in this nation at all, we will yet do justice to this moment and to the democratic aspirations that brought the United States into being and continue to sustain us today.
It is only for us churches to remember and to repeat, repeat, repeat: [Micah 6:8] “God has told you, O mortal, what is good. And what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” Amen!