Friday, March 6, 2015

Sometime History Echoes. This Time It's Screaming At Us.

Perhaps the most startling aspect of the Ferguson city government being caught with its white supremacist pants down is how precisely familiar all of this is to anyone who has studied the civil rights movement. I expect history to rhyme. But I'm still surprised when we get rote repetition.

The repetition is this: the leaders of the Ferguson city government are genuinely confused by the storm that has descended around them, just as White citizens in hundreds of local communities across the nation from the 1950s to the 1970s were baffled when "their Negroes" began to protest. I can't emphasize enough that White Americans of that era were not monstrous people who lied about what they knew to be true. They were utterly ordinary. The lies they told, they told first and most vigorously to themselves.  As most White Americans looked frowningly at the activism and protest in their communities, they pointed out that Blacks committed more crimes. They noted the soaring rate of illegitimacy. They demanded personal responsibility, a little more bootstrappin' and a little less complaining. Lies have a way of working on you until you come to need them, until they distort your ability to understand the world you live in. In 1963, living in an apartheid nation, large majorities of Whites told Gallup that Blacks were treated "the same as whites" in their community. We will never be able to quantify the psychological and spiritual carnage White Americans produced by their contortions. The devastation gathers slowly and invisibly, while the lie settles in so comfortably.

One way to look at it, even if not exactly quantify it, is to see the same incapacity for truth in their descendents. It would be a mistake to think that the current leaders of Ferguson (and many of their White constituents) are surprised because there is objective cause for confusion, as if the moral lines have become unclear. No, the surprise stems, as it did in the civil rights movement era, from a set of assumptions that has nothing to do with actual conditions in the real world. Chief Jackson of the Ferguson Police Department literally said, "There is not a racial problem in the police department." You might reasonably thereby conclude that Chief Jackson is a monster. That would make it easier on all of us, but it's not so easy. No, I'm quite sure that Chief Jackson is normal. He's probably even a devoted public servant.

Can you see how banal human evil is? We all go looking for Hitlers to condemn so that we don't have to admit that we need no introduction to the evil that has been documented in Ferguson. We need no introduction. People caught up in oppressive systems do not self-identify as oppressors. Defenders of White supremacy do not see themselves as such. One person's oppression is just another person's "the way things are." If we never wake up to the heartbreaking process of discovering our own lies, how can we be sure we won't participate in the kind of wrongs we've witnessed in Ferguson?

We're wrestling with a dubious inheritance. Whites of past generations grudgingly acquiesced to certain changes, but the lies, it has become all too clear, live on in mutated forms. Recent polling has shown that a majority of White Americans believe they face more discrimination than Black Americans. How can we possibly know ourselves, how can we possibly live at peace in the world, in the face of such depraved thinking? How can we be Christian? Make no mistake, we couldn't get these polling numbers without many White Christians thinking this way. This is a theological scandal.

But listen: the Gospel covers that too. There is forgiveness ready and waiting. And I suspect God sees what is less easy for us to see: that our thinking is not ours alone, that we are swept up in a current that we waded into before we knew better, that our group allegiances will not be undone lightly. There is grace for us, thank God. Yet some of us, by now, should know better. We must work against White supremacy and all forms of oppression of the poor with all the strength and wisdom we can muster. Sometimes, when I think about all the ways God has shown me mercy, and the experiences I've had, and then what I've done with them--well, I sometimes think I'm courting judgment.

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