I hear the whisperings of many:
"Terror on every side!
Denounce! let us denounce him!"
All those who were my friends
are on the watch for any misstep of mine.
"Perhaps he will be trapped; then we can prevail,
and take our vengeance on him."
For Lenten meditation, I have been reading Booker T. Washington (Up from Slavery), W.E.B Dubois (The Souls of Black Folks), and James Weldon Johnson (The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man.) I found these extended essays in a single volume, Three Negro Classics. I call this reading a Lenten project because it considers America's Original Sin, racism. (The idea is not my own; it was popularized in 2016 by Jim Wallis and his book, America's Original Sin, which I've yet to read.)
An original sin is, by definition, the opposite of a people's founding principle; and our founding principle is, "All men are created equal." The United States was the first nation in history to attempt building its identity and legal foundations on an ideal. But the principle flies in the face of reality; all men are obviously not created equal. Some are larger, some are smaller. Some are gifted with more native intelligence; others are slow-witted. Some are manually dexterous; others are clumsy. Beyond those genetic differences are the disparities we create of class, wealth, education and opportunity. For tens of thousands of years the disparities of wealth, status and power were regarded as natural and necessary as rain.
Building a nation on the principle of equality is daring at best. The Founding Fathers knew it when they wrote the Constitution. Some feared the question of slavery might only be resolved by a civil war. The new republic with its complicated bicameral machinery spent "four score and seven years" trying to avoid it.
The upheaval was both inevitable and futile. The War Between the States settled very little. In many cases the slaves became sharecroppers, as bound to the land by poverty, policy and law as any European peasants. Like the 21st century exercises in Afghanistan and Iran, there was no plan for what would happen after the war. How should the freedmen and freedwomen be reeducated for freedom after three centuries of brutal slavery? How would their former masters be persuaded that their former chattel might be as intelligent and capable as themselves, given opportunities for education and advancement? Washington showed how whites and blacks despised work. Work was what slaves did, not free people. And illiterate former slaves had never enjoyed the benefits of work; freedom meant no work! They knew nothing of money or saving or investing.
These three negro classics, written one and two generations after Emancipation, recall the enormous task that confronted the nation and its massive failure. The best attempts were half-hearted; in many cases they were intentionally sabotaged. I remember the upheavals of the 1950's and 60's -- a half-century later -- an era of riots, marches and some legislation; and the hope that America might yet fulfill its promise to all its citizens. Progress was made but only some.
We can call racism the "original sin" because of its intractability. It is that "damned spot" that does not go away. It's roots are deeper even than our history of slavery and segregation. It involves relations and attitudes of a dominant culture with minorities of every sort; the list alone is daunting, including everyone from African-Americans to women to people with disabilities.
I don't see an end in sight. What I hear is, "African-Americans should have caught up by now; it's their own fault if they haven't. We owe them nothing more!" But that sentiment hasn't changed since 1869.
The "American Experiment" began with an untested ideal that appeared during the Enlightenment and seemed to have its origin in the Jewish/Christian tradition. People devoutly hoped this reasonable principle could be attained within a single lifetime, and with little sacrifice. Rationality, they supposed, would disprove and dispel the old doctrines of Original Sin and Grace.
Lent invites us to consider the dream of democracy theologically. Lent reminds us that we cannot save ourselves. Gentle reason, promised rewards and hideous threats cannot force us to create a more perfect union. Only God can effect it when we consent to to carry the Cross of Equality.