I confess I felt some small relief upon learning that the five cops who murdered Tyre Nichols were all Black and the perps in the two mass shootings of Asian Americans in California were both Asian Americans. That these weren’t yet another case of white people killing minorities.
Now don’t get me wrong. I’ll go on record as saying that systemic racism is a reality in this country, in this state and in this village, but I think that concluding slavery and racism are at the root of all our troubles in this land is an over-simplification at best and an avoidance of responsibility at the worst.
Do you remember Flip Wilson? One of his funniest characters was named Geraldine. Every time Geraldine would do something impulsive or irresponsible, she would justify her behavior by saying, “The devil made me do it.” It was funny when Geraldine said it, but saying that the prince of darkness made me do it is placing blame in the wrong place.
The only power Satan has is to bait the hook. If we swallow it, shame on us.
Slavery and racism are certainly contributing factors in the way we behave these days, but so are factors like the wealth gap, poverty, educational inequities, class stratification, mental health, family background and — here’s the big one — toilet training.
A professor of African History named Prexy Nesbit, who was active in the struggle of Africans to gain independence from their European colonizers, said to me, almost with tears in his eyes, “Now all the countries in Africa are governed by Africans and they are behaving the same way that their former white colonizers behaved.”
The devil made me do it? Slavery made me do it? Colonialism made me do it?
Statements like “slavery is America’s original sin” place both the blame for how we behave and the responsibility to change it in the wrong place.
A Black neighbor of mine who worked with youth on the West Side once told me, “The kids I work with are victims but part of my job is to stop them from thinking of themselves as victims.”
I like the distinction between responsibility and response-ability. I’m not responsible for what my white forebears did to African Americans, so white guilt is inappropriate. But I do have response-ability, i.e. the ability to respond to evil in ways that fit my values.
Slavery is not America’s original sin. Slavery was rooted in an even more profound reality. Obama in his Hiroshima Speech called it “humanity’s core contradiction: how the very spark that marks us as a species … those very things also give us the capacity for unmatched destruction.”
After each mass shooting, I hear people asking, “Why?” Was it mental illness? That’s the cause de jure right now that explains killing our fellow humans. For many of us the explanation we offer for the violence immediately west of us and to the east of us in Austin is: lack of good schools, high unemployment, the breakdown of the family, and easy access to guns.
All of those factors have their place in a pie chart showing the causes of violence — 10% of this and 20% of that — but the reality that many people of faith ask us to acknowledge is that no matter how you divide the pie chart, the fact is that it’s held together by a pie tin, that core contradiction Obama talked about, or the bad wolf Native Americans say is in competition with the good wolf in each of us.
Today is Ash Wednesday, the beginning of Lent, a time like Ramadan and Yom Kippur, a time to look inward at ourselves — to look into the mirror the Spirit is holding up to us. A time to let go of explaining the pain in our lives by saying, “The devil made me do it,” and stop blaming everything on slavery or anything else and own up to our complicity in the brokenness we see all around us.
The Enlightenment is the philosophical foundation on which the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution were structured. Two tenets of the Enlightenment are the perfectibility of human nature and an optimistic view of history.
History, as I read it, judges the Enlightenment to be naïve. “Hiroshima teaches this truth,” Obama declared. “Technological progress without an equivalent progress in human institutions can doom us. The scientific revolution that led to the splitting of an atom requires a moral revolution, as well.”
Systemic change may produce individual change, but most of the time—Ash Wednesdays tells us — it’s the other way around.
What Ash Wednesday is asking us to own is that America’s original sin is original sin, or any other metaphor you may choose to conceptualize that reality.