Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed by this author are their own and do not represent the official position of the Barbados Today.
by Guy Hewitt
1 John 4:16 God is love, and those who live in love live in God, and God lives in them
As the United States concludes observing Martin Luther King Day and inaugurating its 46th president, and its first Black/Asian female vice president, there remains deep unresolved tensions between independence and freedom in this ‘beacon of democracy’.
The unfurling of a Confederate flag in the US Capitol Rotunda symbolised the opposition of those engaged in their act of domestic terrorism to the harmonic aspiration of the pledge, “one Nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.”
The presence of a few obviously confused Black American males in the melee did not temper what this national trauma ultimately conveyed: upholding white racism at all costs. The sympathy directed towards those involved, including towards the ‘conspirator-in-chief’, revealed the fascist disposition of a critical mass to maintaining white privilege.
When Senator Ted Cruz, in his challenge of the Electoral College vote, referenced the Compromise of 1877, he was invoking the birth of Jim Crow: racial segregation and legal discrimination. It was an appeal to the deepest stain on American post-slavery history and its closest brush with fascism.
The conciliatory assertion by House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy that “We must seize this opportunity and heal and grow stronger” and that impeachment would undermine the peaceful transition of power, ignored past rhetoric about “shithole countries” and “invasion” by immigrants. The former president propelled the horde to invade the Capitol with the exhortation that they could never “take back our country with weakness”.
The challenge in trying to eradicate racism is that it was the lifeblood of colonisation and capitalism. In 1493, Pope Alexander VI issued an edict that any land not inhabited by Christians was available to be ‘discovered’, claimed and exploited by Christians.
The ‘Doctrine of Discovery’ held that “Christian religion be exalted and be everywhere increased and spread, that the health of souls be cared for and that barbarous nations be overthrown and brought to the faith itself.”
A pungent concoction of religion, science, and social theory fed Eurocentric narcissism and their sense of dominion over the earth and all its resources. Rooted in racism, Europeans and their North Americans cousins dichotomised humanity between the ‘civilised’ and the ‘savages’ allowing for the genocide of indigenous people in the Americas and the enslavement of Africans to toil in the ‘New World.’
According to Dr King, the “tragic attempt to give moral sanction to an economically profitable system gave birth to the doctrine of white supremacy. Religion and the Bible were cited to crystallize the status quo.” Historically, racism divided the common struggle of the white and black proletariat. The material value white workers derived from whiteness: higher wages, better housing, higher education, social advancement and so on, allowed capitalism to maintain hegemony over the white and black workers alike.
The recent ugly practices at the US Capitol prove many still hold to the original notion contained in the Declaration of Independence, the self-evident truths “that all men are created equal… [and]…endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights” were not inclusive, with severe limitations according to that unholy trinity of race, gender and class.
Today, a majority of Americans favourably view the legacy of The Rev Dr Martin Luther King Jr., and reference his “I have a dream” and “the content of their character” speeches. However, in its heyday the civil rights movement wasn’t seen as peaceful and Dr King was deemed a public enemy, reviled and physically attacked. Equally significant, beyond his dream of civil rights was his Poor People’s Campaign for ‘economic equality’ so that everyone could have a decent level of income, with access to healthcare, education and housing.
Dr King understood, as I expect Abraham Lincoln did in first inaugural address in his appeal to the “better angels of our nature,” that words are not enough to avert conflict. Lincoln’s call that “We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection” was not enough. In the Civil War, friends and family fought and killed each other.
In the Parable of the Good Samaritan, our Lord Jesus Christ laid the foundation for these titans and for us to follow. He encouraged people to re-envision their relationship with one another: loving “your neighbour as yourself.” The parable of ‘who is our neighbour’ is worth reflecting on, particularly in light of the recent events and Dr King’s effort to “redeem the soul of America.”
The story reveals that on encountering the injured and anguished man, the Good Samaritan – an alien with whom Jews had no dealing – has compassion performing first aid, taking him to shelter, and paying for his recovery.
Significantly, a priest and Levite choose not to get involved. It’s likely that they were afraid that they too might be victims. They, like many today, may have wondered, “what will happen to me if I take a stand on this issue, however worthy?” The priest and the Levite were afraid just as people are afraid today. Fear of others and difference is often at the heart of racism, apathy and so many other evils.
Dr. King imagined that the priest and the Levite wondered, “If I stop to help this man, what will happen to me?” A reasonable question, but from a Gospel perspective, the wrong one. For Dr King the real question was, “If I stop to help this man in need, what will happen to me?”
On the other hand, the Samaritan, in a Christ-like manner, acted out of love, making a personal sacrifice. Dr King noted, “The true neighbour is the man who will risk his position, his prestige and even his life for the welfare of others.” Love of neighbour goes beyond pity and an impersonal concern with others, beyond sympathy and a personal identification with their suffering, to compassion, the willingness to sacrifice to relieve the suffering of others.
‘Take care of him; and when I come back, I will repay you whatever more you spend.’ The meaningful sacrifice by those who have, particularly those who have gained at the expense of others, is what is needed in order to form a more perfect Union. Post-war Germany accepted the need for ‘moral and material indemnity’ for the ‘unspeakable crimes committed in the name of the German people.’ Post-apartheid South Africa established a Truth and Reconciliation Commission to record the deprivation, violence and injustice towards black people by the white-dominated state. However, despite the foundation laid by the truth, South Africa remains a long way from being reconciled due to the reluctance of Whites to make the necessary sacrifices to reciprocate the humanity and forgiveness of the Black majority.
The United States has come to forks in the road. At its inception, the country could have pursued building the utopia promised by the Pilgrim Fathers. Instead, it chose genocide and slavery. The conclusion of the Civil War was another turning point when it chose white reconciliation at the expense of full citizenship for Black people. Another opportunity was presented at the conclusion of the Jim Crow era, again the country omitted full citizenship for Black Americans by taking a path of gradualism, seeking to institute progress through legislation that is constantly challenged and reversed.
Once again, the nation is at an inflection point, able to acknowledge the wrong inflicted on its Black citizens; that Black Lives Matter and that George Floyd Jr. and others didn’t die in vain. If institutional and systemic racism in the society and economy is the invisible driver of the dispossession of Black American then reparations are necessary to redress their historic disadvantage. Perhaps not every wrong can be made right but it is important to rebalance an inherent white privilege built on a history of intimacy with racial violence, social injustice and legislated inequality.
We pray the United States will take the road less travelled to become “Out of many, one.” Let us hold to Micah 6:8 to do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with our God. Let’s keep hope alive.
Guy Hewitt was an ambassador for Barbados and currently serves as a priest in South Florida.