Christian Ethics Today

The Future is Not Inevitable, but the Way Forward Is Familiar

By Carol Harston

From Here to Equality: Reparations for Black Americans in the Twenty-First Century calls us to consider the American trajectory: Has it always been inevitable that we are locked into evolving systems of white supremacy and racial oppression?  William A. Darity Jr. and A. Kirsten Mullen answer, “No.” All along the way, the American system could have chosen to walk a different path.  Opportunities have presented themselves to address the economic disparities and constant attacks on black well-being. There could have been repentance, reconciliation and reparations. And yet, America has never been courageous enough to pivot, shift and live into another way of being. Can we afford to be stuck in these patterns of systemic sins forever? If we buy this lie of complacent “inevitability,” we are giving up on hope for a better nation. Systemic apathy is just as dangerous as systemic oppression. One cannot exist without the other. When we believe the lie that white people cannot change, we are accepting ignorance, complacency and a future condemned to violence and hatred. The American Story is not over.

From Here to Equality tells us this good news: There has always been a way forward. Our past denial of reparations has deepened and complicated racial disparities, but it has not erased the path towards redemption. There is a way out. Our country does not have to remain trapped within this vicious cycle forever. Mullens and Darity show us a possible way forward by acknowledging, redressing and seeking closure.

The question before us: what will it take for America to commit to learning our real history in its totality? How can we respond creatively with faith in the country’s abundant resources and compassion for slavery’s resilient descendants? Our country needs sustainable sources of curiosity, creativity and courage. As a Christian clergy, I know that Christianity’s complicity and perpetuation of slavery, oppression and violence throw into question whether there is anything left for Christianity to offer our country. We cannot understate the trauma inflicted upon our nation by white Christian churches and clergy. It will take us centuries to discern, repent and heal from the horror unleashed upon God’s people by the perpetrators of traumatizing theology at the hands of white Christians.

Even so, I offer five Christian truths that can help orient churches to our country’s work of acknowledgement, redress and closure. I offer these boldly because I am convinced that one of white supremacy’s most dangerous weapons is the dominating and domesticating of Christian religion. The more Christians are silent in their biblical interpretation and gospel witness, the greater the hold white supremacy has upon Christianity’s greatest strength and salvation: our dark-skinned Savior, killed by the authorities and raised from the dead to inaugurate a new way of being in the world.

These five Christian truths are postures and practices that can help us orient ourselves towards the work of reparations so that we can find familiarity in territory that American society portrays as foreign land. May these five Christian truths connect the dots for us in ways that help us listen to the familiar Spirit leading us into the Greater Story which we have been living all these days, but now with greater clarity and urgency.

  • God’s people discern their identity by identifying with people from the past. We are accustomed to connecting with stories of people from faraway lands and distant people groups. Every year, we gather to tell the story of what happened in Bethlehem in the fields over two thousand years ago. Each Lent and Easter, we tell the story of Calvary’s hill. God’s presence in their lives teaches us about God’s presence in our lives. There is no length of time between slavery and the present that makes it irrelevant to us. We see the connection between the past and the present – whether that is millennia or hundreds of years.
  • God’s stories always involve flawed and failing persons. Let us remember that we regularly identify with disciples who misunderstand, disappoint, or even oppress. Their stories of wrong-doing and repentance are the bedrock of our faith. We know that looking back at our white ancestors and examining our white institutions will lead us to see our participation in and perpetuation of oppression. If we are humble enough to identify with Peter denying Christ, then let us learn how to be humble in our pursuit of reparations.  We do not need to be heroes in our defining stories as people of faith. We need only to follow a Savior who regularly saves us and sends us home to tell others about our transformation.
  • God moves through mangled miracles. Jesus’ ministry culminates with mob violence, state execution, and a Savior covered in wounds. Easter morning is a celebratory day that acknowledges and transforms what happened on Friday. The brutality, despair, abandonment, betrayal and denial are retold every year so that we can better understand our sin and God’s love. Our Savior’s glory is a gory Skipping, minimizing, scorning, denying or fearing the cross keeps us in a Good Friday world when God wants us to dance in the Easter parade – wounds and all.
  • God’s action in the world continues without end. Our scriptures may be bound in one book, but nowhere does it say the story ends with the final page. Jesus’ story is not over. Reading the Great Commission as if Jesus is speaking to us leaves no room for complacency and apathy within God’s people. We live God’s open-ended story.  Accepting yesterday’s evils as tomorrow’s reality denies God the possibility and power to transform our world.
  • God’s ways are innovative and unpredictable. If we need curiosity, creativity and courage, we must look no further than our God, who is always leading us where we could not go on our own. With our feet in the Red Sea and the Israelites on our heels, we’ve got to look to the God who parts the waters. Right in the thick of political division and authoritarian leaders, the risen crucified Christ shows another way. We need to confess our paralysis and lack of creativity so that we can be open to Easter morning experiences where we discover that God is nothing but innovative and persistent

White churches: Let us rise up. Let us confess that we are people in desperate need of a Savior, only now to discover that we furloughed him a long time ago when we thought we could manage on our own. We created ourselves in Christ’s position of power, but not in His image.

Fear not! Christ was born into a religious context where the trajectory felt inevitable and the future seemed like a closed book. Our Savior can once again lead us forward to find our souls cleansed, our pulpits redeemed, and our people commissioned into the ministry of reconciliation. Let us shout, “Glory!” and get to work forming committees, wading into tough conversations in love, and praying fervently for the stubborn steadfast persistence to see this work through to the end – whether it is in our lifetime or that of our grandchildren. Could it be that the white mainline Christian church’s resurrection is yoked with the resurrection of Black dignity, power, and safety? What a beautiful, unexpected, open-ended world God is creating among us.

Rev. Dr. Carol Harston is as Associate Pastor for Faith Formation and Congregational Engagement at Highland Baptist Church in Louisville Kentucky.

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