By George A. Mason
Many thanks for the invitation to speak to you. I imagine this is an unusual thing for a white Baptist pastor to offer words of challenge to Black legislators. I want to thank my friend and fellow minister, Rep. Carl Sherman, for the trust this invitation represents. And it’s a double honor to be joined in this effort by my friend and colleague in the struggle for justice, the Rev. Frederick Douglass Haynes III (be sure to spell Douglass with a double-S on the end to recall the former slave who told enough truth to Abraham Lincoln to move him toward a more moral view of the Civil War than just keeping the Union together). Freddy and I have been doing Teach-Ins together at Friendship West Baptist Church for the past four years on Martin Luther King, Jr. weekend. So, this seems right.
One thing I have learned from showing up in traditionally Black spaces is to be a learner first. Listen to the experience of others before offering solutions that don’t meet the lived experience of the people you are talking to—lest you end up talking down instead of to. Much of what I want to say today comes from what I am learning from Black pastors, writers and theologians.
To that point, let’s begin with this important charge from African American Episcopal priest and womanist theologian Kelly Brown Douglas:
A moral imagination is grounded in the absolute belief that the world can be better. A moral imagination envisions Isaiah’s “new heaven and new earth,” where the “wolf and the lamb shall feed together,” and trusts that it will be made real (Isaiah 65). What is certain, a moral imagination disrupts the notion that the world as it is reflects God’s intentions. . . . [It] is nothing other than the hope of black faith. Such hope trusts that the arc of God’s universe does in fact bend toward justice.
There’s so much in that one paragraph that we have to take it apart and put it back together.
The Vision of a Better World
Imagination can be good or bad, helpful or harmful. But we all use it in our political life one way or another. The question is how?
My purpose here is not to pander to my audience by making ad hominem attacks on white people generally or white Republicans particularly. Black politicians have some of the same temptations as white ones. And you also have some white allies in the Legislature you can count on to have your back.
But we have enough history to say that white politicians have active imaginations. They are political shapeshifters, changing their convictions to meet any challenge to their assumed right to power and control.
For instance, white Republicans have long advocated for local decision making. Their theory of democracy was that culture is a durable thing and shouldn’t be tampered with from above. That means that states should have priority over the federal government and local communities should have precedence over state governments. Until, that is, States’ rights and localism don’t work in their favor. Then, lo and behold, preemption!
The city of Boulder, Colorado, enacted a ban on the sale of assault weapons in 2018. Naturally, the NRA sued. And just 10 days before the mass shooting in the grocery store there, a judge overturned the ban based on state preemption. The shooter was able to buy an AR15 as a result and then murder 10 souls. That’s preemption.
And that is also now what our governor, lieutenant governor and attorney general want to do any time a municipality wants to imagine a different way of policing that would shift money from the blunt response of gun-toting officers that leads to arrests as the only alternative, when many situations call for more humane attention that mental health and social workers can aid with. And who do you think gets overpoliced most?
We have seen the same with COVID vaccines and mask mandates and drop-off locations for early voting. We are seeing it again with bills that would prevent local zoning boards from stopping charter schools they don’t want in their neighborhoods. Never mind local decision making when the decisions might go against those in power.
The problem goes back to the use of imagination to manipulate systems to maintain the status quo rather than for the purpose of a more just society. I am not saying that white politicians are consciously doing this the way they did in the era of Jim Crow, but that is also the point: they don’t have to.
It used to be that if you asked a white person what it meant to be white, he would answer “not Black.” I would submit that that is still what many of us think but no longer will say. Nowadays, we have moved on to the idea that color doesn’t matter. Do you know this line of reasoning? White is not a color; it is colorless. It used to be a color for us in the eras of slavery and segregation. Now, white people like the idea of colorblindness, and we misappropriate Dr. King in support of that. If you make something about color, you are race-baiting, while we are simply trying to be colorless and neutral and principled.
The fact is, when I wake up in the morning and look in the mirror, I don’t see a white man, I just see a man. Because I don’t have to. I can go about my day without consciously pretending that I am doing anything insensitive. But I am not white and most of you are not Black. We are various shades on the spectrum. The language of colorblindness is now meant to mask the fact that people who look like me still have massive social advantages. If we are colorblind, we can pretend that there is a level playing field we all play on. Which is why white politicians work overtime to convince themselves and their constituents that all they are doing is keeping things fair.
Like voter integrity or security, as they call it. This is baloney, of course, since the attorney general’s office spent 22,000 investigative hours to determine that there were 16 false addresses on registration cards from a voting pool of nearly 17 million. That is a solution in search of a problem. But there is no limit to the lengths some will go to preserve power. Governor Kemp of Georgia just signed voting laws that will make it harder for people to vote—including limiting the impact of the Black church’s Souls to the Polls movement and making it illegal even to give water to people standing in long lines. Of course, those long lines are not in predominantly white districts. And then the governor scoffs at accusations of racial motivation. It’s happening here in Texas too, unless we stop it. This reflects a never-ending exercise in political imagination to keep the world as it is, which is not the way a moral imagination rooted in the faith of the Black church works.
In the meantime, the net worth of Black American families remains 10-12 percent of that of white families. Black males have been warehoused in prisons by what Michelle Alexander called The New Jim Crow. The War on Drugs, mandatory sentencing laws, and a bail system that is punitive toward poor people have all devastated the Black family and made second chances nearly impossible. This is why both the Botham Jean Act and the George Floyd bill need your support. Thanks to Rep. Sherman for his sponsoring of Bo’s Law.
By every meaningful measurement in our state, Blacks trail whites significantly. So, we have to ask why, of course. And the answer white people give begins with an imperceptible shrug that implies what in another era we would have said openly: There’s something about the character and culture of Black people that inhibits their success on the level playing field we have created. But as the engineer and management consultant Edwards Deming said: Every system is perfectly designed to get the result that it does. Which means we need to address the systems that exist, systems that continually favor white people over people of color. This is what must be fixed before individual hard work and collective hope can do their part.
The Need for Moral Imagination
We need instead a moral imagination that is rooted in a vision that the world can be better. Morality is centered on what is humane, not just what is legal. As Dr. King said in his Letter from a Birmingham Jail: A just law is a man-made code that squares with the moral law or the law of God. An unjust law is a code that is out of harmony with the moral law.
We have a lot of law-and-order folk sponsoring bills right now that do not square with the moral law or the law of God. We have current systems that are designed to keep things the way they are for Black Texans, or even to make them worse, no matter what is said about how fair things look on paper. What’s needed is the moral imagination that the world can be better than it is and that the world as is does not reflect the intentions of God.
That moral imagination has to come from people like you—people whose vision is rooted in faith that is embodied in the Black church. I am telling you that the faith that is rooted in the white church has defended an idea of freedom that looks like the Wild, Wild West. Lots of guns; individualism running rampant; survival of the richest; praises of the divine magic of free markets and competition, when that ends up producing precisely the outcomes we see today. Doubling down on that vision is harmful to all of us, whether we profit by it or not, because as Jesus said: What does it profit a man if he gain the whole world and lose his own soul?
The Black church has preserved the gospel while the white church has lost its way. I want to mention just two ways that is true: the meaning of freedom and the value of community.
Defining Freedom and Community
Kelly Brown Douglas talked about the hope of the Black faith. She noted the idea of an unfinished world that yearns for the day when there is a “new heaven and new earth” and “the wolf and the lamb will feed together.” To get there, we have to understand two important facets of Black faith that are rooted in the Bible.
First, freedom. The Christian story doesn’t appear out of nowhere. It begins with the story our Jewish siblings just celebrated. The Passover recalls God’s liberation of the children of Israel from their slavery and oppression in Egypt. It began a story that continued with the giving of the Law on Mt. Sinai. God would no longer abide our notion that some people have a right to rule over others. Laws must apply equally to all.
The idea of divine right of kings was doomed from that moment forward, as was the sinful ideology of white supremacy. It has taken a long time to root these things out or to bring them into the light; but now we must see the truth. Political democracy is possible only with radical equality.
Freedom, therefore, does not mean a lack of government regulation. That only allows might or white to mean right. Freedom is liberation from such evil systems. But it’s more than that; it’s liberty and law. It is the creation of new and more just systems, systems that sync up closer to the biblical vision of a new heaven and a new earth.
The second thing is community. God did not only deliver individuals from Egyptian slavery; God delivered a people. Which is why is has always been easier for Black people than white people to see themselves in the story of the children of Israel. White people want to talk about individuals being free to succeed, shorn of the constraints of government. But government is the expression of our communal life. It’s one way we work to build a more just, peaceful and prosperous society.
The hope of Black faith in our politics must deliver us a greater sense of neighborliness. The Hebrew Bible and Jesus both said a lot about loving our neighbor as ourselves. Politics is one way we love our neighbor.
As Mika Edmondson has put it in a recent tweet: You cannot love your neighbor while supporting or accepting systems that crush, exploit, or dehumanize them. You cannot love your neighbor while accepting less for them and their family than you do for you and your own. And yet, that is the very definition of what our politics have produced toward Black people in this country and in this state. The idea that the wolf and the lamb will feed together is precisely the kind of dream of democracy we must keep alive. This is true community. It’s not a zero-sum game where the wolf devours the lamb. But that is the way we have structured our politics.
Bending the Arc
Things have to change. But they will not change by simply believing the oft-quoted line of Dr. King that Ms. Douglas cites—that the moral arc of the universe is long, but it bends toward justice. That may be true, because God is resolute in God’s commitment to justice for all. But God has chosen not to work alone in this world. God calls upon people—especially people of faith—to bend the arc.
In her poem for the presidential inaugural, “The Hill We Climb,” the U.S. Youth Poet Laureate, Amanda Gorman, references the sign of the reluctant prophet Jonah:
We’ve braved the belly of the beast; we’ve learned that quiet isn’t always peace.
Like the prophets of old, she holds us accountable for our actions:
We know our inaction and inertia will be the inheritance of the next generation. … Our blunders become their burdens.
Then, like the prophet Micah, she reminds us of God’s desire for mercy: But one thing is certain. If we merge mercy with might, and might with right, then love becomes our legacy, and change our children’s birthright.
This is where you come in, of course. This is where hope lies. And this is why you have my prayers.
—This address was delivered on 5 April 2021 in Austin, Texas, and offered to Christian Ethics Today by its author. George Mason is pastor of Wilshire Baptist Church in Dallas, TX. He is a member of the board of directors of Christian Ethics Today Foundation and a leading pastor among progressive, inclusive Christians.