Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Racism and Shame

“Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. “Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.”
Matthew 5:10-12

During the Civil Rights marches we saw the same scenes repeated over and over again across the south. Non-violent protestors were met with violence and hatred. Little girls had their dresses soaked with spit, just because they were trying to go to a school that had previously been open only to whites. Men and women were brutally beaten.

And the news photos show angry white men and women, shaking their fists, their faces contorted with hatred. Over the years, as I have looked at the pictures and watched the films, I have thought how terrible it must be to have yourself recorded for posterity shouting hateful things. Often the faces are clearly visible. Children and grandchildren must be able to recognize them. How would you explain that to a grandchild?

Forty-five years ago the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was leading a march from Selma to Montgomery. At the Edmund Pettus Bridge they were beaten and turned back by state troopers, but they regrouped and eventually marched to the capitol. It was on that bridge forty-five years ago this month, that Representative John Lewis was severely beaten.

This past Saturday in Washington as Lewis and other African-American legislators walked up the steps into the Capitol, they heard racial slurs and epithets which made them feel as if they were in a time warp. Representative Emanuel Cleaver, who is also a United Methodist pastor, was spit on. The issue this time was health care, not Civil Rights, but the racism was still there.

In terms of Jesus’ blessings, Representative Lewis had the odd experience of playing two roles. He is persecuted today. And he was persecuted, like the prophets, years before. We may argue about whether this particular piece of legislation qualifies as “righteousness” and justice for Jesus’ sake, but we cannot argue about the slurs and epithets.

Racism is not the same now as it was forty-five years ago. We have made progress. In fact, we have made unbelievable progress. But the past still haunts us.

I have often thought, when looking at those old photographs, at how ashamed those folks must feel today. The incidents on Saturday tell me that there are some people who simply have no sense of shame.

(For another discussion of Dr. King’s speech at the end of the Montgomery march, forty-five years ago this Friday, see my blog from November 9, 2009.)


  1. Dear Bill,

    What if it didn't happen? Is there shame in false witness? Is there shame in trafficking in false witness?

    Cut and paste the link:

    What if every time the subject of EGUMC came up in public it was described as an "All-White" suburban church? Would you feel that you were unfairly insulted? Would being noted by the press as the pastor of an "All-White" church get your goat? Stop trying to associate principled opposition to the political agenda of the Democrat Party with atavistic haters and greed-heads.


  2. I read the editorial. If the incidents did not take place, then that's a serious matter. But it seems unlikely to me that Rep. Cleaver was mistaken, or that Reps. Lewis and Clyburn would not correct the record. (In a related matter, Rep. Frank was also insulted by anti-gay epithets.)

    I have no problem with "principled opposition." That's how democracy is supposed to work. We can and should debate the merits of the bill.

    My point in terms of racism is that the past still haunts us. And I believe it does.

  3. I find it more likely that someone said something racist in that large crowd of people than the representatives lied about it (which is what we would have to say if we contend that the events did not happen). When people get together in large groups, someone is bound to say or do something dumb.

    I saw Bill commenting on that individual instance was wrong and not connecting those people to any of those opposition groups. I read his commentary as a reminder that racism is something real and as something that still shows its horrible, ugly head.

    Just because a few words were not captured in a recording doesn't mean it didn't happen. We have seen plenty of things that have happened on film that are completely silly and "wrong."

    We can say that it is wrong to have any kind of political strategy based on fear and anger.


    We have seen people holding up pictures of Obama with a Hitler mustache. They have the right to do this, of course, but they are wrong. No matter how bad people think the health care bill is, it cannot be compared with the systematic killing of over 11 million people. People who do such things are "wrong." They are not wrong because they oppose health care reform but because they apparently have no concept of the Holocaust or the horrors contained therein.

    It is wrong to vandalize people's homes based on how they vote. It is wrong to send threatening messages. They have the right to say I will not vote for someone next time. They have the right to say they are angry. But they are wrong to threaten bodily harm.

    It is wrong, if you are an influential person in the media, to use language of "reloading" and set gun targets on a map.

    I don't think that is demonizing a particular side, I think we can just point out when things are clearly out of order.

    I found it ironic that people who are so concerned about stopping health care for people who cannot afford it were not outraged with the Patriot Act which allowed the government access to private information, circumvent normal procedures for warrants, notifications and holding people indefinitely without charge or trial on U.S. because they were "enemy combatants."

    Personally I don't care if the government goes through my email, taps my phone or looks at my bank statement or credit card bill. It really isn't that interesting. However, I am not a big anti-government person. Where was the outrage for that?

    Of course there are people who believe silly things on both sides. People who contend that President Obama is a non-U.S. citizen and a Muslim are of the same ilk of those who think President Bush orchestrated 9-11 in order to go to war.

    The problem I have is that it has simply become about opposition and not about problem solving. I think there is something wrong about the issue becoming opposition at all costs. If people feel they had been shut out of the discussion, then they should be alternatives. What do we do about people who work for minimum wage and do not have health care? What do we do about the unemployed? The bill we have may not be the best, but where is the alternative?

    Doing nothing is not an alternative.

    As for demographics, I think the issue should be about the community from which a church derives its membership. More telling of the impact of race in our society than a group of fringe people yelling racist things, is that we have populations that are economically segregated. How can we answer the question of why are some communities significantly more "white" than others? What do the economic situations of those cities show us?

    I think it is important for churches to discuss racism in predominately "white suburbs." I think, because we are so separated from the reality of racism, that we tend to believe it does not happen as often as it does.