Racism, the Imbalance of Power, and the Response of the Prophetic Voice
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“They told us we wouldn’t get here. And there were those who said that we would get here only over their dead bodies, but all the world today knows that we are here and we are standing before the forces of power …”
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., speaking at the conclusion of the march from Selma to Montgomery, March 25, 1965
I’m writing these comments at a particular moment in time. And yet, unlike a week-old newspaper, the themes and issues have a persistently endless quality about them that just won’t seem to go away. The annual observance of Black History Month has just concluded. And in a few days, our nation’s first black president will commemorate the 50th anniversary of the landmark civil rights march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, by standing on a bridge named after a Confederate general and reputed early Grand Dragon of the Ku Klux Klan, Edmund W. Pettus.
In the last few years we have witnessed a resurgence of racial strife, as the recurrent curse of our American story. Names and phrases like Trayvon hoodies, Ferguson and “I can’t breathe” have become protest chants. Hands raised high overhead are no longer accompanied with shouts of “Hallelujah,” but rather, “Don’t shoot.”
Equipping law enforcement personnel with body cams is now recommended to record whatever transpires, after the fact. And all the while, political forces work to dismantle, disempower, disenfranchise and discourage voting rights in our democratic society. One citizen, one vote, one voice is a constitutional principle that seems challenged and tested, once again.
It took a half-century to elapse after those two marches from Selma, Alabama in 1965, for a docu-drama retelling that story gets an Oscar nomination. And the anthem, Glory wins Best Original Song at the Academy Awards:
One day, when the glory comes
It will be ours, it will be ours
Oh, one day, when the war is won
We will be sure, we will be here sure
Oh, glory, glory, glory.
One fine, glorious day it shall come, the singer sings; just as both the ancient prophets and the prophets of our own age once proclaimed. It understandably leaves us wondering when that day will come?
But perhaps it is not so much a matter of when we shall overcome, but the ever-present what? And in the naming of the what, we might also ask where is the echo of the prophet’s voice in all of this?
Naming the What
The short answer to the question of what we hope we shall one day overcome is the endemic racism that persists in America. In civic society – as in the biblical story – there is the letter of the law, and the spirit of the law’s intention. Civil rights can be the law of the land, and still miss the mark when it comes to the heart of the matter.
So the longer and more difficult answer to what we must overcome lies in a penchant for power of one human being over another that results in the kind of inequity that surpasses the simple cry for moral justice. The repeated historical reality is that such a precarious imbalance of power eventually descends into such disequilibrium that it becomes untenable and unsustainable.
We must overcome the penchant for power of one human being over another that results in the kind of inequity that surpasses the simple cry for moral justice.
It is also the same dynamic that can find expression in tribal, racial or ethnic conflicts, warring factions between nation states, gross economic disparity and the “prosperity” gap, and even radical extremism that usurps religious traditions to construct aberrant belief systems and consequent behavior.
For example, in the Christian faith tradition, the authentic letters of Paul have been used to both defend and condemn slavery. There are the familiar lines in Galatians 3 about faith superseding that which had previously guided right behavior; namely, the law (of Moses). Such faith that expresses itself through “oneness in Christ” not only fulfills the law, but ameliorates all previous distinctions between gender, tribe or race, or positions of dominance or subservience. “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female,” Paul writes, “for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.” (Gal. 3:28)