John Meacham writes in his 2006 book “American Gospel”:
”A tolerant, pluralistic democracy in which religious and secular forces continually contend against one another may not be ideal, but it has proven to be the most practical and enduring arrangement of human affairs — and we must guard that arrangement well.”
As we celebrate a difficult anniversary of the Declaration of Independence this weekend, fully aware of the flaws in our foundation and the shortcomings of our nation, it’s worth remembering that in spite of them all, there’s still something of value. And perhaps we can, by God’s grace, breathe upon that ember and re-ignite something greater than we now have.
It feels like this moment in America’s racial divide is different than the moments that have gone before. There have been racially motivated shootings and violence in the last decade or so here in America, but after a few weeks of protest, most of us move on to the next issue.
Yet this year, the data indicates that there’s a real and measurable shift in the way white American’s view discrimination. The data is presented in an article in The Washington Post. The article ends with this:
In fact, Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. justified his 2013 decision to dismantle key sections of the Voting Right Act by writing, “Our country has changed, and while any racial discrimination in voting is too much, Congress must ensure that the legislation it passes to remedy that problem speaks to current conditions.”
Americans, however, no longer reflexively agree with the chief justice’s argument. At the time of his 2013 ruling, only 19 percent said there’s a lot of discrimination against African Americans; just 20 percent thought we haven’t made much real progress against racial discrimination since the 1960s. Those figures are now up to 50 percent and 41 percent respectively.
Fifteen years ago I would have never imagined that public opinion would shift so rapidly on same-sex marriage. But it did. Five years ago I wouldn’t have imagined a shift on racial justice could happen suddenly. But it seems to be.
There’s lots to lose heart about right now, and lots to worry about. But take heart. Perhaps in the midst of the turmoil something new and hopeful is starting to emerge.
That’s my prayer for us today.
This evening the Center for Reconciliation held an online candlelight vigil. As board chair I made the opening remarks:
On behalf of the staff and the board of the CfR, I welcome all of you who have joined us for this time of prayer and silent vigil, on this the Eve of Juneteenth, the anniversary of Emancipation and the “effective” end of slavery in the United States, and in the week when we mark the fifth anniversary of the slaughter of innocent people at a Bible Study at Mother AME in Charleston. We are gathered from across the state and around the country to make a witness that our nation still has not lived up to what it claims about itself. All people are not equal in the United States. Black lives matter and the majority in this country have not behaved as if they do. They have not been equal from this nation’s founding and are not equal in the 21st century. We gather to grieve this, we gather to call for change, we gather this evening to commit ourselves to the work of making this nation a more perfect union, fully lamenting how much needs to be done, and how deeply hurtful our history is and has been to the people pushed to the margins by people like me and the communities that formed me.
In my religious tradition, which depends so much on the unbroken witness of the Jewish teachers and prophets, there is the practice of lament. There are times in human experience when we simply despair. Today, in this moment, we despair of a lack of justice, a lack of will to make effective change, and of lives lost to the forces which have corrupted us and are destroying us. We lament, joining our tears with those who have come before us, and those who will in all likelihood come after us. We lament that children are turned against one another by a lie that some are more valuable than others in human eyes. We lament that people die and are dying today because of our desire to have power over others, because of greed and fear and unbridled pride. And yet, I believe though that God has the power and does act to collect our tears, to wash us and renew us through them, and by lament and contrition we can be transformed.
And maybe this, throwing ourselves at God’s feet, repenting of the evil we have done, and which has been done on our behalf, is the most effective response in this moment to the battles that are being waged on the streets of our cities and in our capitals across the world today.
Tonight, the Center for Reconciliation, a program of the Episcopal Diocese of Rhode Island has invited a diverse group of leaders to address us all. We will hear from them and be inspired by them. We will keep silence for 8 min and 46 seconds, a time that is now seared into our collective conscience, the time that passed as George Floyd was murdered in Minneapolis. We will name the victims of racism and its diabolic consequences and keep those names and their memory before us. We will lament and beseech God, our Higher Power, to move mightily for deliverance of the oppressed, and to change the hearts of stone that are causing sin and death.
Anne Applebaum, writing in The Atlantic traces how institutions turn aside from one set of values and take up another. It has to do with small changes to the way we perceive what is acceptable behavior, a willingness to go along with a group rather than rocking the boat.
Applebaum describes how this worked in East Germany during the Soviet Occupation:
In the 1950s, when an insect known as the Colorado potato beetle appeared in Eastern European potato fields, Soviet-backed governments in the region triumphantly claimed that it had been dropped from the sky by American pilots, as a deliberate form of biological sabotage. Posters featuring vicious red-white-and-blue beetles went up all across Poland, East Germany, and Czechoslovakia. No one really believed the charge, including the people making it, as archives have subsequently shown. But that didn’t matter. The point of the posters was not to convince people of a falsehood. The point was to demonstrate the party’s power to proclaim and promulgate a falsehood. Sometimes the point isn’t to make people believe a lie—it’s to make people fear the liar.
These kinds of lies also have a way of building on one another. It takes time to persuade people to abandon their existing value systems. The process usually begins slowly, with small changes. Social scientists who have studied the erosion of values and the growth of corruption inside companies have found, for example, that “people are more likely to accept the unethical behavior of others if the behavior develops gradually (along a slippery slope) rather than occurring abruptly,” according to a 2009 article in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology. This happens, in part, because most people have a built-in vision of themselves as moral and honest, and that self-image is resistant to change. Once certain behaviors become “normal,” then people stop seeing them as wrong.
She then applies this to the way that the Republican establishment gave turned away from the sorts of things they had lobbied for, small government, limited change, no deficit spending, etc to the present attitudes.
But this has more applications than political science or the current political crisis in America. It’s true in schools, churches and denominations, non-profits, for-profit corporations, fraternal organizations, etc.
The disappointing thing here is that it’s well understood how to pollute a culture yet it’s rarely resisted effectively.
The word prophet means “the one who sees what is coming”. Perhaps if we listened to the words of the prophets more closely, both the historical prophets and the contemporary ones (and paid less attention to the “court prophets” who support an unjust society) we’d be able to more regularly resist those who would turn us to their purpose.