My friend and colleague, Thomas L. Kessler, has written a piece as a guest contributor to my blog. This post marks the first time I have invited another individual to offer remarks and commentary concerning contemporary ethical matters. Kessler’s article is in partial response to my blog on “The Supremacy of Sacrifice.” Hopefully, in the future, we (and others) will engage in dialogue as we seek to forge a better society for all. Now, here is Kessler’s blog.
Thank you, Dr. B., for providing an opportunity to contribute to your Social Ethics Blog by sharing a few of my thoughts on your comments, the book Tears We Cannot Stop: A Sermon to White America by the Rev. Dr. Michael Eric Dyson, and race relations in 2017 America. You may remember that in conversation I referred to Dr. Dyson’s book as “strong medicine” for most white Americans, as I would similarly characterize your 1982 essay Sacrifice and Enlightenment. Unfortunately, there are occasions when a disease is so serious that the strongest medicines are necessary. The malignant and metastasizing cancer of racism in our society presents just such an occasion for an overdue dose of strong chemotherapy for our national body politic.
Dyson wears two hats; one as a university professor and the other as a Baptist minister. He wrote Tears We Cannot Stop primarily as the pastor, defining his book as a sermon, and structuring it in the form of a worship service. From the first paragraphs (“Call to Worship”) Dyson delivers a sometimes painful message to white America, speaking about a “racial gulf” so wide that “black and white people don’t merely have different experiences” but “seem to occupy different universes.” He calls on us, regardless of faith perspective or lack thereof, to honestly address our nation’s original sin of racism. Indeed, his words will “make you squirm in your seat with discomfort before, hopefully, pointing a way to relief.” He concludes his introductory comments by saying “… the time is at hand for reckoning with the past, recognizing the truth of the present, and moving together to redeem the nation for our future. If we don’t act now, if you don’t address race immediately, there may very well be no future.” Dyson goes on from there, delivering his searing and prophetic sermon about racism in America. I can only say Amen!
Dyson’s words are so direct and powerful that many of those – let’s be honest here – many of those whites who have not yet engaged seriously, deeply or honestly with the issue of racism may well reject the message and medicine without opening their minds and hearts to truth and ultimate healing. I deeply regret saying that, but it is my honest assessment from within the white American middle class milieu. I suspect, Dr. B., that your 1982 essay Sacrifice and Enlightenment met with a similar reaction from the editor(s) at Newsweek.
Another book I’d recommend be read in tandem with Dyson’s is America’s Original Sin: Racism, White Privilege and the Bridge to a New America by white evangelical Christian author and activist Jim Wallis. Each book complements the other as Dyson provides a prophetic sermon and Wallis provides a supporting Sunday school lesson. Which begs the question, is it best to hear the sermon and then attend Sunday school, or to first get the Sunday school lesson and then hear the sermon? There is no definitive answer, but in the case of those most likely to reject Dyson’s message, the lessons laid out in America’s Original Sin might serve to prepare one to hear and take Dyson’s message to heart. Regardless of the order read, those wanting a better understanding of race relations and racism in America will benefit from a careful and reflective reading of both books. Both identify racism as America’s original sin and call for personal and collective repentance and redemption. Again, I can only offer a resounding Amen!
Dyson’s discussion of reparation is far more encompassing than mere economic reparations. Both Dyson and Wallis provide guidance for proactively moving forward to address and redress racism in America. In your essays, Dr. B., you spoke along the same lines regarding repentance and redemption, and you called for white Americans to make “proactive sacrifices to their privileged statuses to forge a new society inclusive of everybody and offering opportunities for all.” It is to your call for sacrifice that I want to direct my remaining comments. I am not going to speak to the economics of the matter, except to say that it would certainly require a major reordering of national priorities and perhaps a level of life-style adjustments for some. That said, I doubt it would be as economically impossible or apocalyptic as many might fear or proclaim, and ultimately less a question of money than of personal and collective will and morality.
Just what must be sacrificed by white America to forge that new society inclusive of and offering opportunities for all? My comments below come out of the sad reality I see and experience in white American society when it comes to the issues of race and racism. I realize that each “sacrifice” I suggest could rightly serve as the subject of an entire blog entry, and that you or readers could add to the list. My words may sound harsh to some, but they are intended to be descriptive rather than accusatory. They are based on universal aspects of the human condition, and certainly are matters I have grappled with personally over the past two decades.
We must sacrifice our denial. Many white Americans respond to the mere mention of racism with denial that racism exists in America today. They do this for a variety of reasons, one being that personal bigotry is often conflated with systemic racism. While personal bigotry and systemic racism are not unrelated concerns, they are separate issues and require separate remedies. While examples of both abound in contemporary America, a decline (although not disappearance) in the numbers of the most overt forms of bigotry over recent decades is often pointed to as evidence of the decline of racism. Systemic racism however is not declining, and some would argue is on the increase in 2017 America.
We must sacrifice our ignorance. Many, perhaps most, white Americans don’t have a deep or broad knowledge of the history and contemporary state of race and race relations in America, the development of the social construct of race, nor an extensive understanding of the wide range of racial disparities within our country. Dyson (see chapter #6) and Wallis (see footnotes) provide references to many resources one can turn to in order to educate themselves.
We must sacrifice our comfort. The more privileged life one leads, the more it is possible to live in a bubble of comfort, limiting one’s contact and interaction with those who lead less privileged lives defined by difficulties and/or challenges. Conversations across lines of race are also undeniably difficult, and it can seem that there are no ways forward to solve problems and issues related to race. However, insulating oneself from others, from unwelcome realities and difficult problems make them no less real.
We must sacrifice our apathy. There are great racial disparities in 2017 America in our criminal justice, economic, educational, medical and other social systems. Those disparities are well documented, widely known and factually indisputable. Apathy and indifference to the plight of others is sometimes rooted a primitive tribalism, but whatever the reason, conscious indifference to the suffering of others is a great moral deficit.
We must sacrifice our false myths. The false myths of self-sufficiency and individualism are particularly prevalent among segments of white American society. While individual effort and initiative are undeniably important for all, we live in an increasingly interconnected and interdependent society, and the ills affecting some ultimately affect all. Letting go of these false myths serves both morality and self-interest.
Individually and collectively, we are faced with a moral question as old as humanity: What responsibility do we bear toward others? To successfully address America’s original sin of racism we must acknowledge our individual and collective responsibility and act accordingly. The good news is that it is well within our individual and collective power to decide to make the necessary sacrifices. The bad news is that to do so challenges us in very deep ways in terms of self-perceptions, understanding of the world, perceived personal security, and our very identities. In short, it calls for an opening of our minds and hearts on the path to personal and collective repentance and redemption.
Of course, to be redeemed and to excise systemic racism from our society, these sacrifices must be followed by more concrete economic sacrifices and political action. But personal and collective redemption are possible, and Wallis’ America’s Original Sin and Dyson’s Tears We Cannot Stop can serve as powerful tools in those endeavors.
About Thomas Kessler
Coordinator of the Peace & Justice Center of the Cedar Valley (a ministry of Cedar Falls Mennonite Church), UNI Professor Emeritus of Library Services. B.G.S., M.A.L.S. & M.B.A. – University of Iowa.