At the end of the classic Civil Rights Movement that fought for desegregation in public accommodations and safeguarding the right to vote, Martin Luther King, Jr., began to focus on the plight of northern cities.  The issues there were manifold: discrimination in housing, education, employment, and so forth.  It was very difficult for those ensconced in poverty to find a way out of economic insecurity when those in power ignored their cries and ensured that the status quo would persist into the foreseeable future. 

Seemingly at every turn, King was stymied by systemic, institutionalized racism.  As the United States became increasingly involved in the Vietnam War, the young disadvantaged were disproportionately sent to the battlefield to fight for others’ freedom, the very thing they themselves did not possess as citizens back home.  King’s rhetoric began to sound more radical, more militant, during what would prove to be the final three years of his life.  Although his perception of the challenges in this nation had not changed significantly over the years, he increasingly demonstrated his disappointment with his native land over continuing to deny opportunities for a quality life to all of its inhabitants.

Hence, King commenced speaking on what he dubbed the triplet of evils: racism, economic exploitation (i.e., materialism), and militarism.  These three pillars of our society made it next to impossible to improve the poor circumstances in which one was born.  Various leaders of the waning movement began proposing policies such as a “Bill of Rights for the Disadvantage” or some kind of Marshall Plan to alter the life chances for those traditionally ostracized at birth.  Programs similar to the Works Progress Administration during the Depression years were part of the discussion.  King himself had recommended a guaranteed annual income to support those who were incapable of making ends meet through no fault of their own.

King stated that what this country needed is “a revolution of values.”  His intention was to argue that every human being should be accorded dignity and respect.  His desire was to point out the flagrant injustices we as a people have levied against particular categories of people.  He advocated a radical shift in our thinking, because he had realized such inhumanity in the body politic is blatantly immoral.

Here we are 91 years since King was born and 52 years this coming April since he was martyred.  Sadly, the three evils he was addressing are still pervasive in our world.  Issues of race still abound from the boardrooms to the streets, the gap between the haves and the have-nots has significantly widened, i.e., poverty still plagues too many, and the resort to violence in international affairs has become easier with the advancing technology in our military arsenals.  Sometimes, it seems the evils King sought to address have intensified or worsened.  Moreover, attention to them is similarly weak and solutions to them are not forthcoming.

Of course, there are many issues in addition to the isms to which King increasingly alluded.  Perhaps, our national holiday commemorating King’s life should include training and other endeavors that would highlight the unethical factors that impede the progress of our democratic republic and how to eliminate them.  A serious understanding of what King discerned about our society and an exploration of how he attempted to resolve the problems are incumbent upon us who desire a better tomorrow.

Needless to say, reflecting on King’s theological ethics and social concerns around his holiday is not enough.  The urgency of the oppression, injustice, and lack of progressive endeavors to alleviate the evils is so great that efforts to eliminate them must occur throughout the year.  We live in a society that claims to have the noblest of religious values, yet we fundamentally demonstrate very little regard for those who are struggling.  Hence, King’s identification of the need for a revolution of values deserves restating because we are not living according to those values in any ongoing, substantive ways.

Let’s get busy!

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I was looking forward to the first epic movie on the life and legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr.  His voice would always pique my ears and any pictorial of his figure lying on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel or of his body in the casket would automatically send me reeling.  So, announcements of the upcoming television docudrama called King transfixed me.  But, as often happens when something is hyped up and the anticipation is almost unbearahle, finally, when I began watching the show, it became instantly anticlimactic and I was immediately disappointed.

Sure, any representation of King that is not King himself was going to be a letdown for me at the time.  Nevertheless, I would be able to cope with such frustration if the presentation was qualitatively rich.  However, in this case, I was quickly unimpressed and wanted it to end despite the ineluctably horrific ending.

Why did I have a negative reflex action to the film?  After all, the actor playing the subject was the celebrated Paul Winfield.  For him, the miniseries was probably the role of a lifetime: it aired just shy of ten years after the assassination.  To play the Prince of Peace and arguably the most eloquent expositor of the so-called American Dream this nation had ever experienced was clearly quite an honor!  And the prospect of three nights recounting King’s life was nothing less than heaven on earth for such a fanatic as I was then.

I don’t know anything about the auditioning process, or even if there was one.  It seemed that Winfield was the obvious choice.  In a sense, he had earned the right to play the greatest leader of the twentieth century.  Besides, he would turn thirty-nine years of age in three months: the same age of King when he was assassinated.  Some might even say that Winfield looked a little like King at a glance or a distance, which would add some credibility to his depiction of the civil rights leader.

What the casting people failed to ascertain is a matter of size.  For you see, Dr. King was below average height for males at 5’ 7”; Winfield was around 6’ 1” tall.  This difference between the two men was anathema to me.  Part and parcel of the story of King—his disposition, his psyche, his charisma—had to do with his diminutive size.  For example, when angered by a threatening white mob, King, who was walking away, made an about face to challenge what they were sneering and to shout at them that he was right there for the taking.  In my opinion, the depiction of this episode in the film fell flat, for Winfield towered above most of the characters playing his lieutenants as well as over the racist protestors!

This pet peeve of mine is scarcely obsessive, but it still rears its ugly head, so to speak.  For example, sometime during the twenty-first century, I became a reader of Jack Reacher novels by Lee Child.  Reacher is a solidly built man who’s measured at 6’ 5” in height.  Again, when I heard rumors about the possibility of a feature film centered on this fictional character, I awaited more information with baited breath.  Needless to say, I was floored to discover that the imposing figure of Child’s popular tough guy was going to be played by Tom Cruise!  Cruise is no taller than King.  I just could not get into the movie(s) with Cruise as Reacher, for it just would not click for me!  There is good news, though, in that someone who matches Reacher’s dimensions will play the next rendition of Child’s character.

Recently, I watched a movie tribute to the retired Archbishop Desmond Tutu.  This nonviolent crusader for racial justice in South Africa and chair of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission after apartheid fell happens to be shorter than even Cruise and King!  The winner of the 1984 Nobel Peace Prize stands at 5’3” tall.  Just imagine how overwhelmed I was when Oscar winner, Forest Whitaker, was privileged with playing the international cleric!  I felt that someone in the movie-making business was messing with my head!

Obviously, one of the reasons why Tutu is beloved is because this short man challenged a structurally racist society head-on with clear and eloquent voice.   His physical stature was complimented by his powerful advocacy for the end of racial oppression.  Whitaker, at 6’ 2” tall, was more suited in The Last King of Scotland to play Idi Amin (who was 6’ 4”) than the pint-sized crusader in The Forgiven!

I’m sure there are countless examples of bad casting that include many other dimensions besides height.  Herein, I am not casting (no pun intended) aspersions against the acting chops of Winfield, Cruise, or Whitaker.  Rather, I am calling for more discernment of the historical record, including the height of the subject matter (no pun intended, again), when hiring actors.

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Has Capitalism “Worked”?

It’s laughable to me when critics of socialism parrot the cliché that “it has never worked anywhere in the world.”  Usually, that prosaic statement is made not from primary research, but from lazy borrowing from others—who more than likely also did not do their own research or reading.  What does it really mean that something has not “worked”?  It is a funny way of describing opposition to a sociopolitical and economic system.  However, it seems never to elicit any comparative analysis about the “workings” of capitalism.  The assumption is that capitalism is working, but there is very little conveyed about how it is or what makes its success different from socialism’s failure.

Is capitalism successful because a very small percentage of people get inordinately wealthy and a majority regularly struggle to make ends meet?  What makes that prove capitalism is working?  Is the destiny of capitalistic endeavors to encourage a dream that is obviously unreachable for the masses of people?  I mean, if it has been working for, let’s say, a century and a half, then what exactly has been working?

We can have discussions about freedom, entrepreneurship, and following one’s dreams, but the reality is that the majority of workers are employed in jobs they do not enjoy; yet they feel stuck in those jobs and unable to quit because the circumstances will not be any better.  The delay in getting a paycheck if one lands another job may constitute a hardship, and if there are any added expenses accompanying the new position, then its worth is challengeable or questionable. There may be a slight improvement in income, but the ability to meet the vicissitudes of life will usually substantively stay the same.  This lack of mobility and estrangement from genuine liberty are part and parcel of capitalist systems practically speaking.

Perhaps, there is a theoretical predisposition towards capitalism that I am not feeling and/or a philosophical antipathy towards socialism that I am not grasping.  From my vantage point, whenever there is an element of care that is injected into capitalism, some immediately cry foul and condemn it for being “socialist.”  The word itself has become a scapegoat for anything that tasks or defies free enterprise.  It might take too long herein to assert how capitalism in the United States has rarely, if ever, been “free,” and that social institutions of one stripe or another have always been subject to some form of regulation.  In human affairs, nothing can be truly anarchic, for we will roughshod over each other in a Hobbesian state of nature.

Then, of course, the fact that so many people equate communism and socialism often obviates or precludes having a meaningful discussion. Sound bites and tweets are not enough to straighten out the confused and ignorant. Nevertheless, the inadequacies of the resultant discussions are passed off as instructive, which they are not. Moreover, the distinction between (sheer) socialism and democratic socialism is rarely explained. Most democratic socialists are not spouting violent overthrow of the body politic or the putting of major industries under government control. The fear-baiting that goes on when democratic socialism is often discussed vitiates addressing the serious issues about the real burdens of capitalism in the United States and elsewhere.

I have characterized myself much of my adult life as a democratic socialist.  Most of my mentors have been or leaned heavily that way: Martin Luther King, Jr., Walter Muelder, Jane Addams, Michael Harrington, Barbara Ehrenreich, W. E. B. Du Bois, Harvey Cox, Manning Marable, J. Philip Wogaman, Letty Russell, Cornel West, et al.  I know it is ill-advised to utilize the biblical witness for such support, but it seems to me that the care evinced by prophets, apostles, and Jesus lends itself to a milieu that is so much concerned about the disadvantaged that constructive social services are necessary—whether or not the capitalist system is eliminated.

In our country, the widening chasm between the haves and the have-nots, so to speak, has to be closed.  Why it has gotten to this point is debatable; that it must close is not.  People who are business owners should not be free to monopolize a market or to refuse to pay workers livable wages.  Such is simply common, moral sense.  However, the idea of an unbridled market has captured the imagination and has become a mantra all its own.  People who are seriously disinherited by this notion are often the ones who irrationally support its self-enslaving disenfranchisement!

Poverty can (and must) be eradicated, but it will never happen under a capitalist system.  Even our mixed economy is not compassionate enough to thwart making paupers out of the majority of its citizenry.  It is nice that democratic socialism is increasingly tolerated and accepted in the public arena and that some leading public figures embrace many of its ideas and ideals.  Public discourse is helpful, but talk in the final analysis is cheap when unaccompanied by systemic, structural changes.  I want to encourage the dialogue and the ongoing struggle—both endeavors in which I have been engaged for four decades or more.

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Smarting Over Intelligence

I am experiencing a bit of dissonance these days as the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) are constantly in the news. In terms of the agential members of these organizations pursuing the issue of other countries’ meddling in the 2016 elections—especially Russia—I am very supportive.  It’s my hope that they will get to the bottom of what happened and apparently is still happening, and that they will share the facts with the general population.  I find myself largely trusting their research as well as the work of the Department of Justice and the special counselor.  However, that confidence is tempered by a grain of salt, metaphorically speaking.

You see, I came of age socioeconomically, politically, culturally, and ethically during the turbulent 1960s.  Before the end of that decade, I had experienced three major assassinations and the escalation by the United States of an unwinnable war in Vietnam.  I was aware of racial discrimination personally, and I had realized how the so-called American experiment was still reaching for that city upon a hill, so to speak.

I had begun to read the works of William Edward Burghardt Du Bois and Richard Wright as well as the poetry of Langston Hughes and Countee Cullen.  I was learning about aspects of the history of this country that was not covered in many of my social studies classes.  By 1970, I was already well-versed in the classic Civil Rights Movement (1955-1968) because of my fanatical admiration of Martin Luther King, Jr.

Through my voracious readings, I could not help but to start questioning the roles of governmental agencies in the murders of President John F. Kennedy, Dr. King, and Senator Robert Kennedy.  I was acutely aware of the weak civil rights programs of the New Frontier, and I was furious over the federal surveillance of King initiated by Bobby Kennedy and F.B.I. director J. Edgar Hoover.

As the 1970s progressed, I discovered more and more of the seedy side of the intelligence community.  What was confusing to me as an 8-year-old third grader on November 24, 1963, was why the ability to understand the truth of the event of the century allegedly perpetrated by a lone gunman would be vitiated by his murder on national television! Whatever wound I felt that Sunday began truly to fester while I attended Catholic high school, graduated with a diploma from public school, and matriculated at a liberal arts college in southern New England.

By the time I entered seminary and was licensed to preach in Atlanta in 1979 and 1980, respectively—having endured the ending of the Vietnam War, the Watergate scandal, and the resignation of Richard Nixon and the ascendancy of a B-actor to the presidency—I was confirmed in my conviction that the JFK assassination was a conspiracy, COINTELPRO was still going on to squelch liberation movements, and neither of the two major political parties were ever going to be antiracist in a genuinely aggressive manner.

During the latter part of my undergraduate years, I had participated in the divestment movement on campuses regarding U.S. corporations doing business in South Africa.  That involvement continued throughout the 1980s as I attended graduate school in Boston. Imagine others’ and my exhilaration over the release of Nelson Mandela after 27 years of imprisonment!

That hopefulness was tempered by my continued research on the turbulent 1960s and the successive decades that revealed the socioeconomic and political advancement of people of color was not appreciable—considering the sacrifices made by thousands of movement participants.  Even today, after twenty-five years of continual teaching, pastoring, directing educational departments and nonprofits, and community activism, I am deeply disappointed that racism is still structurally systemic and the gap between the rich and the poor has considerably widened.

Although the classic Cold War era ended with Mikhail Gorbachev and the dismantling of the Soviet Union, it was not without suspicion about the role of the United States in Central and South America, the Middle East, and the obfuscating connectivity between drugs and armaments.  My distaste over the FBI and the CIA had not waned, but the vicissitudes and preoccupations of life managed to mollify its fervency.

Perhaps, it is understandable that there will always be a hermeneutic of suspicion when I contemplate the work and role of the intelligence community.  My hope that truth will out concerning Russian interference, U.S. cooperation, and obstruction of justice remains, but it is not unbridled by any means.  As of yet, the verdict is not in.  We shall see. Meanwhile, let’s continue to demand and advocate that justice will be done!

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On April 4, 1968, I was grounded for some reason that now escapes me—probably because of paternal capriciousness rather than childhood petulance.  I recall a few days earlier that I overheard my father opine that Martin Luther King, Jr., would probably be shot.  At the age of twelve, I was not fully aware of the reasons why my dad would make such a prediction, but when the news bulletin came on the television that King had indeed been shot and killed in Memphis, Tennessee, I was completely shocked.  I begged my mother to plead with my father to allow me to watch TV; I guess he was also thrown for a loop over King’s fatality, so to speak, for he granted me my wish.  And as a little over four years earlier when Pres. John F. Kennedy had been assassinated, I was glued to the television set for the next few days until King’s funeral was over.

I have to admit that the trajectory of my life—apart from my having Christian faith—owes a large part to my understanding of this tragedy and this man who became my hero.  Since that dark day in 1968, especially for the next couple of decades, I read everything I could put my hands on about King.  My parents bought me records of King’s speeches, they shared with me magazine articles about King, and I was always on alert for anything that came across my living space referencing the good doctor.  I sought ways to address the plight of the poor and the marginalized in our society, and eventually visited Atlanta, was licensed to preach at Ebenezer Baptist Church, and elected to pursue my doctorate at Boston University, where King received his Ph.D. degree.  At times, I even mimicked King’s voice, so much so that I was often asked to recite his famous speeches, which I knew by heart.

Here we are fifty years since his murder, and we find ourselves sadly dealing with different manifestations of the same ills he gave his life trying to resolve: racism, materialism, and militarism.  For me, it can be heartrending to realize that the killing of unarmed black men, the deportation of undocumented children, the obliviousness of Native American concerns remain despite King’s efforts towards desegregation, integration, and equal civil and human rights.  The alarming divide between the rich and the poor has exacerbated since the 1960s and the disparities in quality of life between them have enlarged and intensified.  And who would have thought that we’d return to the perverse cold-war era in the twenty-first century and still engage in arms races with a growing number of adversaries?

I do not like to talk in terms of what-ifs or hypotheses contrary to the facts.  I never liked the “what would Jesus do” fad or the “if King were alive” charade.  However, I do believe that we can deal effectively with contemporary issues if we can learn appreciably from our past.  There have been many attempts at nonviolent direct action campaigns since the sixties, and we see a proliferation of them today with Black Lives Matter, Me Too, March for Our Lives, teacher walkouts, demonstrations against voter suppression, and others.  Whereas King was not the best organizer or administrator, he was able to have good workers around him and to articulate in the most eloquent of terms the beauty and worth of human personality, the ethic of love, the need to commit oneself to something meaningful, and the specific goals and objectives of each endeavor.

Furthermore, he was able to instill in all who listened a practical or realistic optimism about the future.  He believed that the best in the universe would eventually supersede the worst, that one day justice will roll down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream as the prophet Amos foretold, and that we could live together as sisters and brothers instead of the alternative of perishing as fools.

We have not reached the end of that moral arc, which means that we have much more work to do.  So let’s get busy!


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Recently, a friend asked me regarding my plans for the holiday season.  The text message was written hurriedly, for he and his wife were leaving for the weekend.  I received the question, “What ate your Christmas plans?”  Of course, I knew it was a typographical snafu that the cell phone completed; however, it struck me as strangely descriptive of that which has been going on in our country.

Many individuals feel the pressure of joining the commercial and consumer bandwagons to purchase and exchange gifts.  It is quite stressful for those who can barely make ends meet.  They struggle to find deals—sale discounts that they still cannot afford, but which are less than they would have to pay at full price.  There are many who go into further debt, hoping that tax refunds might save them.  Others realize they cannot participate in the material demands of this period of forced charitableness, and they regrettably and embarrassingly share with family, relatives, and friends the failures of their socioeconomic circumstances.

Although these latte decisions might very well save their lives and prevent them from worsening their credit rating, they often pout and put themselves down because they cannot meet their own expectations or fulfill the anticipations of others.  In a very real sense, the accidental question “What ate your Christmas plans” seems precisely prescient.  After all, their financial states of affairs precluded the possibility of gratifying their reciprocal gifting plans!

What is incredulous during this time is the realization that the rushed-through tax reform passed by the U.S. Congress demonstrates that legislators elected to ignore the shrill cries of the middle, working, lower, and under-classes.  They decided to give unprecedented tax cuts to corporations and the richest people—a wonderful Christmas present for them, but continued exploitation of the majority of citizens of this country.  Hence, this new legislation did metaphorically “eat” their Christmas plans!

When I first read my friend’s text message, I almost immediately thought about that storied arrogance, “Let them eat cake.”  Even though the saying has been misattributed to Marie Antoinette and predates her adulthood, it struck me that she had been known to enrich her coffers, collude with her native Austria and other countries, and exploited those suffering all around her through deception and temporary insubstantial measures.  Eventually, those in authority and the general population despaired of her shenanigans: they convicted of treason and condemned her to the guillotine.

Economic exploitation, structural discrimination, mistreatment of immigrants, and other forms of persecution and oppression have been around a long time.  They have never been beaten down, but there have been times when they have not won the day entirely.  We are witnessing a resurgence of actions and policies that seem to permit the deliberate obstruction of full participation in the body politic based on classifications and categories of people we need to transcend.  The prospects of the so-called American experiment are being vitiated and distorted deliberately, and we seem unable to come together to trample the corruption.

Whereas I am nonviolent in my approach to the resolution of conflict, I am by no means passive.  We cannot remain idle when the ethics of love, compassion, and justice is being ignored by our leaders.  Representative democracy depends on the participation of all, and we need to make our voices and perspectives heard in the public arena.  There is a lot at stake.  Else, many more will soon be asking, “What ate your Christmas plans?”


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What Must Be Sacrificed?

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.

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The Supremacy of Sacrifice

In 1982, as I was finishing my final courses for the master of divinity degree at Yale University, I wrote an op-ed piece for Newsweek’s “My Turn” column.  I had the belief that the editors would look favorably upon a soon-to-be Yale alum, and I did not think that my elitism was grandiose or ill-advised.  What I had typed at the time was a brief essay called, “Sacrifice and Enlightenment.”  The main thrust of the article was to suggest that a major antidote to racism is the recognition of this blight against humanity by white people and their making proactive sacrifices to their privileged statuses to forge a new society inclusive of everybody and offering opportunities for all.  What follows is an excerpt of that commentary.

White people are misled when they firmly believe that they do not need to sacrifice.  They fail to realize that such sacrificing is redemptive, that they will benefit greatly from the strengths and beauty of diversity.  They seem not to remember that black people as a whole have been suffering for centuries—that white people in the main should be earnest and assiduous in assisting blacks to reach the status of full-fledged human beings and welcome civic contributors to a new America.

A little sacrifice (and concomitant suffering), relatively speaking, on the part of white people and a greater awareness (and understanding and endurance) on the part of black people can coalesce to bring about a better America.  If a better America is what we truly want, then, with a genuine change of heart, we shall do just fine.

It was not so much that I was naïve and unsophisticated at the time, albeit my writing style has markedly improved (or so I believe).  Quite frankly, I just felt it simply needed to be said.  I was angered momentarily by the rejection letter I had received from the managing editor, Kenneth Auchincloss, which states: “Dear Contributor: Thank you for your submission to NEWSWEEK’S ‘My Turn’ column.  I am afraid your piece is not quite right for us, and I am returning it to you.”  It did not seem like a form letter, though maybe it could have been.  But I was struck by and stayed stuck on the words “not quite right for us.”  I was uncertain what that meant.  I felt that my intentions were honorable and that I was trying to suggest how we could work to put this insidious specter of white racism from following us into the future.

At that time, I had already read many of the works of William Edward Burghardt Du Bois and had heard and read many of the speeches of Martin Luther King, Jr.  Du Bois and King were heroes of mine.  During their careers as movement leaders and public intellectuals and cultural critics, they had argued for white people to sacrifice their superior position to help advance those systematically exploited and oppressed.  The great author, James Baldwin, had also slipped this sacrificial recommendation in some of his novels and opinion pieces.  So I realized I was in good company.  Nevertheless, I wanted to restate the case during a period of time when I felt the burgeoning national administration under President Ronald Reagan was inevitably going to turn back the clock on all the gains the classic Civil Rights Movement had accomplished.

As a director of a campus multicultural center, I was able to invite a variety of speakers to the university to discuss racial and ethnic group relations in the United States.  Two persons I was delighted to have come by a few times are Tim Wise and the late Manning Marable.  The latter explored the destructiveness of racism in our political landscape, and the former discussed what white people needed to do to repair the damage that white racism has caused in multiple and cumulative ways.  Their unique perspectives and rhetorical styles reached similar conclusions about steps that need to be taken to make the experiment of America finally become a reality of inclusion and pluralism.

It had been thirty-five years since my unpublished piece meant for Newsweek was unceremoniously returned to me.  Yet the idea of sacrifice à la Du Bois, King, Marable, Wise and me has not dissipated.  In part, it is a driving force behind Michael Eric Dyson’s Tears We Cannot Stop: A Sermon to White America.  The esteemed professor of sociology at Georgetown University also had graced the podium under the auspices of the aforementioned center.  His eloquence and impassioned speaking style are inimitable, and his dynamic rhetoric both convicts and charges listeners.  I imagine that people can be easily intimidated by his erudition and his ability to characterize the multifaceted human condition in black and white.  His literary style may remove the haranguing that some can hear, but its sharpness, blatancy, and searing truth can also be disturbing.  However, for people who are interested in learning more about how blacks continue to be mistreated—from the killing of unarmed African Americans to the support of white nationalism and Donald Trump—and what must be done to keep this country from returning more deeply to its xenophobic and racial morass, then Dyson’s book is a must read!  After all, Dyson is an ordained Baptist preacher and he laments the moral depravity and structural ineptitude that supplant progress and democracy.

Check back here in two weeks as a guest blogger shares his understanding of Dyson’s book as a way of analyzing race relations today from a white person’s perspective.  A dialogue between the two of us initially may generate further conversations with others as we address this perduring American legacy in search of extirpation.

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Dealing with North Korea

As a thoroughgoing pacifist, I clearly disfavor the use of violence to resolve international conflict.  How to respond to the growing nuclear capability of North Korea is rather complex, many experts say, and the options available to and being explored by the United States government are quite alarming in their destructive possibilities.  I believe that the present crisis is the result of a longtime practice of dismissing potential tension until it becomes explosive.

What I mean to point to here is the fact that we consistently hesitate to engage in serious diplomatic efforts until a situation that could have been prevented is upon us.  We watched as Korea’s singular goal to become a nuclear nation developed and flourished.  Rather than engage in intense discussions with our allies and other nations in the area to suppress the mounting threat to peace and security in the region and the world, we refused to take the bold steps we needed to dismantle North Korea’s pursuit of their goal completely.

Part of the problem of lack of redress is that we are reluctant to negotiate with established or perceived enemies.  When we do not communicate directly with opposing nations, we risk the escalation of conflict that seems almost irrevocable.  Whereas I do not believe there ever comes a time when the violence of war is absolutely necessary, I do believe we do not help to divert such a catastrophe by circumventing direct conversation with all parties involved, including nations with different interests than our own.

What is challenging is persuading another nation, insistent on fulfilling their own interests, that their goals and objectives are destructive and ultimately inhumane.  Who has ample authority objectively to make that claim?  It is all the more difficult when we seek to disable another nation from having what we and other countries already possess!  On what moral grounds do we stand, when having arsenals of nuclear and other weapons of mass destruction to the level we do gives us superpower status that makes all other nations extremely vulnerable?

Of course, we cannot go back in time and change the fact that military might can wipe all traces of human existence on this earth.  However, cases can be made that claim the introduction of another nation to the roster of those with nuclear weapons would significantly alter the balance of power that is already quite precarious.  The devastating reactions of nations and populations around the world to the U.S. show of force on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945 would be replicated, albeit not to the same degree because there is a level of deterrence since there are other countries able to execute nuclear strikes without the aid or support of the United States.

In my opinion, it would be both foolhardy and unconscionable unilaterally to attack North Korea without direct provocation.  Too many lives would be lost, including those of U.S. soldiers and citizens in the region.  In this day and age, it is morally indefensible to exercise first-strike capabilities of a conventional or nuclear means.  The proximity of North Korea to contiguous nations as well as others at moderate nautical distances obviates any violent intrusions.

Regime change should always be off the table, since every country has subjective interests that militate against intervention into their own boundaries.  Hence, it would be inconsistent to argue logically for the overthrow of another country’s leadership.  Respectfully negotiating with opposing and threatening nations is preferable to violence, even if sometimes there is the belief that a particular leader, such as Kim Jong Un, is mentally and emotionally unstable.

At this juncture, imposing multilateral and multifarious sanctions against North Korea and other noncompliant nations seems to be the most feasible option to compel Kim to relinquish his testing exhibitions and his building stockpiles of nuclear weaponry.  These sanctions should be severe encroachments upon Korea’s normal conductance of domestic and foreign business.  Kim should get the message that anything short of full cooperation with shutting down its nuclear program would debilitate his country and its people.

Many have argued in the past that international sanctions are acts of violence, even though no military weapon is employed.   I disagree.  From my vantage point, there is a genuine difference between physical violence and international sanctions.  For the most part, sanctioning a nation is not only avoiding directly killing soldiers and civilians, but also putting the fate of the country into the hands of its government.  The nation’s leaders can preclude the possibilities of harm and death by agreeing to the demands of the sanctioning agent(s).  It would take appreciably longer for sanctions to result in casualties than warfare.

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Felonious Violence or Not?

I do not want representatives of our democracy to become so out of control that they attack reporters physically—regardless of how politicians or candidates might dislike their questioning.  The body slamming of Ben Jacobs of The Guardian by Greg Gianforte of Montana was arrogant, misanthropic, and foolhardy.  It suggests that he was unable to verbalize a cogent answer to the reporter and opted for a shortcut solution, which was not a response at all, but just an unconscionable reaction.

This incident reminds me of how other professionals lash out in violence because they have not learned how to defuse situations.  Instead, they let their emotions get the best of them, so to speak, and use the weapons at their disposal to act out of fear and without thinking.  A lack of training in deescalating confrontations contributes to bringing episodes to the boiling point—resulting in a network of exacerbating ramifications.  The relationships between police and community members and the consequences thereof easily exemplify the tendency to interact destructively from a vantage point of xenophobia, ignorance, and categorical prejudices and stereotypes.

What is disturbing about the aftermath is that Gianforte’s actions were not considered to be felonious in nature.  The police charged him with misdemeanor assault despite the fact his actions intended to cause harm to Jacobs.  His actions were grossly disproportional to the feisty entreaties by the journalist, who cannot be characterized as belligerent, aggressive, and threatening.  Such lack of equivalency demands a stiffer charge.

However, we live in a society that has become increasingly accustomed to lying, bullying, impropriety, narcissism, megalomania, conflicts of interest, etc.  The cruelty, nastiness, and disrespect candidate Donald Trump utilized during the presidential campaign have been dismissed by many as unimportant and shamelessly copied by his supporters.  Clumsiness in the face of the media does not give those being interviewed the license to resort to violence.  The exculpatory responses by Republican legislators, for example, make mockery of our system of justice and accountability.

It is my hope that citizens dealing with real issues in their communities across the country do not relent for fear of such outlandish reprisals.  We currently live in an atmosphere that regales hatred and calumny as a substitute for healthy debate, persuasion, and constructive criticism or praise.  The members of the justice system, legislative branches, and voting population must take the initiative to put the kibosh on these mindless outbreaks!

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