My grandmother was the kindest, most tender, most lovely person I have ever met. I adored her and I still miss her on a regular basis. For years, however, I was haunted by a brief conversation we had.
I was probably fifteen years old, sitting in my grandmother’s den “visiting,” as she would say. I had recently seen the movie Mississippi Burning and done a bit of reading about the history behind it. Given that my grandmother was from the Mississippi Delta, I supposed the film would be an interesting conversation topic. The exchange that followed was a halting, awkward affair, first confirming that she lived very close to the location of the murdered civil rights workers the movie portrayed, but finally confirming that she basically had little idea what I was talking about. I sat in stunned silence, swallowing the obvious question, “How could you not have noticed a story that made international news for months and happened less than forty miles from where you lived?”
That question turned into more questions as I got older. Namely, how could a person who never uttered a racial slur in her life, always helped people she encountered in day-to-day life, and was legitimately the kindest person I have ever met have been so indifferent to outrageous injustices in her own community?
For most of us who grew up in post-MLK America, we had the notion that our grandparents were somehow not involved in the ugliness of racism. We watched To Kill a Mockingbird and enjoyed the idea that Atticus Finch was there to stand up for people. The more I learned, of course, the more I realized that my grandmother had not been Atticus Finch. In fact, Atticus Finch was as much a fiction as Gone With the Wind. The best answer I could get was, “that’s just the way things were back then.” Fifty years after “back then,” as a 15-year-old, I found myself wondering what kind of a community allows people to go on being kind and lovely while ignoring such ravaging injustice.
Here we would do well to stop and ask, what is sin? What is repentance? Like many evangelical American teenagers today, I was raised in a world where sin and repentance were highly individualistic. Getting saved and walking with God was something that happened primarily between me and God – a two-way relationship. The first time I read the Hebrew Scriptures all the way through and encountered the prophets, I was unable to ignore a vision of sin as a corporate undertaking and repentance as highly communal and action-oriented.
For example, in the books of Amos, Jeremiah, and Micah, God commands His people to respond to ongoing injustices against widows, orphans, strangers, and those driven into poverty. The prophets demand that the people of God attend to “the way things were,” ways which made the poverty of widows normal, the suffering of children unremarkable, and the plight of ‘the other’ ignored without a second thought. The prophets ask of God’s people, “what kind of a community allows people to go on being kind and lovely and ignoring such ravaging injustice?” For the prophets, sin resides in the communal practices that are normalized, even institutionalized, not confined to the individual actions of single persons. In such systems, the individual transgression needn’t occur because the social practices of marginalizing, forgetting, and ignoring had become the “way things were.”
And yet the prophets call out for agency. Systems that marginalize, forget, and ignore are systems created and reified by people. The prophets will not stand for an explanation of injustice that allows individuals to hide behind normalized collective practices. The sin of injustice is communal and the repentance must be a communal repentance. That is, the community has a way of doing things that, intentionally or not, violates the will of God, so the community must disrupt those practices and reconstruct a new way of living together.
Reading the prophets, it becomes easy to critique my grandmother and her world. Fifty years on, I hear my voice saying “Had I been there, I would not have been silent.” Like the Pharisees in Matthew 23, I say, “if we had lived in our Fathers’ Day, we would have not have killed the prophets.” But what of my day? The prophets are dead because our fathers killed them. They are not here to get eyeball-to-eye ball with us. The Spirit of God, who spoke through the prophets, however, is not dead.
Today in America:
- A black infant is more than twice as likely to die than a white infant
- A black child is nearly 3 times as likely to live in poverty than a white child
- Black children are five times as likely as white children to attend schools that are highly segregated by race and ethnicity
- If a child attends a school where there are majority students of color, they will be allocated $2,600 less per year than their peers in affluent, predominately white schools
- A white child is nearly twice as likely to graduate from college
- A black child is more than five times as likely to end up in prison compared to a white child and 2.5 times as likely to be killed by the police
I could fill five pages with similar facts, but it is enough to say that in the United States, nearly every measurable social category is dripping with the evidence of systemic racism. What does my 15-year-old self say to me? It is the same question that Amos, Jeremiah, Micah, Joel, and Isaiah have for me, the same question that the Spirit of God asks me: “What kind of a community allows people to go on being kind and lovely and ignoring such ravaging injustice?”
Our 15-year-olds are watching and learning. Perhaps, with God’s help, we can respond in a way that will allow us to tell our own grandchildren, “We repented and we are engaging in the hard work of creating a new community together.”