Race and Repentance: Duane W.H. Arnold, PhD
I was invited (surprisingly) by a Libertarian think tank to participate in a three day colloquy on the New History of Capitalism. The gathering was to be held in New Orleans. This was especially appropriate as our readings for the colloquy focused on the interaction of political structures in the functioning of the American economy with a special emphasis on the American South and its unique form of “planter capitalism” founded upon slavery. In order to prepare for our time together, participants read almost 400 pages of material starting with the emergence of capitalism in England, its growth in America, the impact of slavery upon our national economy, the post-Civil War period in the South, and through the New Deal to the present day.
By definition, much of the material touched upon race. While some articles argued that slavery would have ended without a Civil War in America owing to it being an inefficient economic system, others recognized a resistant “planter culture” based on race and servitude that had become engrained in the attitude of southern politicians and cultural leaders, including many in the Church. The proof of how this attitude held sway even after slavery was abolished, may be seen in the network of Jim Crow laws and the system of convict leasing in which close to 100,000 convicts, overwhelmingly African-Americans, would be leased out to agricultural and industrial enterprises, usually after having been arrested and fined for minor (or invented) infractions of the law such as vagrancy. One author referred to this practice as, “Slavery By Another Name”.
Any reading of American economic history, with our trade in cotton, tobacco, indigo and cane sugar, not to mention the profits made by the slave trade itself, must recognize that from 1619 through to relatively recent times, race, servitude and coercive violence have been integral elements in our economic life as a nation. The North shared in this through its “trading triangle” of New England, Africa and the West Indies. All of us, in one way or another, are the inheritors of this blood stained legacy. Now, at one time, I thought that the election of Mr. Obama would mark a turning point as an African-American occupied the White House for eight years. Sadly, with the recent rise of white supremacist and white nationalist groups it can sometimes feel as though we are going backwards.
On my way to New Orleans, I stopped over in Atlanta. I had a friend that I was going to see, an Anglican church to visit and a collection to view. I also had decided that it was time for me to pay my respect at a grave and to sit in the pew of a Baptist church. The church was Ebenezer Baptist and the grave was that of Martin Luther King, Jr., the slain civil rights leader. Having immersed myself in history and economics, sitting in Ebenezer Baptist, listening to a recording of King preaching somehow seemed much more real. It was not academic, it was personal. Having lived through much of the civil rights era, I can still remember the television images of police dogs being used against children, the report of the bombing in Birmingham and, of course, the news bulletin reporting the death of King himself. Even though we hope and believe that there is greater justice and equity in 2019 America, we must admit that race is still a dividing line in much of our nation.
That dividing line extends to the Church.
I recall, for instance, that Dr. King once said,”it is appalling that the most segregated hour of Christian America is eleven o’clock on Sunday morning.” He offered that opinion, by the way, in 1964 and, in 2019, it is still a reality. There are, of course, reasons we can offer for why this is the case. There are deep-rooted issues of culture and history. Nonetheless, the fact remains and I’m not really sure what, if anything, we can do about it.
To be honest, we cannot go back and change our history as a nation. Likewise, we cannot go back and change our history as the Church. I have often wondered about the issue of reparations, as much was literally stolen from African-Americans over the course of four centuries. I realize, however, that the “mechanics” of such a program are almost literally impossible. I applaud some educational institutions that benefitted from slavery in the past now setting aside money to fund equity programs but, as they themselves admit, it is only a small attempt in the greater scheme of things. The Church, however, is different. For us, it is not so much a matter of dollars and cents, as it is a matter of right and wrong and it touches upon our most fundamental beliefs.
Racism is a sin. It’s really that simple.
Racism is a sin that calls for individual and corporate repentance. Moreover, aligning oneself, or one’s church or institution with someone who is an avowed racist, or one who employs racist tropes or language is, I believe, likewise sinful. There is no moral equivalency with “good people on both sides”. Racism is sinful in that it denies that we are all made in the image of God. It is sinful in that it denies the fundamental message of the Incarnation that Christ took to himself all humankind, without differentiation. For those of us who bear the name “Christian” it is sinful in that it destroys the unity of the Church and the bond of love, for, “there is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”
We cannot change the past, nor can we rewrite history. As believers, we cannot change the attitudes of those in our society who cling to ideas of white supremacy and white nationalism, but we can recognize the fundamental sinfulness of those attitudes and, by our own repentance, seek a better way.