During the epidemic of denial regarding the Battle Flag of the Army of Northern Virginia, accurately described as PTSD-like by my friend Sam, the genius editorialist Ta-Nahisi Coates published an open letter to his son, in which he struggles with the violent and psychologically disturbed position of so-called “white” people regarding “non-white” people, and the consequences of that position. It reads like a letter he wishes someone had sent him during his youth, surviving the streets of Baltimore.
His letter is an apology, both for his personal inability to protect his son from the violence which his son will surely endure solely because of his “non-white” status, and for his failure as a man and a leader to bring about the change necessary to give “non-white” people a level playing field. He lays out the reasons for his failure in painfully accurate terms. The primary culprit is the insular nature of white privilege, the illusion of normalcy which allows “white” people to pretend that “non-white” people do not exist, thereby rendering their suffering invisible.
Mr. Coates’ letter borders on despair in some places. He correctly identifies what must change and why, but he dares not hope for change. This is understandable. Why should he? The police are turning off their body cameras before they beat innocent black bodies into submission. Body cameras do not bring change. No technological advance, no science, no weapon of war, no linguistic manipulation, no amount of good behavior, nor money, nor fame, nor anything else can change the “white” people’s hearts.
At my Episcopal church, our rector, Mother Stephanie, is fond of exhorting us to embrace the “radical inclusion” of Jesus’ ministry. Tax collectors and beggars, Pharisees and Samaritans, Roman Centurions and adulteresses, all are one, not separate but equal, one. God’s power is love and nothing else. Love is necessary, sufficient, and capable of miracles. God knows we need one right about now.
Some of us have the luxury of pretending that “this little racial flare-up” is about the past. We can pretend that the Battle Flag is something that endangered “our” people once upon a time, but not anymore. We can choose not to see what the big deal is. Some of us do not have that luxury. Some of us are not free to go outside without a good reason for going where we want to go. Some of us must wear gold ornaments so that we will not be accused of shoplifting.
Some of us have the luxury of pretending that change will come later, because the present is perfectly comfortable for us. We can pretend that the Civil War and the Civil Rights Movement were planned, like a picnic, and were not change-happening-violently-uncomfortably-now. Some of us do not have that luxury. Some of us will die if the change comes later rather than sooner.
This, for America, is a defining moment. We are founded on principles established by deep-thinking God-fearing men who dared. At times throughout our history, those principles have been tested and have endured. Will we be the ones to abandon them? Do we believe that all men are created equal and endowed by their creator with inalienable rights? Do we dare to revolutionize our whole society because of our beliefs?
Do we believe in the “radical inclusion” of Jesus Christ? Because if we don’t, then we should stop calling ourselves Christians. Anyone can claim to be Christian. The Klan claims to be Christian. Their three favorite pastimes are burning crosses, burning churches, and murder. The Klan is to Christianity what ISIS is to Islam. How can we remove the speck from our neighbor’s eye before we remove the log from our own eye?