[Samuel Son is a columnist at North State Journal, a pastor of a multi-ethnic church, a writer for Presbyterian Outlook and Mocking Bird, and a leader in Micah. Read more from Samuel at his website, sonsamuel.com. Samuel’s most recent post was featured on The Raven Foundation. We have reposted it with gracious permissions from the author and from the site administrators at the Raven Foundation. The original post dates to September 19, 2016, and can be found here.]
The recent hoopla about our national anthem and black athletes, whether they supposedly displayed disrespect by not covering their heart as Gabby Douglas or sitting it out as Colin Kaepernick and other athletes following suit, is an exposé of why racism is a rattrap for America: racism has been a core identity of America like no other nation.
Before the first slave was sold in London, England was a nation. Not so in America. Investment loans were created to buy slaves in Richmond before the ink on the Declaration of Independence dried. Both George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, pillars of American democracy, the former by his political savvy and the latter by his eloquent words, got slaves when they were of age. Slavery, and its ideological child, racism, is America’s original sin because the American republic, as Jim Wallis argues, was founded on the principle that “black lives and black bodies don’t matter.”
Gabby was thrashed, but no one batted an eye when the shot put champions, Ryan Crouser and Joe Kovacs, gazed at the flag with their arms comfortably limp at their thighs. To be American is to be white. Blacks — and other non-whites — are perennial foreigners who must prove their citizenship unfailingly. My Korean father made us memorize the anthem because, he explained, “You are not white so you have to be more American than whites.” Most of my white friends mumbled through it.
After the 2015 execution of nine African-Americans by Dylan Roof with a monomaniacal vision of volleying a racial war, immense community pressure translated into a vote to bring down the Confederate flag from the South Carolina State House, a long-coming admission of the racist nature of Confederacy. But the Confederate flag has served as a scapegoat. Before the Confederacy, there was one America, birthed on the shipping, buying and selling of black bodies. So fundamental was this anthropology that when Jefferson wrote, “All men are created equal” no qualifying phrase was necessary, for it was “self-evident” that it meant whites only.
With racist ideology being fundamental to America’s raison d’etre, talk of racism inevitably incites powerful emotions. The chant “Black Lives Matter” feels like an attack and thus the rejoinder, “White Lives Matter.” Both racial equality and accusations of racism are perceived as a threat to America as dangerous as submarine nukes possibly lurking under the Pacific. Denouncing Washington for owning slaves is paramount to attacking the American government. I understand the sentiment. I would rather speak of my father’s courage to land in J.F.K airport with a single Benjamin in his wallet rather than the hurtful words that echo fresh in my head.
Abraham Lincoln boldly confessed this dark American identity in his second inaugural address. In an attempt to frame a meaning to the horrible loss of life, half a million Americans, he said:
fervently do we pray, that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still must be said “the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.”
Sensing that the loss and the dark past was beyond political language, he called upon theology, a way to talk of the world with a divine agent, to help the nation, and himself, be both honest and hopeful in the tragedy and sin.
I wonder if the only way we can make a passable path on the issue of racism as a nation is the language of theology, specifically, the theology of repentance, that can reach back to our past, face our original sin and make full repentance.
Repentance means “changing of one’s mind.” In Christian theology, it begins as a confession, not just of one’s sin but one’s state: “I am a sinner.” Sin is not external to you, like a cloth. It is part of your identity. Yet, by that confession one creates a separation from the sin. “I am a sinner” leads to “But I am not that sin.” With sin separated, a new identity is given which actually is a return to the original identity. In repentance, one practices the paradox of becoming more oneself by recognizing the contradictions in oneself. Confession in repentance then leads to reparation, actions consistent with the new/old identity.
So John the Baptist called his tax collecting Jews to be true Jews by repenting and returning any money wrongfully collected.
If America could fully repent of its original sin, it would find a new American identity that is not a betrayal of the old.
The power and viability of the theology of repentance was recently embodied by Georgetown University when on September 1st, John J. DeGioia, its president, publicly apologized for profiting from the sale of 272 slaves in 1838. It had all the marks of “true repentance,” full admission of sin at its core identity and commitment to reparation, such as the policy to give preferential admission to descendants of the enslaved (people disagree on whether the reparation went far enough). Mr. DeGioia said the impetus of Georgetown’s actions were drawn from the rich source of “Catholic tradition,” i.e., the Christian theology of repentance.
Georgetown offers a vision of what America can do. If America publicly repented of its “original sin,” neither whitewashing nor demonizing the founders, but confessing that though they sought equality of all men, they wrongfully excluded blacks, then America would remove all justification of racism that still linger hidden in the public discourse and policies.
Additionally, we would see the fight against racism not as an assault on the American identity, but as a building of a new Union that is more faithful to the words than those who signed off on them, the words that began the American experiment: “All humans are created equal.” Such repentance would be a faithful revision, a turn to a truer self.