Shame on Us

Shame the painful feeling arising from the consciousness of something dishonorable, improper, ridiculous, etc., done by oneself or another. ( Us we, the collective, those we include and accept, the opposite of them. (My own definitions)

Racism is the most repressed and suppressed reality we have ever consistently failed to acknowledge or actively argues against. From the artificial creation of “race,” to the egregious and hostile exploitation of same, to the subtle and all-too-deniable subtle biases, to the absolutely ridiculous claims of “color-blindness” racism is one of the most despicable creations of humankind. And it is insidious. Once revealed, it should have been immediately repented of and eliminated. It should be the priority of every decent human being to protect the dignity, respect, value, and giftedness of every other person on earth. Yet, daily, white persons of privilege fan the flames of division and harm by denying history and trying to change the past. This week, a mother named Emily Conklin, filed a complaint against an elementary school for showing the Disney film, Ruby Bridges, because it depicts white adults verbally assaulting and threatening a black child attending a “white” school (based on a very real story about Ruby Bridges attending school in New Orleans) in the 1960s. The danger, it seems, is that white parents do not want their children to see how blacks were treated in the past because it might upset them. Forget how black people felt being treated that way; that’s beside the point. In our own state of Wisconsin, we are faced with SJR-7 on our April ballot which would prohibit public school teachers from teaching anything that might upset or offend students and make them feel guilty or responsible for things done in the past.

Across this country an irrational, yet powerful, backlash against Critical Race Theory exists, primarily driven by those who have not read, studied, or understood it. Critical Race Theory isn’t “anti-white” or “reverse-racist”. It is redemptive and informative. It reminds us that history is written by those in power and that all stories have at the very least two sides. I have the honor of facilitating a discussion group for the Nehemiah Community Development Corporation’s, Justified Anger: Black History for a New Day study. I am deeply impressed by the excellent, non-defensive, patient and kind teachers and lecturers who cover a broad series of topics of oppression, violence, dehumanization, rape, and colonialism. There is not a vindictive or hateful note in anything they teach. They are seeking understanding over shaming, comprehension over accusation. Our country does not need less Critical Race Theory; it needs much, much more.

A close colleague of mine shakes her head and says, “We should have see it coming. “Woke” has become a joke, and the more people lump any awakening awareness of bigotry, bias, prejudice, hostility, hate, and racism into “wokeness” the worse it gets. Two years ago, when I said “woke,” it brought on cheers of support; now, as a black woman, I say “woke” and people either laugh or scream at me.” This is just one more way that white America diminishes and dismisses the need for reparations and redemption. When shiny white males make fun of “woke” (yes, Ron and Ted, I am talking about you…) it lets millions of people off the hook and alleviates any responsibility to take seriously the charges raised. One hateful, narrow-minded, and contemptuous white celebrity or politician (and who can tell the difference anymore?) who mocks racial equity and equality grants permission to the unenlightened to stay snug in their darkness.

Redemptive Shame: A number of years ago, I was the advisor to a Vanderbilt seminary student on a ministry project. This young man found out that his great, great, great grandmother had come from the Congo as a slave for a South Carolina tobacco grower. She essentially became the nanny to the grower’s nine children, and she kept a journal that grew to over 800 handwritten pages. The student wanted to edit the journal with commentary, focusing on the spiritual life of his ancestor. HIs final project was only 110 pages long, so I sat down with him to ask why it was so short. He sat across from me, and his body language was both aggressive and defensive. His lower jaw jutted out and he had fire in his eyes. He told me, “Most of the diary was useless. She went on and on about the family and how she loved the children, and how well she got treated.” I asked, “So, why couldn’t you leave that in? It seems that it shows an exceptional strength in adverse conditions. Shouldn’t she be honored for rising above?” With tears in his eyes and pain in his voice, he looked at me and said, “SHE WAS A SLAVE. SHE WAS THEIR PET. I don’t care how nice they were to her! They owned her; she had nothing and no life. She was property!” I felt his pain wash over and through me and saw myself briefly as he say me; I was a white guy looking to somehow make slavery okay. I was completely missing the point and implicitly aligning with every voice that says “black people complain too much; they don’t know how good they’ve got it.” I was suddenly ashamed, but in a good way. I learned something. I was changed. And I have never again considered looking for a “positive side” to slavery.

If there is anything truly central to our Jewish and Christian heritage it is this: we are all connected through our God-bestowed humanity, and what happens to one happens to all. Beloved community is only as strong as its most vulnerable member. Our task as the body of Christ is to care for others as God cares for us. In our covenant, there is no “us and them,” but the divine opportunity and possibility to become “all of us together.” That means we must own our mistakes, claim our shame, take responsibility and not hide our heads from owning the injustices of the past. We cannot heal that which we deny; we cannot solve that which we ignore. There is a shame on those in power and control, on those who have benefited at the cost of others, and those who continue to deny equity and equality. But shame is no match for grace, and the grace of God is boundless. Let us repent our past and work together to create a glorious future for all.

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