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January 1, 2022
Deacon Bill Stimpson
If They Could See Us Now
I cannot remember when things changed, but I believe that there was a time after the elections, that politicians got down to the business of the national benefit. For many years now it is different. When the elections are over, it is only the mark of a new election season, never a time to actually get serious about the greater needs of our country. Politicians do this only because we let them. We let them because we think they are supporting our interests, rather than their own hidden agendas. We allow ourselves, at times, to be vacuumed up into the rhetoric of self-interest and fear; rather than honest dialogue about the common good. I believe that this particular concept easily transcends party lines – What is good for me is good for the country, is not specifically a Republican nor Democrat ideology. This thinking is deeply ingrained in our will to survive, our basic human sense of threat. Yet if we identify ourselves as Christians, we need to recognize the difference between a real threat, and our overvalued sense of social positioning.
Years ago, actress/singer Shirley MacLaine starred in a movie Sweet Charity (1969). The movie/musical is a story of a struggling young lady – Charity Hope (Shirley MacLaine) who meets an actor Vittorio Vidal (Ricardo Montalban) and is awakened to a fancier lifestyle than she had ever experienced. She sings a song by Linda Clifford, “If They Could See Me Now”. The song touts the circumstance she now found herself in, and how her friends would never believe it. She was after all a dance hall employee. The character Charity Hope did not possess the refinements of an education. Her grammar was less than perfect, her expectations in life were not far reaching, not nearly as far reaching as her dreams. But she finds herself in a fancy restaurant, “eating fancy food and drinking fancy wine”.
In America, we pride ourselves as being a land of opportunity. And, I presume that there are not many, if any at all, countries in the world that have such social mobility as we have here in the United States; where the daughter of a coal miner in West Virginia, could become an honored Country Singer; a young black kid in New York could become a five-star general in the army, and eventually the Secretary of State, under President George W. Bush. Men and women across a broad spectrum of racial, economic, and social challenges have risen to the top of their profession. In America, there are opportunities for people of all races and backgrounds to rise above their circumstances, to accomplish great things. But the opportunities are not equally distributed. Those born into wealth have a greater access to better educations, a step or two ahead in career opportunities, better health care. Some argue that there is really no problem, it’s the law of nature, the way of life. I, myself am not specifically inclined to disagree. But life in America is grossly unfair to people of color, people of other distinguishable physical characteristics. The complaint that the playing field of life is greatly tipped in favor of the wealthy, and the white is not without merit. Unlike the rigid caste systems of some other countries, being born black and poor in America does not compel that person to a life of misery and strife. But they will need to work harder than their white counterparts to achieve similar social goals. Females of any race, have a more difficult time than their male counterparts.
A Pulitzer Prize winning author, Isabel Wilkerson, describes the concept of a caste system here in America in her book Caste, The origins of our discontent (Random House, 2020). She describes the complaint of African Americans around the country, that there is a real effort to sustain a defined caste system here in America. After reading her book, I cannot disagree with her insights and challenges, but I do believe that for most white people, we do not consciously think in terms of castes. The fundamental of caste systems is the assignment of a social status for a people of a common factor; race, net worth, education, etc. In India, the caste system is ancient, and accepted as part of their culture. But in so many other countries, the existence of caste systems is more subtle, denied, and at times publicly condemned. The establishment of caste-like social structures are not specifically limited to stratifying society by economic, racial or occupational criteria. Castes serve two fundamental human desires – secure wealthy class, and provide a sense of human superiority.
In America, according to Wilkerson, the Africans brought to the Americas as early as early as August 1619 (p 40) came as slaves. When pilgrims arrived a year later, the African was already present in America. Over the next two hundred and forty-six years that slavery was legal in the United States, a system of denial had become so much a part of the white culture. American settlers, were for the most part white, Christian, and Europeans. The ideal of equality was quickly adopted, but also easily overlooked when economic advantage was at stake. Most any rational Christian would be hard pressed to condone the horror of slavery as it was practiced against the Africans. In defense of slavery, proponents would claim that Africans were somewhat less than human; they were created for service (demonstrated extraordinary capacity for productivity), were better off than when in Africa, it was economically impossible to run a plantation without using slave labor. This argument for the necessity for cheap labor is repeated throughout fiction and non-fiction literature. Harriet Beecher Stowe writes about the life of the southern slave and the South’s justification for slavery in her famous work – Uncle Tom’s Cabin. A more modern work by Fergus Bordewich – Bound For Canna, History of the Underground Railroad, writes about both the eternal struggle for freedom by the slaves, and the great efforts to keep slavery in place.
A question that I propose to myself as much as to anyone: Do I really, in my heart of hearts, believe that all people, regardless of age, gender, physical capabilities, mental capacities, race, ethnicity, or any other category of distinction, are all equal in the eyes of God? If I really do believe the above, then I must recognize that all peoples, regardless of any physical, ethnic, religious or other characteristic are equally entitled to enjoy the fruits of freedom, liberty, and happiness as every other human person. Saint Paul often writes about the internal conflict between the will of the flesh and the will of God. Essential to a genuine faith in Christ is the recognition of the command to imitate Christ in our own lives. We best imitate Christ in receiving all people as members of the same body, the body of Christ. If, when we look at any person of color, any person of, a different nation of origin, and we see someone who belongs to a “social position” outside of our own, we are not seeing through the eyes of Christ. If we close our eyes, our minds, and our hearts to the artificial distinctions we have allowed to be placed upon peoples, to think that our social dominance is secure when we control the forces of economic and culture; if we think our self-worth is tied to anyone else being less, we are not living according to the way of Christ.
“… and Thomas said to him, ‘Lord, we do not know where you are going, how can we know the way?’ And Jesus said to him ‘I am the way, the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.’” Jn 14:5-6