If I had grown up in Jesus’ day, my family and I would not have followed him. I have a high degree of certainty about that. He was a radical who broke the rules. We were not down with that kind of nonsense in my family. We became Christians long after Christianity was institutionalized. Once it was more common to do it than not to do it.
We fell in line in my family. Rules were good and the law was right. The summer before fifth grade, I begged my mother to call the school and request the good teacher because EVERYONE ELSE WAS. Nope. We trusted the system. I’m still trying to catch up on fractions. When I explained that no high school senior attended school on the last day and that it would be embarrassing and absurd for me to go, my mother barely glanced my direction. So I and one loyal friend made our way from class to class that day and chatted with teachers who would have preferred we go to the mall like every NORMAL senior so they could grade papers. I was raised to comply, to trust authority.
So I often wonder how it would feel to have been alive in the 1950’s and not to have actively supported civil rights activists. Because I wouldn’t have. For all the same reasons. I can hear the dinner table conversations about disrespect, a society in moral decline. I hear myself speaking up in my high school government class about the U.S. as a nation of laws and the activists’ willful disregard for order and authority. I see myself nodding in church as my pastor prays for peace, for the violence to stop. I know that we, like many Christians, would have hated the protests. We would have called the students sitting at the lunch counters criminals and responded to the beatings by contending that they should have obeyed the law. We would not have personally discriminated, at least not consciously. My mother is without question the most selfless, caring person I know. But we would have seen our personal choice to be kind as sufficient. We would not have advocated for systemic change.
And I wonder how it would have felt later, after the Civil Rights Act and later the Voting Rights Act passed and those laws became institutionalized, to look back and know I resisted that change. I don’t know anyone now who doesn’t agree that the Civil Rights Act is common sense and that the state of affairs prior to its passage was immoral and unjust. Wouldn’t I be ashamed knowing I had berated African Americans fighting for their rights for being “disrespectful?” Once those activists became American heroes, would I feel like a hypocrite praising their bravery when I had condemned their actions and decried the chaos and disruption they caused? Wouldn’t I wish that I had seen it all differently and had stood behind them rather than sneering at them from my place of comfort?
I just read an opinion by the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals for a paper I was writing. The case was Castañeda vs. Pickard, which began with a lawsuit against a Texas school district on behalf of Latino students who were not being effectively served. One of the Court’s arguments was that a district with a history of discrimination should be scrutinized more carefully than one without such a history. A history of discrimination is hard to overcome. Claims of injustice, the Court felt, should be taken more seriously when such claims had been shown in the past to have been justified.
That’s where we are now, isn’t it? People are crying out about injustice. Much research has documented institutionalized racism in our criminal justice system. Education data reveals persistent race-based disparities in achievement and in discipline. We have a disturbing pay gap and people of color living in poverty in vastly disproportionate numbers. But perhaps most importantly, people of color feel treated unjustly and are telling us that. And we have, as a nation, an undeniable history of racism. So shouldn’t we be scrutinizing ourselves especially carefully? Shouldn’t claims of injustice be taken particularly seriously since we know we have a tendency toward racial injustice? Since we ended slavery in the mid-1800’s and 100 years later still hadn’t universally granted African Americans basic civil rights and needed federal legislation to do so?
If we were looking back to the early 1960’s and saw African American football players kneeling during the National Anthem to protest legalized discrimination, would we still berate them for disrespecting our country? Wouldn’t we recognize now that their resistance was justified? Wouldn’t we have to acknowledge the truth of their silent statement that not everyone in this country was living under the protection of freedom that flag was supposed to represent? Wouldn’t we feel arrogant and irrational and stupid telling them to stand up and respect the flag, knowing what we know now? We would never tell those activists, with the benefit of hindsight, what type of peaceful protest we would and wouldn’t tolerate. We would feel ashamed for not joining them.
I don’t want to live with that guilt and shame 5, 10, or 20 years from now. Even if I were not convinced by the research and swayed by the testimonies of people of color about their experience in our society -and I am -I would still be afraid to deny them their voice. I would still harbor doubt and wonder how this might all look to the next generation. Certainly if there are real injustices built into our system, we have no business telling Black people to stand up and respect the flag. That would be reprehensible. If racial discrimination is still embedded in our institutions, I don’t want to be among those who helped to maintain it by shouting down the voices calling attention to it and vilifying those who challenged the status quo.
In some of my less proud moments, I’ve thought how grateful I am that I wasn’t alive during Jesus’ time or during the Civil Rights Movement. I’m glad other people were there to do the suffering and the resisting, so I could embrace the ideologies they fought for, once they were broadly accepted and normalized. I know who I am and what my natural tendencies are. I’m not inclined to go against the grain, and I am working to guard against that tendency to accept what is generally accepted. I’d rather look back and know that I did what I could to bring about change where it was needed, even if it wasn’t popular at the time. We know from hundreds and thousands of years of history that systems and laws can be wrong. If ours are, I want to help make them right.