Why Racism Is America’s True Original Sin

For the last 25 Good Fridays, our community has prayed the Stations of the Cross outside the gates of the U.S. Naval Sub Base in Groton, Connecticut. The Sub Base is home to a fleet of nuclear submarines and a museum glorifying the first nuclear submarine, the U.S.S. Nautilus, and the missiles it threatened humanity with.

As we walk this modern Via Dolorosa, we recall how Christ continues to be crucified today. In years past, we prayed for Christ crucified by drones strikes, Christ scourged by water boarding, Christ crucified by Shock and Awe, Christ crucified by poverty because we have not heeded president Eisenhower’s warning and have not only picked guns over butter, but bombs over bread.

Over the years our prayers have sometimes included nonviolent acts of civil disobedience. I have been arrested at the Sub Base and at Electric Boat, where these weapons of mass destruction (dubbed “ovens without walls” by retired Catholic archbishop of Seattle Raymond Hunthausen) are built, many times — as has my wife and my late mother-in-law (a WWII vet).

This past Good Friday we decided to pray for Christ crucified disguised as black men and women who have been killed by the police.

All this getting arrested has led to our having something of a relationship with officers from the local police force. Spending hours in the back of a cruiser or in a holding cell with a cop who’s curious as to why I would get arrested with my 75-year-old mother-in-law. Turns out, that’s a rather conducive atmosphere for testifying about faith, about believing that only God can protect us, about the imminent threat these weapons pose to world peace, and about our affirmative moral obligation to say “no” before they are ever used, again.

(Recall, the United States remains the only nation to detonate nuclear weapons in war, having done so on the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.)

Imagine if more Germans had decided to be good Christians rather than good Germans and had joined the White Rose movement. Maybe their collective “no” would have kept the ovens from being built.

Over the years we have had various officers tell us they agreed with us and wished us well. We know each other on a first-name basis, and we ask about faces not present — family members who have passed and colleagues who have retired. And so it was with a bit of trepidation that this past Good Friday we decided to pray for Christ crucified disguised as black men and women who have been killed by the police. We prayed for:

Tamir Rice, 12
Akai Gurley, 28
Michael Brown, 18
Eric Garner, 43
Miriam Carey, 34
Jonathan Ferrell, 24
Kimani Gray, 16
Reynaldo Cuevas, 20
Aiyana Jones, 7
Oscar Grant, 22
Sean Bell, 23
Alberta Spruill, 57
Ousmane Zongo, 43
Amadou Diallo, 23

The discourse in America surrounding the police shooting in Ferguson has revealed a deep racial divide in America whereby most black Americans believe the shootings have been racially motivated while most white Americans believe the shootings have been justified.

This makes a lot of sense when we consider how very differently white communities and black communities are policed. Growing up white, I always gave the police the benefit of the doubt and assumed that if someone had contact with the police, they must have done something to warrant scrutiny.

My perspective has changed radically over the last 23 years as I have lived in an exclusively black and brown neighborhood and have witnessed friends undergo the humiliation of being routinely stopped, frisked, and questioned by the police without having done a thing to merit suspicion.

The shootings and protests have also revealed a more problematic fault line running through our society. It has roots in our fierce sense of individualism and the Protestant work ethic, namely the notion that all of our successes and failures are the result of our individual efforts.

De Tocqueville keenly forecast this mindset as the Achilles heel of our collective psyche. In terms of the shootings, what police are hearing, what protestors are saying, and what is actually happening are not one and the same.

The most common response from police unions, officers, and their families is some form of “We’re not racists.” That may well be the case, but the individual cop who pulls the trigger need not be a racist for the shooting of a black person to be racially motivated. We still live in a racist society. The metaphorical meanings of blackness and whiteness in literature, art, and scripture are caustic, supporting a system of racial privilege/racist oppression when applied to people who are actually various shades of brown.

Christ rises when we reconcile. We can’t reconcile without confessing the truth, and the truth is racism is the Original Sin of our nation.

When we arrived at our meeting point prior to beginning our procession, a representative of the police was waiting to welcome us warmly. After a few pleasantries I explained to the officer what we were praying for and gave him copies of the latest issue of our newsletter (www.hartfordcatholicworker.org) and the prayer booklet for the day.

I told him that we weren’t there to judge him or his colleagues, nor to point fingers. I shared our concern that the militarization of local police forces, a process abetted by their acquisition of surplus military hardware sold at a discount by the Pentagon, turns the public — who are meant to be served by the police — into combatants — meant to be subdued. This seems especially the case in heavily policed poor black and brown communities.

I hope he heard me.

An Episcopal priest friend of mine explained in his Easter reflection that Episcopal churches have crosses instead of the crucifixes found in Catholic churches because we are called to be Easter people — and by implication not Good Friday people. While I agree with him that we are people of the Resurrection, we are still also people of the Crucifixion.

This tension is one of the central mysteries of Christianity. In his Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front, poet/farmer/defender of Mother Earth Wendell Berry closes by urging us to Practice Resurrection. To practice Resurrection is to confront Crucifixion.

On Good Friday, our confrontation with Crucifixion ended with my reflection on Resurrection:

Christ rises when we reconcile. We can’t reconcile without confessing the truth, and the truth is racism is the Original Sin of our nation. The ideology of race was created to divide poor whites from poor blacks more than 350 years ago so that Virginia tobacco could be grown for profit.

This ideology — this lie — proved critical when a slave owner named Jefferson penned the words, “All men are created equal,” while charging the scientific community to prove his suspicion that black people are not men — and thus not equal.

Junk science, tyrannical laws, and quack theology has justified more than two centuries of slavery, a century of Jim Crow segregation enforced by lynch mobs, and our current era of mass incarceration.

The truth is the stolen lives and stolen labor of black Americans built this country and the fortunes of many white Americans. The truth is peace will be the fruit of justice, but not a justice that looks like vengeance upon inspection, but rather, a restorative justice that seeks to heal our community. The truth is restorative justice will require that our nation repay its outstanding debt to its black citizens.

Once we seek truth, pay our debt, and reconcile with those we’ve harmed, we will finally be able to rise together and march hand in hand into the Promised Land.

Image courtesy of Rena Schild / Shutterstock.com.

OnFaith Voices is a series of perspectives about faith.

  • Martin Hughes

    Does it never happen that white people lose their lives at police hands and in suspicious circumstances? How often are the police officers concerned in these events non-white?