The American Dilemma in Perspective
THE same fetters that bind the captive bind the captor, and the American people are captives of their own myths, woven so cleverly and so imperceptibly into the fabric of our national experience. When a serious candidate for President of the United States can testify candidly, as did Ronald Reagan in his debate with Jimmy Carter in 1980, that when he was growing up "this country didn't even know it had a racial problem," then the candor of selective ignorance has swung full circle to reemerge as the casuistry of presumptive innocence. Thus the Great American Myth perpetuates itself through all the accidents of our imperfect understanding, so marvelously convenient to what we do understand and affirm.
If the American people ever take seriously the political rhetoric of innocence by ignorance, the erosion of our credibility for world leadership will be even greater than it is at present. Mr. Reagan's posturing was recognized, of course, for what it was--a classic instance of the way in which our systems of anti-values function to protect us from unpleasant realities we do not want to know about. Nevertheless, if we ever get through the mist and the murk of our self-willed naivete, we will discover that our moral values have long since been corroded, that the democratic ideal has been corrupted, and we have allowed ourselves to be transported by dreams that never were to a Shangri La we know does not exist.
That is our dilemma. After the dreaming is done, there has to be an awakening, and the reality of our imperfections must be addressed. Sooner or later the dreams that enrapture us and the tales that regale us must make way for the truth which alone can make us free. All of us. That is our prospect and that is the sobering reality that White Church and Black Church are called to address in the common interest of the faith we share and the fate we must define for ourselves.
The most obvious feature of contemporary American life is violence. Violence stalks us all: the old, the young, the unborn, the rich, the poor, black and white. The high incidence of social aggression which characterizes America and makes us unique among "developed" civilizations is scarcely incidental. It is the inevitable harvest of the political and the moral laissez faire which has strangled the American character for so long that we are hard pushed to distinguish the American Dream from the de facto American tradition. Crime in the streets is warp to the woof of the Watergates and other political crimes which define and shape our contemporary society, and our continual crises in blood are the natural progeny of our crisis in moral values.
Americans like to imagine themselves affronted by the murder of political leaders like the brothers Kennedy or of spiritual leaders like Martin Luther King, Jr. But there is cynicism and hypocrisy implicit in our willingness to be shocked by such violence, for violence has long been an integral part of our way of life. It began with the effort to exterminate the Indian; it was confirmed as a way of life in our protracted effort to dehumanize the African. Neither human life nor human dignity is characteristically sacred to us, and the political overtones of the frequent assaults on public officials suggest that life in general is cheap in America. Black life is cheapest of all. It has always been bought and sold with impunity, whether at the slave-auction block, or in the courtrooms, or through a thousand and onesophisticated stratagems designed to exploit whatever values the white man recognized in the black condition--economic, sexual, political, military, psychological, and so on, ad infinitum. Black life is still cheap. And it continues to be a paradoxical aspect of the ecological structure of American civilization.
Life is cheap but violence is not always reliable. The madness that killed the Kennedys; that cut down Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, and countless others of recent memory; that struck at Governor George Wallace and President Ronald Reagan is but a logical extension of an implied license to kill if the killing is selective. Official killing is routinely justified if the killer is in uniform and acting under cover of law on behalf of society. It is only when the killing becomes personal that it becomes intolerable. But then it is too late. What this society somehow refuses to grasp is that what happens tomorrow is in part determined by what was accepted yesterday. Who is next is in part already determined by what we have already done or failed to do about who was last. The violence which racks our cities and kills our leaders is a violence America institutionalized in practice, accepted in principle, and acquiesced in by default.
The poor, the black, and the faceless have never been free of the shadow of violence, whether under pretense of law or through tacit consensus. The rivers and bayous of the rural South, like the streets and alleys of the black ghettos which pockmark urban America, have a long, sad tale to tell about violence and about the social, political, and economic forces which converge in the selection of its principal victims. But there is little comfort and less security to be derived from the statistics which make that violence a phenomenon of the ghetto, for there are no physical boundaries for hatred or indifference, and the violence they engender is neither self-regulated nor self-contained. Human sensitivity is narcotized by the implied license for selective aggression, and whenever such violence is permitted or urged upon an approved subject, sooner or later the lines become blurred and one subject becomes as potential as another. It is madness to believe that the forces we have loosed in thissociety against the black, the poor, the disinherited will retain the power of discrimination. A dog gone mad knows no master--only the taste of blood.
Too many American cities have become camps of hostility. Too many American children have been taught to hate rather than to appreciate. Somewhere the American Dream has gone wrong. What happened to the moral glue, the vaunted ethical principles we relied upon to preserve the integrity of the Dream while we got on with the dreaming?
Power and Responsibility
In the seventeenth century, Thomas Hobbes in trying to rationalize the existence of human society deduced that men organized themselves into social entities for their mutual protection and for the greater enhancement of those qualities of human existence which they as individuals, and collectively, find by experience to be gratifying, or to have value. The alternative to an organized society, reasoned Hobbes, is a "state of nature," a dismal and unrewarding existence characterized by unlimited aggression and counteraggression; an existence in which every individual is a law unto himself, in which there is no definition of morality, and in which force and fraud are the respected instruments for the realization of self-interest, which, in the state of nature, is the sole factor of human motivation.
Men organized themselves into societies because, in the state of nature, life was "solitary, mean, nasty, brutish and short." To remedy such an unattractive existence, each man relinquished a degree of personal, natural autonomy--i.e., the liberty of every man to do what seemed best to him to promote his own interests and to preserve his own existence. The hope was that all men together, society, the confraternity of those who agree to live under the rule of law, might through the resulting collective of power so regulate behavior and the distribution of scarce values as to refine human existence and to broaden somewhat the scope of human motivation.
It is not important that we accept Hobbes's theory as an adequate explanation of social existence. It is important to recognize that the de facto existence of any social entity suggests that it exists for some reason; that that reason must somehow encompass the general and the individual welfare; and that when a society ceases to function in the common interests for which men modify their pursuit of self-interest and accept law and order, then such a society has probably outlived its purpose and its usefulness. In short, a society in which large numbers of people find life to be solitary, nasty, mean, brutish and short is already in reversion toward a state of nature, however it may be styled. When the power which belongs to the people is by whatever artifice arrogated and manipulated in the preservation and extension of selective interests, what stake have the distressed and the oppressed in the responsible maintenance of that society? They have all of the responsibilities of citizens and none of the power needed to fulfill those responsibilities.
Responsibility without power is slavery. Power without responsibility is tyranny. If the interests of the oppressed are not protected, if the power they relinquish is used against them capriciously, if solitariness is exchanged for alienation, meanness for poverty, brutishness for perpetual anxiety, what then is such a society except a sophisticated state of nature? If some are always preselected as the pieces and never the players in the game, for them the game may not be worth the candle. Such is the typical experience of the black and the poor in America, and of such are the contradictions of the American dilemma by which their participation in our common values is conditioned. The ready array of official statistics which tell the hungry how well fed they are, and the magic charts with the inevitably cheerful projections which promise miracle reversals to the derelict and the destitute, provide no satisfactions of substance. Poverty and ignorance are not necessarily the same, and America must beware, lest in our smugness we underestimate the power of the poor to act on their own behalf.
The Power in City Hall
The prime prerequisite of any organized society is power. The corollary of power is responsibility. The logical consequence of legitimate power responsibly exercised is peace, order, and a reasonable participation in the common values of the society. The irresponsible exercise of power is the invitation to anarchy and the prelude to revolution--a proposition to which we have not always given responsible attention. The ultimate expression of power is control, direct or indirect, manifest or covert. The most sophisticated expression of power is control over decisions and the decision-making process. Who participates in the real decision-making process in America? That is an issue for Americans to ponder. And redress.
Life in America is manipulated through the instrumentality of decisions made or avoided. Men who sit in boardrooms remote from the scene make the decisions which control the life circumstances of millions they have not seen, will never see, and do not want to see. When City Hall was lily-white, the procuration of the black ghetto was a national scandal. The power which manipulated the lives and the life chances of millions of Blackamericans was neither benevolent nor benign. It was sinister; and it was programmed to continue indefinitely a black supporting cast for the ego and status needs of the white overculture. As a consequence, the black community lost a little more hope, a little more faith, and a little more commitment to peaceful protest with each new disclosure of abuse. Each morning all over America the great American tragedy was reenacted each time a black man looked at himself in the mirror as he shaved, and each time a black woman put on the face she would wear in her efforts to find bread for her family in the kitchens of the elegant houses far from the decaying flats and tenements of the racial compound to which she was assigned. What each saw in the looking glass was a cipher citizen--an American who would have no serious input in any of the decisions which would determine the quality of his or her significant experiences for that day, or any day; whose life chances had already been programmed withsinister predictability by persons unknown, or, even if known, unavailable and unconcerned.
Wherever the life chances of some are consistently manipulated by others, freedom is in contest and the struggle to redress is inevitable. Where freedom has been long withheld, people who have never experienced it may not know what it is precisely, but they are nevertheless sensitive to the absence of some vital quality which leaves their lives bereft of meaningful participation in the significant experiences of the human enterprise. Conversely, those who distrain freedom from others equate it with privilege--privilege to which they alone are entitled. That is why it is possible that America misread Martin Luther King. Certainly, not many Americans had King's full dream in mind, even though, black and white together, they locked arms and marched through the South with such apparent purpose. But the South was only the symbol, not the problem. The problem was attitudinal, not regional. What Dr. King wanted was not merely to reform the South but to make all America safe for the kind of democracy that could accept full participation of all her citizens, regardless of color. But when the Black Panthers operating outside the South let it be known that they, too, were determined to overcome, and "by any means necessary," their startling assertion of an unconditional commitment to freedom was rejected as the ultimate profanation of the consensual racial understanding thought to be operative in the civil rights movement. While most white Americans cannot visualize a qualified freedom for themselves and their children, the notion that freedom is important enough to black people for them to want to pursue it on its own terms was unthinkable and untenable.
Freedom implies power--the power to be responsible. Such power was unthinkable because black responsibility lay well beyond what liberal white America envisioned when it endorsed the black mission to overcome. The power that shaped life in the black ghetto was not, and is not, of course, black power. It does not originate in the ghetto. It is power from the outside. It is alien power, with many faces. It is the nonresident merchants who come into the ghetto with the sun in the morning,and who leave with the sun in the evening, taking with them the day's toll for their visitation. It is also the vexatious blue presence--that alien, anonymous, contemptuous phalanx known as "the law," but more often than not considered an army of occupation pursuing its own private system of spoils. It is the ubiquitous presence of alien schoolteachers, case workers, process servers, rent collectors, repossessors, bailiffs, political hustlers, and assorted functionaries and racketeers whose economic stakes in the black ghetto require their temporary and grudging presence imposed upon a community they detest and which detests them in return. It is clearly not a question of the right of people from outside the ghetto to live, or work, or maintain businesses there, but the reciprocation of that right is startlingly difficult to demonstrate in suburbia.
It will be argued that City Hall is no longer lily-white; that in fact some of America's largest cities and scores of smaller towns have black mayors and other black elected officials. This observation deserves the closest attention. But in 1983 Blacks still constituted scarcely more than one percent of all elected officials. Meanwhile, black income was only fifty-six percent of whites', down five percent from its best showing in 1970, and while seventy-four percent of all black men over sixteen were employed in 1960, only fifty-five percent were employed in 1983. Other indicators of the economic status of Blacks are consistent. What they say in sum is that, no matter who sits in the mayor's office, the economics of being black are not substantially improved. Not yet. Black mayors win and retain their offices through coalitions with established power, and the significant interests of such power are seldom coordinate with those of the people confined to the ghetto. The black mayor is a symbol, a hopeful sign of the potential power of the black electorate. But if that power were miraculously doubled or even tripled, it would still be potential and there would be no dramatic improvement in the life of the masses who inhabit the ghetto. When the available patronage has been divided and dispensed, the Blacks who benefit substantially will be few in number and the black masses, whose circumstances are the most desolate and the most desperate, willgenerally remain beyond the effective reach of the most conscientious black mayor. The Irish Catholics of Boston have "run" that city for decades, but the economic power in Boston is not Irish Catholic, a fact with which every Irish mayor has had to come to terms in the structure of his administration and its programs. Who, then, runs the runners while the runners are running the city? Or, to put it another way, what is the power behind the political power that keeps things the way they were? The Blacks in City Hall are an important development toward America's political maturation. Their presence is the best evidence of the political direction the struggle for full freedom must take. But that struggle must ultimately receive ratification from those sources which operate above and beyond the sound and the fury of politics, and from which most politicians are required to take their cues.
Power as Consensus
It is the opinion of some that power is possessed by individuals and that, as a result, only individuals may be held responsible for its abuse. That may be true as far as it goes, but it does not go far enough, for no abstract value can be more dependent upon group response than power. Ultimately, all real power is social and consensual. One man may dominate another by brute force, but if he wishes to extend his domination, cooperation and consensus from like-minded others must be available.
In a complex society like ours, no individual acquires power until he discovers a body of sentiment which can be mobilized in support of his intentions. A Hitler or Stalin "rises to power" because he is canny enough to know where to look for conformable sentiment, ambitious enough to mine it, and callous enough to make instruments of the people whose private susceptibilities are available for supportive exploitation. There are, for example, no solitary racists of consequence. For racism to flourish with the vigor it enjoys in America, there must be an extensive climate of acceptance and participation by large numbers of people who constitute its power base. It is the consensus of private personsthat gives racism its derivative power. For all his ugliness and bombast, the isolated racist is a toothless tiger, for, to be effective, racism must have responsible approval and reliable nurture. Social nurture. The power of racism is the power conceded by those respectable citizens who by their action or inaction communicate the consensus which directs and empowers the overt bigot to act on their behalf. The lessons of the Ku Klux Klan are illustrative. Wherever the Klan has been met with firm, public opposition of the white gentry on whose behalf it claims to be acting, its threats to its intended targets have fizzled, and it has withdrawn from the scene in embarrassment and defeat.
The Racial Patrimony
In the late sixties the reaction to the Kerner Report'sa charge that white racism is the prevailing sentiment in America, and that its ramifications touch critical aspects of life and liberty with a deadly corrosiveness, was immediate and distressed, for Americans seldom perceive themselves as racists. It is therefore all the more tragic that whether one is personally a racist or not becomes increasingly inconsequential, because the silent consensus which institutionalizes the racist ideology makes it normative to the whole culture and entraps us all. The white nonracist is hardly more free to be his better self than is the oppressed Black who is the conventional target of racism. Social acceptability, economic security, and even personal safety may all be contingent upon one's public conformity to the prescribed patterns of behavior which dictate and condition racial intercourse.
During the heat of the civil rights struggle, young Blacks agonized over whether it was incautious to depend on their rebellious white counterparts to provide major leadership for what they conceived as a black revolution. Many felt that black people needed to learn to do for themselves, and that the experienceof leadership under fire was crucial. It was argued that, however earnest they were, the young white dissidents were not necessarily the answer to the black future merely because they were not for the moment preoccupied with being white. As white youth they were still the heirs to the white establishment, and although the establishment tradition requires the dutiful toleration if not the willful indulgence of the unconventional behavior of its progeny for a time, the day comes inevitably when the sons and daughters of privilege are called home to mind the store from which privilege derives.
The goldfish swallowers of the thirties, the flagpole sitters of the forties, the panty-raiders of the fifties, the hippies, yippies, and assorted protest-prone social revolutionaries of the sixties, all addressed themselves, wittingly or unwittingly, to the traditional expectations of a doting society of middle-class Moms and Dads who professed not to understand them but who would have been alarmed and disappointed with a generation of youth they did understand. The truth is that this society demands youthful unrestraint as evidence of a properly developing capacity for independence and self-assertion, and it has created an elaborate network of facilities for its protection and containment. Unconventional self-expression is a legitimate and valued aspect of learning, of growing up, even when it is of doubtful immediate practicality. It is one of the more critical rites of passage. In this regard, a primary function of the traditional college has been to provide a temporary sanctuary for nonconformism. Youth must be served, and campus permissiveness, the license to experiment, to experience life outside the conventional patterns of approved behavior, is an accepted process of socialization. In the main, it has produced predictable results. After four years or so of indulgence, the serious candidate for success, i.e., for establishment status and approval, is ready to put away childish things and enter the ranks of his compeers. The wildest campus radical has characteristically emerged from his college extravagances as the most conservative pillar of the community, and his erstwhile determination to bring down the system is forgotten in his new determination to make it more secure. The young white visionarieswho marched and sang in the black struggle, and the young white radicals who repudiated the System and vowed to bring it down in the sixties, edged toward conformity in the seventies. By the early eighties they had duly accepted the responsibilities of their patrimony and were home managing the family interests. It is from these same interests that the Blacks are still trying to extricate themselves.
Power and Morality
The common experience of black people is that the formidable conglomerates of power which structure American society conspire to insure their retention in an excluded caste at the bottom of the racial and ethnic heap, and farthest from the realization of the benefits normally to be derived from being American. There is a deep suspicion among Blacks that the power which informs America is at best morally indifferent, and that despite conventional protestations to the contrary, America as a society has come perilously close to abandoning the notion that justice is possible, or even desirable, or that morality is a factor of consequence in either social relations or individual well-being. Our prime commitment seems to be to expedience, and since neither justice nor morality lends itself to mere opportunism, what is right seems increasingly to be equated with whatever comes out of the ebb and flow of human intercourse. Justice, like the price of pork bellies, becomes a function of the market, and morality is whatever it takes to keep the market active.
Our distorted sense of justice at home often sends us rushing off to settle the world's problems in the style in which we still imagine best exemplifies our national image. But the national image we cherish so much at home and want so desperately to export to the world is unfortunately at serious odds with the way we are perceived abroad. To much of the world we are "the ugly Americans." The toll we are required to pay for the privilege of being hated is astronomical, and it increases with every world crisis we undertake to resolve in the "American way." There are some people on earth who simply do not wantour democracy, or our presence, or our interference, a lesson we seem loath to take to heart. And there are some who challenge the sincerity of our efforts to insure the establishment of democratic principles and values in remote corners of the globe when our own camp is in such serious disarray.
Stations of Security
Social stress and social disorganization offer a difficult challenge to organized religion. When secular values are at great odds with what the faith alleges to be God's will for man and society, the church is expected to address the tension with appropriate leadership. The problem is exacerbated when the church confuses its ministry of moral precept and spiritual superintendence with the demands made upon it to ratify the popular sentiments of the moment. But the church cannot with impunity shift with every breeze that blows across the social landscape. The church is, and must be, a conservator of values--an archive of those experiences and relationships which characterize and exemplify those enduring truths by which human effort is to be illuminated and measured. The church is charged with the larger view, a more comprehensive perspective than the self-interest of individuals, or the specious agendas of ad hoc factions which impugn its relevance but covet its prestige.
Religious values are stations of security in a world in which everything else is in flux. Man has to have something to hold on to as familiar ground keeps slipping from under him. Religion serves this need, and because it does, the human investment in it is replicated in no other institution. Its promise is the pearl of great price before which all other values pale into relative insignificance.
After the Bolshevik Revolution, the Russians outlawed religion and turned their churches into palaces of culture. The Communists ridiculed the idea of God and imposed severe penalties on believers who persisted in their spiritual decadence. They defaced the religious paintings, smashed the icons, destroyed the sacred literature, and substituted political interests for spiritualvalues. But religion survived because the felt need for it was not destroyed with its physical paraphernalia. In spite of the awesome pressure of the state and the Communist Party, religion prevailed because the innate sense of human contingency is far more pervasive and meaningful than any earth-born fear, and the satisfactions of the faith are beyond the competition of any human emolument or political honor.
The New Moral Management
Given the function of religion, our problems derive principally from a willful confusion of the values which ought to distinguish it from the expectations of the secular mode. Christianity holds that its cardinal values are primal and immutable because they are consistent with the revealed character of God. While lesser values may be subject to modification or refinement, what God has ordained for man must not be profaned. Christian morality is a matter of recognizing which values are immutable, which are derivative and subsidiary, and choosing accordingly. Some things must change; some things must persist through change, or change itself becomes the only value of significance.
How a society deals with change is its best index for meaningful survival, and to retreat from the implications of change rather than to help society find conciliance in the enduring moral structures to which civilizations owe their survival is to abandon responsibility for license. A primary weakness of the religious establishment in America has been its apparent unwillingness to confront the exigencies of change with integrity. Time and time again the church has confused the people by looking the other way when personal interests have been measured against those values fundamental to the faith. This has been especially true in racial matters. Certainly the character of the Divine and the divine intention for the human family are expressed quite clearly in the notion of a common father in whose image all humanity is cast. This would seem to be an immutable value impossible of modification so long as God is God and man comes in his likeness. And no less certain is the fact that racial preferment, howeverstrongly it may be felt, is a derivative value, a learned response quite obviously at odds with the notion of brotherhood and the commandment to love. Hence, it can have no claim whatever to Divine approval or sanction.
Nor can there be effective absolution in the abdication of personal morality to popular opinion or to the self-appointed arbiters of our social conscience. Too often, professional brokers to whom we entrust our moral investments are not themselves the best evidence of serious commitment. The result is that the moral leadership of our seminal institutions is frequently quite shallow and unconvincing. Government, religion, communications, education, entertainment, et cetera are susceptible and suspect, and the confidence we once had in the "American way" has been seriously eroded by sustained disappointment and defeat.
Moral management by consignment or by consensus is reconstructing our moral patterning through the casual, almost subliminal introduction of so-called alternative values designed to erase the age-old distinctions between up and down, right and wrong, the beautiful and the monstrous. Today we are invited to believe that the only real responsibility man has is to himself and his own gratifications, and that all moral alternatives are equally valid since they have no meaningful reference beyond the self. Cloaked in the casuistry of such dubious sophistication, this convenient nonsense is no less destructive for all its cleverness. And it is no less vulgar for all the notables who endorse it through fear, or by default, or merely because in a moment of weakness they prostitute themselves to the cheap opportunism the retreat from responsibility seems to engender. But it is confusing, for we live in a time when the issues of personal and social intercourse are exceedingly complex, and the parameters of personal and social responsibility grow more indistinct with each new problem we are called upon to confront. In less than a generation the enduring problem of racism has been joined by such formidable issues as abortion, euthanasia, biogenetics, nuclear energy, technocracy, and the arms race. Ironically, these are all of a piece. They are all new expressions of our troubled understandingabout the value of human life and the inalienable rights which inure to it.
If Americans are confused, our confusion must not be counted incidental. The price of freedom is always the risk that it may be corrupted or taken away by perverse ideologies which claim shelter under its protection. The decline of great civilizations is characteristically initiated by internal assaults on their systems of value. If the eternal verities by which men live can be put at issue, and if the conventions by which society is ordered can be questioned--if the good, the true, and the beautiful can be challenged openly and without fear--that is democracy. But if that which is patently and inherently evil and degrading can be successfully masqueraded as a reasonable "alternative" to that which affirms human life, human dignity, and human responsibility, we need not worry about armies of invasion. The civilization where this can happen is already committed to its own dissolution and demise.
We have never come close to realizing the notion of righteous empire which excited our Puritan founders, but we now seem further from that ideal than ever before. The moral and spiritual impetus which gave leadership and direction to the birth of this nation was in substantial default from the beginning, but our initial deficit was not so much a lack of vision as it was a lack of courage. Today we appear to lack both. Our minds are keener, our perceptions are more acute, our information is more prodigious, but our selfish inconsistency disarms our determination to succeed. Those we have traditionally looked to as guardians of our more civilized efforts--those whom Solzhenitsyn calls "the ruling elite"--have too often chosen silence or dissimulation rather than lose face with the cult to which they look for approval and validation.
Somehow, we have managed to survive a full generation of domestic tension and turmoil. The schoolhouse door has lost its attraction for political posturing. The cattle prods are sheathed;the snarling attack dogs have been leashed; the church bombers have cached their dynamite; and the storm troopers have put away their dark glasses and scraped the gore from their billy clubs. Reproved by the world for this savagery, we have tried with doubtful success to blot out the reality that troubles us. But reality will not go away, and to recognize reality is to return to responsibility. Before we can have tomorrow, we must first get through today. There is no compromise, and that, in brief, is the crux of our dilemma. We will never create the bright new world we dream about until we confront the world we have made.
We still have time to relearn, if we have the will, that there is evil in the world, and that to compromise with evil in any of its guises is to be destroyed by it. When the beast walks among us, either we restrain it and deny it or it will hold us captive in our own houses. A system of values without consistency and without constraint cannot be trusted with the ordering of any society worthy of the name. And if our commitment is merely to be narcotized rather than to earn the tranquillity to which we hold ourselves entitled, then we must be prepared for the delirium and the agony that come when the fix has lost its magic and the morning after has arrived.
If it is to the established church we look for rescue, we will not be especially cheered by its accomplishments to date, for the American church has consistently failed to take to heart the ancient indictment that racism is a corruption and a denial of those immutable values which are critical to human dignity. More than that, it has been reluctant to resist with the vigor of conviction the contemporary onslaught of narcissistic hedonism, in a variety of guises, which further jeopardizes that dignity by idolizing the individual self as the center of all values, and demanding that all other values be bent into conformance. As a result, American religion finds itself increasingly pushed into the role of being either an adversary to its own conscience or preoccupied with the busyness and bustle triviality requires for the illusion of respectability.
Why has the initial dream of a city to be set on a hill as a beacon, and as an example of Christian virtue at its best, beendowngraded? What happened to the moral conviction that made us strong, the spiritual certitude that made us invincible, the energetic determination that kept us creative as we contemplated the New Jerusalem we were to build, and the American Dream that was our destiny? The New Jerusalem perished aborning in the travail of slavery, and we aborted the Dream in the effort to make it racially exclusive.
Countless billions of dollars and untold quantums of time and energy have been poured into a continuing patchwork of strategies designed to reserve for some what belongs to all; and millions of lives have been shortchanged or corrupted in the process. Our racial madness has exacted an enormous toll of the American potential in the form of poverty, ignorance, race hatred, self-hatred, high mortality, low morality, insecurity, ethical compromise, and selective exclusion from the pursuit of the ordinary common values we all helped to create. We shall never know what potential genius, black and white, has been sacrificed to the racial Moloch which designated some of us as keepers and others to be kept. But the possibilities stagger the imagination. What great music was never written; what miracles of medicine remain undiscovered; what strategies for peace and understanding among the nations of the world have never been developed because we have been preoccupied with building fences and closing the doors which eliminate the kept and enervate the keepers, to the inconvenience of everybody, and to the impairment of our common capacity to get on with the Dream we once dared to believe in?
The toll of racialism is devastating for Blackamericans, but in the long run its costs may be even higher for white America. Beyond the extraordinary cost in dollars, the inconvenience and the inherent danger of trying to suppress a whole race of people, white America has lost its self-respect and its moral authority. A scarcely camouflaged sense of guilt pervades the church and the society-at-large, and the abuse of power, sex, drugs, and people is the prevailing alternative to responsible interaction. The frantic pursuit of momentary escape from the nagging realization that there is a dilemma, an open chasm between what weclaim to be and what we are, dominates our private agendas, colors our national character, and subjects us to international blackmail and ridicule. Our principal allies suffer our eager support, even as they castigate our policies and our postures and impatiently await the comeuppance they privately wish for us. And the protégé nations we have appointed ourselves to save reflect uniformly our own inclinations through the repression of their own exploited classes in the interests of their own privileged elite.
Such are the tragedies we have opted to live with, an enormous price to pay for the doubtful privileges of color. But the greater tragedy is the wasted witness we might have paid to the majesty of God and to the possibilities we hold for a more perfect rendering of his image.
The suggestion that the Black Church could be destined for a pivotal role in the future of Western Christianity has usually been met with polite derision. But the peremptory dismissal of such a possibility flies in the face of innumerable instances in which the direction of religious and cultural history has been significantly determined by improbable forces and institutions prematurely dismissed as inconsequential. Reality comes in two forms. There is that which is truly real and independent of all subjective interpretations. And there is a perceived reality which may be no more than a projection of all those conventions and convictions which derive from selective experience. But selective experience is not an infallible index of the real, however satisfying it may be, for it is by definition resistant to any truth contrary to what it already prefers to believe. In consequence, the Black Church is not a likely institution for future significance in the forecast of mainstream American religion, because neither the Black Church nor the black experience from which it derives has ever been a matter of serious consequence in the catalogue of social facts from which the American perception of reality is drawn. The official interpretation of the black experience was laid down long ago in thecelebrated doctrine of natural white superiority and inherent black incapacity, and it was institutionalized with intended finality in all of the sources Americans rely on to read our cultural catalogue with proper understanding. It is an integral part of the Great American Myth, and it was protected by an elaborate system of cultural taboos reinforced by legal and religious proscriptions for three and a half centuries. This awesome icon of racist whimsy was buttressed as well with a clever and invidious folklore designed to give credence and respectability to what was patently incredible and unrespectable. And it was romanticized in literature and art, sanctified by convention, and justified by the doctrine of the white man's responsibility for black uplift.
The problem is that the same perceptions and emotional responses which hark back to an era that is mercifully behind us find continued expression in attitudes and behaviors which refuse to let what is past be done with. It is against this continuing agony that the mission of the Black Church, however little known and appreciated beyond its traditional constituency, finds a compelling reason for the projection of its ministry to America.
Copyright © 1984, 1999 by C. Eric Lincoln