Humanity and the Church
As it has been so often throughout history, humanity is on the line. And the same question before us today is the question for each generation: will we become human? “You can make of an animal,” John Ruskin writes, “a tool or a human, but you cannot make both.” Ruskin’s plight was against the machine and a mechanized society, but humans had turned other humans into tools long before the Industrial Revolution. Slavery, throughout the history of the world, has been nothing short of reducing humans to tools for the purposes of those in power.
The history of Israel is the story of a people mangled into slave-tools for Egypt. The nations of the world ever since, often with a claim of divine right, have subjected humans to a means to the ends of power, whether for military service, personal pleasure, or simply to labor for their leisure. This human subjugation reached an all time low with the Atlantic slave trade in the 1600s, where Africans were stolen from their families and reduced to tools of labor and production for the purposes of American settlers.
America is not a nation founded for and rooted in Freedom. It is a nation founded by slaveholders and rooted in a history of violence toward those deemed less than human. Blinded by their drive for freedom from British rule, the American settlers, desiring not to be reduced to tools for the crown, fought for their liberty as a right, but that liberty would not extend to the Natives and Africans who made possible the birthing of a nation.
With slavery woven into the very fabric of America, its three hundred year history remains inscribed upon all persons of color in such ways that remain hidden from those in power, but it is not hidden because it cannot be seen; it remains hidden, as Martin Luther King, Jr., once said, because of “a conscientious blindness.” Often godly people, King once remarked, church going, and otherwise good people, fearing what they might lose—what their children might lose, remain woefully blind to systemic injustice toward persons of color. Slavery continues, albeit with a kindler, gentler face. And because slavery has become indirect, channeled through segregation, taxes, voting rights, education, and a bankrupt penal system, those not subject to these racial injustices presume to wash their hands with Pilate, as if culpability is only for those who hammer nails, swing whips, pull triggers, or suffocate those who gasp for air.
And as politicians pose for cameos, those who hunger and thirst for justice cry out to God in prayer. As those who sit in seats of power make judgements from afar, lumping the violent with protesters for peace, those who mourn long to be comforted. As the self-righteous vomit at the mouth with commentary on riots and looting, the meek walk humbly in the street.
The children of God must rise up and name the sin of this nation with boldness, boldly telling the Caesars of this world that God’s houses of prayer will not become idol temples to their own ends. This is not a white or black issue. This is a human concern. Nevertheless, if white persons who are not directly involved in the injustices suffered by persons of color in America think for one moment that we are not complicit or in any way responsible, our denial will be our demise. The color of one’s skin or the country of one’s origin is not the measure of a person’s character or worth. And the glory of humanity is the reality that the image of God, in which all people are created, is not an image of sameness; rather, Christ who is all and is in all is wonderfully arrayed like Joseph’s coat of many colors. And it is our colorblindness, our color-indifference, our simple-minded claims that “I don’t see color” that continue to reduce humans to tools for the useful ignorance of those in power.
The call of Christ is a call to slavery. We are to become as slaves to those who suffer the injustices of this world. Our freedom, writes St. Paul, is not an occasion for us to indulge ourselves at the expense of others. Our freedom in Christ is to “slave for one another by love” (Galatians 5.13). In so doing, however, we do not become tools for another’s use; rather, we become extensions of each other. We become a common humanity in the shared humanity of Christ, bound to one another in the bonds of love, not by the shackles of violence and hate.
If I, a straight, white male from South Carolina, cannot look my African-American brothers and sisters in the eyes and see the face of God it is not because the imago Dei is not in them, but because my life and ignorance has blinded me from seeing the face of Christ in my neighbor. If I do not see God in those who are beaten down by the hands of the powerful, left for dead on the road, I do not know Christ. If I do not see myself in those who commit atrocities and bend others to their will, I am blinded by indifference. If I stand idly by as my black and brown brothers and sisters endure centuries old and institutionalized hate, I deny Christ and my citizenship in his kingdom.
Jesus turned the tables over in the temple courts when the moneychangers had turned God’s house of prayer into a den of robbers. The moneychangers now pose before God’s house of prayer once more. Will Christians ignore it? Or will we be the church?