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  • Writer's pictureRandy Nabors



Anthony Bradley wrote an interesting article the other day in Fathom magazine, “Finally Healing the Wounds of Jim Crow.”  It was interesting to me because it echoed some of the discussion my wife and I have had about racial trauma and racial healing.  She has often pointed to what happened in South Africa when they ended apartheid with Truth and Justice commissions, and wished we could have had the same.  Dr. Bradley points to “transitional justice” as a way for people to pursue racial peace.

As a Reformed believer, meaning in this case someone who believes the whole Bible is applicable to faith and life, I am committed to the idea of justice.  It is God’s character, one of his attributes, and the corollary to his love of justice is that he hates injustice.  The discussion about the phrase “social justice” is a diversion from the important theological pursuit of God’s will that he wants done on earth as well as in heaven.  The diversion into some analysis that the phrase “social justice” is born of Marxism (as if that was its source) is frankly ignorant and insulting, as if Marx cared about the poor and the oppressed more than God does.

As I said it is a diversion, more likely from political interests rather than biblical ones.  One cannot practice justice except between persons, so it always “social” justice.  The diversion proceeds with all the bad, mistaken, and even horrible things done in history in the pursuit of justice.  We grant the reality of that, although much trouble has also come about due to “religion” so it is not so much the word or phrase that should be censored but the misapplication of concept.  Does the reader follow me here?  Don’t let preachers or political pundits steer you away from biblical obedience, which entails each of us “doing justice.” (Micah 6:8)

Race is the social construct that under girds so much of our American history.  It is not everything about our history, but it is too much of our history to ignore.  Slavery in the Americas became based on race, first upon indigenous peoples, then on the enslavement of Africans.  Yes, there were oppressed minorities in Europe such as the Irish, yes there was slavery in the Balkans and the huge trade of it in the Muslim world.  By contrast we are making the point that slavery in North America was built on a racial identity, not a tribal, linguistic, or national one.  It was not built on the fortunes of war, or a debt to be paid, or a way out of poverty.

Race based slavery became a peculiar institution that the southern states were loath to part with, and that was the reason for the Civil War.  Yes, there were free blacks, but to be black in the antebellum United States meant your freedom and life were at risk. Racism was a dynamic in every state and territory, which created a culture of superiority, of abuse, of power, and of insult.  You could be free, and still be kidnapped and sold down the river.  If there had never been a war, but black people were suddenly emancipated by law or fiat, there would still have been a history of trauma, still a relationship between the dominant white culture and what they generally thought about the “place” of black people.  Even some abolitionist whites thought it best to send black people back to Africa because they could not conceive of how to live with and next to them.

But there was a war, and that historical fact is both good and bad for us as a country.  It cost us blood to end slavery, it was a national tsunami, an earthquake of devastation. The stolen investment of the enslaved, and the blood they shed to gain their own freedom, means black people have as much a stake of ownership in this nation as any other group, and maybe more.  The war was both a payment to end slavery and a punishment for it, and it was not resolved well.   This leads us back to the “transitional justice” idea.

Though the Radical Republicans were able to amend the U.S. Constitution to begin to bring about about full citizenship for black people (men especially) it didn’t heal the trauma, it didn’t replace the stolen lives, families, labor, and national cultures lost.   And it did not live up to its promise at that time.  Yet, a new African American culture began to be created in spite of it.

One of the reasons healing didn’t come is that racism did not retreat, it expanded.  Racism was the active force behind slavery in this country and not slavery which created racism. Whereas at one time slavery seemed to cover all the bases for domination, now racism moved to take the place of slavery by resistance to reconstruction.  This racism was insidious and prevailing. A war had been won on the battlefield, and another was now lost in the Congress.  It was a racial war and a racial victory by the South and a capitulation by the North that endured beyond slavery for another 100 years.

There could have been no “transitional justice” because there was no defeat of racism, no repentance for it.  The North gave up its righteousness when it gave into wanting a kind of peace which allowed the South to make a mockery of those constitutional amendments (and thus its victory), and allowed the South to create and maintain racial identities; one for domination, and another for degradation, insult, utility, and exploitation.

It was a triumph of the 20th century for the United States to finally deal with its failure to enforce its own constitution.  It was a triumph for most of the world to finally deal with colonialism.  None of this came easy, nor did it come without horror, heroes and martyrs.  Fifty years plus after the end of Jim Crow we are still in a place of (and waiting for) “transitional justice.”  Yet, resistance still exists, racism is still an attitude, a controlling idea and commitment in too many human hearts.  If we could have all agreed, “racism is a bad idea,” and just stopped it, maybe then we could have sat down and cried together, lamented at all the lynching, the killings, the abuse, the created and forced disparity of economics, the shame and shameful actions and reactions.

Maybe we could have had (and maybe still can) a reasonable discussion about personal responsibility, the need for two parent families, father involvement, morality, along with the admission of intentional government disinvestment by not granting G.I. loans, redlining, the danger of a welfare state, etc.  Because race still seems to color everything it is difficult to take in all the factors, and we become social reductionists (the counting of disparity by sociologists or the explanation by economists) based on our politics.

It is a wonderful thing if the Church (can, could, will) begin to listen, hear, speak, discuss, engage, and learn about these things.- to have the conversations necessary for transitional justice.  Not only about things but about its own people, fellow saints, its faults, its blame, its victories, and its potential.  It is difficult to have a discussion of course when there is so much fear, guilt, rage, ego, pride, defensiveness.  We must get beyond the politicization, the propaganda, the soaring rhetoric of self-justification.  We, each of us, need to look at the temptations we fall to in seeking out a triumphalism of denunciation, which surrenders the moral high ground.

There is a moral authority among those who have truly suffered but still forgive, who have authentically been oppressed but are able to speak the truth, in love, and with an amazing faith still pursue reconciliation with people with whom they may have no reasonable or historical justification for trust.  Pursuing reconciliation is a faith powered journey- made possible by keeping one’s eyes on Jesus,- like walking on water, but without it we stay in the boats of our history, our separation, and defeat.

By Randy Nabors

The New City Network

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