by Jack Hoehn | June 11, 2021 |
One year ago today, I wrote an article I need to keep rereading. It was published June 20, 2020. It was the response of a white Adventist to the Black Lives Matter movement, and a recognition that all white people have a generational debt from our ancestors that is not easy to bear. That God (and the universe he gifted to us) have laws we might not choose but are reality.
- “What goes up must come down.”
- “You reap what you sow.”
- “The sins of the fathers are visited upon the children unto the third and fourth generation.”
These tragic truths can be ignored but not escaped.
What’s happened since?
One old white man in the White House disregarding tragic facts of the Covid19 pandemic has been replace by an older white man in the White House trying to print enough money to lessen that tragedy. Some of us like the change, while others feel threatened. Some say they are still old and white.
One white policeman has been found guilty of committing murder on a black man guilty of poverty and addiction who was beloved and mourned by those who knew him. George Floyd is now known and mourned by most all. Those who knew George mourn the loss of a kind and gentle person. White people mourn the loss of the ignorance we had wrapped ourselves in.
Here is what I wrote one year ago:
“The generational poverty and deprivation of people of color cannot be “gotten over.” Those of us who know some measure of prosperity, who have some money in the bank, who own mutual funds based on stocks or bonds, who live in houses and drink water not poisoned by lead, who have not been pulled over because we looked dangerous—cannot ever hope to return to “like it was.”
One year later what are some of our new normals?
History replacing myth
Children in white families in the United States have been taught a mythological history. What James Baldwin called,
“That collection of myths to which Americans cling:
that their ancestors were all freedom-loving heroes,
that they were born in the greatest country the world has ever seen,
or that Americans are invincible in battle and wise in peace,
that Americans have always dealt honorably with Mexicans and Indians
and all other neighbors or inferiors,
that American men are the world’s most direct and virile,
that American women are [all spotless and] pure.”[i]
And by “American” they meant white, Protestant, English-speaking Americans. Childish fantasies are cute in the first few years of life. Held uncorrected into adolescence, youth, and age they become pathology. Many of us have had to grow up this past year. Some of us still cling to the myths of white goodness that made us feel good about ourselves. The true history is not a pretty picture, but truth builds a better foundation for the future than myth.
Bearing false witness
White people have had to confess to breaking the 8th commandment, likely not on the outside, for this is a hidden sin. We are guilty of “bearing false witness against our neighbors” in our hearts. We have lied to ourselves when we secretly believed “the whites, the whites, the whites are best. So up with the whites and down with the rest!” Well, we didn’t really say “down with the rest” but we acted that way by permitting the exploitation of “lesser” (there’s the sin) races.
While I may have known this before, what I never fully realized was how racial bias had advantaged my life. What I have learned is the harm in cherishing the notion that we of our race are a treasured people. That my race is in possession of some intrinsic value that all other kinds of people need or want. That if people of color just become like us white, English speaking, Protestants; if they all become Huxtables, if they talked white, sang white, prayed white, and danced white; if they just (and here again is the sin) “came up” to our culture and styles; if they immigrated meekly in small numbers; if they all became proficient in English, and became invisible, then couldn’t we all “just get along” in racial harmony freed from all those angry agitators? In our white fantasy world we could just continue to “not see color.”
For four hundred years white races have refused to “see people of color” as humans fully created in the image of God with intrinsic value. It has been to our economic advantage to exploit them, instead of celebrating them. We have permitted ourselves to abuse and use them by refusing to see that people of color are often our superiors or at very least equals. And if you are not personally guilty of that, your ancestors were. And this past year many of us have looked inside and found ourselves weighed in the balances and found wanting.
Mene, mene, tekel, uphares
A bloodless hand traced four words in his own language on Belshazzar’s palace walls. These were not alien words from any of the multiple “lesser races” that Babylonian had conquered and enslaved as inferior peoples. Master races have used fire, torture, castration, rape, infanticide, slavery, lynching, death, and humiliation on those inferior peoples who would refuse to accept their inferiority. So had Babylon.
“Oh peoples, nations and men of every language,” the master race had demanded, “as soon as you hear the sound of the horn, flute, zither, lyre, harp, pipes and all kinds of music, you must fall down…[or] immediately be thrown into a blazing furnace.”[ii] The golden dream of Babylonian superiority, to keep aliens submissive, had already begun by the castration of Daniel, Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah.[iii] Their native names had been replaced by easier names for their masters to pronounce—strange Babylonian names sounding something like Shack-attack, Wet-back, and Abed-negro?[iv]
Yet a Most High rules over the kingdoms of men and the Finger of God traced heaven’s judgment against human exploitation by systemic racism like a tagger on the side of a bridge or a boxcar.
Mene, Mene = Counted, Recounted
Tekel = Weighed and Found Wanting
Uphares = Divided or split-up.
The golden dream of racial superiority (“we are the top, we are the head of gold, all other nations are inferior to us” was Nebuchadnezzar’s dream) that drove and destroyed Babylon has been numbered by heaven; an accounting has been made. Heaven is auditing Babylon’s books. And not only was an accounting done, but a recount or audit was done.
- Mene, Mene or counted and counted again. And racial superiority is found to come short. The accounts don’t match up. We fail the audit. The subjugated genders, races, languages have not been paid fairly. There has been embezzlement, exploitation and thefts of all kinds. The inferior races have been used and abused, and they are due a massive restitution. We have taken their strength, their dignity, their education, their wages, their votes, their children, their lives. And the time to pay back has come.
- Tekel is a unit of weight like the Shekel that was a unit of weight before it became a coin. Here we are not counting, we are weighing a race, a nation, a church. Against the charge of systemic racism, we have put up our white defenses, often by counter-charges and other obfuscations. Don’t teach an honest history, they cry—“You are Hating America.” Don’t remove our Confederate Flags–“You are Cancelling Culture.” Don’t detoxify policing–“We Need Law and Order.” Don’t ban hate speech or political lies–“Protect Freedom of Speech.” Don’t regulate weapons–“Sacred Second Amendment.” Each claim must be carefully weighted, tested in the balances of truth.
Fascists like Mussolini, Hitler, Pol Pot, and Kim-Jong Un and wanna-be Fascists chant their lies with crowds of their frightened but excited “master races.” Lock-Them-Up, Take-Them-Out, Send-Them-Back, My-Country-Right-Or-Wrong are all thoughtless provocations. Blaming Jews, Muslims, Africans, Mexicans, Feminists, Progressives, Socialists, Leftists, Rightists, Centrists are racist staples—dividing the world into us and others. The good and the bad. The white and the non-white.
- Uphares is “halved” or “divided.” Split, divorced, weakened, broken is the outcome of unrecompensed exploitation, delusional and racist politics, nationalism, and militarism. And racial headship, national first-ism, or male headship is the cause of a split, divided, weakened, divorced, broken nation, marriage or church. What can be done with this divided nation, family, church?
Ibram X. Kendi’s book on the history of racism takes us back about 400 years to the beginning of the formal exploitation of Africa by white races and their governors. This four-century history of multigenerational exploitation of humans deemed inferior to those using them has a parallel in the exploitation and slavery of the Hebrews by Egyptians also for four centuries. This may be one of the reasons African people and their exploited descendants resonated with the Old Testament.
But it is clear that at the end of the slavery and exploitation of the Jews, God required an accounting of the Egyptians, like he later required of the Babylonians, and that he is now requiring from the White nations who have exploited races for the same four centuries.
“Furthermore, the Israelites acted on Moses’ word and asked the Egyptians for articles of silver and gold, and for clothing. And the LORD gave the people such favor in the sight of the Egyptians that they granted their request. In this way they plundered the Egyptians.” (Exodus 12:35,36)
It is far too late to fix 400 years of systemic white racism. The generational exploitation of non-white people by white races, or Slavic people by Germanic people, or Koreans by Japanese, or Irish by English, or Hutu by Tutsi, or women by men, can never be made “all right” by this present generation. But we could at least start to try. This can be called “reparations.” I hope it will not be in cash, but it must be economic and wealth building.
Our Adventist ancestors who were forming this church at the same time as the slaves were emancipated did support reparations. One remarkable plan was to give every slave family one of the Confederate and Union Army’s mules and 40 acres of previous slave plantations as a landholding. In the few cases that this was done, a year later the racist president who succeeded Lincoln took even this away from those families. The history of Jim Crow white suppression of the colored races is one of the tragic realities we white Americans have had to come to acknowledge. The debt owed them has never been paid. And today we may agree it should happen, but how can we afford to pay even part of our ancestor’s debts?
Jesus taxes the wealthy
Jesus tells a remarkable story (Luke 16) about a wealthy man’s manager or steward that was found to be short after an audit. The manager knew he was going to soon be fired if not imprisoned. So he quickly did whatever he could, in the time remaining, to try and make friends with financial generosity.
Even though this generosity or profligacy was at the master’s expense, loans were canceled or halved right and left, using the rich man’s money, not his own! It was as if student loans were being canceled, as if health insurance were suddenly offered to all who didn’t have it, as if targeted grants were being given to disadvantaged businesses.
He wasn’t offering tax-cuts to the wealthy; he was offering debt relief to those who owed money. He was helping the borrower not the banks and was using the banker’s money. Jesus did not moralize over the profligacy of the manager with other people’s money. In fact he called him wise or “shrewd.”
He didn’t question why it was good to let other rich people pay for your kindness and generosity. Instead, he advised those of us guilty (or children of the guilty) who have been audited, weighed, and found wanting to quickly do whatever we can, as quickly as we can to start to repay the indebtedness and poverty of those about us. Can we buy friendship? Well in the face of imminent disaster it might be worth a try.
“I tell you, use worldly wealth
to gain friends for yourselves
so that when it is gone,
you will be welcomed into eternal dwellings.”[v]
I think Jesus just told us well-off privileged voters to increase taxes on wealthy people and corporations to help more poor people. Perhaps to start doing some reparations as the basis of future friendships between the races. What do you think?
[i] James Baldwin, The Fire Next Time (1962).
[ii] Daniel 3:4-6.
[iii] 2 Kings 20:18; Daniel 1:3.
[iv] Daniel 1:6,7.
[v] Luke 16:9.
Jack Hoehn is a retired physician living in Walla Walla, Washington. His most recent book is ADVENTIST TOMORROW—Fresh Ideas While Waiting for Jesus.