“If only it were all so simple! If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds,
and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good
and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?”
– Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn
The Gulag Archipelago 1918-1956
What happened on that SAE party bus at the University of Oklahoma is just one more painful reminder in a long season of painful reminders that for all of our strides socially and politically as a nation, we still do not live in that nobly-imagined post-racist society. The journey from Selma to Ferguson, Norman, and North Dallas is further than can be marched in 50 years.
The outrage and frustration are completely understandable. The shame and guilt are perfectly appropriate. But these are just beginning points. When the indignation cools and conscience has been salved, the real work of reconciliation begins, and this crucial work can be short-circuited by thinking that those two young men from North Dallas who were seen in the video leading that racist chants are the problem and not just a symptom. They have been expelled from the University and protestors have taken up their positions in front of their family homes here in Dallas with their cries of condemnation and their placards of censure. These boys are reaping what they have sown, one of the inevitable moral and spiritual laws of the universe (Galatians 6:7). Nothing ultimately goes unnoticed. In the end, we don’t get away with anything. And so the scarlet letter “R” has been affixed to the University of Oklahoma jerseys of these two SAE frat boys whose blurry images flash across our television screens nightly as they prance and chant and laugh while singing the most outrageous and offensive things. Kick them out! Shut them down! Cut them off! Banish them from decent society! Drive them forever from our midst! Problem solved! But is it, really?
Will racism be eradicated once the overt racists in our midst have been publically identified and socially ostracized? Once “they” have finally been banished and silenced, will the problem of racism thereby be solved? What about the narcissism of my own heart which I suspect is one of the deep hidden springs of racism – the completely out of proportion idealization of me at the expense of you, the unquestioned elevation of my perspectives and concerns above your perspectives and concerns, getting and then keeping the spotlight on me by constantly edging you to the wings? This self-love, self-absorption, self-obsession and self-centeredness of narcissism easily becomes chauvinism when the focus shifts from “me” to “mine.” Group-love, group-absorption, group-obsession and group-centeredness breaks out along the lines of race as well as those of gender, culture, status and creed without any effort at all. All of which is to say that dealing with the most vulgar expressions of racism in our society, necessary as it is for us to do, is not the same thing as dealing with the capacity for racism for which our hearts seem to have a very real disposition. Those two University of Oklahoma party boys can become distractions if we’re not careful. When they’ve been dealt with – and it seems to me that they have been, and decisively, thank-you President Boren – then our outrage will be stilled and we’ll be comfortable going back to talking about the Cowboys, or the weather, or the price of gas, thinking that racism has been dealt with, when it still lurks in the hidden recesses of our hearts.
That quote from Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn at the top of this blog rocked my world the very first time I read it when I was in college. I was real busy at that particular time working on just exactly where the lines that separated us good “moral” Christians from everybody else in the world should be drawn. I was pretty sure that it was somewhere in the middle of the street between the Christian College dormitory in which I was living at the time and the row of University of Oregon fraternity and sorority houses that my dormitory faced. I was earnestly drawing the line between our Bible studies and their keggers, between our prayer meetings and their toga parties, when this somber Russian dissident sidled up to me and quietly suggested that perhaps instead of looking for it somewhere “out there,” that maybe I should start by looking for that line somewhere in my own heart!
My initial resistance to his suggestion was theological. I was a senior in Christian College on the ministry track when I first bumped into Solzhenitsyn. I’d taken enough courses in church history, theology and Scripture by that time to know that what he was suggesting had a name. The idea that there is something dark at work in our hearts that invariably turns us away from God and His will and towards ourselves and our own selfish interests is called the doctrine of Original Sin, and we Disciples don’t believe in it, or at least that’s what I was told, or thought that it was something that I was told! And so, just imagine my surprise when I was reading through Alexander Campbell’s (one of the “founders” of the “Disciples”) The Christian System (1839) one day and stumbled across this –
Man unregenerate is ruined in body, soul, and spirit; a frail and mortal creature. From Adam his father he inherits a shattered constitution. He is the child of a fallen progenitor; a scion from a degenerate stock. [“Regeneration”]
Many “Disciples” today may very well not believe in Original Sin, but Alexander Campbell, the founder of the “Disciples,” apparently did. And then it was reading the American theologian Reinhold Niebuhr early in seminary that finally forced me to concede the point. He’s the theologian who suggested that the doctrine of Original Sin is “the only empirically verifiable doctrine of the Christian faith.” The truth of the matter was that I knew from my own experience that I was capable of stunningly sacrificial goodness and staggeringly stupid wickedness, often on the very same afternoon! “The line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being.” I know how it cuts through the middle of mine, and coming to terms with this fact has proven to be one of the most liberating and constructive conceptual revolutions of my 61 years.
The British theologian Andrew Basden has written extensively about Original Sin and Original Blessing. Just like me, he was initially put off by the idea as he heard it expounded by what he describes as some very “dour” Christians, but over time he came to actually appreciate what he now calls “The Beauty of Original Sin.” His short essay on this topic by this title deserves a quick look and some extended thought (www.basden.demon.co.uk), but for our purposes here in this blog, I will only cite his first point. The doctrine of Original Sin deals with our perpetual “line drawing” propensities.
We tend to divide humanity into two camps: “Goodies” and “Baddies.” “Goodies” are those who are ‘OK’ in our eyes; “Baddies” are those who are not. But, under the doctrine of original sin, all of us are infected… This makes me tolerant of others. If everyone is infected by Original Sin, then when someone does something wrong I’m not greatly fazed. But if I reject the idea of original sin, then I come to expect them – especially the “Goodies” – to be perfect, and get annoyed when I find they’re not.
A book that garnered quite a reading audience 30 years ago was Will D. Campbell’s Brother to a Dragonfly (A Continuum Book of Seabury Press – 1979). Will was a Baptist minister who took a position as a field officer for the National Council of Churches working in the American south during the Civil Rights Movement. Brother to a Dragonfly is the spiritual autobiography of those days seen through the lens of a family photograph – his strained relationship with his own racist alcoholic brother. The story that Will told built to a climax – the death of a freedom rider named Jonathan Daniel, an Episcopal seminarian from Massachusetts, who was shot and killed by an Alabama special deputy named Thomas Coleman. Grieving this loss of a friend and feeling the full force of the moral outrage that the situation well deserved, Will said that he learned “the most enlightening theological lesson” of his life in a confrontation with his brother (pages 217-225).
Earlier, when challenged, Will had told his brother who had demanded a simple definition of Christianity “in ten words or less,” that the blunt message of the Gospel is: “We’re all bastards but God loves us anyway.” In the grief and outage of that moment, Will’s brother pushed back. “Let’s see if your definition of the Faith can stand the test.” He had overheard Will in his phone calls to the Department of Justice and the A.C.L.U. describe special deputy Thomas Coleman as a “redneck, backwoods, woolhat, cracker, Kluxer, ignoramus.” “Come on, Brother, let’s talk about your definition,” Will’s brother said, pushing hard. “Was Jonathan Daniel a bastard?” And Will gave a theological answer, “Everyone is a sinner in one way or another,” but then quickly added, “But he was also one of the sweetest and most gentle guys I had ever known.” “But was he a bastard?” Will’s brother demanded to know, his tone almost a scream. Knowing that if he said “no” that this conversation would never end, Will conceded and finally said “yes.”
“All right,” Will’s brother continued with the relentlessness of a prosecuting attorney with his suspect on the witness stand in open court, “Is Thomas Coleman a bastard?” And this time without hesitation or qualification, Will answered his brother’s question, “Yes. Thomas Coleman is a bastard.” “Okay,” Will’s brother concluded, “Jonathan Daniels was a bastard. Thomas Coleman is a bastard.” And then, preaching for a decision, Will’s brother asked him – “So, which one of these two bastards do you think God loves the most? Does God love that little dead bastard Jonathan the most? Or does He love that living bastard Thomas the most?” And Will said that in that moment “everything became clear, everything, it was a revelation,” and he began laughing and crying simultaneously.
I was laughing at myself, at 20 years of a ministry which had become, without my realizing it, a ministry of liberal sophistication… an attempted negation of Jesus. …Thomas Coleman. Loved. And if loved, forgiven. And if forgiven, reconciled. Yet sitting then in his own jail cell, the blood of one of his and my brothers on his hands… The lesson was over. Class dismissed.
Will says that he became a Christian that day. Being pushed by his brother to see Thomas Coleman, the murderer of his sweet friend Jonathan Daniel, in the light of the Gospel was the turning point for his life and ministry. Understanding that the scandal of God’s grace in Jesus Christ is that God really does love bastards like Thomas Coleman was almost more than Will could stand, but the truth that he finally had to come to terms with because unless this is precisely the case “then there is no Gospel, there is no Good News. Because unless that is the truth, we have only bad news, we are back with law alone.” And for the rest of Will’s life he ministered that Gospel of God’s grace as comfortably and enthusiastically to the Thomas Coleman’s of this world as he had previously ministered it comfortably and enthusiastically to the Jonathan Daniel’s. And it seems to me that this is precisely the challenge of this moment for us as Christians. We can join our voices to those expressing outrage and frustration, and, or, we can join our voices to those expressing shame and guilt. But the message that’s distinctively ours as Christians is the Gospel, and that’s going to push us way past both the outrage and frustration, and the shame and guilt to a strangely unfamiliar place for most of us – grace. DBS+