Thursday, January 19, 2012

The Tears of Culpability

The following was written by Rev. Michael Brunk for his church newsletter. I received permission to share it here:

When I was ten years old Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. gave his "I have a dream" speech... and when I was fifteen years old James Earl Ray struck down the dreamer with a rifle shot. The Virginia public schools where I grew up were still segregated... as were the restrooms, drinking fountains, restaurants, buses and of course... churches.

Whatever I heard about King in my childhood was usually in the context of a racial joke: He and Cassius Clay (later Muhammad Ali) always seemed to produce the desired snickers from my white relatives. It was all mirth to us; the very notion that "those people" would ever be our equals; ridiculous.

We had a maid then. Her name was Elizabeth. Not Mrs. whatever... I was never taught her last name... just Elizabeth. And, of course, though we never paid her the deserved respect of her age, Elizabeth was different. She wasn't LIKE those trouble-makers raising a fuss, marching through the streets, "rioting" (that's what white people called a lawful demonstration then, a "riot") She was a "good... (supply the word)."

And it never occurred to us that we were bad people. We were GOOD people... patriotic, moral, church-going... and better than blacks... but also better than Jews, Catholics and what we called "white trash." I still don't think we were bad people, but we did bad things in the name of something good.

When Dr. King was murdered, I remember my father triumphantly running a confederate flag up our flagpole that day. What had we won? It was never explained to me... just more jokes and people saying "It's about time!"

Cruelty creeps up on us like cancer. We don't see it, we don't feel it, not at first. Yet it is eating away at us, at the tender part of our soul, until there is nothing left but an open sore and scar tissue. And it often starts when we are very young. Racism is birthed in the nursery; hatred around the family table. That is why the language of cruelty comes so naturally to those who use it... it came to them in the womb, in their mother's milk... mixed with vital piety and love of country... until it is all so convoluted it can no longer be separated.

I have to believe the African-Americans that grew up in my neck of the woods understood that something was very wrong... but we didn't... we really didn't. And that is what TRULY disturbs me. How can something SO WRONG feel so right? What is it about the human condition that can so easily and so fluidly deceive us?

In the same year Dr. King said "I have a dream," he spent some time in the Birmingham Jail. Sympathetic clergy wrote him there, supporting his vision of equality, but criticizing his sense of timing. "Be patient!" they counseled him... "You're moving too fast!"

I think Martin found the reproof from his white clergy brethren stinging and disappointing. So, he responded with some essays that later became his book Why We Can't Wait. That book was placed in my hands fourteen years later as a new seminary student. It was required reading in my first class in Christian ethics. I still have it, and the pages are tear-stained.

The tears are the tears of culpability, crusted over from the long sleep of an up-bringing that didn't know better.. and yet, it did. We knew... somewhere, deep down, we knew.

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