Tuesday, December 1, 2009

So What Should We Do?

My friend Easel Roberts sent significant comments about my last posting. (If you haven't read them yet, I hope you will do so now.) He wrote, in part, ". . . the response I have to Cone's book and speech as well as this blog is 'and therefore, I should do what?' In my opinion, without an 'and therefore we should . . .' we are only irritating old wounds which does nobody any good."

I think Easel's "complaint" is a legitimate one, and one that calls for serious thought. Let me share what I am thinking at this point, and what I write below is directed not just to him but to all of us.

So, what should we do? For starters let me suggest the following:

(1) We should ask ourselves if our knowledge of past events, especially those related to the oppression or mistreatment of other people, is accurate and adequate. Most of us, I'm afraid, are lacking on both counts; that is, we have been taught and have long accepted ideas that are often only half-truths, and we have usually had a less than adequate understanding of past events (such as the extent of the suffering caused by slavery or by the conquest of Native Americans). Seeking to gain a more nearly accurate and adequate understanding of the past is an important first step.

(2) We should examine ourselves to see if we harbor any attitudes or engage in any activities that exacerbate the problem(s). Nothing is gained by feeling guilty--unless we are, indeed, guilty. And again, most of us, I'm afraid, have held and perhaps still hold attitudes and have engaged in and perhaps still engage in activities for which we need to repent. If we have honestly repented, or if, which is probably unlikely, we have not committed any sins for which we need to repent, there is no need to feel guilty and we can just brush aside whatever blame we might hear.

(3) We should consider what we can do to help alleviate the pain of those who are still suffering because of the sins of the past--if not our sins, the sins of our forefathers, in many cases. We, obviously, cannot all do the same thing, and there is no way I can say what any of you should do. In this, as in other cases, we all have to work out our own salvation "with fear and trembling" (see Philippians 2:12).

Concerning this third point, let me suggest two important things to remember: (i) We may not be able to do much, but we can do something; and (ii) because we are doing something, that does not mean we are doing all we should do.


  1. I'm listening to Leonard Cohen singing on PBS while I write this, which is strangely appropriate to this subject. He has the most haunting way with a "Hallelujah."

    I remember when I was twelve, and it hit me like a bolt of lightning, that I did not know whether God existed. Then like rolling thunder followed the suspicion that no one else really did, either. We were all playing some sort of strange game we called life.

    A lot of pain has followed from those insights, but I would not surrender it. Many years later I read that those two insights often go together. So much for being unique. What I finally realized was that what seemed like the end of my relationship with God, was more like its real beginning. God had called me out into the wilderness.

    Out in the wilderness I met the woman who became my wife. She was a member of a band of pilgrims, who had left Goshen, looking for the Baptist promised land. How strangely that fit with my pilgrimage, as a wanderer from across the river, born one of the Saints in Zion.

    Sometimes we are called to be engineers, building altars and temples. Sometimes we are seers, merely taking in what we experience. Sometimes we are crushed with pain, and sometimes we are exploding with joy. Sometimes we listen. Sometimes, we even sing the songs of Zion. Sometimes we are lost and blind. Sometimes we find a pearl of great price. Always we are pilgrims on the journey.

    Elijah taught me to listen for the still, small voice. Jesus taught me that the kingdom of God is within me. Newton taught me gravity. Darwin taught me evolution. Freud taught me psychology. Einstein taught me physics. Mandelbrot taught me chaos. Cone taught me Black Theology. Where is this going? I do not know. I do know, I would not choose to miss the journey.

  2. Leroy,

    I appreciate your blog and recommendations regarding the doing of something to correct injustice. We may not all agree on the "what" or the "how," but I believe we all, or should be, well beyond the "if" or "whether."

    Thanks Leroy.

  3. I respect Easel's comments; they have provoked my own reflections about the wisdom of bringing someone like a James Cone (or an A.J. Levine) in for such lectures, especially if the criterion for their success is whether afterwards I feel challenged and directed to "do" something. In point of fact, every Sunday CT talks about the Lakota people, I go away wondering what to do and then spend an hour in bewilderment about all of the other things in addition to that I'm not doing anything about.

    Surely there's some value in engaging myself and others in a good conversation about important ethical ideas, isnt' there? It's those ideas and the exchange with my friends and neighbors that teach me how "to be" even if they are not quite as productive on what "to do." Now, I don't deny that learning how "to be" in this world might even more easily come from knowing what "to do." But when we don't know what "to do," we may just have to get the being part straight and then the doing part will gradually become clear.

    Frankly, even though guidance about the doing has not yet come either from Cone or from our conversations, I feel enriched to have listened to someone who can testify first hand that Christian people really can deliberately harbor hatred and bigotry against other human beings. At the least it's a warning about how vulnerable we all are to the embrace and justification of such views.