Identical Old Questions
by Rebecca Brothers | 17 January 2021 |
When I moved to a farm last spring, my neighbors gave me a week or two to settle in. Then they started coming over to introduce themselves.
My neighbor across the road, whom we’ll call Mike, was the first. He’s a retired Army scout who used part of his G.I. Bill funding to attend culinary school in Denver. He’s been in the South for a couple years now, but still struggles to bake at these lower altitudes.
Mike brought me a dozen eggs from his chickens that day, and proved to be a valuable neighbor as I continued to adjust to farm life. When I have chicken questions, I consult him. When a drunk driver knocked down his mailbox, I offered to help repair it and gave him some plants to replace the flattened flowers. We swap horror stories we’ve heard about other people’s HOAs, and thank our lucky stars that we don’t have anyone telling us what color to paint our front doors.
He came over a few months ago to get paid for mowing my lawn, and to shoot the breeze. Somehow the conversation turned to the first time we’d met. He said, “When you opened the door in your long dress and head wrap, I figured you were Amish. I left that day thinking, ‘This is great! She can tell me what I’m doing wrong with my garden!’”
I said, “Sorry. It’s my fate to perpetually look very, very conservative.”
Mike said, “You’re not?”
“Nope,” I said. “I’m really, really not.”
“Oh,” he said. “Well, I really, really am.”
“Fair enough,” I said. We fist-bumped and started talking about politics. As you might imagine, we disagreed on a bunch of stuff, from reproductive rights to renewable energy policy. We don’t respect the same news sources. We’re coming from two very different places and working with two very different sets of foundational beliefs.
But here’s the thing: At the end of the day, he’s not moving. I’m not moving. We’re still going to be neighbors. My chickens will still wander over to visit his. His dog will still wander over to visit mine. He’s still going to keep my grass trimmed, and I’m still going to pay him in cash and the occasional pie.
Physically speaking, we cannot separate. We cannot remove our respective sections from each other, nor build an impassable wall between them. A husband and wife may be divorced, and go out of the presence, and beyond the reach of each other; but the different parts of our country cannot do this. They cannot but remain face to face; and intercourse, either amicable or hostile, must continue between them. Is it possible, then, to make that intercourse more advantageous or more satisfactory, after separation than before? Can aliens make treaties easier than friends can make laws? Can treaties be more faithfully enforced between aliens than laws can among friends? Suppose you go to war, you cannot fight always; and when, after much loss on both sides, and no gain on either, you cease fighting, the identical old questions, as to terms of intercourse, are again upon you.
That last sentence in particular feels prophetic, in light of the losses suffered in the ensuing war and the “identical old questions” that remain in circulation, even more than one hundred and fifty years later—questions about legacy and honor, repentance and forgiveness, freedom and responsibility. From my home in the South, I see reminders every day that the Civil War is not over. I see it in the debates over the best place for monuments to the Confederacy. I see it in the “stars and bars” flags flying above American flags by the side of the road as I drive to work. I see it in my fellow white Americans’ insistence that Black Americans are fine, that the racial disparities in health and education and justice are exaggerated, that folks just need to work harder and pull themselves up by their bootstraps, that all our society needs to heal—and, ostensibly, healing is synonymous with unity — is fewer complaints and more gratitude.
Calls for unity are interesting beasts. They were legion in the wake of the 2015 General Conference vote on the theology of ordination. They are legion now, in the wake of the January 6 far-right invasion of the Capitol. And every time I hear one of these pleas, this is what I hear: “Trying to re-establish the old status quo is more important than doing any meaningful work to tackle those old questions.”
I hear: “Sure, there’s a big crack in the foundation, but fixing it would be too messy and expensive. Let’s just plant a nice rosebush in front of it instead.”
I hear: “This is not about race. Please stop making it about race.”
I hear: “Yes, we do have a responsibility to establish justice, ensure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty. But wouldn’t it be so much easier if we just focused on providing those things to … you know … the right kind of folks?”
To these pleas, I say:
We are all the “right kind” of folks.
We are all equally and ardently beloved children of God.
I will stop “making it about race” when it stops being about race.
As I have said before in these pages, “Equal rights for others does not mean fewer rights for you. It’s not a pie.” Making voting more accessible for rural Americans does not restrict your right to vote. Same-sex couples’ right to marry does not remove your right to do the same. When a Black American seeks equitable treatment in the justice system, that does not cut into a “rights pie” that leaves you on the hook for a crime you didn’t commit. We’ve got to stop conflating others’ liberation with our persecution.
If we are serious about being good citizens — with all the rights and responsibilities attendant to that designation — then our votes, our donations, our beliefs, and our allegiances must stem from our continual interrogation of our attitudes about “the other.” If we are serious about being good stewards of this country, and responsible participants in our communities, then we must consistently practice the founding principle that “all men are created equal.”
To paraphrase writer Frank Wilhoit, we have two options for the kind of society we create. The first option consists of “in-groups whom the law protects but does not bind, alongside out-groups whom the law binds but does not protect.” The second option is governed by “the proposition that the law cannot protect anyone unless it binds everyone, and cannot bind anyone unless it protects everyone.”
Throughout the Hebrew Scriptures, prophet after prophet called for justice. From Amos: “Let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.” From Isaiah: “Learn to do good; seek justice; correct oppression; bring justice to the fatherless; plead the widow’s cause.” From Micah: “He has told you, O man, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” From Zechariah: “Thus says the Lord of hosts, ‘Render true judgments, show kindness and mercy to one another, do not oppress the widow, the fatherless, the sojourner, or the poor, and let none of you devise evil against another in your heart.’” From Jeremiah: “Thus says the Lord: ‘Do justice and righteousness, and deliver from the hand of the oppressor him who has been robbed. And do no wrong or violence to the resident alien, the fatherless, and the widow, nor shed innocent blood in this place.’”
There cannot be healing without justice. There cannot be unity without accountability. We cannot construct a society on the sandy foundation of ill-informed answers to centuries-old questions. We cannot patch up this house of our nation with lumber labeled “Words don’t matter” and “History doesn’t matter” and “Some folks deserve special treatment.” Those repairs will not stand the test of time. As writer Austin Channing Brown said on January 10, 2021,
There is nothing noble about unity for its own sake. I won’t be unified with injustice. I won’t be unified with white supremacy. I won’t be unified with overturning a legitimate election. I won’t be unified with hypocrisy, lies, and harm. If that is what unity requires of me, consider us forever divided.
Lincoln was right: Physically speaking, we cannot separate. There will always be Republicans in California and Democrats in Alabama. We are inextricably intertwined. We will always be neighbors. Those identical old questions will persist, no matter how long we fight or how much we’d prefer to sweep them under the rug.
So here, friends, is our choice: What will be at the core of our answers to those questions? Will the core be a sense of exceptionalism? Fear? A desire for unity, at the expense of honesty? Panic over what Fred told us Jim heard from Bob?
Or will the core of our answers be humility, and a desire for justice, and the internalized belief that all humankind is created equal?
Rebecca Brothers is a graduate of Lincoln City Seventh-day Adventist School, Walla Walla University, and the University of Washington. She works as an academic librarian in Huntsville, Alabama, and serves on her church’s Vestry, Outreach Committee, Ushers’ Guild, and Altar Guild.