By Kelly Brown Douglas
George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Aubrey. In response to President John Kennedy’s assassination Martin Luther King, Jr. said “While the question of who killed President Kennedy?” is important, the question of “What killed him?” is more important.” Inasmuch as what is killing black people in this country—be it the racialized realities of a pandemic or racist policing—is about the systemic, structural and cultural realities of white supremacy endemic to the fabric of this country, it is also about much more than that. It is about the collective soul of America.
The soul connects human beings to our higher, aspirational selves. It animates and propels people to do better and to be better. It pushes humans toward the fullest potential of what it means to be “good.” It reflects the essence of our humanity. The soul of who we are as divine creatures, therefore, is not defined by the mercurial and compromising protestations of human beings nor is it accountable to the politics and biases of human history. Rather, it is inextricably bound to the “transcendent arc of the universe, that bends toward justice”—that perfect goodness which is the loving justice of God. It is our soul that connects us to the Beloved Community which God promises us all. This is a community where all persons are treated as the sacred creations that they are.
This begs the question: what has alienated America from its very soul thereby virtually normalizing violence against black lives? Answer: whiteness itself.
Whiteness, therefore, is an inherently oppositional and violent construct—for its very existence depends upon the marginalization, subjugation, if not elimination, of people of color.
Whiteness is not a benign social-racial construct. It is both the foundation and capital of white supremacy. It is that which white supremacy protects and privileges. Whiteness, therefore, is an inherently oppositional and violent construct—for its very existence depends upon the marginalization, subjugation, if not elimination, of people of color.
Moreover, it thrives on divisions and disruptions being constructed between whiteness and all that does not service the “liberties” of white privilege—such as the liberty to move, to claim space, and to be unfettered capitalist consumers.
In this regard, the armed protests to open the country, supported by the President, is about nothing less than privileged “whiteness” standing its ground with no regard for the lives of people of color. It is a self-centered refusal to make sacrifices for the other—especially when those others are disproportionately people color. It is for this reason that the very soul and hence humanity of the nation is a stake—and inasmuch as this is the case—the lives of people of color will always be at risk.
And so, as these last months and days have shown us, it is a matter of life and death for black and brown people that America be reconciled with its very soul—and hence its humanity. Yet, imperious “Make America Great Again” politics has trumped moral integrity, leaving the nation without the political and civic leadership or will that would lead America to discover and become reconciled to its very soul. And, this brings us to the role of faith leaders.
If faith is about partnering with God in mending the earth, then faith communities by definition are accountable not to a status-quo where the injustice and inequality of white supremacy reigns. Rather, they are accountable to a more just future where all people are truly created equal. Simply put, faith leaders are to be driven by the urgings of their souls—regardless of their political leanings. It is left to faith leaders, therefore, to live into who they claim to be and thus lead the nation back to its very soul.
They must name the realities of “whiteness” for what it is—a threat to the “better angels” of who we could become.
As we face the ever-growing and frightening consequences of white supremacist injustices in this country, now is not the time for faith leaders to “remain silent behind the anesthetizing security of stained-glass windows.” Rather, it is time for faith leaders to step up and to claim their moral voice. They must boldly proclaim that enough is enough—the lives of people of color can no longer be sacrificed to the privileges of whiteness. Faith leaders must proclaim that people matter more than profits, and denounce any politics of “greatness” that diminish the life chances or disrespect the sacred humanity of others. They must name the realities of “whiteness” for what it is—a threat to the “better angels” of who we could become.
If this nation is going to ever live into its democratic aspiration to be a nation where there is life, liberty and justice for all, then faith leaders must call out and denounce the realities of white supremacy, thereby leading America back to its very soul, indeed its humanity. As King reflected upon what killed President Kennedy, he said “Our nation should do a great deal of soul searching.” Indeed, our nation must search for its very soul. Until it does that, there will be more Georges, Breonnas and Ahmauds.
Rev. Dr. Kelly Brown Douglas is the Dean of the Episcopal Divinity School at Union Theological Seminary. She is also the Canon Theologian at the Washington National Cathedral.