I find it hard to sort out my feelings and thoughts on the conviction of Dereck Chauvin. For the family of George Floyd, I hope they can find some peace and that his senseless death will lead to change. For Black Americans, I hope they will give America yet one more chance. For white Americans, I hope we will finally confront our participation in America’s original sin. This is the best I can hope for.
What do I expect to happen? Not much. White backlash to any gain in civil rights for African Americans is a well-established pattern in American history. After the Emancipation Proclamation, Abraham Lincoln was assassinated. After Reconstruction, which saw real gains by former enslaved peoples, Jim Crow took over in former slave states, creating a regime as bad as slavery itself in every way other than actual ownership.
After civil rights gains of the 1960s, the Republican Party took over the southern states by dog whistling on racial issues.
The conservative majority on the Supreme Court gutted the voting rights acts, a principal gain of the 1960s.
After the election of America’s first Black president, the Republican Party ran and elected Donald Trump whose policies have been explicitly in support of white hegemony.
Don’t take my word for it; read Joseph J. Ellis’s American Dialogue: The Founders and Us (Knopf, 2018), chapter 1, “Race.” It is a devastating and dispiriting review of this history from Jefferson to Trump. Ellis is a noted historian of the American founders, of moderate to conservative leanings.
Terence Crutcher, an unarmed Black man, was shot and killed by a white police officer on September 16, 2016. The officer was found not guilty. Mr. Crutcher’s brother was a former student of mine. I grew up in the segregated south. My experience with this issue is personal.
For America to move forward, we whites must confront our original sin of enslaving African Americans and continuing to oppress these peoples, but we also must confront our imperialist heritage. American history has long circled around a conflict between democracy and imperialism. One narrative of our history is an ever-growing movement towards more and more democracy. But along a parallel path has been an ever-expanding empire.
The two are in conflict.
Democracy moves towards greater participation and freedom of all classes, sexes, ethnics, and peoples.
Empire moves towards hierarchy, conquest, and concentration of power in the few.
Which tendency will win out? Democracy or imperialism? I am a historian, not a prophet. I know what I hope for; I fear what I know can happen.
The ancient writings I have spent my life studying discuss these issues. Crucifixion and resurrection are a variation on this conflict.
Resurrection protests against Rome’s claim to power and the gods’ blessing. It resists the imperial claim in favor of a (defeated) god* of (defeated) Israel’s empire of the oppressed, the poor, and the defeated. Convoluted, but think about it and you will begin to see into the heart of Paul’s scandal of the cross.
We know how that turned out. The Christian church became an imperial church in full support of the empire.
Maybe this time will be different. Repentance is always a possibility. Hope springs eternal. Thank god!!
*I have not capitalized “god” because all views of god are social constructions and I do not think theological issues should be solved by capitalization. That is in itself a form of Christian imperialism.
Darbeth Distinguished Professor Emeritus of New Testament at the Phillips Theological Seminary, Tulsa, Oklahoma
Bernard Brandon Scott is the author and editor of many books, including The Real Paul: Recovering His Radical Challenge and The Trouble with Resurrection. Brandon is a charter member of the Jesus Seminar and an editor of the Christianity Seminar book After Jesus Before Christianity (forthcoming).
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