Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Bless me father for I have sinned

During my time in college, the American racial struggles that had always seemed truisms slowly and definitively began to change. As I shared laughter, tears, and bread with people of other races, racial violence was no longer merely wrong, a sin against humanity; it had become personal, a sin against my brothers.

One of those brothers grew closer to me during my sophomore year, and eventually my roommate pointed out that I saw more of Kyle in a given week than of her. Kyle and I had a tendency to find ourselves in the thick of conversations about theology, sociology, history, the church, and our purpose in the world, and when we had to pause the conversation for an inconvenience like class it was not unheard of for one of us to invite the other to join.

“Kyle,” I said one night as I kept him company on his midnight shift in the residence hall office, “you realize if we had lived two hundred years ago, we would never have been friends?”

Kyle nodded sadly. As a black man who spent significant portions of his week involved in a mostly-white campus organization, I suppose he was used to this fact that was somewhat jarring to nineteen-year-old me.

“What if I had enslaved you?” I asked him, something deeper than guilt stirring in my conscience. “Or even if I didn’t have slaves, what if I mistreated you when I saw you on the street, or didn’t even notice that you existed? I know there were plenty of abolitionists in the South and I like to think I would have been one, but there’s no way to know that about myself. Maybe I wouldn’t have seen anything wrong with slavery. Maybe I would have thought that was just the way the world worked. Maybe I would have enslaved you.”

It was deeper than guilt because I was struggling with sins that neither I nor my ancestors (at least half of whom were too busy starving to death on the outskirts of the Austro-Hungarian Empire at the time) had committed. I was struggling with the depravity that I knew was within me, waiting for opportune times to emerge. If those opportune times never came, the depravity would be just as present.

And rather than brush off my sins on the mere technicality that I hadn’t committed them or suggesting ways to ensure the monster inside me could never emerge, Kyle’s response shocked me, enough that I still remember it seven years later.

“Yeah,” the mused humbly, “I wonder about the same thing. If I had been given the chance to be a house slave, would I have taken it and looked down on my brothers sweating in the field?”

Momentarily, I was jarred as if Kyle had responded to my confession by changing the subject, ironically prefacing the subject-change by calling it “the same thing.” It was almost laughably comic: I had made a heart-felt confession that I might have oppressed him, and he echoed my confession by saying that, had he been oppressed, he might have accepted a lighter load. These were in no way congruous.

But slightly older than me and much more familiar with this kind of depravity that I was encountering as if it were foreign territory, Kyle had the grace to see the monsters living in his chest as the same monsters in the hypothetical oppressors. Rather than forgiving my depravity, he empathized with it.

He stumbled simply and casually upon a profound truth, like one who kicks a stone and finds oil pouring out of the ground. Not only did he manage to treat depravity as no less depraved for its being common, but he treated the common sin of humanity no less universal (and thus no more startling) for its being depraved.

Beyond that, I wonder if in his empathy he stumbled on the nature of Christ. While Christ may not have shared our depravity, he shared our frailty (perhaps different forms of the same thing, or at least near cousins?), and the author of Hebrews spends a lot of ink on the point that Christ is the Great High Priest because he sympathizes with our weakness, our temptations, our tears, and our unanswered prayers.

I wonder if Christ hears my confessions of frailty and depravity, actual or potential, and responds as Kyle had: “Yeah, I felt the same thing...”

1 comment:

Ashleigh B said...

I know this is a few weeks old, but I just wanted to let you know how much I appreciated it. Jeremiah is currently having to read a book for ethics which is about "doing ethics on the margins" but the way the writers put things makes it sound as if white people are responsible for all evil and the oppressed can do no wrong--literally. Everyone's judged by different standards for the same sins based on their social position. It's really frustrating to him--who has quite a bit less experience with the black community, having grown up in South Texas--and it's frustrating to me because it's the absence of such understanding across ethnic lines (that the evil in me is no different from the evil in you, even if we are playing different oppressed/oppressor roles right now and have different sins to confess) seems to keep a lot of minorities bitter and white people defensive. :o(