GUILT AND RESPONSIBILITY
Byron C. Bangert
First Presbyterian Church, Bloomington, Indiana
January 16, 2000
Leviticus 19:11-18; Romans 13:8-10
This past Tuesday in the HERALD-TIMES the guest editorial bore the headline, “Racism will not diminish until we perform acts of heroism every day.” The author, Chris Lohmann, begins by reminding us of two letters to the editor that recently appeared in our local newspaper. The first, on December 14, was written by a resident of our city who witnessed what she described as an “ugly scene” at Sherwood Oaks Park while she was out walking and playing with her dog. “A large group of middle-school boys were there playing touch football,” she wrote. “I was impressed with the good, clean fun they were having: no swearing, no fights, differences settled quickly, and much laughter.”
Suddenly, however, there was a shout, ugly phrases, a verbal attack. Turning to see what was happening, the writer noticed another youngster of similar age riding his bike quickly across the field. He was not interfering with the footballers, but he was African-American, and he was obviously scared. The writer goes on to describe her own emotional response to this event, to state her regret that she did not call the police, and to make her apology to the young man on the bicycle. She ends with a plea to “start teaching tolerance and fighting prejudice now.” [Bee Miller, “Ugly Scene,” December 14, 1999]
The second letter mentioned in Lohmann’s guest editorial appeared two weeks later. Responding to the previous letter, this author begins: “When I read the article I was shocked and extremely angered. I am one of those high schoolers playing football.” He goes on to explain that one of their group that day was a person they did not know. It was this stranger who yelled at the young man on the bike. This same stranger made himself unwelcome in other ways. “Needless to say,” writes the footballer, “we did not play with him again.”
What most angered this footballer was the charge of being a racist, and being subject to false accusation from someone who does not even know him. Many of his good friends, he says, are African-American or of other ethnic identity. He is certainly not a racist. “As for the young man [on the bicycle], if he wishes to play football with us he is more than welcome.” [Joe Baker, “More to ‘Ugly scene’”, December 28, 1999]
After a brief summary of this exchange of letters for us, Chris Lohmann continues his guest column with the observation, “This situation exemplifies many of the complexities of America’s racial situation, and it may be worth reflecting on it for a moment.” Indeed, it is worth such reflection, not only for what it may reveal about the racism of our society but also for what it may say about other forms of prejudice and hate.
The woman who wrote the first letter clearly blamed all of the boys who were playing football for the ugly verbal attack of the one. The young man who answered her letter with his own clearly blamed her for falsely accusing him of being racist. As Lohmann observes, “this raises the whole question of where does racism begin: is it racism only when we perform overt acts of physical or verbal aggression, or is it racism when, under the pressure of peers, we remain silent and refuse to interfere?”
The fact is that we do not know enough about what actually happened in this situation to say whether all the other boys playing football were silent in the face of the verbal attack by the boy they did not know. We do know that this attack gave the boy on the bicycle reason to fear. And we do know that, however the other boys responded, they did not allay the fears of the boy on the bicycle, nor did they invite him to join them in their game.
That may be asking a lot of some middle- or high-school boys, but what about adults? Lohmann notes, “I have often been in the situation--say, at a nice dinner party--when someone makes a rude, general racist comment and, for the sake of politeness and etiquette, I don’t speak up in opposition but squirm between ignoring the remark, making a sour face, or even putting on a bland smile to get over the embarrassment.” Is this passive racism? And if so, is it as bad as active racism? Lohmann clearly thinks so.
When I was in college, the civil rights movement in this country was at its peak. Racial tensions were as high as I have ever known them. Martin Luther King, Jr., was assassinated toward the end of my junior year. Many of my fellow students, especially those of a more economically privileged and more politically liberal upbringing, were not only greatly anguished but also filled with a pervasive sense of collective guilt for the racism of the society into which they had been born and raised. I was probably not as anguished as I should have been. My own upbringing had exposed me to little of the racial hatred and prejudice that existed throughout the South and the urban centers of the North. So I found myself needing to come to terms with the question of my own guilt and responsibility in the face of what was happening all around us. And I concluded that I was not guilty of making ours a racist society, but--guilty or not--I had a responsibility to do what I could to help bring that racism to an end.
Racism, and all others forms of prejudice and hate, do not require the active participation of a whole society in order to inflict their violence upon their victims. Everybody does not need to belong to the Ku Klux Klan in order for it to be a menace and a terror in the lives of black people, or Jews, or whoever else they may choose to hate. Everybody does not need to shout racial epithets or make sexist slurs in order for the damage to be done. We don’t all have to be condemning or spiteful toward gays or lesbians or some other group of people in order for those people to experience rejection and discrimination and abuse. We do not all have to agree when someone is slandered or libeled or held up to ridicule and contempt in order for the injury to be real and profound. All we have to do is let it happen. We may not be guilty when it happens, but we have a responsibility not to let it continue to happen. And if we do not act responsibly to challenge and counter acts of prejudice and hatred and abuse, then we become guilty when such acts continue to go on.
A racist society is not a society in which every accepted member is prejudiced and hateful toward those who are not accepted. A racist society is one in which patterns and structures and practices that discriminate and abuse on account of race are allowed to remain.
When I was still in high school a young woman named Kitty Genovese was brutally murdered outside her apartment in Queens, NY,. As Marty Ganzberg wrote in the NEW YORK TIMES, “For more than half an hour thirty-eight respectable, law-abiding citizens in Queens watched a killer stalk and stab a woman in three separate attacks in Kew Gardens. Twice the sound of their voices and the sudden glow of their bedroom lights interrupted him and frightened him off. Each time he returned, sought her out and stabbed her again. Not one person telephoned the police during the assault; one witness called after the woman was dead” [March 27, 1964].
It was an event that shook the country. It was not a racially-motivated event. It did not have anything to do with politics, or sex, or gangs, or drugs, or anything else that we might think today. It was simply a brutal murder in which “good people” stood by and did almost nothing to stop it--even after she screamed, “Oh, my God, he stabbed me! Please help me! Please help me!” When asked why they did not do more to help, it seemed that the neighbors did not want to be troubled. Some were afraid. Some wanted to believe that it would be OK without their intervention. More than anything, they did not want to get involved--even though all they would have had to do was call the police. In fact, it might have been enough if they had left their lights on.
These were good people. They would not have wished any harm to Kitty Genovese. They were not guilty of the vicious assault upon her. But the whole country found itself in disbelief and moral questioning that such an event could happen. The neighbors had a moral responsibility to try to stop this killing, and they failed. The law could not require them to “get involved.” But their failure to do so was widely felt to be a moral failure. They were responsible for her death. They were guilty because they let it happen.
Martin Niemöller, a Lutheran pastor in Nazi Germany, is best remembered for his statement summarizing his failure, and the failure of the German people, to resist the evils of Hitler and the Nazi regime:
When Hitler attacked the Jews I was not a Jew, therefore I was not concerned. And when Hitler attacked the Catholics, I was not a Catholic, and therefore, I was not concerned. And when Hitler attacked the unions and the industrialists, I was not a member of the unions and I was not concerned. Then Hitler attacked me and the Protestant church--and there was nobody left to be concerned. [CONGRESSIONAL RECORD, October 14, 1968, 31636]
In fact, Niemöller, far more than most of his contemporaries, tried to resist the Nazi regime. As early has 1933 he began to organize to protect Lutheran pastors from arrest. He was instrumental in organizing the Barmen Synod, which produced to the Barmen Declaration of Faith, the theological basis for the Confessing Church that stood in opposition to the ideology of National Socialism. He was tried, convicted, nearly executed, imprisoned in the Dachau concentration camp, for his efforts. All the more powerful his statement that we cannot escape the burden of guilt when we fail to act to protect those who are under attack.
The British political leader Edmund Burke wrote, in a letter to William Smith, “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing” [January 9, 1795]. That puts the matter in the most realistic of terms. We can hardly expect evil to go away of its own. Things will not work out all right if nothing is done. The apostle Paul wrote something that puts the matter in more positive terms, however. To the Romans he said, “Owe no one anything, except to love one another” [13:8]. If I read this right, Paul is saying that there is one thing we owe to each other. There is one thing that others may ask or claim of us. We have this obligation, this responsibility, toward others, to love them. Indeed, all the commandments are summed up in this word.
In other words, it is not just a matter of principle, nor a matter of political expediency, nor a matter of self-interest, that we must resist the evils of prejudice and hatred and violence and abuse that some seem determined to inflict upon others. It is also a matter of love. It is a matter of love for the boy on the bicycle that we do not allow ugly words or gestures to continue to be hurled his way. It would have been a matter of love for Kitty Genovese had her neighbors cared enough and been willing to trouble themselves enough to try to come to her aid. It would have been a matter of love for the Jews when Hitler came after them, and for the Catholics and for the unionists and the industrialists when they were attacked, to come to their defense. It has been a matter of love for those of us in this church who object morally and theologically to our denomination’s policies of discrimination based on sexual orientation to challenge and resist those policies as best we can. We owe it to one another to say “no” whenever and wherever prejudice and hatred and violence and false accusations and abuse and all the negative “isms” arise.
In some way or other, the “no” needs to be said. Silence will be taken as consent, permission, license to continue. But beyond the “no” to acts and gestures and words of violence and hatred and abuse, what else do we owe? What does love require toward the boy on the bicycle? How wonderful it could have been if the other boys playing football had been able to approach him and invite him to join their game! If they could have included him, right then and there, most of the damage would probably have been undone. And new friendships might have begun.
And what does love require toward the boy who shouted ugly words of hate? Is the best that can be accomplished to exclude him from future play. But that will hardly make his life better. The question is whether there is any way to reach him, to draw out from him the fear and prejudice and hate--or whatever it is--that has diminished his soul. It is hardly adequate to reject and isolate and turn our backs on people who are prejudiced, even those who actively hate and abuse. We must protect, defend, and embrace those who are the victims of prejudice and hatred and abuse, but that is not enough.
Last year this community witnessed the tragic events that culminated in the deaths of Won-Joon Yoon, Rickie Byrdsong, and Benjamin Smith. We found a way to say “no” to Benjamin Smith, “no” to hate speech, “no” to the distribution of hate literature attacking black and Jewish people in particular, but also Christians in general. But we did not find a way to stop Smith’s hatred or his violence. We did not find a way to change his mind, to transform his heart, to redeem his soul. And so we did not find a way to save others from his rage.
I do not know what the answer is to the Benjamin Smiths of this world. After his murderous rampage, our community was right to re-assess how we had responded to his earlier actions. Had we acted rightly when he was a student here, distributing his hate literature under cover of darkness, and engaging in futile debates with those who bothered to try to reason with him? Who knows whether anything more or better might have been done that would have averted the tragedies that followed his departure. What we can say is that some kind of “no” needed to be said to his campaign of hate. Some kind of action needed to be taken to support, defend, embrace, and uphold those who came under his attack. But in this case, as in many others, our “no”to Smith’s campaign was not enough to turn him from a path of destruction.
We owe it to those who are victims of prejudice and discrimination and abuse in all its forms to come to their defense, to stop the attacks against them, to protect and uphold them in acts of compassion and concern and love. Our text from Leviticus says not only, “You shall not hate in your heart anyone of your kin,” but also, “you shall reprove your neighbor, or you will incur guilt yourself” [19:17]. We are responsible to hold others accountable for their hateful attitudes and actions against any member of the human family. If we fail to fulfill that responsibility, we share in the guilt for the harm they do. We have the further responsibility of caring for those whom they have harmed. But then we also have the responsibility of seeking ways to restore to the human community those who, by their attitudes and actions, have inflicted harm upon a fellow human being. Say “no” to prejudice and hatred, discrimination and violence, slander and abuse, but do not just say “no.” AMEN.