A Message for People Against the Wall

Black children stand with their backs against the wall during the first day of school integration in Hoxie, Arkansas, in 1955. (Gordon Tenney.)

Black children stand with their backs against the wall during the first day of school integration in Hoxie, Arkansas, in 1955. (Gordon Tenney.)

“Do not speak to us in…the hearing of the people who are on the wall.”

In Jesus and the Disinherited, Howard Thurman writes to people that had been chased by what he called the hounds of hell (fear, deception, hatred) into a wall. The disinherited encounter fear when oppressive forces threaten their existence, deception when seeking to circumvent these forces and structures, and hatred when bitterness and resentment lead to revenge. Emancipation without liberation, Reconstruction without reparations, education without desegregation, and consolation without decriminalization were the bricks of the wall pressed into the mortar of the post-traumatic conditions of two centuries of chattel slavery.

During this time many discovered that the foundational truths are, in fact, not self-evident: not all people are created equally; not all rights are unalienable; life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness are the rewards of the privileged, while death, denial, and escaping despair are the punishments of the underprivileged. Still, others found that this is not “one nation, under God, indivisible with liberty and justice for all.” Instead, it is a nation divided by age, class, ethnicity, gender, race, religion, and sexual orientation where liberty and justice seem to be the privilege of the declining majority rather than the growing minority with their backs against the wall. And even more came to the realization that the star-spangled banner is less a symbol of the “land of the free, and the home of the brave” and more a noose for the disinherited, disenfranchised and dis-empowered.

It is within and through this historical context that many view this presidential election cycle. One candidate instills fear with demagogic declarations suggesting all African-Americans live within the walls of the inner cities, and violence is decimating all inner cities. The other candidate pays homage to the brick-and-mortar institutions (churches, businesses, banks) founded within these inner cities while trying to circumvent questions regarding her own deceptive and dishonest practices. Against this backdrop, ill will, bitterness, resentment, and hatred continue to hound the footsteps of those who live daily with their backs against the wall.

The more I watch and hear on the news cycle the less I’m concerned with either of the presidential candidates and their political pandering. I’m more concerned with the defeatism and despair among the critical mass of people already settled on the idea that although Hillary is the lesser of two evils and the best prepared for the position Donald will win. I’m more concerned with those whose ancestors were unlawfully and forcefully denied the opportunity to vote who will complain about the long lines and things to do come Tuesday, November 8th instead of taking every advantage to vote early. I’m afraid of those who will approach the ballot like a pop quiz instead of a final examination by failing to preview the candidates, the ballot questions, and referendums which immediately impact the local streets, neighborhoods, town, and cities in which they live.

Those who follow Jesus must faithfully think, act, and be as he did. For Thurman, Jesus was the authentic embodiment of a love ethic that “deals with the other at a point in them that is beyond all their faults and virtues.” Jesus’s love ethic promotes a culture of nonviolence in the face of violence, direction action in the face of passive aggression, and subversion when confronting the walls of the status quo. To imitate this love ethic today, we must engage in nonviolent direct action by voting, demonstrating, organizing, protesting, sitting, walking, and running until “justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream.” Above all, we must pray that the God of heaven and earth, presidents and politicians, Republicans and Democrats, and even Donald and Hillary will ultimately make things “on earth as it is in heaven.” And by doing so, will collaborate with us in seeing that the disinherited get their inheritance, the disenfranchise receive the vote, and the dis-empowered embrace the confidence, conviction, and courage to carry on.

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