Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., George Floyd and America’s original sin
In the spring of 1968, I was a 22-year-old seminarian preparing for the ministry at a theological school in Rochester, New York. It was a predominantly white seminary with a sizeable number of Black students (the term “African American” had not come into use at that time).
On the evening of April 4, 1968, the campus was shocked and devastated with the news of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King. The following day the school’s Black Student Caucus held a Memorial Service in the seminary chapel. A couple of days later we jammed into a dormitory lounge to view together, and weep together, as we watched – on a small black and white television – the funeral for Dr. King at Atlanta’s Ebenezer Baptist Church.
Fifty-two years later, on June 6, I stood in Nashua’s Greeley Park with hundreds of others – masked and socially distanced – as the local chapter of the NAACP and Black Lives Matter of Nashua held a vigil to remember the life of George Floyd and others.
On June 9, I watched the Memorial Service for George Floyd at Houston, Texas’ Fountain of Paradise Church on a color TV in my comfortable home.
Fifty-two years. Fifty-two years. I type these words with sadness and grief. Fifty-two years. When will it end?
But I’m asking the wrong question. Fortunately, I find some help in getting at the better question from a book that came out in 2016 by the Rev. Jim Wallis titled America’s Original Sin: Racism, White Privilege, and the Bridge to a New America. Rev. Wallis is the founder of an organization called Sojourners, a global network of persons of faith whose mission is to put faith into action for social justice.
Given space considerations, I can only offer a line from the book here: “America’s problem of race has deep roots with the country’s foundation tied to the near extermination of one race of people and the enslavement of another. Racism is truly our nation’s original sin.”
For the record, I have my problems with the classic Christian doctrine of Original Sin as set forth by John Calvin and other Christian theologians; which is neither here nor there with respect to this bit of writing. But I resonate with Rev. Wallis’ use of the term. “Original sin” – as he uses it – is an inbred taint, an infection, a blight that can be contained and pushed back but never fully eradicated.
Indeed, we can push our original sin of racism back to the point of twice electing an African American President. But then we see this sin defy full eradication by its reappearance, in all its meanness and in all its ugliness, with the “President” who followed.
Staying with this language, the counter-point, the antidote, to sin – original or otherwise – is salvation. There’s another tricky word. It calls up images of persons coming forward to church altars to a waiting evangelist in order to have their souls saved. Indeed, this is how I first encountered the term in the religious setting in which I was raised.
But the term “salvation”, at its root, means moving from broken-ness to greater levels of wholeness. It means, spiritually speaking, transformation from a sick self to a more healed self. And while the term is generally used in a personal sense, it can also be used to address our racial broken-ness and our racial sickness. In that spirit, I use it here to point up a dynamic, one we white folks need to be especially attentive to: Are we agents of the original sin of a sick kind of racism, or are we agents of its antidote – salvation? That is the far more relevant question than: “When will it end?”
My fifty-two-year lament, in fact, is that of a “well-meaning” white person who believes that the passing of time will somehow eradicate racism. Not so. The more reality-based perspective is to recognize that the story of racism in America is that of an ongoing push-and-pull between its being our ongoing original sin and our attempts to save ourselves from that sin. To myself, and to my fellow white folks, the real question is: What kind of role in that story do we choose to play: To be agents of our racial original sin, or attempt to be white allies of salvation?
In the end, therefore, it’s not really about my sadness or my grief – real as they are to me. The larger matter is: How do I best be a white ally with persons who know sadness and grief and pain at a level I’ll never reach?
I turn 75 this summer. I take heart from two lines in a poem by one of my UU ministerial colleagues, the late Rev. Ric Masten. He wrote these words as he dealt with a terminal cancer diagnosis:
“I ask God: ‘How my time do I have?’
“‘Enough time to make a difference,’ God replies.”
Rev. Edington is the Minster Emeritus of the Unitarian Universalist Church of Nashua, New Hampshire. He currently serves the UU Church of Franklin, N.H.