The most controversial sentence I ever wrote, considering the response to it, was not about abortion, marriage equality, the wars in Vietnam or Iraq, elections, or anything to do with national or church politics. It was a statement about the founding of the United States of America. Here's the sentence:
"The United States of America was established as a white society, founded upon the near genocide of another race and then the enslavement of yet another."
The comments were overwhelming, with many calling the statement outrageous and some calling it courageous. But it was neither. The sentence was a simply a historical statement of the facts. It was the first sentence of a Sojourners magazine cover article, published 26 years ago, titled "America's Original Sin: The Legacy of White Racism."
An extraordinary new film called 12 Years a Slave has just come out and Sojourners hosted the premiere for the faith community on March 9 in Washington, D.C. Rev. Otis Moss III was on the panel afterward that reflected on the film. Dr. Moss is not only a dynamic pastor and preacher in Chicago, but he is also a teacher of cinematography who put this compelling story about Solomon Northup -- a freeman from New York, who was kidnapped and sold into slavery -- into the historical context of all the American films ever done on slavery. 12 Years is the most accurate and best produced drama of slavery ever done, says Moss.
In her New York Times review, "The Blood and Tears, Not the Magnolias," Manohla Dargis says, 12 Years a Slave "isn't the first movie about slavery in the United States -- but it may be the one that finally makes it impossible for American cinema to continue to sell the ugly lies it's been hawking for more than a century." Instead of the Hollywood portrayal of beautiful plantations, benevolent masters, and simple happy slaves, it shows the utterly brutal violence of a systematic attempt to dehumanize an entire race of people -- for economic greed. It reveals how morally outrageous the slave system was, and it is very hard to watch.
That's why we have to see it, all of us -- especially all of us white people. You can read the blog series on the film that we have been running in Sojourners, but you must go see it. I say that because many white people, even white people who care about social justice, have told me they don't want to see it. "Too violent," I hear them say, "Sounds too intense for me." The enslavement of more than 4 million people of African descent by white Americans was always that violent and too intense for most white people to really accept the truth -- even now.
My comment from the panel afterward was that most white people, the vast majority in both the South and the North including our "founding fathers," all accepted slavery. Most white people, white Christians, and white churches tolerated slavery for 246 years. This historically horrendous evil existed because we tolerated it. That's why evil always continues to exist: because we tolerate it.
What do we tolerate today, I asked. The film is so breathtaking, I worry that it becomes a museum movie, a film about a horrible past that is gratefully all over now. We did tolerate this gratuitous evil, and still tolerate the devaluing of black lives today. Would we tolerate completely dysfunctional urban schools if they were full of young white children? We tolerate a criminal justice system where the racial disparities between white and black arrests, convictions, and sentencing are abundantly clear, resulting in the mass incarceration of men of color. We tolerate the murder rates for people of color that we would never tolerate for whites. We tolerate the clear racial profiling of young black men, with results that we would never tolerate for our white teenage boys. And we tolerate deliberate and clear political efforts to diminish the votes of minority communities.
And it's time to be honest about the deep-seated sense of race in the heart of our national politics. But when people of color speak the truth about the realities of race in our culture and politics, they are always accused of "playing the race card." So let me, as a white man and an evangelical Christian, do some truth-telling about race in American politics right now.
In only about 30 years, most Americans will come from Africa, Asia, or Latin America. Most Americans will no longer be white, and many white Americans are clearly not ready for that profound demographic change in their country. That white fear of who "we" Americans will be is at the heart of resistance to immigration reform. Many older conservative Republican and Tea Party voters are acutely aware of being "white" in a country that is becoming increasingly "minority." Congressional voting districts have been oddly gerrymandered along racial lines to protect dominant racial majorities. Shutting down a government that they believe to be too generous to minorities becomes an urgent matter. "Obamacare" becomes the great threat of government providing medical insurance disproportionately to poor people of color. Giving food stamps to poor families becomes another racial flashpoint for conservative white voters.
Finally, a black president becomes the most hated symbol of the demographic changes they most fear for their country.
Questioning Barack Obama's birthplace and parentage, calling him a non-Christian Muslim, naming him as a "foreigner" and not a "real American" are all ways to define this president as "the other" and not one of "us." The hatred goes far beyond Obama's policies and extends to his personage as the wrong kind of American. Obama shows them they are losing elections, and they fear that means losing "their" country.
Who will lead in our racially polarized time? Who will help America navigate its changing demographic future? Who will help a new generation create a diverse, multiracial society? Perhaps a community of faith that is intrinsically multiracial and is becoming so more and more.
Because of recent events that demonstrate the racial challenges ahead, more than 70 Christian leaders -- white, African American, Hispanic, Asian American, and Native American --are launching a pledge called "One Church | One Body." The pledge invites everyone to engage three commitments -- first, to help build a multiracial faith community; second, to help fix an unjust criminal justice system; and third, to protect voting rights for minority citizens. Consider joining us in our pledge and do not shy away from seeing 12 Years a Slave. It's the start of a conversation that's long overdue.
Jim Wallis is president of Sojourners. His book, On God's Side: What Religion Forgets and Politics Hasn't Learned About Serving the Common Good, is now available. Watch the Story of the Common Good HERE. Follow Jim on Twitter @JimWallis.