As I look at the past two weeks of burning, demonstrating and rioting, I am torn between my Christian self and my realistic self.
As a Christian, I hurt when other people hurt. If Ruth cried, I just melted. When the dad and little girl drowned on the Rio Grande, I wept. When I think of the 400 years of oppression of African-Americans by deprivation, beatings and lynchings, I am appalled and feel their pain.
After all, compassion is what Christianity is all about – the love of God and love for each other. So I am enraged when fellow Christians end up with the oppressors in bringing grief and pain to moms, dads and children of minorities.
As a Christian I am supposed to be for peace, not rioting and looting. But some days I feel like pacifist Lutheran Pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who abandoned pacifism to help kill Adolph Hitler.
My Christian heart says to advocate peace, but peace will not change the lives of African-Americans. If history tells us anything, it says that nothing happens until the majority feels threatened.
My concern at the present time is that the changes being suggested are confined to only law enforcement. Since everything else is off the table, once we’ve moved a few badges around everything will return to normal oppression.
African-American kids will still have inferior schools; African-Americans will still die without medical care; African Americans will be exiled to poor jobs; African-Americans will die in pandemics; African-Americans will still be in the back seat. After a few compromises, the demands of the demonstrators will be forgotten. The new normal will be the old normal.
The demonstrations have created the atmosphere for change but it takes years in the American system to get change passed and implemented. I know the process. I’ve been there.
Because time favors status quo, African-Americans and their advocates must maintain continued pressure on policymakers for months and years. It will be necessary to start up new demonstrations occasionally to remind the forgetful public that justice is waiting. Unfortunately, the demonstrators can’t afford the long-term cost of such diligence. Eventually, they will all have to go back to work and the best of intentions will die upon conception.
Reinhold Niebuhr has been my mentor on social and economic conflict.
“As individuals, men believe they ought to love and serve each other and establish justice between each other,” he writes in “Moral Man and Immoral Society.” “As racial, economic and national groups, they take for themselves, whatever their power can command.”
“Whenever men hold unequal power in society, they will strive to maintain it. They will use whatever means is most convenient to the end that will justify them by the most plausible arguments they are able to devise.”
To respond to the grievances of African-Americans, or other oppressed minorities, it will be necessary to reallocate the nation’s resources. In plain language, that means taking billions from the military and/or raising more billions in taxes to rebuild schools, provide medical care and help the dependents become independents. (Everyone in favor of that raise your hands. Sen. Kevin Cramer, R-N.D., is already against it.)
Niebuhr says that good will doesn’t go anyplace, that the oppressed must apply force to get action. And that’s exactly what demonstrations, riots and burning are: raw force, the only weapons minorities have to shift power and resources.
“Those who benefit from social injustice are naturally less capable of understanding its real character than those who suffer from it,” Niebuhr noted.
While prospects for social and economic justice look good today, I am not optimistic for the next 20 years, unless the oppressed can continue to exert the necessary offsetting power.
Lloyd Omdahl is a former lieutenant governor and professor.