Lament, Caste, and Racism

The faculty at Wartburg Seminary is reading Caste: the Origins of our Discontents, by Isabel Wilkerson. It is a very interesting book in which she uses the concept of caste, as well as several vivid metaphors, very creatively as a way to invite people into thinking about racism with new categories and fresh eyes. (The book opens with an account of an unusual heat wave in Siberia that released a long-buried anthrax strain back into the grazing land, infecting the reindeer and the herders. The point? “The anthrax, like the reactivation of the human pathogens of hatred and tribalism in this evolving century, had never died. It lay weight, sleeping, until extreme circumstances brought it to the surface and back to life” p. 4.)

So far, we have only read the first two parts, but in reading the book I discovered something very disturbing (well, the whole book is full of disturbing information, as you can imagine…) that I had never heard before, and certainly was never taught.  In chapter 8, she discusses the early stages of the Third Reich and their plans for protecting racial purity. As it turns out, they took inspiration from studying how the Americans did it.  She writes, “the Nazis were impressed by the American custom of lynching its subordinate cast of African-Americans, having become aware of the ritual torture and mutilations that typically accompanied them. Hitler especially marveled at the ‘American knack for maintaining an air of robust innocence in the week of mass death’” (81).

According to Wilkerson, the Nazis were inspired not only by the general example of the United States, but by our miscegenation laws, intermarriage ban, and racial classification systems to shape their own laws.  Please don’t miss the point: the comprehensive structural and legal system in the United States that dehumanized African-Americans and caused them to be viewed as second-class citizens and/or something less than fully human was the inspiration for the Nazi legal and social anti-Semitic policies that led to the Holocaust.

What are we supposed to do with that?

Well, given that Wednesday was Ash Wednesday, I am thinking we could do worse than starting with lament.

Ash Wednesday invites us into the season of Lent, which is a season of repentance and reflection, a season of renewal and return to the Lord. The way into all of these things is through lament.

In another book I am reading (because some of our students are reading it), Be the Bridge, Latasha Morrison talks about the importance of lament on the road to racial reconciliation. She writes, “to lament means to express sorrow or regret. Lamenting something horrific that has taken place allows a deep connection to form between the person lamenting and the harm that was done, and that emotional connection is the first step in creating a pathway for healing and hope. We have to sit in the sorrow, avoid trying to fix it right away, avoid our attempt to make it all okay. Only then is the pain useful. Only then can it lead us into healing and wisdom” (39).

What I appreciate about her comments is the call to dwell in the sadness, the shame, and the guilt—not just jump over it, not just excuse it, and certainly not just ignore it or downplay it.  She then tells the story of David and the prophet Nathan’s word that Bathsheba’s child would die because of David’s sin, which sends David into a posture of deep lament.

She then goes on to say, “What is the purpose of lament? It allows us to connect with and grieve the reality of our sin and suffering. It draws us to repentant connection with God in that suffering… Lament seeks God as comforter, healer, restorer, and redeemer. Somehow the act of lament reconnects us with God and leads us to hope and redemption” (41).

She notes that our society doesn’t like lament; that’s true for us as individuals, too. We like our forgiveness quick and cheap, with a dash of forgetfulness thrown in.  In the long term, however–and frankly, in the short term, too–this doesn’t help anyone, ourselves included.  And it certainly doesn’t help when it comes to the sin of racism.  

Lent reminds us that is no way around but through; no getting to the empty tomb except through the cross.  

We are on the way, and as Morrison says, “through lament, through the night of weeping, we can experience new joy in the morning” (42). There is no way around but through. We need to keep on.

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