It Might Not Be Our Fault, But It Is Our Responsibility
A couple of weeks ago, I was rereading the Exodus story in the Bible, and I came across chapter 11—the story featuring the last of the infamous plagues God inflicted on Egypt so that they would free Israel from bondage. In this story, in case you are unaware, God slaughters the firstborn son of every single Egyptian (and even some of their livestock just for good measure), while sparing the firstborn sons of the Israelites they had enslaved. God does this so that everyone will know that “the Lord makes a distinction between Egypt and Israel.”
For the last few years, I’ve really found stories like these quite disturbing. The idea that a God who created and supposedly loves human beings would commit mass murder just to prove a point is beyond despicable. It happened earlier in the Hebrew Scriptures when God wiped out the entire human population in a flood, it happens later on multiple occasions when God slaughters thousands of Israelites as they’re wandering in the dessert, and it happens here in Egypt when God murders the offspring of Egyptians because their leader won’t free the Israelites from slavery.
What makes this story particularly disturbing is that the Egyptian people are being punished extensively for the sins of their ruler. And it’s not even as if the repercussions for the Egyptian people are an afterthought, collateral damage in God’s war against Pharaoh. No, God explicitly says that everyone “from the firstborn son of Pharaoh, who sits on the throne, to the firstborn son of the female slave, who is at her hand mill” is to be slaughtered. The real villain here was the Pharaoh, so why was God punishing even the least among those in his kingdom? They had nothing to do with enslaving Israel; they were just innocent bystanders in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Taken literally, yeah, I still find this story disgusting. But I've come to view the Bible allegorically, for the most part. I think it’s likely that very few of the events from the Hebrew Scriptures actually occurred—at least in the way they were written. And this time, when reading this story, an insight popped out to me that I’d never considered before. As I asked myself the question, “Why were all the Egyptians being held accountable for the transgressions of their leader?” I was reminded of similar questions I’ve heard people asking in the modern day United States.
“Not my President!”
I heard this refrain over and over again in the weeks following Donald Trump’s election. In a rush to distance themselves from our new authoritarian leader, all of my liberal friends just couldn’t accept the fact that he had won the election.
When religious members of Trump’s administration—or other Evangelical leaders—have said or done terrible things in the name of God, my progressive Christian friends would, in a knee jerk reaction, utter a similar phrase:
“Not my Christianity!”
And finally, when the Trump administration began separating immigrant children from their parents and locking them in cages, a loud cry arose from the liberal resistance—in protest against the direction our country is headed:
“This is not who we are!”
There’s only one problem with this response to injustice: it’s bullshit. Because we may not like it, but Donald Trump is the President of the United States, those religious pundits are Christians, and, yes, this is exactly who we are.
You can argue that Donald Trump is not who you think should be President, that the white Evangelical version of Christianity is not the best the faith has to offer, and that you wish that America could do better. But statements like the above are not helpful. They only serve to help us disassociate ourselves from the reality we’re living in, so that we can wash our hands of any culpability and refuse to acknowledge the extent to which we are part of the problem.
In White Fragility, sociologist Robin DiAngelo discusses extensively the tendency for white people to deny any and all forms of racism they might have. We’re more afraid of the label being applied to us than we are of the possibility that it might actually be warranted. But, more so than that, we fail to recognize the idea of systemic racism and only see racism as individual interactions. Therefore, if we don’t personally, consciously, and deliberately commit a blatantly discriminatory act against a person of color, we assume that we are not racist.
The problem is that we are racist, whether we realize it or not. We white people are socialized to be racist in America. It’s the air we breathe. DiAngelo writes, “I know that because I was socialized as white in a racism-based society, I have a racist worldview, deep racial bias, racist Patterson, and investments in the racist system that has elevated me. Still, I don’t feel guilty about racism. I didn’t choose this socialization, and it could not be avoided. But I am responsible for my role in it.”
Admitting that we’re racist is not making a moral judgement upon ourselves; it’s simply acknowledging the reality of the situation. There is nothing to be gained from denial. If we want to be part of the solution, we must first own up to the fact that we’ve been part of the problem.
In the same way, we may not have voted for Donald Trump, but perhaps we sat idly by in silence as our family members gravitated toward his rhetoric. We may not be members of the Evangelical church, but perhaps we’re sitting in the pews of a mainline church that doesn’t condemn white Evangelicalism outright because it wants to keep the peace and maintain Christian unity. We may not feel that everything the country stands for represents our ideals, but, for better or worse, we are still Americans.
Now, let’s go back to Egypt. I can imagine the Egyptians making similar arguments. They were just doing what they were told. Maybe they didn’t own an Israelite slaves personally. Perhaps they always treated the Israelites they came across with the utmost respect. And, hey, some of them may have even had an Israelite friend!
And yet they said nothing when the Israelites were enslaved by their leader. They ate the food harvested by the Israelites, lived in the houses built by the Israelites, spent their days in leisure as the Israelites slaved away under the cracks of whips. It doesn’t matter whether or not they were mean to the Israelites. When you benefit from the oppression of another, you are participating in the oppression of another.
So what will we do when the plagues of justice begin to fall upon our heads? Will we bristle at the condemnation, insisting that it wasn’t our fault? We had nothing nothing to do with it. We were innocent bystanders. We were just following orders.
No, that isn’t going to be enough. If we sit idly by watching the flames while everything burns to the ground, we don’t get to escape the blame for the fire simply because we didn’t light the match.
Silence is complicity.
There is no such thing as a bystander. You know the drill: if you see something, say something. Or, better yet, do something.
If you aren’t actively resisting the injustice, then you are passively facilitating the injustice.
If you aren’t rebelling in the face of oppression, then you are bowing at the feet of oppression.
Let’s do better, y’all. Let’s own our shit.
Let’s stop saying, “This is not our fault.”
Let’s start saying instead, “This is our responsibility.”