God Forgive Us

I just watched cried through Glory last night with some friends old and new. It’s a tragic-yet-hopeful portrayal of the first Black regiment that fought for the North in the Civil War. It portrays these men and their white commanders grappling with themselves, each other, racism both internal and external, and the realities of war  in some ways that ring remarkably true. It was surprisingly thoughtful and tasteful, especially for a mainstream Hollywood production. I commend it to you, and below are some no-spoiler thoughts on it.

There were so many things set off inside of me: sadness at the blind stupidity of war, and the awful reality that sometimes (very, very rarely) it is necessary to take up arms against our fellow image-bearers. I found myself torn between my commitment to non-violence, and my belief that slavery was so violent a trespass against humanity as to be a legitimate cause for war. (Note: yeah, I know, I know, “States rights, Northern aggression, blah blah blah.” If your “rights” allow you to enslave or abuse someone else, they’re illegitimate and you have no claim to them, however pretty or Constitutionally sound your argument may be.)

It was hard to see a man be sent unarmed into battle so he could carry a flag, as if the flag was worth more than his life. I live in an age when blind flag-waving has been used to keep us from asking our leaders questions, and from valuing our lives, the lives of our soldiers, and the lives of our “enemies” nearly as highly as we should. “All hail the Flag, and all else be damned” is not a motto I can live by. It was hard to see a flag presented as being more valuable than a life. Yet, part of me cheered when my favorite actor’s character later picked up the flag off a fallen soldier and carried it, unarmed, into battle.

All of this to say, Glory made me think and challenged some long-held convictions. For all of that, the scene that troubled me the most was this one:

Prior to this in the film, there are some moving discussion of racism and justice, and some honest portrayals of the struggles these men had in coming to grips with their new, separate-but-equal status as Union soldiers. Still, it all hits home in this scene. There’s a moment, when his shirt comes off and we see all the scars that a thousand beatings have brought, that the awful reality of what American slavery was is brought home. Worse, the ongoing realities of racism and oppression today have their roots in this ugliest piece of our history.

I really couldn’t shake the horror of it throughout the rest of the film. “God forgive us,” I kept thinking. “God forgive us for what we’ve done.”

And make no mistake-we’ve done it. Our society, and the institutions that benefit us, were built through these means. None of us were alive then, sure, but we’ve benefited from it. Worse still, most of us have benefited from it while belittling it. Slavery is comfortably far in the past, and we have afforded ourselves the luxury of forgetting about it. The Civil Rights movement is already happily archived in brief footnotes in most of our minds, as if it were all some unfortunate necessity that we have all, thankfully, moved on from.

Yet still I live in a world made comfortable for me at the cost of immense pain to others. The institutions that have provided me with safety, economic security, and upward mobility were built on the backs of slaves. They were built on the backs of little girls in the ’50s who couldn’t go to school without men with machine guns standing around them. They are built on the backs of little boys who are expected to be criminals, and live their entire lives under the presumption of guilt. They were built on fire hoses and dogs being turned loose on men and women who wanted to vote. They are built on Presidents who once voted in, are accused of not being a true citizen because of how their last name sounds and how their skin looks, in the absence of any evidence to suggest illegitimacy.

They are perpetuated on the continued refusal on the part of the majority-of which I am a part-to acknowledge, consider, and feel what it is to be black in this country. What it has been, what it is, and what it will be. They are perpetuated by the “achieved-equality myth,” which suggests that since some good pieces of Civil Rights legislation have been passed, everything is equal, and any minority who doesn’t do well simply should’ve tried harder. “Like us.” Us, whose prosperity has been paid for by the suffering of others.

The most troubling thing about this clip for me was that the whipping happens at the hands of the “enlightened” white man in the movie. He is more liberal than his white peers, and treats his men much better than anyone else does. He cares about them, promotes several of them, and is concerned about their best interests.

And he whips one of them. When the chips are down, when he is unsure of himself, he brutally mistreats one of them rather than sit with his own discomfort with his leadership. He can’t be questioned, he won’t be questioned, and he won’t ask questions. He will have his way, and he will use force to get it. He is uncomfortable in his position, but he chooses to propitiate that discomfort by forcing it onto another. And he can, because his victim is black.

So here I am, an “enlightened, liberal” white man. I talk about white male heterosexual religious economic privilege. I try to listen to and learn from and those who are less privileged in one or all of those categories than I am. I try to be conscious of the deference given me due to my skin, my sex, and my orientation, and subvert it. But still it’s there. Still, in several ways I can identify and in so many more I’ll never be able to, I benefit from getting to go to the front of the line at the expense of other people. “Other people” being anyone who isn’t a straight white Christian dude from a middle class background.

And it’s not just passive reception of preference given to me. It’s the jokes I used to laugh at. Worse, it’s the jokes I used to stay silent about. It’s the way I used to dismiss charges of racism out of hand, because I was so sure everyone had the same access and opportunities I did. It’s the way I somehow always found room for charges of “reverse racism,” which would be laughable to me now if I weren’t so embarrassed for it. It’s the way I’ve pretended I got where I am, and what I have, through my own hard work, as if I and my family going back a hundred years in this country haven’t been aided by the oppression of others.

It’s the way that then and now, people have been abused so I could be comfortable. It’s the way that then and now, I can feel better at the expense of others.

All my life I have benefited from that whipping. God forgive us. God forgive me.

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