Criticizing Justice Seekers

When I look at the landscape of the United States right now, the number of times I see patterns of well-intentioned people criticizing others seeking recognition and justice can, at times, overwhelm me. Often within church circles I’m around, you hear an emphasis put on personal sin, with the belief that repenting from it will transform our lives and thus the systems around us (if they even include systems in their discussion). In schools, we are often taught that those that fight for recognition and justice (of minorities) are threats, deviants, mentally ill, etc. In the public sphere, the growing tension between Black Lives Matter, Blue Lives Matter and All Lives Matter creates a telling dialogue around what we value and why we value it. Central to each of these issues and many more is power: who has power, doesn’t have power, and who deserves power.

Let us consider the various social circles I’ve been exposed to within religious organizations. There is a tremendous emphasis put on personal sin and the power of God to transform lives if we repent. This belief is well-intentioned and not even something I disagree with, but it is incomplete; there must also be an acknowledgement of sin against others, of a disparity in very real resources, of discrimination in the distribution of goods and services or even the long-term effects of the systemic ways we degrade people of certain races or genders. As one person explained, “Look, if you’re white, heroin addiction is a disease that people want to treat, to HEAL. But if you’re black? Drug addiction is justification for incarceration or an excuse for why you can get shot by the police.” People in these circles often criticize those who speak out and fight for change within our systems, explaining that “all” people must take responsibility for their personal sin, that it was their choice to break the law. Again, none of this is untrue, it’s just incomplete. We cannot stop there, insisting that they must face judgment for their sin while we accept cheap grace. We have a responsibility to ask how we, as a society, have sinned against them and take responsibility for reconciliation.

Within schools, we can also see patterns where people seeking recognition and justice are not only criticized, but misrepresented. Consider, for instance, Andrew Jackson. In high school history books, accolades are spoken of him and the work he did in building the nation into what it is today. Unless you do your own research, you are unlikely to be taught that Jackson’s success was built on the systemic dehumanization, oppression and slaughter of native people across the country. Yet when we study the Turner Rebellion, it is often mentioned that Turner was potentially schizophrenic, mentally ill, etc. He is rarely shown as a man of faith who lived as a slave and possessed a righteous anger at the suffering and bondage pressed upon slaves from every side. Emphasis is put on the fact that Nat and his rebellion killed men, women and children but often neglect to mention that the state militia executed those involved as well as people with slight connections, reimbursing their masters afterwards for the loss of their property. The white response across the South of murdering black people without cause (to such an extent that numbers aren’t known) is also usually absent from the teaching. This is just one example of how we disparage one who fights for justice while lifting-up someone driven by power and wealth.

The last example I’ll discuss is that of the evolution of the “Lives Matter” movements. “Black Lives Matter,” came first and at its root, was a cry of a people who feel that they exist in a society that tells them through words, treatment, and resourcing that their lives don’t matter. Thus, the statement “Black Lives Matter,” was a means of affirming that a black life has value, that it does indeed matter. This is also a way of building power through solidarity with one another; alone it is easy to be cut down. Together, but asserting that one another’s life matters, there is a collective building of worth and power. A response by predominantly white people came through the phrases “Blue Lives Matter” and “All Lives Matter.” This response is, I believe, an example of people who are most often well-intention but also deeply biased. I believe that, for the most part, they recognize that they do not value the black life the same as the lives of white people or police and furthermore, believe that if they MUST value those lives, it comes at a cost to blue lives or white lives. Herein lies the fundamental flaw of those who believe value is a finite resource: valuing the lives of other people does not change the worth of your own life. It’s saying, “As I possess human dignity and worth, so should others who currently do not.” When we consider the power that lies in the police, the statement that black lives matter doesn’t negate the life of police, it cries out for the black life to be valued by the blue. In other words, “Blue Lives Matter” and “All Lives Matter” view the lifting up of black lives as a zero-sum game: where each race or demographic’s gain or loss is exactly balanced by the losses or gains of another race or demographic. “Black Lives Matter” views the value of humanity as many people view love: just as our capacity to love others grows and expands without loss of love in one’s self, we can value more and more people as we value ourselves without loss. This sentiment is echoed in the words of Jesus himself, when he says in Mark 12:31, “The second is this: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no commandment greater than these.”

The three examples I’ve provided are just a few places where I see the manifestation of the patterns of criticism towards people seeking recognition and justice. While not all-inclusive, I believe these examples highlight how deeply rooted and systemic the issue is: life and liberty are valued far less in this country than maintaining power, and this truth is found within the heart of what we say and implement in our political, economic and social structures. Just as in the time of slavery, while the elite are a small number, they are mighty, and they are also effective in sculpting the culture and beliefs of larger white America so they feel that they have more in common with the elite than they do those that have been silently and systemically disenfranchised. Thus, the non-elite, white majority continue to voluntarily give over more of their freedoms and wealth to those in power while believing it is those with the least amount of power who are stripping them of it, all with the best of intentions.

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Reflections: “As Long As the Grass Grows or Water Runs”

            Not many historians consider the part the native people played in the Revolutionary War. I was surprised to learn that almost every major Indian nation fought with the British in the Revolutionary War. We, the soon to be United States, were a tide they couldn’t seem to stop. After the war, the British left but the Indians remained to continue the defense of their home on the frontier. Washington wanted a policy of conciliation. “His Secretary of State, Thomas Jefferson, said in 1791 that where Indians lived within state boundaries they should not be interfered with, and that the government should remove white settlers who tried to encroach on them.” (pg. 124-125) Unfortunately, such an attitude would not last very long. Jefferson bought the Louisiana Territory from France twelve years later, doubling the size of the United States and proposing that Congress have Indians move there to farm small tracts of land.

            This set-up Andrew Jackson nicely, who was a massive land speculator and, amongst other things, a terrible person when it came to the native people.  A national hero for the Battle of Horseshoe Bend, he became famous for having a few casualties while killing 800 of the 1000 Creeks; what people didn’t realize is his attack at the front failed and Cherokee, “promised governmental friendship if they joined the war, swam the river, came up behind the Creeks, and won the battle for Jackson.” (pg. 126-127) After taking land from both those who fought against him and with him, Jackson gave a speech that told the Creeks that the US is basically justified in doing whatever they want and taking whatever they want. Jackson was the shadiest of salesmen, describing how he obtained the treaties that captured land all across the Eastern US: “…we addressed ourselves feelingly to the predominant and governing passion of all Indian tribes, i.e. their avarice or fear.” (pg. 127) That Jackson admits to this type of manipulation is perhaps surprising; the evidence of it is all over his speeches to the various peoples. He offers fear in their current home and hope in the west. In Jackson’s instructions for the Cherokees and Choctaw he worded it, “There, beyond the limits of any State, in possession of land of their own, which they shall possess as long as Grass grows or water runs. I am and will protect them and be their friend and father.” (pg. 132)

            That is, unless you don’t do what he wants you to do, then he might burn your village down. This would the story of the Seminole in Florida, who would take in black slave refugees. They also owned slaves, but their slavery was a kinder slavery than that of the United States; it was more akin to African slavery. “The slaves often lived in their own villages, their children often became free, there was much intermarriage between Indians and blacks, and soon there were mixed Indian-black villages…” (pg. 128) This was seen as very dangerous to the more oppressive slave owners in the south.  So of course, Jackson started a war, the Seminole War of 1818. Now called the Florida Purchase of 1819, Jackson burnt villages and seized forts in “self-defense” until Spain sold Florida to him. Then all of the settlers began flowing into the region. The Seminole’s would continue to fight for quite a while before eventually fading away.

            Seventy thousand Indians east of the Mississippi were forced westward under Jackson or his successor, Martin Van Buren. Chief Black Hawk’s surrender speech captures the sentiment that was felt in the hearts of those many people, and the many that suffered and died prior to being forced west: “…He is now a prisoner to the white man…He has done nothing for which an Indian ought to be ashamed. He has fought for his countrymen, the squaws and papooses, against white men, who came year after year, to cheat them and take away their lands… Indians are not deceitful. The white men speak bad of the Indian and look at him spitefully. But the Indian does not tell lies. Indians do not steal…” (pg. 129) Black Hawk had raised the white flag in surrender; he was with women and children of his tribe who were starving. That surrender didn’t stop the US military from firing their guns at everyone anyways.

            Exile was very serious to the Eastern Indian, perhaps hard to understand in our transient culture today. This wasn’t about being shorted land, or being given land that was of poor quality in exchange for their high quality land, although that was all true.  It ran much deeper than that. Dale Van Every describes it, “The Indian was peculiarly susceptible to every sensory attribute of every natural feature of his surroundings. He lived in the open. He knew every marsh, glade, hill top, rock, spring, creek, as only a hunter can know them… he loved the land with a deeper emotion than could any proprietor. He felt himself as much a part of it… His homeland was his holy ground…” (pg. 134) This was a deeply spiritual issue and the Cherokee exerted a lot of effort towards acculturation as a means to gain power and influence in order to remain on the land of their ancestors. But Van Buren and most of America didn’t care.

            Ralph Waldo Emerson was one of a handful of people who plead on behalf of the native people; he wrote that the religion, liberty, and other things for which this nation stands will sink if we act with such injustice. But Van Buren, thirteen days before Emerson’s letter, sent military, militia and volunteers into Cherokee territory to use whatever force was necessary to facilitate removal. Seventeen thousand Cherokee were betrayed by Congress and a handful of Cherokee through the Removal Treaty, and now they were sent to the stockades. Wave after wave were sent on the Trail of Tears. “Grant Foreman, the leading authority on Indian removal, estimates that during confinement in the stockade or on the march westward four thousand Cherokee died.” (pg. 146) That’s 23.5% of the Cherokee people who were rounded up. It’s absolutely heartbreaking. What is particularly sickening is the way that President Van Buren spoke to Congress about it in 1838: “It affords sincere pleasure to apprise the Congress of the entire removal of the Cherokee Nation of Indians to their new homes west of the Mississippi. The measures authorized by Congress at its last session have had the happiest effects.” (pg. 146)