Each year I find it more difficult to celebrate the July 4th Independence Day. Flag waving patriotism seems displaced when our nation faces such peril and reckoning for our past. What I wish for is to commemorate and celebrate the noble promises of our nation while also acknowledging, in the spirit of truth and reconciliation, the ways our country has fallen short of living up to those ideals.
I often ponder what is the primary toxin that continues to erode the principles of a democratic government. Although it is relatively obvious, I recently have begun to more firmly believe that the basis of American injustice and violence in general, and racism in particular, is essentially an exaggerated and exploitative sense of superiority, mostly male, that has deeply infused itself into the American psyche (and unfortunately, much of the entire species).
Distressingly and humbly I have also realized this fault line of superiority in my own psyche. Although I believe I can responsibly and honestly claim a strong set of moral virtues, I also am also aware my history has conditioned me to assume I am a superior person as a white, straight, male, Christian, American...for a start. So many life messages have fed this conceit, so here I am trying to reckon how that has affected my attitudes and treatment of others over all these years, and now how I can recover from it. I have become more and more aware of the sense of superiority as the specific basis of my persistent racism most particularly. And until I can acknowledge (prayerfully, humbly) some level of truth about my false sense of superiority, I cannot begin to plumb the deepest source of my biases and rationalizations about my attitudes toward African-Americans and most everyone else who is “different” from me. Admitting my assumptions about my superiority is a scary and vulnerable thing to address which explains a lot about how difficult it is for any of us to confront and reckon with our racism, even though we may also say we believe in the fundamental equality of all.
Each of us wants to experience a sense of quiet pride about our lives, our family, our community, and our nation. We want to believe our lives and values are worthy of respect and appreciation. My hope is that each of us actually does have something about ourselves and our families and communities and nation that provides us with confirmations of self-worth. The more we are secure in our self esteem the less we need to be propped up by asserting our superiority over others.
But when we begin to have serious self doubts about ourselves we tend to amp up our need to be comparatively superior to others, and that’s when we can begin to justify the harm we can and do inflict on others, and I think that is a major impetus for all the anger from white males. When we are convinced of our superiority (or insecure about it) we can quickly decide others are basically inferior. It’s easy, then, to assume being empowered with the right to control and exploit those we consider inferior, often justifying our entitlements as “just taking care of them because they can’t take care of themselves” while also benefiting from the privileges of exploitative advantage. The historic classic of this mentality, of course, is the way men have assumed, and maintained as much as possible, prerogatives of control over women. (See this week’s headlines on abortion.)
The most horrific injustices during the history of the United States - slavery, genocide, the abasement and treatment of women and immigrants, the mentally ill, children, the poor, the international exploitation of poor nations - are all based on our arrogant sense of moral and military superiority, further supported by the wealth garnered from exploitation of the land and slaves, and we are experiencing a current wave of this empowerment. We are also now simultaneously reckoning with how wrong we have been in the past as we struggle with a truth and reconciliation process to unwind the harm we have done.
So if I want to ask if I am a racist or a bigot, I can more honestly and more helpfully ask myself about the residual depth of my assumption about my personal sense of superiority over Blacks and everyone else. How deeply do I consider myself superior to others, especially those for whom I have historically (or currently) held a negative prejudice? What sense of superiority led me to my prejudices? What privileges and insecurities am I protecting? These are sobering questions. If and when we have begun to face those questions in ourselves we can better understand and address the attitudes that drive the historic and current movement by predominantly white males to try to control the fate of American society in their service.
I will “celebrating” the 4th of July this weekend by honoring the great idealism in our founding documents, the nobility and courage of so many of my national heroes, my privileges of security and freedom, and my faithful, loving family and friends, as well as the sweeping beauty of our land. But I will do so with more humility than pride.
The great biblical prophets provide us with the antidote to destructive superiority: "What does the Lord require of you? To act justly, and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.” (Micah 6:8) I think this is exactly the opposite of asserting superiority.