Race, Covenant, and Forgiveness

Sixty years after the Civil Rights Movement and ten years after the triumphant election of the first African-American president, the question of race has returned with urgency and fury. There is, alas, a group of Catholic intellectuals who scoff at the notion that the fate of the American nation ought to be of great interest to the faithful. Some might even take a bit of delight in pointing out how the most toxic aspects of our “racial reckoning” are a predictable outgrowth of America’s liberal founding.

That’s an argument for another time. For the moment, the more prudent path is to recognize that the universal Church exists within nations, and thus the “joys and hopes, the sorrows and the anxieties” (Gaudium et Spes 1) of each country are to be shared by its Catholic citizens. It’s incumbent, therefore, upon Catholic thinkers to examine this issue squarely and look for ways in which the wisdom of our tradition can heal and elevate the cause of racial reconciliation.

These are very choppy waters; only a fool sets out upon them without a plan for navigating their strong currents. The outline for such a plan is set out in Race and Covenant: Recovering the Religious Roots for American Reconciliation, (ed., Gerald R. McDermott). This collection represents a cross-section of leading scholars focused on the question of how the United States might better fulfill the covenantal promise embedded in the Declaration of Independence to uphold the self-evident truth “that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

The basic idea of the book is that, in the words of Frederick Douglass, “nations, not less than individuals, are subjects of the moral government of the universe, and that. . .persistent transgressions of the laws of this Divine government will certainly bring national sorrow, shame, suffering, and death.” Lincoln framed his calling of a national fast with the question of whether the devastations of war were “a punishment, inflicted upon us, for our presumptuous sins, to the needful end of our national reformation as a whole People?”

Of course, that God deals with nations has solid biblical roots, even if a complicated and ambiguous history of reception. Divinely sanctioned patriotism has, and deserves, a bad reputation. The corrective offered here is to view America’s covenant with God in light of its failure to live up to its own promises when it comes to African Americans. National regeneration rightly requires a period of exile, not only in the form of domestic upheavals, but also the painful realization that the division between black and white persists.

Far from a reflexive patriotism, the authors emphasize the moral evil of slavery and the devastations of the nation’s long refusal to set race aside. If one is looking for something that treats America’s original sin as a thing wholly of the past, Race and Covenant will disappoint. Just as Dante the pilgrim learned that purgation begins only by accepting the justice of punishment, these authors refuse any resolution to the race problem apart from the dynamics of sin and gracious regeneration.

After a helpful introductory essay by the editor, the book divides thematically: national covenant in history, our current maladies, and strategies for restoration. The contributions are uniformly strong and of interest to a Catholic audience. To give a taste of the riches to be found, I shall highlight three essays.

The first concerns Martin Luther King Jr., the last public figure to speak of race in terms of America’s national covenant. The author is James M. Patterson, an historian at Ave Maria University and a scholar of the intersection of faith and politics.

Treating King as a Christian thinker, Patterson argues that King sought to navigate between the utopianism of the Social Gospel and the realism of Reinhold Niebuhr. Such a via media meant that racial reconciliation would require the coercive power of the state but not be complete apart from a change, a conversion, in the hearts of all Americans. Whites must repent of their racism and blacks must be ready to accept that repentance as Christ has graciously accepted their own.  Patterson depicts King as someone who came to admit his own need for forgiveness, seeing himself as a kind of Moses whose marital failures rightly barred him from the Promised Land he preached.

If Patterson emphasizes King’s Christian optimism, another contributor, Joshua Mitchell, takes stock of the secular mindset of today’s racial illuminati. They too employ the categories of guilt and innocence but apart from a conviction that God has dealt with universal guilt by the sacrifice of his innocent Son.

Thus the labels of sinner and innocent, oppressed and oppressor are not possibilities for every human being, but are rather attached to persons on the basis of their race. Whites are guilty because they are white; blacks innocent because they are black. Redemption and reconciliation through forgiveness is not on offer, only perpetual repentance on the part of one group. Mitchell contrasts this national dead-end with a theory of liberal competence, in which citizens rely upon each other across all racial divides to build a common world.

I conclude with a stirring passage from Derryck Green’s contribution that itself commends the book:

Blacks have been systematically targeted, attacked, hurt, and damaged. Slavery and segregation, while not unique to America, were evil. They were sins against the national covenant, and these sins have been massive impediments to the peace and unity which most blacks and whites seek. The residual of white racial chauvinism, though legally outlawed, continues to guide far too many hearts and minds. Some black anger and resentment are therefore understandable; some are not. But it doesn’t matter. Jesus was very clear that the obligation of his followers is to upend the normal cycle of reciprocating anger, antipathy, and hostility. As his disciples, black folks in the churches must initiate reconciliation, and that begins with forgiveness.

James F. Keating

James F. Keating is currently the Director the Humanities Program at Providence College and Associate Professor of Theology there. He is editor of the forthcoming Restoring Ancient Beauty: The Revival of Thomistic Theology.