My pastor, Fr. John Taylor, was our speaker for the church men’s breakfast this month. He talked about his prior career serving then-disgraced former president, Richard Nixon, and discussed the recent public release of more Watergate tapes showing once again Nixon’s latent, and sometimes blatant, racism… but also showing perhaps how Nixon was an adherent to “scientific racism”, the idea that different races are uniquely (and categorically) gifted and limited, and thus easily classified and compartmentalized. It was a popular 20th Century belief, a thread easily seen weaving through figures from Adolf Hitler to Howard Cosell.
John, who spent thousands of hours in Nixon’s presence, mentioned that Nixon would say “the black man is simply not ready” for this or that responsibility (and freedom). Possibly he even said it kindly, intending the spirit of a father about his children.
And I immediately thought of the amazing week of events in Egypt and the demise of President Mubarak only the day before this breakfast. A mere 24 hours before his own abdication, Mubarak had espoused again his “simply not ready” judgment regarding the Egyptian people and their cry for democracy. “I speak to you as a father to his children”, he pathetically tried — and failed.
But the truth strikes closer to home. I’m a white, American male. To possess all three of those adjectives means you are near the top of the world’s food chain. To possess even one puts you in an elite, and dangerously elitist, position. Just like Nixon, just like Mubarak, in our own little fiefdoms we are lords of the manor. And just like them, it becomes very easy for us to pass judgments from on high.
As a minor example of the insidious potential for this, an odd thought passed my mind earlier in the week: that of all the classical music written during the Renaissance almost until today, I could not think of a single female composer. “Perhaps women don’t have the wiring to compose classical music” was my first unguarded thought, I admit. Why not? The issue doesn’t affect me personally, and this explanation allows me to quickly dismiss such an obscure topic. It’s an easy and fast categorization to construct; one which countless men have constructed with the speed of lean-to’s being erected in a makeshift relief camp.
But my better nature wouldn’t allow such an easy dismissal of the inequity. No women had that wiring? Not one? Is there no other explanation, no more precise delimiter than male- or female-wiring? Nothing about whether a gifted woman was even allowed to be trained, about cultural mores and societal expectations which backhandedly disqualified females?
Decades ago I read a haunting quote, that atheism is a million little truths in defense of a great lie, while Christianity is a million little lies in defense of a great truth. It’s a quote that doesn’t sit well at first reading, but one that I’ve never forgotten. That quote came to my mind while hearing about Richard Nixon and thinking about Hosni Mubarak in our roomful of top-of-the-heap sitters. It’s so easy to declare our own million little “truths” and judgments which justify our pole position. We dip each one like strips of newsprint in the gluey soup of our sloppy thinking—the sloppiness we can exercise because we are the ones with the power, the resources, the influence—and construct our hollow paper mache landscapes which explain the world in lovely contours and scenes which justify our overlording of it.
That is, until the winds of history sweep us into the Red Sea of exile, too.
Jesus called each of us to live by the Golden Rule. And those of us who have more—more power, more influence, more resources—would do well to recognize our own easy tendency to highjack Christ’s beautiful paradigm of mutuality and equality into a cold, careless calculation that justifies our own position in the world. As they say, he who has the gold makes the rules.