Last Saturday, I took a pilgrimage with Episcopalian brothers and sisters to the Equal Justice Initiative's Legacy Museum and National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Alabama. The museum takes the pilgrim through the history of America's original sin of slavery to modern-day mass incarceration. The memorial is dedicated to those - named and unnamed - who were brutalized through lynching and the effects of Jim Crow era laws.
Both the museum and the memorial shock one from an intellectual knowledge of certain aspects of our dark national history and present to a keen awareness of how that history penetrates every corner of American identity. As I moved through the memorial monuments, etched with the names of lynching victims by county and state, I was struck not only by the sheer number of victims, but also of the realization that entire families were often lynched together, that the civil authorities were often complicit in the lynchings, and that many of the lynchings were mass spectacles - often with thousands of people (including small children) attending and cheering on the gruesome violence.
Walking through the museum, I read how our system itself - the courts, the police, the politicians, and the religious leaders - more often than not explicitly supported, or even participated in, the lynchings and other violations of the dignity and worth of black Americans. And it's not just in the past. Modern prisons are often an extension of racial discrimination and violence, an evolution of slavery and Jim Crow for contemporary times. Black people are six times more likely than white people to be locked up for the exact same drug-related crimes, even though drug use is nearly the same among white and black people. They often serve much longer sentences than white convicts for the same crimes as well.
Racism is alive and well in modern America. Religious institutions have too often either been directly involved in racist behavior and policy-making, or at best, have lagged behind the rest of society in working towards racial equality. It baffles me that followers of Jesus (so-called) struggle at all with the sin of racism. How can a life filled with the Holy Spirit be anything but egalitarian and loving to all? If we are to be known by our fruits, it seems there just aren't that many Christians around.
Honestly, nobody should need religious motivation to love his or her human brothers and sisters. That said, intrinsic equality among humans is evident from the very beginning. God made humankind in His image (Genesis 1:26-27). All humans are imago dei. God does not show favoritism (James 2:8-9), and neither should we (if we're truly lovers of God).
If you want to learn more, but do not have the opportunity to take the pilgrimage to the EJI memorial and museum, you can view many great videos here. Below, is one of the videos shown in the museum: