I finished The New Jim Crow a couple of weeks ago. It’s a powerful book and, even though I know why I put it on the back burner, I can’t believe I didn’t get to it before now. I’ve heard the book’s main argument over the years, of course. Anyone aware of institutional racism in this country has, I hope. The war on drugs has essentially created a new Jim Crow system and the evidence for this is compelling. Ten years after its publishing, I think it’s safe to say that The New Jim Crow has cemented itself as an essential read for those who want to look our nation’s problems squarely in the eye and seek to solve them.
The book’s ending has been rattling around in my head for weeks. Well, really one phrase: All of us or none. There’s a prison activist group that’s taken that phrase for their name. There’s an Emma Lazarus quote to the same effect, though for a different context and different audience: Until we are all free, we are none of us free.
Now, this is not a new idea. It’s not a particularly western idea either; I don’t care to count the number of sermons I’ve heard about ubuntu, a Bantu term popularized for us white people by Desmond Tutu’s theology. We are all interconnected. We know that for a certainty. And when one of us hurts, we all should feel the effects. Humans are social creatures and this planet is one interconnected system. I am because we are. All of us or none. Simple.
Simple, but difficult. Simple, but exacting. Because many of us who are in most ways free, we don’t always understand that our freedom, our comfort, our convenience, rests on the imprisonment of others. In the United States, our anglo freedom has always rested on the imprisonment of others. We have always been, and still are, too ambitious to do much of anything justly and sustainably. In our rush for our freedom, we have crushed the freedom of others.
It is daunting to imagine the work and sacrifice needed to set each and every human free, free from poverty, free from discrimination, free from all that prevents us from living life and life abundant. It is daunting to imagine how to set the Earth free from the ways we have bound it. But the work is necessary; the sins of racism will continue to claw at us until we are torn apart. The use and abuse of our planet will result in catastrophic effects for us unless we begin the healing now. Poverty will spread like the disease it is until our world is a waste.
But more than that, more than all of that, more than the fact that those of us who are free are still imprisoned as long as anyone is imprisoned, is the heartbreaking fact that any are imprisoned in this world of abundance and glorious diversity. Why aren’t our hearts perpetually breaking for those who are bound tight by poverty? Why are we outraged by all acts of racism, not just the obvious ones? Why must we be reminded over and over and over again that people are people and that we are none of us free until we are all free?
If we Christians are to be anything like Jesus, the one who proclaimed release for the captives and the year of the Lord’s favor, then our every thought, action, and organization should be shaped for freedom for all.
And can we imagine what the world would look like if we did that? If every tiny country church was committed to freedom from poverty, freedom from addiction, freedom from discrimination, freedom to be who God made each of us to be? I fully believe that if we made that our mission, our way of life, our way of being in this world, then groups of ten or twenty or thirty would reshape the communities they’re in. And once you’ve been freed, truly freed, then what in this world would stop you from freeing someone else?
Imagine a denomination committed to freedom. Even a denomination of a few dozen churches fully committed to freedom would be able to make a noise, to lobby for or against legislation, to hold public servants accountable, to be a voice advocating for a more just government on each and every level. That’s the slow work of the Social Gospel, I admit, but I am frightened by anything that moves faster than that. Maybe that’s a fear I need to be freed from myself.
All of us or none of us. I feel this deep in my bones, a fundamental truth that has been hidden over the years with layers of self-absorption and acceptance and a numbing fear of change. Now that I’ve unearthed it, though, why would I hide it under a bushel? Why would I allow it to be dimmed when it could transform how we live with one another? Why would I keep the gospel to myself? To preserve an organization? To save someone else’s feelings?
That’s not what Jesus did.
And a seed that was planted in me, though it has had to fight through rocks and weeds to grow, has finally started to sprout. Maybe I do genuinely want to be like Jesus.
Maybe it’s time.