Press "Enter" to skip to content

The role of truth telling in the quest toward social justice in the United States

Acknowledgment of the truth is essential for wholeness and healing

After reading Desmond Tutu’s No Future Without Forgiveness, I think about the state of our nation, particularly the events and decisions that led to its status today. For example, I contemplate on the desire of the Founding Fathers to leave a tyrannical country like Great Britain to create a nation where equality, justice, and freedom would prevail. More specifically, the freedom to practice one’s religion while living out one’s faith; that all persons would be treated justly; and that everyone is equal in the eyes of the law. However, these tenets have not upheld in its intent. The institution of slavery began a legacy of racial and economic exploitation. Jim Crow laws were implemented to reaffirm the fear and hostility that White people had for Black people. Furthermore, those actions streamed their way into the churches, where racism was justified biblically and theologically. Even though slavery and Jim Crow laws are nonexistent, injustice is prevalent. Therefore, in order for our country to move toward forgiveness, it is from Tutu’s book that I found an important aspect that is required in the quest toward social justice, particularly in the United States:  the role of truth telling,

It is important to note that Tutu agrees with the significance of truth telling in order for the process of forgiveness to begin. He contends that:

Those who were negotiating our future were aware that, unless the past was acknowledged and dealt with adequately, it could put paid to that future as a baneful blight on it. To accept national amnesia would be bad for another telling reason.  It would in effect be to victimize the victims of apartheid a second time around.

In other words, sincere knowledge of the truth for a nation is essential toward wholeness and healing. It is also imperative for this step to take place so that a brighter future can loom, especially for the next generations. Yet, such an acknowledgment comes at a huge cost. The question is whether the United States is ready to pay the price for such admission.  Is it ready to admit its guilt for citing and distorting religion and the Bible to support the status quo? Will the historians of our beloved country willingly re-write our textbooks to state that our Founding Fathers, according to Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., “were so enmeshed in the ethos of slavery and white [male] supremacy that not one ever emerged with a clear, unambiguous stand on Negro rights?” Moreover, will the churches of the dominant culture give up their false sense of superiority by ridding themselves of the disease that causes judgment based on one’s skin color, acquirement of material goods at the expense of the greater good, and discrimination based on one’s zip code? Hence, the failure for our nation to concede its mistakes in its past and begin the progression of healing will cause it to continue the habits of oppression, inequality, and disenfranchisement.

Tutu continues to argue that “to dehumanize another inexorably means that one is dehumanized as well”. His statement affirms the intersection of mutuality and community that, on the one hand, when one hurts, we all hurt.  When one suffers, we all suffer. On the other hand, when one rejoices, we all rejoice.  Unfortunately, since we live in a dominant, patriarchal, blaming society, we are comfortable not correcting the problem. Reginald Davis, author of The Black Church:  Relevant or Irrelevant in the 21st Century, cites Andrew Hacker, writer of the book Two Nations Black and White, who makes the case that White conservatives claim reverse discrimination:

This helps to explain why white conservatives so vehemently oppose programs like affirmative action.  They simply do not want to admit to themselves that the value imputed to being white has injured people who are black. Nor is this reaction surprising.  Most people do not like feeling guilty. It can be an unpleasant, even painful, sensation.  Hence the tendency to turn, often angrily, on those who stir us in this way.  Rather than do something substantial to help people who have been treated unfairly, we find ourselves saying that they brought their afflictions on themselves.

In other words, I restate my earlier inquiry as to whether the United States is ready to pay the price for the role it has played in incorporating racism in its daily practices.  Admitting such guilt would mean the redistribution of resources, the relinquishment of its reputation as a world superpower, the modification of societal behaviors, and the revision of biased and discriminatory interpretations of historical and biblical texts. Again, in order for forgiveness to become a diet we adopt, truth telling is necessary.

Without it, ubuntu cannot live, which Tutu describes as the following:

A person with ubuntu is open and available to others, affirming of others, does not feel threatened that others are able and good, for he or she has a proper self-assurance that comes from knowing that he or she belongs in a greater whole and is diminished when others are humiliated or diminished, when others are tortured, or oppressed, or treated as if they were less than who they are.

He continues to elaborate:

In the spirit of ubuntu, the central concern is the healing of breaches, redressing of imbalances, the restoration of broken relationships, a seeking to rehabilitate both the victim and the perpetrator, who should be given the opportunity to be reintegrated into the community he has injured by his offense..

It is from this meaning of communal and sacrificial love for all of humankind that Tutu proposes the following recommendation to the minority in power:

And then I said that Afrikaners imagined that they had only two options in South Africa’s political, social, and community life—either to be top dog, domineering, or to be underdog, subservient, the doormat of others. I said there was an exciting third option, that of embracing the new dispensation enthusiastically and using their enormous resources in money, skills, and experience to help make the new ordering of society succeed for everyone’s sake.

As South Africa had a choice to steer its horrific past into a positive future, the United States has that same choice to make today. It can become honest and make a public apology to all who were (and are still) subjugated under its rule.  It can also prepare to offer meaningful remedies from such pain (i.e.: reparations). Finally, the United States can slowly change its mindset and actions in how it addresses other people, other nations, other cultures and religions by intently becoming open-minded and open-hearted to endorse inclusion, not assimilation (supporting the qualities of all instead of dismissing some while encouraging other qualities for the benefit of the American Dream).

It is from these arguments that truth telling is required for the United States to move toward a just, liberating, and forgiving nation. It is true that, historically and presently, racism plagues our land. So if we do not address racism, how will we expect to confront other issues?  Regardless of the reality that women make up the majority of our population, pay inequity still exists, unfair body and beauty images dominate the media, tensions of becoming ordained continue in many of our denominations, and more. In addition, the never-ending struggle persists for our brothers and sisters who do not have access to clean air and water, safe neighborhoods, high-quality schools and affordable health care to become recognized as human rights problems in our society. Based on these conditions, we have much more work and dialogue to do to heal the world around us.

Reverend Lerone J. Wilder is a minister-educator-scholar from Greenville, SC and a doctoral learner at Union Institute & University in Cincinnati, OH. 

Be First to Comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Policy changes are necessary to address the situation of those…