My brothers and sisters,* do you with your acts of favouritism really believe in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ?* For if a person with gold rings and in fine clothes comes into your assembly, and if a poor person in dirty clothes also comes in, and if you take notice of the one wearing the fine clothes and say, ‘Have a seat here, please’, while to the one who is poor you say, ‘Stand there’, or, ‘Sit at my feet’,* have you not made distinctions among yourselves, and become judges with evil thoughts? Listen, my beloved brothers and sisters.* Has not God chosen the poor in the world to be rich in faith and to be heirs of the kingdom that he has promised to those who love him? But you have dishonored the poor. Is it not the rich who oppress you? Is it not they who drag you into court? Is it not they who blaspheme the excellent name that was invoked over you? (James 2:1-7, NRSV)
The election of Barack Obama in 2008 sent ripples and shock waves throughout the world and caused wonderful feelings of progress to spread through America. For many, it signaled a willingness on the part of many Americans to put long-held prejudicial and racial stereotypes aside to elect an American of African descent to the highest office in the land. Statements like, “not in my lifetime” and “never thought I’d see the day”, rang all through neighborhoods and households as a real sense of pride and confidence was shared by all Americans, Republican and Democrat alike.
What was, for many, a moment of progress and unity offered for others, a sign of a deeper truth. For this group, Barack Obama’s election revealed a post racialism in American society. Specifically, race, racial stereotyping and prejudicial treatment based on race was no longer the pervasive and pernicious problem that so defined this country since its founding. Most of those cultural commentators making these claims were in traditional media institutions (and many of whom, not all though, were quite frankly…white) that wanted to explore an angle of progress and exploit the euphoria the country was feeling.
Commentators and journalists alike spent many hours reflecting on the excitement, motivation and view of the populace toward their new president and want it signaled for the country. While I believe establishment media figures meant well, the problem with the media’s approach was that it explored the story from the ending it wanted to portray- post racialism in America. It wanted to prove that the 2008 election wasn’t about race (and to a certain extent it wasn’t, and that is to be celebrated). Yet, most Americans of first generation immigrant and specifically African-American heritage did not view President Obama’s election as the ground shifting force on racial relations even though his election was historic. Absent from the post racialism discussion was (and is) the view of the historical victims of race and racial discrimination.
James, the writer of the letter to the “church in dispersion” gives a strong word of inclusivity and equality in this second chapter. His admonishment centers on how we view our neighbor. More relevantly, he reminds us to be faithful to the commandment of loving our neighbor. He posits the question, “have you not made distinctions among yourselves, and become judges with evil thoughts?” His words are an indictment to our present day post racialism, for they provide for us a standard that must be used in our society. It isn’t the election of a Black President that makes us post racial, it is the failure to make distinctions of any kind amongst one another that signals God’s equality in society.
The measure of relational fairness and equality is found by asking the one who was wronged in the relationship. James says as much when he says, “has not God chosen the poor in the world to be rich in faith and to be heirs of the kingdom that he has promised to those who love him?” (Not the poor in spirit as some interpret). As long as there are people who feel threatened by black men in ‘hoodies’ (or suits for that matter) we are not post racial. As long as money entitles you to health care or any ‘preferential’ treatment, we are not equal. As long as women are still legislated over instead of empowered to be legislatively or otherwise, we are not post anything. The events of the past month have signaled that the media was and is wrong about post racialism in America. We have not gotten past our proclivities toward separations and elitism. We are not a post-sexual, post-racial, classless, egalitarian society yet. I still say yet, because they are still possibilities in America…..for now at least.
Let me also be clear when I say that the mandate for James in the letter is what is in your heart when facing your neighbor. It is one’s morality (belief system) and not one’s ethic (how beliefs are lived out) that James offers as the standard. Not what you say you do but what you believe that God examines as truth in your life. I have heard several commentators on the Trayvon Martin case as well as the Supreme Court Affordable Care Act deliberations talk about the fairness and moral effects of mandating health care or arresting someone who may be covered by “Floridian self-defense”. In light of James’s argument, the legality and constitutionality are irrelevant. Morality and Love (both of which I believe our government and society lack) mean healthcare is available to all and that NO ONE should have legal cover to take another human being’s life merely on suspicious grounds. Where is the consistency of the Religious Right and where is the command to love thy neighbor being expressed and exercised??
Post racialism is possible for us as Americans, but embracing this vision of truth means changing how we treat our neighbors. Until then, no election can measure our readiness for that day…