Interestingly, the Biblical writers know nothing of apologetics. In the face of innocent human suffering, they don’t defend God. They protest to God. And if the cause of that suffering is systemic injustice or political oppression, they confront those responsible. The Christian church has practised this two-fold response (albeit with glaring omissions and inconsistencies) throughout its history: lament to God and practical action on behalf of the victims. Even in the case of “natural evils” like viral pandemics and floods, I have often pointed out that the scale of suffering and death is greatly exacerbated by endemic corruption, political lethargy, economic inequality, and dangerous cultural and environmental practices.
In Sri Lanka, just as in some other countries, Covid-19 has played into the hands of autocratic regimes who have used the crisis to consolidate their hold on power. Constitutional safeguards have been dismantled, and the rule of law replaced by Presidential diktat. The President, a former army commander who assumed power in October last year, was inserting his army cronies into all government departments before the crisis hit. The current army commander was appointed as head of the task force to control the response to Covid-19.
The country was facing both economic ruin and the threat of military dictatorship, and so the pandemic served as a convenient scapegoat for economic mismanagement and as a pretext for growing control by the armed forces of civilian activities. Ironically, the largest clusters of the virus have been found among armed forces personnel. The absence of free and competent journalism, coupled with the takeover of major newspapers and TV stations by the regime, leaves the public largely ignorant of the slide into despotism.
Lament is the first step in revolutionary change.
Even as I write, riots are sweeping through several American cities. While rioting and looting are always inexcusable, they are perfectly understandable. Those who decry the violence must first acknowledge the violence of the racist system of law-enforcement in the US. The Brazilian educator Paolo Freire, in his seminal work Pedagogy of the Oppressed (1970), pointed out that “Never in history has violence been initiated by the oppressed. How could they be the initiators, if they themselves are the result of violence? There would be no oppressed had there been no prior situation of violence to establish their subjugation.”
But he went on, in that same work, to caution: “‘When people are already dehumanized, due to the oppression they suffer, the process of their liberation must not employ the methods of dehumanization.”
Institutional racism and police brutality against coloured people long pre-date Trump, though the latter has emboldened white supremacists by his inflammatory rhetoric. Anyone familiar with Hollywood movies or the crime novels of writers like Walter Mosley know that routine police brutality is a feature of life that has rarely been questioned by whites:
“In the south if a black man killed a white man he was dead. If the police saw him on the street they shot first and asked questions… never. If he gave himself up he was killed in his cell. If the constable wasn’t a murdering man then a mob would come and lynch the poor son of a bitch. And failing all that, if a black man ever made it to trial and was convicted of killing a white man- even in self-defence, even if it was to save another white man- that convict would spend the rest of his days incarcerated. There would be no parole, no commutation of sentence, no extenuating circumstances, no time off for good behaviour.” (Walter Mosley, Cinnamon Kiss, Orion Books, 2006)
Their view of “sin” is individual, rather than structural and systemic.
Racial segregation and a biased criminal justice system have not been confined to the American south. Ken Wytsma writes: “More African American adults are under correctional control today than were enslaved in 1850, ten years before the Civil War began, and more are unable to vote than in 1870, the year the Fifteenth Amendment was passed. Black men are imprisoned at six times the rate of white men; estimates indicate that black men have a one in three chance of going to prison in their lifetime.” (The Myth of Equality: Uncovering the Roots of Injustice and Privilege, InterVarsity Press, 2017)
A revolutionary situation can be said to exist when an economic, political or military system is so oppressive that large numbers of people have in their hearts withdrawn consent from the system and from those who administer it. And lament (“This should not be”) is the first step in revolutionary change.
A good many of my white friends in the US (and elsewhere, I should add), with some outstanding exceptions, cannot grasp the severity of this situation. Their view of “sin” is individual, rather than structural and systemic. Because they themselves are not “racist” in their attitudes to others, they fail to empathize with the rage of those who suffer every day. So they continue to vote for politicians who simply tinker with the system rather than uproot it altogether. And they are more offended by the “tone” in which people protest than the situation which gives rise to such protest!
The German Lutheran pastor Martin Niemoller’s poignant lament is often quoted in these contexts of comfortable middle-class lethargy:
“First they came for the Jews
and I did not speak out- because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for the communists
and I did not speak out- because I was not a communist.
Then they came for the trade unionists
and I did not speak out- because I was not a trade unionist.
Then they came for me-
and there was no one left
to speak out for me.”
Much more on this in my book!
This post was taken from the blog of Vinoth Ramachandra and used with permission. You can find the original post at vinothramachandra.wordpress.com along with Vinoth's other articles.