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Summer of Our American Discontent

New Hearts and Racial Divides

On July 12, 2016, in the midst of another American summer wracked by racial unrest, police brutality, protest, and violence, President Obama addressed the nation from Dallas, Texas, during a memorial service for five police officers slain in the line of duty and urged Americans to “reject despair” and to seek “consensus.” Referencing the Hebrew Bible, Obama said,

In the end, it’s not about finding policies that work. It’s about forging consensus and fighting cynicism and finding the will to make change. Can we do this? Can we find the character, as Americans, to open our hearts to each other? I don’t know. I confess that sometimes, I, too, experience doubt… But then I am reminded of what the Lord tells Ezekiel. “I will give you a new heart.” That’s what we must pray for, each of us — a new heart. (emphasis added)

What does it mean when the President of the United States, facing the growing threat of further fragmentation and dissolution along racial divides, urges a prayer “for a new heart” as the solution? In what follows, I take this question as my guiding thought.

First, a brief reminder of the overall context in which Yahweh speaks to Ezekiel. In the scripture, Israel is in a state of stubborn rebelliousness, having turned away from and transgressed against Yahweh. Yahweh calls on Ezekiel as his prophet to send a warning to Israel that such rebelliousness would not be tolerated much longer and that punishment would soon come. In the same text, Yahweh promises to restore Israel, gathering those whom he has scattered, returning the dispossessed to the land. As Yahweh says in Ezekiel 11:19, “I will give them one heart, and put a new spirit within them; I will remove the heart of stone from their flesh and give them a heart of flesh, so that they may follow my statutes and keep my ordinances and obey them.” The new heart, a heart of flesh, is here a prerequisite for the restoration of Israel.

But what exactly, aside from calling back those whom he has scattered, is signaled by this restoration? Wherein lies the stubborn rebelliousness of Israel? The passage above gives one clue — Israel has failed to follow, keep, and obey the statutes proclaimed by Yahweh. In 18:5-9, Yahweh is more direct,

If a man is righteous and does what is lawful and right… does not oppress anyone, but restores to the debtor his pledge, commits no robbery, gives his bread to the hungry and covers the naked with a garment, does not take advance or accrued interest, withholds his hand from iniquity, executes true justice between parties… such a one is righteous.

The theme here is justice, for it is the withholding of justice by those who have declared the ways of Yahweh to be unfair that marks Israel out as stubborn and rebellious (18:25-32). But Yahweh’s demands are clear, and the stubbornness and hard-heartedness on the part of Israel are what stand in the way of justice and unity. Such rebelliousness demands punishment, but the mercy of Yahweh opens the way for restoration and a renewal of justice. This is accomplished as a gift from Yahweh, for Yahweh will replace the hearts of stone with new hearts of flesh, will call back those whom he has scattered, giving them “one” heart. Were it not for this divine dispensation, hard-heartedness, injustice, and division would persist. We should pause here to reflect on this radically powerful message.

Again, Ezekiel has come to warn Israel that it will be punished for its transgressions, transgressions that include oppressing the poor. Although I have been speaking of a warning to “Israel,” this is to paint with too broad a brush. The intended recipients of Ezekiel’s warning were the rich and powerful; they were the ones guilty of oppressing the poor.

In this light, the rich and the powerful are those with “hard hearts,” hearts of “stone” that, after punishment, would be replaced with “hearts of flesh.” Wealth and power have corrupted these individuals, preventing them from showing love and compassion to those “beneath them” on the social hierarchy. Toward those “others” — the low and the common — the rich and powerful show their hearts of stone, instead of reaching out with hearts of flesh.

Anyone hoping to find an equally radical critique of American culture in Obama’s speech was surely disappointed. Even though President Obama borrowed the line directly from Ezekiel, absent was the pointed message found in the Hebrew Bible. Instead, following his call for people to “pray for new hearts,” Obama sought to build consensus. He continued, “With an open heart, we can learn to stand in each other’s shoes and look at the world through each other’s eyes. With an open heart, we can worry less about which side has been wronged, and worry more about joining sides to do right.”

For anyone familiar with President Obama, this invitation to “look forward, not back” is unsurprising. Set in contrast to Ezekiel’s stern warning, however, it should give us pause. Ezekiel did not come to tell the poor and oppressed to “open their hearts” to their oppressors, nor did he suggest they should attempt to stand in the shoes of their oppressors or attempt to look at the world through the eyes of their oppressors.

Ezekiel had a much more uncompromising message for Israel: those guilty of transgression, those guilty of oppressing the weak and the poor would face punishment. Further, this punishment was the prerequisite for the restoration of justice and righteousness. An accounting of past transgressions, a rectification of past and continuing injustice would not be spared. Only after such an accounting had been made would Yahweh replace the hearts of stone with hearts of flesh.

By contrast, declaring that we “worry less about which side has been wronged,” Obama avoided the necessary confrontation with injustice demanded by Yahweh before there could be a restoration of Israel. If we are to “worry less” about who was wronged, then as a necessary corollary, we are to “worry less” about those who perpetrated, perpetuate, and benefit from such wrongs. “Looking forward” requires a hard look “back,” for we cannot set right the wrongs of the past, wrongs that continue into our present, that continually intrude on our present, without taking full stock of these wrongs.

We cannot set such wrongs to right if we fail to examine the many ways in which the past still colors and conditions the present. If those who benefit from past wrongs are never asked to confront this past, the demand to make amends will appear to them unwarranted. Without a proper reckoning with our past, how should we expect those who benefit from this past to see the world from the point of view of those who have been victimized by it?

And what, I wonder, will those who have been victimized stand to gain by looking at the world through the eyes of those standing in the shoes of their oppressor? Should we expect any of the more than 100 unarmed black men killed by police in 2015 to have sympathized with those who killed them? Should we expect Korryn Gaines to have sympathized with the members of the Baltimore SWAT team who kicked in her door and shot her dead over parking tickets? To suggest that Korryn Gaines (or her surviving child) pray for a “new heart,” just as members of the SWAT team should have prayed for a new heart before entering her home, is to suggest that she bear the responsibility of her death equally with those who could have chosen another path, as though her hard-heartedness were equally responsible for her death.

Perhaps if Korryn Gaines could have “opened her heart” to those officers entering her home, she would have experienced the fear they felt wearing body armor with weapons fully loaded confronting a 23-year-old woman armed with a shotgun and her 5-year-old child. As Obama pointed out in his speech, “You know how dangerous some of these communities where these police officers serve are. And you pretend as if there is no context.”

That is, with an open heart, Korryn Gaines would have recognized that officers are terrified to police poor communities of color and that, perhaps, with a bit more open-heartedness, she could have reached out to them and calmed their fears, ignoring that her primary responsibility lay in protecting herself and her child. Of course, more context is required here. Yet, an honest account would suggest that Korryn Gaines had a more rationally grounded fear than did the police officers kicking in her door.

Who then should pray for an open heart? Korryn Gaines and those similarly placed, or those with the resources to effect change, but who instead act, actively or passively, to maintain the status quo, a status quo that keeps resources out of such communities? On this point, Ezekiel is clear.

Extending Obama’s charge further, we may wonder about the psychic damage done to individuals who have suffered oppression when they are told to “look forward, not back.” Frames such as these, effectively suggesting that those affected and suffering from such injustices “get over it,” not only block a full and proper accounting of historical injustices, but also suggest something is wrong with those who fail to “get over it.” Here, the duty to forgive becomes an imperative inflicted on those who have been wronged, an imperative that asks nothing of the wrongdoer — the party with the actual power in given situations.

Forgiveness may certainly be necessary if we are going to move forward as a people, and holding on to anger, even righteous anger, can be toxic to those against whom it is directed as well as to those who hold it. And the Nietzschean strength of those who sweep away all injustices done to them, “forgetting” instead of forgiving, may even be admirable. But the injunction to “look forward” goes one step further: it makes such strength a requirement of those who have suffered injuries, injuries that are not simply consigned to the past, but that continue to be repeated into the present.

Why should we not, at the very least, require a similar strength of those who perpetuate and benefit from such injustices, a strength that would manifest itself in a full accounting of histories built on oppression and moves to make amends? Without such demand, Obama’s speech adds insult to injury. Not only does it ask too little of those who perpetrate, perpetuate, and benefit from systems of oppression and injustice, it also asks too much of those who suffer, struggle, and are victimized by such wrongs.

Finally, by suggesting that the answer to racism and violence lies simply in a change of heart, Obama’s speech invites us to consider both as mere personal failings, ignoring the systemic racism and structural injustice that continue to plague American society. We are asked to view each individual as a “bad actor,” an actor who arrives on the scene fully formed, not as an individual whose actions express anything about the culture in which she moves. Without denying human agency and human responsibility, a critique that moves only at the level of the individual misses the bigger picture in assuming that individuals shape themselves independent of the culture in which they live. Even if individuals are guilty of being hard-hearted, the question remains, “what systems are in place such that hard-heartedness is created and sustained?”

Recent reporting by the US Justice Department in the wake of Freddy Gray’s death has documented the manner in which policing is carried out in poor communities of color, where members of such communities are ticketed and fined in an effort to finance local governments that have run short of other sources of income. Such harassment is not simply a matter of “hard-heartedness” on the part of individual police officers, but reflects policy decisions that reduce citizens in these targeted communities to “mere means,” denying them their inherent dignity and worth. Regardless of the state of any individual’s heart, there is a system at work that operates by denying the basic humanity of those whom it is purported to “serve and protect.” The hard-heartedness of the individual reflects the fragmentation of the whole, just as the fragmentation of the whole reflects the hard-heartedness of the individual.

Louis Colombo

  • thinkuh

    Very fine reflection.
    “Here, the duty to forgive becomes an imperative inflicted on those who
    have been wronged, an imperative that asks nothing of the wrongdoer —
    the party with the actual power in given situations.”
    The question regarding the imbalance of obligation, especially given the circumstances of Korryn Gaines and those in similar positions, makes ‘opening one’s heart’ supererogatory on the part of those on the receiving end of the pathological outcomes of fraught systems.

    But nonetheless opening one’s heart does require a great deal on the part of the instruments and agents of systemic exploitation, on the part of those carrying out the imperatives of these unjust systems.
    In a different but coexistent system, for instance, we pay people and have provided bonuses and promotions for, essentially, finding ways to minimize the cost of health care to insurance companies and their investors by denying health care coverage for individuals. Many have died from such denials, many have been bankrupted.

    In no sense is the burden of forgiveness through a new heart equivalent for perpetrators and victims. It is that much more perverse that this isn’t thematized in any serious sense in Obama’s discourse.

    But to open one’s heart to Ezekiel’s call, in the police department, or in the insurance claims game, means essentially losing one’s job, or even worse in some instances with respect to the former.
    Police officers who have gone against the ethos of the ‘blue wall of sllence’ have themselves paid the ultimate penalty.

    Also, it is not clear opening one’s heart to the police on the part of marginalized communities, in the spirit of fulfilling Yahweh’s law, would lead to any change in the behavior of the oppressor.
    There is an almost total absence of discussion as to what ‘opening one’s heart’ requires on the part of these agents, relatively well-off in most instances in comparison to those on the receiving end of the orders they carry out. Instead , Obama notably emphasizes a rhetoric that can’t help but be read as a plea for ‘cooler heads prevailing’ when the oppressed explode due to lack of other avenues for effecting change.

    That may be because opening one’s heart on the part of the instruments of oppression is to become agents actively engaged in negating, in a determinate way, the habits that have sustained them. And this is where reflection and conversion become radical. And this is why the prophetic imagination always stands as a much greater challenge to the communities it is enlisted to address than the politicians who invoke it intend it to be.
    Brendan Hogan.

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