Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Blind Spots

I had a conversation with my boss today that got me to thinking. He and I will sometimes sit and talk about life and society and God for a few minutes in the middle of a work day. It's nothing too serious, but it is almost always interesting.

The inauguration of Barack Obama brought today's conversation up. It was about blind spots. Every society has them. Every era has them. And because they are "blind spots," rarely do people recognize them for what they are: major societal moral failures.

During my time in the Georgia/Carolina area, I covered the waning months of Senator Strom Thurmond's life. By the time he died, you would be hard pressed to find a more beloved politician anywhere, and his popularity crossed all boundaries of race and social status. That's particularly amazing, considering he once ran for President on a platform of segregation. What makes it even more amazing is that at the same time he was running, he was helping to put his mixed race daughter through college. He visited her monthly and gave her the money she needed to get through school. They apparently had a very close relationship.

See, despite all of his talk about segregation, he was very integrated when it came to love. As a young man, he fathered a child with the family's African-American maid. All indications are that this was not just some fling; he apparently had very strong feelings for her, and she for him. But everything had to be kept quiet because the time they lived in just didn't allow things like that.

After Senator Thurmond died, his daughter, Essie Mae Washington-Williams, "came out of the closet," for lack of a better term, admitting to the world who she was. It was a big press conference, and I was there to cover it. Someone at the press conference asked Mrs. Williams how she reconciled his racist statements with his obvious love for her. She said that she'd once ask him, "How can you say all of those awful things on the campaign trail and then come down here and love me like this?" His answer: "That's just politics honey."

That's a profound statement. Strom Thurmond and others like him may or may not have agreed with segregation, but that wasn't the point. They knew that if they were going to get elected in the South, then they would have to embrace segregation. That is not a defense of them by any stretch of the imagination. It's just a fact. It's also a fact that many otherwise decent, Christian people were also segregationists. It's really hard to reconcile those two facts, until you understand the concept of blind spots.

I think they've existed in every society since the beginning of time. Specifically, the United States has had major blind spots through it's history, many of them related to race. It was a really disappointment for me to discover, after reading his work for years, that the great preacher Jonathan Edwards was also a slave holder. I love Edwards; he was absolutely brilliant, and on almost every other issue, the model of Christian character and morals. But he had a blind spot.

Thankfully, there are always prophets who point out a society's blind spots. William Wilberforce was one such prophet, working for decades to get slavery abolished in the British Empire, and finally achieving that goal just before he died. Martin Luther King, Jr. was one, preaching the evils of segregation with such power that his message lived on long after he had been assassinated.

So here's the question: what are this nation's blind spots now? What areas will we look back on 50 years from now with shame? What is our country doing now that will be so obviously wrong in our country's eyes years from now, but completely escapes us as a society now? And where are the prophets pointing out our sins to us? Who are they? I think if we can identify some of those things, we can go a long way toward seeing where our blinds spots are.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

May I ask if it was really a "blind spot" that prevented Christians from seeing the wrongness of owning slaves? Many, then as now, recognized the perversity of owning other people, including, of course, the slaves themselves. Don't you think that it was not his blind spot but his sin that made Edwards a slave owner?