In the wake of the celebration of the Supreme Court’s decision to strike down DOMA, it can be easy to forget what happened one day earlier – the nullification of the Voting Rights Act, which has protected the enfranchisement of African Americans throughout the South since 1965. The case’s plaintiff was the county where I was born and raised – Shelby County Alabama. The county that has paved the way for the disenfranchisement of African Americans throughout the South is also the same county where I learned to ride a bike, to be a decent person, to practice that special brand of hospitality that is unrivaled in the United States. And perhaps most importantly, it is also the place where I learned to be Christian – these people taught me how to love Jesus.
And yet, even with those beautiful memories, when I heard the news while in Berlin, I could only muster up one emotion – shame. Not guilt, as if I had personally brought the case to the court, but shame; the shame of knowing you come from a place that is actively trying to implement selective targeting at the polls. The shame of knowing you come from a place that is tainted, broken, and twisted by the hate it clings to.
Living in Boston, Massachusetts for the past two years has given me a unique perspective on Shelby County’s brokenness and how it has profoundly affected me. You see, I can never escape where I’m from. I have a deep Southern accent that is impossible to miss. Indeed, it is the first thing that people notice about me; Shelby County Alabama has stamped me forever with its seal. My first encounters with people inevitably leave them thinking that I am something I am not (being Baptist does not help the situation much, either), and I have to work very hard to earn people’s trust, especially people who have been harmed by people with accents like mine.
My experience of becoming aware of my accent and how that marks me left me groping for a language to describe this experience. Turning to my own tradition, I began to realize that the concept of original sin might be of some help. This may come as a surprise, since the term “original sin” carries with it quite a bit of baggage and can sometimes do more harm than good. But when I found it defined by the great 20th-century German theologian Dorothee Sölle in her Thinking About God, I realized how perfect it was for describing my problem: “what is meant [by original sin] is that we are born into conditions in which we do not cause sin but already live in sin.” I had no more chosen to be born in Shelby County than I chose to be brown-eyed, and yet I still carry around with me that place, with all its problems and beauty. I was born into structures of oppression that I did not create, and yet I am also responsible for my participation in those structures.
But where does that leave me? If there is sin, where is the grace that I so desperately need as a seventh-generation Alabamian, whose family lost many members fighting for the Confederacy? Can I ever be made whole from that legacy, or will it haunt me? For me, the only grace I have been able to find is participating as an ally in the struggles of oppressed people. Whether that is the battle for rights of Temp Workers in Massachusetts, the empowerment of queer people in Baptist congregations, or speaking out against racist policies in my home county, it is my attempt to work out my own salvation with fear and trembling. When I take the backseat and let myself be told how to be an ally, I feel the grace and empowerment I need to resist a vicious legacy. I have life and I have it more abundantly. I can finally begin to hear the divine’s voice in my heart instead of my grandfather, or his grandfather’s. Is it perfect? No. Do I make mistakes at living out this ethic? Absolutely. But, as far as I can see, it represents the only way to escape my legacy.
Who knows? Maybe there are other people from Shelby County and the Deep South in general who have come to realize that Jesus Christ did not come to protect their white privilege – he came to save them from it. Maybe there are others who are tired to participating in the structures of sin they were born into. Maybe there are some Christians in all those lily-white Baptist and Methodist churches I grew up in. I think there just might be, and I pray I am right.
If they exist, then today is a time for lamenting with sackcloth and ashes, but tomorrow we will have to do more. Tomorrow, it’s time to organize. Tomorrow, it’s time to risk it all. Tomorrow is a day for costly grace.
President LBJ Signing the Voting Rights Act
Source: The U.S. National Archives (Attribution via Flickr Commons)