On the occasion of Malcolm X’s birthday

by Ken Sehested

There was a period of years, decades ago, when I experienced a crippling sense of personal shame and social despair when realizing my own complicity in systemic racism. The shame wasn’t because I had enslaved anyone; or had committed blatant acts of discrimination.

It was because I realized how clueless I was. And if I was this clueless in this regard, chances were I was equally clueless about a whole range of other forms of unconscious bias.

Simultaneously I feared that the same applied to larger society, that we as a people were also structurally complicit, trapped in a naiveté that prevented us seeing the truth about our wounded history that continues to color current behavior.

There came a time, though, when, in quick succession, I came across quotes from three of my heroes that bore me up from the sloughs of shame and despair. Not to make me innocent, but to allow me to be responsible, able-to-respond, freed from humiliation’s disabling power to move forward with courage and perseverance for the work of repair.

The first liberating quote is from James Baldwin, writing in “My Dungeon Shook: Letter to My Nephew on the One Hundredth Anniversary of the Emancipation.”

“There is no reason for you to try to become like white people and there is no basis whatever for their impertinent assumption that they must accept you. The really terrible thing, old buddy, is that you must accept them. And I mean that very seriously. You must accept them and accept them with love. For those innocent people have no other hope. They are, in effect, still trapped in a history which they do not understand; and until they understand it, they cannot be released from it.”

The second quote is from Maya Angelou.

“Forgive yourself for not knowing what you didn’t know before you learned it,” and “Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better.”

Finally, one from Malcolm X himself.

“Don’t be in such a hurry to condemn a person because he doesn’t do what you do, or think as you think. There was a time when you didn’t know what you know today.”

Each of these are grace notes, hopeful disclosures, stemming from the pivotal word embraced by people of faith: Repentance is not for punishment but for the power of beginning again. Not with a clean slate—we will ever bear our scars. And certainly not as a one-off occasion: Penitential living is a daily commitment and a life long process.

But the goodness of the Good News is that we can begin again, we can orient ourselves and our society toward the holiness which radiates neighborliness, restoring right relations and just kinship and social policies, knitting together the warp of Heaven with the woof of Earth.

Only by such grace-impelled, hope-provoked work—and it is laborious, sometimes sweaty, difficult, persevering, frustrating work—can we be saved.

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