The Common Good
January-February 2000

Separate and Equal?

by Chris Rice | January-February 2000

Are we only liberated from something or are we also liberated into something?

If you ever despair, as I often do, whether massive change for good can come through peons like us, read the book Social Movements of the 1960s for a shot of hope (by Stewart Burns, Twayne Publishers, 1990).

Maids boycotted Montgomery buses and walked to work. Children trooped past Bull Conner’s fire hoses in Birmingham. Young women at Berkeley marched against inequality and male domination. Their footsteps reverberated all the way to Washington and echoed back to change the mindset of an entire nation. Racial and gender discrimination were crippled.

However, in this otherwise stirring story there is a disturbing question—are we only liberated from something, or are we also liberated into something?

In 1966 Black Power advocates seized the reigns of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee and dishonorably discharged battle-scarred white comrades from their ranks. Until that time, two compelling ideas characterized the civil rights movement as a whole: liberating an oppressed people and building a "beloved community" between freed oppressed and redeemed oppressors. Eventually liberation alone became the dominant model for the black freedom struggle and for social movements that followed.

In 1978 secular feminist Vivian Gornick wrote that the point of the feminist movement was that every woman could define herself "in any terms she shall choose." Later, Christian feminist Elisabeth Schussler Fiorenza wrote, "àat the heart of the spiritual feminist quest is the quest for women’s power, freedom, and independence" (In Memory of Her, 1983). Today, highly influential theologians call for "women-only churches." Again, the "beloved community" seemed to get lost.

Has America moved from "separate but equal" to "separate and equal"? A glorified and replacing a disdainful but?

The "beloved community" has been banished from the garden, and a hip new orthodoxy has taken its place—group empowerment as its own end. It is disturbing when we start with a moral repugnancy for "whites only" and end up with the hipness of "women only." Men, whites, and dictators are known for seeing relationships purely in terms of power. Have the oppressed now adopted the standards of the oppressors?

AN ENORMOUS DEBT is owed "liberation alone" advocates for all they have unshackled us from—chains of superiority and inferiority, abuse, and second-class citizenship. Their profound failure, however, is in not answering what we are liberated into.

In The Moral Vision of the New Testament (HarperCollins, 1996), theologian Richard Hays argues that Christian ethics must speak of liberation "with urgent conviction," so long as we understand that the more fundamental New Testament category is not liberation, but new creation.

The call of Moses to Pharaoh, and of all liberation movements since, was "Let my people go!" Lest we interpret liberation as only "power, freedom, and independence," the "my" does not refer to Moses, but God. God didn’t let Moses stop there, but continued "...that they may serve me" (Exodus 8:1). No person or group’s freedom lies in defining themselves "in any terms [they] shall choose." True liberation comes on God’s terms, not ours.

Hays also proposes that a New Testament category more fundamental than justice is community. Exodus into the Promised Land was not chiefly to empower a disenfranchised people with a new nation-state, but for that people to become a blessing "to all nations." Divorced from the drive to community, liberation can eventually serve an untruth: The virtues of Israel’s freedom, empowerment, and "chosenness" became distorted into defects of self-indulgence and exclusion which Jesus so prophetically challenged.

After apartheid ended in South Africa, Nelson Mandela presided over a meeting where the new national anthem was being decided. While he was out of the room, the all-black group agreed to replace the Afrikaner anthem of the former white regime with the stirring hymn of the black liberation movement. When Mandela returned to the room, he was outraged. Ever since, both anthems have been played.

To detect and treat this virus within the "liberation alone" model is not to question or throw out its contributions. But Mandela kept hold of something that I think we have lost: Community does not have to be discarded on the way to liberation. The task before us is redefining liberation itself. And in this, both oppressor and oppressed stand under God’s judgment.

CHRIS RICE lived and worked in an inter-racial community in Jackson, Mississippi, for 17 years. He was co-founder of Reconcilers Fellowship and co-author of

More Than Equals: Racial Healing for the Sake of the Gospel. He is now a research fellow at Boston University’s Institute on Race and Social Division, and he lives with his family in Vermont, where he is working on another book.
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