[From the archives. This first appeared as a guest post on Natasha Robinson’s blog.]
“I hear you don’t like Mexicans.” He looked angry.
“What?” I stood at my high school locker late that afternoon, the halls empty but for me and my accuser.
“I heard you said you don’t like Mexicans.”
He leaned in, taller, stronger, threatening. It didn’t take much to be taller and stronger than me. I was a shrimpy freshman. It didn’t take much to threaten me either. I was also a wimpy freshman.
“I didn’t say that.” All I wanted was to convince this guy not to hit me. It looked like he was going to anyway. “If I said something wrong, I’m sorry.”
He still looked ready to punch me. I didn’t like getting punched. It invariably hurt and I invariably cried. Crying in high school in the 70s was not a way to lose your reputation as a wimp. Probably still isn’t.
“What are you doing?” The voice came from behind me, up over my head. It was an older student, a junior, another person who looked Hispanic. He wasn’t talking to me.
“This guy said he doesn’t like Mexicans.”
“I didn’t say that.” My voice went up a couple octaves. That’s how wimpy freshmen sound when they’re scared. But I kept going. “I told him I was sorry if I said something wrong, but I didn’t say that.”
I kept thinking how much it was going to hurt when they started punching me.
The junior said, “Leave him alone. He apologized.”
“But he …”
“It’s over. Leave him alone.”
My accuser left, then the older kid walked on. I closed my locker and walked down the empty hallway to the bike racks and went home.
I avoided being beaten up for something I didn’t do. Not everyone does.
In Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin there’s a scene where one of the young slaves, a thirteen year old boy, is accused of mishandling a horse. His twelve year old owner is incensed and becomes violent when the young slave tries to explain:
Henrique struck him across the face with his riding-whip, and, seizing one of his arms, forced him on to his knees, and beat him till he was out of breath.
“There, you impudent dog! Now will you learn not to answer back when I speak to you? Take the horse back, and clean him properly. I’ll teach you your place!”
Tom, older and trusted by his own master, explains that the horse was acting up on its own. The daughter of Tom’s owner, the girl Eva, hears and sees it all.
“How could you be so cruel and wicked to poor Dodo?” said Eva.
“Cruel,—wicked!” said the boy, with unaffected surprise. “What do you mean, dear Eva?”
“But you beat him,—and he didn’t deserve it.”
“O, well, it may go for some time when he does, and don’t get it. A few cuts never come amiss with Dodo,—he’s a regular spirit, I can tell you; but I won’t beat him again before you, if it troubles you.”
Being punished for something you didn’t do and considering it fair because there might be something you later do wrong that could go unpunished doesn’t really square the balance sheet.
Justice, Justice Shalt Thou Pursue
I put a screen saver on a computer I use at work: “Justice, justice shalt thou pursue.” It’s from Deuteronomy 16:20, part of a sermon Moses delivered to the Israelites on how to conduct themselves in the new land. Here’s the context:
Appoint judges and officials for each of your tribes in every town the Lord your God is giving you, and they shall judge the people fairly. Do not pervert justice or show partiality. Do not accept a bribe, for a bribe blinds the eyes of the wise and twists the words of the innocent. Follow justice and justice alone … . (Deuteronomy 16:18-20.)
It’s not a bad set of instructions for me to keep in mind whenever I take the judicial bench.
It’s also not bad for us to keep in mind as we pursue God’s justice. After all, Isaiah had strong words for those who thought participating in religious rituals like fasting was all it took to follow God:
Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen: to loose the chains of injustice and untie the cords of the yoke, to set the oppressed free and break every yoke?
Is it not to share your food with the hungry and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter—when you see the naked, to clothe them, and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood?” (Isaiah 58:6-7.)
When Stowe wrote Uncle Tom’s Cabin, she was doing what she could to break yokes – literal yokes that slaves wore. Her work moved a nation.
When that high school junior stood behind me and told my accuser, “It’s over. Leave him alone,” he set me free from the fear I had of being beaten up for something I didn’t do. His worked moved an accuser to walk away.
This is God’s work. As Jesus announced:
“The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” (Luke 4:18-19.)
Now we get to join him in his work.
There are more captives to be set free.
[This is the second post in a two-part series on race and slavery. Part one appeared last Wednesday: When Lincoln Told Slave Owners They Should Try It For Themselves.]