As a child during World War II (I was ten when the fighting ended in 1945), I took a simplified, not to say simplistic, view of that conflict: our side was right and the other side was wrong, and that being so, whatever we did to them in waging the war was ipso facto justified. That was particularly true of the Japanese, whom the comic books and wartime propaganda movies taught me to call "Japs." After all, hadn't they picked a fight with us at some place called Pearl Harbor and so come to deserve whatever we dished out in return?
In the end, this was how I thought about the atom-bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, events I regarded with satisfaction inasmuch as very many "Japs" had been killed and the end of the war hastened. Six decades later, I'm not sure which pleased me more.
These childhood memories illustrate something that I've learned all too well since then. It's easy to tolerate wrongdoing — our own or our friends' — on the grounds that, after all, we were acting in response to something that somebody else had done. It started early. The Bible reports that Adam blamed Eve for giving him the forbidden fruit.
I thought of these things as I was trying to form an opinion of Sen. Barack Obama's speech about racism in the United States. I couldn't say whether it will or won't help his political prospects, but as an exercise in moral reasoning, it raises some questions.
Obama believes racism is a very bad thing, and he speaks about it with eloquence and intelligence. He condemns racist remarks by his former pastor, Rev. Jeremiah Wright, as "not only wrong but divisive." (In passing, one might note that moral wrongness is often a far more serious matter than divisiveness — sometimes, in fact, it's the morally right thing that divides people. As Jesus said, "I have not come to bring peace, but a sword" Mt 10.34.)
But what's most problematical about the Democratic presidential candidate's remarks is his insistence on empathy toward the racists, both black and white. Obama, who calls abortion an issue of "reproductive justice" but ignores justice to the unborn child, takes an inclusive approach when the subject is race and racism. If you understand how racists got that way, he says at length, citing race-based injustices inflicted on generations of blacks and economic penalties rooted in social class suffered by many whites, you won't be too hard on them.
In fairness to Obama, it should be said that he counsels African-Americans against cultivating victimhood, ignoring their share of blame for their problems, and neglecting self-help measures to improve their condition. In the end, though, he hasn't got a lot to offer them except empathy and his cure-all remedy — "change."
Empathy has its place, but simply understanding why people do bad things isn't itself a solution, either to racism or to anything else. At some point, moreover, it is necessary to tell racists not "I feel your pain" but "Cut it out."
In this matter America's churches have a special duty — the duty of condemning the sin of racism, both white and black, not just in its historic manifestations but as it exists in many American contexts today. If one were to fault Obama, it would be for not making that point long ago to Jeremiah Wright — just as some adult should have told me when I was ten that the people who died at Hiroshima weren't "Japs" but human beings just like us.