He began his sweeping panorama of our history in a most extraordinary way. He posed on the very first page three probing “fundamental questions” about the United States:
“First, can a nation rise above the injustices of its origins and, by its moral purpose and performance, atone for them? Second, “In the process of nation-building, can ideals and altruism – the desire to build the perfect community – be mixed successfully with acquisitiveness and ambition, without which no dynamic society can be built at all?” And third, “…Americans originally aimed to build an other-worldly “City on a Hill,” but found themselves designing a republic of the people, to be a model for the entire planet. Have they made good their audacious claims?”
As we enter year 15 of this new century, Johnson’s questions still stand before us.
Despite a stock market surging to record highs, a sense prevails that something is very wrong in America.
Big and troubling questions regarding issues of race and law enforcement stand before us.
Gallup shows a precipitous drop in opinion of non-white Americans regarding the ethical standards of police. Latest polling shows that only 23 percent of non-white Americans rate the standards of honesty and ethics of police officers high or very high, down 22 points from 45 percent in 2013.
Certainly it is not a sign of national health when a large portion of our population feels disenfranchised and vulnerable to what they perceive as arbitrary and capricious behavior, sometimes deadly, by those whose job it is protect and serve.
We must ask, however, to what extent this phenomenon is a symptom of something bigger.
Today’s black sense of vulnerability is different from what it was in the past.
Black vulnerability in the past was the result of inadequate legal protections. Blacks’ historical struggle was about recognition of their essential humanity and equal rights and protections as citizens under the law of the land.
Today’s crisis is less about absence of legal protections but rather police operating in a nation where legal reality is increasingly dictated by politicians and unions rather than moral and constitutional clarity.
Clearly specific issues of police behavior need to be examined.
But we need to consider at the same time increasing politicization of the law across the board. Local law enforcement arbitrariness must be seen as symptomatic of arbitrariness at higher levels.
Consider that just recently our president waved a wand and made 5 million individuals who arrived in our country illegally, legal.
Or consider that according to the Congressional Budget Office, 90 percent of those without health insurance will not pay the fines dictated by the Affordable Care Act because of waivers coming from the same sources that inspired the act to begin with.
Or consider that the IRS, whose job it is to collect taxes, has been turned into a political tool by those in power to pursue those they wish to harass.
America was founded as a nation under God. The whole idea was that there are prior truths originating from our Creator and the role of government is to secure these truths and protect citizens.
When the job of government is no longer to protect you, but tell you where you can send your child to school, what that child can learn, what kind of health insurance you can buy, what employers can pay you, who you can hire and fire, where you can live if you are poor, how to save for retirement, you have already lost control over your life.
When we give power to the wrong people for the wrong reasons, we reap what we sow.
Let’s pray for 2015 to be a year where we see our challenges as moral rather than political.
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