The Parable of the Young American by Courtney Napier

“17 As He was setting out on a journey, a man ran up to Him and knelt before Him, and asked Him, “Good Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?”18 And Jesus said to him,“Why do you call Me good? No one is good except God alone.19 You know the commandments, ‘Do not murder, Do not commit adultery, Do not steal, Do not bear false witness, Do not defraud,Honor your father and mother.’”20 And he said to Him, “Teacher, I have kept all these things from my youth up.”21 Looking at him, Jesus felt a love for him and said to him,“One thing you lack: go and sell all you possess and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow Me.”22 But at these words[a]he was saddened, and he went away grieving, for he was one who owned much property.”

Mark 10:17-27 NASB

There is a video circulating around social media of a white man from a wealthy neighborhood in Raleigh being interviewed. He is standing in front of National Guard tanks protecting a high-end shopping center while military helicopters fly overhead. Here’s a snippet of the dialogue.

Reporter: To see the National Guard in your backyard, what do you make of that?

Resident: It’s a 300 year problem in the making, you know? It is what it is. I’ve been watching it all week, and I knew it was coming. We gotta pay our dues, man. It’s been 300 years in the making…

Reporter:  Three hundred years in the making?

Resident: …I don’t know the exact amount of years. But, you know, you go back to slavery and…it all comes to a head.

Reporter:  What do you think it’s going to take for this city to heal from what we’re seeing, not only here, but across the country?

Resident: (Silence for 13 seconds) You know, it ain’t gonna heal tonight, it ain’t gonna heal this year, it ain’t gonna heal in 10 years. I mean, if we haven’t fixed it yet… I mean, some things can’t be fixed, I think. Sometimes you commit an act so egregious that there’s no coming back from it….

When I watched this video, the image that came to my mind was the rich young ruler in the New Testament parable. A man wants to know how to make it to Heaven and experience eternal life. Jesus asks him about the commandments, and he says he has kept them all. He’s never hurt a soul, he doesn’t lie, he respects his elders; he’s really a good person. Then Jesus says, “Go and sell all of your possessions, give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; come, and follow me.”

“At these words, he was saddened, and went away grieving, for he was one who owned much property”

The thirteen seconds of silence in that video spoke volumes to me. I wonder what was happening in his mind? What pictures were running through it? What fears? What hopes? Did he wonder what it would take to tip the scales towards justice? I imagine he was tallying the cost of restoration. When he finally spoke, he said, “Some things can’t be fixed.” It didn’t sound like an observation. It sounded like a decision.

Black people have been telling the world what it will take to fix our country broken by capitalism and white supremacy since our ancestor’s shackled feet hit our shores: Truth. Reconciliation. Reparations. This sacred trinity of healing elements has restored nations and institutions all over the world. Many know of the truth and reconciliation commissions in South Africa after Apartheid, and between Germany and Israel after the Holocaust. There are also 38 other examples in modern history. Reparations have come from  whole countries’ vast resources to those they have victimized, as well as smaller, independent institutions. One example is Georgetown University, whose campus was bought with and built by enslaved Africans. Georgetown’s president, John J. DeGioia, took many steps over four years to redeem the university’s legacy with slavery, culminating in creating a, “$27.20 per semester student fee to create a fund that would benefit the descendants through education and health care initiatives in the Louisiana and Maryland locales where many of them still live” 

There are two reasons why Americans, and white Americans in particular, have struggled and resisted the cure to our disease. One is the image we have of our collective, and individual goodness. The ideologies of American Exceptionalism and white supremacy have led many to believe that our interactions with each other and the world have been overwhelming just, moral, and benevolent. This propaganda has erased the worst parts of our history from our teaching materials and media, or misrepresented them to the point that exposure to the truth is met with outcry and disbelief. Has the United States accomplished good in the world? Certainly. But nations do self-interested good, and this country has not yet seen that ending racism is in our self-interest.

The other stumbling block to restoration is that, like the rich young man, we “own much property.” The United States, the wealthiest nation in the world, is drunk on its possessions. Most white Americans are passed out from overconsumption. Like the rich young ruler, we believe that our piles of property are not a hindrance to our goodness, but rather evidence of it. The American Dream is and has always been built on plunder. Genocide, slavery, war, Black codes, terrorism, redlining, defunding social safety nets, the prison-industrial complex, and gentrification are all rooted in capitalism and our broken, individualistic concept of ownership. At CGC, we work to combat economic isolation, to care for places and the people that belong to them, and to stitch back together groups that have forgotten that we belong to one another. We work against racism because while it still exists, we cannot achieve those goals.

This brings us back to the white resident of the rich part of town, and the answer he gave to the reporter. I believe he is wrong. The answer he gave is the decision he, along with so many other white Americans of goodwill, have made. But it is not the only possible answer. In the parable, Christ invites the rich young ruler to be liberated from the stranglehold of society’s unjust order while also teaching him how to liberate others from economic isolation — but he could not (or refused to) see it. 

Reparations and truth and reconciliation hearings are possible in the United States, and I believe we all inherently understand that this is the way to healing because it is what we teach our children. As a mother, I guide my babies to ask for forgiveness and then repair the harm. If you knocked over your brother’s glass of water, apologize, clean it up, and refill the glass. But when do the rules change? When the price tag for repair is greater than the glass of water? 

The lie that caused the rich young ruler to be saddened by Christ’s invitation is that liberty and redemption can be gained through achieving the American Dream — the accumulation of wealth and following the law. He believed that anything outside of that had no bearing on his soul’s salvation, and certainly has no effect on others. But Christ shows us that we are a body — a “living, self-organized community” using David Korten’s words – and our liberation is only achieved as a collective. The same invitation awaits the Raleigh man and all Americans: to lay down our privilege and eliminate economic isolation so that all of us might gain healing and redemption.

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