I have been struck in this new year by the reactions to the recently released movie Selma. There has been a palpable recognition by those of who have seen it, that “the more things change, the more they stay the same.” Many have wondered if they are watching about events some 50 years ago, or events some five months ago in Ferguson. The question is why do we remain trapped in this same cycle of sin, where we are alienated from the god who is freedom and thus alienated from our own humanity.
While the answer to this question is complex, one of the reasons we remain trapped in this cycle of sin is because of the way we deny the past and dismiss the future. I have no doubt that until we hold ourselves morally accountable to our past and dare to take prophetic responsibility for our future, then our present realities will continue to be defined by the worst of who we are and not the best of who god calls us to be.
Moral accountability is about claiming the past that is god’s in our lives and then holding ourselves accountable to that divine past in our very present living. Moral accountability is, therefore, not about ignoring our past but rather about sitting with it, even when it is difficult and uncomfortable to do so; to listen to and even be critiqued by it in order to discern the movement of god in it. For, it is the past that is god’s that we are to claim and be accountable to in our very present. The past that is god’s is marked by freedom—freedom from any kind of “yoke of slavery” that prevents people from living into the fullness of whomever it is that god has called them into life to be. The god that calls us into life is a god that calls into freedom.
This is what the past that is god’s as witnessed to in the Judeo-Christian tradition through the Exodus and the Crucifixion-Resurrection events, makes clear to us. And, this is the past that we are morally accountable to in our very present. God’s past is a past of freedom, a freedom from all of the “principalities and powers” of our world that would prevent us from living fully into the life that is god’s gracious and loving gift to each of us. To live fully into the present that is ours to live is for us to maintain a moral accountability to the past that is our god’s by freeing ourselves from any prejudices, biases, stereotypes, fears, attitudes, practices and/or circumstances that prevent us or others from living fully into the very people that god has given us life to be.
The Apostle Paul puts it this way in his letter to the Galatians, “It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery.” Enslaved African American’s testified to their own moral accountability when they sang, “Oh freedom, oh freedom over me, and before I be a slave, I’ll be buried in my grave and go home to my Lord and be free.”
To live fully in the present also requires a prophetic responsibility to the future. Prophetic responsibility means that we are to live in our present not according to the way things are, but according to the way things are going to be. Put simply, our present living should reflect nothing less than a glimpse of the future that is god’s. This means our principles, our values, our standards of right and wrong, of decency and honor, of justice and peace—essentially the ways in which we conduct our lives—should reach beyond the standards and ways of our nation and our world and instead reach upward to the standards of god and god’s future.
These are standards that are marked by what theologian Howard Thurman might call a “sympathetic understanding.” Such an understanding allows us to see ourselves in the face of others; it is allows us to recognize that every one has a body that must be cared for, every single person has a heart that can be broken, and every human being has a soul that cries out for love. If we are to live fully into our present then we must maintain a prophetic responsibility to god’s future; and thus, in all of comings and goings, in big and small ways, be a witness on earth to god’s future where all people are respected as the sacred children of god that they are.
After watching Selma, I shook my head in dismay if not despair. For I knew that until we as a people, as a nation, hold ourselves morally accountable to the past that is Selma- which means nothing less than being prophetically responsible to the future which the freedom fighters of Selma gave their lives for- then the sin that was Selma will always be a part of our present.
Kelly Brown Douglas is the Susan D. Morgan Professor and Director of Religion at Goucher College. Author of several books including Stand Your Ground: Black Bodies and the Justice of God (Forthcoming Orbis, Spring 2015).