We all know by now that David Brooks feels most comfortable atop his perch where he can pontificate about what is wrong with the rest of us. But his column titled What Is Your Purpose? really is peak Brooks. In it, he laments the “good old days” when our elders would lead us to discussions about the important questions in life.
Every reflective person sooner or later faces certain questions: What is the purpose of my life? How do I find a moral compass so I can tell right from wrong? What should I do day by day to feel fulfillment and deep joy?
As late as 50 years ago, Americans could consult lofty authority figures to help them answer these questions…
Public discussion was awash in philosophies about how to live well. There was a coherent moral ecology you could either go along with or rebel against.
All of that went away over the past generation or two.
Oh puhleeze! Whenever someone starts pining for the “good old days,” it’s a pretty safe bet that they’re missing what’s going on today. This is why I found Matthew Pratt Guteri’s response at the New Republic to be so interesting.
It was striking to read these words in the midst of our robust, collective dissection of the police killings of Freddie Gray, Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, and Walter Scott. These deaths have prompted a very public discussion about America as an ideal, a polity, and indeed as a state of life. And that discussion has its own set of core questions—guiding questions that are quite different than those asked by David Brooks. For instance: Can a system be considered just if it disproportionately polices and punishes—and even murders—its poorest and the most marginalized citizens?
There is no absence of public morality. For everyone who reads a newspaper, or who browses the web, or who watches a morning news show, our regular conversations these days are fundamentally about moral questions. And in our conversations we are guided by the extraordinary public writing of Charles Blow, Ta-Nehisi Coates, Jelani Cobb, Brittney Cooper, Jamil Smith, Teju Cole, and many, many others.
I found it a bit disappointing that from there, Guteri goes into a discussion about the forums for these discussions (as does Brooks) rather than focus on what seemed obvious to me. Where Brooks fails is in what he includes/excludes as part of a “coherent moral ecology.”
Back in the “good old days” as defined by Brooks, all of the authority figures he points to as guiding our moral discussions were white, and – with one exception – men. It’s interesting to me that the end of those days started about the same time figures like Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. came on the scene to start a whole new conversation about morality – and a movement to grant civil rights to African Americans. So it’s no wonder that he doesn’t see today’s conversations (and movements) related to #BlackLivesMatter as part of a moral question. The simple truth is that it is not a moral question for him…a white guy.
One has to wonder whether Brooks would see a moral conversation in Franklin Graham’s Facebook post about the issue of black men being shot by police.
Listen up–Blacks, Whites, Latinos, and everybody else. Most police shootings can be avoided. It comes down to respect for authority and obedience. If a police officer tells you to stop, you stop. If a police officer tells you to put your hands in the air, you put your hands in the air. If a police officer tells you to lay down face first with your hands behind your back, you lay down face first with your hands behind your back. It’s as simple as that. Even if you think the police officer is wrong—YOU OBEY. Parents, teach your children to respect and obey those in authority. Mr. President, this is a message our nation needs to hear, and they need to hear it from you. Some of the unnecessary shootings we have seen recently might have been avoided. The Bible says to submit to your leaders and those in authority “because they keep watch over you as those who must give an account.”
And the letter a group of evangelical pastors and leaders sent in response. I can’t quote the whole thing, but this is how it ends.
For the past nine months, many of your fellow Christian clergy have been engaged in sorrowful lament, prayerful protest, spirit-led conversations, and careful scriptural study to discern a Godly response to these inequitable racialized outcomes within America’s justice system. We have wrestled with God like Jacob, begging God to bless us with peace in our streets and justice in our courts.
Rev. Graham, as our brother in Christ and as a leader in the church, we forgive you and we pray that one day you will recognize and understand the enduring legacy of the institution of race in our nation.
Now is the time for you to humbly listen to the cries of lamentation rising nationwide. We do not expect you to be an expert in racial issues, police brutality, or even the many factors that go in to our complicated and unjust criminal system. We do, however, expect you to follow the example of leaders and followers of Jesus throughout the scriptures and modern history. We expect you to seek wise counsel and guidance first from those who bear the weight of the injustice and second from other experts in the field.
Ultimately, we invite you to join us in the ongoing work of the ministry of reconciliation.
That, Mr. Brooks, is what it means to have a moral conversation in America today. It is only your white privilege that keeps you from seeing it as such.