I’m no fan of Toni Morrison, but every so often she demonstrates that she knows the turn of a good phrase. In a recent interview she spoke of “lived wisdom.” She says we can rely on the wisdom of the elderly, because, “It’s not the book learning, it’s the lived wisdom.”
As a person being dragged forward into a place where someone might consider me “elderly,” I’m highly interested in the possibility that I have some “lived wisdom” that will give me credibility. However, I look at Ms. Morrison herself, seeking the evidence of “lived wisdom” during her 84 years on the earth, and I wonder.
For starters, there is her interview for The Telegraph in which Morrison said, “I want to see a cop shoot a white unarmed teenager in the back.” It is hard to imagine a more depraved worldview than that. Coming so close on the heels of the Michael Brown case, it is worth noting that Michael Brown, an unarmed black man, attempted to arm himself by grabbing the police officer’s gun, and that he was not shot in the back. However, it is not a healthy approach to a problem that even looks remotely like police malfeasance to suggest that it is important to get even by shooting someone who is innocent in order to balance the demographics. Such a statement does not make me believe that Toni Morrison has some “lived wisdom” we should probe for guidance in righting wrongs of any kind.
The problem she complains of has yet to be defined in any meaningful way. It cannot actually be said that anyone has approached her allegation dispassionately, with a commitment to the truth. Her allegation is a repeat of an allegation expressed in a variety of ways, but at the bottom is a will to believe that police do not do their jobs with integrity if a black person is in sight. The lack of real facts presented in an orderly fashion is something that makes it difficult even to converse about the alleged problem.
More importantly, however, no such problem has ever in all of history been solved by getting even. Anyone can read the story of the Balkans, the Alsace-Lorraine area between Germany and France, and the frontier warfare with the Indians and discern that getting even never helps. In fact, nobody ever thinks that he has gotten even. They intend to get even plus a little more, and the loser in the conflict simply wants to do the same thing in return. From verbal jabs to nuclear warfare, the attempt to “get even” is a guarantee that the problem being fought about will never be resolved.
It is, therefore, safe to say that even if a cop does shoot an unarmed white man in the back, the problem of law enforcement in a culture of many skin colors will not be solved. I contend that there is only one solution for the tension between black people and white people and police officers and civilians: forgiveness. It must come packaged with amendment of life on all sides, but before anything else comes forgiveness. Only forgiveness pulls the poison that yearns to inflict as much grief as has been endured, plus a little more for the insult. Forgiveness allows the parties to the discussion to stand on level ground and deal with each other as fellow humans, not representatives of “races.”
By the way, on the subject of race, Ms. Morrison did say something wise. She said, “Race is the classification of a species. And we are the human race, period.” I’ll buy that. In fact, when anyone asks my race, that is how I answer: human. I refuse to identify otherwise, because the whole notion of racism is based on the false premise that skin color actually has something to do with the quality of the individual. Skin color, or various physical traits, are utterly meaningless with regard to the value of one human being compared to another.
Knowing human beings as I do, because of wisdom acquired through living many years on the earth, I know without fear of error that every police department could be better. The officers could be more honest, and they could do a better job of preparing for each day’s work. They could show better attitudes, more intelligence, and a few social graces that might smooth troubled waters in some disputes. But I do feel confident of two things: 1) for some officer to shoot an unarmed white man in the back will not help anything, and 2) for whole communities and the police to forgive each other will not hurt anything. I recommend the second choice.
The nation of South Africa endured years of violence and abuse in the name of a policy they called “apartheid.” When in God’s wisdom the time came for that policy to end, Desmond Tutu headed up a group called The Truth Commission. In his book No Future Without Forgiveness, Tutu chronicles the work of that commission and the impact on the nation of focusing on speaking truth and forgiving one another. The book makes it very clear that the right kind of leaders can actually lead a nation to confront the evil and turn away from it together— even a nation fractured by problems dramatically more violent and abusive than anything ever seen in the US. It was not accomplished by encouraging a police officer to shoot a white man in the back. It was accomplished by encouraging a nation of human beings to forgive one another. Would that this idea were to well up through Toni Morrison’s “lived wisdom.”