(A slightly modified version of “Racism and Leadership,” which was originally posted by Our Daily Bread at spiritualquesters.org)
By Rev. Christopher A. Barber
I write the following primarily from my perspective as a Swedenborgian scholar and priest, a perspective that cannot help being colored by my experience of being Black in an America still in recovery from the sickness of African slavery.
Lack of Leadership Sows Division
Growing up, I gathered the simple narrative that the civil rights movement was won on the martyrdom of Martin Luther King, Jr., and that White nationalism was a thing of the past. However, recurrent events tell me time and time again that the story ain’t that simple. The civil rights movement certainly made the case for important legislation, but the prejudice that necessitated the movement still finds a home in the hearts of so many today. The murder of George Floyd is another reminder of this deadly reality in American society. It’s bad enough to have regular everyday individuals with prejudiced perspectives leading to harmful actions; but right now at the highest levels of government in America (from the Oval Office, even), we have, at the very least, inaction and, at the very worst, encouragement of division among its people. This is cause for alarm.
The present administration’s antagonistic responses to peaceful demonstrations and its clumsy conflation of looters and peaceful protesters in the wake of Floyd’s death have me thinking back to the Charlottesville rally and riot in 2017. This contentious event, which saw the clash of White supremacists and their opponents from religious organizations and civil rights groups, centered around the potential removal of a statue of General Robert E. Lee, but it sadly ended with the death of a young woman that would later be ruled as a hate crime. Rather than taking a firm stand against White supremacy and domestic terrorism, in this case, leadership at the White House sidestepped the problem by declaring that there were good and bad elements in all parties involved.
While our nation has encouraged the heavy-handed treatment of dissident citizens in the past, the blatant disregard currently on hand demonstrates a very careless wielding of power and influence over its people. By default, the president of the United States stands in a bully pulpit, so it should be used carefully.
Swedenborg speaks to the power of the example of leadership in society with this illustration:
To the extent that we rationalize [our own evils] as permissible, we enlarge the court of our ruling love, our life’s love. Its “court” is made up of our compulsions, since they are like its servants and courtiers through which it governs the more outward activities that are its realm. The nature of the ruler determines the nature of the servants and courtiers, and the nature of the whole realm as well. If the ruler is a devil, the ruler’s servants and courtiers will be forms of madness and the general populace will be all kinds of distortion. The servants (who are called “wise” even though they are insane) use imaginary constructs and arguments based on illusions to make the distortions seem true and to be accepted as true. Is there any way to change the state of people like this except by banishing the evils from their outer self? This is how the compulsions that are inherent in our evils are banished. Otherwise, no exit is offered to the compulsions and they remain pent up like a city under siege or a sealed abscess. (Divine Providence §113, emphasis mine)
Egotistic Self-Love Is the Devil
To be clear, in no way am I calling people who hold such views devils, nor am I laying all of our current problems at the feet of this administration; they are rooted in generations of inequality, exploitation, and oppression. However, what is a devil? According to Swedenborg, there is no one “devil to whom the hells are subject” (Heaven and Hell §544). Instead, each of us can be a devil when we allow our love of self to rule. And that’s exactly what rests at the heart of racist rhetoric—the love of self. Love of self amounts to comparing all people to oneself rather than relating all people to God.
Jesus calls us to love one another as he has loved us (John 15:12). This invitation is higher than the Golden Rule, which says that we should treat each other as we would like to be treated (Matthew 7:12). Swedenborg says that loving the neighbor consists of loving the good in the neighbor, and therefore of loving the Lord in the neighbor, “because the two kinds of love are essentially one” (Divine Providence §94). In fact, Swedenborg goes so far as to say that goodness itself is our neighbor and that we can only love this neighbor to the extent that we’ve accepted goodness in ourselves: “Loving goodness in another person from goodness in ourselves is genuine love for our neighbor” (True Christianity §418).
This is why Divine Providence §113, above, talks about the need to banish evils in the outer self. Only by doing so can we make space for the Lord to instill goodness within us so that we may go on to be truly loving to others. In order to do that, we must use the Lord as our metric and reference point. Racist thinking does not do this—it looks to the self and compares all else to that self, treating anything different or in discordant variety (diversitas, in Swedenborg’s lexicon) as an enemy.
The evils characteristic of people devoted to self-love are, broadly speaking, contempt for others, envy, ill will toward those who do not agree with them, a consequent hostility, and various kinds of hatred, vengefulness, guile, trickery, ruthlessness, and cruelty. (New Jerusalem §75)
[Love of self] strives to excel others in private life and in public life, to excel them in knowledge and doctrine, and to be promoted to positions of greater importance than others, and also to greater affluence than others. . . . [Someone in this love] despises others in comparison with himself, hates those who do not hold him in esteem and so to speak adore him, and therefore enjoys the feelings of hatred that are present in revenge and cruelty. (Arcana Coelestia §3993:9)
While deep and abiding systemic racism is the current problem on our national consciousness, Swedenborg does not address it as a primary evil. Rather, the primary evils are love of the self and love of the world, and all else that is wicked and harmful stems from those two evils (Secrets of Heaven §1691, et al.). Right now, we’re seeing very real and potentially fatal troubles that are racist in presentation and that are selfish in essence.
When institutions work to cover up their abuses rather than to fix the systemic problems that led to them, it often is out of pride, fear, and ego that are connected with the love of the self. So when, for example, a police force covers for their buddy because of the “fraternal order” (brotherhood), but they forget the more important “brotherhood of man” (old-fashioned language, sorry), their behavior reminds us of what Swedenborg describes as a problem in the form of parents loving their children only because they see themselves in their children. This is not true love of another but is instead love of oneself as found in another:
When we love ourselves we also love those we see as our own, in particular our children and grandchildren, and in general everyone with whom we identify, whom we call “ours.” Loving them is loving ourselves. This is because we see them as virtually part of us and see ourselves in them. Also included in those we call “ours” is everyone who praises, honors, and reveres us. (New Jerusalem §67)
These systemic issues that are endemic to societies are macrocosms of the problems we see within individual people. What makes it so especially challenging right now is not that we have a new problem, but that we have no one speaking at the highest levels of our leadership in ways that set the national conscience. The American people currently have a president who easily peddles outlandish conspiracies and lies yet declared that he was inclined to wait for a “very full report” before he could comment on the prosecution of George Floyd’s murderer-caught-on-film.
Necessity of Government
Swedenborg makes the case for the necessity of government—without it, he says, “the human race would perish.” The government ought to have governors who “observe everything that is orderly and everything that is disorderly and to reward people who live properly and penalize people who live improperly” (New Jerusalem §312). Why did it take a national media uproar to get the murderers of Ahmaud Arbery arrested . . . two months after the murder? Why is undue force used to manage nonviolent offenders, some of whom are killed in cold blood by those charged to “protect and serve”? It is my opinion that we have a failing of government at the local level; we have a moral failing of leaders when toeing the party line (loving what is one’s own—see New Jerusalem §67, above) becomes more important than morality and legality.
Not only does Swedenborg speak to the necessity of having a civil government, he also explains why the church must govern themselves in similar fashion, with reward and punishment, guidance and regulation. For a priest, the way to do this is to “teach the truth and lead thereby to the good of life,” a motto drawn from doctrine and drummed into priests. And yet I don’t know what I’m supposed to do when the world burns. As a priest, I am a governor of the church (New Jerusalem §314). Sure, I politic and agitate for church issues behind the closed doors of clergy, but, until recently, I have refrained from speaking up more publicly when it comes to social issues. Like so many, I have been rattled from my silence.
Identification and Change
As noted, Swedenborg does not highlight racism as a primary problem of humanity, but he neglects to address human chattel slavery—both of which were active issues during his lifetime. Both were also simply accepted. The reason racism stands out today is because the light has been repeatedly shone on it. This is also how evil gets rooted out of an individual—you first have to highlight it, acknowledging that it’s an evil, and then you get to work (New Jerusalem §§159–69).
When a society identifies a problem, it then takes work to change it. This means that some people will inevitably be upset. It makes me think of the Universal Human: the New Church concept that heaven is one body and that all people in it are constituent members of that body (Heaven and Hell §§59–67). I included the quote from Divine Providence §113, above, therefore, not to trash specific individuals or actors in the present context, but instead to highlight a real problem: rooting out systemic racism and inequality is not on the executive agenda and as a result is a greater source of contention and division than it would be if the president considered it a priority. Despite this, the immune system of the United States is active; the white blood cells of activism and agitation are not only stirring, they are responding. They are making demands for the sake of social and racial health in the face of individual and institutional villainy. Hearts burn within protesters and the national fever rises.
The protests and riots can be compared to that funny feeling you get before you make the mental connection that you have caught a cold. Your body starts fighting off the sickness before your intellectual mind has realized what is happening. But this is where it gets tricky—your rational mind can sometimes sabotage your immune system and make bad decisions that run counter to what your body is trying to do. You can go for a run when really what you need is to rest. You can convince yourself that you don’t need your antibiotics anymore when really you are just on the cusp of getting better and so abandoning them now would be your undoing. So much of the tension that we are experiencing in the United States is in part the result of a moral disconnect between the priorities of the national leadership and the priorities of many people on the ground.
Where Is the Lord?
Swedenborg tells us clearly that the Lord looks beyond the moment, as his “goal concerns what lasts to eternity” (New Jerusalem §269). The Lord cannot change us as individuals in an instant (Arcana Coelestia §9587), so he cannot change our collective society in an instant either. The loves of self and of the world aren’t evil in and of themselves—we have to take care of ourselves and engage in the things of the world (New Jerusalem §97). But these loves become problematic when they become our leading priorities. This is how it is for all people from birth, so we must grow out of it. We must as individuals learn to share, to be kind, and not to stare at people just because they are different. We must learn to make sacrifices and to be okay with waiting. We must learn how to accept responsibility and to acknowledge when we are wrong.
Our limited nature is why the Lord offers us revelation—so that we can learn (Arcana Coelestia §10318). And this explains why education isn’t something that happens in a moment, with schooling taking up so much of people’s lives. Speaking from my own experience in the classroom, if I ever try to rush a lesson, I become the embodiment of haste making waste. Although the Lord looks beyond the moment, he works with us now, and he nudges and inspires us now. Even though we might get frustrated with the time it takes for meaningful change to occur, the Lord doesn’t get bogged down in the day-to-day inequalities.
This means that doing the work of governance—rewarding what is good and punishing what is bad—is left to us:
When they see evil people raised to high rank, making more money than good people, and skillfully and successfully accomplishing evil things, they say in their hearts that none of this would be happening if divine providence were operative in all the details. They fail to take into account, though, that the goal of divine providence does not concern what is momentary and transient, what comes to an end when our lives in this world cease. Rather, its goal concerns what lasts to eternity, what therefore does not have an end. Whatever has no end is real, while what comes to an end is relatively unreal. Consider, if you will, whether a hundred thousand years are anything next to eternity, and you will see that they are not. What then are the few years of our lives in this world? (New Jerusalem §269)
Progress doesn’t come easily, and it certainly hasn’t always followed a straight line:
To illustrate this by a comparison, if an archer or musketeer were to aim at a target and a straight line a mile long were drawn behind the target, then if the aim were off just a hair, at the end of that mile the arrow or ball would have strayed far from the line behind the target. That is what it would be like if the Lord did not have his eye on eternity at every moment, every least moment, in his foresight and provision for everyone’s place after death. The Lord does this, though, because to him the whole future is present, and to him everything present is eternal. (Divine Providence §333:3)
If I am perfectly honest, I feel a wretched despair in the face of our current problems. I feel lost in the question of why racism and prejudice still have such a hold on so many people. I feel helpless. Even with everything that I know about the Lord and about how he works with us, I feel like a useless member of a failing human society. Yet, I am encouraged by the protesters who have taken to the streets; the writers who have picked up the pen; the legislators who are casting a vision of a better world; and the citizens who are searching themselves to find out if there is a better way. It is at these times of personal and social temptation and trial that the Lord is able to be closest to us (Arcana Coelestia §1947). I just wish I could feel it and always believe it to be so.
I believe; help my unbelief! (Mark 9:24)
The Rev. Christopher A. Barber teaches religion at the Academy of the New Church Secondary Schools. He writes on matters of church doctrine, history, and life, and he loves to help students grasp biblical and theological concepts in the light of a New Church worldview.