There is a story in the Jewish Talmud about planting trees. A sage is walking along the road and sees someone planting a carob tree. The sage asks the person, “How long will it take for this tree to bear fruit?”
“Seventy years,” replies the gardener.
The sage then asks: “Are you so healthy a person that you expect to live that length of time and eat its fruit?”
The gardener answers: “I found a fruitful world, because my ancestors planted it for me. Likewise I am planting for my children.” (Talmud Ta’anit 23a)
This simple story is about hope and stewardship of the world gifted to us by those who came before, but it raises a question for me. If I went out this afternoon and planted a fruit tree, would there be anyone around to eat the fruit in seventy years? It may seem a long time away to the young, but to someone who is seventy it is the blink of an eye.
The first time I remember reflecting on the counter intuitive idea that not knowing is a gift was while visiting my father in the hospital. He had been there for a while suffering from kidney disease. It had been difficult to watch his decline. He had lost his appetite, but I convinced him to put in a feeding tube over his reservations to give the doctors time to work out an effective treatment. On a visit one evening he was more alert and engaged than he had been for some time. We had an amazing conversation about the past, present and future. I left that evening full of hope that we had turned a corner. I returned early in the morning only to learn he had died an hour before my arrival. I was devastated and full of guilt that I had not stayed through the night with him if I had only known. It would take a while but I eventually came to understand not knowing had been a gift. That last conversation would have been very different if I had known. It would have been shaped by death. Instead it was full of life and one of my most treasured memories.
I wonder how many of you think like I have done for too much of my life that you are not creative. I’m not sure where I got the idea I wasn’t. After all, when I was in fifth grade Mrs Stapleton took her class to a clay pit. We had to dig up a shovelful. Grind it with a pestle and mortar. Filter it through ever finer wire screens until we had a pile of clay powder. Then we took our efforts back to the class room where she had set up a potter’s wheel. After we soaked our clay to make it malleable, she demonstrated how to use the wheel. Looked easy, but as we tried to turn our lump of clay into art, we learned it wasn’t, at least for me. My attempt at a vase was hardly a thing of beauty. It had no symmetry and a noticeable lean to the left. Then we had to glaze it. My lack of skill did little to turn it into a Grecian urn. I couldn’t help but compare it to those of my classmates. I was embarrassed by my efforts compared to theirs. After glazing them, Mrs Stapleton took them to be fired in a pottery kiln. When she returned the final products to us, she apologised that mine had been left in the kiln too long. The glaze had burned and curled. But she then praised the vase for its distinctive beauty. She would later submit it to the county fair art competition. It received a ribbon. Upon its return from the fair, it resided on the family mantlepiece for years, no longer a vase, but an objet d’art.
The answer to whether or not racism is curable is “maybe”. Scientists are working on it, but they aren’t there yet. But they do know a few prerequisites. Racism is what Rudyard Kipling coined as “the white man’s burden.” Not just for Trump supporters and people who dress up in bedsheets but all white people, even for Unitarians in their predominantly white faith movement with their first three principles which are the antidote to racism.
If you’re white you are subject to white consciousness, what Unitarian Charles Alexander describes as moderate white supremacy. “Moderate White Supremacy is systemic, invasive, and self-perpetuating, continually prioritising White cultural values and interests above those of marginalised people of colour. It permeates and corrupts our practices, systems and institutions, even corrupting the reforms we institute to bring about equality.” As a black man Alexander points out that it is the white people’s burden to cure themselves.