The “We” is Greater than the “I”

[1] We are living in historic times. Two African Americans, Secretary of State Colin Powell and National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice are serving in high profile political positions within the Bush administration. I’m glad their expertise is being called upon to resolve conflicts around the world. Powell and Rice, through their highly developed skills, pry one more nail out of the box that limits African American contributions to music and athletics. In the vernacular of the African American community, “they do us proud.”

[2] Yet, we are also living in some confusing times. Many people have been lamenting a tragic incident that occurred on Chicago’s south side several weeks ago. It was another case of African American-on-African American killings. Three African American women were sitting on a porch. A rental truck suddenly veered into the porch, sending all three women to the hospital. Then a crowd of African American men pulled the driver and passenger (both African Americans) from the truck beat them to death. Subsequently, one of the young women died. Seven or eight men are now in jail on charges of murder. The police chief, ministers, and others immediately spoke out against this crime.

[3] These two events in the life of the African American community reveal a host of significant questions: Who bears the responsibility for shaping moral behavior of African American people? What role does the family play in shaping responsible moral behavior? In what ways was the church helpful in transmitting values that enhance the life of African American people and the human race generally? Does the community, in this case the African American community, bear any responsibility for shaping morality?

[4] One of the fundamental truisms of life is this: to be a human is to be a social creature. And to be a human is to be a moral creature. It is near impossible for a human to be amoral; that is, without some value system that guides who one is, who one is to be, and how one is to act. It is possible, however, for humans to be immoral. For example, in the second event mentioned above, one of our judgments would be that the men acted immorally. That judgment is based upon standards or actions we consider appropriate for relationships between people. The men are immoral because they behaved in a manner outside our conceptions of right and wrong, justice and injustice, the common good and rank individualism. The question, though, is how does one decide what is moral behavior and immoral behavior?

[5] I have always understood that the “we” is greater than the “I.” Deep in the sensibilities and ethos of the African American community is the moral principle of uplifting the race. That is to say, all moral actions are judged to be moral when they honor, support, and enhance the race. To be an African American means one belongs not just to one’s immediate family (i.e., nuclear family). One belongs to the African American community because it is presupposed that we have all been shaped by a context of racism and racial discrimination. Thus, one is expected to know and understand the history, beliefs, values, rituals, and strategies for survival of the community. The goal of morality is always what is being done to build the community.

[6] I may be more of a traditionalist these days. Many sociologists, ethicists, and political types contend that many problems in society are due to the disintegration of the family. They may be right. However, it seems to me those views depend on the worldview they bring to the analysis of the family. If one begins with understanding the family as being a “nuclear” family, there may be moral disintegration occurring.

[7] My own opinion is that when we investigate the African American family, a broader view needs to be taken. That is, family or more precisely the extended family and community are the same. The responsibility for teaching morality resides not just with parents. All members of the community: grandparents, aunts, uncles, brothers, sisters, ministers, teachers, police officers, barbers and beauticians take responsibility for shaping moral behavior. When parents for whatever reasons become dysfunctional, the community takes over.

[8] How does the African American community nurture the transmission of moral behavior? The concept of “communion of saints” which we regularly confess each time we gather as a worshiping community is useful. This phrase points to an important motto so prominent within the African American religious and theological tradition, “the kinship of all people.” Kinship, like communion of saints and the extended family, reminds us that we are all related to one another. Both concepts convey that our ancestors and our living kin play an important role is shaping who we are, who we will be, and how we are to act. There is a sense of solidarity.

[9] This is one of the gifts of the African American community to the world. It is best captured in the proverb, “I am because we are, and since we are, therefore, I am.” There is a sense of mutuality between how the community shapes the individual and how the individual shapes the community. From an ethics point of view, the individual can be formed only in community in its broadest understanding. And that means having conversations with each other.

[10] It may well be that the specific mission of the Lutheran church in its ministry with and among African American people has to be more than introducing and inculcating the Lutheran ethos. It may well be the mission of the Lutheran church to reintroduce the folks to their cultural, religious, and ethical heritage. And that means being grounded in the moral wisdom passed on through the elders, songs, sermons, poetry, and proverbs. The “We” is greater than the “I.” What do you think?

Richard J. Perry

Richard J. Perry, Jr. is Associate Professor of Church and Society and Urban Ministry at the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago. Dr. Perry is a member of the Advisory Council for the Journal of Lutheran Ethics, represents the Lutheran Ethicists Network on the Theological Roundtable, and serves as convener of the Conference of International Black Lutherans (CIBL, USA).