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It seems like it has been a long journey from Jim Crow to the Party of No, but one wonders if it has really been very far.

There was a time when a good Baptist deacon would teach Sunday school the morning after wearing a white sheet on Saturday night to terrorize his neighbors with a burning cross.

There was a time when ordinary citizens stood by quietly while some of their neighbors were frightened into submission by very legal policies that restricted their access to public services and relegated them to serving the needs of a privileged few.

We celebrate our exodus from that Egypt of bondage to our own prejudice and have repented on many levels for our insensitivity and complicity with such injustice.

Prophetic voices we now claim as heroes called us as a people to live out of the deeper resources of our souls and change our society toward a better reflection of who we are.

I recently re-read Gov. George Wallace’s 1963 inaugural address, remembered mostly for its famous line: “Segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever!”

It is a splendid piece of rhetoric, by a master of the language, designed to assure and appeal to those who felt threatened by a tyrannical government bent on imposing the will of a few “communist” (read liberal socialist) elitists against the will of the American people.

The message was clear: The status quo of Jim Crow must be preserved at all costs.

But we are beyond all that now, aren’t we? Aren’t we?

We don’t lynch people any more out of retaliatory passion as a lesson to those who would step out of line and as a way to bring “closure” to a violent injury, do we? No, we make sure we do it according to the law that says we can.

We don’t relegate any of our neighbors to second-class status just because it is legal to do so, do we? We don’t break up families without regard for their well-being, do we? No, we do it because they are “illegal” and our law says we can, and should, to protect our way of life from such people.

We don’t deprive people of needed care and support just because it is likely to reduce the tax advantage of a small percentage of very wealthy people, do we? No, we do it because tax laws allow such tax breaks, and we are committed to not raising taxes under any circumstances.

The glaring line of the current deficit debate is as clear and forceful as that of Gov. Wallace nearly 50 years ago: “No tax hikes for the job creators, today, tomorrow, forever!” The status quo of the Party of No must be preserved at all costs.

Masking our prejudices with legalities that make it possible to kill people quite legally on the basis of retaliatory passion, to break up families by deportation, to deprive millions of adequate health care because the profit margins of the insurance industry require it, to weaken the collective voice of working people, to empower corporate interests to buy more political influence without limit or disclosure – these are the cancerous and crippling immoralities of our time that hide beneath the disguising sheets of “acceptable” rhetoric.

As we wring our hands at the looming deadline for raising the debt ceiling, perhaps it would be good for us to listen again to those who call upon us to look beneath the ideological white sheets that disguise our new prejudices.

We need to see our common humanity in a new generation of the human struggle. Red, blue, black, white, rich, poor, documented, undocumented – the distinctions that bring security and comfort to some, while leaving many in insecurity and despair, fade when we look through the lens of the faith we claim.

Is it time to be less concerned about our bond and credit ratings and more concerned about our soul as a national community?

Jesus told a story about a man who was prosperous and focused all his attention on building bigger barns to hold his wealth. When called upon to account for his life, the verdict was harsh: “Thou fool! … What does it profit a man to gain the whole world and lose his own soul?”

Let us hope that the brutality and suffering of that exodus a half-century ago will not be necessary again for us to hear and heed the voices that are calling us to our better selves.

Colin Harris is professor of religious studies at Mercer University and a member of Smoke Rise Baptist Church in Stone Mountain, Ga.

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