Leges Sine Moribus Vanae

http://mmicc.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/01/UPenn.gifThe Latin phrase that serves as the title of today's blog post is Penn's official motto.  Here's a blurb from the Penn website about what it means and where it comes from:

Q: What is the history and meaning of Penn's motto?
A: The motto of the University, Leges Sine Moribus Vanae, means "Laws without morals are useless (in vain)." It comes from the longer quotation from Horace, "Quid leges sine moribus vanae proficient" the sense of which is "of what avail are empty laws without (good) morals"

I first thought on this phrase during my senior year in high school, when part of my application to Penn was writing an essay about what the motto meant.  I have long forgotten what I wrote then, but have on and off thought about the motto's meaning through the years.  Today, I want to talk about what I think it means for today's pressing issues and the church's relevance and role in them.

One of the things that I think it means to be "woke" in this day and age is understanding the structural injustices that gave birth to yesterday's sins and today's inequities and that therefore must be accounted for when considering tomorrow's solutions.   And so, for instance, when one encounters gaping disparities in financial wealth and physical condition between one neighborhood and another, an informed interpretation about causes and remedies must include an awareness of the systemic racism that helped produce it, of which institutions which ought to be trustworthy, such as the federal government and large banks, were complicit.  So, to cite but one example, we are all aware of the historical practice of redlining, and the devastating and long-lasting effects it has had particularly on communities of color, and we rightly condemn any past and present manifestations of it.

When I take from Penn's motto, from Horace's quotation, is that any legislation that attempts to address, reverse, or otherwise remediate the ill effects of redlining must be accompanied by a requisite change in moral values if it is to be ultimately successful.  What do I mean by this?  When the federal government and large banks got together and decided how they would evaluate certain neighborhoods in terms of mortgage risk, their decision to do that based on race and ethnicity did not occur in a vacuum.  It was based in part on an existing climate of racism that denigrated certain communities and that preferred segregation from them. 

I am certainly not excusing redlining as a racist practice.  Nor am I saying that laws can't lead the effort in changing people's perspectives.  What I am saying is that if we are to point a condemning finger at redlining, we must also point a condemning finger at the prevailing racism that was held in the hearts of many in our nation at the time.  Redlining was, effectively, the law in this nation.  And it was birthed from a place of moral decay.  If we are to ever have any hope of reversing and redeeming these past grievances, which have caused ruin upon ruin in our communities, we must pass just laws, yes, but we must also birth justice in a million sinful hearts alongside.

Condemning past racist laws and advocating for future just laws is important and hard work.  But harder still is accepting that past racist laws were borne of our past racist society, and that future just laws don't stand a chance of making a difference if we don't fundamentally and morally change the remnant impulses of our past racist society.

There is an institution that ought to be trustworthy but has often not proven so, and that ought to be on the front lines of such a battle but often is not.  I am speaking of course of the church, which has in the past and present often been complicit in racism if not an outright conduit of racism.  For many, the church has ceded its moral authority and there is no going back. I for one have not yet lost hope.  But it will take some coming clean.  And it will take some prayer.  For that will extinguish any human, fallible aspect to the church's participation in this issue and other societal issues.  And it will give room for One who can set just laws and forge the moral setting for those laws to flourish.  He is in the business of extinguishing the moral decay that is in us that has created such division and ruin.  Will we who consider ourselves "of the church" play our part in being that proper vessel through which it - and He - can work out this important work? 

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