New York Times op-ed: What Makes Us All Radically Equal, by David Brooks:
It’s not our brains and it’s not our bodies. [It's our souls].
I see these messy clash-ups across the country, wherever people are trying to do racial reconciliation. You realize that coming together across race is not a neat two-step process: truth and reconciliation. It’s an emotionally complex, thousand-step process, with moments of miscommunication, resentment and embrace. This is the hard process of trying to see each other across centuries of wrong.
The somewhat comforting truth is that it’s always been like this. When you read David Blight’s brilliant biography of Frederick Douglass, for example, you see that Douglass passed through exactly these many moods in dealing with his countrymen of another race — moments of fury and harmony, despair and hope.
Sometimes he was disgusted with America. “I have no love for America, as such,” he once said. Other times he was enraptured: “I am an American citizen. In birth, in sentiment, in ideas, in hopes, in aspirations and responsibilities.
Douglass’s genius was his ability to balance his indignation at oppression with his underlying faith in the American project. In his speeches he would praise his white audiences in one movement and thunder condemnation in the next. In an 1876 speech about Abraham Lincoln, he both condemned and complimented the man who inspired and infuriated him: “Viewed from the genuine abolition ground, Mr. Lincoln seemed tardy, cold, dull and indifferent; but measuring him from the sentiment of his country … he was swift, zealous, radical and determined.”
Douglass could withstand all the ups and downs, all the ambivalences, because of an unchanging underlying belief: in the natural rights of all humankind.
He constantly returned to the core belief of America’s founding in 1776, that we are endowed by our creator with certain unalienable rights. Slavery and racism were not just wrong — they betrayed the divine natural order of the universe. Douglass had an underlying faith in the providence. Justice would eventually triumph. The “laws which govern the moral universe,” he said, would make it so.
And here we get to the nub of what sustained Douglass and what sustains people today as they do this work. It is the belief that all humans have souls. It is the belief that all people of all races have a piece of themselves that has no size, weight, color or shape, but which gives them infinite value and dignity.
It is the belief that our souls make us all radically equal. Our brains and bodies are not equal, but our souls are. It is the belief that the person who is infuriating you most right now still has a soul and so is still, deep down, beautiful and redeemable. It is the belief that when all is said and done all souls have a common home together, a final resting place as pieces of a larger unity.
When people hold fast to their awareness of souls, then they have a fixed center among the messiness of racial reconciliation and they give each other grace. If they lose the concept of the soul, they’ve lost everything.