Jonathan Engel, J.D. is the President of the Secular Humanist Society of New York. Here we talk about American social issues.
*Interview conducted on June 15, 2020.*
Scott Douglas Jacobsen: Today, we are going to talk about a letter to the editor of The New York Times by you. What was the instigation for it? What did you state in regards to rage?
Jonathan Engel: I was talking about the Bible more. There was an opinion piece in The New York Times called “What the Bible has to Say About Black Anger” by Esau McCaulley. He is an Assistant Professor of the New Testament at Wheaton College and a priest in the Anglican Church. He talked about the anger African Americans and others feel in the United States around police brutality and racial discrimination.
But The New York Times is kind of my hometown paper. Although, it considers itself to be an international media outlet as opposed to a local media outlet. It is the local paper for me. So, again, this person talked about what the Bible says about rage. It was a communication to Christians. It didn’t have a bad intent.
The intent, I think, was to talk to Christians and have them understand the rage that many of their fellow citizens are feeling right now involving issues around policing, racism, etc. So, in and of itself, I don’t think or consider this a bad person or what he wrote bad, but I don’t understand why anybody would look that particular book about anything that’s happening today – for inspiration about anything happening today.
One of the first things I look at it. Which Bible? When the phrase, “The Bible,” is used by a Christian, they assume their Bible is the Bible used by everyone. The Jewish Bible is different than the Christian Bible. Other holy texts are different. With the title of the article, what the Bible says about rage, it assumes everybody, “Yes! The Christian Bible…” The version of the Protestants is different than the Catholics. I am not sure what he is getting at there.
Also, something more pertinent, the ongoing racial problems that the United States has had over… always had, since Europeans came to these shores. The issues regarding, specifically, black people or African Americans stem from slavery. That’s how black people from African descent got to this country. They were brought here as slaves.
My question, “Why would you look for inspiration about how to deal with an injustice that was ignited by slavery or the belief that it is okay for one human being or own another human being? Why would you look for inspiration on how to deal with that to a book that says in many cases, ‘Slavery is okay’?” That’s illogical. It doesn’t make sense.
I wrote to the Times today. Again, it goes into the entire idea that somehow religion is a positive thing as opposed to sometimes a positive and sometimes a negative thing while looking at it objectively. There is no objective looking at religion, except for you and me [Laughing]. That’s why we do this. There’s no objective looking at religion as to whether it is good or bad because it is an assumption that it must be for the good. For what reason? I don’t know.
That’s the point. Why would you look to a book saying, “Slavery is okay,” when the book endorsed it?
Jacobsen: How has slavery played itself out into the current day? In that, American society has it off the books. It is no longer formalized. Yet, the manifestations of different outcomes over generations comes forward to the present day.
Engel: You can see it in how post-Civil War race relations in the United States played out. There is one of my favourite books of all time. The name of the book, winning a Pulitzer Prize for history, was called The Warmth of Other Suns by Isabel Wilkerson. In that book, the author talks about the Great Migration of African Americans from the South to points North and West from about 1900 through about 1975 or so, 1970 or so. So, the book is fantastic. You get a real picture of what life was like in the Jim Crow South for African Americans during that period, because you’re talking about the story of people leaving.
You start with ‘Why?” What made them make ths journey, which for many of them was very perilous in many ways, also, it was to places where blacks weren’t exactly welcome. Even in the North and in the West, it wasn’t as bad as the Jim Crow South, but it wasn’t a panacea of racial brotherhood either. So, you see for a lot of black people living in the South during this period. There was no more slavery. The Constitution had outlawed it.
However, life was not a whole lot better for them compared to under slavery.
There is the use of the police to enforce racial discrimination. All of this is post-slavery and early 1900s in the U.S. Many former slaves became sharecroppers, essentially staying on the land in the South where they had been slaves or their parents had been slaves – and having some sort of deal, not a very good one, with the person who owned the land who was always white.
So, the sharecropper, they were allowed to be on the land. The owner of the land would give them certain seeds to plant and things like that. In exchange for that, they would take a whole bunch of the crops with barely enough to subsist on. At the end of the year, they would total it all up asking, “Who owes who what? I gave you those crops and this stuff.”
Interestingly enough, it was always the black sharecropper who owed money. If they thought, “I want to leave. I have had enough of this.” The police would come, “You can’t leave.”
Jacobsen: That’s crazy.
Engel: This is a civil matter. This shouldn’t be a legal matter. But the police were a tool to enforce racism. This is post-slavery, etc. I think in coming forward to today; that’s what a lot of African American people in this country believe is happening in this country with good evidence. That the police are still being used as an instrument of the racial order, which keeps them at the bottom.
I think that’s an important factor to keep in mind when we looking at the unrest and the protests in cities today with regard to the police – all over the country too. It has been a function of the police for those sharecropping days in the country. The police have been used to enforce racial segregation and in hiring, etc.
That’s where you see this coming from slavery, where slavery is still something that affects this country. If it wasn’t for religion, for the fact that it was a religious term in many ways, I would echo what many say when they say slavery is America’s “original sin.”
Jacobsen: Two points of contact there for me. One is the comedy special entitled “8:46” released by the prominent American comedian Dave Chappelle who is carrying the torch from Richard Pryor. Richard Pryor’s opinion, not mine. He produced an unpolished and much shorter special covering police brutality, murder, protests in the streets, and so on, in the special.
This became a moderate cultural commentary piece amongst individuals including Candace Owens, Don Lemon, without much or any commentary by Laura Ingraham, where he mentioned all three in the special.
He made the same note as you. ‘It’s not then. It’s today.’ To the Cuomo point, he made a first and firm change in New York, which will come tied to funding for the police in New York with substantial reforms incorporating community transparency, community involvement, and deepening the degrees to which community in New York State communicate with the police and the police communicate with the public while having transparency and accountability on a level not seen for some time.
He was noting – Cuomo – that this was an issue for the last 40 to 50 years. Whether from leadership or popular truthtellers in American society, there’s been a limit hit to which the issues can’t be ignored as much. What are some other commentaries are changes in New York, for instance, that you notice, which would be considered of note for the conversation today?
Engel: Just what you just mentioned in terms of Cuomo, I think we’re seeing something changing and, hopefully, a harbinger of continuing growth and change with regards to race relations. If you look at the demonstrations about the Black Lives Matter, etc., a lot of white people out there and a lot of young white people out there. It gives me a lot of hope.
Not that this isn’t an African American movement, it should be led by them; it is led by them. But one thing I think people are realizing is that they don’t want to live in a society in which people are judged by the colour of their skin in any way, shape, or form. It’s white people saying this too, “We aren’t interested in privilege. We want to live in a society where everyone is treated equally.”
Also, I think we’re seeing a willingness to be open about the need for police reform. Being a cop is a hard job. There’s no question about it. But the police have been idolized in some ways for a long time, like the military. So, any ideas about how we can do public safety better have been quashed in the sense of “oh my god, you’re against the police!” It ends the conversation.
Hopefully, we aren’t seeing tis anymore. We are seeing a possibility of questioning the ways we go about achieving public safety. They don’t seem to be working well, especially for people of colour. Today, it seems as if you can question it, even a politician, without an immediate shutdown of the discussion because “you’re not a supporter of the police.”
This is something that I hope is coming out of this entire movement as a possibility because this way; it will enable us to move forward. The discussion isn’t shut down. It moves forward instead. Rather than say, “All police are monsters.” We still have to look at what they’re doing, how they’re doing it, and how we can be more equal in how we are policing people.
Jacobsen: Jon, thanks, man.
Engel: Scott, no problem, you take care.
Scott Douglas Jacobsen is the Founder of In-Sight: Independent Interview-Based Journal and In-Sight Publishing. He authored/co-authored some e-books, free or low-cost. If you want to contact Scott: Scott.D.Jacobsen@Gmail.com.
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