The year was 1949. In post-World War II America, new hope was rising and new vigor was inspiring the rebuilding of the world following the devastating death and destruction of the war. My Dad had returned from the Pacific theater and started his family with twins–and since I am the second born, I will be forever grateful! I was only two years old and knew nothing of the underbelly of American society at that time, the ugly remnants of racism, the injustice of Jim Crow in the south, the plight of African Americans who had risked their lives for their country in the war but still couldn’t sit at lunch counter or use the toilet in many parts of the country. (For a chilling account of the treatment of black Americans in Florida all the way up into the 70’s, read “The Devil In the Grove” by Gilbert King. The distrust of the police by African Americans has deep roots.)
Rogers and Hammerstein understood. So they used their incredible talent to set a story in the context of a celebration of those who had served in the war; a story which would intentionally confront the racial divisions of the nation long before the Civil Rights movement of the 60’s or the Black Lives Matter movement today. Of course, they called it “South Pacific” and it remains one of the most beloved American musicals of all time. Even 66 years later, it still challenges us with the lingering prejudices which bedevils our society today. In what must be one of the shortest songs of the American musical stage, they satirically identify the problem:
You’ve got to be taught to hate and fear, You’ve got to be taught from year to year,
It’s got to be drummed in your dear little ear, You’ve got to be carefully taught.
You’ve got to be taught to be afraid, of people whose eyes are oddly made,
And people whose skin is a different shade, You’ve got to be carefully taught.
You’ve got to be taught before it’s too late, before you are six or seven or eight,
To hate all the people your relatives hate, You’ve got to be carefully taught!
In some ways, Benzie County is not unlike the small town where I grew up in the post-war ‘50’s. With relatively little ethnic diversity, it would be easy to pretend that the pain of Dallas doesn’t reach us in our pleasant corner of the world. But the deeper issue is about the attitudes we carry and the lessons we pass on to our children. Even in our corner of the world, the church is called to give witness to God’s all-inclusive grace and the sacred worth of every person. That’s the lesson which needs to be “carefully taught” today.