Alcoholics Anonymous has some real wisdom to offer anyone who is serious about racial justice and reconciliation.
Healing is not just about what needs to stop. It’s also about what needs to start.
You’ve probably known a drunk or two. Maybe you see one in the mirror. There’s always other people around, who wish this person would just quit drinking. Just stop.
Problem is, just about nobody who is a real alcoholic just quits. There are exceptions, apparently. Alice Cooper says he quit without a second thought. Decided one day he was done, and never had another drop. But almost nobody who needs to quit, quits like that.
Alcoholics Anonymous came into being, and is today a life-saving community of practice for millions of people, because folks figured out that ‘just quitting’ isn’t really a viable path for those whose lives are being destroyed by alcohol.
Quitting doesn’t solve the problems people were trying to deal with by drinking. If a person’s gonna get healthy, they’ve got to replace the poison with something that will help them live.
Healing isn’t just about what you stop. It’s also about what you start.
AA talks about a process of RECOVERY from alcoholism, a long and intensive journey, by which a person’s life and capacity for relationships is restored to vitality, after the damage that has been done over years of dependence on alcohol.
The AA program famously has 12 steps, and interestingly, none of them is “Quit drinking alcohol.” Even though everyone recognizes that alcoholics need to quit drinking alcohol.
The 12 steps aren’t (for the most part) about what you stop doing. They’re about what you start doing.
The list is a bunch of active choices a person intentionally makes, privately in prayer and self-reflection, interpersonally with people who have been affected by the alcoholic’s past behaviors, and publicly as a witness and service to the wider community.
It’s by these proactive, life-serving choices, that a person can move toward healing and wholeness, and establish a sustainable independence from alcohol.
Quitting the bad behavior is just the beginning.
This wisdom from AA should be taken to heart by anyone who cares about racial justice and healing in the United States.
Because, when it comes to racial justice, we not only need to stop stuff. We need to start stuff.
Many people in the US believe that overcoming the vile legacy of racism in our nation is simply about Americans stopping doing certain things that are wrong. Like an oppressive worldview and comprehensive social reality can be reduced to a checklist.
Abolish slavery. No more lynchings. Quit segregating the seats on the bus. Check, check, check. We good?
Well no. We’re not good. If ‘just quitting’ various behaviors is all we do, we will never heal, and we’ll never break free of old patterns.
Now, let me be clear. Stuff that needs to be stopped, needs to be stopped. You often have to get a drunk into rehab before you can do anything else.
It’s more than obvious that our history is full of disgusting and outrageous racially-motivated assaults on people’s humanity, and that those abuses need to be prohibited in order for us to have any possibility of a healthy future as a nation. Slavery, like liver disease, was gonna kill us, and almost did.
Our national history, while full of oppression, has always included heroic women and men who have fought against racial injustice with honor and courage that I probably can’t even comprehend, and their work has resulted in many forms of previously sanctioned evil being outlawed. No words can adequately describe the debt our nation owes to those who have stopped things that needed to be stopped in our land.
But stopping what needs to be stopped is only half of what is required for healing. A great deal of new, intentional, life-giving activity must be undertaken, in order to RECOVER from the damage that has been done by racist institutions and norms in the past.
AA teaches that you can’t just quit. You have to do a whole bunch of new stuff to deal with all the destruction your actions caused before you quit.
Our work for racial justice and healing in 21st Century America is largely about proactive, restorative choices we must make in our communities, and as a nation, to recover from the harm done throughout our history.
For example (and there are thousands of examples), after World War II, our government made enormous investments in new residential developments through the Federal Housing Administration. These homes were sold at subsidized prices, and their value increased exponentially over the coming decades. The people who bought them built significant wealth, which they used to finance college educations, small businesses and other investments that contributed to a robust middle class. In the 1940s and 50s, preferential access to these homes was given to veterans of the war.
But only WHITE veterans.
Black veterans were not allowed to purchase these homes, which had been financed by their own government. Instead, their families were ghettoized into public housing that facilitates poverty, and each subsequent generation has been able to pass on less and less in financial resources to their descendants.
This was legal racial discrimination, and it was official policy of the federal government of the United States.
It needed to be stopped, and it was stopped.
During the 1960s, 70s and 80s, many laws that officially discriminated against the black community were struck down, and now the government is not allowed to say that black people can’t buy homes in certain places. But the laws of decades past created a legacy of disenfranchisement.
The descendants of those who were discriminated against back then, do not have the resources today to buy homes in the areas their ancesters were shut out of, even though they are now legally allowed to do so. More on this here.
So we see, that as a nation, while it’s true that we must stop doing things that are wrong, we can’t just quit specific bad behaviors, and think we’re healed. We have to do additional work to make up for the harm that was done in the past.
In order to adequately address the problem of housing discrimination (again, one of thousands of examples), we need to not only stop doing the harmful thing, but start new practices and policies that will facilitate wealth-building among the communities harmed by the actions of our government, generations ago.
Alcoholics Anonymous understands this concept, and they teach that recovery is a LIFE-LONG PROCESS.
It never ends.
Participants in AA call themselves, “recovering alcoholics.” They’re not ‘former alcoholics’ or ‘ex-drunks’. They are people who have a history of hurting themselves and others, and who have chosen to pursue a new way of life, for the rest of their lives.
The United States of America must understand itself as a recovering racist nation, if we are ever to create a sustainable way of living that is free from racism. We must dedicate our future, not only to ending racist behaviors, institutions and policies, but also to creating new practices and norms in the service of restoration, to make amends, wherever possible, for the great harm that has been done over the generations of our national story.
If we don’t, our future will be a never-ending story of falling off the wagon, again and again.
Rob, you’ve challenged me yet again. Thank you!