While major cities across America were aflame with race riots, a rocketship took off.
On Saturday, May 30, a Falcon 9 spacecraft, owned by billionaire Elon Musk’s SpaceX project, lifted off from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida with astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley on board.
For Musk, it had been 18 years in the making and that single launch cost billions of dollars.
It was all part of his staggeringly ambitious grand plan to make spaceflight routine and affordable, and to make humans a multi-planet species.
But as Behnken and Hurley sped away from Earth, cities like Minneapolis, Detroit, Washington, and Los Angeles were erupting into anarchy. Despite the best efforts of the organizers, the peaceful protests were overwhelmed by violence. Buildings were razed, cop cars were set alight, and stores were looted.
And that was after months of lockdown in response to coronavirus, which has led to the worst economic downturn in recent memory.
It feels like the US is lurching under seemingly insurmountable social and political problems.
Nonetheless, President Trump, speaking at the Kennedy Space Center after Musk’s rocket launch, praised the American spirit “which powered our astronauts to the moon” and has “also helped lift our country to ever greater heights of justice and opportunity throughout our history.”
The President continued: “…the United States has regained our place of prestige as the world leader. You can’t be number one on earth if you are number two in space.” He also added that “we are not going to be number two anywhere.”
To some observers, it looked like Nero playing his fiddle while Rome burned.
But at another level it looked like America being, well, America.
Musk is South African, but he says he moved to the USA because it was the only country in the world in which he could achieve his monumental schemes. He’s an American-sized inventor/businessman in the tradition of Henry Ford. Trump says he’s like a modern day Thomas Edison.
Musk says entrepreneur-ish things like, “If things are not failing, you are not innovating enough” and “I like to be involved in things that change the world.” He also says dumb and offensive things, like bashing US shelter-in-place orders as “fascist.” He also does stuff like sending the 10,000 workers at his Tesla plant in California back to work during the coronavirus lockdown.
But my point is that Elon Musk comes across like a quintessentially American innovator — indefatigable, singleminded, and ruthless. Not even a global pandemic and coast-to-coast race riots could stop him launching his rocket.
He stands in the tradition of other eccentric innovators like Benjamin Franklin, Alexander Graham Bell, the Wright Brothers, Robert Oppenheimer, and Steve Jobs, as well as the aforementioned Thomas Edison and Henry T Ford. Not all those men were likeable, but by jove they did it. Whatever it was.
And this got me thinking.
Since America is the home of innovation and wild-eyed entrepreneurship, surely America has the wherewithal to solve their problems with racism too. Maybe Donald Trump is right and the American spirit can help lift the country to ever greater heights of justice and opportunity. Why not? It’s in the blood. It’s in the American DNA. America is the problem-solving center of the world!
It’s easy to roll your eyes at the SpaceX launch and Trump’s bombastic remarks about being first, but to me that launch was a glimmer of hope. America gave us bifocals, air flight, the telephone, the iPhone, chicken and waffles, and the atomic bomb.
In the midst of burning police precincts, mass coronavirus graves, white vigilantes, and masked mass protests, that rocketship was a reminder that, when they set their minds to it, Americans can do anything.
It makes you wish they would set their minds to eliminating police gangsterism, white privilege, and systemic racism. And before you think I’m being naive and tell me that racism is a “sin issue, not a skin issue” that can’t be dealt with by entrepreneurs and tech innovators, I think that’s an oversimplication of the problem.
Yes, at the heart of all strife and hatred in the world is the matter of human sin. And, yes, sin can only be dealt with by God’s forgiveness.
But racism is also a systemic problem.
Racism is a form of cultural idolatry. It is ingrained in America’s corporate culture. It is rooted in American history. It was used to justify colonialism, the effects of which we still live with today. It’s most vile expression — slavery — has been called America’s “original sin” by Jim Wallis.
Yes, racism is sinful. But it can’t be addressed solely in our individual hearts. There need to be systemic solutions to the systemic sin.
As Cedric Lundy, pastor of justice and leadership at Watershed Church in Charlotte, NC, says,
“I recognize that most people who make this declaration of racism being ‘a sin issue, not a skin issue’ have good intentions. They rightly infer simple legislation can’t establish racial harmony. However, it is dangerous for the church and its relevance in society to continue to infer racism will only be made better by personal sin management. We must address the deeper complex implications of racism being an issue of idolatry. Otherwise the church will continue in it’s legacy of being complicit in the persistence of the racial divide.”
Can it be addressed by good ol’ American know-how? Not entirely. Reducing racism will take prayer, repentance, and the kind of humility that only comes from Christ. But these things alone won’t bring about racial reconciliation. America needs to deal with its systemic legal problem. The system is unfair, the law is not applied in an equal manner, and until that system is addressed there will be riots in American streets every few years.
Because this is not just a black problem, a white problem, an Hispanic, Native or Asian problem — it’s an American problem.
Healing America will involve not just hearing the pain and the trauma of those who have been oppressed. It will take difficult conversations, taking radical responsibility for our actions, offering recompense, setting and enforcing boundaries, and implementing new systems. It will involve ending entrenched poverty, inequality and injustice.
Because what’s the point of traveling into space or setting up a colony on Mars if we can’t address the most fundamental problems in human society?
Imagine if we scrambled as quickly, and spent as much money on a cure for racism as we are for a cure for COVID-19.