Since first learning about the killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, MO I’ve been thinking about different things I’ve wanted to write. Parenting a newborn and some travel have kept me from blogging, which is probably not a bad thing: most of my initial thoughts have been articulated far better by others. If you’ve not done so, please check out these articles: The Cross and the Molotov Cocktail by Christena Cleveland;Black Bodies, White Souls by Austin C Brown; Black People are not Ignoring ‘Black on Black’ Crimeby Ta-Nehisi Coates. Please leave a comment with additional reflections you’ve found helpful.
With all of the good, insightful, and prophetic things that have been said since Michael Brown’s tragic and completely needless death, there is one small thing I’d like to explore here. I have in mind those white people who were surprised by the slowly revealed details from Ferguson as well as the reactions of grief and rage from that community.
It was impossible not to know about Robin Williams’ recent death. The outpouring of support, remembrance, and grief was everywhere. The conversations about depression and suicide that ensued were needed and important, a silver lining to a sad ending.
Williams died the day after the streets of Ferguson erupted in anger and fire, the “language of the unheard” as Rev. Dr. King would have explained to us. On that day and the ensuing days it was common to hear and read a version of this question: Why does the suicide of an actor command so much more of our collective attention than the murder of a young man and the lament of his community?
The question is entirely legitimate and just, though any expectation that the attention to these very different deaths could have played out any differently misses something true and wrong about America. In this country there have always been some lives that matter more than others. A white, male, celebrity like Williams occupies a place within our society that cannot be ignored. You couldn’t remain ignorant of his death even if you wanted to. Michael Brown, on the other hand, occupied a very different, almost invisible place. And yes, it’s true that Williams was a celebrity and so his death within a culture of celebrity-worshippers took on added, almost religious dimensions. But consider that even after Ferguson erupted in protest and even after the ugly facts of Brown’s death began to come to life, most white people had little understanding of the story, if they’d heard of it at all.
There’s nothing right about the death of a white actor taking precedent over the murder of another young, African American man, but there’s also nothing surprising about it. White America exists within a bubble which filters out the abuses and indignities suffered upon black and brown people. In the late 1950’s James Baldwin traveled to Charlotte, NC to document attempts at integration. He wrote, “I was told, several times, by white people, that ‘race relations’ there were excellent. I failed to find a single Negro who agreed with this, which is the usual story of ‘race relations’ in this country.” The same sentiment, with slightly different language, would be expressed by many white people today. Racial injustice is not something we think about because it’s not something we see.
If we’re honest, we’re OK with our blindness. It’s far easier to talk about Robin Williams than Michael Brown. After all, a celebrity’s death asks nothing of us while, were we to take actually see it, the epidemic of alienation, incarceration, and murder of black men demands nothing short of a total rearrangement of the American way of life. A way of life that has benefitted some of us in tremendous ways. Better to remain blind than to give up our way of life.
Of course, this is not an option for those of us who are Christians. Jesus asked his followers, “Do you have eyes but fail to see, and ears but fail to hear?” Well, the answer has too often been yes, but it doesn’t have to remain so. But if white Christians are to begin responding to injustice we must first develop the discipline of seeing.
What is a discipline of seeing? It begins by acknowledging that there is much that we from the majority culture will not naturally see. I recently heard Dr. Carl Ellis point out that much of the marginalization that is experienced by people of color is systemic and by default. It is a marginalization that is so tied to how our society works that it is impossible for some to avoid and almost impossible for others to see. Acknowledging that my experience of America is warped allows me to begin seeing more clearly how others experience this place and its prejudices.
A discipline of seeing compels me to seek new guides. I begin to understand that Michael Brown’s death doesn’t represent something aberrant but disturbingly normal. This realization, and thousands others like it, make plain the extent of my blindness. If I am to walk the narrow path in this newly-revealed reality I will need those who can point the way. Authors, pastors, and entire neighborhoods become voices I cannot live without if I am to avoid retreating into my former isolation. These women and men of color – all with distinct stories and perspectives, all standing outside the so-called privileges bestowed upon me – become the sources of wisdom I cannot do without.
As I begin to see more truthfully I can properly lament the death of a beloved celebrity while not allowing it to overshadow what is going down in Ferguson. That is, I’m able to grieve what is genuinely worthy of grief and not just what I’m told to feel badly about.
Theres a final thing about learning to see: the death of Michael Brown and the tumult that continues in Ferguson is quickly visible and important to those with eyes to see, but their sight is not limited to a series of events at a distance. A discipline of seeing means, that though my privilege works to blind me, I will notice how the injustices of Ferguson play out in my city and neighborhood. Michael Brown and Ferguson cannot become prominent but ultimately powerless symbols for those with eyes to see. Rather, the prejudices and pressures that are at work there must also be admitted to here.
Learning to see carries this great risk for those content with blindness: seeing leads us to grieve; seeing leads us to act. An enlightened sympathy for injustice at a distances bears no resemblance to Jesus’ expectation that his followers walk with those who suffer. The discipline of seeing allows me to grieve rightly a young man’s death a long ways away while stepping into the path of those same forces of death that even now wreak havoc on my neighbors.
Donald Sterling, the owner of the Los Angels Clippers, has said some despicable things. “In your lousy f**ing Instagrams, you don’t have to have yourself with — walking with black people.” There’s more and if you’ve somehow missed the story you can easily search for more of the man’s ugly opinions. It’s disgusting stuff, made more stark coming from someone who makes money from a team comprising many African American players. The recordings that caught Sterling’s honesty are allegations at this point though they line up well with past comments and sentiments.
The reaction to Sterling’s racist opinions has been swift and satisfying. Aside from a few predictable pundits who’ve attempted to redirect attention to Sterling’s girlfriend, most have come down hard, making it clear that there is no place from him in the NBA. The outrage is palpable. How could this man with these dehumanizing views have been a team owner for the past thirty-odd years?
I wonder, though, if the outrage is sincere; if the anger is righteous.
Sterling has been known for years to be prejudiced in his real estate dealings. He didn’t want to rent to Hispanics because they “smoke, drink and just hang around the building.” He opined that “Black tenants smell and attract vermin.” The Department of Justice sued Sterling in 2006, accusing him of housing discrimination. Where was the anger then? Perhaps it’s just easier to direct outrage toward those who make their racism explicit. Prejudiced systems and policies are more complicated, a fuzzier point to rally around. Maybe that’s why Sterling’s implicit racism didn’t elicit calls for his ouster. Or maybe it’s because acknowledging radicalized systems and policies implicates a whole lot of people and not just one, unlikable individual.
Those of us in positions of cultural privilege and power lose nothing when we call for Sterling to step down. It costs us nothing to distance ourselves from his racist language and perspectives on the world. But the same wouldn’t be true were we to call out the underlying racist structures that have made Sterling a very rich man while marginalizing his tenants, employees, and players. Shining a light into these shadows may well mean shining the light on ourselves. Much better, don’t you think, to direct our attention at one pitiful man?
Here’s a lightly edited version of the sermon I preached at New Community Covenant Church on Sunday. Unlike most of my sermons this one was written quickly, after the news broke from the Michael Dunn trial on Saturday evening.
In November 2012, 17-year-old African American Jordan Davis and his friends were parked outside a convenience store in Florida when an argument broke out with the white man parked next to them about the volume of their music. The argument ended when the man, Michael Dunn shot 10 rounds into Davis’ car- some of those bullets hit and killed Davis. At his trial Dunn claimed he felt threatened, that he had to stand his ground. No gun was ever found in the young Jordan Davis’ car. Last night a mostly white jury found Dunn guilty on lesser counts of attempted murder- but for the actual murder they couldn’t agree. And so again, a young black man’s life is taken and it’s not called murder. Again, as the trial proved, the responsibility was placed on the dead man’s life to show that he didn’t deserve to die.
As it relates to yesterday’s verdict, I assume there are at least three groups of people here this morning: the distracted, the despairing, and the discouraged. Today I want to talk about justice by giving a word of conviction from Jesus’ life for the distracted, a word of comfort from Jesus’ death for the despairing, and a word of challenge from Jesus’ resurrection to the discouraged.
Conviction for the Distracted: Jesus’ life.
We begin with one of Jesus’ most well known parables from Luke 10:25-37.
On one occasion an expert in the law stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he asked, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” “What is written in the Law?” he replied. “How do you read it?” He answered, “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind’; and, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’” “You have answered correctly,” Jesus replied. “Do this and you will live.” But he wanted to justify himself, so he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?”
In reply Jesus said: “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, when he was attacked by robbers. They stripped him of his clothes, beat him and went away, leaving him half dead. A priest happened to be going down the same road, and when he saw the man, he passed by on the other side. So too, a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan, as he traveled, came where the man was; and when he saw him, he took pity on him. He went to him and bandaged his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he put the man on his own donkey, brought him to an inn and took care of him. The next day he took out two denarii and gave them to the innkeeper. ‘Look after him,’ he said, ‘and when I return, I will reimburse you for any extra expense you may have.’
“Which of these three do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?” The expert in the law replied, “The one who had mercy on him.” Jesus told him, “Go and do likewise.”
We tend to focus on what the priest and Levite didn’t do and on what the Samaritan did. The first two walked by while the Samaritan stopped and cared for the battered man. But the passage records something in common between the three: they each saw the suffering man. The priest saw and passed by. The Levite saw and passed by. The Samaritan saw and took pity.
Which says to me that there is seeing and there is seeing. You and I see injustice everyday, but we don’t really see. We don’t see the humanity behind the suffering. We are too distracted to see. The priest and the Levite had places to be and people that were counting on them. Heck, they had God’s work to do. We understand this. Your life is busy. Your job is demanding. Your family is chaotic. But there are a whole lot of busy people with chaotic lives who are deeply aware of the injustices facing themselves and those they love.
What is distracting you? Please don’t blame your busyness. There are a whole lot of people who would love to trade their suffering for your busyness.
Justice begins with seeing. Jesus’ entire life was about seeing those whom others overlooked: the woman at the well; the bleeding woman; the tax collector in the tree; the daughter of his country’s oppressor. The Samaritan was able to get off his donkey and care for the beaten man because he saw him. He saw, on the side of the rode, another image-bearer of God who was created for God’s glory. He saw one whose dignity and worth had been violently undermined.
Don’t misunderstand me: this isn’t a pep talk how important it is to notice people. In fact, seeing is fundamental to our Christian faith. To begin with, our very salvation is precipitated on the fact that God saw us. We are like the Hebrew Children suffering under in bondage to whom God said, “I have indeed seen the misery of my people in Egypt. I have heard them crying out because of their slave drivers, and I am concerned about their suffering. So I have come down to rescue them.”
Our place within the Kingdom of God; our identities as children of God; our rescue from sin by the hand of God… all of these exist because God saw us. He saw our plight. He saw sin’s oppressive hand on our backs. He saw us and he came down to rescue us.
And there’s more: Jesus’ life was about making blind people see. In Jesus’ first sermon in Luke 4:19-19 he quotes from Isaiah to lay out his agenda: “The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
Now Jesus certainly came to with good news for real poor people and real prisoners and real blind people and real oppressed people. But as the Gospel’s also make clear, every one of us suffers from spiritual poverty and blindness. And Jesus came to heal that blindness so that we would no longer be bound within our own small worlds like the priest and Levite.
Listen: Jesus came to save you from your selfishness. He came to make it possible that you love your neighbors; really love them- as much as you love yourself. Jesus came to rescue you from the petty distractions and idols that have consumed your devotions and attentions so that you might actually see this world in all of its ferocity and pain and wonder. So to the distracted there is a word of conviction: Wake up! Jesus came that you might see.
Comfort for the Despairing: Jesus’ death.
For those who are not distracted, the murder of Jordan Davis and Trayvon Martin and Haydiya Pendleton and the Dunbar High School student earlier this week cannot help but weigh heavily. These injustices, along with the lies and systems that seek to legitimize them have begun to grind you down.
It’s not that you don’t want to have hope it’s just that it always seems misplaced. Regardless of who the mayor is or police chief is or schools CEO is it’s the same story. Some of you hear the news of Jordan Davis’ demise and you immediately think of your own sons and daughters. As Ta-Nehesi Coates wrote in The Atlantic last night,
Jordan Davis had a mother and a father. It did not save him. Trayvon Martin had a mother and a father. They could not save him. My son has a father and mother. We cannot protect him from our country, which is our aegis and our assailant. We cannot protect our children because racism in America is not merely a belief system but a heritage, and the inability of black parents to protect their children is an ancient tradition.
The Psalmist could be praying on your behalf when he asks of the Lord in Psalm 94:3-7,
How long, Lord, will the wicked, how long will the wicked be jubilant? They pour out arrogant words; all the evildoers are full of boasting. They crush your people, Lord; they oppress your inheritance. They slay the widow and the foreigner; they murder the fatherless. They say, “The Lord does not see; the God of Jacob takes no notice.”
To the despairing and the doubting I can only hope to point to the one who well knows your grief. He is the one the prophet spoke of in Isaiah 4:3-5,
He was despised and rejected by mankind, a man of suffering, and familiar with pain. Like one from whom people hide their faces he was despised, and we held him in low esteem. Surely he took up our pain and bore our suffering, yet we considered him punished by God, stricken by him, and afflicted. But he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was on him, and by his wounds we are healed.
Here is the Bible’s seemingly impossible claim: God’s justice was accomplished when the universe’s injustice came crashing down onto Jesus’ innocent head. That is, on the cross where Jesus hung the monsters of evil and wickedness and destruction that have wreaked havoc on our world and in our lives turned the full force of their violent fury onto God’s perfect Son.
And it was here at the cross, despite our complicity with the very evil that crushed Jesus, it was here that our salvation was accomplished. It was here the poor heard the good news that the kingdom of heaven was theirs; it was here that prisoners learned that their jailer would answer to a higher authority; it was here that scales fell from blind eyes; it was here that oppressed bodies were unshackled and ushered into freedom.
So despite the despair and doubt that some of you carry, the cross of Jesus compels me to speak to you boldly this morning. The cross does not allow me simply offer my sympathy or my empathy, as important as those may be. The cross does not allow me to offer small words of comfort; little bandages for gaping wounds. The cross does not allow me to explain away the ugliness of last night’s verdict with catchy phrases or spiritual slogans. And while we must acknowledge the despair and doubt; while we must lament together another act of justice- what the cross does not allow us to do is to grant more power to these unjust acts than they actually posses.
You’ve heard me say it many times and I will say it again from the shadows of Jordan Davis’ un-vindicated death: What the forces of evil meant for our destruction, God absorbed for our salvation. What was meant to kill us, God bore so that we would live. What appeared to the entire world as God’s defeat was, in fact, the place where God’s victory was accomplished.
And while the cross has profound consequences for our salvation and God’s restoration of all things- the cross has equally profound consequences for every single place in our world where it seems that evil is winning. Within the reality of God’s coming kingdom, there is not one tragedy that cannot be redeemed.
Does this sound callous or like a shallow cliché? I promise you, it’s not. The cross of Jesus signals to every power and principality of evil that their days are numbered. It is a reminder that their power is finite and their end secure. It is a proclamation that God is holy and just and not to be trifled with.
I know this requires faith. But consider again in whom we place our faith. Jesus said in John 16:33, “In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.” So let me nudge the despairing just a bit more. If indeed God has overcome the troubles of this world through the suffering and broken body of Jesus – one who knew the face of injustice and oppression – then there is no situation of injustice that is beyond hope.
Challenge for the Discouraged: Jesus’ resurrection.
Finally, many of us this morning simply feel discouraged. You’re not distracted. In fact, you’re profoundly aware of the harsh realities surrounding us. You know that although white kids are more likely to use drugs, black kids are 10 times more likely to be arrested for it. You know that while the USA has 5% of world’s population but 25% of its prisoners, with a disproportionate percentage being people of color: 1 in every 106 white men; 1 in ever 36 Hispanic men; 1 in every 15 black men are imprisoned. You know that since the 1960’s the unemployment rate for African Americans has consistently been double that of whites. You know about the impact of redlining, housing covenants, and state-sponsored segregation enforced by bank lending policy. You know about the bamboo ceiling in the workplace that encourages the model-minority myth for Asian Americans while excluding them from top levels of leadership. You know about Hispanic immigrant churches that today are gathering in fear, wondering who will be deported next, what child will be left without a parent.
No, you’re not distracted. And You’re not despairing either, though you can imagine getting there. No, many of us feel tired, worn out, and discouraged. We relate to the disciples, walking home after the crucifixion. Not sure what happened, but sure that it wasn’t what we’d hoped for. And it’s not wrong to be discouraged; this life provides plenty of fodder for discouragement. But, even in moments of profound disappointment, discouragement can never be the only word.
If the Distracted are convicted by Jesus’ life, the Despairing are comforted by Jesus’ cross, then you – the Discouraged – can be challenged by Jesus’ resurrection.
One of the great surprises of the story of the early church is how the disciples could morph from a discouraged group of people returning to their homes after Jesus’ death to a bold community after the resurrection that is unafraid of the very same individuals who killed their Messiah. The key to understanding this transformation comes in the closing lines of Peter’s first sermon in Acts 2:36. “Therefore let all Israel be assured of this: God has made this Jesus, whom you crucified, both Lord and Messiah.” In other words Jesus’ death and resurrection are not only the surprising way through which God rescues us; they were also God’s strategy to accomplish victory over all of God’s enemies, over every source of evil and injustice.
Peter, the same disciple who once told Jesus to quick talking about going to the cross because would-be Messiahs who die on crosses are failed Messiahs; that same Peter now acknowledges that it was through Jesus’ atoning death and victorious resurrection that his kingdom has now been inaugurated; it is coming; it is breaking in.
Earlier in his sermon Peter says that God raised him from the dead, freeing him from the agony of death, because it was impossible for death to keep its hold on him. Jesus’ resurrection wasn’t a magic trick. It wasn’t an amazing miracle to convince us that he really was God. His resurrection is a victory; a victory over death itself; a victory that establishes his authority as King and Lord and Messiah. His resurrection is, as Paul writes in 1 Corinthians, like the first fruit of a harvest- it is evidence of what is to come in a world that still rejects his reign, where death still demands our fear and submission. But this king, Paul goes on to write, will rule until that day- when he “hands over the kingdom to God the Father after he has destroyed all dominion, authority and power. For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet.The last enemy to be destroyed is death. “[1 Corinthians 15:24-26]
What does this mean for the discouraged among us? It means that when Jesus sent out his disciples after his resurrection to represent his kingdom, he did so a conquering king. When Jesus said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me,” he is reflecting the authority that comes from accomplishing our salvation on the cross and rising victoriously over God’s enemies – including death – at the resurrection.
Jesus’ resurrection calls us to action. Not in some vaguely spiritual way where everything is going to be OK. In fact, earlier in Matthew Jesus says to his disciples, “I am sending you out like sheep among wolves.” [10:16] No, the resurrected and victorious Jesus has sent those who confess him as Savior and King into the real world. The King has come to the world and we are sent as his representatives, his ambassadors, and his witnesses to proclaim with our words and our lives that a new kingdom is coming. We are sent to show that the powers of evil that seem entrenched, insurmountable, and irresistible have, in fact, already been defeated. Their thin power is based solely on uncreative lies and systematic deception.
The resurrected Jesus has sent us with words of life on our lips and the power of the Holy Spirit in our bodies. We have been sent to the young men who heard once again last night at the verdict of Jordan Davis’ killer: your life is cheap. We have been sent to underfunded classrooms that reek of lowered expectations to demonstrate a dignity and value that cannot be bought. We have been sent to courtrooms, newsrooms, boardrooms, and political backrooms and other places of power to remind they powerful that there is a King to whom they will answer. We’ve been sent to family members and neighbors who tacitly approve of systemic racism.
You see, followers of Jesus are like the Samaritan- we are called to acts of compassion and mercy when we come across injustice. But there’s something else. At some point we have to ask why it is that innocent travelers keep getting beat down on the Jericho road. Yes, we’ll patch you up and pursue your healing, but followers of Jesus are called to travel further up the Jericho road to find the source of these travelers’ misery. This is the work of justice. We are called to those places in the world where God’s will for humanity’s flourishing is opposed; we are called there to invest our lives, to pray with our hearts and our bodies- God may your will be done here as it is in heaven!
Last week brought disheartening news from white-evangelical-church-world. A well-publicized men’s conference was reported to have used both women and gay people as punchlines to jokes told from the stage. And, in An Open Letter from the Asian American Community to the Evangelical Church, a group of influential Asian American Christians pointed out a bunch of instances of racial stereotyping by different evangelical conferences, publishing houses, and pastors. For those paying attention – and/or on the receiving end of these offensive and marginalizing stereotypes – it seems impossible that these things keep happening. How is it that many Christian leaders of the evangelical-ish variety are continuing with language, images, and assumptions that are so unloving? It’s crazy, right?
Well, yes, except that I get it. The white men who lead these conferences, publishing houses, and – yes – churches are steeped in privilege. This is the sort of privilege that comes when ones (my) race, gender, sexual orientation, and socioeconomic status place a man at the top of the heap. And for these men (me) it’s almost impossible to imagine what it feels like to have something fundamental about yourself reduced to a punchline. Of course it is theoretically possible to stereotype white men, but there is no real sting in such stereotypes because the power differential remains unchanged. This is why a white man’s claim of being a victim of racism (or that mythical thing, reverse racism) rings hollow. Perhaps he has been prejudiced against, but racism requires that added element of power, something he still retains more of within our society.
Deeply ingrained, subconscious privilege makes it really hard to imagine what it’s like for something elemental about yourself to be co-opted and reduced for someone else’s purposes. I get it. So, from one white man to other white men here’s some unsolicited advice. Don’t do it. Don’t use someone’s race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, or gender to serve your purposes, whether that’s getting laughs or selling a book. Just don’t. Here’s the thing: If your message is good enough (and if you’re a Christian leader than your message damn well better be more than good enough) than there is absolutely no reason to resort to stereotypes or marginalizing tropes. When you resort to these things you not only appear prejudiced and tone deaf, it also seems like you don’t trust the quality of your own message, as if it has to be propped up on someone’s disenfranchized back.
Another thing. We white men will say and do stupid things. We are, in so many ways, products of our privilege and despite our best intentions we will harm others with our words and assumptions. Time spent submitted to diverse community holds a lot of promise for our own spiritual formation, but we will still mess up. The point can never be for us (or, for that matter, any Christian) to always get it right. Impossible! The point is, however, to be quick to repent and ask for forgiveness when we do get it wrong. When we do hurt those we mean to love. And if the Gospel of Jesus is true for us, than we can really repent and really ask for forgiveness. None of this non-apology if-I-offended-anyone baloney. No, Christians are meant to be an always repenting and always forgiving people so we need not be devastated or evasive when confronted with our sin.
One last thing for my white, male comrades. It won’t be long before we see another well-known leader or pastor goof up in this area. It’s absolutely going to happen. When it does, if at all possible, we need to speak up. We’ve got to call this stuff out even while acknowledging our own blind spots. We can tell our diverse Christian family that we’re not OK with stereotypes and sanitized prejudices. We can contact the offending party and, gently but directly, point out the damage that has been done. And we can do all we can to make robust reconciliation an ever-increasing reality.
The worldwide financial and economic crisis seems to highlight their distortions and above all the gravely deficient human perspective, which reduces man to one of his needs alone, namely, consumption. Worse yet, human beings themselves are nowadays considered as consumer goods which can be used and thrown away. We have begun a throw away culture. This tendency is seen on the level of individuals and whole societies; and it is being promoted! In circumstances like these, solidarity, which is the treasure of the poor, is often considered counterproductive, opposed to the logic of finance and the economy. While the income of a minority is increasing exponentially, that of the majority is crumbling. This imbalance results from ideologies which uphold the absolute autonomy of markets and financial speculation, and thus deny the right of control to States, which are themselves charged with providing for the common good. A new, invisible and at times virtual, tyranny is established, one which unilaterally and irremediably imposes its own laws and rules. Moreover, indebtedness and credit distance countries from their real economy and citizens from their real buying power. Added to this, as if it were needed, is widespread corruption and selfish fiscal evasion which have taken on worldwide dimensions. The will to power and of possession has become limitless.
I’ve taken a break from a lot of my normal online haunts during Lent and have surely missed a bunch of interesting articles and bits of news, though I’ve not generally been aware of missing anything. Thankfully a friend emailed me Ta-Neshi Coates’ op-ed in The New York Times; I wouldn’t have wanted to miss “The Good, Racist People”. In it, Coates recounts a recent incident that took place in his neighborhood deli during which an employee frisked Forest Witaker after accusing him of shoplifting. There’s nothing uncommon about stop and frisk in New York City where the deli is located but it’s less common that the person being profiled is a world famous actor. After recognizing Witaker the owner apologized. What Coates picks up on in his piece is the same owner’s claim that, “it was a ‘sincere mistake’ made by a ‘decent man’ who was ‘just doing his job.'” According to the owner, the incident wasn’t the result of racial profiling but was the sort of mistake anyone could have made. We white folks often don’t see prejudice and racialized assumptions at work in these sorts of scenarios because of how we think – or don’t – about racism. Coates writes,
In modern America we believe racism to be the property of the uniquely villainous and morally deformed, the ideology of trolls, gorgons and orcs. We believe this even when we are actually being racist. In 1957, neighbors in Levittown, Pa., uniting under the flag of segregation, wrote: “As moral, religious and law-abiding citizens, we feel that we are unprejudiced and undiscriminating in our wish to keep our community a closed community.” A half-century later little had changed. The comedian Michael Richards (Kramer on “Seinfeld”) once yelled at a black heckler from the stage: “He’s a nigger! He’s a nigger! He’s a nigger!” Confronted about this, Richards apologized and then said, “I’m not a racist,” and called the claim “insane.”
Racism, for many of us, is localized within an individual and an unsavory, morally corrupt individual at that. Certainly not “decent” people like ourselves. Anyone other than a hooded Klan member who is acting prejudicially probably just misspoke. Or is having a bad day. I’m reminded of a anthropologist friend who avoids the word racist in his classes of mostly white students for fear they will tune out, assuming themselves to be beyond such ugly assumptions and behaviors. Coates goes on, nodding toward the slippery and invisible (to some) forms that racism takes today, forms that are no less destructive for their cultural camouflage.
The idea that racism lives in the heart of particularly evil individuals, as opposed to the heart of a democratic society, is reinforcing to anyone who might, from time to time, find their tongue sprinting ahead of their discretion. We can forgive Whitaker’s assailant. Much harder to forgive is all that makes Whitaker stand out in the first place. New York is a city, like most in America, that bears the scars of redlining, blockbusting and urban renewal. The ghost of those policies haunts us in a wealth gap between blacks and whites that has actually gotten worse over the past 20 years.
On one hand, racism continues to play it’s wicked part within the American story. On the other hand, most of us within the majority culture don’t think we play a part in this story; someone out there may be racist but it’s certainly not me. It’s impossible for both of these to be true.
As a Christian I think about whether American Christians – and I mostly have in mind white American Christians – think any differently about these things than our secular neighbors. Unfortunately, it’s probably a safe assumption that we don’t think differently and more carefully about systemic racism. But it shouldn’t be this way. In fact, there are at least two obvious attributes within Christian belief that can begin forming us into something other than “the good, racist people” of Coates’ op-ed.
First, Christians believe in sin. We really believe in sin, meaning that our rebellion against God plays out in our lives and our neighborhoods; in our hearts and our culture; in the individual and the system that individual functions within. Given the history of our country we shouldn’t be surprised at the ways the sins of racism have been assumed into our cultural assumptions and habits. When we deny the prejudice that flows through the veins of our country and instead limit racial injustice to the occasional despicable individual we betray our too-small view of sin and its prevalence.
Second, Christians believe in grace. We really, really believe in grace. Without grace there is no ground on which the Christian may stand. Our ongoing dependence on God’s grace means that we don’t have to justify ourselves. Specifically, we can readily admit our complicity and corruption within systems and structures that are often in conflict with God’s justice. As a white man who lives by grace, I’m able to acknowledge (when made aware) my blind spots and prejudices. In fact, I need not be surprised by them given the reality of sin in our world. Why wouldn’t I be affected by our injustice world? And why wouldn’t I be glad for every chance to lean again into the grace of God as I repent and am forgiven?
I know firsthand that these two attributes of Christianity are more easily stated than lived. Even so, there seems some reason to hope that the good, racist people Coates has rightly become weary of need not be our default identity.
“Is this a safe neighborhood?” It’s a question Maggie and I can expect to hear when friends from out of town visit our home in Hyde Park, a neighborhood on the South Side of Chicago. In fact, our neighborhood is quite safe. The nearby presence of the University of Chicago ensures the streets in our neighborhood are regularly and obviously policed. Our son plays in the park across the street and we walk for groceries and other errands at all hours of the day or night.
Despite the safety of our specific neighborhood, the question is not surprising. Gun violence and murder is well-known in our city; the news from the south and west sides of Chicago is grimly portrayed on a nightly basis. Last month the young Hadiya Pendleton was shot and killed in a park one block from where our church gathers for Sunday worship.
Talking about this violence can seem futile: conversation does little to honor the dead and wounded nor are most of us interested in the long, complicated discussion about the systemic and historic causes for the bloodshed. It’s easier to turn away or propose simplistic solutions.
It was refreshing then, to listen to This American Life’s two-part series (part 1 & part 2) on gun violence in Chicago. For five months reporters – including the legendary Alex Kotlowitz – spent time in one high school that has experienced far more than its share of death. The perspectives from administrators, students, parents, teachers, and support staff go a long way toward a more nuanced and humble conversation. Their stories invite the rest of us to pay close attention.