JET: What role do white Christians play in justice for African Americans?
Pastor Daniel: That’s a question that I regularly ask my African American friends, co-workers and mentors. And it’s a question that we as white Christians should pay close attention to when answers are proposed. One thing I do feel clearly convicted of is the need for white Christians to actively and collectively repent for our complicity in the creation of our racist landscape. While I’m grateful for the exceptions that have stood in solidarity with the oppressed, the overwhelming history of our country reveals a picture of white Christians standing on the wrong side of justice, and often serving as the ones to perpetuate injustice. So there is much to repent for.
–Daniel Hill is a friend and pastor here in Chicago. He participated in the prayer vigil on Monday and his prayer of repentance on behalf of white people caught the attention of CNN and Jet magazine. If you read the entire interview you’ll know why Daniel has become a good friend and trusted guide in matters of reconciliation and the multi-ethnic church. I’m sad for the ugly response by some to his honesty but I’m incredibly grateful that so many are benefitting from his witness.
The bonus of being white in Ferguson meant nigh-immunity from plunder. The bane of being black in Ferguson meant nigh-inevitable subjugation under plunder. Plunder is neither abstract nor theoretical. Plunder injures, maims, and destroys. Indeed the very same people who were calling on protestors to remain nonviolent were, every hour, partner to brutality committed under the color of law.
“I’m not the president of black America,” Barack Obama has said. “I’m the president of the United States of America.”
Precisely. And the President of the United States is not just an enactor of policy for today, he is the titular representative of his country’s heritage and legacy. In regards to black people, America’s heritage is kleptocracy–the stealing and selling of other people’s children, the robbery of their fruits of black labor, the pillaging of black property, the taxing of black citizens for schools they can not attend, the taxing of black citizens for pools that will not have them, the taxing of black citizens for police who do not protect them, the marking of whole communities as beyond the protection of the state and thus subject to the purview of outlaws and predators.
The bearer of this unfortunate heritage feebly urging “positive habits and behavior” while his country imprisons some ungodly number of black men, may well be greeted with applause in some quarters. It must never be so among those of us whose love of James Baldwin is true, whose love of Ida B. Wells is true, whose love of Harriet Tubman, and our ancestors who fought for the right of family, is true. In the fight to preserve the black family, America has rarely been an ally. Very often it has been an enemy.
During college, I volunteered for the youth ministry at a church. Every year at the volunteer Christmas party, the two white guys who worked for the ministry dressed up as “black guys from the hood” and performed an entirely unoriginal and unfunny skit that exploited negative black male stereotypes for laughs. I remember looking around the room full of volunteers, seeing the delight in their eyes as they laughed loudly at the racist jokes. I also remember feeling discouraged that a predominantly-white group of Christians (who were supposedly my friends) were laughing at white guys impersonating black guys in extremely unflattering ways. When I asked the pastor (the staff guys’ boss) about the skit, he agreed that it was offensive. But he failed to confront the issue; the skit was performed every year for the multiple years that I served as a volunteer.
The church taught me that racism is acceptable as long as it’s carried out in pursuit of laughs.
We don’t just need teachers and preachers and scholars and “doctors” of the church to tell us what do do; if the gospel is going to capture imaginations and sanctify perceptions we need painters and novelists and dancers and songwriters and sculptors and poets and designers whose creative work shows the world otherwise, enabling us to imagine differently- and hence perceive differently and so act differently.
How many loves fail because, in an unconscious effort to make our weaknesses more strong, we link with others precisely at those points? How many women who are not mothers spend years mothering some mysteriously wounded man? How many apparently strong and successful men seek out love like a kind of topical balm they can apply to their wounded bodies and egos when they have withdrawn from combat? Herein lies the great differences between divine weakness, the wounds of Christ and the wounds of man. Two human weaknesses only intensify each other. But human weakness plus Christ’s weakness equals a supernatural strength.
You’ll have to forgive me if I quote from this small book multiple times as I make my way slowly through it. Wiman’s observations – and the words he employs to make them – are the sort that beg to be shared.
Now, this is what I had a chance to talk about when I met with some young men from Hyde Park Academy who were participating in this B.A.M. program. Where are the guys I talked to? Stand up you all, so we can all see you guys. (Applause.) So these are some — these are all some exceptional young men, and I couldn’t be prouder of them. And the reason I’m proud of them is because a lot of them have had some issues. That’s part of the reason why you guys are in the program. (Laughter.)
But what I explained to them was I had issues too when I was their age. I just had an environment that was a little more forgiving. So when I screwed up, the consequences weren’t as high as when kids on the South Side screw up. (Applause.) So I had more of a safety net. But these guys are no different than me, and we had that conversation about what does it take to change. And the same thing that it takes for us individually to change, I said to them, well, that’s what it takes for communities to change. That’s what it takes for countries to change. It’s not easy.
Out of everything he said at the public school down the road from our church and home, it was these two paragraphs from President Obama’s speech that grabbed my attention. I noticed not because the President said something new but because he acknowledged the systemic injustices that are rarely mentioned in public. So much of the commentary about the violence in our city ignores the surrounding circumstances not to mention the troubling history that has led to this constant crisis. And while he just barely eluded to it, the President is right about the systemic inequity that provides a safety net for some while leaving others to fend for themselves.
The day before the President delivered his speech at Hyde Park High School, Chicago Public Schools announced the list of 129 schools that are on the preliminary list of schools to be closed. Most of these are on the city’s south and west sides, in the neighborhoods that already lack much of the safety net the President referenced. And so it goes.