Black Lives Matter – Banner Day

Black Lives Matter — Banner Day

It is a tiny statement really. Our family’s banner during these days. It is a symbolic witness we make without leaving home – it is a banner hung from the patio of our condo. It reads:

White Silence EQUALS White Consent BLACK LIVES MATTER.

Now retired, in our mid-70s, trying to be wise about our health we avoid large gatherings and the COVID-19 virus; even so, we cannot remain silent. In these times, even the stones now cry out “Black Lives Matter.” Hanging off a balcony is a banner celebrating Juneteenth, June 19, 1865, the day the word reached slaves in Texas that their freedom had arrived. This banner, now, is our way of saying to those who suffer under the racism in our time, “We see you, we hear you, we join with you.”

The first Juneteenth was 155 years ago and yet racism still dominates our nation’s narrative. This scourge has been persistent across the decades — improvements, yes — then retrenchment and steps backward, almost always. This is the case because we have allowed racism to be defined as individual prejudice or discrimination that is carried out by bad people. This makes it simple and we hear folks say, “We’ll I’m not a racist.” Either/or — simplicity at it’s best — There are good people like me and bad people like “them” and that’s all I need to know.

I recently reviewed the Kerner Report (1968). That document famously, and in hindsight, tragically warns, “Our nation is moving toward two societies, one black, one white – separate and unequal.” The report was a strong indictment of White America: “What white Americans have never fully understood but what the Negro can never forget – is that white society is deeply implicated in the ghetto. White institutions created it, white institutions maintain it, and white society condones it.

The Kerner report outlined racism as more than individual prejudice or discrimination. Racism it said was embedded in systems of unequal power — these were group prejudices (often unrecognized by Whites) reinforced by institutions across our social landscape — educational, medical, ecclesial, judicial, law enforcement. In other words, pervasive. So, our little banner is indeed a small witness.

1968 – that was 52 years ago. We who hang this banner now, were in our early twenties when the Kerner report was written. We were inspired by Dr. King and the passage of Civil Rights Legislation. We believed racial justice would soon be realized across the land. The five decades that followed demonstrated how deeply racism is embedded in all of our institutions, our community practices, our churches, our political parties and in the psyche of too many across our nation.

So, we make this small witness now — as folks drive north on Walnut Street in our city, they can look off to the third floor of our building and there is the banner “Black Lives Matter.”

Let me encourage you to find your own small ways to demonstrate a commitment to be an antiracist. My last blog post suggested some ways to read and learn anew the dimensions of racism in 2020. We must Listen, Study, Pray, Act. One excellent resource helping us understand the deeply embedded systemic dimensions of racism are around us, like the air we breath, is the book Color of Law by Richard Rothstein. You can watch the video overview of Rothstein’s research at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=r9UqnQC7jY4&feature=youtu.be.

Do Black Lives Matter? Of course they do! This was an essential message in 1865, 1968 and even more so just now. So we hung the banner — our Juneteenth reminder. Elaine, always good with tape and an ironing board helped ready our small display. It now flaps in the wind — perhaps more tape is needed!

Perhaps like me you hear some say, “Well don’t all lives matter?” Of course they do, but that’s not the point. Not all of us face the systemic discrimination and inequality of power distribution in employment or financial security. Not all of us need to have “the talk” with our children about what to do or say if pulled over by the police. Not all of us experience the same level of health risks, whether it is the water in Flint, Michigan or the differential in healthcare highlighted by the current corona-virus pandemic.

Personally, to cope, I contextualize this, make a little joke in my head. The question “Don’t All Lives Matter?” is like a nutty scene where Jesus is preaching the Sermon on the Mount. In this Monty-Python-type-scene Jesus is announcing “blessed are the poor, the hungry, those who weep…” and a couple of well-dressed fellows in the back of the crowd, who haven’t missed a meal for years, shout out, “Hey Jesus don’t all lives matter?”

Actually this scene isn’t too far fetched. In Luke 4, just a couple of chapters earlier Jesus is preaching in his home town of Nazareth. Using the text from Isaiah 61 he proclaims:

Luke 4:18 “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
    because he has anointed me
        to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
    and recovery of sight to the blind,
        to let the oppressed go free,
19 to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

The folks in Nazareth responded by saying — “Hey, isn’t this Joseph’s son? What right does he have to come and claim that ‘today this scripture is fulfilled?’ Hey, Jesus, don’t all lives matter? They run him out of town! You see, they were like a lot of good Methodists, Presbyterians, Lutherans, Baptists, Catholics, Orthodox — and all you others — believers and nonbelievers. If you don’t understand this, you may never quite understand the Gospel Jesus came to proclaim — blessed are those who suffer exclusion.

In truth if all lives matter — equally — then those of us who have been so blessed need to sing, shout, hang banners, sign petitions, encourage our political leaders, write letters to those in power and, mostly, live our lives in ways that proclaim: “BLACK LIVES MATTER!”

Don’t Preach a Sermon, Until

Don’t Preach that Sermon on Racism… Until

Perhaps the murders of George Floyd in Minneapolis, Breonna Taylor in Louisville and Ahmad Aubrey in Bainbridge, Georgia have shaken our slumbering nation awake. Perhaps. Perhaps we have been woke and deep hungers for righteousness will now stir within our communities. Protesters have flooded our streets in anger and despair.

A courageous seventeen-year-old young woman videotaped the 8 minutes 46 seconds as George Floyd’s life ebbed away with an officer’s knee on his neck. “Eight minutes and forty-six seconds.” It is a cry from the streets; the length of time peaceful protesters take a knee; and, a way to summarize the injustice of four hundred years of racism in our nation.

Friends ask what they might do in response. Some clergy friends are preparing sermons on racism. They are surprised when I say, “Don’t preach that sermon, yet.” One surprised pastor said, “But this is exactly the time to preach against racism.” Perhaps he is right, but first, a warning.

Back in 1973-1975 I was part of a research team for Project Understanding. a national effort to address racism. My dissertation, written on this research, is Racism and Suburban Congregations: Strategies for Change. I recall my disappointment when the data showed the least effective way to change racist attitudes and racist institutional practices was through preaching. (The effect of preaching, by itself, is negligible).  While the pulpit can be a helpful additional, backup resource, a reinforcement — a supplemental provider of encouragement — it was almost never a pivot point for change.

Sadly, teaching and educational approaches weren’t much better if enduring transformation is sought.  Again education can be a supplemental benefit.  And, only slightly better than these two are regular pulpit exchanges among racially diverse congregations.  

The most effective approaches were discovered to be interracial teams working to address various civic or institutional matters that didn’t need to focus exclusively on racism. For many, probably most, this is counter-intuitive thinking. I had been taught that you change one’s attitude first and behavioral changes follow.  Of course, the idea of behavioral change being the lead priority, was the research behind the Supreme Court’s desegregation decision in Brown vs. Board of Education.

There are multiple actions possible. Perhaps you could work on the Equal Justice Initiative to set up markers memorializing each of the lynchings in your state. (In Indiana there are 12 such known lynchings.) Perhaps you could join groups monitoring racist practices in education or housing or policing. Or, learn about and join the “white coats, black lives” actions of medical workers in your community. Start an interracial prayer or book group. Charity is not the goal here. You need to become the one who is tutored, and not the tutor. Turn off that natural White tendency to keep the power differential in your favor.

So, before you preach that sermon, especially if you are a White pastor to a predominantly White congregation, what can I suggest? First, do your homework. I understand the urge to go fight and speak for justice. Even so, you need to prepare yourself before encouraging others. More importantly you need to listen to African Americans and determine where you might take some action.

So, in this order then are steps to take — LISTEN, STUDY, ACT, all before you preach. If you don’t know African American leaders in your community, what are you waiting for? If you haven’t yet joined a protest, and can do this safely during the COVID-19 pandemic — perhaps this is the way to start. Or, join an opportunity to work for racial justice — and — get moving.

Dear White friends, don’t expect African Americans to tell you what to do. Instead, listen, carefully and humbly listen. Then study; then ACT. Only then will your sermons make a difference. Here are some resources for study:

  • Ibram X. Kendi’s fine book “How to Be An Antiracist” (2019) is a good place to start. We must move beyond the notion of being a non-racist to leaning how to live lovingly as an antiracist.
  • Robin DiAngelo’s “White Fragility: Why It is So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism” (2018). Take 20 minutes and watch: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DwIx3KQer54.
  • Mona Hanna-Attisha’s “What the Eyes Don’t See” (2019) is a story as told by a physician of the crises, response and hope from the Flint, Michigan water crises.
  • Jonathan M. Metzl’s “Dying of Whiteness: How the Politics of Racial Resentment is Killing America’s Heartland” (2019) is a collection of interviews on the deep underlying myths carried by white racism.
  • Will Willimon’s “Who Lynched Willie Earle: Preaching to Confront Racism” (2017) and “Fear of the Other: No Fear in Love (2016). There is also a five week video study for church groups.
  • Jim Wallis’ “America’s Original Sin” (2016) is a Biblical and theological analysis that offers hope for a different way.
  • Richard Rothstein’s Color of Law (2017) outlines the way housing discrimination has shaped our nation.
Demonstration Against Cruel Immigration Policies, Evanston, Illinois, 2017

It does appear this is a time of change, an inflection point, a time theologians speak of as Kairos time — when signs of God’s kingdom might become more manifest in our institutions and communities. So, before you preach, PREPARE. Listen, Study, Act and then preach away — all of you — ordained clergy and non-clergy. Let’s preach our hearts out, and do it as part of a deep and enduring narrative, that will bring to our grandchildren a lasting change.