“Take time to grieve.” I have offered such counsel while standing with families and friends at the time of loss. Take time. I have counseled myself when facing crises. Time to pray, time to reflect, to breath deeply; take time to embrace family and friends; time to gain perspective for the journey ahead. It will take months, years perhaps, decades maybe. Time is necessary to better understand the whole of pain and healing.
On Friday last, on the eve of Rosh Hashanah, Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg died. She was 87.
On July 17th, Congressman and Civil Rights leader, John Robert Lewis died. He was 80.
Over the past six months, in the United States’ more than 200,000 folks have died of COVID-19. Of these more than 150,000 were fellow citizens over the age 65.
We have much grief work to do as a nation. We have lost leaders and icons. Many of us have lost loved ones and dear friends to coronavirus.
We have grief work to do!
Cormic McCarthy’s 2005 novel No Country for Old Men, and the movie that followed, comes to mind in this moment. It is a powder keg of a book. Played out on the Southwest Texas border with Mexico. It is a tale that moves all too quickly and violently upending the quiet lives of those caught in the unwelcome drama. Like James Lee Burke’s recent novel A Private Cathedral, McCarthy’s story plumbs the depths of human good and evil and the world of truth and lies.
Our nation’s future appears to reside in the hands of many old men (and a few old women). Some are seeking to rush past the national grief work so needed now. This is needed grief work to celebrate the service of Justice Ginsberg or Congressman Lewis — grief work that remembers the lives of those hundreds of thousands struck down by the coronavirus.
Let this also be added to our grief work: to stand against the corruption and lies offered by those who seek only to hold on to power. Let our grief work be to move our nation beyond the grievance of bigotry; let us move past unproductive racial, religious and cultural divisions. Let our grief work seek compassion for all, young and old. Let our grief work involve prayer, reflection, reaching to friends and family. And, mostly, let our grief work be to join those who will work and protest and vote for a society that values all people.
Prayers for our nation today — and a resource for hope.
This week, my friend, Mark Feldmeir’s book,
“A House Divided: Engaging the Issues Through the Politics of Compassion,” will be released. It offers a hopeful way forward in these challenging times. Mark is pastor of St. Andrews United Methodist Church in Highlands Ranch, Colorado.
Regarding racism, Mark offers these axioms:
How we think about racism is largely determined by our own particular race.
Race is the child of racism and not the father.
Colorblindness is a myth that blinds us to the truth about racism.
God of justice, in your wisdom you create all people in your image, without exception. Through your goodness, open our eyes to see the dignity, beauty and worth of every human being. Open our minds to understand that all your children are brothers and sisters, in the same human family. Open our hearts to repent of racial attitudes behaviors, and speech that demean others. Open our ears to hear the cries of those wounded by racial discrimination, and their passionate appeals for change. Strengthen our resolve to make amends for past injustices and to right the wrongs of history. And fill us with courage that we might seek to heal wounds, build bridges, forgive and be forgiven, and establish peace and equality for all in our communities. Amen. (A House Divided, page 30)
Prayer for Today, August 31, 2020:
Dear God, calm the fears of our nation. We think especially of the events in Kenosha, Portland, Louisville, Atlanta, Minneapolis and in so many other places. We pray for our own home towns. [Silent prayer] Show us the way to greater justice for all as we seek understanding. Even as we go about our lives in this restricted world of COVID 19, awaken us to, and remind us of, the gifts and value of our neighbors. [Silent reflection]. Make of us, who are your church and who live outside the church, advocates for non-violence and renewal. [Silent prayer] Amen.
I was wrong. As soon as I spoke, I regretted it. It was a video class, called “Anchor Point,” taught by Dr. Rob Fuquay at St. Lukes United Methodist Church in Indianapolis. Rob interviewed me for the class via video. I spoke of research done on white racism over the years. As the class was ending, I was asked what I might say to the African American members of the class. My too quick response was, “First, have patience with us. Second, keep pushing us.”
I was wrong. If I could have a “do over” I would have said to African American Christians, “Keep teaching us and encouraging us all to join in what John Lewis called “Good Trouble.”
By sundown on that Sunday, in Kenosha, Wisconsin, Jacob Blake had been shot in the back seven times! I was wrong to suggest that patience in the face of the racial violence our nation endures should be anywhere in the realm of a reasonable response. Perhaps I was tired, like most of us are, tired of the horrific words and actions of bigotry, discrimination and deadly violence.
Fifty years ago, James Baldwin wrote “I will flatly say that the bulk of this country’s white population impresses me, and has so impressed me for a very long time, as being beyond any conceivable hope of moral rehabilitation. They have been white, if I may so put it, too long.” (New York Times, February 2, 1969) Robert P. Smith’s book “White Too Long: The Legacy of White Supremacy in American Christianity,” published only this summer, draws on Baldwin’s perception.
Early in that video interview I had spoken of Robert Smith’s research on White racism. Earlier I had offered stories of antiracist actions by congregations. Earlier I had talked of our racist complicity and our deeply embedded racist-worlds-taken-for-granted behaviors. But to the question “What would I say to my African American sisters and brothers?” my response was pathetic and unhelpful. The call is not to patience. The call is for more than an apology. The response is to vigilance against the sin of racism and a pledge to actively engage in antiracist work.
In this moment, in these circumstances, patience is NOT a virtue. If my words in any way were heard as a call to be passive or patient in the face of active racial hatred, let me be clear — that was not what I meant — and what I said, well, it was wrong.
There are multiple reasons to ignore the Republican National Presidential Convention this week: Hurricane Laura battering the Gulf Coast; unrelenting wildfires in California, the death toll from the coronavirus passing the 180,000 mark, as millions of students from kindergarten to graduate school return to classes — and others face months of isolated online learning; concerns about future postal service as persons wait for needed checks and medications, another young black person, Jacob Blake, shot by police — this time shot in the back, seven times — and the streets of Kenosha, Wisconsin erupt in protest. Plenty of reasons to ignore the GOPs made-for-reality-television episodes.
It can be overwhelming. Each of these tragic events deserves attention, human care and response. There are so many threats as so many innocent people face unexpected, life altering events.
Two images come to mind as I watched the Republican National Presidential Convention. The first is a balcony curtain seen in Barcelona two winters ago. It was, to my eyes, a delightful piece of whimsical art: two hands appear to be pulling back the curtains on a balcony. It represents the joy of discovering what might otherwise be hidden.
The other image is a photo taken on the same day in a nearby neighborhood. There were dozens of these banners, hanging from balconies and roof tops. The image is a blank face where a mouth has been smeared over and the word “democracia!” is printed below.
Democracia! This is a cry heard round the world in our time. From Hong Kong to Belarus to Damascus to Louisville and Kenosha the cry, too often muted and all too real, rings out.
As I watch snippets of the made-for-television Republican convention, there is little mention of the multiple tragedies that surround and threaten to overwhelm. In fact, these calls for democracia are not mentioned.
Folks are paraded in front of the cameras — grifters, cons, wanna-be-future-presidents. There are folks who seek profit or status by supporting the forced alternative reality that is being sold from the platform of fear and grievance. It is a world deconstructed of truth; a world of scarcity that is broadcast by folks who have more than enough.
All aimed at good persons, who have bought into conspiracy theories because they fear the future and, like too many people all across the world, they are willing to put their trust in a totalitarian idea… No worse yet, trust is put in a totalitarian and narcissistic man. He actually suggests we shouldn’t believe what others may say or think — trust him only as a source of truth. Forget science, ignore history, avoid moral thinking apart from a few made for grievance and simplistically answered dilemmas. He who, though you know he cheats and manipulates, still claims to be the one to bring the order and easy solutions you hope will one day come.
Truth is turned on its head — the immigrants who bring talent and a willingness to work are turned into the enemy. Young people who seek justice and protest out of conviction are turned into rioters. NATO becomes our enemy and Russian operatives who seek to undermine our common well-being are turned into our friends. After all, the supreme leader sends love letters to the North Korean dictator and speaks fondly of the tyrant in Turkey. He is “doing foreign policy differently” we are told and any appeal to human rights disappears. The scriptures are not read or studied; no. The “holy book” is but a symbol, a prop; it is held up like some talisman that can block out the truth contained in the great and true counter narrative within the book.
The idea that there is only one person who can fix things, all of the social disarray around is what this man openly stated four years ago. Today, in the United States the true believers are the Trumpists. Who would imagine, who could imagine, a political party that decided it needed no plans for the future, no party platform, especially when tragedies abound? Who could imagine? Would someone please pull back the curtain and let the realities of our situation be made apparent. Might “we the people” discover it is essentially our shared, widely enacted, response that can begin to bring renewed health and hope.
There are also well meaning, sincere folks. Persons I think of as “the genuine articles” who are given a cameo performance on the GOP stage. They have bought into the big lie. The lie that the world is an either/or place. Either you are with the supreme leader, and that is the only way to fix things, or you will lose your place of security, of status and order. There are multiple alternate paths for a people who might seek truth together; however we will have to work with persons who see some parts of reality differently. Pull back the curtain. There are options to being a Trumpist. It will require pulling back a curtain to see that those who differ are also Children of God, like you? The Trumpist wants to say all who differ are “socialists.” Such astonishing, deceptive, untruthful language is repeated over and over until good people believe the lie.
Democracy means we will have to work with others to solve the complex real world problems; we must, in fact, do it together. I so value the good folks who seem stuck in this trap of binary thinking — they are my neighbors, my friends, my family. Still, my reality is that our democracy is now being smothered.
It is like a giant pillow of grievance and fear is forced down across the face of our body politic. There is not room for protest, dialogue, compromise. As Bill Moyers put it “A democracy can die of too many lies. And we’re getting close to that terminal moment, unless we reverse the obsession with lies that are being fed around the country.” (See Bill Moyers on Truth).
A Call for Antiracist Commitments by Indiana United Methodists
Date: August 17, 2020
At the August 15th session of the Indiana Annual Conference the following motion was referred for consideration: “In preparing the 2021 budget for the Indiana Annual Conference, the Conference Finance and Administration Commission will set aside 10% of future program ministry budget(s) for antiracism work.”
Rationale: We have reached a kairos moment in the life our nation and church. Ours is a time of opportunity, transformation, and an occasion to clearly and directly address the enduring racism that besets our nation, state and church. In truth, racism is embedded in all of our systems: education, medicine, commerce, housing, law enforcement and, most tragically, even the church.
This motion to aside a tithe of conference program budget for antiracism efforts is an opportunity for United Methodists to lead in this critical work. It would demonstrate again our witness to racial justice through positive and constructive actions. We would thereby demonstrate our commitment to follow the Christ who welcomes all without reservation. Sadly, more than the vestiges of racism survive in our body. Racism continues to reshape our practices, our ministries and our structures. By wide majorities our members live and worship in racial enclaves. Membership reports, programming and attendance records since the beginning of the United Methodist Church in 1972 offer abundant evidence of our failure to extend our denomination’s welcome very far beyond that of being a church primarily focused on ministry with and for Whites. At the same time the racial and ethnic diversity of our state has greatly expanded while our percentages of persons from differing racial groups remains small.
This is an evangelistic and missional dilemma – and an opportunity. If Indiana’s youth see our church at all, there is scant evidence that Indiana United Methodism is modeled upon the beloved community of Jesus, where all are welcome. Antiracist commitments are seldom displayed, whether in camping, leadership initiatives, or church development programs. It is painful to ask the question, Where do we invest our dollars and our lives in specific and clear ways that confront the sin of racism in our society and in our own church? Persons of Color now make up more than sixteen percent of Indiana’s population, while our membership percentages of non-white persons is somewhere between three to five percent.
Tragically, it has taken the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Abery, Elijah McClain, Sandra Bland, Tony McDade, Christian Cooper, Treyvon Martin, Eric Garner, and dozens of others, to awaken our nation to the profound violence and daily bigotry against African Americans. These murders, and dozens of others, are the most dramatic examples of the ways an acceptance of racism contributes to a societal assault on human decency. Indiana United Methodists have been far too passive. This is not a time to claim neutrality or blame some other forces for our tribal and de facto segregated lives. It is not sufficient to simply claim to be “non-racist.” This is a moment of gospel opportunity. This is, potentially, our Kairos moment, when the United Methodist Church in Indiana, can be true to the best of our history, our Evangelical theology, and our better angels. This is our time to act in bold, antiracist ways.
Fifty years ago, James Baldwin wrote “I will flatly say that the bulk of this country’s white population impresses me, and has so impressed me for a very long time, as being beyond any conceivable hope of moral rehabilitation. They have been white, if I may so put it, too long.” (New York Times, February 2, 1969)
Robert P. Smith’s book “White Too Long: The Legacy of White Supremacy in American Christianity,” published only this summer, draws on Baldwin’s perception. Smith’s research is both a deeply disturbing and helpful resource for Christians who seek to take the next steps in confronting the sin of racism. While much of this research is based on Smith’s own Southern Baptist background, there are ample illustrations for United Methodists and other mainline folks. Clear evidence of our racist complicity and our deeply embedded racist-worlds-taken-for-granted behaviors is provided. Fortunately, there are also examples offered of the ways congregations and judicatories have moved from simply talking about racism to taking specific steps to act in constructive and restorative ways to repair what has been broken and reach out in life giving ways.
This motion, offered and referred on August 15, is a call for the Indiana United Methodist Church to give witness and take responsibility for the damage done to all parties, Blacks (along with other “minorities”) and damage to Whites as well, for too long. It will require more than preaching to change prejudiced attitudes or attending workshops on inclusion and diversity. It will require more than a few token examples of racially integrated vacation church schools or charity work with the poor.
Antiracism work will involve structural changes, new partnerships and a stepping away from the paternalism that has shaped many of our ministries. This is a time for seeing the remarkable gifts and resources brought by persons of color already within our churches and in the neighborhoods and communities surrounding them. It is an opportunity to establish a new template for the long-term health of our congregations and conference that is marked by including new persons and groups. Such renewal work will require decades of effort and resources. It will be, however, a key investment in a stronger and healthier future for the church.
In earlier conversations, I have been appropriately reminded that Bishop Trimble does not need our counsel, advice or wisdom in matters regarding racism so much as he needs us to put action behind our words of hoped for racial reconciliation. I do not claim to be an expert so much as a long-time observer and a follower of Jesus; I am one who is captured by the hope of the gospel. Do I think such a change in the budget is easy or likely? No, and probably not. Even so, I believe a tithe toward antiracism ministries is essential to matching what we say with what we do – and to sustain United Methodism’s witness in the future.
How might this be done? There are dozens of ways our pastors and lay leaders can, and I believe would, respond to this call. Many more ways than we can imagine. Attached is a page of “possibilities” that briefly offer ideas for positive antiracism work in Indiana. Prayers for you and with you as you contemplate how best to respond to this time that calls for our repentance and action.
Philip A. Amerson
Ten Examples of Potential INUMC Antiracist Activities
There are dozens of ways Indiana United Methodists can act in antiracist ways. These could begin to repair damage done over the decades by racial violence and brokenness. Such actions might be mixed and matched together through study, travel, outreach, witness, etc. A tithe from our conference program budget might:
1) Reestablish the work of a Commission on Religion and Race in the Annual Conference with funding for such work for the next decade.
2) Join with our United Methodist Hospitals and other health services in direct, hands-on and prayer-supported, engagement to address the high rates of infant mortality in Indiana. This is something that is particularly a problem in our minority communities.
3) Offer annual updates and workshops on the racial makeup of our congregations and populations in each county in a district. This would offer new insights for persons who mistakenly believe there is “no diversity in our community.” Several counties have seen significant increases in Hispanic and other non-white populations in the last decade; still many in our churches seem not to be aware.
4) Provide resources for at least two annual gatherings of persons of color in the conference, pastors and laity. Mostly they would get to know one another. Another goal could be to monitor conference actions; or another goal might be to design “learning journeys” with white clergy and laity where they could spend time in prayer, reflection, learning and planning for the future, together.
5) Review and update existing conference programs, in consultation with African American, Hispanic and Asian educators to offer more racially sensitive and appropriate approaches to strengthening our education, outreach and evangelism. Persons like the Rev. Vanessa Allen-Brown or Mr. De’Amon Harges and Ms. Seana Murphy of The Learning Tree in Indianapolis would offer valuable assistance.
6) Encourage every congregation in the conference to establish a partnership with another congregation or group of persons from a different racial or cultural background. This might include regular ways to fellowship and worship with Indiana AME, AMEZ and CME congregations. One can imagine how remarkable such gatherings these might be if guest lecturers shared insights regarding antiracism options.
7) Read, study and travel with others. For example, read the books by Bryan Stevenson (Just Mercy) and Robert P. Smith (White Too Long) and take a trip to the National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Alabama Or, read Jim Madison’s book on the Klan in Indiana and visit one of the sites, perhaps with a video or face-to-face conversation with Professor Madison.
8) Join the Community Remembrance Project sponsored by the Equal Justice Initiative to offer witness at each of the seven known lynching sites in Indiana. These are recorded at the National Memorial for Peace and Justice and a part of the Community Remembrance Project that seeks to set a Historical Marker at each site. There is also a gathering of the soil near each site to be placed on display along with the victim’s names at the museum. Wouldn’t it be “GOOD NEWS” to report that it was the UMC in Indiana that saw memorials placed and services of repentance held in each of location of a lynching.
9) Identify places where racism has damaged our witness (such as the troubled cross racial appointment at Old North Church in Evansville in 1985 or the closing of City Methodist Church in Gary) and/or locations where we once had a congregation of color that is now vacated. Hire persons to document these stories and/or share with the conference materials that are already available giving preference to researchers who are persons of color. Work with pastors in these settings to hold gatherings of repentance and reconciliation.
10) Ask the Indiana United Methodist Historical Society to research and publish a fuller account of the connections between Indiana Methodism and the Ku-Klux Klan, especially in the early 1920s. (In his 1994 United Methodism in Indiana, John J. Baughman wrote: “Particularly awkward was some local Methodist support for the infamous Ku Klux Klan in Indiana in the 1920s. Even now this is a no-no subject within the denominational history.”) Knowing this history, painful as it may be, can lead to honest acts of repentance and restoration. It is likely that several of our congregations could benefit from an honest knowledge such a history.
“Racial Prejudice is a sin.” So reads the lead sentence in an ad from a well meaning Christian institution. Yes, it is! “Good,” I thought. “Not sufficient,” was my second thought.
The ad was announcing a new educational program. Daily I read of a new degree program, or certificate, or workshop on racism. There are programs featuring inclusion and diversity; some offering cultural awareness. Good — many in our nation have been woke to our nation’s prevailing racism. Then, again I think, not sufficient.
Anti-racism work involves more than addressing individual prejudice, or practicing inclusion, or graduating from diversity training. The deeply embedded racist practices, white privilege and enduring structures of our society require more than changing bad attitudes or reorienting mental categories. I am helped by Isabel Wilkerson’s recent argument that our society is, in reality, a caste system.
In my tradition, the prayer for each day begins “New every morning is your love, great God of light, and all day long you are working for good in the world. Stir up in us desire to serve you, to live peacefully with our neighbors, and to devote each day to your Son, Our Savior, Jesus Christ the Lord.” Once woke, there is the need to keep awakening.
Setting aside my unpleasant thoughts about the marketing and commercialization of programs to address racism, it is clear that antiracism work will require more than a new curriculum, or a certificate or registration for a webinar. If we are to continue movement toward the Beloved Community we will be required to do some major overhauls, yes personally, but also in our institutions and economies.
As I have come to realize, over and again, my personal confession and repentance is only the prelude to a life-long reorientation. Recently I was asked if I was suggesting there is need for a “continual conversion.” In short, YES. As one friend suggests, this is “one-hundred-year-work.” It is as Eugene Peterson reminds us “A long obedience in the same direction.” Antiracism requires sustained commitment to institutional and cultural change. If you thought differently, I want to disabuse you of belief in any easy path. This is to say those eight week or eight month programs are… well, a small, good beginning, but only that.
In ways too numerous to list, we will always be learning, confessing, repenting, and re-imagining our common life and its institutions. In our podcast/videocast, Mike Mather and I suggest this lifelong commitment will involve Remembering Community — remembering our common Beloved Community.
While we don’t offer a certificate, a degree program, or a $135 workshop or webinar, Mike Mather and I invite folks to listen in and join the conversation. We are reflecting on our own racism and the deep caste-like patterns with which we have struggled in our ministries — personal, institutional and cultural. In the weeks ahead we will be looking at this along with the many stories from parish and community ministry.
In this weeks episode we speak of institutional racism, and of how two remarkable African American women, Hertha Taylor and Sadie Flowers, each acted in creative and joy-filled ways. Our call is to remember folks like these and to venture beyond the comfortable formats of small projects in “helping others,” that so many assume to be best. You can watch the video at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sbFkguEMsSw.
We are “two old white guys.” United Methodist pastors with over 90 years of parish experience between us. In the attached podcast we think about racism and anti-racist work. We laugh, we confess our failures and we acknowledge the joy of ministry in places of diversity. Over the years we have spoken of the romance of work in a parish and its surrounding community. Here is a taste of what we have discovered.
If you find something here that parallels your journey — or even if there is something helpful, or something with which you disagree — make a comment, share your story.
Change, transformation, renewal, conversion are a part of the religious lexicon that is, I believe, too often lost in our time. In all of the calls for justice, it might be wise if we were open to considering the importance of transformation. Not just for those we believe to be wrong — but perhaps most importantly for ourselves.
In a recent United Methodist People podcast, the Rev. Dr. Brad Miller hosted a conversation with Indiana United Methodist Bishop Julius Trimble. If you are interested it can be found here: (http://Apple Podcasts:http://bit.ly/UMPeoplePodcast). I tell of something that happened nearly forty years ago am newly aware of the ways my heart and mind has been changed — and, I pray, continues to be reshaped by God’s transforming love for me and for all.
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!”
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.
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.
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.