July 8-11, 2016
“A soft answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger.” (Proverbs 15:1)
Dearest God, let my words be a soft answer to this world, so that peace prevails, understanding abounds, and our strife subsides.
I was in Wyoming last year, when I heard the news of a gunman opening fire upon a bible study in an African-American Methodist church in Charleston, South Carolina. My wife and I were stunned, and I was reminded that I can never fully know what it is like to be black in America. The shooting in that Charleston church was an act of terrorism, targeting innocent people who wished no harm on that young man.
On the evening before we returned home, I walked out onto the shore of a lake at the foot of the mountains, and I prayed out loud to God. After this trip, we would start trying to have a child, and I wrestled with the realization that our baby would be born into a world with hatred and violence. I asked that God’s will be done, and I promised to do my best, to create a better world, not just for my child, but for all people.
Now, as I wait for my child to be born, I still wake up to hear news of terrorism. This week, an another young man targeted and attacked police officers who wished him no harm. I can hardly comprehend the sad irony: Those murdered policemen were protecting the right of citizens to protest the actions of the few police who use excessive force and make insensitive judgement calls that lead to unnecessary violence. I’ve read that the Dallas police force in particular had made significant strides in improving community relationships.
These mass killings have brought us local versions of the terrorists across the world who I find so difficult to understand: Some people’s minds have become so twisted, so distanced from moral reality, that they take out their anger on innocent lives. Unfortunately, such terrorism is a long-standing human tradition.
But there is another tradition, another threat of violence, that my child will never face—the threat that a powerful white person will not fully value my child’s life, merely because of the color of my child’s skin. I worry about the future safety of the brown-skinned babies I have baptized in my church: Will they be treated like Philando Castile if they are pulled over? Will they be treated like Alton Sterling if they are confronted by the police? Will they be shot if they reach for their license, if they resist arrest? Or will they suffer in a less dramatic way, by having their education neglected or their labor exploited?
I cannot know the inner mind of anyone else, but the pattern of disproportionate violence done by powerful persons to the black community is real, tragic, and part of a long tradition. I certainly believe that the vast majority of police, like the vast majority of people, desire the safety and happiness of all humans. But in the United States, I’ve grown up in a culture that sometimes subtly, and sometimes blatantly, does not place the same value on the lives of black people and black communities as it places on white people like myself. When I was in middle school, I heard and repeated jokes in which the punchline included the deaths of black lives. (Other jokes were disparaging against poor persons and gay persons.) I don’t remember hearing racist comments from my parents, and yet I learned to disrespect black people as a group, even as I was cordial in person. Now, I realize that those jokes were part of a culture that had the power to shape my character and judgement. Even as I profess a love for all people, my culture has the power to instill attitudes into my subconscious. Long after I stopped repeating such jokes, and even after I learned about the struggle for black civil rights, I noticed a fear I had of black men. Like someone who gave up smoking and longs for a cigarette, I know it’s wrong, but the impulse is automatic. I grew up thinking black bodies were “other” and different from me, potentially a threat. I now think of myself as a recovering racist, like sober persons consider themselves recovering alcoholics. (I pray this is not a disrespectful comparison for anyone.) This distorted impulse has not been eliminated from me. And I am still accustomed to—maybe addicted to—the privileges I experience as a straight white male living in the United States. Because of my particular experience, I never grew up with reasons to fear those in authority. I never doubted I could get any job I wanted or achieve any level of worldly success.
Some of you may have grown up like me. We developed an impulsive fear and skepticism to black persons who were strangers to us, or to the black community in general. Because of this impulse among us, it appears that black persons are often treated with less deference and respect than a white person would be. (We can see this in data showing that black persons receive harsher sentences for the same crimes as white persons.) It doesn’t have to be conscious behavior. Having habits of learned racism doesn’t make me the same as someone in an organized hate-group like the KKK. But subconscious racism can be as damaging as explicit hatred. I believe it is often subconscious impulses of fear and distorted prejudice that we see expressed in the harsher, sometimes deadly, treatment received by black men and women when they come into contact with police (no matter the race of the police officers).
Once I came to grips with my own learned racism and impulsive assumptions, I began to examine myself more closely. I’ve tried to notice and slowly eliminate my faulty ideas and irrational feelings. I’ve been patient with myself (though surely not as patient as the many black people in my life who have journeyed with me and pointed out insensitive remarks I didn’t notice).
As a spiritual director, I wish for mature disciples of Jesus to be as kind and considerate as possible. Any thoughtful, compassionate Christian can both support a movement to draw attention to the unequal treatment black citizens sometimes receive and support the work of police, who risk their lives to increase the safety of our communities. We can be tempted to take sides, to demonize some “other” group. Such division is a mistake. Any reasonable person can simultaneously support the value of African-Americans and law enforcement officers. A reasonable person can also disagree with particular tactics taken by the police or by Black Lives Matter, without withdrawing all of our support for their basic, good intentions. I can support someone without approving of every action they take. (Every good parent and spouse knows this.)
But fear confuses us. Terror knocks us off our feet, making it hard to thinking clearly and compassionately. Our animal instinct tempts us to retreat into an us-versus-them mentality. We forget how to bring people together, how to foster understanding and listening relationships. We automatically know how to fight and blame. Sanctification takes a lot of work. Compassion takes a lot of sacrifice—the death of our ego and self-satisfaction.
So, here’s my attempt to make sense of things, my attempt at a “soft answer” that turns away from wrath and toward the compassionate understanding God desires for us:
In one space, I see terrorism: The army veteran who murdered those five police officers in Dallas is most like the young man who murdered the nine Christians in Charleston. While race is a factor, what I see most clearly is a demented mind—a mind deformed and deluded into thinking that violence is the answer to a problem. A similar situation is at work in the middle east: While religion is a factor, a terrorist has become essentially insane, losing connection to a moral reality.
In another space, I see disproportionate force being used against black persons, especially against black men. The violence done is not terrorism, at least not as I’ve defined it above, but it causes some people to live in fear.
But there is good news: An awareness of a problem can help us address the problem. For me, awareness of my own explicit and impulsive prejudice has helped me to eliminate racist words, judgements, and actions from my life. By listening to the black people in my life, reading the wisdom of African-American leaders, and learning about social patterns that place black persons at a disadvantage, I’ve been a more informed pastor, who can try to do my part in making world a safer, supportive, and encouraging people for all of God’s children.
I pray my words are not divisive. My hope is to be honest, kind, and thoughtful. As a pastor, I feel it’s my duty to discern what God’s best wisdom might be in this day and age (and to share that discernment with others). As a Christian, I hope to trust in Jesus enough that I might follow his example, love all people, and serve those who are socially marginalized.
What’s next? Depending on who you are, your next steps may be different. If you want to learn more data about social patterns that place black persons at a disadvantage, I recommend reading some of the recent columns by Nicholas Kristoff: http://www.nytimes.com/2016/04/03/opinion/sunday/when-whites-just-dont-get-it-part-6.html
If you’re white, you might ask your black friends, family members, or fellow church members what they think about the situations in Baton Rouge, St. Paul, and Dallas. How do these incidents make them feel? Listen closely, without assuming they represent all black voices. There’s plenty of diverse opinions in the black community, just like in the white community.
“Sow the seeds of peace and justice” is a bumper sticker I’ve had for years. But how? We begin by listening closely and remembering that most people have good intentions (and that includes most politicians!). Before we speak, let us ask ourselves if our words are respectful and kind. We can foster peace if we can examine our own actions, asking if there’s something we can do better and if there’s someone we can love more graciously.
God is calling us, like a Good Shepherd, to draw closer and follow the path of Jesus to a more holy land. Amen.
Grace and peace to you all,