A reflection on the shooting in Dallas, and on the unequal treatment sometimes received by black persons

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,

Pastor Brad

On the Trayvon Martin killing and fostering safe spaces for people of all kinds

The killing of Trayvon Martin, a unarmed African-American kid in Florida, is an astounding tragedy, illustrating the fact that African Americans are assumed to be more dangerous, simply because of the color of their skin. Racism is a deep-rooted sin. I learned it myself, as I was growing up, and I am still learning to recognize racism (and all sin) in myself, so that God-in-me might transform my faults into wisdom and love.

Tragedies like this speak to the need for safe spaces in our communities, where people of all colors, economic backgrounds, genders, physical abilities, mental abilities, sexual orientations, and countries can come together in peace and joy. My church in Star, Wesleyanna United Methodist, welcomes folks of all races to play on its tennis/basketball court, and I happy that we’ve continued to welcome African-American youth and young adults, despite some mild obstacles. African Americans continue to be made to feel unwelcome in some public and private spaces, and Christians of all colors are called to break down barriers and create relationships across all boundaries, without erasing differences. Diversity is celebrated by God, and Christians are called to celebrate diversity as well, working toward harmony instead of monotony.

Our basketball court has been a safe space for people to play outside, relax with friends, exercise, and benefit from the camaraderie of team sports. It is one small step in our walk toward the kingdom-household of God.

Below is a video of President Obama commenting on Trayvon’s killing, in which he takes a personal approach. I’m sure that African-American parents, and hopefully all parents and all people, have a heavy heart during this time.

The original article I read (but for some reason I couldn’t figure out how to embed the video): Obama Says ‘If I Had a Son, He’d Look Like Trayvon’ – NYTimes.com.


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Confederate History Month….

I can barely contain the rage I have felt because of these recent remarks.

This simply goes to show that today’s white leaders (or at least leading white male Republicans) seem to have never learned anything true about the Civil War. And why would they have? They grew up in segregated schools, in societies where white supremacy was the celebrated norm! Apparently, these norms haven’t changed!

Wake the hell up. Here’s our “heritage”:

If you want to get the basics of the “Confederate History” heritage crap prattled by Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour, go here: http://theweek.com/article/index/201787/Haley_Barbours_slavery_remarks_Do_they_matter_for_diddly

Here’s an excellent editorial in the Washington Post: http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2010/04/12/AR2010041203297.html

State of the Union – “Post-Racial” | The Daily Show

I hate the term “post-racial”.

Why? Because it’s used by white people, typically men, to refer to a mythical condition in which they won’t have to talk about (or think about) race or racism any longer. They want to project the adjective “post-racial” onto a younger generation, saying we “don’t care about race as much.” (This was told to me by a middle-aged white guy pastor.) We elected Obama, so we must not care about race, right?

Wrong. Nothing could be further from the truth. We don’t want to ignore race any more than we want to ignore religion. We want to respect, appreciate, and understand race and differences. No longer should there be “normal” (aka the white male) and “abnormal” (gay, black, Jewish, female, etc.). There are simply differences we can appreciate, negotiate, and discuss.

Watch this Daily Show clip for the part with Wyatt Cenac at the end. He’s rightfully upset about Chris Matthews’s comment about “I forgot the president was black for a moment.” Does knowing the President’s race inhibit Matthews’s ability to relate to Obama? Does Jon Stewart’s being Jewish inhibit me from communicating with him? Post-racial is as stupid and harmful an idea as Post-Jewish would be. Matthews’s use of the term, and Cenac’s witty skit, shows the racism of the term. Is it more black to sing that stupid song “Pants on the Ground” from American Idol? But it’s more normative (aka white and “post-racial”) to give an eloquent speech?

To all white guys out there who want to stop talking about race, I’m not going to let you. You’re welcome.

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Why I Hated “Avatar”

Oh white man, what would we do without you?

As my thousands of regular readers could have probably guessed, I have some major problems with the film “Avatar.” Yeah, I knew it was gonna’ be Pocahontas, but I didn’t realize how terrible the dialogue and race-idiocy was going to be. It was a mash-up between a bunch of old Star Trek episodes: Kirk goes Native American in one episode of The Original Series; in DS9, Major Kira has to get an old man to leave a moon being mined for energy (“Progress”, season 1). But make no mistake, it was nowhere as cool (or humorously cerebral) as anything Star Trek.

I don’t want to rant much, because I’m more pissed off about the news coverage of Haiti right now, but I’ve been planning this post for a couple of days. If you want to read a couple of interesting reviews about “Avatar,” check out the links below:

Armond White @ New York Press http://www.nypress.com/article-20710-blue-in-the-face.html

Annalee Newitz & io9 http://io9.com/5422666/when-will-white-people-stop-making-movies-like-avatar

Personally, what I hated most was the dialogue. I hated the main character, because he never really learned ANYTHING. He didn’t ever learn that land is not to be owned. (“This is our land!” he shouts when rallying the troops.) He never learns to treat other creatures as equals (“You’re mine now!” he tells the mini-dragon that he conquers, in what felt disgustingly close to rape.) The whole movie was this stupid white guy fantasy, told in far too many movies, where, as Newitz says, “white guy manages to get himself accepted into a closed society of people of color and eventually becomes its most awesome member.” And my lord, could James Cameron have been picked more “native” stereotypes for theNa’vi? Newitz writes: ” Avatar is a fantasy about ceasing to be white, giving up the old human meatsack to join the blue people, but never losing white privilege.” Here she names what I hated the most: “Whites still get to be leaders of the natives – just in a kinder, gentler way.” I hated the fact that Jake, the main idiot, somehow gets to be the hero to the naive noble savages. First, we project a VERY Disney-Pocahontas myth of purity on the “natives”, and then we whites claim that purity for ourselves and, finally, become the most pure of all! It makes me want to puke.