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.

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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

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Bill Maher Isn’t the Only One Who Misunderstands Religion – NYTimes.com

Bill Maher Isn’t the Only One Who Misunderstands Religion – NYTimes.com.

Excellent op-ed by Reza Aslan: “It is a fallacy to believe that people of faith derive their values primarily from their Scriptures. The opposite is true. People of faith insert their values into their Scriptures, reading them through the lens of their own cultural, ethnic, nationalistic and even political perspectives.”

In the end, I would call out Maher for being simplistic and ignorant of the complexities of religion and culture. It’s his simplistic analysis and ignorance that fuel his hatred. Maher’s critiques can be used for more productive ends.

The comments section show that some people are missing Aslan’s point: Our critique has to be more precise and true than a generalization can be. The problem is not just one huge religion with violent scriptures and violent people. Eliminating 1 billion Muslims won’t stop religious extremism. If we pay better attention to why certain religious people (and non-religious people) become violent, we can better address the problem in its particular contexts. I can’t say it better than Aslan: “Considering that most of its victims are also Muslims — as are most of the forces fighting and condemning the Islamic State — the group’s self-ascribed Islamic identity cannot be used to make any logical statement about Islam as a global religion.”

If we can discern why certain people become violent extremists in their cultural and political contexts (and not try to over-generalize on this point), then we’ll actually be able to address the problem in those contexts. People are violent in Mississippi for different cultural reasons than violent people in Syria, who are violent for different reasons than those in the Ukraine. Over-generalizing hurts our ability to understand and address the problem.

My neighborhood Jehovah’s Witnesses

It’s Saturday morning. Naturally, I’m drinking coffee, catching up on The Daily Show, and someone knocks at the door. I need to be wearing a few more clothes to be decent, so I scurry around, throw on pants and a shirt, and answer. Two well-dressed African-American men, in their mid-30s, very kindly tell me they’re canvassing the neighborhood to distribute this flyer. I zip up my fly, happily receive the tract, and ask, “Are you Jehovah’s Witnesses?”

“Yes sir.”

“That’s great! Thank you,” and we part ways.

I love these tracts, especially the short ones. The Jehovah’s Witnesses clearly put a good bit of thought into them, and I’m actually friendly to many JW ideas, hermeneutical methods, and evangelistic practices. They take scripture seriously, including the Old Testament (which many Christians routinely ignore), and they are attempting to tackle big questions head on. I like big questions too.

  • Are the answers in… science? philosophy? the Bible?

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I’d like to think these sources of knowledge and ethics are complimentary. They have been for thousands of years, with many of our famous church fathers trained in the natural philosophy and rhetoric of their day (e.g. Gregory of Nyssa). But the Jehovah’s Witnesses are wedded to the bible most of all, and they take it very seriously.

  • Which of these big questions concerns you most? What is the meaning of life? Is God to blame for our suffering? What happens when you die?

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I immediately go to the website for the first question, because who doesn’t want to know the meaning of life? Some of their answers are great:

  • We fill our spiritual need by building a friendship with God. Although the idea of being God’s friend might seem far-fetched to some, the Bible gives us this encouragement: “Draw close to God, and he will draw close to you.”—James 4:8; 2:23.

Who can argue with that? And they quote James, one of my favorite books!

Even better, they quote a lot from Ecclesiastes, particularly in answering the third question on life after death:

  • The Bible says: “The living are conscious that they will die; but as for the dead, they are conscious of nothing at all.” (Ecclesiastes 9:5; Psalm 146:4)

But don’t worry, the JWs believe in a classically Christian life-beyond-the-grave, in a restored creation/paradise. JWs subscribe to a ransom-based atonement theory:

  • What is it that makes possible a righteous standing with God and the enjoying of everlasting life? … As a sinless human, Jesus could thus give himself as “a corresponding ransom”—his life corresponded to or was the  equivalent of the once perfect, sinless, first man.—1 Timothy 2:6. By this provision of the ransom, God made it possible for us to receive what the first Adam lost, namely, everlasting life in an earthly paradise. 

Here’s what I like about the Jehovah’s witnesses:

  • They call God by name, using “Jehovah” as the spoken form of the Hebrew YHWH. I prefer this (or “Yahveh”) to the English word “Lord” which is transcribed over YHWH in most English translations of the Bible. By not calling God by name, we forget how personal this relationship was, from the beginning, and we forget the meaningful mystery of this awesome name YHWH: “I will be what I will be.” The name of God is given so much importance in scripture, yet we forget this was a particular God for a particular people, who eventually (or perhaps originally) included all creation in God’s redemptive work.
  • JWs take scripture very seriously, trying not to ignore the various answers provided by different books (like Ecclesiastes), and yet trying also to reconcile these answers in a cohesive biblical theology. This results in Jehovah’s Witnesses not believing that Jesus is equal to God, and they can proof-text their lower Christology. JWs still believe Jesus is God’s son, created even before Adam: “As God’s firstborn Son, Jesus was a spirit creature in heaven before he was born as a human on earth. Jesus himself said: “I have come down from heaven.”—John 6:38; 8:23.”

Though I’m not persuaded by all of JW doctrine or ethics, I think they are trying to be biblically faithful and theologically coherent. It’s true that the early Christians did not believe Jesus was equal to God in every way. Today’s “orthodox” understanding of the Trinity was a later theological construction, stating that Jesus and the Holy Spirit are “of the same substance” as God-the-Father.

As a Methodist, I believe “The Holy Scripture containeth all things necessary to salvation; so that whatsoever is not read therein, nor may be proved thereby, is not to be required of any man that it should be believed as an article of faith, or be thought requisite or necessary to salvation.” I love this particular Article of Religion, because it attempts to keep us humble: If you can’t absolutely prove it with scripture, it’s not necessary for salvation. If we stay humble, we can agree that a high Christology is not a incontrovertible outcome of scriptural fidelity, though it’s a possible outcome, in my estimation. My JW brothers and sisters may disagree, but in some cases, differing interpretations of scripture are equally faithful. In one interaction with a Jehovah’s Witness a few years ago, my conversation partner did not seem friendly to the idea of “multiple interpretations,” but I am.

Of course, we may disagree on the essentials, and so perhaps we’re back to square one, but in my pastoral work, I find that some Christians (particular those at Court Street UMC, where I serve) value, maybe more than anything else, the sustaining of a beloved community. This value, of being a part of the Kingdom-Household of God, brings us to respect a wide range of differences among the people who share this basic value. In other words, as long as you place ultimate importance on a safe and supportive community of faith, then we can sustain many different ideas about God, day-to-day ethics, and even the divinity of Christ.

I’m not sure if my brothers and sisters in the Jehovah’s Witnesses consider me under the umbrella of God’s salvific work, but I trust that they are.

A Simple Form of Prayer – plus the Lord’s Prayer

For any and all of you: Below is a PDF of “A simple form of prayer, plus the Lord’s prayer” which I created for our Intergenerational Family Night at church. You can print it on both sides of a legal sheet of paper, and cut it into 10 cards.

A simple form of prayer:

Tell God what you are thankful for.

Tell God what you want. (Even if you don’t expect God to give you whatever you want, it’s good to confess our needs and desires.)

The Gospel of Matthew 6:9-13: [From the Common English Bible translation]

Pray like this:

Our Father, who is in heaven, uphold the holiness of your name.

Bring in your kingdom, so that your will is done on earth as it’s done in heaven. Give us the bread we need for today. Forgive us for the ways we have wronged you, just as we also forgive those who have wronged us. And don’t lead us into temptation, but rescue us from the evil one. [Amen.]

Access the PDF here: A simple form of prayer – plus the Lord’s prayer

Reza Aslan on The Daily Show – July 17, 2013

I recommend watching the entire video, particularly given Jon Oliver’s response. He says he can have a personal relationship with the Jesus about whom Reza Aslan writes, more than he can relate to the “Christ of faith.” If ‘secular’ folks like Oliver can be so attracted to the historical Jesus, it’s the church’s job to bridge the gap between this historical figure and our religious lives today. Many people who don’t go to church are quite interested in Jesus, but they don’t see churches applying the teachings of Jesus to our personal and social lives. We have work to be done.