Monday, August 14, 2017

On Charlottesville: The Need for Renewed Repentance and Clear Action

I remember the first time I realized I was complicit in racism.

I was an undergraduate student at Rochester College, doing a Bachelor of Science in Biblical Studies, and one of my professors had assigned Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.'s, "Letter from a Birmingham Jail." Specifically, this section cut me to the quick,
I must make two honest confessions to you, my Christian and Jewish brothers. First, I must confess that over the past few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro's great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen's Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to "order" than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: "I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action"; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man's freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a "more convenient season." Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.
Though this letter was written decades before I was born, I recognized the impulses of the "white moderate" in my own life and thinking, not just when it comes to questions of race. I recognized how those impulses had led me to mitigate support for the full role of women in the ministry of the church in which I was raised. I recognized how easy it was for me, as a straight white male, to take a "moderate" position on the question of freedom for another human being... and how sin-saturated that position truly was.

I repented then and I have sought to renew that repentance regularly.

The events in Charlottesville, VA, this past weekend have been remarkably unsettling to see. The idea that so many people could gather in support of something like white supremacy, something so many of us thought had been finally pushed far to the edges of our society... this idea is shocking to me.

The fact that this idea is shocking to me, though, simply highlights how my own white privilege functions. It is shocking to me because I am largely insulated from the experiences of people of color in our country. It is shocking to me because I do not experience what they experience.

It is shocking to me because the fracturing of community, the societal resistance to movements like Black Lives Matter, all of this is something in which I am complicit... unless I choose specifically to do something different.

I think that perhaps I am experiencing Charlottesville differently because of my own parish's work in Latino ministry. Working with the Latino people here in Northwest Ottawa county has opened my eyes to the experiences with which they have to contend on a regular basis.

A little over a week ago, someone who is unaffiliated at our church—but was here for another event—angrily told one of our Latino members to "go back to where you came from." A couple other people who were at the other event complained that our Latino members should really speak English if they want to be here. These people are not members of our church, they were not even visitors to our church's worship. They were people in the community here because of another ministry we host... but they said these words in our church building.

That happened here. This happened only steps from the comfortable office in which I sit and write.

And I know beyond a shadow of a doubt that the membership of our church absolutely repudiates these statements. I have spoken with the person above and made it clear that some things are going to have to happen for him to make this situation right before he is welcome in our church again. I know all of this...

But my heart aches for the pain that this caused members of my church, including a devoted volunteer in our church's ministry who found herself singed by the crossfire and cultural conflict.

And my conscience is singed because I know that we, all of us who live in the Tri-Cities, have allowed segregation to continue unchecked in Ottawa county for decades. We have acknowledged it but we have done little to stop it. It is a fundamental reason for our Latino ministry—we didn't start this ministry because of the masses of Latinos, but because there was nothing—NOTHING—year round as a worshipping opportunity for those who speak Spanish. Our Latino ministry has, at its core, the hope that creating a small worshipping community in Spanish will hep break down walls of segregation and division.

So we're doing that now, at least in our church, but we have done so little before now. And still, all of us who live in the Tri-Cities, have continued to enable our own local segregation to continue. When people have said they don't want to go to Muskegon because it is dangerous or they don't like how Holland has "changed"... when these things are said and we don't say anything in response, we don't push back against the assumptions in this language, we have become silently complicit.

When the current Secretary of Education champions so-called "school choice," a policy that in her own hometown has massively increased segregation in the local schools, and we do not vigorously fight a policy that segregates white kids away from minority kids, then we have become complicit in this problem.

So my heart aches because I know that the sins we all denounce in Charlottesville are also creeping around the edges of our own congregations, our own souls. We all need to do self-examination and penance.

And my heart aches at the pain so many are experiencing as they watch what happened in Charlottesville. Make no mistake, this is not a one-off or odd event. What happened in Charlottesville is the result of a cultural movement that has been growing for a while. When a black person is 2.5 times more likely to be killed by a police officer than a white person, and then society tells black people they should not be protesting this reality, or they should not be protesting the way they are protesting, when society says that "Black Lives Matter" is part of the problem... this has only increased the power of the movements for division, hate, and the refusal to stand up and acknowledge the very real problem or racism—both intended and unintended—in our society.

I am reminded of another section from Dr. King's letter, when he responds to charges that his work is precipitating violence,
In your statement you assert that our actions, even though peaceful, must be condemned because they precipitate violence. But is this a logical assertion? Isn't this like condemning a robbed man because his possession of money precipitated the evil act of robbery? Isn't this like condemning Socrates because his unswerving commitment to truth and his philosophical inquiries precipitated the act by the misguided populace in which they made him drink hemlock? Isn't this like condemning Jesus because his unique God consciousness and never ceasing devotion to God's will precipitated the evil act of crucifixion? We must come to see that, as the federal courts have consistently affirmed, it is wrong to urge an individual to cease his efforts to gain his basic constitutional rights because the quest may precipitate violence. Society must protect the robbed and punish the robber.
There is work to be done, children of God. Our society is in a place of deep unfaithfulness. We are no longer protecting the robbed and punishing the robber. Those who are danger from the implications of racist, misogynistic, and homophobic language are trying to stand up and sound the alarm. The answer cannot be a moderate response, one that seeks compromise.

There is no compromise with racism that does not become complicit in that sin, that does not sit quietly by while scared parents tell their kids exactly how to respond to police so they won't get shot... and when even "the conversation" is not a guarantee of safety.

There is no compromise with misogyny that does not become complicit in that sin, that does not enable men to use violent words and actions toward women, that does not demean the whole other half of the human race—the half of the human race who, through the Blessed Virgin Mary, gave human flesh to the incarnation of God.

There is no compromise with homophobia that does not become complicit in that sin, that does not encourage a society where a couple can go for the joyous experience of buying a cake for their wedding only to be turned away—while so many other couples who actually do have all manner of sin in their relationships are offered cakes readily, simply because they are opposite-sex.

There is no compromise with any sin that dehumanizes a person.

Dr. King was worried about the future of Christianity, given the resistance so many in the church of his own day had toward the Civil Rights movement. He insisted,
But the judgment of God is upon the church as never before. If today's church does not recapture the sacrificial spirit of the early church, it will lose its authenticity, forfeit the loyalty of millions, and be dismissed as an irrelevant social club with no meaning for the twentieth century. Every day I meet young people whose disappointment with the church has turned into outright disgust.
Don't get me wrong, the reason for repentance and protest in Christianity today is not to grow the church. It is not to get young people—any people who no longer trust the institution to do what is needed—in the doors to prove that we're worth their time.

That's not why.

That said, every time the church fails in authentically and faithfully making manifest the Good News of Jesus Christ, that in his riven flesh a divided humanity has been reunited and we have, by virtue of our baptism, been consecrated as agents of that reconciliation... overtime we fail in that we will also fail in our mission of evangelism and incorporation.

We can do better as a church. We must do better as a church.

What will that look like, this better action? Part of it is denouncing racism in the clearest terms, but it is so much more. It is the majority being quiet and listening when the minority is speaking up. It is not wagging your finger at a protest you don't understand, but instead seeking to find the pain within it. It is doing the simple work of reaching out to the marginalized in your own community of faith, making it clear that they are valued and important, raising them up to positions of leadership, where their voices can be heard.

And it is showing up when there is a march or a protest—just like so many clergy and laity did in Charlottesville, singing "This Little Light of Mine" in the face of militias holding semi-automatic weapons.

It is showing up and saying that any diminishment of my sister or brother in Christ is unacceptable, it is an anathema. I will not sit quietly by. I will speak.

This is our task and our time.

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