Some thoughts on race and faith

“I write out of a deep theological conviction that the true power of the Christian gospel is its unambiguous call for the liberation from the forces of oppression and the fierce and uncompromising condemnation of all those who oppress.”

-Dr. James Cone in his lecture to Vanderbilt University (above)

I had bought The Cross and the Lynching Tree but it sat on my Kindle device.  I did not immediately read it.  I had read many of Dr. Cone’s other books, listened to his work, was informed by it.  But the book sat on my Kindle, along with others, waiting to be read.  The other book that sat on my Kindle waiting to be read was Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness.   Friends had told me that this book was also a must read.   Other books were also sitting on the Kindle waiting to be read.

Then last summer on July 13, 2013 Mark Zimmerman was acquitted of the death (murder, or stand-your-ground-whatever-it-is-that-is-“called”) of Trayvon Martin, the African-American child who wore a hoodie and was out to get skittles and iced tea.  I had been following the trial, along with so many others with such concern.  As the verdict in the trial got closer and closer, I was having a hard time writing my sermon for that Sunday, knowing that I wanted to address the issue in the sermon but not sure of how to do that until a verdict was in.  The verdict came down late Saturday afternoon and I, along with many other colleagues worked to rewrite and redo sermons and messages for worship the next day.  Many Saturday nights I would chat over the computer with these friends and colleagues as we prepped for worship, talking about the messages we were bringing and talking through the theology together.

That night our conversations were intense and I posted on my Facebook page a short sentence that went something like this:  “I am heartbroken by the decision in the Trayvon Martin trial.  I am rewriting my sermon.”

What happened next stunned me.

Some, not all, of the comments to my timeline were critical.  People chiding me for my comment, telling me that I was to “trust” the U.S. justice system.  I was upset—Juan and I have walked through the “justice system” twice in the last fourteen years; once for his immigration/naturalization proceedings and the second time for litigation after he was nearly killed in a car accident years ago.  Both times we experienced a highly racialized system.  Both times Juan was made to feel as though he was other, unwanted, untrustworthy.  Both times we were hurt and broken by the experience.  So no, I do not trust our “justice” system.  I wish I could, I love my country, but my spirit has been broken of that these last fourteen years and I no longer have trust.

I took my Facebook comment down.  I was so embarrassed by it.  I was embarrassed that on some of my digital online space what I considered racist comments were being posted, because that was never something I wanted to tolerate or to be part of.  So I took it down, talked to my preaching colleagues and wrote this sermon which I offered the next day.

I had preached another sermon a few years before that about SB1070 in Arizona and what is like raising a bi-racial child who already has internalized fear about being Latina in the United States.

I got some flack and backlash for both of these sermons.  I got it from some, not all, but people in my tribe, Euro-Americans.  White people.  And some in my tribe said “thank you.”   I believe it is the task of a preacher to offer some difficult, prophetic words to be heard.  Being faithful to Jesus means taking a hard look at ourselves sometimes.  Being faithful to Jesus also means there is grace and renewal that is always available to us.   These are the underpinnings of what I say when I preach.

I have learned that many do not want to talk about race.  We want to pretend that things are all better, that we’ve moved beyond race.  Lots of people don’t want to hear stories like the one of our family or about miscarriages of justice that happen everyday.  It’s hard and painful to go deep and so we shy away.  A clergy colleague told me that at their church they celebrate Black History Month every year in February and after Barack Obama was elected President someone suggested that they don’t need to do that anymore, no need to celebrate Black History Month, everything is now all better.  I’ve heard that line of commentary before, like when people tell me how “lucky” Juan is to be Latino but a “white” Latino so he can “blend in.”

Getting back to Dr. Cone and The Cross and the Lynching Tree, so after I preached the sermon about Trayvon Martin—I went to Colombia, South America to be with my in-laws for a few weeks.  I took my Kindle.  And over two days I sat and read together, The Cross and the Lynching Tree and The New Jim Crow.  I think reading them together is the way to go, they interact with each other.  They offer insights.  They invite questions.  Those two days of reading was another life-changing moment for me.  I am so grateful for these two books.  I’d love to see all of our leaders of faith communities read these two books, together, and then get with a group of other faith-leaders doing this reading and talk about it and prayerfully figure out what God is calling them to do to transform and renew their local communities.

As I read the books I began to meditate on my ministry up until that point.

Over the years I’d been asked to write letters (and I did, without thinking critically about it) for kids in my youth groups who had gotten into trouble because of drinking or drugs.  A first offense, maybe a second.

That’s what kids do right?

But these kids all had lawyers.  The cases were kept under the radar screen.  Their privilege let them go forward, go to college, usually without charges being files or the story hitting the local paper.  I know that the high schools in these communities were filled with drugs and kids that used and in some cases dealt drugs.  These high schools were not unlike the one I went to.  Yet we all graduated.  Nearly all of us went to college.  Same thing for the kids at these schools.  Unlike the youth who are discussed in Michelle Alexander’s book their lives were not destroyed.  Their dreams were not cut short.  They were not stuck in a bottomless pit of a legal system.

Theirs/our crimes were the same.  But our treatment/behavior was 100% different.  Of course I knew this before reading The New Jim Crow, but I felt it in a different way.

I began thinking about my participation in this.

As a white person.

As a person of incredible privilege.

I am examining this about myself theologically.

I am considering the sin-sickness of it all.

And that I participated all the way through as a clergyperson without thinking critically about my responses at the time.

I began thinking about the reactions from people in my tribe to my comment on Facebook that night that I was heartbroken by the Trayvon Martin verdict.  Telling me what my place was and what the “right thing” for me to do was.  Some of those people who wrote in had watched Juan and I struggle with the legal system.  And Juan and I, even though those experiences were racialized for him as a Latino and immigrant to the United States still had incredible privilege in those systems.  We know that and talk about that.  I’m not going to deny that what we experienced both times wasn’t terrible, life-altering, or painful.  But we did not experience the depth of what a racist experience could have easily been.  Because of our privilege.

I am examining these experiences theologically.

This week I am getting to be a part of a first conversation about race and privilege with the Synod of the Northeast with Dr. Cone.  I am so grateful to just be in the room and to talk and wrestle with the people of faith I love and trust.

We have a lot of work to do.

There is a lot of ministry to be had.

We need to change our church and how it participates in racism and privilege in all its sinful manifestations.  If we don’t fix these issues and how we relate to them in faith communities that seek to follow Jesus—then I just do not think we are seeking to live into the fullness that the radical, resurrected, broken-bodied Jesus calls us to be.

Lots to do.  This conversation is just a beginning, but so important and needed.  I am grateful to get to be in the room as we seek greater faithfulness and reformation as Jesus-people.  Lots to do.

(Disclaimer: I have a ton more I want to say, but this is enough for this post.  I’ll have more to say I’m sure after today’s conversations.) 

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