There is a white pickup truck near my home. I see it when I walk the dog. It catches my attention when I take my morning runs. The racism oozes from this particular truck. The truck sports a large window sticker bearing these words: “White Trucks Matter.”
No. This is not funny.
Humor has a way of revealing our beliefs, convictions, or values. Our laughter-disclosed feelings are sometimes those things of which we are not proud. A self-aware and moral response to revelations about ourselves can lead us to personal growth and change. Noting what we find funny can be an impetus to lessening unconscious ways in which we act in racist ways.
Sadly, the owner flaunts his racist values. Though you and I may not post racist signs on the back of our vehicles, we have a lot of growing to do. For those of us who are white, a willingness and awareness of our privilege is critical. Whether revealed by our humor or not, failing to accept the existence of our own privilege, denying systemic racism and privilege which benefits us, is no less offensive than “white trucks matter.”
I saw her up ahead. In her bright reflective pink-purple jacket she was hard to miss even in the early minutes of dawn. Of course, that’s the point. Runners want to be visible to traffic.
Like me, she ran by herself. As I was about ten feet away, she veered away from me on another trail, and picked up her pace.
This was not competition. This was caution. Solo runners, especially those who are women, need to be cautious in a way that those of us who are men do not. A recent Runners World survey revealed that 43% of women and only 4% of men have been targets of harassment mid-run. (See Running While Female.)
I confess it wasn’t until several women in my online running group shared their experiences of harassment that I considered the risks of the solo run. (Their conversation was in response to last summer’s murder of several women while running.) Whether in my rural community or the suburban and urban areas I often run, I have never personally experienced harassment or threatening behavior from others.
I simply had never thought about it.
Once the women in my runners’ group brought up the topic I paid attention. I noted the watchfulness when I encountered women on my runs. Running alone was not nearly as common among women as men. Group members talked about never running the same way twice and carrying self-protective devices. Many women lamented they no run less often because they feel unsafe running alone. Others described frightening encounters.
I shouldn’t have been surprised. When I taught college my women students were careful to call security or go with friends after night classes. The young male students brazenly marched into the dark without fear. That’s been awhile, though, and my own sense of security deprived me of appreciation for my fellow runners.
How had I been so oblivious to the experience of so many of my fellow runners? Now that I was aware, I noted the alert looks i got from women especially in more isolated areas. Maybe my big smiles were a little creepier than I imagined. In response, I began giving a wider berth as I would pass to assure others that I have no ill intent. I drew back the magnitude of my smiles, sometimes just nodding.
In an era when our politics validate lewd or worse behavior as locker room talk, those of us who feel safe running alone (or walking to our cars alone) have a responsibility. We must make it clear to our male peers that any talk or action that degrades and belittles others is unacceptable.
I still run alone but I hurt for those who cannot. I am awed at the bravery of those, like the woman in the reflective pink-purple jacket, who run solo but must remain ever-vigilant because of the sins of my gender.
We must hold the Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other. –Karl Barth
National slightly less than 50%
Protests across cities
Fringe Trump supporters overtly threatening
We are a deeply divided people
Our hope that we would somehow magically come back together after Tuesday was naive.
Result of election of one who was openly
Blamed immigrants and Muslims
Stories from circle re fear
Text: ”Half of this country just threw my life under the bus”
Election served as a trigger for sexual assault victims
Hateful “go home” notes left in people’s work mailboxes
Synagogues hiring security
Screamed at on way to work: “Trump! N****r!”
I spent much of Wednesday counseling, listening
Others celebrate shock to polarized system
Needs have been ignored
Voting for him doesn’t mean you did so because racist
Some of you voted for him despite these things
View the world through the Bible, faith, love
love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your being, with all your mind, and with all your strength…The second is this, You will love your neighbor as yourself. No other commandment is greater than these.” Mark 12:30-31 CEB
As followers of Jesus we are obliged to stand with those the powerful have attacked.
I sat down to write the scripture email late Wednesday. I came up with something not quite reflection.
I share some of that with you now:
“How long, O Lord?” asks Isaiah. “How long, O Lord?” must I fruitlessly prophesy to your people.
And God tells him that he must prophesy until the cities lay in ruins and the land lay devastated.
And, still, Isaiah goes where God sends him.
This is a discouraging story.
The descriptions of the people turning away from living in accordance with God’s requirements,
their obstinate refusal to listen to the prophet warning of the pitfalls of their chosen path,
and, still the voice of Isaiah calling to them, is reminiscent of an apocalyptic movie. Love of neighbor be damned!
I have seen some horrible things as an educator and as a pastor.
I’ve been privy to some of the worst of what humanity has to offer.
I’ve often felt like following God’s requirements “to do justice, embrace faithful love, and walk humbly with your God” (Micah 6:8 CEB) is futile.
Too often I’ve felt beaten down by shortsighted bureaucrats or politicians more concerned with bombing and killing others than feeding our own children!
My words of “you are God’s beloved” seem too little when the church — THE CHURCH! — spews hatred and rejects children of God.
In the face of an incoming president who has made fun of a disabled reporter, bragged about sexual assault, who has a racist history,
and who blames and threatens to discriminate against all Muslims — our sibling Abrahamic religion — all while claiming the Christian faith, I am discouraged.
Does our faith even matter? On the morning following the election I was counseling multiple people who are terrified that their rights are at stake now.
One young woman said to me, “I am scared for my personal safety!”
An individual one step removed from me was the victim of someone yelling, “Trump! N****r!” as he journeyed to work.
I imagine Isaiah saw some of the same underbelly of humanity happening all around him.
God does not seek prophets when humanity is loving neighbor and caring for the least of these (Matthew 25:44-45).
God saw the state of the world all too clearly in the time around King Uzziah’s death, in Isaiah’s time.
Then I heard the Lord’s voice saying, “Whom should I send, and who will go for us?” I said, “I’m here; send me.” Isaiah 6:8 CEB
Isaiah volunteered to take God’s message to the people!
His response reminded me of a little girl who, as Hitler was spreading through Europe, wrote in her diary:
“It’s really a wonder that I haven’t dropped all my ideals, because they seem so absurd and impossible to carry out. Yet I keep them, because in spite of everything, I still believe that people are really good at heart” (Diary of a Young Girl, Anne Frank).
Just as Isaiah responded to God’s call to a seemingly fruitless task, we must not give up on God’s call to be the realm of God in the world.
If we are to call ourselves Christians, we must stand on the margins of society as Jesus did.
We must strive to manifest the extravagant love of Christ.
We must protect the vulnerable even when others empower hatred.
[Isaiah] said, “How long, Lord?” And God said, “Until cities lie ruined with no one living in them, until there are houses without people and the land is left devastated.” (Isaiah 6:11 CEB)
And I suppose there is the Good News:
Even when we don’t deserve it, even when the only thing that remains is a holy seed, God does not give up.
On this All Saints Day, I am remembering Norm Ellington. Norm changed the trajectory of my faith and spiritual journey. Below is an excerpt from a paper I wrote about him for a seminary class seven years ago.
In the summer of 1967 my family moved two thousand miles from the white, middle class neighborhood, school, and church in Salem I had known for four-years. I recall asking my parents as we approached our new home, “Why are there so many black people in St. Louis?” I was about to have some of my first experiences with race during a turbulent time in this country in a city with deep racial rifts. I walked to a predominantly African American public school during the week and on Sundays attended a new Disciples of Christ church within walking distance of my family’s new home. It was at this church that I met Norm.
“Why are there so many black people in St. Louis?”
Norman Ellington was an African-American man to whom my younger brother and I gravitated before church and between Sunday School and worship. Norm put up with our silly jokes, our brotherly rivalry, and our incessant questions and comments. Without becoming pedantic, Norm took advantage of teachable moments to mentor our understanding of Christianity in a broken world in which racial hostility and violence was never far from our doorstep. Living in an urban renewal, intentionally mixed-race, mixed-income rental community near some of the most dilapidated slums in St. Louis, I was faced at eight-years old with processing what was happening around me. Fortunately, I had Norm to help me do that processing.
I recall his patient explanations about what it meant to be black in late 1960s St. Louis and what it meant to be a Christian during those violent times. When I was being bullied daily by an African American classmate, being called “honky” and other epithets for whites, it was Norm who helped me perceive what was happening through a Christian lens. When my best friend’s African American father was shot and killed on the job by a mentally ill man, it was Norm who helped me to understand that Jay’s father had been doing God’s work striving to help poor blacks and whites find employment despite the risks to his personal safety which was created by society-wide racial tensions.
“I learned the importance of a Christian faith of action that does not shy away from the truth of racism and poverty.”
[Norm] reminded me that Jesus was never afraid to go where those who were in need lived and struggled. When my mother was the victim of harsh language and hateful words from the Black Panthers, I listened as Norm counseled her with love and compassion while helping her to understand the deep pain that was a part of the black experience in the late 1960s. In my interactions with Norm as well as those I overheard him have with family and other church members, I learned the importance of a Christian faith of action that does not shy away from the truth of racism and poverty. I learned that as someone born with light skin, I benefit from systemic racism.
As our church heeded the call of Christ to go where the “least of these” live Norm also helped me to see the Holy Spirit manifest in our work. For example, he helped me to understand the power of Christian love when the suspiciousness turned to joy on the face of the African American children I played with prior to our church’s movie night on a vacant lot. Norm explained to me that when whites showed up in this particular neighborhood, even though I only lived a few blocks away, that the experience was rarely positive for the poor, African-Americans who lived in the crumbling buildings. He helped me understand the importance of blacks and whites getting to know one another.
“…when whites showed up in this particular neighborhood, even though I only lived a few blocks away, …the experience was rarely positive for the poor, African-Americans who lived in the crumbling buildings.”
Norm was never my Sunday School teacher, my pastor, or my youth leader. He was my friend who, using Jesus as our reference point, helped me to interpret both my positive and negative experiences in such a way that racism spared me its harshest sting—internalized hatred of the other.
When distressed, we tend to use whatever tools we have to try to alleviate our condition. For example, if I have a headache I will take two tylenol. That is unless all I have in the cupboard is ibuprofen, in which case I’ll take ibuprofen.
We tend to use the things we have at our disposal to solve problems. Toddlers, for example, will sometimes resort to hitting or biting when feeling threatened by another. They use these strategies because they do not yet have the social skills necessary to remedy the situation.
I have multiple tools to cope with personal stress. The healthiest are getting rest and exercise. A good vigorous walk or run does miraculous things to my ability to cope with challenges. Regular sleep results in a more rational and loving me.
Though I know this, too often I turn to the cookie in the cupboard to deal with stress. Briefly, the cookie makes me feel better. Soon, however, it actually makes things worse. I feel bloated. The sugar disrupts my mood.
The suggestion that our nation refuse to accept Syrian refugees or accept only Christian refugees, as some have suggested, is a cookie. Rufusing our sisters and brothers may make us feel safer for a short time but it only breeds more hostility and bigotry.
Rather than gorging on cookies baked in the oven of bigotry and fear by opportunistic politicians, this is a time to slip on our running shoes and exercise our social skills, our hearts, and our faith. We need to look inside ourselves for the divine love with which we have each been created and love our neighbors as ourselves (Mark 12:29-30).
When unaccompanied children were arriving at the southern border of the United States, grandmothers’ arms ached to hold and comfort. In my eastern Oregon town we talked about, “What can we do to help?”
When Mike Brown lay dead on a hot summer street for hours, we didn’t talk. It was a foreign land; it was news from the big city back east. Grandmothers’ hearts were protected by ignoring and avoiding.
When burnt convenience stores awakened white grandmothers’ arms, I told my story of growing up near Ferguson. I told my story of my family still nearby. Grandmothers asked, “Is your dad okay?”
Assured my white father was safe, it no longer mattered that Mike Brown had lay dead on a hot city street for hours or that black mothers and fathers sobbed. White grandmothers’ arms crossed in defensiveness and talked about, “What did he do to deserve this?” and “Why are they burning buildings?” while black grandmothers’ arms ached to hold grandbabies.
And so I told my stories of race, identifying my own sins, and our collective white sin of racism. I was dismissed, “You only told one side of the story.” We talked about anything but race.
When Freddie Gray died in police custody, white grandmothers’ arms ached again. We talked about, “something is not right” until we were reminded by power and defensiveness that Mike, Tamir, Trayvon, Eric, Tanisha and so many more before and since were not worthy of due process.
We listened to the voices of power, fear, and sin justify shooting children of God because of skin melanin. We listened to white supremacy, fragility, and privilege as it determined the status quo, the truth, and our white history of subjugation must be hidden at the cost of black body after black body.
It is our turn to confess our sins. It is our turn to learn our history. It is our turn to bear the pain of the truth of what white supremacy, ignorance, and fragility has wrought.
If our arms aren’t aching we aren’t paying attention.
Other Suggested Reading These represent a few of the many articles that I’ve found helpful as I’ve begun accepting my own white culpability and responsibility in responding to our nation’s race problem.
“I looked it up. It’s true,” she said.
“No,” I said sticking to my guns.
“Um, yes dear. Mt. Adams IS taller than Mt. Hood.”
“Nope,” I said, “Mt. Hood is the best, the tallest of all mountains!”
In my unbending insistence, I was a five-year-old defending my dad as the strongest and smartest. (He is, by the way.) That’s the trouble with dogma; it often ignores facts. Though institutional religion is the quintessential dogmatist, it is far from alone. The laying down of ideas as beyond reproach is common among human beings.
My mother-in-law even once criticized the color we painted our house because, she pronounced, “houses are white with black shutters.” There was no room in her thinking for cheerful yellow.
Partisan politics, brand loyalty, American exceptionalism, the importance of eating locally, the definition of marriage, the best mountain, paint color, and even atheism can become dogmatic. Anything from which we find identity or meaning can become dogmatic. All it takes is a little passion and a dash of inflexibility sautéed over a bed of unquestioning spirit to cook up dogma. Spiced with fear or ignorance and the dish becomes poisonous.
Since the deadly dogma that led to the murder of nine African American men and women at Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, I’ve been reflecting upon my theology and found it wanting.
Theology, or how we understand and experience the divine mystery, hints at the nature of the one I call God. Though it seeks to explain the divine nature, my personal theology reflects as much or more about my nature than that of God. Though useful, any theology has its limitations when faced with the mysterium tremendum (literally, tremendous mystery).
I lean toward a process understanding of the inexplicable One. In Process Theology, God allows evil in the world because God cannot prevent it. In simplistic terms, the killing of Cynthia Hurd, Susie Jackson, Ethel Lance, DePayne Middleton-Doctor, Clementa Pinckney, Tywanza Sanders, Daniel Simmons Sr., Sharonda Singleton, and Myra Thompson is the result of human free will.
The coercive God of most theologies could have prevented the shooter from his deadly action, leaving us with the question, “why?” In the Process view, God is non-coercive and was incapable of directly preventing the killings. God seeks to lure, beckon, or encourage each of us toward the most loving action in each moment. Evil happens when we make choices contrary to God’s desired (loving) action for us.
In the case of Charleston, we collectively allow racism to fester. Instead of heeding the luring spirit to eradicate this American sin, we make other choices. Within this context, relationships influence each of us but it never means the individual perpetrator is faultless. Given his free will, the shooter ignored God repeatedly. The final and deadly action was the result of utter disregard for the non-coercive God’s preferred action. He instead chose evil.
So, what do I find wanting about my theology following the heinous crime at Emanuel AME Church? The non-coercive nature of the divine seems to explain why God allows evil to exist. Isn’t that enough?
No. What I find lacking in my theology is an attribute which I perceive to be in God’s nature: passion. My pedantic explanation of how a young man could sit in Bible Study with nine men and women and then shoot them is too-tidy, too-easy, and too-sterile. Like my ancient forebears in the faith, I perceive God as passionate.
“The Lord was angry with Solomon because his heart had turned away from the Lord the God of Israel”. 1 Kings 11:9 REB
I imagine God raging, not only at the shooter but at those of us who are white. For too long, we have allowed the poisonous dogma of white supremacy and privilege to fester. Having constricted racism with color blindness, we are culpable.
At worst our white failure to confront our personal and collective roles in the scourge of racism caused the killing of the nine women and men of Emanuel AME Church. At best, our failure to question the dogma in which we were raised sanctioned not only killing the nine at Bible study but the countless other people of color who are killed daily in our nation.
LORD of Justice, Your anger is justified. We have been ignorant and indifferent to the lives of others. Clinging to personal comfort and the dogma of whiteness, we’ve failed to listen and learn and grow. Confronted with the sin of white supremacy, we explain it away.
Help us to see the road ahead. Taking responsibility for our personal and collective sin, may we listen, follow, and move to act in ways that bring forth justice for our sisters and brothers who have suffered at our expense for too many generations.
When I was trying on pacifism in my formative years, my peers would begin the classic argumentative questioning. “Would you kill if someone threatened your sister?” “Would you kill if it was the only way to save your own life?”
The goal — if there was an articulated goal in my society of children and teens — was to prove pacifism flawed because it was impossible to practice.
As a mature pacifist I know that given the right circumstances I could be driven to violence against another. Though I understand the harming of others to be out of bounds, I understand violent urges. I am human.
None of this negates my belief that pacifism is consistent with the teachings of Jesus and the interconnected divinity of creation. Harming another ultimately harms self.
Anytime we resort to violence, in the language of my faith, we sin. Violence, harming of another, is a tragedy and a failure because it breaks relationship. The perpetrator of violence is not the only one at fault. Typically there is plenty of sin to go around.
Context matters. When basic rights and needs are denied, when people are oppressed, and their call for relief and change go unheeded, the likelihood of physical violence increases.
When people go unheard, the ones who fail to listen and respond are at least as culpable as those who are driven to violence. My dog can accurately be called sweet and loving. However, if I were to taunt him, fail to meet his basic needs, and abuse him, couldn’t he be pushed to the limits of friendliness and lash out?
Now is the time for whites to accept our culpability in the pattern of police killings of blacks. Now is the time for us to stop tsk tsk-ing about property damage when our sisters and brothers are being killed!
We must listen to and believe our oppressed kindred and follow them in insisting on change. Despite what our media tell us, this is not about property damage. It is about the taking of lives.