We all exist in multiple categories.
As a CHRISTIAN, I care about loving people the way Jesus has loved me.
As a PASTOR, I care about my brothers and sisters in our church, especially those who are hurting.
As a MAN, I care about stewarding my power and influence to make this world better for my daughters.
As a CANADIAN, I care about how the people of our country are influenced by our history and our present systems and structures.
As a HUMAN, I care about reflecting the image of God to this world in how I care for creation and my fellow human beings.
As a WHITE PERSON, I care about identifying, naming, and challenging those bigotries, prejudices, and othering impulses that lurk in the recesses of our individual hearts, our collective unconscious, and our unjust systems.
As a CHRISTIAN, to end the list as I started, I know that I don’t have to do any of this alone. I am part of a multi-ethnic, multi-gender, multi-national, family that loves me and helps me grow in the heart-art of loving others well.
With this in mind, I want to speak now as a Christian first and foremost (which, I believe, is always our calling as Christ-followers), and as a pastor (knowing that some members of our church are hurting in light of recent news stories and personal experiences), and also as a white person (an infinitely unimportant characteristic by comparison, but one that sometimes needs to be addressed because of the pain understandably associated with this identity among many of my brothers and sisters).
At present, in the news are multiple saddening and sickening stories of racially grotesque behaviour. I’m thinking of…
- Ahmaud Arbery, shot to death by white fellow citizens while jogging.
- George Floyd, killed slowly and needlessly by a white police officer.
- Christian Cooper, who wisely recorded a white woman calling the police to tell them “there is an African-American man threatening my life” when he had simply asked her to put her dog on a leash in Central Park.
- And the list goes on and on.
In each of these cases, from murder on the one hand to simply behaving in an asinine way in a park on the other, our black brothers and sisters see something repeatedly reflected in the the news cycle: stories that either dramatize their own actual lived experience, reminding them of what they already have learned via personal involvement, or at the very least stories that alert them to what seems to be going on all around them even when it isn’t overtly manifest: the ongoing, actual, and factual phenomenon of white people personally and systemically devaluing black people as fellow human beings.
These cases in the recent news are different than a crime committed by a known criminal, murderer, gang member, mafia hit man, thief, or terrorist. These incidents of death and/or dehumanizing were caused by people we should be able to trust, to be able give the benefit of the doubt, to be able to feel safe around – police officers / former police officers / fellow-citizens who are otherwise unassuming and law-abiding. The racial-gender manipulation of the woman in Central Park was done, not by a KKK member wearing a hood (where we would be prepared for it), but by a seemingly “innocent” dog-walker. (And a Canadian, by the way. This woman was a product of our society.) Racially motivated devaluing of God’s precious image-bearers arises repeatedly, stunningly, aggressively in what should be “unexpected” places, in what should be safe situations, making every encounter in daily life feel a little more unsafe or at least unloving for our black brothers and sisters.
Added to this, many of our black brothers and sisters connect these graphic displays of devaluing seen in the news to their own lived experience. This is not theoretical for them. They have been on the receiving end of being dismissed, devalued, suspected, ignored, or pre-judged in a variety of ways because of their ethnicity and appearance. Think of that word, “appearance.” To simply appear, to show up, to be seen, is for some people to be feared, judged, and resented. And yes, this happens here in Canada, not just with our neighbours to the south.
To be black in this North-American context is, for many, to live with the ongoing psychological background hum of anxiety similar to PTSD. This is multiplied many times over for black parents who care for the tender hearts of their dear children.
This may not be your experience, and possibly not the experience of anyone you know, but trust me, I’ve talked with enough of our congregation and beyond to know that it is the lived experience of many. And as fellow Christ-followers, this is an opportunity for us to empathize and to organize our voices to stand in solidarity with our African-Canadian and African-American friends.
To my white sisters and brothers, I want to invite you to engage with and stand beside those among us who are hurting. We are talking about our family members going through real trauma. To be sure, in the kingdom of Christ, our whiteness doesn’t matter. It is absolutely and infinitely unimportant. But while the kingdom of God intersects with the kingdoms of this world, we can be agents of healing rather than neutral bystanders, and for that task, our whiteness makes a difference. We can steward our whiteness well by being allies, standing alongside, learning from, and practicing basic human empathy toward our hurting friends. This is also another opportunity for us to look inward and to assess our souls. Are we filled with any of the same seeds that, when fully grown, lead to death? (Remember Jesus’ words in the Sermon on the Mount equating anger, disrespect, and name calling with murder.)
To my black brothers and sisters, I am so sorry. My heart is with you. I realize that I am part of and represent an ethnicity that has a long and horrific history of racial injustice, and a present history of racialized fear, which results in death, in one form or another. I am so grateful for your sisterhood and brotherhood and I stand with you, alongside you, as my family. Jesus has made us family, so you are my family, real family, and this bond is primary, strong, and unshakable. It is a privilege to be your brother and your pastor.
I recently had a conversation with some friends about Jesus’ Parable of the Persistent Widow. I won’t quote it all here, but please read it for yourselves in Luke 18:1-8. In brief, an oppressed woman pleads repeatedly for justice from an unjust judge who holds all the power. The judge doesn’t care about the woman or about justice, and he represents a system that doesn’t care, but he eventually responds to her pleas because of her persistence. Jesus says that, if pure persistence can get results from an unjust system, how much more will our persistence in prayer be heard by our heavenly Father who loves us. And then he ends his parable with this question:
However, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on the earth?
~ Jesus (Luke 18:8)
Jesus is asking if we are willing to be persistent like the woman in this story. The Greek word for “faith” (pistis) means both faith and faithfulness, belief and behaviour, trust and trustworthiness. Biblical faith means to have enough trust in God to keep on going, together, in this case especially in prayer.
When we have no power, we pray. When we have some power, we pray and advocate. When we have more power, we pray, advocate, and initiate change. We can always do something for justice.
With this in mind, I’m inviting you all to join me in our current teaching series at The Meeting House (www.themeetinghouse.com) called “Jesus & Justice”. I think we are all going to learn and grow together in some important ways.
My friend and worship leader, Brian Doerkson, reminded me of the haunting song sung by Billie Holiday called Strange Fruit. Written in 1937 and released in 1939, the song expresses lament over the injustice of racism, and especially the lynching of black people by white people in the American south. I encourage you to take some time to find a way to listen to the song and lament together in solidarity. For now, here are the lyrics…
Southern trees bear a strange fruit
Blood on the leaves and blood at the root
Black bodies swingin’ in the Southern breeze
Strange fruit hangin’ from the poplar trees
Pastoral scene of the gallant South
The bulgin’ eyes and the twisted mouth
Scent of magnolias sweet and fresh
Then the sudden smell of burnin’ flesh
Here is a fruit for the crows to pluck
For the rain to gather
For the wind to suck
For the sun to rot
For the tree to drop
Here is a strange and bitter crop
We might think that lynchings are a part of the distant past, but the same seed of that tree continues to germinate in the human heart today. And it is bearing fruit. I invite us all, as a family of faith and faithfulness, to stand together for the inclusive, embracing, compassionate way of Jesus and against those seeds of injustice that are anti-Christ.
Would love to hear your comments. Let’s do this together.