What is my Responsibility as a White Christian in the USA?

This is a question I ask myself often. What does active faith look like in this particular time and place? Justice has always mattered to me, but my understanding of it has changed substantially over time. Growing up, my biggest hero’s were Harriet Tubman and Robin Hood. My fairly simplistic (and flawed) moral code could be summed up thusly: those with power should leverage it for the benefit of those with little or no power.

Around age 13 or so I stopped believing God. To understand my world better, I began studying atrocities. The Holocaust, the Irish Potato Famine, the North Atlantic Slave Trade, the Trail of Tears, the Rape of Nanking… these events led me to two conclusions:

1. Atrocities supported my hypothesis that God is not real

2. These terrible capabilities sit in the hearts of nearly all people

It provoked me to ask myself: Do I possess the courage required to fight evil at any cost?

The desire in my heart for justice and to be on the side of the righteous did not die with my faith, but it got twisted. In attempting to set my own standards much of my moral compass became compromised. What didn’t change was my belief that racism and oppression are evil. But make no mistake: I’ve said things and behaved in ways that are unquestionably prejudiced or biased. My heightened awareness of mankind’s history of racism, oppression, abuse and prejudice didn’t alter the fact that my entire life is one of default power and privilege.

I grew up in a world of systemic racism which both benefited me greatly and kept its sins largely invisible from me. Right now, I think of my growing awareness on this issue along the same lines as I do sanctification: it is an ongoing process in life rather than a place one arrives. Undoubtedly, some of the very things I write at this moment will embarrass me when I look back on them in the future, but I must have the humility to make imperfect progress. Unfortunately, I can’t get “there” without being “here.” So I must humbly ask for grace I don’t deserve.

The topic of race and justice in the USA has only risen in importance to me during the process of transitioning from an atheist to a Christ-follower and reading what the Bible says about how His people should treat and love others. I also find myself embarrassed that those who continue to pay the highest price in a society designed for me find themselves in the position of explaining and revealing to me how it benefits me and costs them.

I struggle with the number of indifferent white Christians in the USA who point at “progress” and council “patience” to people who have spent generations being oppressed, marginalized, silenced, beaten, killed and shackled by (predominantly) WHITE Christians. I have heard with my own ears the argument by white Christians about how they didn’t have slaves, or support Jim Crow laws, etc. It’s not their sin, after all.

I think of Jesus, who we believe took OUR sin and laid it on himself. Then he looked to the people who called themselves His followers and asked them to do the same thing.

And he said to all, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me.” (Luke 9:23 ESV)

I don’t believe that any white person in America can really say they aren’t tainted by the sin of racism. We have benefited from privilege at the cost of the marginalized and that feels out of alignment with Luke 9:23 (and the rest of the Bible). I struggle to believe that we won’t have to answer for our complicity-I don’t believe God will accept the excuse that we were insulated or unaware. How can we be for the things God is for and calls us to (both in the New Testament and the Old) in the US right now without seeing and knowing?

I don’t know if there’s a “right” answer to the question, “What’s my responsibility as a White Christian in the USA?” But I do know I will keep asking the question, seeking God’s answer, and attempting to align myself in thought, word and action to His Will. I work to make a difference and to be an ally. I pay attention to my words and actions as I seek to grow more aware of my privilege and the presumptions inherent in belonging to the dominant culture. And I remember that even in this place, I have a privilege many in my community do not. I have the privilege of choice. At any point, I can opt out of being an ally. I can say I am weary and need a break. If the road gets hard, I always have the option of retreating into a culture of whiteness and choosing not to stand or speak in difficult places. It is not a privilege I want to exercise but it is a choice I get to have. And as a white Christian in the USA, I believe God cares deeply about what I choose and why.

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Reflection: Nonviolence and Injustice

I do not have the wisdom or experience to say whether or not the belief that non-violence is the best way to bring about change in the face of injustice is right. What I do know is that, when faced with injustice, the best answer for me personally aligns with that of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Ghandi. When we follow what appears to be the natural order of things, violence begets violence, accompanied by a continued escalation until there is hurt on all sides and an effort to reconcile seems nearly impossible. When we instead choose to respond to injustice with love, we effectively prevent ourselves from the escalation of the very brokenness and injustice which was perpetuated against us. This does not mean the injustice continues unaddressed.

As Martin Luther King said in his Noble Peace Prize acceptance speech, “…nonviolence is not sterile passivity but a powerful moral force which makes for social transformation.” (King) It is a response to injustice, not a submission to it. It asks for us to be reconciled rather than perpetuate our broken principles through which we operate. In the same speech he said, “If this is to be achieved, man must evolve for all human conflict a method which rejects revenge, aggression and retaliation. The foundation of such a method is love…” (King) The effectivity of this approach becomes apparent in the story of Stoney, a white boy who grew up in Alabama during the height of the Civil Rights movement.

His family reflected his community. “And this is Alabama in the late fifties, the heart of Dixie, you know, where the Confederacy and all of the glory of the Confederacy was still a part of the way you were brought up.” (Berman 132) He heard Martin Luther King, Jr. labeled a Communist and enemy of the United Sates. He participated in the celebration of Bull Connor (a fantastic example of injustice and the use of violence) as the epitome of the Southern man. He reflected that when he was young, his beliefs were the beliefs of those around him because you believe in them. Then he went to Birmingham and as they turned the corner, he saw the police letting the dogs bite people who were peacefully singing and marching. He had a different reaction from his compatriots: “and I remember sayin’ to them then, “I don’t care if you are a nigger, you deserve better than to be chewed up by a dog.” I don’t think the other two boys that were with me really saw it that way. I think they saw it as an extension of the rightness of Bull Connor…” (Berman 134)

A few years later he experienced real breakthrough when he went to see Martin Luther King, Jr. at the march in Selma. “Then they get to a point, maybe fifty to a hundred yards away from the state troopers, and they knelt down and started to pray…And when I saw them kneel down to pray, I turned to the guy that was with me and said, “Those people aren’t Communists. Communists don’t believe in God! They wouldn’t kneel down and pray if they were Communists.” (Berman 135) It was the peaceful response of the march that lead him to recognize the incongruity between what he believed and what he witnessed. This response to appeal to God in a moment that promised unjust violence did not reflect a Godless people intent on destroying America. When his grandmother told him later that it was a trick, his belief system began to crack and was eventually replaced by something else. I wonder how differently the story might have gone if, rather than marching and praying, they had responded to police brutality with violence. Would the boys heart have been awakened to the injustice he witnessed? Would he continue to operate in the belief system he’d been given? Would he have gotten involved in the violence?

Martin Luther King also said in his speech that receiving the award, “…is a profound recognition that nonviolence is the answer to the crucial political and moral questions of our time, the need for man to overcome oppression and violence without resorting to oppression and violence.” (King) Nonviolence is not an easy answer, or a quick one. Someday we may learn that it isn’t the best one. But as far as my experience goes, it is the one that holds the most promise for reconciliation in our present and our future.

Works Cited

Berman, Philip. The Search for Meaning. New York: Bellantine Books, 1990. .pdf..

King, Jr., Martin Luther. Noble Prize Acceptance Speech. Oslo: Noble.org, 1964. video.

Wilfredo Choco De Jesús: Paying the Cost of Reconciliation (Catalyst Notes)

Wilfredo Choco De Jesús was one of Time’s 100 most influential people in 2013. The senior pastor at New Life Covenant Ministries in Chicago, he is a man not only of the Word but of action. He started his talk with Luke 19:10: “For the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost.” This, he said, is why Jesus came. This is what we are called to: to seek and to save the lost.

How do we lead in a drifting culture dominated by fear? First, we must realize that nobody drifts towards holiness. Holiness is intentional. Therefore, a Church that offers transformation in a drifting world must be an engaged, purposeful, responsive Church. Prayer is not a crutch. It is the start of something, not the end of it. Revelation calls for a response. Understanding can wait, obedience to the revelation of God cannot. “When my Father says do something, I do it.”

Remember: God uses unusual people to do extraordinary things. It’s all over the Bible. Wilfredo De Jesús, also known as Pastor Choco, felt called to buy a farm and amazing things took place to make it happen through all sorts of crazy turns. That farm has, to date, rescued 625 girls and women from prostitution. There is a cost to reconciliation, but we, the Church, should be happy to pay it. He told a story of buying five prostitutes for one hour. They brought them to a place where they laid out a beautiful banquet. They spoke truth over them, that they weren’t born a prostitute and they were loved. Those women walked away from their path and, through the sacrifice and support of the church, ended up becoming leaders in the church. It’s just like in the parable of the lost sheep: the sheep is not rebuked for being lost, it is celebrated for being found.

Or the prodigal son. The son who basically told his father, “I don’t care about your status, I wish you were dead.” He demanded an inheritance he wasn’t even owed and his father gave it to him, sacrificing his status for him. Then that son leaves and squanders it all. Eventually he came to his senses and returns humbled. What does the dad do? He RUNS to the boy. Men didn’t run in the first century; children and women ran. But again, the father disregards status and runs to the son. He embraces and covers the boy, showing that his protection is over him. He gives him jewelry which is a symbol that tells the son and others that he has complete authority to negotiate on behalf of the father with the assets of the family. That’s some crazy sacrificial love.

Why is the older brother upset? Well, this was all at a cost to him, in his mind. The inheritance was rightfully his, and already the father had allowed his younger brother to squander half of it. Now, he was paying for this celebration as well as giving the prodigal son his status back. You see, someone always pays the cost of reconciliation. There’s a cost to bringing others to the table, to gather those that Christ calls us to. The question is, what are you willing to pay so others can be reconciled to God? Are you willing to stand in the gap?

Criticizing Justice Seekers

When I look at the landscape of the United States right now, the number of times I see patterns of well-intentioned people criticizing others seeking recognition and justice can, at times, overwhelm me. Often within church circles I’m around, you hear an emphasis put on personal sin, with the belief that repenting from it will transform our lives and thus the systems around us (if they even include systems in their discussion). In schools, we are often taught that those that fight for recognition and justice (of minorities) are threats, deviants, mentally ill, etc. In the public sphere, the growing tension between Black Lives Matter, Blue Lives Matter and All Lives Matter creates a telling dialogue around what we value and why we value it. Central to each of these issues and many more is power: who has power, doesn’t have power, and who deserves power.

Let us consider the various social circles I’ve been exposed to within religious organizations. There is a tremendous emphasis put on personal sin and the power of God to transform lives if we repent. This belief is well-intentioned and not even something I disagree with, but it is incomplete; there must also be an acknowledgement of sin against others, of a disparity in very real resources, of discrimination in the distribution of goods and services or even the long-term effects of the systemic ways we degrade people of certain races or genders. As one person explained, “Look, if you’re white, heroin addiction is a disease that people want to treat, to HEAL. But if you’re black? Drug addiction is justification for incarceration or an excuse for why you can get shot by the police.” People in these circles often criticize those who speak out and fight for change within our systems, explaining that “all” people must take responsibility for their personal sin, that it was their choice to break the law. Again, none of this is untrue, it’s just incomplete. We cannot stop there, insisting that they must face judgment for their sin while we accept cheap grace. We have a responsibility to ask how we, as a society, have sinned against them and take responsibility for reconciliation.

Within schools, we can also see patterns where people seeking recognition and justice are not only criticized, but misrepresented. Consider, for instance, Andrew Jackson. In high school history books, accolades are spoken of him and the work he did in building the nation into what it is today. Unless you do your own research, you are unlikely to be taught that Jackson’s success was built on the systemic dehumanization, oppression and slaughter of native people across the country. Yet when we study the Turner Rebellion, it is often mentioned that Turner was potentially schizophrenic, mentally ill, etc. He is rarely shown as a man of faith who lived as a slave and possessed a righteous anger at the suffering and bondage pressed upon slaves from every side. Emphasis is put on the fact that Nat and his rebellion killed men, women and children but often neglect to mention that the state militia executed those involved as well as people with slight connections, reimbursing their masters afterwards for the loss of their property. The white response across the South of murdering black people without cause (to such an extent that numbers aren’t known) is also usually absent from the teaching. This is just one example of how we disparage one who fights for justice while lifting-up someone driven by power and wealth.

The last example I’ll discuss is that of the evolution of the “Lives Matter” movements. “Black Lives Matter,” came first and at its root, was a cry of a people who feel that they exist in a society that tells them through words, treatment, and resourcing that their lives don’t matter. Thus, the statement “Black Lives Matter,” was a means of affirming that a black life has value, that it does indeed matter. This is also a way of building power through solidarity with one another; alone it is easy to be cut down. Together, but asserting that one another’s life matters, there is a collective building of worth and power. A response by predominantly white people came through the phrases “Blue Lives Matter” and “All Lives Matter.” This response is, I believe, an example of people who are most often well-intention but also deeply biased. I believe that, for the most part, they recognize that they do not value the black life the same as the lives of white people or police and furthermore, believe that if they MUST value those lives, it comes at a cost to blue lives or white lives. Herein lies the fundamental flaw of those who believe value is a finite resource: valuing the lives of other people does not change the worth of your own life. It’s saying, “As I possess human dignity and worth, so should others who currently do not.” When we consider the power that lies in the police, the statement that black lives matter doesn’t negate the life of police, it cries out for the black life to be valued by the blue. In other words, “Blue Lives Matter” and “All Lives Matter” view the lifting up of black lives as a zero-sum game: where each race or demographic’s gain or loss is exactly balanced by the losses or gains of another race or demographic. “Black Lives Matter” views the value of humanity as many people view love: just as our capacity to love others grows and expands without loss of love in one’s self, we can value more and more people as we value ourselves without loss. This sentiment is echoed in the words of Jesus himself, when he says in Mark 12:31, “The second is this: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no commandment greater than these.”

The three examples I’ve provided are just a few places where I see the manifestation of the patterns of criticism towards people seeking recognition and justice. While not all-inclusive, I believe these examples highlight how deeply rooted and systemic the issue is: life and liberty are valued far less in this country than maintaining power, and this truth is found within the heart of what we say and implement in our political, economic and social structures. Just as in the time of slavery, while the elite are a small number, they are mighty, and they are also effective in sculpting the culture and beliefs of larger white America so they feel that they have more in common with the elite than they do those that have been silently and systemically disenfranchised. Thus, the non-elite, white majority continue to voluntarily give over more of their freedoms and wealth to those in power while believing it is those with the least amount of power who are stripping them of it, all with the best of intentions.

The Process of Discernment

About a year or two ago, I had this idea, this burning vision, that I was trying to understand. It mobilized me so much that I wrote people, met with organizations and even pursued a grant. But then I had this sense of not now, not yet. Today I remembered that vision and asked myself, “Had I just misunderstood it?”

You see, this vision was this big room, and each Cincinnati neighborhood was represented by the a 8′ tower that looked like a building. There’s 52 neighborhoods in the city, and there were 52 pillars in this vision, laid out in a grid pattern, so as you walked through it, almost as if you were walking the a city.

Each tower had the name of the neighborhood and a couple infographs telling the story of racial and economic disparity through the decades. On the other side of the towers (in the “windows”) were pictures of people from the neighborhood as well as the places they took pride in or that served as the heart of their community. Lastly, there’d be some kind of audio that would share people’s stories, but only if you were close to their “neighborhood.”

On the other side of this installation, we’d have a video sharing a few stories of what it’s like to be in Cincinnati and some of the big obstacles we are facing.

So, that was the vision. Today I suddenly recalled that vision and thought about where God has put me, in a role where it is possible for me to potentially engage with people across the city, possibly from every neighborhood. And as I work through the classes I’m in right now and ask myself what this vision meant, I’m beginning to wonder if the dream wasn’t some massive project for me to create, but instead it was a visual expression for what my path would look like. This vision was meant to be a means of education: to reveal the HUMANITY that exists in every single neighborhood (give them faces), to recognize our successes while also opening our eyes to places of total failure. To stir hearts to become reconcilers in this city (not necessarily the same as peacemakers).

I really don’t know yet but I do feel as if I’ve gained some kind of understanding around all of this. It’s as if a fog is lifting and I can discern shapes and movement but none of the details.

The Silent Victim of Imprisonment: Children

According to alternet.org (link below) in 2013, around 2.7 million children under the age of 18 had a parent in prison or jail. In this video they quote 3 million which shouldn’t be a surprise since the prison population has been rising for decades. The tragedy that strikes here is twofold: first, that children suffer the pain of growing up parentless. Second, with our system and society the way it is, those children will then be six times more likely to enter the system themselves.

Some people might say that these men don’t deserve to see their children; perhaps those people are against rehabilitating prisoners so they can be productive members of society when released.  But what about the kids? Do you think that the “sins” of the parents should be the “sins” of the child?  And thus the “sin” of society?  Or do you think we can do better? This program that allows dads and their kids to spend time together seems like an amazing step in the right direction.

 

(AlterNet Article) http://www.alternet.org/civil-liberties/27-million-children-under-age-18-have-parent-prison-or-jail

(Article Video was from) http://tosavealife.com/inspiration/dads-behind-bars-hold-kids-1st-time-look-faces/

Reflections on “Final Gifts”: Permission to Die, Birth and Death, and the Value of Reconciliation

I found Final Gifts by Maggie Callanan and Patricia Kelley to be a powerful insight into the lives of three different groups of people: nurses for the dying, the family and friends of the dying and the dying themselves. It looks at “Nearing Death Awareness,” or the increasing awareness one has when one is dying over a long period of time, the actual experience of it and what they need in order to die peacefully. Three concepts I felt really stood out to me and that I feel I can apply immediately in the future were the idea that the dying often need permission to die, the relationship between birth and death and the value of reconciliation and the role we can play in it.

It was helpful for me to acknowledge the truth that dying people often need permission to die; receiving it can provide a great amount of relief and the withholding of it can make the process of death longer and more challenging. This is likely due to what they are trying to communicate and why: “The dying often use the metaphor of travel to alert those around them that it is time for them to die. They also have a deep concern about the welfare of those they love, asking themselves, ‘Do they understand? Are they going to be alright?’[1] In the example of Ellen, her family struggled at first to understand that she was trying to communicate that she was dying to them. This increased the level of stress and anxiety for both Ellen and her family.  Once they realized that she was likely referring to heaven, they went in and comforted and affirmed her. “Ellen’s family provided what she needed by letting her know they understood the messages she was so desperately trying to give them-‘I am dying, it is time for my journey from this life, I need to know you understand and are ready; I need your permission to go.’”[2] While I have never witnessed this, I have heard stories from people about someone they love “constantly agitated towards the end.” I’ve also encountered people in homes who didn’t seem to make any sense and they were generally dismissed. This idea encourages me to approach people not only with a heart of compassion but with a belief that there is, perhaps, an understanding that can be reached.

Another idea I found helpful was the analogy between birth and death. As one nurse described, “I also feel strongly that, like birthing, dying can be an opportunity for the whole family to share positive experiences, rather than only sadness, pain and loss. That is the challenge of the work…”[3] In fact, both birth and death used to happen in the home until industrialization and the twentieth century hit; then birth became a procedure and death a failure at successful treatment.  Recently there has been some headway made in both these areas, and both birth and death are now often possible in the comfort of one’s home rather than in the often isolating and unfamiliar hospital. Consider the difference that this has made for births: “Family members present at delivery share a special bond with mother and child-a closeness born of sharing that powerful moment. The deeper their involvement and understanding, the likelier they are to come away with a sense of learning and growth.”[4] This same thing could be said for those who experience death alongside loved ones. Their deeper involvement leaves them with a sense that there were fully participatory in the end and the person dying is less lonely and fearful because they are surrounded by those who care for them. When I consider the growth and community that comes from birth I have to believe that the same is true for death and I see the value of community in times where people are facing a terminal illness.

I also learned that many times the most important thing for a person as they are nearing death is reconciliation.  “As death nears, people often realize some things feel unfinished or incomplete-perhaps issues that once seemed insignificant or that happened long ago. Now the dying person realizes their importance and wants to settle them.”[5] If this is request is understood people will often do what they can to assist the person but there are also times when the request is unclear, leaving the person upset or appearing in pain when they aren’t physically pained; rather they are suffering psychologically or emotionally. They desire peace, and to die peacefully they need either healing or reconciliation to occur in the relationship (often in the form of an apology or expression of gratitude). “Most dying people begin by listing their accomplishments, but they also will consider their disappointments-tasks not completed, opportunities missed, relationships broken or left to wither. As caregivers or friends, if we can help dying people conduct such reviews and heal damaged relationships, we can help them find peace.”[6] I saw this with my Father’s mother as she was nearing her own end. It was clear she wanted reconciliation with my mother and I tried to provide the best reassurances I could. That seemed to be a great comfort to her in those moments, as she was very fearful of death.

[1]Callanan, Maggie & Kelley, Patricia. (2012) Final Gifts: Understanding the Special Awareness, Needs, and Communications of the Dying. United States of America: Simon & Schuster Paperbacks. Pg. 74

[2] Callanan & Kelley. Pg. 75

[3] Callanan & Kelley. Pg. 130

[4] Callanan & Kelley, Pg. 30

[5] Callanan & Kelley, Pg. 137

[6] Callanan & Kelley, Pg. 153