Tuesday, June 2, 2020

My Message on Race to my Church Family

   As your pastor, I’ve had many questions about our church’s response to the turmoil we’re witnessing in our city and nation. We begin of course in grief, in prayer, trying to feel the pain in God’s heart, straining to hear the pain in the hearts of all God’s people. We are to bring healing, to be a light to the nations, the salt of the earth (Matthew 5:13), the repairers of the breach (Isaiah 58:12). It’s time, past time really, for the Church to be the Church.
   The Church has always been looked to in times of crisis for moral leadership. In Jesus’ parable of the Good Samaritan, some religious people walked on by; but one stopped to help (Luke 10:29). When something is not of God, we speak up; we do something. We do so peacefully, and full of love.
   I was both praised and criticized for showing up for a protest gathering downtown on Sunday. The clergy of our city are always asked by officials to be present, to stand in the breach as a buffer, to be a calming, peacemaking force. Clergy, on behalf of their churches, show up in communities to show the church cares. I know we all care. As your pastor, I embody your care to others.
   Everyone I know shudders over looting, breaking windows, smashing police cars. These are crimes, to be dealt with as crimes. But we can’t let the tiny fraction of people who take advantage of situations like this (and many truly are instigators from outside our city) drown out the voices of pain. We recall that our country has a long and honorable tradition of civil disobedience. The patriots of the Revolution, seeking freedom, broke laws. The Boston Tea Party was, after all, looting… Martin Luther King, Jr., deliberately and peacefully broke the law, and was more than willing to be imprisoned. Very different from petty looting, isn’t it? And during the Civil Rights movement, a turning point came when TV focused eyes on police brutality. After watching Bull Connor, Americans said “No more.” Jesus himself was a peaceful protester, and it cost him his life.
   Racism persists as a nagging, unsolved challenge to the good society we dream of. And it’s not out there somewhere. I laughed out loud the first time I saw Avenue Q when it came to the song “Everyone’s a little bit racist.” Like all white people, I carry lingering shadows of attitudes that were deeply ingrained in me at a young age. I have to pray and work on that, as we all do. Studies show white people’s pulses rise when they encounter a black person on a sidewalk. No condemnation of anyone here; as Christians we are always striving to be more faithful and holy.
   What we have to remember, in thinking about race, is that we are all people riddled by fear. Rev. Bill Roth mentioned to me this week that “In the face of fear, we will either acknowledge and feel it, or we’ll act it out, going on the offensive against those we fear.” We see and feel these things constantly. Christian faith is a healing for fear, God’s grace embracing us, telling us we are safe, and there’s comfort, no need to judge or get angry or lash out.
   We had some programs a couple of years ago on Racial Reconciliation, and they were great. My friend Bishop Claude Alexander of The Park here in town pointed out in conversation the other day that “reconciliation” is a misnomer – in that it implies we used to be together, we fell apart, and now we want to reconcile. Whites and blacks were never together as Americans. Blacks were brought here as slaves, and it’s been an uphill battle toward freedom ever since. Somehow for me, James Baldwin’s wisdom resonates with me – that many white Americans may have come to need black Americans, not just to work for them, but to help them feel they’re better than somebody else. As Christians, we trust God’s grace to heal us from any lingering hints of ever thinking anybody’s better than anybody else.
   In times like these, “white privilege” and “white supremacists” are terms tossed around. I am someone who’s worked hard. I paid my own way through school. But no one ever sized me up by skin color and assumed I would turn out poorly. If you befriend people of color (and not just one!), let them share their experiences with you. You may learn about privileges you didn’t realize you had. When we hear “white supremacists,” we might think of rebel-flag-toting guys trying to revive the KKK. I often see and feel something way subtler – when we white people think we understand black people and what they should be doing, although we’ve not really listened to them or lived in their shoes.
   So when people ask What can we do? it’s not like making a donation or saying a prayer or any one thing will change the world. We begin by listening. Make a friend who looks different, stick with that friend over time to build trust, and then listen, learn, share life together. If all the white Christians in Charlotte had longstanding friendships with black Christians in Charlotte, we’d have a very different city. I helped author and signed a statement from white clergy and community leaders simply saying “We are grieved, outraged, remorseful, and weary… We are with you.” Reach out to someone who is black and share your sorrow.
   What can we do? My answer is Everything. Where do you walk, bike, hang out? Whom do your children play with? Where do you shop? How do you vote and why? How do you engage in conversations about other people with your friends? Or at home? Lots of people are finding practical steps to take in this “75 Things White People Can Do for Racial Justice.” Ask questions. Have you phoned anybody? Lie awake at night. Nathan Arledge and others recommend reading How To Be An Antiracist, by Ibram X. Kendi. Maybe it’s not enough to say I’m not racist. Maybe we have to be anti-racists, working with others against racism.
   For God asks us to be responsible, to be our brother’s keeper, to love the stranger, never to rest until God’s blessings are there for everybody. On this, I love Martin Luther King’s wisdom: “Cowardice asks ‘Is it safe?’ Expediency asks ‘Is it politic?’ Vanity asks ‘Is it popular?’ But, conscience asks, ‘Is it right?’ There comes a time when one must take a position that is neither safe, nor politic, nor popular, but because one’s conscience tells one that it is right.”
   ** Your thoughts and perspectives, and your ideas about what God is calling our church to do and be are welcome! Email input@mpumc.org, or me directly, james@mpumc.org.