This Sunday, we celebrate Pentecost, when the Holy Spirit miraculously gave Jesus’ first followers the ability to speak in foreign languages to share the truth about God with all the diverse people gathered in the city of Jerusalem. (Acts 2:1-41)
This Sunday, George Floyd is dead. Another unarmed black man killed by incomprehensibly violent police tactics. And riots rage in our cities.
As an American Christian, I live in two kingdoms. I live in the Kingdom of God in which each person’s sacred worth is derived from their creation in God’s image and Jesus’ death for their redemption. For Christians the unnecessary taking of life disrespects Jesus’ sacrifice. It is akin to spitting in Jesus’ face as he hangs on the cross.
I also live in the Kingdom of the United States of America, a nation founded upon the entirely incongruent premises that all persons are created equal and that black persons can be exploited for the economic benefit of white persons. To escape the cognitive dissonance of these two entirely incongruent ideas Americans have and have always had only two options: 1) work for equality or 2) attack the personhood of black people to justify their unequal treatment. Sadly, despite the marvelous progress made by our country (which should rightly be celebrated), history tells us we still have more often taken the second approach.
I grew up at a time when people wondered if black persons were smart enough to play quarterback. Today, my children grow up in a time where people wonder if a black quarterback should be able to nonviolently protest unjust violence against blacks without being systematically blackballed from the job which he performs better than all but about 10 other people on the planet.
I grew up in a day when the majority of people around me rejected the idea of separate, but equal schools, but loved the idea of separate, but equal dating relationships. Today, I still hear people say things like “She really went crazy during college. You know, she started dating a black guy and doing stuff like that.”
I know these examples may seem rather benign compared to violent killings. But it is precisely smaller things like these which attack and erode the personhood of black people and in so doing, create a society in which some white citizens and some police officers feel justified in using lethal force against black persons in situations where they would never consider doing so to anyone else.
Racism is the original sin of the United States. It is the bully on the playground who terrorizes the most vulnerable kids because he knows all the other kids won’t stand up to him. Turns out, the best way to stop a bully is not to call the teacher or teach the victim self-defense tactics. The best way to stop a bully is to train and empower the bystanders to take actions. In American society, it’s the majority of white people, who have for too long been bystanders who need to recognize our duty to speak up for those of other colors whose voices are often silenced or disregarded.
The most hopeful thing in our society I have seen since George Floyd’s passing is more white people doing that than before – at least in my circles. I confess as a white male I have often been too hesitant to speak out on issues of race which my faith tradition tells me is a sin of omission on my part. I have voted for equality. I have cheered for equality. But I have often kept my voice on the sideline because I felt I didn’t understand the complexities of race well enough to speak out or because I didn’t want to come across as some self-righteous overly woke white person. Today, I see staying on the sidelines is a privilege I can no longer accept in good conscience.
My voice is unlikely to directly influence the administration of justice in George Floyd’s case. However, my voice and all white voices can create an environment where the bullies cease and desist as they come to the conclusion that they can no longer get away with their behavior and where everyday people no longer associate blackness with danger. Our voices can only accomplish this by speaking out against each and every scenario in which black personhood is attacked through the unequal distribution of opportunity and unequal application of justice.
So here is what I want you to know about me. If you’re black and you move into my neighborhood, I will cherish you not be scared of you. If you’re a black young person and one day in the future you want to date one of my children, I will hold you to the same high standards I would anyone else. (Thankfully my children are years away from being old enough to date because right now it is taking everything I’ve got to help them navigate new math, so I pray for wisdom from on high in the future when the day comes that I must guide them through the complexities of dating.) And if you’re a black friend or colleague, I want you to know I see your blackness as a gift, not an obstacle, you bring to our relationship and our work together, just as I hope to live in such a way that you can experience my white Appalachian heritage as a gift as well.
I do not write these words in a misguided attempt to be profound. I am not profound. Jesus was profound when he told people to love their neighbors as they love themselves and then taught them to regard Jews, Samaritans, and Romans as their neighbors.
I simply write these words because I do not want to wait until heaven to experience a society where people of all colors are treated as brothers and sisters of sacred worth. While I have no illusions about the residue of racism which will most likely linger in America for the rest of my life even as progress is made, I have come to believe that if I do not do all in my power to undermine racism now then later when I arrive in heaven I won’t be fit for it.