I’ve been trying to write this post for months.
I spent the better part of this year filling the pulpit at a very small church in rural Georgia. One Sunday in July, as I drove down the country highway back home, I saw something in the distance that was unusual, and caught my attention. The first thing that I could clearly discern were confederate flags hoisted up along the front of an otherwise unassuming roadside building. Then I noticed three men with cowboy hats on holding signs up toward the cars approaching in the other direction. As I came closer, they turned in a swift, choreographed motion, and my stomach dropped and my mouth dried up and for a moment, I froze. The signs read, “Black Lives Don’t Matter,” and “Only White Lives Matter.”
I drove along in shock, until at some point I called my husband and burst into tears, recounting what I’d seen. I was nauseous. I cried the rest of the way home. I cried as I packed our bags for our honeymoon. I cried for Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, Sandra Bland, Alton Sterling, Philando Castile. I cried for the families of color who would be subjected to that hatred as they made their way home from church. I cried for the children in the backseats of passing cars, excited to practice their reading skills only to sound-out phrases no child should ever hear or see. I cried because it made me afraid. I wanted to stop, to get out of my car, to yell and scream and swear, to speak up and speak out, but I was genuinely and truly afraid for my life. I never wanted to see those men again.
I wish I could tell you I didn’t. On my last Sunday at the church, this time with my husband in tow, we saw them again. They had upgraded. The confederate flags were still waving in the wind, but they’d moved back farther off of the road. They had a table with literature on it. They were sitting in chairs. They had a tent to block out the sun. As we drove past, they had just finished displaying the second of two white, hooded robes.
I’ve been so feeling so helpless, so heartbroken. Now, with the news of two more officer-involved shootings resulting in the deaths of two more black men, I find myself needing to speak up, to speak out. To my friends who are people of color – I hear you. I love you. I believe you. I am sorry. I am your ally. I am listening.
I’ve been debating about deactivating my Facebook account until the current election season is over. We have descended into a level of polarization in this country that continues to stun me. I believe that the current political climate only heightens the polarization that comes when yet another police officer uses deadly force against yet another person of color. I’m tired of reading of the grief. I’m tired of becoming incensed at the many, many ways white people I know and love try to deflect from the real problem of systemic racism and our own, individual prejudices.
But deactivating my Facebook account is an exercise of my own privilege. I have the privilege to look away. I have the privilege to forget what is happening. I have the privilege to ignore the lived experiences of others and continue in my safe, white existence. My life is not at stake. The lives of my family members are not at stake. I will not be gunned down by a police officer when I have car trouble. I will not have to worry about my husband being shot with his hands in the air. I will not have to counsel my sons on how to best interact with the police so that officers will believe that they are not a threat, or on drugs, or carrying a gun.
I am at the very last step of the process of ordination to the ministry of the Word and Sacrament in the Presbyterian Church, USA. I am currently serving a church as a pastor. The Word I proclaim, the Sacraments we celebrate, are manifestations and proclamations of God-Incarnate, who put on skin and walked among the grieving, the marginalized, those victimized by inherently violent societal structures -a God-Incarnate who was executed by an Empire that found his radical welcome and love to be too threatening to its own systems of oppression. I find no other way to be faithful to Jesus Christ, and to my calling, than to admit my own privilege, my own prejudice, my own fragility, and to promise to be an ally to those whose skin color endangers their very lives.
There is a phrase to describe what happens when those who are members of the dominate culture are confronted with uncomfortable facts about their existence: white fragility. I see it exercised over and over on my newsfeed, on twitter, on CNN, NBC, Fox News, and in my own life. White fragility privileges white emotions over the lived experiences of people of color. How you feel about a situation, as a white person, doesn’t override the actual, lived experience of someone who isn’t. We have made ourselves judge and jury. Here are some examples of phrases that come from a place of fragility.
1. #AllLivesMatter. Sure. Yes. They do. But if that’s your response when you read or hear Black Lives Matter then stop, take a breath, back up. You’re missing the point. I’ve seen a few quotes and illustrations that sum it up better than I can. One is this: when you go to the doctor with a broken arm, you don’t want to hear her say, “all bones matter.” Yes, of course, all bones matter. But when something particular is broken, you want that to be fixed. Another is this: If your house is burning down and your neighbor -whose house is not on fire – has a fire hose pointed at his house says, “I know your house is burning down, but all houses matter,” you might get angry. You should get angry. Most recently, Shane Claiborne tweeted that if Jesus were to say today, “Blessed are the poor,” some might respond, “No, Jesus, blessed is everyone.” Sometimes we’ve got to proclaim a truth that has been lost in a broken system. Yes, of course, everyone’s lives matter. The point is that some lives seem to matter more than others, these days. It’s not that only black lives matter; it’s that black lives matter, too.
2. “The media is creating a race war.” No – it isn’t. No it isn’t. It isn’t. I’ve seen that one a lot. It is easy to to pass the blame onto some construct like “the media,” but that ignores two problems. One – we are racist. We are. We live and participate in systems that benefit and privilege people with white skin over people of color. Here’s an example: recently, I was driving down a highway on a clear day, going about 5-10 miles over the speed limit. I was breaking the law. I shortly came upon a highway patrol officer slightly hidden behind some trees. He could have pulled me over, and I would have deserved the ticket. Just after, a car passed me and I noticed that a black man was driving and I thought, “Oh, I’m fine. He’ll get pulled over before I will.” I felt ashamed for even thinking it, and also let the reality sink in that I was probably right. Between a black man and a white woman, there is a greater likelihood that the black man will be pulled over, even traveling at the same speed. I imagine you might know that feeling. One of the things, I think, that makes us so fragile is that if we really start to do the hard and difficult and necessary work of creating true equality, those of us who have benefited from racist systems will benefit no longer. We will be held accountable. We should be held accountable. That scares us, so we blame someone else, something else, anything else. The second problem with the idea that the media is creating some kind of race war is that racial inequality isn’t something new. The media just happens to be paying attention differently than it has before. We think that because we had the Civil Rights Act of ’64 and the Voting Rights Act of ’65 that everything’s fine, racism is over because we “fixed” it in Congress. Unfortunately, legislation does not equal reconciliation. We still have a long way to go. The reality is that the media coverage is making us uncomfortable because it is challenging our privilege. Let it. It’s past time for us to be uncomfortable with the way people of color are treated in this world. Watch it. Take it all in. Then do something about it.
There are other examples – about statistics on police killings, crime, class dynamics, etc. – that are also products of our fragility. The main point is this: when you find yourself reacting adversely to the notion that the lives of black people matter, ask yourself why you’re reacting that way. What is it within you that causes your defense mechanisms to kick in? What’s at stake for you? What are you afraid of?
It seems like our nation needs to take a collective deep breath. So, I invite you to take a breath with me. Step back. Write a draft before you write a post. Consider how the God who wept over the death of Lazarus might be lamenting over Terence Crutcher and Keith Lamont Scott. Consider how we might create a more just, equitable and sustainable future for all of God’s beloved children. Read books, articles, blog posts written by people of color. Consider where Jesus would be – where Jesus is – in our midst.
I have hope in the God who makes all things new that this, too, is not beyond redemption. I have hope in the God who unifies us that we can rise above discourse, hatred and polarization. I have hope that the power of the Holy Spirit can and will move in our hearts and change our lives. I have hope for that day when we can say “all lives matter” and mean it. I have hope in the God who calls me and you, that when we pray as Jesus taught us, God’s Kingdom will indeed come and be among us. Right now, the coming of God’s Kingdom looks a lot like a protest. I have hope in that, too.