Ferguson and Everything After

image-453673840In the Summer of 1992, my parents and I went on vacation to Toronto and Niagara Falls.  On the day that we were on the Canadian side, we decided to drive over to Niagara Falls, NY to see the American Falls.  This meant crossing the border back into the United States.  As we cross the bridge spanning the two nations, we stopped at border crossing welcoming us back into the United States.  We ended up with a white border guard that decided to annoy us.  He asked questions in a tone that bothered us.  Dad was getting more and more agitated, having never been treated this way at the border before.  I was at the driver’s wheel and the guard had me get out of the car to show him what was in our trunk.  I was bothered and quite scared.  Of course there was nothing in the trunk other than things one would see in a car on vacation.  Once the guard was satisfied, he let us go on our way, but it took us a while to forget how we were treated by this man.

This was one of the few times I felt harassed by the police.  It was hard not to conclude that the rough treatment we got was because we were African American.

It’s been almost two weeks since Michael Brown was shot dead by a policeman named Darren Wilson in the St. Louis suburb of Ferguson, Missouri.  The death of a young African American by a white policeman is bound to set of a fury of feelings on race in America and the events that happened on August 9 have not disappointed us.  As I said in a recent post, there seems to be a lot of similarities to the Trayvon Martin/George Zimmerman controversy that took place in 2012.  As I said back then, it’s understandable that African Americans would feel this situation deeply-reminding us of some of our past encounters with white Americans.

This situation could be a time to really have that so-called conversation on race.  But like it was two years ago, everyone seems willing to talk, but no seems willing to listen.

First things first: while there is much to be gained talking about how African American men are immediately seen as threats, or about how law enforcement look at African Americans or about how suburban police forces feel the need to ape the US Army, it’s dangerous to hold Darren Wilson up as public enemy number one.  There is much to talk about, but the actual facts of the case still remain murky.  Maybe Wilson shot Brown in cold blood.  Maybe he shot his gun in the fog of war.  Was Brown doing something that warranted guns being drawn?  The fact is, we don’t have the clear picture yet.  While there might be problems with policing in Ferguson, we don’t know what really happened that Saturday night.  As much as I am tempted to view Brown as innocent and Wilson as guilty, we don’t yet have evidence that proves either way.

Even though the incident is being looked at, that doesn’t mean that some of the greivences that have bubbled up to the surface must be ignored.  African American men in our society have always been looked at with a sense of fear.  I know that’s happened to me.  These days it happening earlier and earlier.  A National Public Radio report from March of this year show black preschoolers were suspended at higher rates that white preschoolers. Some experts call this the “school to prison pipeline” where African American children, especially boys, have run-ins with the law early and frequently.

So where does the church fit in all of this?

I think that the response is mixed.  I think that churches need to be able to be a listening ear and a megaphone about how African American men are viewed in our society.  Sadly, there are still too many people who refuse to understand that while official segregation is gone by the wayside, attitudes still remain.  Related to this, I think the church needs to thoughtfully ask whites what is it about black me that scares them.  Part of the problem is that some people are afraid of black men.  It might be irrational, but I think there needs to be space for that question to be asked and answered, as uncomfortable as it might be.  Maybe when we share we can dispel myths or see what needs to be corrected.

But if the church is going to be an agent of reconciliation, to foster dialogue, we have to be thoughtful when we talk about white privilege and racism.  Most whites don’t see themselves as privileged and having a white liberal Christian chastise his fellow whites, many of who are trying to make ends meet of being privileged, don’t expect that they are going to react with open hearts and minds.  Yes, privilege exists, but pointing this out should lead to solutions not blame. Also, calling whites automatically racist is also not going to work.  White folks think racist and they see some guy who decided ruin his wife’s best bedspread to where while setting fire to a cross.  It’s one thing to say that society still benefits whites, its another to basically say they are the Bull Connor of suburbia.

As the African American pastor of a majority white congregation in the suburbs; I wonder if my odd intersection could lead towards some real conversation about how to heal the divisions between law enforcement and black men.  I don’t know if that’s where God is calling me and I don’t think I’m going to make such a big difference, but then you never know.

I just look forward to the day when incidents such as what happened to Michael Brown will be a distant and unpleasant memory.

Repost: Beyond George Zimmerman (the Ferguson Edition)

I do have something to say about Michael Brown, the police and Ferguson, MO.  But while I’m thinking about what to write, I wanted to share a post I wrote in the days following the verdict acquitting George Zimmerman in the murder of Trayvon Martin.  Funny how only the names have been changed.

zimmerman

Ever since the verdict from the George Zimmerman case was made known, I’ve been wondering what I wanted to write about this event. I happened to be down the road from Sanford, Florida in Orlando for the 2013 General Assembly of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). It was interesting that in the same convention center the NAACP was having its national convention.

I was looking at a post I wrote a year ago about this case and it is fascinating how on target it still is. The words I said back then still make sense:

The recent tragedy concerning Trayvon Martin has a lot of people talking. There’s a lot that one could talk about here: racism, the role of young black males in American society, gun control or lack thereof and so on. I know that it’s common for pastors and even moreso for black pastors to speak out on events like this, but I’m still holding my tounge, unwilling to somehow speak to the moment.

The reason I don’t at this point is because there is so much that is unknown in this case. We have a lot of pieces of what happened between Martin and his alleged shooter, George Zimmerman, but we don’t really have a clear story. While many may think otherwise, the details of this case are still being learned. What seems so obvious might not be…

…we want to try to make the events fit our own templates to further our own agendas. We try to hunt and look for whatever shred of evidence about silly things like Trayvon smoking marijuana and use that to paint him as some crazy thug. We want to use some words said during a 911 call to paint Zimmerman as soon kind of suburban klansman. For some reason, we don’t want to simply wait and see what the facts bear out. No, we already have the “facts” and are ready to fashion stories based on whatever spin we can get from those facts.

I still think in many ways we are trying to spin this story to serve our own ends. Yes, race is still a problem in America, but we don’t need to make this case into a racial melodrama to make that case. As a church leader, I am a bit wary of touching this case because it isn’t such a clear story. Maria Dixon points that out well in her recent blog post on this:

Many churches and church leaders will hold vigils and offer prayers of the people when the inevitable firestorm of racial angst breaks loose. They will ask for calm, write soothing words about reconciliation–when it is their very ineptness at helping all of us deal honestly with difference that has doomed us to failure. Ok, maybe that’s harsh, but then again maybe it isn’t. You see, most mainline denominations have difficulty with discussing race, even amongst themselves. Substituting quotas and tallies of who is speaking for the really hard discussions of inclusion, difference, and the mandates of Christ, the church–particularly those denominations considered most progressive–fears such discussions. The problem is not with only the lighter hue of the pew. The African American church has lived so long in the world and discourse of struggle that it, unlike the church of South Africa, has yet to be able to fully embrace and cultivate a dialogue of racial reconciliation and renewal. So let’s be clear: There is plenty of blame to go around for why cases like Treyvon’s cause such national handwringing and outrage. It’s like my good friend and mentor, Mark Lawrence McPhail–one of the top scholars on race and rhetoric–writes, that no one has clean hands in this racial system.

There is a part of me that thinks I should rail against racism and how this verdict just shows how American society views black men. But the reality is, we really don’t know if George Zimmerman had a racial intent. From the evidence the jury saw they said no. I don’t think we can use this case as a proxy for our continuing struggle concerning race in America because the lines aren’t so clear.

That doesn’t mean that African Americans are silly to feel the way they have. No matter the age, Africa Americans carry a psychic scar, the result of centuries of actual racism. It’s hard to not think about past tragedies where race was involved: Emmet Till or Medgar Evers. African Americans can make a leap of logic because, well, we’ve been here before.

It also don’t mean that conservatives should be crowing the way they have in the wake of the verdict. As someone who is politically right of center and African American, let me tell you something- if you don’t want black people assuming all Republicans are racists, then maybe you want to show a bit of respect and understanding. African Americans might be wrong in jumping to conclusions, but no one can blame us. We are the ones that have lived with a dark history; one that still rears its ugly head. It would behoove white conservatives to at least sit down and listen to African Americans instead of acting like pompous jerks.

It’s high time that America and the church had a real heart to heart on race. But for that to happen, we have to be willing to be vulnerable to each other. African Americans need to be willing to listen to whites share their fears and concerns. Whites need to allow African Americans to share their frustrations on how they are always treated with suspect. I don’t care who is “priviledged” and who is not. I don’t care who feels oppressed. What I do care to see is for blacks and whites and everyone in between to talk to each other, honestly. The church should be the place where this starts.

I don’t know if George Zimmerman is a racist and at some level I don’t really care. What does matter is how we will move forward, how we will learn to live with each other and accept each other warts and all.

Salvation Will Not Come from Indianapolis

chalicedls

The 2014 Yearbook of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) came out this week and I guess the numbers aren’t good at all.  Two Disciples, Beau Underwood and Derek Penwell gave what I thought were some of the best takes on mainline decline: honest and hopeful.  Things aren’t great in our small family, but we have hope in Christ.  Here’s a sample of what Underwood said which spoke to me (or kicked me in the butt):

Recognizing change will not “come from the top” – For the Disciples the whole concept of “the top” is an idea that lacks meaning. We intentionally vested power within congregations, which has been both a blessing and detriment. In theory, this hands off approach should spur innovation and allow for congregations to learn and share with each other in ways that allow all to thrive. Sadly in practice congregational autonomy is often an excuse for ignoring the sage advice of others, unfaithfully refusing to change, and insisting on doing things “our way” even if it means sapping the life of a congregation’s witness. There are many struggling congregations whose plights were entirely avoidable, but they invited their own death by ignoring the changing realities of their contexts and refusing to seek out or listen to the wisdom of others.

We certainly need leadership from the General and Regional Church because this church is strongest when every manifestation is working together. But given the challenges we face, any time those leaders spend on projects or initiatives that are not directly or indirectly related to revitalizing struggling congregations, supporting thriving churches, and starting new communities of worship is a waste we cannot afford. There are luxuries we should no longer indulge because they represent little more than re-arranging the deck chairs on a sinking ship when our leaders need to be bailing water, patching holes, and guiding us to safe harbor.

But blaming denominational leaders for our struggles is an exercise in avoidance. It is far too simple an answer that denies any responsibility we have for changing our behaviors and contributing to solutions. The bottom line is that change has to start in our churches. We need pastors and lay leaders focused on strengthening their communities, preaching the Gospel, and serving God’s people in our contemporary context. There is no panacea that will be emanating from Indianapolis and to expect one is foolish.

And now Penwell:

1. Responding in fear is fine. Saying “Fear not! God can bring life out of death” isn’t saying that you shouldn’t ever be afraid. Fear is an instinctual reaction to stimuli in the environment. You can’t stop the initial irresistible urge to respond in fear any more than you can force your salivary glands not to start cranking out spit when you walk past a Krispy Kreme, and you get a whiff of that fresh batch of deep fried goodness that’s just come out, with all the gooey (What is that stuff? It’s not really frosting, is it? Icing?) slathered all over … Sorry, where was I? Oh yeah, fear.

2. Living with fear is an affront to the gospel. Saying “Fear not! God can bring life out of death” is calling for a more permanent orientation to your environment. It says that while I can’t resist the instinctual fear of the moment, I will not live there. I will not let the fear define my embrace of the present or my hope for the future.

 

Read their blog posts, especially if you are a Disciple.  I think they have started a good and honest discussion about the Disciples and where God can lead us.

Sermon: “Fit For A Dog”

“Fit for a Dog”
Matthew 15: 10-28
August 17, 2008
Lake Harriet Christian Church
Minneapolis, MN

aDog1During my freshman and sophomore years in high school, I was on the cross country team. I enjoyed distance running, but I wasn’t the best at it. God might have graced me with perserverance, but God didn’t give me the gift of swiftness. In many of the smaller meets, I was usually bringing up the rear.

One day during my freshman year, we my high school had a meeting with another high school in the suburbs. We went out to a local golf course to run the race. As usual, I was in last place, steady running along the rolling hills of the golf course.

At some point, I started hearing voices. At first I think I thought it was someone cheering me on, despite being last. But the voices weren’t friendly, instead they were very menacing voices. At the edge of a cul de sac were several youths, maybe at the most a few years old than I was. They were hurling racial slurs at me, calling me names that I can’t say in a family setting.

I was shocked by the slurs, but kept on running. It made no sense to let them get to me, so I kept the legs pumping, while they kept heaping insult upon insult. At some point, another member of my high school’s cross country team, who also was African American, ran to my aid. He had already finished the race and swiftly ran to confront the teens. From what I was told, all he did was simply look at them, which must have been enough to call off their racial slurs. Read More…

O Captain, My Captain.

Gravity yanks us down, even a man as stunning in every way as Robin. We need a lot of help getting back up. And even with our battered banged up tool boxes and aching backs, we can help others get up, even when for them to do so seems impossible or at least beyond imagining. Or if it can’t be done, we can sit with them on the ground, in the abyss, in solidarity. You know how I always say that laughter is carbonated holiness? Well, Robin was the ultimate proof of that, and bubbles are spirit made visible.

-Anne Lamott

 

robin-williams_1Like a lot of folk, I was shocked and saddened to hear of Robin Williams’ death and even more sad to hear that he took his own life.  I think for those of us that are probably in Generation X, Williams’ death hits us hard because this was an actor we knew from the time we were in grade school.  I was in third grade when “Mork and Mindy” made its debut in 1978 and I loved how madcap Robin Williams was.  We grew up watching Williams on television and then to movies where he was able to show that comedians can do some great drama with movies like “Dead Poets Society,” “Awakenings,” and “Good Will Hunting.”

It’s been fascinating to see people open and up and talk about depression and mental illness in the wake of this tragic death.  Like a lot of people, I’ve dealt with depression during my life.  I don’t think it’s gotten so bad that I was actively trying to off myself, but I do know what it’s like to feel like you are living in a deep pit with no way out.  As John Robinson notes, persons with autism are more likely to kill themselves than other groups.  The isolation that comes with autism can just be too much for some.

Drugs and talk therapy have helped me, but none of that means that I’m completely healed.  The black dog of depression is never too far from me.  At best, I see my depression as controlled, and it can be a constant struggle to keep depression under control.  It was a battle that in the end, claimed a great actor and comedian like Robin Williams.

I have no wise words to say.  If you have depression, find someone to talk to and get help.  Know that you are not alone.  If you know someone with depression or is prone to it, let them know they aren’t alone.

As people have said before, may Robin Williams find the peace that he longed for in life.

Reclaiming The Counter-Cultural Christian Message of Marriage

The following is an older blog post that reworked for an essay series on same-sex marriage.  For the last few years, GLAD Alliance (Gay, Lesbian and Affirming Disciples) have sponsored an Easter writing project.  I took part in it this year and what I wrote appeared on the GLAD blog on May 1.

16 But Ruth replied, “Don’t urge me to abandon you, to turn back from following after you. Wherever you go, I will go; and wherever you stay, I will stay. Your people will be my people, and your God will be my God. 17 Wherever you die, I will die, and there I will be buried. May the Lord do this to me and more so if even death separates me from you.” 18 When Naomi saw that Ruth was determined to go with her, she stopped speaking to her about it.

Ruth 1:16-18 Common English Bible

"My Gay Marriage Harms Nobody"On my wedding day in 2007, we had a reception for family and friends at our house. I remember Daniel and I were getting things ready for the event. Daniel kind of gave me an order to get something done. I looked over to a friend who smiled and said, “you’re stuck with him now.”

A few years later, we had another ceremony with family in Western Minnesota.  A month earlier, same-sex marriage became legal in Minnesota and like a lot of my friends who were coupled, we had a small ceremony.  It was at this event that we signed our marriage licenses.  If I wasn’t stuck with Daniel before, I now had a state document proving that we were truly stuck.

The movement for same-sex marriage has been in high gear since the Supreme Court rulings in 2013.  More and more challenges in different states mean that at some point in the near future, same-sex marriage could be the law of the land.

As the push for legal recognition continues, the church is left wondering why should we care about this issue.  In the debate over same sex marriage, there has been a lot of talk about the weakening of marriage or about the freedom to marry, but there has been little talk of what marriage does to the people in question, or at least what it should do. Read More…

Let’s Talk About Sex?

nude-yabyum-ishA few months ago, Methodist pastor and blogger Allan Bevere wanted my viewpoint on the argument that the acceptance of same-sex marriage will lead to polyandrous relationships. (Allan doesn’t share that view, but is trying to answer that question.)

I have to admit that I haven’t answered Allan’s question yet.

It’s not for lack of trying.  I have thought about it.  But I haven’t been able to come up with an answer that says same-sex marriage is okay and polyandrous relationship aren’t- at least with what society and mainline churches have used as an argument.

The view that I have encountered from liberal Christians and liberal society as a whole is centered on a sense of equality.  As long as other people don’t bother us, then they are free to do what they want.  Being a soft libertarian, I think that’s the way I want to go.  Let people be.

But if that’s my answer, then I could also use that argument to support three people getting married as much as I could two members of the same sex.

The problem with the libertarian/equality viewpoint is that it can treat all forms of sexuality as equal if they don’t harm people.

Which is why I haven’t answered Allan yet.  I think the answer I could give Allan would come up short. Read More…

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