Like a lot of congregations, First Christian has been worshipping apart since March. It’s been going okay, though I’m glad I had some skills in video editing before this all hit. I wanted to share with you a sample from last week’s service. The first is a video from the sermon by my friend Rob. The second is yours truly giving the prayer. If you want to see the full video, go over to the church website. I hope it’s good news to your soul.
Dear Friends and Family of First Christian Church of St. Paul:
Last week in the immediate aftermath of the killing of George Floyd I decided to go for a walk. We live in North Minneapolis. It was a nice sunny day, perfect day for a walk. “Be careful,” my husband Daniel said as I left.
Later that evening, I was chatting with my mother. As we finished our phone call to say goodbye, she asked me to be careful.
Be careful. This has been my reality since I was a kid. My parents were telling me to be careful ever since I was a teen. Growing up in 1980s Michigan, my parents were always concerned about me, not that I was doing something reckless, but because I was a young black man. Even now when I’m 50 years old, some loved one is always telling me to be careful. This is how African American men ( and even African American women) have to live. Black mothers worry when their sons go out with friends. They worry they will get in trouble with the police or worse.
George Floyd was seen as a threat. He had a target on his back on that Memorial Day when he met his end on a Minneapolis street. For far too long, too many African Americans have been viewed not as a fellow human being, but as a threat, worthy of being killed.
Before I go any farther I have to say the following: I believe America is a good nation. I know there are good cops that care about their communities. I know there are good white people. I know that we aren’t living in a time of segregation like my Dad did growing up in Louisiana in the 30s, 40s, and 50s. All of this is true. And yet, a middle-aged black man is dead, again because of the color of his skin.
What’s infuriating is that George Floyd was a gentle giant, a committed Christian who moved to Minneapolis a few years ago from his native Houston in search of a better life, dies at the hand of a cop who had a long history of complaints and for some reason remained on the force. He was engaged to be married and he never got the chance to walk down with his love.
But what is upsetting and frightening is that it could have been me. It could be me. Floyd is only a few years younger than I am. I pray that it never happens, but it is not out of the realm of possibility.
And then there were the riots. Coming from Michigan as I do, you learn about the Detroit riots in 1967. It’s no surprise to African Americans and other people of color that Minnesota is not an idyllic place. Racial disparities are among the highest in the nation. That said, I would have never, ever thought there were going to be riots like what I’ve seen in the past few days. To say that Minneapolis is burning is as weird as saying Lake Woebegon is burning, but it has happened.
So where do we go from here?
That’s the rub. Talking about the problem of race in America is always a challenge because you have those who want to live in denial that there is a problem (and that includes some African Americans) and those that think there are racists under every bed. But I think as Christians what it means is that we live our lives with God’s table at the center. The Restoration Movement which gave birth to the Disciples believes strongly that the Lord’s Table is for everyone. Now when Alexander and Thomas Campbell were making their argument about the communion table they were informed by the internecine battles within the Presbyterian Church. If you didn’t believe the right way, you couldn’t have communion. The Campbells believed it was God, not an interpretation of a creed, that invites us to the table. God wants to be in a relationship with us and God desires that all us be in relationship. So in light of all this, we have to live a life that welcomes everyone into a relationship with each other and God. We have to be communities where people from all walks of life are welcomed, united in Jesus Christ.
Relationship means listening. Listening means being vulnerable. Relationship is rooted in reconcililation. It means living a sacrificial life and opening yourself up to dissonance.White Americans have to be willing to listen even when what you hear goes against what you know or experience. That’s hard to do because we all come with our own experiences and biases. It’s hard to listen to something that doesn’t jive with what you believe. But I think White Americans have to do that because we can’t change until we hear the stories of African Americans that might not be the story you are used to.
But in that relationship there also needs to be grace. Far too often, having a conversation on race become stilted out of fear that something will be said that is offensive. The thing is, if we are going to have an honest talk on race we will stumble and say something that might come off as offensive. It means making mistakes, seeking forgiveness and moving on. It means African Americans should show grace to their white sisters and brothers understanding that we are all sinful and all in need of God’s grace. The racial reconciliation is messy and that’s okay. It will be messy.
As an African American man, I am honored and blessed to be the lead pastor of this congregation that doesn’t just have diversity as a value, but we live it out. We come from various racial and ethnic backgrounds and yet we are in a relationship with each other. But even here, we have to be willing to listen deeper and make space for grace. Because those unsettling stories are there just below the surface and they need to be brought forth and dealt with.
Second, we have to be involved in the work of reconciliation. Our Presbyterian sisters and brothers wrote in the Confession of 1967, that God’s reconciling love breaks down barriers, the Church is called to fight for reconciliation:
God has created the peoples of the earth to be one universal family. In his reconciling love, God overcomes the barriers between sisters and brothers and breaks down every form of discrimination based on racial or ethnic difference, real or imaginary. The church is called to bring all people98 to recieve and uphold one another as persons in all relationships of life: in employment, housing, education, leisure, marriage, family, church, and the exercise of political rights. Therefore, the church labors for the abolition of all racial discrimination and ministers to those injured by it. Congregations, individuals, or groups of Christians who exclude, dominate, or patronize others , however subtly, resist the Spirit of God and bring contempt on the faith which they profess .
I am reminded of the parable of the Good Samaritan. We’ve heard the story of the man traveling down the road who ends up beaten and left for dead by robbers. Two religious people see this injured man lying at the side of the road and pass him by. For whatever reason, they didn’t stop to offer help. Finally, another man comes by, a Samaritan. Jews and Samaritans didn’t get along, but this man didn’t care about whatever animosities kept them apart. He takes the injured man and places him on his donkey to the nearest inn. He even tells the innkeeper to keep a tab that he would pay back when he swung back that way again. The Samaritan got involved. He could have said this was none of his business and moved on, but he didn’t. He got involved.
The same thing needs to happen now. I said in a sermon four years ago, in the aftermath of Philando Castile’s shooting that the only way these killings of black people by police will stop is when white Christians, white Americans step up. This is not simply a problem for African Americans but it is all of our problems. It’s an American problem and most of all it is a spiritual problem.
The past few days have left me angry and sad. As a community and as a nation, we have a lot of work to do. We need to start talking But I have hope in Christ. I have hope in the Christ that died a horrible death, suffering with humanity and freeing us from the bonds of sin. Ultimately, I have hope because, in Jesus Christ, the evils of racism will never have the last word. Let’s pull up a chair to God’s Table and start talking.
Dennis Sanders, Lead Pastor
When I was 13, I remember going to the credit union with my mother. Mom was busy talking to one of the tellers while I waited near the door. I was just kind of keeping to myself not really paying attention to what was happening around me. Most people who knew me, saw me as someone who was quiet and probably too sensitive emotionally. I wasn’t really a threat to anyone.
Little did I know, someone did think I was a threat. A security guard came up to me and asked what I was doing. I was a bit surprised and before I could answer, my mother came up and said sternly that I was with her. She learned that the security guard came up to me because another teller was basically scared of me. As we left the credit union, Mom was mad at the teller who saw me as a threat. She was also a bit upset at me for not being more aware of my surroundings.
I look back at that event and I see how naive I could be. I had grown up in the years following the civil rights movement of the 60s. Growing up in mid-Michigan in the 70s and 80s, I grew up not knowing a lot of the open racism that was so rampant in American in the decades before I was born. My father grew up in Jim Crow-era Louisiana in the 30s, 40s, and 50s. He knew about how you could be the judge because of your skin. Because that wasn’t the world I grew up in, I didn’t understand that anyone could see me as something to be feared.
Like many people, I’ve been made aware of the horrific murder of Ahmaud Arbery, a 25- year old man who was murdered by two white men in Georgia who thought he was a burglar. Greg McMichael and his son Travis saw Arbery running in their neighbor and believed he was fleeing from a crime scene. The reality is that Arbery was jogging. Something that the two men should have noticed, but didn’t. The McMichaels took off in their truck with guns and long story short Ahmaud Arbery was shot and killed.
Now, I truly believe things are better for African Americans than they used to be. I can do things that my Dad wasn’t able to do because of segregation. I think our nation is in a better place than it was circa 1955.
But better doesn’t mean perfect. While the rampant racism that defined the American South for decades has receded, it is still present. Arbery is part of a long line of African American men that have died at the hands of white Americans in recent years. The ghost of Jim Crow still haunts America.
In the last day or so, the phrase “blood cries out” got stuck in my head. That phrase comes from Genesis 4:8-11, the story of the brothers Cain and Abel. Cain kills Abel and when God asks Cain where is Abel, Cain replies dismissively. “Am I my brother’s keeper?” God responds by saying the following:
“What have you done? Listen! Your brother’s blood cries out to me from the ground.
Abel’s blood cried out from the ground. God heard the cry of the victim, Abel, and wanted Cain to face the justice of God.
In the book of Deuteronomy, a law stated that if the body of a person was found in a field and no one knew who killed the person, a group of people determined which city the body was closer to. Representatives would sacrifice an animal as an atonement to God for the sin of murder. It didn’t matter that they themselves didn’t do the crime. What mattered was that it mattered to God. Blood was crying out from the ground and it needed to be answered. Taking this crime seriously meant they cared about life. If a city refused to do this, it sent a message to God about how they viewed life.
Ahmaud Arbery’s blood cries out from the Georgia soil. The McMichaels have been charged with murder. We know that temporal justice is at least beginning. But what about the justice of God?
I don’t have an answer. What I do know is that all of us must care. To ignore this, to avert our eyes, means we don’t hold life as sacred. To ignore it is to say that the color of one’s skin determines their worth.
Arbery’s killers will face trial, but in a way, we are facing trial as well. How will we respond to the justice of God who weeps over the blood crying out?
Ever since the grand jury in Ferguson, MO failed to indict officer Darrell Wilson in the death of Michael Brown, I’ve been wondering what to say about all of this. That desire to say something grew this week when another grand jury failed to indict the policeman involved in the death of Eric Garner.
Being an African American male, which seems to be the target of cops these days, I wanted to say something. I need to say something because this issue involved me. Eric Garner was only two years younger than me. That means that it’s not only young black men that can face brutality from police, it could be a middle aged black man like myself.
To put it more starkly, it could be me. I could be stopped for speeding (as I have been every few years or so) and could face danger from someone that is supposed to keep order.
I’ve been wondering what the response should be to these incidents where black men are being gunned down by the police. More specifically, I’m wondering what the church’s response should be. Right now, the options being offered from the left and the right are not the best.
Let’s take what conservatives are saying first. The response to these cases has been mixed. Many conservatives tended to look at these issues from a “micro” view, meaning they look at each individual case to determine judgement. So with the incident involving Michael Brown, they focused on the fact that Brown had stole cigarillos and was responding to Wilson in a way that made Wilson fear for his life. In the Garner case, there is shared outrage but the reason is different. Here is what Robert Tracinski said regarding that incident:
…one of the most insidious errors you can make is to turn each case into a symbol of “systemic racism” rather than an individual case to be judged on its own merits.
What did the facts show in the Staten Island case? They don’t show deliberate murder. The video of the police arrest of Eric Garner shows no evidence of malice or specific intent to harm Garner. Rather, it shows a callousness toward his obvious physical distress when the confrontation goes wrong. The killing is less malicious than officious. I mostly agree with Sean Davis, who argues that it was a reckless use of force that caused Garner’s death, which means that there is a good case for prosecuting the policeman responsible on charges of manslaughter.
Despite the damning video that brought the case to national attention, it is not totally cut and dried. The autopsy showed that Garner was already on the run from the grim reaper. The choking action (which may not technically be a “chokehold” but was, er, a hold that choked him) was found to be the primary cause of death, but Garner had major health problems, including asthma. So you could imagine a defense attorney making the case that this just happened to be an unfortunate situation in which a guy resisted arrest and was in such bad shape that he didn’t survive the altercation. There is a conceivable defense that the choking made no difference and Garner would have died anyway just from the stress of resisting arrest. But that’s a defense that ought to be made in court, not pre-emptively endorsed by a grand jury.
That’s why so many on the right have come down on a different side in this case than they did in Ferguson.
For many on the right, each case has to be argued by their own merits. It makes no sense to look at some “macro” cause like systemic racism. So, in the Garner case the issue at hand is that the police used excessive force, not racism.
I personally think there is much good to take from this. The Brown case is different from the Garner case and that should be taken into account.
That said, this view tends to play down more macro-issues like racism to the extent that it’s made to appear that they don’t seem concerned with race or see it as a settled issue, a relic of the 1960s.
But ignoring that race might play a factor (at the very least a hidden factor) is telling a good chunk of the population (African Americans make up about 12% of the US population) that has had to learn to fear the police that their concerns are silly. It ignores that there are have been several incidents over the years where black men have faced harrassment from white police. Here in Minnesota, a black man sitting in a downtown St. Paul skyway waiting for his son to finish school was harrassed and tased by St. Paul police for no apparent reason.
While I don’t think there is some conspiracy, it’s hard not to see a disturbing pattern taking shape. What conservatives fail to see is that racism isn’t just a bunch of guys wearing bed sheets and standing around a flaming cross. It can also be a silent bias that people are not even aware of.
If conservatives tend to focus on the micro to the exclusion of the macro, then liberals do the exact opposite. They are rightly focused on the racism that takes place but sometimes miss the particulars. They also tend to not really have a realistic way of solving our problems both near term and long term.
Tim Wise is a well-known anti-racism speaker. In his most recent article he hits the problem (macro) but doesn’t really offer any solutions other than being angry. Here’s a sample:
Nice people do not protest, angry people do; and right now, I’d trade every nice white person about whom Chris Rock was speaking for 100,000 angry ones. But not those who are angry at black folks or brown immigrants or taxes—we have more than enough of them. I mean 100,000 who are angry enough at a system of racial injustice to throw ourselves upon the gears of the machine, as Mario Savio once insisted. A hundred thousand angry enough to join with our brothers and sisters of color and say enough. A hundred thousand who are tired of silence, tired of collaboration, tired of nice, and ready for justice.
In short, and though I know it won’t strike some folks as particularly, well, nice, it really must be said: fuck nice. And the fact that there are many who would be more disturbed by my language here than by the death of black men at the hands of police, tells us all we need to know about the poison that is niceness, and about the dangerous souls who cling to that self-concept like a badge of honor. They have made clear by virtue of their silence what side they’re on; and that will not, cannot, be forgotten.
Wise has some good points. But his angry prophet pose doesn’t always help. Yes, white Americans are somewhat clueless at times about the plight of African Americans. Sometimes you have to shout at people, but not all the time. Sometimes yelling at people ends up turning people off instead of allowing them to listen.
Another problem with Wise and other liberals is that they too often are preaching to the choir. So liberals, especially white liberals can pat themselves on the back, thankful they aren’t like those SOBs who are so blind to racial injustice.
Wise isn’t the only one doing this. Susan Thistlewaite, the head of Chicago Theological Seminary, has a long piece repeating the problem of white privilege in America, but offers no solution either. If conservatives can’t see a problem, liberals can’t see a solution.
America has a problem and doesn’t have a solution to racism.
I think the church has to offer an answer that is beyond the conservative and liberal offerings. As Christians, we have to be committed to diversity and racial reconciliation. But far too often in my own experience when the church tries to deal with racism, it ends up having blacks talking about being victims and white people being made to feel guilty.
I don’t have a grand theological solution. What I do think is that during Jesus’ earthly ministry he talked with people. He invited himself to different tables; tax collectors, religious folk and “sinners.” I think the way to help at least break down some of the walls is by churches coming together in fellowship. Maybe predominantly white and black churches could start worshipping together on occassion.
Churches could also focus on solvable solutions instead of dealing with the big macro issue of racism. Churches should press for reform of local police departments and also pursue changes at the national level.
The church should be able to speak against the macro issue of racism and also work on the micro level for real solutions.
After the last 10 days we have seen that unfortunately we don’t live in a “post-racial society,” at least not yet. But we can get there. As followers of Jesus we have to work and work on both a macro and a micro level so that one day we won’t hear anymore stories of white policemen harrassing and shooting black men.
We can solve this as long as we have God on our side.