I have had to take an amount of time to think about the many recent murders that have happened since Orlando, Baton Rouge, Minnesota, and Dallas. I have sometimes thought that this started at Ferguson, Baltimore, and Chicago—however my friends who are people of color have reminded me that this began centuries before that. I struggle to write something about racism in our world not because it is difficult to believe but because I am a white, highly educated, middle-lower class, heterosexual, male clergy member of society. How can I write about racism and oppression when my one or two experiences are minimal compared to the centuries of suffering of others who have endured this as a “way of life”?
In 2006 I was invited to join the Oregon Attorney General’s Sexual Assault Task Force to represent the faith community on the 200+ person panel. I very quickly realized that I was the guy who looked like the “offender” in almost all situations we were trying to address. The people in the groups I worked with—were some of the most gracious people I had come to meet. They treated me with respect and listened. I assume that they did this because: 1) they did not like being oppressed—therefore they assumed I would not like it either; 2) they believed in creating a safe space so that we could address the problem (even though the problem looked like me); and 3) while they were all speaking out against abuse they somehow (in spite of my appearance) believed I could also be an ally.
Lori and I have spent all of our married life in ministry. During that time we have heard stories from those who have felt oppression and prejudice. I grew up in a home with a mom who tried to teach my brother and I that all people were loved by God, while my dad modeled the military’s “We are all equal but racism still exists…we just can’t admit it.” However, God has used many people to transform my perceptions. As a white guy I saw it coming and as a Christian I welcomed it. Although it was painful to face myself and the belief’s I learned as a kid growing up in the south, it was not near as painful as hearing the stories of others—people who were hurt by those who “went along with the crowd.” Even more it was painful to hear “we accept that this is the way it is…” I admit that my “pain” is nothing compared to the pain others felt through oppression, abuse, neglect, and manipulation. Sadly I didn’t come to that conclusion myself, I had to see the damage it caused in others. I am thankful for the people of color, women, homeless, LGBT community, and others who have shared what it is like to be mistreated, oppressed, and not valued because of who they were. It was easy to feel angry, it was hard to hear from my friends and colleagues that sometimes one must put away the anger and realize things may not change. It was a new form of patience and endurance that I had not known. Typically a guy like me could say something and it would get done. Not in this context. I needed to listen and collaborate with others.
Guys struggle with this. We like to fix things. As a white guy, I expected things to be done.
It Was A Long Process of Transformation
I remember preaching in a small town in Missouri (south of St. Louis) and gathering with area clergy monthly for our Ministerial Alliance Meeting. The town was 98% white. In 1995 the KKK distributed flyers for a barbecue and wanted to “celebrate July 4th the old fashioned way.” It wasn’t the Baptist, or the Church of Christ, or the Assembly of God ministers who were outraged at our monthly meeting. We had all deposited the flyers in the trash can and went on our way. It was the “liberal,” cigarette smoking, divorced, United Church of Christ minister “Reverend Sally” who brought the flyer to the meeting. She was mad and her red hair matched her red face as she said, “Damnit, we need to do something.” We decided to preach about it that Sunday and tell our congregants not to attend because it was one of the purest form of evil. Reverend Sally made copies of the flyer for all of us. I’m not sure how many did preach about it but I remember that Sunday very well. However, it was easy for me to do it. Our members were all white, we didn’t think it affected us, and we believed we were protecting people of color. We were the privileged with a voice, yet we had no clue what was happening. The picnic never happened, and sadly we didn’t talk about it at the next meeting. We all never saw ourselves as racist, at least not as bad as the KKK. We thought preaching about it would solve the problem. However, we didn’t have many folks who could tell us whether we were or not. We didn’t have anyone say to us, “We have had to live with this for decades and realize that change takes time.”
When I moved to Portland to be a preaching minister, Jesus continued his work in us. He did this through people who had experienced racial injustice, oppression, and bigotry. Some were in our congregation, while others were colleagues. They taught me what it was like, and they didn’t ask me to fight their battles. One good friend said, “You will never know what it is like to be a big black man until you walk through a parking lot and hear the power locks on the car doors buzz.” There were times when things would infuriate me that were blatantly racist yet he would reply, “I have decided to not let it get to me.” I had college students tell me that the reason they were late to class was because they had to take public transportation and it was not dependable. They not only felt I wouldn’t understand, but that because I was white I assumed they had a car to come to class. Sadly—they were right and I had not provided an open space to talk with them about it. I had communicated to them that they must not have been concerned enough about the class or my lessons to be on time. One of our members worked on a diversity committee with PGE and would bring articles to me on “White Privilege.” She very kindly and patiently felt it could help me be a better minister. The reading hit me hard every time.
A friend, Dr. Herman Frankel, was a Jewish man who, as a retired Pediatrician, head of Portland CDC, and OHSU professor asked me to be on a panel to speak to our city Council against adopting the Patriot Act and express outrage over any form of torture. I sat at a table and boldly told the council “As a minister of the Gospel I expect you to do the right thing and protect people.” I felt pretty proud of myself—a white guy with a sense of entitlement who could “tell political people what they better do.” Then the guy on my left shared stories before the council of living in a Japanese internment camp and watching his parents suffer in captivity. The guy on my right shared what it was like to be beaten during the marches with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. A woman shared her stories of being tortured in a refugee camp in another country, and others shared similar horror stories. Almost all were people of color yet I remember their stories more than their faces.
It was humiliating for me to hear those stories and realize—I had no right to command, demand, or expect anything. Herman patted me on the back and thanked me for sharing, but most importantly for being there to hear people’s stories. Others thanked me as well, but I went away realizing that my role as the White, Heterosexual, Christian, Male, Educated, Leader was to listen, not “demand.”
God Was There
The stories continued as Lori and I worked with people of color, those oppressed based on gender or physical abilities, and those who oppress others. Even more as we became aware of injustices in our community we also saw that there were people who, rather than sharing power, used power to manipulate, control, and oppress others. In meeting with law enforcement leaders as well as the homeless or organizations representing minorities the injustices that happen at the hands of those who are to protect us have become clear. It is something I only experienced through the stories of others–numerous stories too powerful to ignore. I have sat in court to defend a young black man, from our church, who was taken down by 3 police officers with what I felt was unnecessary force. When the attorney for the Portland Police asked the potential jurors if they had witnessed the police being unjust every hand raised and they told stories (all colors of men and women were in the group). The case was dropped. I have worked with police, officers in administration, and families of police. I know for a fact that police officers have and can abuse their power. For me as a white guy, it was hard to believe but something I understood as possible and probable. When we see the events unfold in the media concerning the deaths of people of color at the hands of law enforcement, or the solicitation of prostitution by officials, or even the abuse of power over the homeless we are not surprised. Many who do the ministry we do also agree.
I’m the guy who stops to thank officers wherever I am. I’ve spoken at Chaplain trainings and discussed this with the men and women volunteering to be spiritual advisers to these officers. I firmly believe that their are law enforcement officers who care and are just. But I’m also the guy who has heard horrible confessions from police officers as well as those who have been unjustly oppressed or harassed by officers. While I have not experienced injustice from the police I know it happens. Why? Because I listen.
I listen to people who tell me what they have experienced. I hear often that they are pulled over by police often—no matter who they are, where they live, or what their income is. It is overwhelming.
I have listened to men and women in our church who have shared how they are treated as people of color.
I watch the news and observe how issues are handled or dealt with.
I read the Bible—John the Baptist told the police officers of his day how to treat others–and we can assume that there were those who made a practice of oppressing the vulnerable (Luke 3:15).
I have never seen God more clearly than I do after listening to people share their experiences of oppression.
I also understand God’s wrath and anger over injustice as well.
God is there and not happy with it.
How Do I Understand Black Lives Matter?
Black Lives Matter is a cry from a group asking for respect. When you have lived as a people who are told not to expect justice, you feel as if your life doesn’t matter. It doesn’t help when a white male tells you to get over it, or that you are exaggerating, or that others matter too. What matters is that someone listens and decides that your experience is valid. It matters when someone listens and is moved by compassion or empathy to agree that this is unjust. This is how I understand it.
I believe it is true because I have listened to countless people share their stories. I believe them—end of story.
I believe it because I observe others minimizing the issue (this is also how abusive individuals minimize the cries of their victims).
I believe it because we live in a country that, as Tavis Smalley wrote, was built on the backs of slave labor and the slaughter of indigenous people. It is a history we tend to minimize or ignore.
I believe them because I represent a church movement that has been guilty of blatant racism, neglect, and segregation. There has been recent efforts to repent of this history but it continues to take time, discussion, and prayer. I support this move.
How Then Shall We Live?
Are there things we can do?
I often suggest to others that they ask the opinion of their “friends who are people of color.” That is how I learned about this issue. Oddly enough I find that people resist seeking personal stories or admit “All my friends are white.” Maybe it is a good time to repent and ask what people of color believe about Black Lives Matter. I have found that individuals are more than happy to share with me, and the more they trust the more they share. I was recently overwhelmed with response via email, Facebook IM, and personal conversations from friends present and past as well as colleagues concerning my role as a white minister after the recent shootings at Baton Rouge, Minnesota, and Dallas. We all were grieving. However, many have shared personal stories of how they were treated by law enforcement because they were black. I believe them.
Years ago I was speaking at a Christian institution in a Doctor of Psychology class. I was sharing about sexual assault and the faith community when one of the students came to me after class and questioned what I was saying. “I think these women are over exaggerating the rape issue.” I asked him, “Have you ever talked to a woman who has been raped?” “No,” he said, “but I still think they are blowing things out of proportion.”
He is a Christian Psychologist now. God help us!
This is the root of the problem. We don’t listen.
I am amazed that some make this so difficult. We don’t ask, so we don’t have to listen. We will search the internet or Facebook for that post that tells us BLM is a false narrative, overrated, or an exaggeration. For some reason we will believe FB before we will believe a person’s personal story. Or we find one person who agrees with us and we wave their flag in support. I thought that there was strength in numbers?
In Exodus 2:24; 3:7 Yahweh said, “I have heard my people’s groaning.” When Moses told the people that God heard them and was concerned they were able to worship (Exod 4:31). God listens. Jesus listens. God is moved by the suffering of people. Jesus is moved by the suffering of people.
People who are oppressed can worship when they feel heard. Maybe this is why churches are so segregated. We cannot worship together because some will not listen and believe the experiences of others.
Hebrew slaves worshiped because they felt Yahweh had heard their cries and identified with their suffering.
God gets angry when hearing the cries of people’s suffering.
Maybe that is why we don’t ask or meet face to face with someone about BLM?
Martin Luther King Jr., in his book Why We Can’t Wait, stated that white clergy make the unbiblical distinction between body and soul. He was referring to social justice and the Gospel of Jesus. I have found this to be true. The Gospel promotes social justice. My friends of color know this. The criticism I have received over our ministry and Jesus’ Gospel of social justice comes from white religious leaders. Somehow we have found a way to sanitize Jesus’ message and discuss “spiritual freedom” or “spirituality” while being silent on abuse, oppression, poverty, violence, and social injustice. Yet our message has had little transformative power in a world that asks people to speak out against injustice. I have found that Christian leaders of color have radically transformed the way I/we understand the Biblical text (something written to a people who were always on the margins of society or their world). We must confess that God not only seeks justice, but calls disciples to promote and die for justice in our world today.
Martin Luther King Jr., also stated that if the church does not rise up and speak out against injustice, our young people will see the church as an irrelevant institution. Maybe this is why so many young people are leaving churches today?
It is a good time for those of us as parents, spouses, disciples of Jesus, employers/employees, and citizens to confess that the Empire of Jesus is a place that not only offers peace, but confronts injustice in all forms. It is a good time for older folks to rise up and lay our lives on the line for the oppressed and confront the oppressors. Maybe then we will win the hearts of our youth. Maybe then we will be like Jesus.
Unite and Collaborate
I am amazed at how the churches in the first century must have struggled. They were comprised of multi ethnic groups (Jews, Greeks, Syrians, Asians, Romans, and others). Even more there were deep seated racial tensions between Jews and Gentiles, as well as Romans and Jews. I wonder what would happen if we read the book of Romans as a book that addressed racism, rather than religious issues. I wonder what would happen if we read all of the letters of the Christian Scriptures as addressing racism, Roman privilege, and oppression? Maybe it would help us believe that unity is more than existing in segregated churches. Maybe it would help us understand the Bible better if we worked in diverse ethnic groups. Maybe we need to listen to those who have been oppressed as they contribute to the study of God’s word.
Even more maybe we need to understand what it is like to be helpless and feel that there is little hope for justice. It might be what causes us to rely on Jesus and the church for support and justice. Maybe it will cause us to realize we can’t fix it–only Jesus can fix it for us. However, as a congregation all of our voices can be heard together. This takes empathy.
I find it important that we unite with others and join their cause for freedom, respect, honor and value. I used to see the power of Jesus in my own personal prayers for my own security, safety, and protection. Now, I see him in the courage of men and women who not only survive under pressure, but who rise up and try to transform a society, community, and world view of people.
Be Courageous and Stand Firm
You will lose friends.
People will leave your church.
You will ask yourself how Christians can refuse to believe our black brothers and sisters.
But…you will gain many more friends who have been standing firm for generations. I know. It is worth it!
The cause of Christ will never progress when Jesus’ people refuse to listen, shut their ears to the cries of the oppressed, or minimize oppression. Black Lives Really Do Matter.
I believe that and continue to act on this as well.