The Pastoral is Political: Black Lives Matter

[Reposted with gracious permissions from Rev. Denise Anderson, Pastor Naomi Christine Leapheart, L.T. (Lisa) Lewis, and Reverend Wil Gafney, Ph.D. and from the RevGalBlogPals site administrators. The original post dates to July 11, 2016 and can be found here.]

Okay, white family. Let me talk to you right quick…

For those of you who ask “How long?” or “How many times must this happen?” I’ll tell you precisely when it will stop. It will stop when people en masse are aware of the ways in which whiteness/white supremacy have shaped the way people of color are viewed, engaged, and treated in this world (even by other people of color). To come to this realization, however, white people will then have to be self-aware and convicted of the ways in which they have benefited from and promulgated the lie of whiteness. As necessary as this is for the well-being of society, it is also an uncomfortable undertaking and there is literally nothing forcing white people to do it. White people, then, will likely have to create the force.

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Rev. Denise Anderson

White people, you have heard it said that you must talk to other white people about racism, and you must. But don’t talk to them about their racism. Talk to them about YOUR racism. Talk to them about how you were socialized to view, talk to, and engage with people of color. Talk to them about the ways you’ve acted on that socialization. Talk to them about the lies you bought into. Talk about the struggles you continue to have in shedding the scales from your eyes. Don’t make it “their” problem. Understand it as your own problem, because it is. To not do this would put you in danger of being yet another well-intentioned racist, convinced of their own goodness and living a life wholly unexamined and unaccountable to anyone. We don’t need anymore of those. It’s confession time.

— Rev. Denise Anderson is a member of the RevGalBlogPals Board of Trustees, a Presbyterian Church (USA) Teaching Elder living in the Washington metropolitan area and Co-Moderator of the Presbyterian Church (USA). She blogs at Soula Scriptura.

***

I’ve had so many white people offer me apologies over the last 48 hours. So many expressions of “I can’t imagine what it is to be Black/a Black parent/a parent of a Black child…!”

Let me be candid. My response to these sentiments is:

Please do not lament that you cannot imagine what it is to be Black. Nobody needs you to be Black. Instead, fully feel what it is to be bankrupted by whiteness.

Pastor Naomi Christine Leapheart
Pastor Naomi Christine Leapheart

Allow yourself to look, finally, at your gaping wounds, the wounds of whiteness. Acknowledge the paralysis you may feel around difficult truths about America and her white supremacist ideas, practices, and theologies. Acknowledge the disconnection and disembodiment you suffer because of generational denial and wrongheadedness. Acknowledge the guilt you feel because you’ve done nothing, said nothing, felt nothing. Acknowledge the shame you feel because you, too, are implicated. Acknowledge the resentments you may feel because you believe the call to center Black life is a diminishment of your own.

I can’t imagine what it is to be white.

When righteous white people understand how they have been poisoned unto death by white supremacy, perhaps our frameworks can change.

Pastor Naomi Christine Leapheart, a daughter of Detroit, is a minister, educator, organizer, and organizational consultant.  She is an organizer with POWER (Philadelphians Organized to Witness Empower and Rebuild) and an anti-racism trainer.

***

According to the Pew Research Center in 2014 70.6% of Americans, age 18 and older, self-identify as practicing a Christian religion.  That may explain why, in light of the recent shootings and killings in the United States, all over various social media platforms everyone is talking about praying.  Pray for the black community.  Pray for our nation.  Pray for law enforcement.  Pray. Pray.  Pray.

I’m one of the 70.6%.  I’m an ordained Elder in the Christian church as a matter of fact.  But I’m also a black woman, divorced mother of two children; a daughter and a son.  I wasn’t poor.  My children weren’t impoverished.  Although we were solidly middle class, I still learned firsthand the challenges of successfully raising black children, especially a young black boy into adulthood.  I prayed too but at some point I had to stop praying and get to work.

I couldn’t do it alone, however, I needed help.  Help came in the form of faith, family and family-like-friends.  Specifically, a Christian husband and wife, Elton and LeWan, with children of their own came to my aide.  They didn’t just pray but they responded.  Their help came at a very critical time in my son’s life and made a difference.  Today, my son is proudly serving in the United States military defending and protecting the lives of all its citizens.

Lisa Lewis
Lisa Lewis

The challenges that are facing our nation requires more than just praying to God but listening and responding to His call.  God needs hands and feet; all 70.6% of us, to bridge the great racism divide in our nation.  We are our brother’s keeper; regardless of race, gender, sexual orientation, or religion.

On the heels of such a great nationwide tragedy, I’d like to remind us Christians of our call to action issued by Jesus Christ in John 14:12, “Most assuredly, I say to you, he who believes in Me, the works that I do he will do also; and greater works than these he will do, because I go to My Father.”

God answers prayer through people.  If we don’t plan to use our hands and feet to get the work done, please stop praying. #BlackLivesMatter

— L.T. (Lisa) Lewis is an ordained elder and serves in a non–denominational Christian church, Sons of God Outreach (SOGO) Christian Ministries, in the Washington Metropolitan area. She blogs at Kick-Boxing Believers.

***

I am trying to wrap my head around a group of four people who would agree to ambush and assassinate white police officers at a black lives matter rally. I am having a hard time with the idea that anyone would do that and find others who would agree to do that. I know it is not reasonable or rational. Black lives matter and the deaths of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile were used in the sick, twisted self-aggrandizing murder spree. Not in our names. Not in the names of the dead. Not in the names of the murdered. We need to address gun culture in this country. We need to address racism in this country. We need to change police culture and tactics in this country. We need to build bridges between police and the communities they police. And we need to mourn, lament, pray, prophesy and preach. We need to do the work that needs doing for ourselves, our children and our society. No matter who is against us and this work, though the forces of hell array against us, we must do this work or none of us shall survive.

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The Rev. Wil Gafney, PhD.

The assassinations of the Dallas police officers must be talked about in their context which includes black lives matter. We must continue to say that we were doing the work partnering with our officers. We will not let our name or the movement be hijacked. Nor will we be shamed into not saying that #BlackLivesMatter.

— The Reverend Wil Gafney, Ph.D. is Associate Professor of Hebrew Bible at Brite Divinity School in Fort Worth, Texas and is an Episcopal Priest. Follow Wil on Twitter and read her blog.

 

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Off-Script

Which is the bigger miracle?

I remember listening wide-eyed as a teenager in a Bible study as another teen told about his experience of dramatic physical healing. Confusingly, I heard that this same young man would go on to live a rather ordinary life for a white person in rural upstate New York – including, one assumes, its usual set of prejudices (Google searches indicate that western New York is among the most racist areas of the country)His miracle did not mean that his life “jumped the tracks,” as it were.

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You may also recall a famous story of ten lepers receiving miraculous divine healing. Afterwards, nine of them returned to normal life. If there were a script for what kind of people they were supposed to be [1], they were happy to return to it. They were Jews of their time and place, and so presumably got back on track with despising Samaritans. Maybe later in life one of them could have hired a Samaritan employee – but he followed the script and rejected the application (Samaritans are lazy). Maybe another of these former lepers taught in high school and, staying on script, didn’t encourage a Samaritan student to apply to college (Samaritans are not smart). Maybe a third one of these divinely healed men sat on a jury for the trial of a Samaritan burglar. He recommended that the Samaritan get the maximum possible sentence (since Samaritans are violent and should be kept off the streets). The lepers were healed, but their lives played out as one might otherwise expect from men of their race and region.

But I have also seen people undergo repentance such that they spend their lives acting off-script. I know an old white pastor who grew up in Mississippi in the 1940s. His cultural script told him how to think about and behave towards black people. But he was changed – not least through listening to Dr. Martin Luther King,  Jr. on the radio. He came to accept that in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, God has claimed us as children, and that this identity outranks all the others society gives to us. [2] This belief propelled him into a life of ministry spent in addressing racial injustice. He pastors a multiracial church and preaches boldly about how white people’s inherited cultural thinking usually drives our behavior much more than our identity in Jesus Christ – the same identity we share with our black and brown neighbors loved by God.

This is not how an old white man from Mississippi is supposed to act! – not at all the script given to him. 

I don’t know which is the bigger miracle: the dramatic healing or an old white man living off-script. But I will tell you which is more convincing to me that a new day is dawning; that there is something different and supernatural afoot – and which I want to be a part of. To take up Paul’s words, I would rather have love than the gift of prophesy or faith that can move mountains (1 Cor 13:2). I would rather try to reach out in a weird and countercultural fashion to people I am societally trained to disregard and dismiss and despise – than have powers and experiences that are impressive and memorable but that leave me acting in conformity to my worldly white script.   

[1] What James Cone calls a “social a priori” or a “mental grid” (God of the Oppressed, p  48).

[2] “We are not defined by our bank account or gender or sexual orientation or racial classification. We are defined as daughters and sons of God” (Nibs Stroupe, Where We Once Feared Enemies: Inclusive Membership, Prophetic Vision, and the American Church, p 27).

The Day I Stopped Noticing the Great White Mountain

My wife and I recently moved to the Las Vegas valley and, in addition to the oppressive heat, we immediately noticed the surrounding mountains. Running down the west side of Las Vegas, the Spring Mountains boast a noticeably prominent 12,000 foot summit – Mt Charleston. It’s kind of hard to miss.

Mt. Charleston was still covered in snow when we first moved and I couldn’t help but notice it every single day. It was magnificent and quite alluring as an alternative to the incredible heat in the valley!

Slowly, however, I stopped noticing the mountain. Maybe I got comfortable. Maybe I got distracted. Maybe I subconsciously ignored it. Whatever happened, the mountain became natural. Normal. Expected.

It wasn’t until a friend mentioned Mt. Charleston in a conversation that I was reminded of its presence. Even though I had forgotten about it, the Great White Mountain never left the skyline. It remained a permanent feature of my life in the valley whether I recognized it or not.

As a white man, I’ve long labored under a similar shortsightedness when it came to the color of my skin. I’ve lived under the shadow of a Great White Privilege that I’ve been completely oblivious to.

·        I can rent/buy a home in whatever neighborhood I want without disqualification because of my skin.

·        I can imagine myself in whatever social/professional role without wondering whether or not someone of my skin color would be accepted.

·        I can expect a generally uneventful experience with law enforcement during my day.

·        I can be highly certain that all members of my family will safely return after leaving the house.

For a long time I assumed that every person in America was privileged to these same “unearned assets.”

But then two friends, John and Darrell, challenged my assumption.

John is an entrepreneur – working to secure funding for minority-run businesses. Darrell is a police officer – working to suppress local gang activity.

Both men are black.

As race issues started rising in my awareness, these two men generously and patiently helped me discover my blindspots. As it turned out, I was painfully unaware of many things.

They opened my eyes to the lived experience of the black community. John talked me through Jim Crow laws and how they directly affected his family over the years. Darrell helped me understand the difficulties between law enforcement and the black community.

As they explained things to me, I was shocked. How could I have been so uninformed? This wasn’t the news media twisting stories. These were personal accounts from my friends. I knew then that I needed to keep my mouth shut and my ears open.

I’m grateful for John and Darrell. If not for them, I would remain oblivious to the lived experiences of my black and brown neighbors. Their gentle, patient challenge transformed my perceptions and helped me see reality a little more clearly.

I don’t know where you are today.

·        Maybe you are like I used to be, oblivious to the Great White Privilege you enjoy as a white person in America. If so, then I’d encourage you to take a humble step of growth and seek to understand the lived experience of our black/brown neighbors. That’s a good first step.

·        Maybe you’ve already taken the initial step of understanding, but you’ve grown cold and not leveraged your understanding towards action. If so, then I encourage you to find a way to act. Love of neighbor compels us to do something. The Good Samaritan knew a need and met a need.

·        Maybe you’ve already understood the issues and taken action, but you’re disillusioned with other people who have not. If so, then keep sharing with them. But inasmuch as you are firm and convicted, be gentle and patient. John and Darrell were for me and I’m a changed man because of it.

Wherever you are in the process, I encourage you to take the next step. Now is the time for courage – to understand, act, and persuade. Jesus is standing in the crowd of our black and brown neighbors and beckoning us to join with them and stand against the injustices they experience. Will you join him?

 

Economics of Repentance (Pt. 1)

What was Jesus’ first public command?

Think about it. “Love your neighbor?” Good thought.

“Judge not, lest you be judged?” You’d think so, wouldn’t you?

No, it’s much messier, much more offensive; much less agreeable. Jesus’s command was to repent. I’ll paraphrase it this way: “change your mind and life.”

Repentance is central to Jesus’ preaching. In Matthew and Mark’s account, a call to repentance is among Jesus’ first public words (Matthew 4:17, Mark 1:15).

But what does repentance mean? If you grew up like me in evangelical circles, you learned something like this: repentance  means turning from sinfulness and towards God; agreeing with God about your sin. Repentance is turning from making yourself God.

But as I have continued to follow Jesus, I have learned how multi-faceted repentance is. As the work of the Spirit is dynamic throughout our lives, so is the nature of repentance. Whereas repentance is frequently taught as a static, one-time turning from secret individual sins, I see Jesus in the scriptures challenging every aspect of our lives: what we do with our minds and hands, how we spend our money, and how we view others in our own culture and around the world. Jesus reforms the whole person. Here are a few examples from the scriptures.

“Bear Fruit in Keeping with Repentance”

For those of you who don’t speak King James English, let me paraphrase Matthew 3:8 and Luke 3:8. “Let your repentance be perpetual, ongoing.” Repentance is not a solitary event done at the altar on Sunday, or during a teary conversion, but a lifestyle, a constant reforming of one’s mind and behavior (Rom. 12:2). I believe our reforming forefathers in the faith tapped into this with their phrase semper reformanda (“always reforming”). Repentance doesn’t always look like a silent prayer, but can also call for a revolution of structures, thoughts, and processes. If you are a Christian, you have a whole life full of repenting ahead of you.

Restitution and Restoration

Zacchaeus (Luke 19:1-10) was a wealthy man through exploitation and theft. He met Jesus, heard his teaching, received His grace, and his initial reaction was recognizing restitution as part and parcel of a proper response to Jesus. Why didn’t he say, “Lord, I’m not going to steal anymore, but will now act justly”? He knew he could not continue to live in his wealth and stature and follow Jesus. Once injustice is committed, a simple return to “playing by the rules” is not the proper response, as it does not acknowledge the damage done by the exploiter. If damage is done by one’s motor vehicle, whether bodily or to property, society doesn’t demand that the driver repent by driving within the law from then on. Amends must me made, and that which was lost must be restored, relationally and economically. Zacchaeus knew this, and acted accordingly.  Read our other contributors’ thoughts on Zacchaeus here. (I’ll be diving into what restitutive repentance might look like in “Economics of Repentance pt. 2,” a forthcoming post.)  

Economics of Repentance

Read Luke 3:10-14. The crowds ask John the Baptist what repentance from sin looks like. He responds with strictly socio-economic commands. Share your clothes and food with the poor. Tax Collectors, don’t steal. Soldiers, don’t extort people by force and violence, and be content with your wages. This is a far cry from the intensely internal-focused, individual repentance we hear coming from the majority of our pulpits. In a world full of poverty, hunger, and oppression, why have we not found a space in the modern evangelical conversation for the economics of repentance? I fear the answer.

In conclusion, an encouragement. While the above discussion reveals aspects of repentance we must amend, we ought not forget who moves in and calls us to this action: The risen Jesus. He has made promises. He is trustworthy. This turning we speak of, this intentional wrecking of one’s thoughts and beliefs for others is life-giving. I echo the men of Jerusalem in Acts 11:18 in their prayer that God would grant us “repentance that leads unto life.”

 

W.W.J.D? He’d Join Black Lives Matter

What Would Jesus Do?  Do you remember the bracelets that everyone wore in the 90s and early 2000s?  They were supposed to remind the wearer to ask what Jesus would do in certain situations…and let other people know they were a Christian.

Guess what?  That W.W.J.D. concept comes from a book—and I’m not talking about the Bible.

When I was a little girl, my parents gave me the children’s book called, “What Would Jesus Do?”  In this story, the normal, white churchgoers are portrayed as silly, self-absorbed, clique-y, and completely oblivious to the essence of the message of Christ.  However, there are three children who, along with the pastor, begin to have their eyes opened to the realities of their selfishness and prejudices—with the help of a poor, blind man and a young boy (both from the slums).

In the end, these children and their pastor recognize the need to love those who are different—that going against the culture to make hard decisions to advocate for “the least of these” is Biblical.  They know that if they are going to truly call themselves Christians, they have to act differently, even when their pride and reputations want to stay safe.  And they do.

What Would Jesus Do today?  He would join Black Lives Matter.

Why?  Because he cares about “the least of these.”  He cares about the brutal handling of humanity and, I think it’s safe to say, abhors prejudices that continue to justify such actions.

I think Jesus would look at all the white Christians who keep saying, “if you would just respect the police, you’d be safe,” and remind them that thousands of years ago, the “police” (Roman soldiers) treated Christians cruelly and made up crimes against them.  Jesus himself died (under questionable charges) at the hands of that unjust system.

Before the argument begins: yes, Jesus won’t approve of every aspect of the movement. That’s not the point. The point is that Jesus loves, Jesus cares, and Jesus made radical claims and took radical actions—the kind of actions that found him eating with prostitutes, seeking out greedy tax collectors, and calling the Pharisees whitewashed tombs.  He didn’t hole up in the temple praying for “all those people.”  He didn’t tell the Samaritan woman to take her grubby hands and tainted water away from him—he drank from what she offered, and then offered her something more.

It is time to stop and reevaluate.  It’s time to stop lauding and idolizing law enforcement—not everyone teaches their children to look for a police officer if they get lost.  It is time to call injustice out by name and stop hiding it behind the façade of public safety.

Before you post another anti-Black Lives Matter meme or hold rioters for racial equality to a different standard than fans of the winning Super Bowl team, consider that Jesus repeatedly violated the norms of his culture.  He sent shock waves wherever he went.

Stop preaching and raving about his radical actions on Sunday unless you are ready to imitate them on Monday.

American Zacchaeus

Zacchaeus was a wee little man, and a wee little man was he. He also collaborated with the occupying empire of Rome to extort money from his fellow-countrymen. He saw who had the guns — Roman legions, in his day — and he aligned with them to make an unjust profit. No wonder the people who saw Jesus invite himself over to Zacchaeus’ place for dinner were disappointed and disgusted. Notorious man of the people consents to intimate meeting with noted counter-revolutionary and predatory little turncoat.

In Luke’s story, Zacchaeus tells Jesus, “if I have cheated anyone, I repay them four times as much” (19:8, CEB). I assume this was the case (the cheating); otherwise, why bring it up? Jesus says to him, “Today, salvation has come to this household, because he too is a son of Abraham” (19:9).

And that concludes the story.

As with all the gospel stories, it is curt and tidy. It evokes just enough of a character and a problem to launch a story. Then the main action is the character’s encounter with Jesus. Its ending is nothing but a snapshot of restoration. Leper + Jesus = rejoicing. Woman caught in adultery + Jesus = go and sin no more. Mourning mother and dead boy + Jesus = rejoicing. Extortive tax collector + Jesus = salvation has come.

The simplicity of the stories gives them their power. They aren’t like modern novels, where the characters are convoluted and the plot is unresolved and there’s lots of gray. The stories in the gospels are silhouettes, light and darkness. They stick in the memory and linger in the soul. For that reason, they’re more like a rock you can build your house on. But they also lack the give and complexity of real, sandy life, which does not usually consist in episodes of lightning encounter and radical transformation.

For example, the message of the Zacchaeus story is clear enough. If you have stolen money from others, Jesus still welcomes you. Jesus reaches out to dine with the despised opportunist and collaborator. This is a word that warms my heart. It opens a hope of grace for those like me who stand with Zacchaeus on the benefiting side of imperial firepower. Also: gratitude for Jesus’ gracious welcome is then supposed to move its recipients to give back their unjust gains to their victims.

But what if it is not so simple?

What if I personally did not make the theft like Zacchaeus — but a theft was made hundreds of years ago, and ever since, the stolen capital has grown and amassed, continuing to benefit the racial descendants of the original despoilers? What if the robbery is not an isolated case as with Zacchaeus, but a whole society, organized to protect the interests of the thieves and their offspring, and to ensure the plunder remains inaccessible to the plundered? What if the theft was not only an easily quantifiable asset like money, as with Zacchaeus —but included properties that cannot be commodified, like land and labor and freedom and tradition and credibility and basic human dignity? What if those robbed are not, as in the story of Zacchaeus, merely the objects of Zacchaeus’ actions, but their own irreducible and active subjects, who have striven for centuries to reestablish what was forcibly taken from their ancestors?

What does restitution look like in such a case, Lord?

A Painful Evolution (Awakening #3)

At my core, I am a journalist with the desire to fight for truth and justice.  This identity blossomed during my time with my university’s newspaper and continued in the years following graduation (especially while working as a reporter).  While I thought I was pushing the limits of my surrounding conservative culture, it was not until the 2014 murder of a gay man in a North Carolina hotel room that my journey towards gaining radically new eyes began.

My husband (then boyfriend) and I had our first big fight while discussing that news story.  He called it a hate-crime; I said, “How can you be sure it wasn’t just a (terrible) murder, one unmotivated by his sexual orientation?” I naively thought this fact was irrelevant.  Thus began the painful and long process of shedding the scales of my white, American upbringing to recognize the power of race, gender, and socio-economic status in my culture.

Over the coming weeks and months, I was introduced to and read/listened to newfound news sites, journalists, thinkers and philosophers, and public figures. They put me through the wringer and upset the ways I’d previously thought.  Many more heated conversations between my significant other and me catalyzed my mind and heart in a new direction—feeling deeply for those who are terrorized, brutalized, and killed because of the color of their skin.

At the same time, I was experiencing the beginning of a spiritual crisis.  I increasingly saw a trend among many evangelical Christians in the United States: intolerance towards the idea that prejudice and brutality against certain races exists, and resistance to questioning the authority of the police to execute these acts.  With each new police killing or act of brutality that made breaking news, I observed many Christians who profess love for Christ put down anyone who criticized the actions of the police–calling for the exaltation of those who “put their lives on the line for us every day.”

Turning a blind eye to the epidemic in our country, where the lives of some are not valued as highly as the lives of others, is an atrocity.  Watching people who profess Christianity, the religion of a slain God who was unjustly killed by the authorities, side so quickly with the institution carrying the weapons that brutally kill 12 year olds, 20 year olds, and 32 year olds without repercussion is heartbreaking, and even angering, for me.  

It’s especially difficult when I see people I love deeply, who are loving and compassionate people, perpetuating these ideologies.  It shows me that this response, like a tradition, is passed from one generation to the next.  However, just as some traditions need to be broken, so does this mentality..

I now sit, nearly two years into this process of self-evolution, frustrated with the many who refuse to have their worldviews altered, while understanding the intensity of undergoing such change. Yet, I am still perplexed as to how to move forward in a faith that is populated with so many ignoring the instructions of Christ, instead aligning with an ethnocentric religious patriotism.  Simultaneously, I am driven with the desire to educate and fight for something in which I deeply believe—that until black and brown lives matter, all lives do not matter, and that giving up on people as unchangeable is not an option.