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The Role of Church for Such a Time as This

 

Life As We Know It

[1] While many things have happened in recent years that point to the reality of injustice in this country, August 9, 2014 served as a turning point in our collective psyche. For many young people of color, the murder of Michael Brown[1] on the streets of Ferguson, Missouri tore the veil that covered the ugliest reality – lives of people of color, particularly young black people of color, are not seen as lives at all. They are seen as inhumane beings that are viewed through the lens of fear. Older leaders and activists knew this to be true, but last year, younger people saw it with their own eyes and felt it in their deepest being.

 

Black Lives Matter

[2] Millennials[2] around the country organized, using social media as the main catalyst to inform and connect. After every case of a young person of color dying and questions arising about the circumstances of their death, the collective rage of people grew. Protests happened around the country and around the world[3]. #BlackLivesMatter[4] became the rallying cry for the movement and there was a sense that things would never be the same. For those who feel like Black Lives Matter is divisive, please know that if all lives truly did matter, we would not see the disproportionate amounts of violence against black and brown bodies along with the ongoing laws that enforce different responses among different communities for the same infractions. Obviously, all lives don’t matter equally in our society. This is a fact.

 

From Rage to Despair

[3] When murder and abuse were continually caught on video and that still didn’t translate into accountability or consequences, people’s rage turned to despondency.[5] Society has teetered on the edge of implosion as it relates to race relations this entire year. The reality of unjust laws and unequal treatment of black and brown bodies has caused many to cry out, much like the cries that are heard in the biblical texts.

 

My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?

    Why are you so far from helping me, from the words of my groaning?

2 O my God, I cry by day, but you do not answer;

    and by night, but find no rest.[6]

 

The Reality of this Country

[4] Many thought pieces have been written about the racial turmoil that constantly churns within this society. For younger generations, this tension has been beneath the surface. Previous generations had experienced outright racial injustice and knew what it meant to live their color out loud. Slavery, Jim Crow, the Civil Rights movement, mass incarceration and pervasive hunger, poverty and violence have been the reality for people of color, especially black people, in the United States of America. Countless other communities of color and other marginalized groups within these borders have also experienced injustice and dehumanization. All told, and without diminishing the oppressions experienced by other groups, the crimes against humanity perpetuated against those of non-white complexion have been atrocious.

 

Racism as America’s Original Sin

[5] This country was built on the backs of people of color.[7] White people then created monuments on stolen land.[8] Laws were designed to divide communities and keep power with the white majority. While it has been said that racism is America’s Original Sin[9], this country has never formally repented nor has it dismantled the systems, structures and policies that keep people stratified by race. Racism is a thread that is woven into the fabric of American society. The only way to remove a thread is to pull it out completely or to destroy the fabric and begin anew.

 

The Church’s Role in Perpetuating Racism

[6] The church has also been complicit in the ongoing separation and oppression of people of color. From global mission that was undergirded by the concept of conversion and subjugation to the Bible being used to justify slavery to segregated worshipping communities to the whitewashing of biblical and religious history, Christianity has been a tool of the empire to perpetuate racism (along with every other –isms).

 

The Human Condition

[7] People are tired. People are hurting. People are wondering why they should keep fighting. As one who is a leader within this historically white denomination, one that has been identified by the Pew Research Center as one of the least racially diverse religious groups in America[10], I’ve been wondering about all of this and more. As a black person in this church, I know that people who look like me need a word of solidarity and encouragement. I know that my white sisters and brothers who are committed to being allies and accomplices in this fight also want to be a part of a church that does more than talk and philosophize, but that actually acts and becomes a part of the cure to the disease of racism.

 

The Reality of Christianity

[8] For many today, Christianity is not known as a religion of peace and justice. It is seen as a belief system that is more concerned about order and institutions than it is about people and equality. Many have become disillusioned with the church because there seems to be a disconnect between what is said and what is practiced. Many people are wondering, what difference is the church making in the world, especially as it pertains to issues of race? Why would people join an institution that seems to be disconnected from the lived reality that is happening all around us? What is the role of the church for such a time as this? If the church is called to be the hands of Christ (as our motto says: God’s work. Our hands) why are the hands so idle?

 

An Alternative Reality

[9] In spite of all that, it is my belief that the church can be the leading institution to dismantle a way of being that dehumanizes. Through the church the Spirit creates a new fabric, one that does not include the thread of racism. We believe in a God who creates all and bestows us all with the gift and challenge of co-creation. As co-creators, we have been given the power to make the seemingly impossible, possible; to create an alternative social reality. It is our responsibility to use this gift in ways that seek to build the beloved kingdom here on earth, even if the final realization of that kingdom remains beyond our capacity. It is a gift from God. Therefore, this is not a lofty goal that will happen in the by and by; it is a radical call to a way of being that makes an impact today. God is at work in us and through us and in spite of us, creating a new fabric, a fabric of radical inclusivity and of abundant life.

 

The Role of People of Faith

[10] Our call is to point to the One who gives life and gives it abundantly. We are faithful to that call when we systematically call out and shut down anything that does not speak, give or promote life. The church is called to be a countercultural force for good in the world; one that gathers people together across the spectrum of human kind, and embodies an alternative way of being, one that anticipates albeit in imperfect ways, the promised kingdom of God. If we are serious about deconstructing the insidious racist norms and values that have seeped into our way of being, and that separate so many from the plentiful life that God wants for them, than we have to get to work.

 

The Role of the Church

[11] It’s time for the church to take up the prophetic mantle – the one that says that there is something to being a part of a community of faith that shows up in these times. What say you church? What say you to the black and brown lives that society says don't matter? What say you to this daughter of the faith that laments the absence of our church in the face of grave injustice? What will the leaders and members of this church do to show that the God of all creation weeps and howls at the injustice that we perpetrate against one another? We must use our collective power to do something and our collective voice to say something. We must act like we are called and gifted and empowered by God to DO SOMETHING. We have to be the church that the world needs for such a time as this.

 

A Call to Action

[12] So what can we do? How do we begin this work of deconstructing and reconstructing our thoughts, our beliefs and our behaviors?

 

1.      Seek knowledge. Are you getting an accurate picture of the issues, including from the perspective of those most affected by them? Who or what informs you? Is it the voices, writings, teachings of people of color or is it entirely white people? Take the time to listen to voices on the margins and do so with an open heart and mind. This is not about engaging in critique of another viewpoint. This is about expanding your way of thinking to see that there are many sides and many ways of understanding this issue.

2.      Be in relationship. Who are you in close, personal relationship with? Are they only white people? Expand your circles, not for the purpose of having another teach you. Seek out people and spaces that are different from your normal activities. Engage in programs and events that broaden your perspective. That is not the responsibility of friendship. Expand your circles so that your life reflects the vision that God has for us all – to be in authentic relationships with each other. When you love someone who is different from you, their struggle becomes your struggle. You are willing to risk it all because of love.

3.      Be held accountable. Who helps you to stay in this fight? It is a privilege to walk away from or ignore the realities unfolding around you. Remember that there are many of us that don’t have that privilege; we cannot take a break from our racialized selves. Be in relationship with people who are like-minded in this area. There are many white people who are committed to this movement and want to be in relationship in order to make change happen.

4.      Speak up and be engaged. How are you an advocate for issues that disproportionately impact people of color? How do you vote? Make sure that you live an integrated existence, one that resembles the commitments that you have said you value.

​5.      Pray. We believe that prayer works, that God shows up in ways we don’t quite understand. We believe that prayer is a practice to bind us together and to hear from God so that our way of being is divinely inspired. We pray without ceasing, because what is impossible for us is possible for God.

 

Conclusion

Racism is sin. It destroys relationships and breaks down the body of Christ. It is a disease that infects our society thoroughly. The good news is that it can be cured and the church as people of faith have been and are being called to take part in making the cure a reality. However, like any other disease, it has to be diagnosed and the root cause has to be treated. Our faith tradition points to an antidote, namely the one who by assuming upon his own innocent body the sins of the world opened up a new way for us to follow, a way of peace, of justice and of reconciliation.  Despite the oppressive racial divisions that fragment our society, Christ has revealed to us that our lives are interconnected. We have been made members of one another.  If any part of the body is hurting, then the whole body is hurting. Let us move towards a place of healing and wholeness, for our collective life depends on it.

 

Rozella Haydée White is the Program Director for Young Adult Ministry for the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America and a blogger who tackles issues of mental illness, social justice and self-care.



[1] Shooting of Michael Brown. Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Shooting_of_Michael_Brown.

[2] Millennials – Definitions and Research. The Pew Research Center. http://www.pewresearch.org/topics/millennials/

[3] Takruri, Dena. “Do Black Lives Matter?”. AlJazeera America. May 23, 2015. http://america.aljazeera.com/articles/2015/5/23/do-black-lives-matter-in-israel.html

[4] Black Lives Matter Website. http://blacklivesmatter.com.

[5] White, Rozella. “A Word About Not Knowing What To Do.” Embracing My Shadow. July 29, 2015. http://embracingmyshadow.com/2015/07/29/a-word-about-not-knowing-what-to-do/.

[6] Psalm 22:1-2 (NRSV)

[7] McInnis, Maurie D. “How the Slave Trade Built America”. The New York Times. April 3, 2015.

http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2015/04/03/how-the-slave-trade-built-america/?_r=0

[8] McGreal, Chris. “US should return stolen land to Indian Tribes, says United Nations”. The Guardian. May 4, 2012. http://www.theguardian.com/world/2012/may/04/us-stolen-land-indian-tribes-un

[9] Jim Wallis. “Racism: America’s Original Sin”. Sojourners Online. July 29, 2013. https://sojo.net/articles/remembering-trayvon/racism-americas-original-sin.

[10] Lipka, Michael. “The most and least racially diverse U.S. religious groups.” Pew Research Center. July 27, 2015. http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2015/07/27/the-most-and-least-racially-diverse-u-s-religious-groups/.

© October 2015
Journal of Lutheran Ethics
Volume 15, Issue 9