Sunday, June 7

“For What it’s Worth,” Bob Ryder

So, Susan and I have been off for a couple weeks – what’d we miss?  Kidding – obviously.  No way could we have missed the news about the murder of George Floyd and the worldwide protests and social unrest erupting in its wake.  Even before we got back, it was obvious this would be the focus of our service this morning, and I’ve been thinking a lot about what to say.

Turns out it’s hard coming up with anything really new. The problem of racial injustice is so old and still so pervasive that practically all the criticisms and wisdom on the subject going around have been expressed many times before.  And the challenge is only partly about informing those genuinely needing and wanting to learn more about racism.  The much harder problems are convincing the willfully ignorant, and getting those who are aware-yet-numb to it to take it seriously and engage in meaningful resistance.  As Dr. King said most of 60 years ago, “In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.”

I have lived a life of immunity and advantage and privilege, and can only begin to imagine what it would be like to be a victim of racism, and I don’t presume to have answers. But I’ll share some of the more helpful ideas and reactions I’ve noticed in the protests these past couple weeks, with a few humble thoughts from my own perspective as we go.

Maybe the most important observation is that – with the murder of George Floyd – things have once again come to the point where something had to give – like the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back. I don’t know whether the event achieved some sheer critical mass of police brutality against people of color, or maybe it’s that a white officer’s knee on neck of an African American is the ultimate symbol of America’s “original sin.”  But for an excruciating 8 minutes 46 seconds, the murder of Mr. Floyd in full public view brought people of color and white allies of conscience to the point where it simply cannot and will not be tolerated. Now the protesters will not be silenced, and their demands for justice cannot be ignored.

Part of what’s happening on a primal level is simple catharsis. Police brutality against people of color is outrageous, and that rage is coming out.  Victims of centuries old racism have every right to express themselves loudly and angrily and publicly, and if that ruffles the feathers of the privileged, so be it. I have great admiration for those raising their voices – filling streets and public squares with righteous outrage.

Where violence has broken out, a couple of observations made sense to me.  Certainly, some of the destruction is just opportunistic vandalism and looting, having nothing to do with the legitimate grievances of authentic protesters.  Not all protestors are criminals, and not all criminals are protestors.  In some cases, outside groups are inciting violence to cast legitimate protests in a bad light.  Obviously, that bears no reflection on a righteous cause.  In still other cases, peaceful protests have been deliberately antagonized and attacked by aggressive policing.  This only makes more clear the cause of legitimate protests.  And in some cases, protests have devolved into rioting and looting of their own accord.  While I don’t condone this, I understand it.  Peaceful, well behaved protests that impose no discomfort on systems of white dominance are regularly ignored and dismissed, such as Colin Kaepernick peacefully kneeling during the national anthem before NFL games.  It’s laughable that on Friday the NFL publicly apologized for condemning the social protests of their players a few years ago.  It’s as if they’re saying, “Oh, please do go back to taking a knee for a moment, we’re right behind you!”  Too late.  As Dr. King observed in 1967 …

I think America must see that riots do not develop out of thin air. Certain conditions continue to exist in our society which must be condemned as vigorously as we condemn riots. But in the final analysis, a riot is the language of the unheard. And what is it that America has failed to hear? It has failed to hear that the plight of the Negro poor has worsened over the last few years. It has failed to hear that the promises of freedom and justice have not been met. And it has failed to hear that large segments of white society are more concerned about tranquility and the status quo than about justice, equality, and humanity. And so in a real sense our nation’s summers of riots are caused by our nation’s winters of delay. And as long as America postpones justice, we stand in the position of having these recurrences of violence and riots over and over again. Social justice and progress are the absolute guarantors of riot prevention.

I’m still persuaded that violence can only make things worse, but I can imagine the outrage and frustration that motivates it.  If we’re going to admire the American Revolution and adorn some of our state flags with defiant phrases such as “Don’t tread on me!”  and “Live free or die!” then we have to acknowledge the relevance of such statements now.

That leads me to mention some of the more inspiring responses I’ve seen.  It convicts me every time I hear coverage of peaceful protests chanting the names of those murdered by white supremacists and racist police brutality.  Say their names Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, Trayvon Martin, Tamir Rice, Sandra Bland, Andrea Ritchie… the list goes on and on and on.  This week, in an eloquent speech President Obama directed some of his comments to young people, pointing out the obvious – that each of them is valuable and worthy with the right to grow and learn and make mistakes and pursue their dreams.  There are recordings of young people protesting peacefully and creatively and joyfully, making their presence felt and waging peace as they confront the injustice of a powerful nation.  This first piece occurred in South Minneapolis this past Wednesday…  This next recording occurred in Washington DC the same day…  And, if you want to know what it would be like to see and hear Jesus in 2020, watch this episode featuring a young man named Alexander Cash from this past Sunday in Pittsburgh… Show me a better example of loving one’s enemies and praying for one’s persecutors and I’ll buy you dinner.

My hope for where such protests are heading is peaceful-but-disruptive civil disobedience.  I don’t see how challenges to injustice can succeed without imposing unavoidable costs on the status quo they’re challenging.  Combined with overwhelming voter turnout in elections, strikes and picket lines and nonviolent crowds jamming public facilities and causing stock prices to fall are what it will take to effect change.  21st century busses will have to be boycotted, 21st century prisons filled, 21st century bridges crossed, and 21st century lunch counters occupied. A variety of creative and persistent ways to make the status quo unworkable will need to be imagined and organized.

A related line of thought has emerged about the need for a specific list of changes that need to happen.  Protests need to be clear about what’s being demanded.  Again, it helped me to read the address given by President Obama earlier this week outlining national reforms to the ways police departments are trained in use of force.  I also liked a post circulating in social media that suggested the following…

1.Hold police officers accountable immediately for abuse of power.

2.Pass new laws against police brutality and begin training de-escalation tactics in all 50 states.

3.Enact criminal justice reform to end discrimination and mass incarceration.

4.Develop national education curriculum to teach peace, diversity, acceptance, meditation, anger management, ethics, civic leadership, and peaceful protest techniques in all schools.

5.Promote federal law that protect and facilitate voting rights and that end gerrymandering.

 

The NAACP recently released its own propositions –

1.Developing a continuum governing the rules of engagement for use of force by police departments

2.Citizen review boards

3.Transparency about complaints and discipline against police officers.

Other suggestions I’ve liked include a moratorium on police using choke holds and tear gas.  Having clear ideas about what needs to be accomplished are necessary to know when protests are still required, and when they’ve succeeded and can be discontinued.

The last thought I’ll share is the one I’ve probably heard most these past couple weeks in one form or another, which is that justice for the oppressed will not happen without support from the privileged.  Almost every thoughtful interview and speech I’ve heard has included the call for white people to get involved in the struggle and not just leave it to African Americans and other people of color to do the work on their own.  It brings to mind this quotation of Jesus from Luke 12:48 – “From everyone to whom much has been given, much will be required; and from one to whom much has been entrusted, even more will be demanded.”  I’ve heard a quote similar to that, almost a paraphrase, to wit, “For the privileged, justice feels like oppression.”

One of the difficult realities we all have to contend with is accepting our accountability for the way things are.  While I might not be at fault for this or that specific instance of racial injustice, and while I can’t be responsible for solving the entire problem, it’s still my responsibility to do my part.  I need to contribute my time / energy / money to resistance and education and being a responsible neighbor and fellow citizen. Some of the causes I’m looking at include…

The Obama foundation

Stacy Abrams’ “Fair Fight

The NAACP

The United Negro College Fund

Also, there’s a good resource I’ll link to in the manuscript entitled “75 Things White People Can Do to Support Racial Justice.”  If you’re looking for a place to start or continue this aspect of your faith journey, this list has a lot of good suggestions… https://medium.com/equality-includes-you/what-white-people-can-do-for-racial-justice-f2d18b0e0234

Occasionally, our congregation reflects on a list of convictions published the Progressive Christian Network – “The 8 points of Progressive Christianity.”  The preamble says, “By calling ourselves progressive, we mean we are Christians who…” and then each point picks up from there to complete a conviction.  The list is revised from time to time, which is fine.  But I’ve; always appreciated the original version of the last point from the list, which says, “By calling ourselves progressive, we mean we are Christians who recognize that being followers of Jesus is costly, entailing selfless love, conscientious resistance to evil, and renunciation of privilege, as has always been the tradition of the church.”  That seems like a worthy thought to end on as I thank you for your kind attention.