I was not surprised by the three not guilty verdicts in the recent trial of police officer Jeronimo Yanez for the shooting death of a young black man, Philando Castile. Saddened and disappointed, but not surprised. So now what? More prayers from faith leaders? Marching? Calls for calm?
One question I hear being asked is “when will this end?” When will young black men stop being shot by police? When the limited human condition does not offer up answers, I turn to my faith.
“He has shown you, O man, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and love kindness, and walk humbly with your God?” Micah 6: 8. And Martin Luther King, Jr. reminds us with words from 1963 that are as pertinent today in 2017 when he says “[T]he ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy. The true neighbor will risk his position, his prestige, and even his life for the welfare of others.”
Every Sunday and the other six days of the week I am challenged to follow a radical Jesus in this messy world. While my faith in God continues to be strong, there is an urgency of action that we as white Christians in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) struggle to open our hearts to. We continue to be an almost all white denomination and have spoken for years about our desire to become more “diverse.” But that change does not come. When will this end?
We get to choose, as white Christians, how, or even if, we engage. We don’t have to fear driving while black. That’s our white privilege. Philando Castile and the other young black men that have been shot and killed by police, and those other young black men that will be shot and killed in the future, do not have that choice, or enjoy that privilege that we as white Christians take for granted every day. We pray, and make statements of support for racial justice and equity and healing, and sometimes even gather in support, but actually risk little to practice loving our black neighbors as ourselves . . . and follow Jesus.
Recently, many ELCA synods held their annual synod assemblies. I saw in those gatherings an interest in the 500 year celebration of the Reformation, racial justice, and a lifting up of how risky it can be to be a Lutheran (from Martin Luther to Reinhold Niebuhr). But I challenge my fellow white Christians to prayerfully ask what are we, as white Christians in Minneapolis, St. Paul and this country, actually “risking,” as young black men continue to be shot and killed by police in a series of systems run by white Christians and choked by racism.
Are we risking our prestige? Our jobs? Our lives? Or, is our “risk” merely our own discomfort other white Lutherans might not like or perhaps even be made to feel uncomfortable by what we say or do? That does not feel risky to me. That feels like white privilege.
I recently attended a gathering of Lutherans in my own Minneapolis Synod to talk of how we can do more work to address racism. This is important and meaningful work. Our Synod had adopted a resolution in 2016 that spoke out against racism and one of the things we were talking about that night was how congregations might adopt such a statement and what that process might look like in our individual congregations.
Yet, after the recent Yanez verdicts, I find myself asking what is the “risk” in adopting such a statement? Maybe it’s an important step forward. Will adopting such a statement lead to tangible action on the part of white Christians, which is certainly the intent, or will the statements help us feel like we have acted and then sit in a binder on a shelf? Adopting a statement may be a good start, but it also feels pretty safe to me, not risky.
Following this itinerant person of color, Jesus, is risky. White Christian leadership continues to politely nudge, gently prod, and invite our fellow white Christians to enter this “difficult” and “hard” conversation about racism however their own white privileged comfort level allows them to engage. In other words, we as white Christians continue to facilitate our own white privilege in this process. The challenge and controversy of now, and following a radical Jesus, does not have space any more for our privilege, politeness or complacency. It is a complacency that becomes complicity, as the next Philando Castile is shot by police.
Will we somehow miraculously get braver, as white Christians, the more often we see our country’s young black men shot by police? I truly want to know. Where is our line in the sand? Where is that place in our heart? If we are blind to how far over that line we are now, I am worried that we might never see.
St. Paul ELCA Bishop Patricia Lull issued a statement following the not guilty verdicts in the Yanez case. She said, in part, that “. . . one jury has spoken. Another jury is still out. That second jury weighs our own response as people of faith. . . The power of a Living God is strong enough to lead us where we need to go as people of faith. We are not there yet. We are on the way together.”
I see the “one jury” as humans working within the confines of a broken and racist criminal justice system. We have to change that system. The other jury, that’s out, seems to include Jesus. That’s where I look, beyond our limited and broken human construct of racist systems, to the divine. We are being asked to trust in the power of something beyond the broken human system, the divine, a Living God. Are we, as white Christians, listening? What will our “response” be as people of faith? To be “on the way,” it seems to me we must have open hearts willing to follow – to move us, to change us, to act. . . together.
What if the congregations working on racial justice statements for their congregations in our Synod all put up Black Lives Matter signs at their church? What if the St. Paul and Minneapolis Synods sent out requests that asked congregations to immediately take such action, to move forward, together. Too controversial? Too risky? Don’t we agree as white Christians that Black Lives Matter? We probably don’t all agree, and that’s also part of the problem. Remember, we’re following Jesus. . .or we aren’t. Are we worried, as an almost entirely white Lutheran church, that white members who disagree, or feel uncomfortable with such action, might leave the church and take their treasure with them if we push this too fast? Probably. Is that really what we are risking?
The congregation where I was confirmed (a thousand years ago) and where my parents were members for over thirty years, Mt. Olivet Lutheran Church, in south Minneapolis, is one of the largest Lutheran churches in America. It’s also almost all white. My understanding is that it has been the practice in the past of having only Mt. Olivet pastors preach at Mt. Olivet. Maybe that has changed, but apparently nobody from outside Mt. Olivet preaches. Why is that?
What if Mt. Olivet invited Jason Sole, President of the Minneapolis NAACP, to preach? Or, perhaps former Minneapolis NAACP President, civil rights activist and current Minneapolis mayoral candidate, Nekima Levy-Pounds? They could even ask our church’s pastor, Kelly Chatman, to preach. Sole, Levy-Pounds, and Chatman are all black. What if they did this several times a year?
What is the risk to Mt. Olivet if they invite a black leader in the community to preach? Not controlling what’s said or heard? Church members may be uncomfortable or not agree with the sermon content? Maybe we need to be asking what the risk is if they do not take such action.
But members also would have an opportunity to generously listen and perhaps hear what it’s like “driving while black” in Minneapolis. They might learn about the “talk” black parents have with their young sons to help them not get shot by police. Hearts may be opened. New conversations and relationships may emerge. That seems like a healthy risk.
These are times of great challenge and controversy. Are we, as white Christians, willing to be true neighbors to our black neighbors and risk our position, prestige or even our life for their welfare? Are we willing to start by risking being uncomfortable and listening, together?
God help us if we are not.