I was 13 years old the first time I began to understand the realities of racism. When you live in a system that benefits you, it’s easy to ignore or be shielded from those realities. Our town did not have any black residents, something I later learned was by design. The town was very ethnically homogenous, although there was a small percentage of Hispanics that lived there as well. Looking back, it is not difficult to now perceive the racial inequality at work in our community. It was my 8th grade year and our teacher required us to memorize Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech.
As I sat in my desk listening to Rev. Dr. King narrate the American dream and its “promissory note” of equality, I couldn’t help but be captivated by this call to “justice for all.” His words were like a fiery coal searing the heart. It was difficult to imagine thirty years after Dr. King that anyone would be disregarded, disqualified, or discarded because of their skin color. I thought the battle for Civil Rights had been won and was now an interesting historical fact.
A few weeks later, my sister and I were riding in my grandparents’ Suburban. We were going to dinner with them and sat on the bench seat in the middle of the SUV. My grandparents asked us what we were studying in school. When my turn came, I proudly noted I was memorizing Dr. King’s speech. The vehicle exploded with racial slurs and words that I had never heard before. There was a brooding rage I thought would engulf my sister and me. There was no escape from the moving vehicle and I experienced a fear I had never experienced before. I met racism face-to-face that night and it left an indelible mark on me.
Twenty-two years have passed since that night with my grandparents. I wish I could say those twenty-two years brought with them the necessary reforms to extinguish the white-hot inferno of racism. The reality is racism did not die after the Civil Rights movement. It just became more subtle in its work. That is how systemic evil often operates. When confronted, it hides itself behind a more respectable façade: chattel slavery shifted to Jim Crow laws, Jim Crow laws became mass incarceration, the penal system became a for-profit institution that profited from occupied beds. Each step along the way has dehumanized black and brown bodies by criminalizing and monetizing those same bodies. Four hundred years of fear, trauma, violence, and abuse can be summed up in three words uttered this week: “I can’t breathe.” It was a specific officer, Derek Chauvin, that bore his weight down on the neck of George Floyd, but it was a racist system that authorized and empowered him to do it.
Four hundred years is a long time to wait patiently for equality and equity. Four hundred years of broken promises and frustrated dreams. Four hundred years of learning to do more while being afforded so much less. Four hundred years of complicity and silence from the Church.
As a pastor, my calling is to serve the Church by speaking truthfully about the world and about the life of the Church. I am called to serve by pointing to Jesus and holding up a mirror for the Church to check its reflection to see if it resembles Jesus in its life. That sometimes means I am in the uncomfortable and difficult position of saying that our reflection looks like something other than Jesus. Having spent years seeking to understand racism and the systems that propagate it, I have to say that the Church has sometimes been the worst offender. That is not simply an indictment on the past. It is the harsh reality of our present moment.
I am reminded, however, of a story in scripture concerning another group who experienced the terrors of oppression. They languished for four hundred years under harsh and unjust treatment from Pharaoh and his overseers decked out in Egyptian riot gear. God’s people cried out in their suffering. God saw, heard, and knew intimately their suffering as God’s own. And, God sent Moses to tell Pharaoh to let God’s people go. God brought them out of Egypt, out of bondage. And, like Moses, the Church must hear the cries of the oppressed and call out for freedom against the powers of domination that continue to enslave black and brown bodies. The Church cannot continue to sit in comfortable silence. Nor can it settle for speech that is devoid of action. God’s compassion for those who suffer invites us to speak out against the modern-day pharaohs of our world. We need only say, “Here am I.”
Martin Luther King, Jr. prayed this prayer that may help orient us for the difficult but necessary road ahead: “Thou Eternal God, out of whose absolute power and infinite intelligence the whole universe has come into being, we humbly confess that we have not loved thee with our hearts, souls and minds, and we have not loved our neighbors as Christ loved us. We have all too often lived by our own selfish impulses rather than by the life of sacrificial love as revealed by Christ. We often give in order to receive. We love our friends and hate our enemies. We go the first mile but dare not travel the second. We forgive but dare not forget. And so, as we look within ourselves, we are confronted with the appalling fact that the history of our lives is the history of an eternal revolt against you. But thou, O God, have mercy upon us. Forgive us for what we could have been but failed to be. Give us the intelligence to know your will. Give us the courage to do your will. Give us the devotion to love your will. In the name and spirit of Jesus, we pray. Amen.”