We are in denial. We don't like to look at the past. The facts of history should be swept under the carpet and we should move on. The 'we' I am referring to is white people. Our lack of historical curiosity is, in my opinion, the main reason why we believe that we deserve our privilege.
Last week at our bible study we began to talk race. My bible study is made up of white people. I love them. It is hard to wrestle with issues of race when you have been conditioned to accept the status quo, and particularly when the status quo favors you. But for some reason they were trying.
After the shooting of black men, and the shooting of police that followed, it seemed as though a moment for serious thinking had arisen. It would have been possible for the participants of that study to say that their presuppositions about race were confirmed by what had happened. They did not.
As I sat and listened I began to see thoughtful individuals open up their hearts and explore ways of looking at race that were insightful. I have heard black commentators articulate them, but these white folks were now doing it. I want to share just one insight from a gentleman who has become increasingly aware of his cultural history. He started talking about the movement from the civil war, through to Jim Crow and the civil rights movement, through to inner cities today. He said that black people were made free, but not given any resources to build their lives after the civil war. White people were able to keep the wealth that they had accumulated through slave ownership and then pass that wealth on to their children. Black people had no inheritance to leave.
He noted that he had benefited from the inheritance received from previous generations, but black people had not. Furthermore, society restricted their access to the economic means they needed. He was making an argument for reparations, although none of us could work out how that should be undertaken.
We were talking about it in ways that left me hopeful though, we were becoming more conscious of the challenges our culture faces and how we were implicated. I have a sense that this is a conversation that is needed and that we have to encourage it to take place. The fact that we didn't finish its a problem, I am glad that we had started.
The conversation we need must not deny the facts of history. It must not say that unpleasant feelings should be avoided because white people are fragile. It should not give us a sense that we have earned what we deserve, but should acknowledge that we have what we do because of a deeply unjust system that existed in the recent past. Slavery is not the ancient history, it just happened yesterday.
Last night I heard Michelle Obama speak. I want to lay aside the fact that she was advocating for a candidate for a moment, and just focus on what she was saying about history.
"That is the story of this country, the story that has brought me to this stage tonight, the story of generations of people who felt the lash of bondage, the shame of servitude, the sting of segregation, but who kept on striving and hoping and doing what needed to be done so that today I wake up every morning in a house that was built by slaves.
And I watch my daughters, two beautiful, intelligent, black young women playing with their dogs on the White House lawn."
In her speech she acknowledged her time in the White House and how difficult it has been, and she acknowledged the history of slavery. She also suggested that we are capable of something new.
She has a unique perspective on this, having served as the first African American First Lady and having suffered the insults leveled at her across the last 8 years because of this role. That she was hopeful at all, and that she constructed her argument from the facts of slavery, insult and struggle, was remarkable.
The speech suggested to me that the way through our current cultural difficulties is not by avoiding the past, but through a meaningful exploration of it.
Anyone who knows me will know that I believe in looking into the shadows for resources to help us grow. I have just never managed to do it quite as effectively as Michelle Obama did last night.
It is the first day of the Republican Convention and I am hoping that the speakers there don't try to capitalize on our differences, but recognize that we are in a painful place and that we need to talk. I hope that we find ways to grieve, and feel pain, before trying to take action to fix things that are deeply rooted and could easily be misdiagnosed.
Newt Gingrich, of all people, acknowledged the difficulty of being black in America last week. I also had numerous conversations with white parishioners who were looking again at their own attitudes towards race with a honesty and effort. I hope that these are signs of things to come and not momentary. For the conversation about race to be sustained, we will need to hold the space for it open: It is a tentative and fragile thing.
Insight is hard to come by, but it is worth pursuing. I hesitate to put into words what I am exploring as I don't feel like I know enough to write in a fully informed way. I am exploring and asking questions like many of us. I just hope we have time to ask those questions and have that conversation. It would be too easy, right now, to fall into camps of 'us' and 'them' and feel the threat of the stranger so strongly that we shut down any discussion.
There was a line in Monica’s sermon that really struck me yesterday. After she had introduced the ancient middle eastern idea of hospitality as, ‘kindness to strangers,’ she said that the modern idea of hospitality had become more like kindness to strangers if you are convinced they are not a threat to you.
We have to work hard to not see each other as a threat so that we might open up the space for conversation. This week, as I listen to the speeches from the Republican Convention and the rebuttals from the Democratic party I am going to listen out most for voices that call us towards reconciliation and deeper conversation about the kind of country we can be. I hope I hear them. More importantly that that, I hope I find a way to be one of those voices.
“You are not anti-black if you grieve the loss of the officers killed in Dallas and you are not anti-police if you grieve for the loss of life of the black men who were killed.” - Tomiquia Moss
This week the news just kept on coming and it was bad.
After Orlando a few weeks ago, its focus on the LGBT community, terror and gun violence, we held an interfaith dialogue to ‘think and pray’ with a Muslim and Jewish colleague. We barely got the video up online (thank you Brian Leckey) when I saw the news that there have been a series of terror attacks in Istanbul, Dhaka, Bagdad and Medina. Friends online put out the challenge that if we are willing to grieve for Orlando, we should grieve for these cities. They are all in Muslim countries and were experiencing terror just as Ramadan turned into Eid. So responding to that challenge I added these cities to my prayers.
Then I began to see the news of the shooting of two black men by police: Alton Sterling in Baton Rouge, Louisiana and Philander Castile outside St Paul, Minnesota. It was almost too much to process, more loss of life and a reminder of the complications of police/community relations, racial tension and inequality in our culture.
I began to prepare my sermon for this Sunday, based on the reading for this week: Luke 10:25-37. It is the story of the Good Samaritan. As I re-read it in the light of the shootings it seemed to be more than ever a tale about violence and race.
That is when I heard about the 5 police officers who were killed and 7 others who were injured whilst working on the route of a peaceful protest in Dallas, Texas. The names of the officers who lost their lives are: Brent Thompson, Patrick Zamarippa, Michael Krol, Michael Smith and Lorne Ahrens.
The mounting tragedy, of terror, systemic racial inequalities in our justice system, gun violence and enmity between communities and those who would protect them, it all feels like too much. At times like these, being a white male minister of a predominantly white congregation in a comfortable suburb outside of San Francisco I find it hard to know what to say.
This morning I reached out to an African American friend who I knew was dealing with protests in Oakland. I met Tomiquia Moss on my trip to Israel a few months ago, she is the Chief of Staff of Mayor Libby Schaaf. I asked her what religious leaders should be saying to help. She told me to say:
“You are not anti-black if you grieve the loss of the officers killed in Dallas and you are not anti-police if you grieve for the loss of life of the black men who were killed.”
She added, “there is pain all around and it’s complex and I think it's important to hold the space for it all.” She finished by saying, “prayer is also helpful!”
In our interfaith dialogue last week, Rabbi Ilana said that we should move beyond our comfort zones with each other and engage more deeply. Noni, our Muslim Educator speaker said, “we need to move beyond tolerance towards genuine friendship.”
Our country, and world, is facing a crisis and we have to decide how to respond. Will we push each other away, creating more and more strangers and enemies; or will we do the hard work of listening to each other, examining our hearts, and growing together in love. Will we do what it takes to trust each other? Will we become friends?
I am left with these thoughts:
There is going to be a Vigil at Grace Cathedral at 6:15pm on Monday, July 11th - on the indoor Labyrinth. I am going to try and go. Will you join me? Email me if you are coming and we can see if we might drive together.
On June 26th we had an interfaith dialogue for peace at Transfiguration Episcopal Church. Here is the link to the video that we have created of that event. Apologies for the bad quality of sound at some points. We may look into adding subtitles so that it is easier to understand throughout.
Link to Video on Vimeo
From the UK, Matthew loved US culture from the first time he picked up a Fantastic Four Comic when he was 12.