Silent at Our Own Risk

It amazes and bothers me that we in this country are so reluctant to talk about race and racism.

I spoke this week at an event which I thought would be predominantly white; the sermon was about how we who love God ought to choose God and serve God over racism, sexism, militarism, materialism, homophobia …I didn’t say it, but those things in the list could be, and should be, classified as “sin” since sin is anything that separates us from God.

The audience turned out to be predominantly African-American, and I am more than sure that, while the message resonated with the African-Americans, many of the white people in attendance were probably offended.


I know by now that we all see things through different lenses, lenses tinted by our life experiences, but in this, the 21st century, where racism is as ugly and as blatant as it has always been, shouldn’t we be able to try to see through a more common lens so that we can graduate from the halls of racism to a graduate school of peace, understanding, and reconciliation?

In the sermon, I mentioned the feeling of sadness I have as concerns the Trayvon Martin case; I mentioned that I am saddened at the news that at least 40 public schools in urban Philadelphia are scheduled to be closed; I mentioned that it is difficult to listen to people talk about being pro-life when their definition seems only to extend to unborn fetuses and not to children already born, living in horrible situations with horrible education and little to no health care.

I mentioned that the treatment of President Barack Obama has been sickeningly racist, evidence of our still-sick society as concerns race.

I mentioned the horrible chasm that is only widening between the haves and the “have-nots,” relaying disturbing insights about our economic recession that I learned on PBS’s Frontline program, the first part of which aired last week and the second part which will air May 1,  Money, Power and Wall Street . In that program. I shuddered as I listened to the narrator share that in the mortgage crisis, some people with sub-prime mortgages paid as much as 42 percent interest.

I was floored…and I said as much. That has to bother somebody, right? It has to at least bother those who say they love and serve God…or so I posited.

My point was that people who say they believe in God in general, and in Jesus specifically, have a moral code that we should follow; we are mandated to take care of “the least of these,” and because doing that involves challenging political systems, we should choose to serve God and what God would mandate, so that we have the strength to challenge social and political systems which will not change without such a challenge. We get tired of pushing against the powers and principalities which push us right back.

We are not, however, allowed to be tired to the point of inaction. That’s what I shared.

I believe in what I preach; I believe that Christians miss the boat when we are silent about systems, belief systems as well as social and political systems, which permit people to be oppressed and treated unjustly. While, according to Reinhold Niebuhr, who wrote Moral Man and Immoral Society, it is understandable that our society (and in fact, any society) is more immoral than the individuals within it, the way I have learned and internalized Christianity is that we are to work on our personal salvation so that ultimately, we can influence yet another person to take the person and presence of Jesus seriously and get him/her to work against oppression, from whatever source it may come.

I am not sure many agree with me. I sat down yesterday I was not sure where the message had fallen. The African-Americans in attendance, and many of the whites, seemed to understand what I was getting at, some whites, I noticed, avoided my gaze.

Recognizing injustice is hard; fighting it is even harder. It is work that makes us come face to face with our feelings and beliefs, and sometimes, that just doesn’t feel good.

One of my colleagues will share with me the “white” reaction to what I shared yesterday.

My prayer is that one day, there won’t be such a division between races in hearing words about realities that still sit with us, like racism. It has had a dominant place in our society for far too long.

A candid observation …


Dr. King and the Trayvon Martin Case

Dr. Martin Luther King at a press conference.
Dr. Martin Luther King at a press conference. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

This week, as I listened to different people, primarily white, urge people to “trust” the justice system, and to “wait” for the justice system to work in the Trayvon Martin case, I found myself wanting to cover my ears from the din of useless noise.

Useless noise is exactly what it sounded like, this plea for African-Americans to wait for the justice system to work, because the system has so seldom worked on behalf of black, brown and poor people in this nation.

In his Letter from a Birmingham Jail, Dr. Martin Luther King talks about “the law,” and how there are just and unjust laws. It seems that white clergy were urging Dr. King to obey the law and to “wait for the justice system to work.” Dr. King pushed back, saying that “there are some instances when a law is just on its face and unjust in its application.” I thought of the “stand your ground” law that is apparently protecting accused shooter George Zimmerman from being arrested. Truly, that law is just on its face, but it seems like it was unjustly applied in this case.

Dr. King talks about what is “legal,” in his discussion of just and unjust laws. The white clergy were accusing Dr. King of breaking the law, and therefore doing something illegal. Again, Dr. King pushed back, writing, “We can never forget that everything Hitler did in German was legal and everything the Hungarian freedom fighters did in Hungary was “illegal.” It was “illegal” to aid a Jew in Hitler’s Germany,” he wrote. If, I thought, Trayvon was the aggressor in this case, according to Florida law, he would have been breaking the law, and would have put himself in the position of having to be fought off.

But it just doesn’t seem that that scenario is correct…and it seemed, as I listened to white people urge others to be calm and obey the law and let the justice system work, that they were more concerned with “law and order” than they were, or are, concerned with justice. Said Dr. King: “the white moderate who is more devoted to “order” than to justice, who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace, which is the presence of justice, who constantly says, ‘I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I can’t agree with your methods of direct action,’ who paternally feels that he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom, who lives by the myth of time and who constantly advises the Negro to ‘wait until a more convenient season,” …is frustrating. He said people of good will who have such shallow understanding are more frustrating than people of ill will who have absolute, total misunderstanding.”

It is apparently very difficult for white Americans to understand the “souls” of black people in this nation, who have been so battered, and not bettered by, the justice system. There are reasons why the rage is so obvious about young Trayvon’s shooting and Zimmerman’s non-arrest. The reasons reach far back into our history; many of us have relatives who were abused by a justice system which never intended to exhibit justice toward them or their cases. And now, here in the 21st century, we find that really not all that much progress has been made.

Roland Martin, CNN commentator, said that if there are no protests, we cannot hope for justice. Had it not been for the bravery and tenacity of Trayvon’s parents, this case would have been swept under the rug with no mention; another young black male would simply have been buried…but Tracy Martin and Sybrina Fulton, Trayvon’s parents, sounded the battle cry, blew the trumpet, if you will. Their refusal to let their son die in vain reminded me of how Emmett Till‘s mother, Mamie, catapulted the national shame called lynching to international attention when she refused to let her son’s death be ignored.

Dr. King, in Letter from a Birmingham Jail, wrote, “Oppressed  people cannot remain oppressed forever. The urge for freedom will eventually come.”  He acknowledged that “few members of a race that has oppressed another race can understand or appreciate the deep groans and passionate yearnings of those that have been oppressed, and still fewer have the vision to see that injustice must be rooted out by strong, persistent and determined action.

Dr. King’s words, written in the mid 1960s, are just as appropriate today. The demonstrations against what appears to be gross injustice in the Trayvon Martin case must continue …or else, there will be no justice.

A candid observation…