The road to a just society in America stretches before us. Bishop David Bard encourages all to take faithful steps in working against racism while walking the road with Christ …
If you say, “Look, we did not know this” – does not the Weigher of Hearts discern? ~ Proverbs 24:12a
Walking you make the road. ~ Antonio Machado, “Proverbs and Songs, #29”
Even a month later, the horrific image of the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis remains seared into our minds and hearts. The image remains deeply painful and infuriating. For me, it joins a disturbing postcard image of a 1920 lynching in my hometown of Duluth, Minnesota. On the evening of June 15, a mob of about 10,000 men broke into the city jail to extract three young black men who were in town with a circus and had been accused of raping a young white woman. Using sticks, clubs, and bricks, the mob took the men, beat them, held a mock trial, and lynched them. Dead were Elias Clayton, Elmer Jackson, and Isaac McGhie. A photo was taken of the crowd surrounding the dead bodies. Later the photo was turned into a postcard. The image still sickens, as will the image of George Floyd having his life’s breath choked out of him.
What these killings in Minnesota 100 years apart share is their roots in racism. Bad policing played a role in both. In Duluth, the police failed to protect men held in their custody. In Minneapolis, an officer kept his knee on George Floyd’s neck for almost nine minutes. Yet an honest examination of policing in the United States would indicate that persons of color are disproportionately the victims of whatever bad policing occurs. Law enforcement reform is a pressing need. Even more, though, is our continuing need to confront racism in our lives, in our church, and our nation.
Racism is deeply rooted in our history: slavery, Jim Crow laws, real estate covenants, redlining, separate but equal, Native American displacement. One of the books I read in my first year here in Michigan was Terror in the City of Champions, a story of sports success and racial terror in 1930s Detroit. Because racism is deeply rooted in our history, it is entangled in our hearts, our minds, and our systems.
Racism is an affront to our Christian faith. Our Social Principles say, “we recognize racism as sin and affirm the ultimate and temporal worth of all persons…. Racism manifested as sin, plagues, and hinders our relationship with Christ, inasmuch as it is antithetical to the gospel itself.” Our Scriptures tell us that we were all created in God’s image. They tell us that Christ died for all. They share stories about the worth of those who social systems deem less than: a widow in Zarephath, a Syro-Phonecian woman, an Ethiopian eunuch. In his pamphlet, “Thoughts on Slavery,” John Wesley would write, “give liberty to whom liberty is due, that is to every child of man, to every partaker of human nature.” To slaveholders, he wrote, “Are you a man? Then you should have a human heart. But have you indeed? What is your heart made of? Is there no such principle as compassion there? Do you never feel another’s pain?”
We know all this, and we also know that Christian faith and Christian scriptures have been used to justify slavery, white supremacy, segregation, and the subjugation of indigenous peoples. Powerful opportunities for antiracism work have appeared before, and they have slipped away. We must not let this moment pass us by. Working to counter racism is not a political issue of the moment; it is not a social issue appended to the spiritual life. It is an essential part of the journey with Jesus.
I write this on the eve of the celebration of the birth of the United States, a country whose founding documents, at least in part, offer high aspirations for the human community. We celebrate those aspirations and need to acknowledge how far short we have fallen. Consider the words from Langston Hughes, an African-American poet of the Harlem Renaissance:
Let America be the dream the dreamers dreamed –
Let it be that great strong land of love
Where never kings connive nor tyrants scheme
That any man be crushed by one above
(It never was America to me.)
Ever hopeful, Hughes goes on:
America never was America to me,
And yet I swear this oath –
America will be!
A gritty hope for this fourth of July.
Some may feel overwhelmed by the challenge of this moment. Life feels pretty overwhelming right now. Yet by God’s grace and the power of God’s Spirit, we can meet this moment.
I am joining the United Methodist Council of Bishops in our shared commitment to stand against racism in coordination with the general agencies of The United Methodist Church. I join the commitments made by the North Central Jurisdiction College of Bishops to pray for the eradication of racism in our lives, our church, and our society. We must listen deeply; use our voices to advocate for reform in policing practices, and promote antiracism as an essential part of the Christian journey with Jesus. I join in the commitments made by our Full Cabinet and Conference Leadership Council to deep listening and learning as we seek to lead the Michigan Conference. I pledge to work with diverse leaders in our conference to consider how we might learn and grow and make important changes in our structures and our life together as a conference.
I encourage every local church and every Michigan United Methodist to engage in learning and growing and changing. Change in our conference matters, but if we want deep, long-lasting change in our state, we need to engage this challenge locally. Denominational resources for such learning will be available through our conference web site. Books such as Robin Diangelo, White Fragility, or Ibram X. Kendi, How To Be an Antiracist; or Jim Wallis, America’s Original Sin can be an excellent tool for learning. You may find a political comment that you don’t agree with in some resource, but don’t let that distract you from the deeper work of antiracism.
Films are powerful tools for learning. Watch “Just Mercy” or “12 Years a Slave” or “Harriet.” Watch the recent Sixty Minutes story about the Tulsa race riot of 1921. Listen to the stories of people of color and their challenges in living in a society where the norm is whiteness. While the problem of racism is one that those of us who are white have the primary responsibility for addressing, I am hoping that persons of color from our churches might graciously share their stories. For those of us who are white, it is our task to listen intently and graciously. Find someone with whom you might take the Intercultural Developmental Inventory, one tool that helps us begin to understand how we relate to others who are different from us.
This work belongs to all of us, in different ways, and especially to all of us who are white. Another complicating dynamic is the tendency of “privileged whites distancing themselves from racism by displacing blame for racism on less-privileged whites” (Joan Williams, White Working Class).
You may now feel even more overwhelmed than just a couple of paragraphs ago. Here is what I am asking of us all. Take the next faithful step. Just take the next faithful step in working against racism as a next faithful step in your journey with Jesus, whatever that step may be for you. Walking we will make the road, by God’s grace.
The North Central Jurisdiction College of Bishops ended their commitment statement with these words: “The dividing wall of racism, which has stood for too long, needs dismantling. Moving the stones of this wall requires heavy lifting, but the wall needs to be taken down. We commit ourselves to take the stones from this dividing wall and letting the power of God’s Spirit transfigure these stones into stones of justice, peace, reconciliation, and love, stones with which to build a road toward God’s beloved community.”
We will make the road by walking and taking the next faithful step. I am taking the next steps with you on this Joyful Journey.