Sunday, July 21, 2013

How I'm Living My Faith Now

We had a deeply refreshing church service today. We have an open mic every week but I rarely speak, perhaps every four months or so. Probably less. Anyway, I didn't plan to get up today, but it felt right to do so. I'll try to tell you what I told the church. So here's a rough sense of what I said. I can't really remember it so some stuff is missing and other stuff is added in because it seems right at the moment.

I'm not here to make a political statement. You know, we serve a God of justice. I've felt a great heaviness for the past week, since the verdict in the Trayvon Martin case. I don't care what you think about that case in particular, but we know we live in a society that falls short of God's justice, a society in which justice is often dealt along racial lines, with things like racial profiling and discrimination. I felt so heavy after the verdict and I felt such a longing for justice, compounded by the knowledge that the injustice I deplored was inside me. It wasn't just something that I could look out at and rail against. It was part of me and I was part of it.

I came across Isaiah 59, and found that it describes people who feel justice is far away, but the very injustice they hate is inside them too. It says "surely the arm of the Lord is not too short to save, but our iniquities have separated us from our God and our hands are stained with blood and our fingers with guilt...So justice is far from us, and righteousness does not reach us."

The chapter goes on to talk about the lack of integrity in the culture, the breakdown of any empathy or compassion, the rise of oppression. Then it says, "So justice is driven back, and righteousness stands at a distance; truth has stumbled in the streets, honesty cannot enter. Truth is nowhere to be found..." That's how I felt. And then it gets amazing because it describes God reacting to this situation:
The Lord looked and was displeased that there was no justice. He saw that there was no one, he was appalled that there was no one to intervene.
Now the injustice is so severe that a Warrior God emerges, a God of wrath, a great and terrifying force that the poor and oppressed need not fear at all.
He put on righteousness as his breastplate, and the helmet of salvation on his head; he put on the garments of vengeance and wrapped himself in zeal as in a cloak...According to what they have done, so will he repay wrath to his enemies and retribution to his foes...For he will come like a pent-up flood.
To do what? Justice. This is an astounding image. God is not blind to the injustice. He is not indifferent to it. In fact he is appalled by it and is looking for someone, anyone, who is willing to intervene. His seemingly detached stance is a mirage. He is getting ready, so that when he comes it will be like a pent-up flood that sweeps all before it,  that is all the more ferocious for having been so long in coming. He will come to set things right. To set things right. To do justice.

In the meantime, we can do what we can to join in that project. We must.

I'm pretty sure God lives every day with a broken heart. I kept telling myself in the first few nights after the verdict that I was being absurd. But the pain that I felt was such that I viscerally knew in those moments that God either does not exist, or he is weeping over us every day as he prepares to set things right in what is--somehow and for some reason--the right time.

Anyway, after speaking I was glad I had done it, especially since it turned out I was the last one to stand up before the "sermon," and our leader was planning to use the Trayvon Martin case as his starting point. One of our White church leaders spoke about his racial experience as a young White man who only began to see his privilege and racism through a years-long journey of personal experience. Sound familiar? Personal experience marks us all more than anything else, and so we spoke to each other at our tables from our experience.

It was refreshing -- after a week of hearing pundits and politicians and facebookers (like me) rant about this stuff -- to sit down and talk about these things not because they are political issues but because they are Christian issues. One of the things that came through so clearly is the need for White Christians in particular to admit privilege, to repent of arrogance, and listen. We do this not because it is politically correct or socially expedient to do so, but because it is Christian to do so.

It is that failure of the majority of Whites to listen, the refusal to understand, that I believe has added so much hurt on top of the specific incidents of the Trayvon Martin case. We treat (and I say we because I have done it) African American perspectives with contempt. Many of us Whites will talk about race hustling and political grandstanding and hypocrisy and a dozen other things if only it will allow us to avoid acknowledging the broken hearted people standing right in front of us. When some sign of empathy would mean so much, we act offended by the idea that we should have empathy for them. At some deep-down level, we always find a reason why Black perspectives don't count. Now, if we don't recognize these attitudes, we have a case of that frequent companion to failures of empathy: denial.

The other refreshing experience this weekend was the Justice For Trayvon rally here in Akron on Saturday. I went to it, took pictures, and posted them on Facebook. Of course I was grandstanding. But that's part of the point. No one in the local or national media cared to report on the rally here, and social media is one way to spread the word. Had a couple hundred people stopped traffic or broken some windows we would have had some press right quick. A peaceful rally is not very exciting.

This rally was everything conservative Whites claim to want from Black Americans. The spirit was peaceful. The cry was for justice and peace in all neighborhoods, not just in Sanford Florida. Pastors spoke of coming together across racial lines. Elderly Black men spoke of the sacrifices of their ancestors and wondered if the current generation was living up to them. They demanded more personal responsibility.

None of this will quell the propaganda of Fox News. This will not cause Rush Limbaugh to regret his wasted life of racism and hatred. More importantly, it won't cause the mainstream, the majority of American Whites who tell pollsters Blacks just need to take responsibility and get to work, to rethink their views. That's because our views our too self-serving, too useful to us, to be dismissed on something as flimsy as overwhelming evidence. If the Black community is already taking responsibility, is already America's moral leader, is already fighting to rebuild families and communities, then where does that leave us? Why does the violence and poverty persist? We White folks can't afford to think along this line, because now we're calling America itself into question. We're questioning White supremacy. Many of us are too invested in Whiteness to make that leap. We might lose too much, and what we would gain seems unclear. The Gospel itself feels submerged, lacking power in our lives, as we unconsciously but desperately cling to Whiteness as our king.

I went to the rally Saturday for lots of reasons, most of them bad. But I did know I wanted to be where Jesus was.


  1. Thanks Jesse. I appreciated this post.
    I have swung all over the place on this situation. When the news first broke, I felt anger and disgust at the apparent injustice. I couldn't believe they didn't even charge him. As time passed and Zimmerman's version of the night emerged, I began to feel empathy for his situation. Once the trial concluded and the acquittal was given, my feeling of empathy was vindicated. It calms me to think that even if Zimmerman's version of the night isn't true, it would be wrong for our justice system to condemn a man without sufficient evidence to prove his guilt. Because of this, the outrage that followed the verdict bothered me. I read a lot of stuff online, from both "sides," that just made me more irritated.

    It wasn't until I read two pieces that toned down the rhetoric and called on the reader to consider the history, life experience, and-- ultimately--the voice of the African-American community, to (counter-intuitively) view the situation racially. Not to do such would be to ignore the reality of life for African-Americans.

    I don't think my empathy for Zimmerman was wrong, but now I have realized that my lack of empathy during and after the trial for Trayvon absolutely was. It's absence revealed my own denial of racial injustice.

    1. This is really interesting, Nathan. I have wondered at times what you thought of all this because yours is an opinion I cannot easily discount. I resonate with what you're saying. I obviously became invested in this very early on and that makes a dispassionate reading of the facts difficult. I still don't believe Zimmerman's story, but the interesting thing about it is that, precisely because there are huge gaps in our knowledge of what happened, people tended to fill those gaps in according to their preconceived sympathies that have nothing to do with the case.

      I have increasingly seen where I think I was over the top, and it was usually in discussing details of the case specifically. So I've come to realize I have no quibble with people who believe the verdict was technically correct. There were two things around the verdict, though, that caused enormous sadness. First, for many people the preconceived sympathies mentioned above caused them to almost cheer Zimmerman on. I still find this unconscionable and can't imagine it happening if the victim were White. We tend to see White kids involved in petty drug use and such as going through a phase, while assuming Black youth doing the same are fast becoming hardened criminals. The second source of sadness was the reaction of Whites to not just the verdict, but to the reaction of Blacks. Many Whites seemed to insist on making this just about this case in particular and then thereby saying, this is silly to focus on one random case. Meanwhile Blacks continue to try to bring out the point that this case is a dramatization of larger issues. Blacks, with nearly all the data on their side, say the justice system is not impartial. The majority of Whites hold our ears and say "We're not listening!"

      For me personally, as a Christian, and as a White man who has been forced to confront my own racism, I just didn't want to be on the wrong side of this. I don't literally mean (I hope this is obvious) that Jesus was only at the Justice for Trayvon rallies Saturday. But for me, yes, I was quite sure that was where I was meant to be. I guess I'm just repeating stuff I've written over the past week, but it is so clear to me that none of us is neutral or objective. We are all likely to err in one way or another. How serious it is to over and over again err on the side of the group to which we belong. Especially when our group is the dominant one in the society. The thought of that makes me quake in my boots. The oppression and discrimination that occurs in our society falls along certain lines, nearly all of which you and I are on the privileged side of. It doesn't mean that anytime there is a controversy across these lines we automatically join ranks with a certain group. But it does point toward where our broad sympathies should lie. I worry that such sentiment is lacking among many White Christians. I really appreciated your comment. I wish I could always match your measured tone.