The summer of 2016 has been dubbed by some the Summer of Justice. As the presidential candidates held their conventions, unrest in America could no longer be contained.
Demonstrations by grassroots chapters of the Black Lives Matter movement demanded justice again and again as video after video went viral showing black men and women beaten and killed by police officers.
The images were hauntingly similar to photographs and newsreels from 50 and 60 years ago.
Brutality in action was captured in stark visual statements impossible to ignore. Protesters blocking highways demanded justice. But there’s a striking contrast between the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and ‘60s and the current Black Lives Matter movement: the absence of churches.
The movement that never really ended
As a white child growing up in a small Southern town in the late 1970s and ’80s, for me the Civil Rights Movement was a chapter in a history textbook. Like so many children, I assumed that if it happened before I was born it was “history” — a discrete chapter in the long story of our nation, summed up with some review questions at the end of the unit. I attended, and later taught in, integrated public schools of varying levels of diversity. But even with a college degree in history, I taught civil rights the same way — a chapter in American history that was over and done with.
What my white privilege allowed me to ignore were the myriad symptoms of institutional racism that persisted throughout my childhood and to this day — problems that society has yet to fully acknowledge, much less address or “solve.” Mass incarceration of disproportionate numbers of black males, suppression of voting rights and biased policing are the obvious problems, in addition to the widespread and more subtle racism present in workplaces and schools that have yet to fully embrace equality.
In the decades since the Civil Rights Movement, white churches have been mostly silent about institutional racism. Members of my all-white church served our community through programs for mental health patients and distribution of food to the poor. But no one talked openly about the chronically disadvantaged or the unjust systems that kept them there. Preaching about such things would be … too political.
Blogger Elle Dowd, a Lutheran candidate for ordination, calls this phenomenon “white niceness” and afflicts the comfortable with this indictment:
“We say we value niceness, but the truth is that we care more about being polite and comfortable than we care about liberation. We are worshipping at the altar of Niceness instead of following the cross of Christ. This is an abuse of priorities that is abhorrent to the God who introduces herself over and over as the one who “brought us out of the house of slavery.”
The wake-up call for many in the pews of white churches in my small town was the acquittal of George Zimmerman in the murder of young Trayvon Martin. The blatant and egregious error of impunity committed by the jury turned the floodlights on the cancerous blight of racism that had gone unchecked so long.
Distraught, our congregation turned to our neighbors at a nearby African Methodist
Episcopal church for answers. “What’s going on?” we wondered. “How can we help?”
The compassionate, yet tired response was, “Oh honey, this has been going on forever. This isn’t new.”
In the three years since, we’ve embarked on relationship building with our black brothers and sisters in Christ, seeking to listen and to understand America through a different lens. And so when news of this summer’s police shootings of black men went viral, we turned again to our AME neighbors, showing up en masse at their Sunday service to stand in solidarity.
The emotional service we’d just finished at our all white church, with a bold sermon about respecting the dignity of every human being, stood in stark contrast to the calm that met us at the AME service. There was little to no mention of the events of the past week, the service proceeding as usual with a sermon on Ruth and needing “spiritual refueling.”
Afterward one of the church elders, an elegant, beautiful woman who exudes wisdom, greeted me.
“We are so glad that you came to be with us today,” she said.
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SOURCE: Baptist News Global