As a Presbytery we have endured quite a Spring. We are in the middle of a pandemic. We have suffered catastrophic floods. But I want to use my report today to talk about a different affliction, another pandemic facing our church and our nation—the virus of racism.
By now, everyone is aware of the murder of Minneapolis resident George Floyd, an African-American, while in police custody and in full view of onlookers. Although Floyd was handcuffed and posed no threat, and while two officers held him down and a third kept watch, another officer pressed his knee on George Floyd’s neck for 8 minutes 46 seconds, including over two minutes after Floyd failed to register a pulse. Nine times in the last five minutes of his life Floyd told the police “I can’t breathe.” Onlookers shouted at the officers, “You’re killing him.”
Floyd’s murder, along with the deaths of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and so many, many, more are not just the actions of a few rogue individuals. They are symptoms of a social virus that has infected every corner of this land for 400 years and it must end. That virus is racism. In the name of justice; in the name of humanity; in the name of God it must end.
I am a white male who holds a position of social trust and power. I am the beneficiary of white privilege. I cannot speak personally about the African-American experience of either personal or structural racism and do not presume to speak for my black friends, neighbors and church members. But I can speak to the church as a pastor and leader, and for myself as a follower of Christ.
I don’t know what it is to be black in America, but I do know the meaning of “I can’t breathe.” I don’t know how to root out racism in the hearts and minds of my white neighbors, but I can see the racist assumptions and attitudes that I also struggle with in my own heart and mind.
On Sunday, we heard the story of Pentecost, when the Spirit of God, the breath of God, came upon the gathered disciples and sent them out to proclaim God’s saving love to all the world. Our Confessions of 1967 and Belhar teach us that racism has no place in the church and out of faithfulness to Christ, must be resisted and dismantled in the world.
This is a
moment, a time when the church is called to bear witness to what we believe. Our response must reflect our deeply held values of respect for human life and dignity for all who bear God’s image. Media attention in the past few days has shifted from the brutality of George Floyd’s murder to the riots that escalated from protests against it in many of our cities. This is a distraction. While we certainly deplore the riots and the looting, we cannot equate the loss of property from the lawlessness of those who have been deprived justice with the loss of life from the lawlessness of those who are entrusted to enforce justice. We must keep in mind the words of Martin Luther King, Jr: “riots are the language of the unheard.”
As a church, let us hear. Let us hear the cries of “black lives matter” from those who live in fear, exhaustion, grief, and pain from the brutalization of black bodies and the terrorization of black communities. Let us not dismiss them with bromides like “all lives matter,” or “I don’t see color.” Not all lives are singled out and brutalized for the color of their skin – black lives are. And to say “I don’t see color” is to say “I don’t see you. I don’t see your suffering. It’s not my problem.” Racism is our problem. The real terrorist threat to America is the terror that we inflict day in and day out on our black neighbors all across this country who can’t jog, can’t drive, can’t walk down the street, can’t BREATHE without fear.
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, the NBA hall of famer turned author and cultural ambassador wrote in the Los Angeles Times on Sunday, “Racism in America is like dust in the air. It seems invisible — even if you’re choking on it — until you let the sun in. Then you see it’s everywhere.”
A white member of one of our churches recently asked, where do I go from here to make a difference? I replied, first, learn to listen humbly. That means hearing and seeing our black neighbors; it means practicing humility about ourselves and working on checking our own racism and white privilege. It means resisting the temptation to substitute our own judgments and experiences in these matters for the wisdom and guidance of respected black activists, thinkers, and leaders. We have a lot to learn.
Second, as white Christians we need to act courageously: to speak up when we encounter racist comments and actions. If we can’t call out racism among our own families and friends, and of course, in our church, then we will never help dismantle it in society. It also means using our privilege and power not for ourselves or others like us, but to advocate for those who lack privilege and power.
As a Christian who is white, I want to say – and I want our presbytery to say – to our black brothers and sisters, we hear you and we see you. We acknowledge your grief and pain and our part in contributing to it. Help us learn what we need to do to repent of our sin and to follow your lead to help make our church and our world a place where everyone can live and breathe without fear.
At our March meeting, this presbytery committed to becoming a Matthew 25 presbytery, including a commitment to work to dismantle structural racism.
This is our
moment as a church and as a presbytery to do just that. As Charon Barconey, the Associate Executive in Detroit Presbytery challenged her presbytery, “If our commitment was more than just ‘checking a box and patting ourselves on the back’” then we have work to do. With humility, courage, and love, let us do it.
Dan Saperstein, Executive Presbyter