“On Becoming Antiracist”
Acts 10:34-46; Theme reading: Ibram X. Kendi
By Rev. Don Ludwig, June 14, 2020
One-hundred fifty years ago there was an uncivil civil war. Upon this country rests a scar. No matter how much rhetorical make-up we apply, the scar still shows. No matter how much we attempt to convince ourselves that we moved past it, we have only moved past it through time. Now, hundreds of years after establishing a nation on colonial genocide and chattel slavery, people are waking up to the fact that we are still paying the price.
Americans are largely ignorant about race and its impact on society. Most people have a perception of reality that is simply not based upon the facts. In fact, race will influence whether we will survive our birth, where we are most likely to live, which schools we will attend, who our friends and partners will be, what careers we will have, how much money we will earn, how healthy we will be, and even how long we can expect to live. If you live in Minneapolis, African Americans comprise 20% of the population but 60% of those who are subjected to police shootings. Those are the facts. It is harmful to your health to be Black in the US. In fact:
- Being a black woman sleeping in your bed in Louisville, Kentucky can get you killed.
- Jogging in Brunswick, Georgia while black can get you killed.
- Bird watching while being black or being a 12-year-old black boy playing with a toy in a park annoys white people.
- Sleeping in a car while being black is very suspicious and could evoke several 911 calls.
- Being stopped for a broken taillight when you’re black means keep your hands visible and don’t you dare move.
Any encounter with the police can get you killed—any encounter—if you are Black. And it has been dangerous to be Black in the US every day of every year since 1619. And every Black person and every person of color in this country knows this… lives with this… every day.
In eight minutes and 46 seconds, George Perry Floyd Jr.’s life ended. The video was excruciatingly painful to watch—it seemed like a lifetime. But seeing the other officers standing there doing nothing was just as heart-wrenching. It is impossible to not recognize George Floyd’s humanity in that moment and to not be compelled toward action. This is just not acceptable. Not in America or anywhere. That is not how life should be. We must stand with the protestors.
We can no longer remain neutral
So why does it take something so egregious like a George Floyd murder or a Breanna Taylor murder or an Ahmaud Arbery murder and the simultaneous outcry of public suffering for Americans to realize—that black people feel pain too— that black people are human too—that black lives matter too? Why can’t we see the problem of everyday profiling as something that needs to be transformed? Why has the church largely remained silent and not seen this as a part of our mission?
Perhaps, part of the answer at least, is white people need to stop being so fragile, as Robin DiAngelo puts it—we need to start talking about race and realize that we cannot have a just society without it. We can no longer afford to be neutral. We can longer be just “not racist.” As Desmond Tutu once said, “If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor. If an elephant has its foot on the tail of a mouse and you say that you are neutral, the mouse will not appreciate your neutrality.” As holocaust survivor Ellie Wiesel once said, “We must take a side! Neutrality always serves the oppressor, never the oppressed!”
As Americans, the time is now for us to take a hard stand. Black Lives Matter. Do you realize how low of a bar that is? And yet our culture cannot even meet that standard. White supremacists are using the mantra “All Lives Matter” as a way to divide a nation and make us think that this current movement is self-focused and self-motivated. The fact is when we declare “Black Lives Matter” we are not only recognizing the gruesome history of Black Americans but how this represents all of the injustice that is perpetuated on non-dominant racial groups and all those who experience discrimination in one form or another. For the first time in history, we are seeing black and brown and white people from all over the world standing side by side—from London to Perth, Australia—rising against the brutality and discrimination toward people of color in the United States. We are in a watershed moment in history.
Some have said, so why is it that we say “Black Lives Matter”? Let me answer that with a piece of our history at Southminster. When we were champions for gay marriage for over a decade as a church, it did not mean that we didn’t care or were not focused on all forms of oppression. At the time, fighting for gay marriage was simply our way to champion justice and equity for all. It is said, “justice for one is justice for all.” In fighting for racial justice, we are recognizing our role in creating, maintaining, and perpetuating a society that permanently places people of color as second class citizens.
Ibram X. Kendi, an American author and historian who teaches at American University, recently wrote a best selling book entitled How to Be an Antiracist. I highly recommend it. It is a powerful read. In a subsequent article in The Atlantic, Kendi writes:
“Black Americans are constantly stepping into the souls of the dead. Because they know that it could have been them; they are them. Because they know it is dangerous to be African in America, because racist Americans see blacks as dangerous.”
Kendi goes on to say that it is not enough to say that you are “not racist.” Have you ever heard someone say, “I am not racist… BUT let me tell you a joke…” You know darn well that what they are about to say makes them a racist. Being “not racist” is a cover. White supremacists say that they are “not racist.” Slaveholders identified themselves as “not racist” and segregationists make the same argument. Even Donald Trump has said that he is the least racist of anyone in the world. You be the judge. We cannot afford to hide behind being “not racist” anymore, we need to be “Anti Racist” and boldly proclaim our indignation toward the inequities that we see both in plain sight and those we know exist under the surface.
One of the saddest images that literally made me weep a week ago—as I suspect you did too —was when our president cleared protestors in order to have a photo op holding up a bible in front of a historic church in Washington D.C. Now I know that Pastors should not use their bully pulpit to engage in politics. But seriously folks? This goes way beyond politics.
How can we remain neutral any longer? As people of faith, as people of conscience, we need more than to raise the bible, we need to stop police brutality. We need more than to raise our bible, we need to denounce racial privilege and create policies that promote true equity—we need more than to raise our bible—we need to shout from the rooftops that our culture needs to change—and in the Church, we need to boldly proclaim that ALL LIVES MATTER ONLY WHEN BLACK LIVES MATTER.
Now let me make this point. Our current outrage is not about one individual police officer. It is about our culture—our culture is what allows one officer with 18 complaints on his record to continue wearing the badge. Our culture is what allows two police officers to put their knees on a man lying facing down in handcuffs while a fourth officer looks on. And no one—no one—lifts a finger to help even when he cries out his mother’s name. This culture needs to change.
The Truth Can Set You Free
As people of faith, we have a role to play. Faith calls us to see our lives in the lives of the George Floyds and the Breonna Taylors and the Ahmaud Arberys. Faith calls us to see our lives in the lives of our transgender siblings when they are assaulted for just being who they are. Faith calls us to recognize how the immigrants who are in detention, sometimes without their children, could be us. Faith calls us to bear witness to those we know and those we don’t know. Faith calls us to see equity—and fairness—and cosmic love for all—as our primary mission to the world.
I close with the words of the black American Novelist James Baldwin: “Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.” It is time for us to face the truth as Americans—and as people of faith. Let us not allow ourselves to be diverted by the small group of individuals who want to turn this tragedy into violent confrontation or by those who claim they are “not racist”—or that “all lives matter”—just trying to excuse their behavior or feed into our despair or denial.
“The truth can set you free,” Jesus once said to a multitude on a hillside in Galilee. That truth may well trouble our souls first—it should— we will have to step into the souls of so many who have died because of the color of their skin—but as people of faith, we know that to be the truth. We stand in solidarity with the outcast and with the downtrodden and with all those experiencing racial discrimination. As people of faith, we know that whether black or brown—gay or transgendered —immigrant or indigenous—female or intersexual—disabled or impoverished: YOUR LIFE MATTERS!
And at Southminster Presbyterian Church in Beaverton, Oregon, it is our mission to promote that message in all that we say and do.