Heartbroken and hopeless characterizes the emotions I have sat with these past few weeks as once again I am called to witness along with the entire world yet another example of apparent injustice and systemic racism. The real issue before us is really not Michael Brown, an unarmed African-American teenager nor is it Darren Wilson, a white police officer who did the shooting. Just as Trayvon Martin and George Zimmerman were not the real issue. You see, in both situations we were forced to confront symptoms and not disease.
The issues that are most critical to us as a nation are not individual situations but rather institutional systems.
In our nation we have systematically determined some lives to be less valuable than others. This week we were faced with the image of James Foley, an American photojournalist being beheaded by the militant Al Qaeda splinter group, ISIS yet media outlets and commentators seem more compassionate and sensitive in their reporting over the death of James Foley then that of Michael Brown. As a bi-racial man leading a predominantly African-American congregation I find myself talking to myself incessantly over the issues of race, poverty and injustice. These themes are emotional for each of us but for different reasons. But, as a pastor where my calling is to carefully yet courageously lead the sheep I am mindful that perhaps my two most powerful tools are love and truth. Both love and truth are potentially problematic commitments.
Love becomes powerful and transformational when we choose to love all and to love unconditionally. As Christians are we not called to love each other equally? We simply cannot love a white life more than a black life. For some reason we seem to love the life of an unborn child more than the life of a born teenager. Life must be equally valuable. Martin Luther King, Jr. in a Testament of Hope said, “Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that.”
Truth in my opinion is even more elusive which is why we have a tendency to argue it away rather than to embrace it. Do you remember the days when t-shirt manufacturers had actual labels in the backs of their product? Today those labels have been replaced with what are called “tag less” labels. I for one am grateful because before I could comfortably where my t-shirts I would have to rip the labels out. This is exactly how truth works. In order to wear it you must take the labels off. As a pastor I am called to proclaim the truth of the Holy Bible. In order for our members to embrace the truths I share they must remove their labels first. Truth does not originate from our political parties, our educational systems, our not for profits, races or balance sheets. Truth originates from God. Not enough of us are willing to take off our labels of Black, White, Republican, Democrat, Conservative, Liberal, Educated, Uneducated, Poor, Wealthy, Suburban, Urban, Public, Private, Male and Female. Perhaps my favorite children’s author, Shel Silverstein in his book, Falling Up said, “Tell me I’m clever, Tell me I’m kind, Tell me I’m talented, Tell me I’m cute, Tell me I’m sensitive, Graceful and Wise, Tell me I’m perfect– But tell me the TRUTH.” We simply cannot approach our systemic issues from our labels. We must approach them truthfully and allow that truth to then govern our perspective. This one change would begin an instant reversal of much of what is plaguing our nation and our communities.
There are over 2 million people incarcerated. One of three black men between the ages of 18-30 are in jail, parole, in prison, or probation. In larger cities and urban communities like Philadelphia, Los Angeles, Washington, Chicago that number increases to over one half. Our “system” has been distorted around race and around poverty. In our country we treat people that are guilty but wealthy better than those that are innocent and poor.
For those of you who are love and truth resistant perhaps common sense would be a more effective strategy to reach you. The United States is the only country in the world that sentences children to die in prison. We have life imprisonment for children in our country because our “system” provides judges the ability to place them on trial as an adult. But they aren’t adults. In other words our “system” allow us to make the child into an adult. What wealthy person who could afford the best legal counsel would want to be tried as a poor person with a public defender? What if the Judge just made them into a poor person for the sake of trial or what if we just made a white person into a black person for the sake of trial? Currently one in nine people on death row are found to be innocent and eventually exonerated of their crimes. In other words we know that for every nine times we do something one time it is wrong. That’s a pretty high error rate. Would you get on a plane if you knew for certain one out of nine was going to crash? Would you send your child to a school where every day one out of nine kids were gunned down? Would you buy a car if you were certain one in nine would catch fire and kill the driver? Of course not! You would change the system first. We have a systemic problem and we, as Christians must model a behavior of love and truth. We cannot insulate ourselves from the problems of people that don’t look like us. In my estimation the life of a white photojournalist is just as valuable as a black teenager. The life of the death row inmate is as valuable as the unborn fetus in a womb. The pastor in me just won’t allow me to love bi-racial people more than I love anyone else. Actually that’s not even the pastor in me I think that’s the Jesus in me. In the final analysis we will be judged not based on innovation or technology but loving our neighbor as ourselves. Only by love and truth can we model reconciliation as the body of Christ. This is perhaps our greatest mandate in this hour of turmoil and division. Paul writes in Galatians 3:27 – “For as many of you as have been baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female: for ye are all one in Christ Jesus.”
What are your thoughts?