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Steps towards racial justice

RSS By: MNYS Anti-Racism Task Force

Our Anti-Racism Task Force members will be taking turns in writing posts that shed light on issues surrounding racial justice work in our church and society. The views and opinions expressed in this blog are those of the authors.

God Calls Us to Change

Aug 22, 2016

By Pr. David Parsons

Pr. David Parsons, a member of the Metropolitan New York Synod Anti-Racism Task Force, is pastor of St. John-St. Matthew-Emanuel, Brooklyn.



I’ve been tasked with writing a reflection on the deaths of Alton Sterling, Philando Castile, Brent Thompson, Patrick Zamarripa, Michael Krol, Lorne Ahrens, and Michael Smith.


Two of the men, Mr. Sterling, of Baton Rouge, and Mr. Castile, of Falcon Heights, Minnesota, were killed by police officers. Both men were African-American. Their deaths were captured on video. The names of Alton and Philando thus join a terrible litany… Michael, Eric, Tamir, Sandra, and on, and on… of African-American citizens who have died at the hands of police in the last two years.


The other men who died recently were police officers in Dallas. Seven of their fellow officers were also wounded. They were all on duty, protecting citizens who were peacefully protesting the deaths in Louisiana and Minnesota. All of the Dallas shooting victims were white. A lone Army veteran, Micah Johnson, an African-American, has been identified as the shooter in Dallas. He died when a bomb delivered by a remote-controlled robot exploded near his hiding place.


A New York Times article on July 13 reported on a poll conducted after the shootings in Baton Rouge and Falcon Heights and Dallas. 69% of Americans believe that race relations are generally bad, and getting worse, the highest level since the 1992 riots following the Rodney King verdict in Los Angeles. The article went on to say, "More than two-fifths of black people say the police in their communities make them feel more anxious than safe. By wide margins, whites and Hispanics say the police make them feel safer."


The_Black_Madonna_of_PragueIt is a fearsome thing to be asked to speak a word of hope, to craft a faithful response, in such a time as this. The situation is unbearably complex, and my location as a white male of considerable privilege properly renders anything that I have to say as worthy of suspicion.


As I’ve been thinking and praying over these last days, it seems to me that, for people seeking to follow the way of Jesus, to focus our attention on police, their policies and practices, and the nature of their interactions with those they serve, especially communities of color, is to see only the tip of the iceberg.


Speaking from a position of privilege, it seems to me that we get the police we want, and then we give them an impossible task.


Here is how President Obama put it in his remarks at the memorial service for the slain police officers in Dallas on July 12:


We also know what Chief Brown [Chief of the Dallas Police Department] has said is true, that so much of the tensions between police departments and minority communities that they serve is because we ask the police to do too much and we ask too little of ourselves. As a society, we choose to under-invest in decent schools. We allow poverty to fester so that entire neighborhoods offer no prospect for gainful employment. We refuse to fund drug treatment and mental health programs. We flood communities with so many guns that it is easier for a teenager to buy a Glock than get his hands on a computer or even a book. And then we tell the police, "You’re a social worker; you’re the parent; you’re the teacher; you’re the drug counselor."


We tell them to keep those neighborhoods in check at all costs and do so without causing any political blowback or inconvenience; don’t make a mistake that might disturb our own peace of mind. And then we feign surprise when periodically the tensions boil over.


President Obama says, "We ask the police to do too much…" We ask them, in essence, to make up for centuries of subjugation, suppression, and oppression suffered by our brothers and sisters of African descent. We ask them to do it without inconveniencing us. For the vast majority of people of color, "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness" must seem to be alien fantasies, rather than the unalienable rights that our founders believed were endowed to all human beings by their Creator.


"We ask too little of ourselves…" As a society, as a nation, we are willing to consign a significant minority of our fellow citizens to communities where shelter and food and educational opportunities are substandard, if not virtually absent. Then we send in police as our representatives, symbols of the system that has failed those communities, expecting them to be responded to with tolerance and respect… and, as President Obama says, we are somehow shocked when that is not the case.


What are we to do? How are we to change the fearsome dynamic of race relationships in this nation so that we honor God’s ancient call formishpat and tzedakah, mercy and righteousness, for all God’s people?


President Obama suggested, as a beginning, that we turn to the prophet Ezekiel: "I will give you a new heart, and put a new spirit in you. I will remove from you your heart of stone, and give you a heart of flesh." (Ezekiel 36:26) He went on to say, "That's what we must pray for, each of us: A new heart. Not a heart of stone, but a heart open to the fears and hopes and challenges of our fellow citizens." 


What can we do with this new heart? As an overwhelmingly white denomination, we can commit to educating ourselves about race in America, and about what our fellow citizens of color need from us.


Here are two, excellent resources to start with:

These were not always easy reading for me. My reaction is that the truth hurts. In the first resource especially, some of the language is crude, even profane. I can imagine that this may upset some who choose to investigate these resources.


People are dying. Strong language is called for. I am choosing to take my cue from an item in "12 things white people can do now…" (#10) don’t be afraid to be unpopular


If you choose to be an ally, a comrade, with people who are demanding an end to racial oppression, demanding access to the rights and freedoms promised to them in our founding documents, you will upset some people.


But then, remember, you go to church. You know how upset people get about which color wine to serve at communion, or what time Sunday school should be, or what people ought properly to bring to coffee hour, or (fill in your own "trauma" here (_____). You know, the important stuff.


Change is uncomfortable. It will hurt to change our heart of stone to a heart of flesh. I submit that we have to do it. God calls us to do it. The flesh of our brothers and sisters is being destroyed.

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