Tuesday, May 26, 2015

We Need to Talk: The Conversation White Evangelicals are Avoiding

Woe to those who make unjust laws; to those who issue oppressive decrees.  -Isaiah 10:1

"Systemic Racism"  Just utter the phrase, and emotions immediately go into the stratosphere.

Last week, I was invited to speak to a youth group at one of our churches about all that has transpired in Baltimore.  We had a great conversation about the long-term issues present in the city that need to be addressed.  I was highly encouraged by these young men and women, and their willingness to talk about these subjects.  I was even more impressed by their knowledge, and understanding that these are long-term issues that will require long-term commitments.

In suburbia, that's a rare thing.

Over the past few weeks since the riots, I've witnessed followers of Jesus outside the city make many pronouncements about the city.  Those experiences have made me realize that the body of Christ is divided--largely along geographic, socio-economic, and racial lines.  In other words, we are divided in exactly the same ways that the world is divided!

For some time I've suspected that our rural and suburban congregations understand very little about our brothers and sisters who live in the city. (and vice-versa)  But recent events in Baltimore have me more convicted than ever about this divide.  We need to talk!

But in order to have this conversation, we have to stop playing the world's game of yelling at each other through media soundbites.  The issues in Baltimore, at heart, are reconciliation issues, and as followers of Jesus, we carry with us the greatest story of reconciliation in the history of humanity.  But our presumption of the worst about each other is clouding that message, and if we want to avoid answering to Jesus for this, we have to put aside simplistic answers to what ails Baltimore and other cities, and have honest conversations with each other.  Over the past few weeks, I've been highly encouraged to see some pastors and others in our churches express willingness to enter these discussions.  But there are still too many who oversimplify what they don't understand.

A few things I've heard that oversimplify the issues:

1. "You just hate cops."  I've been a chaplain for two police departments, and have a high degree of respect for these men and women.  Furthermore, I believe anyone who picked up a rock and threw it at a badge in Baltimore was assaulting an expression of God-ordained civil authority, and they should be prosecuted.  Seeking to understand why someone takes violent action is not the same thing as condoning that action.

Additionally, speaking against police officers, and speaking against the system they are charged with enforcing by oath are two completely different things.  And when we work together to make the latter more just, we are also protecting and honoring police officers.  When I speak about an unjust system, I'm not just doing it for the victims of that system.  I speak about it for the benefit of police officers as well.  Their job is to enforce the law, whether or not they agree with it.  So if the system they are enforcing is infected with injustice, that's a dangerous environment in which to work!

We need to stop equating honest critique of the system with "hating cops."

2. "Just obey the law and you won't get in trouble."This is absolutely true.  Or maybe not!  Many decades ago during the Great Depression, many of my ancestors produced, transported, distributed, and consumed illegal alcohol.  Most who remember those "bootlegger" days will explain that environment in this way; "well, it was the Depression, and there were simply no jobs that paid a living wage.  This was the only way we could get by."

Am I excusing my ancestors from breaking the law by such a statement?  Not at all!  Yet most understand that there were systemic issues in rural Appalachian culture that motivated such behavior. It just doesn't seem like we understand that the same issues are present in cities like Baltimore.  Drugs are produced, distributed and sold because, in many parts of the city, there is little else one can do to make a livable wage.  And once you are arrested and imprisoned on drug charges, its a little hard to find honest work once you get out. So guess what you do?  The vicious cycle continues.

Again, my point is not to justify breaking the law.  It is to give some perspective on the complicated issues surrounding crime in the city.  I only wish solving the city's problems were as simple as telling people to "just obey the law."

3. "Those people need to get a job."Having talked with many of "those people," I can tell you first hand that many of them would LOVE to.  Problem is, there are no jobs--at least none within walking distance.  And with what car are they going to get to a more prosperous part of the city, or out of the city, to find gainful employment?  And again, if they have a criminal record, what are the chances that anyone will hire them?

4. "This is a political issue and we shouldn't talk politics from the pulpit." Just because a politician talks about something a lot doesn't make the issue purely "political."  I find it strange that when I'm in the city and address abortion or sexual sin, I'm accused of "being political in the pulpit."  But I'm equally amazed at how I get charged with the same thing when I'm in white suburbia and bring up issues of systemic justice in our cities.  God's Word has much to say about all these issues, and faithful followers of Jesus will refuse to bow at the alter of golden elephants, or golden donkeys.

A few things we need to talk honestly about:

Justice:  We need to speak honestly about a system that treats people differently if they can afford a good attorney.  We need to speak prophetically toward a justice system where private industry profits from the imprisonment of the populace.  We need to ask why, with only 5% of the world's population, we house 1/3 of the worlds prisoners.  And we also need to state the obvious: that most who are the victims of these inconsistencies are from the black community in our nations cities.

Economics:  The infrastructure of most of our cities, including Baltimore, is weak and crumbling, and that environment will not provide appropriate fuel to ignite an economic engine.  Baltimore in particular has some of the best health care facilities in the world, and most of the poorest in the city have no access to it.  Howard County, which shares a border with Baltimore, is one of the top five public school districts in the nation.  Yet many inner city schools are still using textbooks with copyrights from the 1970s. The crime rate in certain parts of the city is inhibiting economic growth, and that slow growth in turn creates a ripe environment for more crime.

Urban development:  When most see urban communities gentrified, they celebrate.  Yet most gentrification projects are executed with the aim of attracting a very different kind of person to that area than those who currently live there.  When Donald Trump buys up 15 city blocks, razes crack houses, and builds $500,000 townhomes, the result is a revitalization of the area by an influx of folks who are already among the middle and upper classes.  Problem is, this approach to development does nothing to actually help the poor, who are simply relocated to another part of the city.  We need conversations that focus on project development that seeks the renewal of an area from the inside-out.

The Gospel: Our understanding of Creation and the imago dei should motivate us to serve those in areas like Baltimore whose living conditions are, quite frankly, beneath the dignity of our common humanity.  Our understanding of the fall should humble us to realize that we in suburbia are just as broken, just as sinful, just as rebellious against God, and suffer from just as much dysfunction as our urban neighbors.  Its just easier to hide our junk behind gated communities.  Our understanding of redemption should push us toward doing what Jesus did--incarnating ourselves among people different from us.

For us, that will mean going into contexts like Baltimore as learners, seeking to understand and identify with people in the city that Jesus died to save.  And our understanding of restoration should lead us to be satisfied with nothing less than a long-term commitment to areas like Baltimore--commitment that eventually leads to the spiritual and tangible transformation of communities that reflect the Kingdom Jesus one day intends to establish here on earth.  There are already many faithful pastors, and other brothers and sisters in Christ there from whom we can learn much.  And if we come as learners, they long for our partnership and cooperation!

But by and large, we aren't having these conversations in our churches.  Our propensity to oversimplify issues and cast them in partisan terms--essentially to capitulate to definitions and explanations given by media talking heads in 3-minute segments--has blinded us to the fact that there are serious issues of justice in our cities that need to be addressed.  It is past time for us to hear from pastors and churches in those cities who work in these conditions every day.  In fact, opportunities are developing right now to have those conversations this coming November in Baltimore!  As soon as the details are finalized, I will post them here.

We need to talk!

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