June 5, 2020
Dear People of Lord of Light,
“They have treated the wound of my people carelessly, saying ‘Peace, peace,’ when there is no peace.” -Jeremiah 6:14
The events that have unfolded in the last several days have left me shaken and convicted, and I apologize for not writing a pastoral letter earlier. With so much of life happening online these days, it was easy to forget that not everyone is connected to our social media pages, or to mine. This letter will be a summary of the things I have written in recent days, along with a call to action for all of us.
George Floyd’s murder by police officers who had sworn to serve and protect him was only the match to the tinder. Coupled with the recent high-profile murders of Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery, George Floyd’s killing has finally spurred the entire nation into action. The demonstrations that started in Minneapolis have spread to major cities around the country, and small, mostly white towns are seeing demonstrations, too. It seems that finally, those of us with the privilege to look away can look away no longer; we are finally, collectively, seeing the injustices that have been systematically done to our siblings of color. Change finally feels possible.
This week, too, we saw the Church used as a prop (St. John’s Episcopal specifically, but really, it could have been any church). We saw our holy texts held aloft in a two-minute photo opportunity that was obtained by suddenly and violently clearing peaceful protestors – clergy among them – with tear gas, mace, rubber bullets, and flash-bang grenades. We saw our military men and women being given what look to be unlawful orders, without the consent of local government, to disperse people who were peacefully assembled according to their constitutional rights. Additionally, there have been alarming reports of journalists - who are meant to be protected observers - being arrested or attacked by the police, with two reporters each losing an eye in the past week.
I am reminded of Martin Niemoller’s often-used quote:
First they came for the socialists, and I did not speak out—because I was not a socialist.
Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out— because I was not a trade unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.
Even if we previously knew we should not look away, we know now we cannot look away.
The sin of systemic racism is something that impacts us all, even if we don’t believe it impacts us directly. I am not speaking of an individual prejudice or hateful act; I am speaking of the systems that do violence to our siblings of color every single day, by denying quality education, child care, and housing, health care, nutritious food, safety, and freedom. I know that there are people in our congregation who have experienced terrible discrimination because of society’s inability to accept who God has created them to be; and so I believe there must be a deep well of empathy for all those who are struggling now.
If you're white, it doesn't mean you never had to fight. It doesn't mean you never had a hard time. It means your skin color hasn't been one of the things making your life that much harder.
We cannot change the skin we're in. It's one of the many ways God has made this world more beautiful. But we can and must work to change the systems that make life harder- or impossible- for those who have been deemed "less than" by our society. That means challenging the systems that declare some people worthy of a good life and others disposable: that means changing how we pay for public schools, how we distribute health care, how we distribute food, and how we allow the police to interact in our neighborhoods.
You may not be aware that it is nearly impossible for a police officer to be held accountable, even when they clearly abuse their power, even when that abuse results in death. (https://news.stlpublicradio.org/post/why-its-so-hard-hold-police-accountable-excessive-force ). As a community, we can advocate for outside reviews of misconduct; for every violent interaction to be recorded and tabulated; for every bullet to be accounted for; for de-escalation to be the primary resort; and for violent intervention to be the last resort, after all other methods have been exhausted. The organization 8 Can’t Wait (https://8cantwait.org) has an overview of concrete steps we can push for to make all of us safer, but most especially our siblings of color.
And, church, we need to do better. We claim, with every good intention, that all are welcome in our community, but we know the ELCA is the whitest denomination in the country, and that Sunday remains the most segregated day of the week. We know that for those who have experienced marginalization, a special, intentional welcome is needed. We also know that our theology, grounded in God’s radical love and grace, is life-giving.
We had already been planning to organize small groups for this summer around various topics, but I would like to propose that, in these small groups, we first all read and discuss “Dear Church” by Rev. Lenny Duncan together over the next few weeks, and then truly explore the ways in which our own congregation can become a source of life and light for all of God’s children – including and especially our siblings of color. I have four copies right now that I can distribute; this book is available online, too. The link below is for a local bookstore owned by African Americans.
God created humans in God's own image, and called them very good. It is our distinct calling as followers of Christ to uplift and uphold the image of God in every person, and to stand in solidarity for all those who struggle for the right to live in dignity. What God has called good, we must not call disposable.