An Open Letter to Other White Christian Leaders

Dear sisters, brothers:

Most of us heard the opening verses of Mark’s Gospel proclaimed on the Second Sunday of Advent:

The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.
As it is written in the prophet Isaiah,

“See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you,
who will prepare your way;
the voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight,’”

John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. Now John was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. He proclaimed, “The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”

John the Baptist comes to a weary and divided Church this Advent. We have seen and heard the anguish of the black community as they grieve the unjust murders of their sons at the hands of police brutality. Protesters and rioters, mostly young and nonviolent have taken to the streets, lying down to block traffic, waving flags, singing songs, marching for justice and an end to oppression. Refrains of “Black Lives Matter”, “I Can’t Breath”, and “Shut It Down” have mingled with refrains of “O Come, O Come Emmanuel.” Extreme despair and profound frustration caused and sustained by aggressive police tactics and a lack of support from other fronts has caused some violent clashes with the police, subjecting rioters to the self-perpetuating cycle of violence and oppression.The ever-growing rift between white America–a kingdom of opportunity, freedom, and privilege– and black America–a ghetto of prejudice, poverty, and bondage– continues to rip wide open, revealing the inherent failure of liberty in this “land of the free.”

Some have said that we live in a post-race America, an America free from its brutal history of slavery, of denying citizenship, of withholding the right to vote. After all, nobody is burning crosses and no ministers have been assassinated. In truth, the situation is worse.

While we no longer have legal slavery, the oppression experienced by the black community in the United States is terribly real. White privilege is an insidious beast which ravages our own humanity. It lurks deep down within ourselves, often unnoticed until fear or something equally as strong revives it and brings it once more to the surface.

While white privilege is sometimes seemingly insignificant (though no less wrong), it often manifests structurally, as in the tragedies of Ferguson and NYC. The police who have been objectively documented as having a propensity toward excessive force are legally protected when their bullets hit a black child or their arms strangle the life out of a black man. The majority black population in Ferguson (67.4% black, 29.3% white)  is represented by a majority white city council (5/6), a majority white board of education (6/7), and a majority white police force (50/53) [2]. New Haven, CT children who live in poverty (a majority black and hispanic population) are reading overwhelmingly below standard level (17%) [3]. Black families of diverse economic backgrounds live in economically disadvantaged neighborhoods (little or no access to parks, schools, community centers) in cities all across the country [4].

The lack of justice in communities of color does not affect only those living in those communities right here and right now. The sins perpetrated against communities of color causes generational trauma. Young people who grow up in situations of injustice–who are raised in poverty, who mature fearing for their lives, whose very dignity and worth are constantly under attack–become adults who live in poverty, fear for their lives, and have no self worth. Worse yet, these beaten and broken down people have children–and the cycle continues. If these and other social ills are not appropriately and quickly treated, the disease will continue to spread and entire communities of color will continue to wither into oblivion.

And what does all of this have to do with us, Christian leaders in the year of grace 2014?

People–mostly young and mostly black–are calling us away from our lives of sin and into lives of justice. They are crying out over the bitter deaths of Michael Brown, Tamir Rice, Eric Garner, and countless others. They are begging us to check ourselves, to acknowledge our power, to finally value black lives. And to stop… to stop defending the police in Ferguson or NYC, to stop talking about how much Michael Brown or Eric Garner were “thugs” or “criminals,” to stop dictating what is and is not an appropriate protest, to stop making excuses for your latent prejudices, to stop saying that “all lives matter” instead of “black lives matter,” to stop electing politicians who enforce power, to stop protecting the status quo.

The Rev. Dr. King asked our predecessors–white priests, ministers, rabbis, pastors, lay leaders–to do the same things almost fifty years ago. In his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” King writes:

I must make two honest confessions to you, my Christian and Jewish brothers. First, I must confess that over the past few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not …the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action”; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a “more convenient season.” Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.

The prophets of yesterday and today–John the Baptist, Martin Luther King, the young black leaders in Ferguson, NYC, Minneapolis, and throughout the country–call us to solidarity and to action. As Christian leaders we are charged with leading our communities to the Prince of Peace, the One whom John foretold, the One who will baptize us with the Holy Spirit, the One who forgives our sins.

We follow this Prince of Peace not by sitting in our stained glass sanctuaries and ivory towers of learning. We do so by heeding the call of the prophets, by raising our voices against injustice, by lying down in protest on I35W, by educating for justice, by attending meetings, by praying for an end to racial violence, by preaching a Gospel of justice not order, by offering our churches as sanctuaries for those who no longer feel safe, by allowing those who are not usually given a voice the chance to be heard, by recognizing the inherent worth and dignity of black lives, by striving for economic and social justice for communities of color, by using our privilege (as white, as clergy, etc.) for those less privileged, by writing to our politicians, by wearing our clerical collars to protests. And most importantly, by listening deeply to people of color and following their lead.

Even today John the Baptist stands in the streets of Ferguson, of NYC, of Minneapolis and asks us to turn away from sin and be faithful to the good news of God’s justice.

In the One who breaks all chains,
Cody Maynus
An Episcopalian who works with Roman Catholic nuns
Minneapolis, Minn.

Sources
[1] Mark 1:1-8, New Revised Standard Version
[2]  Jenny Traux, “Reflection: Solidary and Nonviolence in Ferguson (http://paxchristiusa.org/2014/12/01/reflection-solidarity-and-nonviolence-in-ferguson/)
[3] Yale Daily News (http://yaledailynews.com/blog/2013/11/15/connecticut-maintains-nations-widest-achievement-gap/)
[4] The Atlantic, “The Racist Housing Policyt That Made Your Neighborhood” (http://www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2014/05/the-racist-housing-policy-that-made-your-neighborhood/371439/)

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3 thoughts on “An Open Letter to Other White Christian Leaders

  1. AMEN. Love you! Echoing these words, for myself, for all who stop here, to read, pause, pray, discern a step….

    “We follow this Prince of Peace not by sitting in our stained glass sanctuaries and ivory towers of learning. We do so by heeding the call of the prophets, by raising our voices against injustice, by lying down in protest on I35W, by educating for justice, by attending meetings, by praying for an end to racial violence, by preaching a Gospel of justice not order, by offering our churches as sanctuaries for those who no longer feel safe, by allowing those who are not usually given a voice the chance to be heard, by recognizing the inherent worth and dignity of black lives, by striving for economic and social justice for communities of color, by using our privilege (as white, as clergy, etc.) for those less privileged, by writing to our politicians, by wearing our clerical collars to protests. And most importantly, by listening deeply to people of color and following their lead.”

  2. For the record, friend, here’s who I have you keeping company with this Christmas week: Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove. As another White Christian leader addressing racism in this season of Incarnation, he writes in his December 26 post in Red Letter Christian about a recent experience :

    “Six partner congregations in Durham—all of them predominantly white churches—ended their worship services around noon, then walked to join us for a service of lament and solidarity. For over an hour, we all listened to stories of black sisters and brothers who’ve been stopped, searched, falsely accused, or murdered by a broken criminal justice system.

    We did not invite any special guests to share these stories. We simply opened the mic to people who worship at St. Johns every week.

    And the fire for justice in all of our spirits was kindled a little more.”

    – See more at: http://www.redletterchristians.org/midnight-clear/#sthash.fzPcuwDo.dpuf

  3. Melissa,

    Profound thanks for being such a steady friend, blog reader, commenter, pray-er, and lover of the world!

    And thanks for putting Jonathan and I into conversation. I’d love to see more conversations like this. I think it’s our turn to visit him, since he was here last summer?

    Blessings! Love! Epiphanies!
    Cody

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