Luke 15 – Black Lives Matter and Systemic Racism

4 “Suppose one of you has a hundred sheep and loses one of them. Doesn’t he leave the ninety-nine in the open country and go after the lost sheep until he finds it? And when he finds it, he joyfully puts it on his shoulders and goes home. Then he calls his friends and neighbors together and says, ‘Rejoice with me; I have found my lost sheep.’ (Read the rest of the chapter, here.)

An Introduction

The parable of the lost sheep from Luke 15 has been floating around Twitter in context of the Black Lives Matter movement. All three parables from this chapter are about recovering a precious thing that has been endangered, whether it’s a sheep, coin, or prodigal son. These parables are a perfect framework for understanding our role in combating systemic racism. (Not entirely sure what systemic racism is? Check out this short video for a crash course.) It should go without saying everyone is precious to God, but if one person (or in this case, the whole community of our black siblings) is in danger, we are obligated, as Christians, to go to extra lengths to assure their safety. We are being called upon by the black community to end the systemic injustices of this country, and it is morally reprehensible to keep sidestepping our responsibility with weak “all lives matter” statements. If all lives truly did matter, George Floyd’s death would have never happened, and wouldn’t be living through (yet another) nationwide scream of black existential anguish. For those who are curious about the protests – this post is for you. For those wondering what can be done to enact real change, this post is also for you. Please read on.

A first-hand account of the DC Protests, June 1

Let’s start with a brief account of what I saw in DC last Monday. I want to stress the peaceful and productive nature of these protests. Emphasizing relatability to the protesters is something I feel shouldn’t be necessary, but with the amount of fear-mongering going on, it seems to have become so.

I arrived at Lafayette Square, the epicenter of the protests in front of the White House, around noon. A group of maybe fifty had gathered by one, went on our first march, and by the time we returned to Lafayette Square right before two o’clock we were probably 200 strong. Several people spoke to the assembled, mostly seated crowd. I was on the outskirts trying to observe social distancing so I didn’t hear much of what they had to say, but the thrust of the message seemed to be that love radiates outward.

Fifteen or so minutes later I noticed riot cops marching towards us. I was there with two of our farm’s employees, and I got their attention as others were noticing the riot cops as well. Social distancing went out the window as I followed my employees to the front of the barrier. I was there as a white woman to provide whatever protection I could, so I felt it was important for me to be up front and highly visible to the riot cops. I am disheartened that the riot cops were ordered to form a line at that particular moment, because again, everything was being conducted in an incredibly peaceful manner. I want to make this perfectly clear: It was the cops who escalated the situation by deciding to mobilize at that time.

After a stand-off with the cops (who were asked repeatedly to take a knee with us, and invited to join us but refused to engage), the group marched from Lafayette Square to the Capitol Building, where we were met with more cops. There were several hundred people by this point. Around five pm the crowd started moving back in the direction of the White House. A seven PM curfew had been announced, and by six there were already a maze of police vehicles in the downtown area. I have two kids and a farm to take care of, so with great reluctance I bowed to my employees’ wishes to be left behind, and took myself home. My employees stayed and marched through the night. I’m happy to report they made it back here safe the next morning.

One last time I want to reiterate: It was the cops who inflamed the situation in almost every instance I saw. The crowd did an excellent job moderating their own: when agitators targeted teenage boys, knowing they were more likely to lose their cool, older men intervened to separate them. Groups further back from the Lafayette barriers called for those in front to “leave the cops behind and take the streets.” Water, snacks, and hand sanitizer were passed around generously. There was a current of (righteous) anger to be sure – but the people I saw in DC on Monday by and large weren’t there to wreak havoc, but there to see action taken to right wrongs.

Here’s how we can help end systemic racism

And what, beyond justice for George Floyd, are the wrongs that need correcting? This is another place white people are trying so desperately hard to sidestep their responsibilities: Police brutality is not just the actions of a few bad cops, or even a few bad departments. Police brutality is a symptom of systemic racism, and claiming anything else denies societal culpability. What can we do to change the fact that we live in a society that reinforces inequality? I’ve heard several people express confusion on next steps. There are probably as many answers as there are protesters, but below are some broad strokes all of us can help implement. I also encourage you to listen to the June 1 episode of Democracy Now with Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, Cornel West, Bakari Sellers, and Tamika Mallory, because this episode helped invaluably in my ability to define the following calls to action.

1. Call the police of this country to justice

George Floyd and Breonna Taylor are just the latest of the hundreds of people of color killed by the police. This doesn’t even account for the individuals who have managed to live through being brutalized or terrorized by police. It also doesn’t account for victims like Ahmaud Arbery, killed by regular citizens who enacted vigilantism knowing, implicitly or explicitly, that the law was on their side because they were white. Individual officers need to be held fully accountable in the court of law. Additionally, police departments nationwide that allowed anything resembling these crimes happen need to be sued as well. I commend the actions of Rebecca Lucero, the Commissoner of Minnesota’s Department of Human Rights, who filed discrimination charges against the Minneapolis Police Department. You can encourage this kind of litigation by calling your own Attorney General and saying you want to see similar action taken. Also, while not a perfect corollary to bringing police to justice, contributing to the National Bail Out Fund helps get black people out of police custody, removing them from the possibility of further violence as quickly as possible.

2. Redistribute funds

A 2017 report by the The Center for Popular Democracy and others found that the US spends a combined $180 billion a year on policing and incarceration. Many metropolitan police departments make up about a third of said cities’ budgets. To compare: The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (aka SNAP aka Food Stamps) costs the federal government around $70 billion. Section 8 housing assistance costs the federal government $34 billion.

A lot of the crimes police respond to wouldn’t happen if we had better social safety nets in place. If people didn’t face desperation and poverty every day, we could prevent many of the domestic disturbances, substance abuse, and theft-related crimes caused by that stress. If people had more access to better education and job training we’d see less unemployment and the crimes that often follow. If children had safe places to go before and after school, juvenile delinquency would drop. If we invest in our community up front, there will be far less need to police it down the line. Redistributing large portions of police budgets would help provide the seed money needed for these community betterment projects. Call your local officials – your city councils, your county governments, your sheriffs and boards of supervisors and tell them you want to see this redistribution happen, and that you’ll be voting for representatives that will follow through.

3. Foster a nation-wide effort of reconciliation

To make this as effective as possible, we are going to need legislation that encodes reconciliation efforts, a là existing civil rights laws. With these laws on the books, reconcilation efforts will be enforceable (and hopefully funded). Call your representatives to tell them you want to see this happen.

In the meantime start educating yourself – reading books like White Fragility by Robin DiAngelo or How to be an Antiracist by Ibram X. Kendi are great places to start. Also, this pamphlet from the William Winters Institute for Racial Reconciliation as well as this list of resources from the Oakland Institute are great references to start local reconciliation efforts. Reach out to your city council, your church, even your parent teacher organizations and say you would like to see reconciliation efforts started. If you are willing to start coalition building (the first step towards reconciliation), even better.

I want to leave you with a Victor Hugo quote that I saw on Monday: “If the soul is left in darkness, sins will be committed. The guilty one is not he who commits the sin, but he who causes the darkness.” Black Lives Matter is a movement that impacts all of us, down to our very souls. Do you really want to answer to our all-loving God that you disagreed with protester tactics, or didn’t know what was going on, or that you just couldn’t be bothered? Where is the Christian love in those answers? Your humanity is at stake here. Do not be the one who causes more darkness, for it will darken your own soul, as well.

If you are learning from what you read here, please follow the blog so you don’t miss what’s next.  Click the folder icon in the upper left corner of the menu, and you can follow via WordPress or email.  Please also consider supporting the blog through Patreon or Venmo.  Thank you!

Ecclesiastes 04 – Do Not Turn a Blind Eye to Modern Lynchings

I saw the tears of the oppressed—
    and they have no comforter;
power was on the side of their oppressors—
    and they have no comforter.
And I declared that the dead,
    who had already died,
are happier than the living,
    who are still alive.
But better than both
    is the one who has never been born,
who has not seen the evil
    that is done under the sun.
(Read the rest of the chapter, here.)

There is so much to write about in this chapter, so much I was hoping to share with you today.  But given the recent arrests of Ahmaud Arbery’s murderers, I don’t want us to think our work on that subject is done. We need to sit with some hard truths instead, and I want to share some powerful words from an anonymous source, republished with their permission:

 

Ahmaud Arbery was lynched on February 23, while out jogging on the outskirts of Brunswick, GA. Today, to celebrate what would’ve been his 26th birthday, #IRunWithMaud.

And yes, I said lynched. Maybe some of y’all thought lynchings had gone the way of Jim Crow laws. They have not.

Merriam-Webster defines “lynching” as “to put to death (as by hanging) by mob action without legal approval or permission,” with the following usage example: The accused killer was lynched by an angry mob.

That’s what happened here. The two men arrested for Arbery’s murder, 64-year old Gregory McMichael and his son 34-year old Travis, claimed they believed he was a robbery suspect. That the father was once a police officer doesn’t add support to their claimed justification for stalking and gunning down Arbery; as any student of American history knows, in many if not most lynchings of black people, law enforcement was complicit, either as participants in the lynching or observers who prevented the victim from being saved. And in nearly all instances, accusations of crime, nearly always against whites and nearly always either overblown or entirely baseless, were the predicate for the lynching.

Between 1877 and 1950, only Mississippi saw more lynchings than Georgia. During that time period, 589 people were lynched in Georgia–that we know of. The vast majority were black, and nearly every person complicit in those lynchings was white. Again, many had ties to law enforcement.

Georgia was the scene of some of the most gruesome lynchings on record. Take, for example, the April 23, 1899 lynching of Sam Hose near Newnan, GA. In his remarkable book “At the Hands of Persons Unknown,” Philip Dray reconstructs from contemporary reports the chaotic scene, a festival of death to which crowds of Georgians traveled by horse, by train, and on foot from as far away as Atlanta. Here’s Dray’s description of the lynch mob’s treatment of Hose; those with weak stomachs may want to skip it:

“The torture of the victim lasted almost half an hour. It began when a man stepped forward and very matter-of-factly sliced off Hose’s ears. Then several men grabbed Hose’s arms and held them forward so his fingers could be severed one by one and shown to the crowd. Finally, a blade was passed between his thighs, Hose cried in agony, and a moment later his genitals were held aloft.”

After being so mutilated, Hose was soaked in kerosene and set on fire while still alive. His last words were reportedly “Sweet Jesus.” His charred remains, photos of which survive, were then set upon by the crowd, who fought to wrench free pieces of his body as souvenirs. Civil rights pioneer W.E.B. Du Bois, who visited the town soon after the event, was shocked to learn that Hose’s knuckles were for sale at a local grocer’s shop.

Hose’s alleged crime? Murdering his white employer during an argument over wages, and allegedly raping his wife. The rape allegation was added later, when the mob needed justification to deny Hose his right to a fair trial for the killing. Rape and attempted rape would be a frequent justification for lynching over the years.

The Hose lynching wasn’t even the most vile and disturbing one to happen in Georgia. That dishonor would go to either the Mary Turner lynching in Lowndes County, or the Mae Murray Dorsey lynching in Walton County.

On July 25, 1946, Dorsey, her husband, and another couple were stopped by a white mob, beaten, tied to an oak tree near the Moore’s Ford Bridge, and shot numerous times. Dorsey was seven months pregnant at the time. After the smoke had cleared from the shooting, one of the mob cut the fetus from Dorsey’s body.

Somehow that’s not even the most revolting, disturbing lynching of a pregnant woman in Georgia. That would be the Mary Turner lynching. On May 16, 1918, a 25-year old white farmer named Hampton Smith was murdered in Brooks County. Over the following weeks, at least thirteen black citizens were murdered by white mobs seeking revenge for Smith’s death. One of those victims was a man named Hayes Turner, who had threatened Smith after Smith struck Hayes’s wife, Mary.

After her husband was lynched on May 18, 1918, Mary publicly denounced the lynch mob and swore that she would have them arrested for their crime. So the mob came for her next, despite the fact that she was eight months pregnant. Again I’ll rely on the description of the scene given by Philip Dray, based on contemporary reporting and eyewitness interviews–and again I warn those of you with weak stomachs:

“[B]efore a crowd that included women and children,” Dray writes, “Mary was stripped, hung upside down by the ankles, soaked with gasoline, and roasted to death. In the midst of this torment, a white man opened her swollen belly with a hunting knife and her infant fell to the ground, gave a cry, and was stomped to death.”

Why am I sharing all this gruesome history? Simple. Because what happened to Ahmaud Arbery was the same thing that happened to Sam Hose, and Mary Turner, and Mae Murray Dorsey, and hundreds of other black people in Georgia. Groups of angry white people deemed a black life to have no value, and decided they would end it. Just like the murderers of Hose, Dorsey, and Turner, Arbery’s killers probably figured they’d get away with it. And for a while, they were right; the Glynn County District Attorney directed police officers on the scene not to arrest the McMichaels, even though they believed they had probable cause to do so. 589th verse, same as the first. And Georgia’s not the only state with such a hate-filled history; I’m writing this about a two-hour drive south of where Jesse Washington was tortured, castrated, and slowly roasted to death near Waco City Hall while the mayor and chief of police looked on.

Facts like these are the reason groups had to be formed to remind us white people that black lives do, in fact, matter. Facts like the ones I’ve laid out above are the reason Colin Kaepernick and Eric Reid knelt during the National Anthem of a nation where such acts of evil were permitted, and not punished, and where numerous attempts to make lynching a federal crime were defeated. (In fact, one can easily argue that none of the perpetrators of the acts I’ve described above suffered a fraction of the consequences Kaepernick has suffered.) Facts like the ones I’ve laid out above are the reason so many of us need only look to Donald Trump calling the racists who marched on Charlottesville “very fine people” as the final proof, if such were needed, that a racist sits in the White House.

I’ve said it before and will say it again: America has a race problem, and it could end up being the death of us. If you don’t believe me, go read Dray’s book. Go read Michelle Alexander’s “The New Jim Crow.” Go read Ibram X. Kendi’s “Stamped From The Beginning.” Go read Richard Rothstein’s “The Color of Law.” Go read any collection of writings by Dr. King, or Du Bois, or Wells-Barnett. I could recommend countless books to enlighten y’all who need the enlightening.

Again, America has a race problem, and it could be the death of us. As Kendi points out, it’s not enough for us to not be racist. We need to be anti-racist. That means knowing our history, and understanding where we are now. It means calling lynching by its name when we see it. It means demanding accountability for such awful crimes against humanity. It means understanding why Kaepernick knelt, and understanding that he’s far from alone in his sentiments. And it means standing with people like Ahmaud Arbery and Trayvon Martin and Philando Castile and Eric Garner and Sandra Bland and the thousands of other black men and women who’ve met violent, early ends for the sole reason that they were black in America.

 

If you have been moved by what you have read, I encourage you to consider donating to support a Legal Aid society near you (this link takes you to the one in DC), which helps those most at-risk in the legal system receive effective representation.  I also encourage you to support the Black voices speaking their truth right now.  There are many, but some that I follow are Rachel Cargle (and the Loveland Foundation), D. Danyelle Thomas of Unfit Christian, and Christena Cleveland – who is included in the upcoming anthology A Measure of Belonging: Writers of Color on the New American South, which can be pre-ordered at the link.  My wonderful husband Chris Newman of @sylvanaquafarms also writes incisive prose about the intersection of race, farming, food, and privilege.  There is a crowdfunding page published by Crowdpac for Ahmaud Arbery’s family, but at the time of publishing they have yet to be personally affiliated with it, so I am watching to see it receives their stamp of approval before donating to it. And as always, God vs. The Patriarchy can be supported via several options at the Support tab, to the left.

Romans 14 – Appropriate Attitudes for Black History Month

You, then, why do you judge your brother or sister? Or why do you treat them with contempt? For we will all stand before God’s judgment seat. 11 It is written:

“‘As surely as I live,’ says the Lord,
‘every knee will bow before me;
    every tongue will acknowledge God.’”

12 So then, each of us will give an account of ourselves to God. (Read the rest of the chapter, here!)

A little back-story

A chapter wholly devoted to dietary preferences may seem a weird jumping off point for race relations, but there are actually many parallels here that can illuminate our current realities.

Let me start with a little back-story.  If you didn’t know already, my husband is black (I’m white, by the way).  He is very vocal about issues of injustice, especially those concerning representation of POC in and around farming, food, and land use.  (You can read his work on Medium.)  Last week, he noticed that Modern Farmer, a magazine in which he had been featured under the previous editor-in-chief a few years back, had not featured a single black farmer on their (very active) Instagram feed in the first half of Black History Month. In fact, they hadn’t shown any black farmers since November 20th (and even longer for a Hispanic farmer – both facts I independently confirmed when Chris brought my attention to it).  He reached out to them to let them know, and was ignored.  Then he publicly announced their oversight, and several other farmers reached out to them.  Again, this was largely ignored, other than a curt private message from Modern Farmer to Chris basically saying “cut it out and leave us alone.”  Well, Chris did not cut it out, and they eventually put up a weak apology – with a stock photo of a black farmer instead of a real, working, promote-able black farmer – on Thursday last.  They say they’ll do better, and I sincerely hope they do, but both of us have our doubts.

Those in power respecting the needs and opinions of those not in power

Back to today’s Bible verse.  What it boils down to is people in a position of power respecting the needs and opinions of those not in power.  In the Roman empire, pagan temples often doubled as butcher shops, where the meat sacrificed to the gods was then consumed by the people.  With almost all meat having been dedicated to pagan gods, many observant Jews decided to forgo meat entirely so as not to accidentally defile themselves with meat that may have been involved in pagan ceremonies.  Paul affirms, and many Gentile Jesus-followers believed, that Jesus did away with the old systems, essentially making all food clean. As such, the Gentile believers saw no need to limit themselves to (in their view, obsolete) Jewish dietary restrictions.  This was greatly distressing to some Jewish Jesus-followers, who saw Jesus as the fulfillment of the law but not the abolition of the law.  To them, dietary restrictions were another way to honor both tradition and God, and should not be abolished.  Take the dedication some people have to Keto, vegan, or gluten-free diets, add a religious aspect to it, and we can begin to understand how important this was.  Gentiles, being able to eat whatever they want and move more freely through the larger society in part because of that fact, are the people in a position of power in this story.  Jews, with the need for careful dietary observances, avoiding certain (or all) purveyors of meat, and being scrutinized by the larger society for that fact, are the people who lack power in this story.

Paul, though he does affirm that he sees all food as clean, stresses to the Gentile believers that they should respect the beliefs and dietary restrictions of the Jewish believers.  I’m not a huge fan of his word choice: “strong” and “weak” faith makes it seem like Gentile believers were better at believing in Jesus.  Perhaps progressive and conservative might have been more accurate, though those two terms are also pretty loaded now.  But I digress. The important part of the story is that Paul urges those in power to respect those who lack it, up to and including following the restrictions of those who are “weak in faith” as a default, and saving free-for-all meat eating for personal meals.

Stumbling blocks of our own making

Dear white people, this should be our guiding light during Black History Month and indeed all times.  While Chris has had many supporters in this Modern Farmer skirmish, I’ve been appalled at the number of people basically saying “So what’s the big deal?”  Here’s the big deal: Black Americans – indeed any people of color, here – live in a country where they’re routinely treated as invisible, labelled as “aggressive” if they speak up (and are often fired, demoted, or otherwise punished for it), and watch as their culture is commodified for white-only consumption while they are forced to assimilate into white culture.  Need an example?  A white teenager walking down the street listening to ODB is viewed as cool, a black teenager listening to the same music is seen as threatening.  We, as white people, are in a position of power, let us respect the opinion of – and indeed uplift those – who are not!

My favorite line from today’s reading is “make up your mind not to put any stumbling block or obstacle in your brother’s way.”  If you’re over there reading this, getting defensive, thinking “well, not all white people are like that” while remembering how you invited your black coworker to your last cookout, then whatever, I’m not going to argue with you on that one.  But you’re just one person, and if that is your attitude, then you’re not exactly a starter on the offensive line of combating inequality.  There are so many stumbling blocks we need to help remove.  Pervasive stereotypes exist that black people have to overcome every single day, over and over again.  Google even had to fix it’s auto-suggest because the suggestions were so racist.  Still, after Google’s attention to that issue, society’s biases continue to come through.  I just did a quick experiment with Google Images.  Type in “deadbeat dad” and a lot of memes come up, but one of the top “you may also be interested in” suggestions is “black” complete with a picture of a black man.  “Welfare queen” is another telling example example.  While most welfare benefits go to white recipients (and are often less than what a person truly needs), the idea of a “welfare queen” being a large, lazy, greedy black woman persists – in Google images and in the real world.  Now, imagine that stereotype following you around to the grocery store…on a job interview…hell, even on a date.  It’s like handicapping a horse during a race, only you’re adding weight to the wrong one, ensuring that the favored horse will continue to win.

Working towards peace and mutual edification

So what are we to do?  Paul gives us the blue-print in my other favorite line from this passage: “Let us therefore make every effort to do what leads to peace and to mutual edification.”  This passage needs one tiny bit of clarification: Peace is not the same as silence.  Peace does not mean getting black people to “cut it out and leave us alone,” as Modern Farmer basically told Chris (again, I’m paraphrasing, but that was the clear intent of their message).  As Paul stresses, the onus of peace and mutual edification is upon those in power.  So yes, that means it’s up to us, fellow white people, to listen when a black person says something isn’t working.  Equally important, we cannot then deny or try to justify that wrong, but must try to fix it.

Yes, that means more work on our part – but we’ve got the bandwidth for it.  If you’re lucky enough to walk out your house without a stereotype (or several) hanging over your head the minute you interact with another person, then you’re already saving on emotional energy.  Pour some of it into being a better ally.  Educate yourself. There are several good books out there.  I’ve read bits of White Fragility and have also seen How to be an Anti-Racist and Between the World and Me highly recommended.

Then, listen and don’t overshadow.  It’s easy to gain a modicum of understanding and then feel like you are an expert.  It is particularly important to resist that urge when working towards equality.  If your discussion about racial issues in the workplace doesn’t include minority workers, if your business claims inclusivity without having a racial minority in a decision making role, if you are in any way speaking for or about someone (or a group of someones) to the detriment of them speaking for themselves, then you’re not doing much to promote equality.

Finally, don’t give up.  The minute you excuse yourself from fixing the problem, you become part of the problem.  Martin Luther King, Jr. said “The ultimate tragedy is not the oppression and cruelty by the bad people but the silence over that by the good people.” Then there’s this quote (not from film director Werner Herzog, but from a doppleganger twitter account run by William Pannapacker, a professor of American literature at Hope College in Holland, Michigan.  The authorship, in my view, makes no difference on its impact): “Dear America: You are waking up, as Germany once did, to the awareness that 1/3 of your people would kill another 1/3, while 1/3 watches.”  In less eloquent language: indifference is the problem. Do not be indifferent to the sufferings of your brothers and sisters, of which we all are in Christ.  Do not look away, and do not excuse yourself from action.  Until there is truly peace and mutual edification for all, until all the stumbling blocks have been removed, then we have work to do.

If you are enjoying what you read please follow the blog for more!  Click the folder icon in the upper left corner of the menu, and you can follow via WordPress or email.  And don’t forget to check us out on Instagram and Twitter, too!