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.

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Matthew 5:21-26 – Murder

21 “You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘You shall not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.’ 22 But I tell you that anyone who is angry with a brother or sister will be subject to judgment. Again, anyone who says to a brother or sister, ‘Raca,’ is answerable to the court. And anyone who says, ‘You fool!’ will be in danger of the fire of hell.

23 “Therefore, if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother or sister has something against you,24 leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled to them; then come and offer your gift.

25 “Settle matters quickly with your adversary who is taking you to court. Do it while you are still together on the way, or your adversary may hand you over to the judge, and the judge may hand you over to the officer, and you may be thrown into prison. 26 Truly I tell you, you will not get out until you have paid the last penny.

Hello everyone, I’m back! I tell you what, trying to get over a cold while you have two kids who are also sick is no picnic.  But we’re doing OK.  Well enough for me to start getting up early, again!

And thank God for small blessings, this is a short and relatively uncontroversial passage -about all I feel I can handle today. I think we can all agree, at least in theory, that murder is bad.  For the sake of brevity we aren’t going to get into the nuances of what some might or might not consider “murder” today (wars, abortion, self defense, societal negligence or apathy that leads to death, etc).  But again, in theory, most people agree that murder is bad.

So what about this other stuff?  Calling your brother “Raca” and settling matters out of court quickly?  Why is that lumped into the “murder” category of this speech?  The larger thrust of this message, of indeed all of Jesus’ teachings, is to live in peace with our fellow man.  Murder is probably the greatest breach of that peace.  It is hate in our hearts turned into action, but so are these other matters.

First, the whole name-calling bit.  I did a bit of reading, and to summarize, using the language contemporary to Jesus, calling someone “Raca” is calling into question their intelligence.  Calling someone “a fool” is to call into question the salvation of their very soul, or to condemn them spiritually.  The best analogy I can think of is it’s almost like the difference between free speech and slander.  You’re allowed to say a lot of awful things about people, but at some point it crosses the line.  Language to degrade, debase, and defame a person out of malicious intent is hateful and can do real harm.  Just like murder, slanderous language is a breach of peaceful living with our fellow man.

Second, leaving your gift at the altar to make peace with your brother.  We literally do this in church (well, not all churches, but most church-goers are probably familiar with this practice) when we share the peace.  Saying “peace be with you” to the others in our pew, shaking their hands (or hugging, as often happens in my church) is a ritualistic embodiment of us making peace with our neighbors before coming to God’s table.  It is a symbolic act of reconciliation that allows us to take communion with a clear conscious, indicating we are at peace with our fellow man.

Finally, settling matters quickly and out of court.  So first off, this is just good life advice.  Why do you think so many companies want to settle accusations of harassment, union disputes, and other disagreements out of court?  Because it’s quicker and cheaper.  I’m not condemning the whole judicial system (though it has its flaws) and not recommending anyone try to settle serious legal matters without consulting a lawyer, but there is something to this “settling out of court,” both literally and figuratively.  Settling out of court usually means some sort of mediation: a sit-down face to face with your adversary, as Jesus calls them, where you negotiate an outcome that is acceptable to all parties.  Can you imagine how much better a world we would have if we could mediate all our disputes – legal, familial, workplace, you name it – by taking time for a rational mediation, maybe one that even included (gasp!) impartial mediators?  So much resentment and hurt feelings could be wiped away!

Most of the Bibles that provide intra-text headings to further delineate stories title this passage “Murder,” because that is what the passage starts with, but perhaps it would be more accurate to entitle it “Peaceful Living.”  How can we apply it today?  Next time you have something nasty to say about someone, think about how saying it might effect them, even if it’s not (maybe especially if it’s not) being said to their face.  When you share the peace at church, don’t just go through the motions, but actively engage your heart, letting go of any resentments you may have, at least for the moment.  I once read “forgiveness” is an ongoing act, so you haven’t failed if resentment creeps back in later, you’re just human.  You can always try again.  And finally, whenever possible, work out your disagreements.  Don’t let them fester into soured relationships and hurt feelings.  The more we work at this, the more we are free to live in peace with our fellow man, just as God intended and Jesus instructs.