Rescue me, O my God, from the hand of the wicked, from the grasp of the unjust and cruel. (Psalm 71:4)
As we read this ancient Jewish poet, I hear this word from God in other voices as well: the cries of the poor, immigrants, refugees, the LGBTQ community - and, people of color, who are calling out God’s unfulfilled promise of justice, and calling us to join their lament. We, as followers of Jesus, are stewards of those promises, called to God’s persistent work of keeping them.
When I retired, I envisioned things like grandchildren, road trips, and quiet hikes in the woods. But retirement’s been re-envisioned, on a path toward racial justice. I always saw myself as a reasonable, educated, progressive Christian, opposed to racism of course, and thinking someone should do something about it. But growing up in the rural Midwest, I didn’t meet a person of color until approaching my teens; nor did I worship with an African-American until the late 1960’s. But slowly, I was being drawn toward justice, such as when reading my Bible, I discovered the passionate call for justice in the prophets.
Then, in college, I heard that the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., would speak at a peace rally. I was a skeptic, of both the antiwar movement, and Dr. King himself - wasn’t he a communist? But when he spoke, and affirmed his Christian faith as motivating his work, my resistance began to crumble.
So I guess there’s hope for people like me. But I confess that I am today still more racist than I know. Largely, because of my whiteness.
We’re hearing about “White privilege.” Is there such a thing? Yes, because there is such a thing as privilege: a presumption that we have special status and we deserve it. Privilege comes easily for me - I’m not only male and white; I’m a minister, born into a minister’s home in a world that told us we clergy were special. (I even ate free at the local McDonald’s!) When we’re privileged, the world cuts us some slack; we act as if we can decide the questions as well as the answers, without fear of contradiction. The days of clergy privilege have faded away, but when it comes to race, we whites can still feel it’s OK to decide the worth of entire communities and to judge their behavior. We can pick and choose our truth, including our often-sanitized history of how we or our ancestors have treated people of color. We have inherited centuries of assumed privilege; it’s our barrier against discomfort, our rationale for disregarding our neighbor’s cry for justice. Call it self-importance, self-righteousness, or white privilege, it runs deep in the human psyche. In today’s Gospel, (Luke 4:21-30) Jesus is challenged to “do here in your home town what you’ve done elsewhere.” He replies: “You don’t get special treatment; you’re doing fine. I’m going to where I’m really needed.” Jesus challenges their pride of place, their privilege, because in God’s realm, pride of place has no place. The Incarnation tells us that God did not settle into a $20 million condo in Manhattan, join the best clubs, or even buy a Packer sweatshirt. Instead, Jesus says, “People who are well don’t need a doctor, and I’m a doctor; I specialize in trauma. Point me to the trauma.”
Our Gospel at its core calls for a reversal of fortune: “Blessed are those who mourn…the last shall be first…the greatest is the one who serves…those who save their lives will lose them…love your enemies…deny yourself…whatever you have done for the least…” See the pattern? This scandalous Gospel turns our presumptions and our privilege upside down - or, more accurately, right side up.
This has enormous consequences. We’ve often framed racism as a relationship problem: why can’t we all just get along? My cautious attempts at racial reconciliation were sincere but clumsy, and frequently hurtful, and I couldn’t understand why my efforts often went terribly wrong. But reconciliation—we all give a little, and meet in the middle—requires little of us except sincerity, ignoring the pain and injustice of systemic racism. As sincerely as we may long for racial reconciliation, I believe that we cannot have it…not yet. But I also believe there is reason for hope.
While my wife and I were enjoying retirement in the suburbs on April 30, 2014, Dontre Hamilton, a young black man with mental health challenges, was shot fourteen times by a Milwaukee police officer, in Red Arrow Park. The news made us uneasy, but we felt little impetus to respond. Then in August came the report that Michael Brown, another black young male, was shot down in Ferguson, MO. Beth had lived and raised her children near there; we still have family nearby - now, we felt a bit more dis-ease. That fall, while enjoying an evening downtown, a quiet dinner followed by a play at the Rep…we saw helicopters circling Red Arrow Park, news vans and a strong police presence, while protesters chanted “Justice for Dontre.” We were relieved when it didn’t disrupt our evening; so far, so good—still clinging to our dream. But in a Bible study at our church, justice came up. We heard about the Coalition for Justice.
Someone once said that “The truth shall set you free…but first, it will make you weep.” Cautiously, we attended a Coalition meeting. It was uncomfortable at first to hear how, by attitude, action, and inaction, we often condone systemic injustice, whether profiling, redlining, the school-to-prison pipeline, or excessive but unchallenged deadly force. But by November - 6 months after Dontre’s death - we finally found ourselves at Red Arrow Park praying and walking for justice, and there was no turning back.
Our work with the Coalition involves always-peaceful protests, attending Fire & Police Commission hearings, planning meetings, and work in the inner city. Over time, our hearts have softened, our minds are changing, and our spirits are humbled; we’ve joined Showing Up for Racial Justice (SURJ), a national network of White allies. These are two of many such groups, including Campaign Zero, Black Lives Matter, and the Coalition’s Mothers For Justice United.
Please understand: what we do is not charity. It is not we the privileged pitying the helpless. Not at all! It is less a stance of altruism, and more about humbly serving as allies alongside the real heroes, such as the Hamilton family - Maria and her sons Nate and Dameion, ordinary people with extraordinary courage and wisdom, from whom we learn day by day.
We are not alone; others have been mobilized by Dontre’s and others’ violent deaths in the Black community, and we are hopeful. But still, Dontre’s mother, brothers, and child remain deprived of their son, brother, and father - so with the psalmist they cry for justice; and so do we.
It took me four decades, but it doesn’t matter how nor how long; only that we were awakened, and that, in the words of a Ferguson protester, “we stay woke”, willing to “taste the bitter dregs of discomfort”, doing what we can. In Luke 12:48, Jesus says: “From everyone to whom much has been given, much will be required; and from the one to whom much has been entrusted, even more will be demanded.” Sisters and brothers: we have been given so much. We have more power than we know, to bring justice for Dontre and for our city. We can march, write letters, speak out, vote. There are things we can directly impact: sentencing reform, police practices, education, voter registration, public transportation, mental health reform, jobs. There is hope - real hope.
First Baptist-Williamsburg, VA, founded in 1776, is one of the nation’s oldest African-American churches. In the 19th Century, they finally got a bell, but it remained unused. I’m told there were plans for Dr. King to be the first to ring it, but he was killed before he could, and it has remained un-used, until now. On February 1st, as Black History Month begins, it will be rung for the first time. And the hands that will ring that historic bell will be those of Maria Hamilton and her sons.
When we march with them, we often chant: “No justice - no peace.” Justice is not defined by laws, which at best only approximate it. Justice lives where members of a community meet and surpass what the law requires in honoring and caring for one another. There can be no true peace; no reconciliation, no shalom, without justice. So we also chant: “No justice - no compromise.”
For centuries, our beautiful, beloved but marginalized brothers and sisters have prayed with the psalmist: you, O Lord, are my hope, my trust, but God has not miraculously fixed the problem of racism for us. There is no path to justice other than the path of love that “bears, believes, hopes, and endures all things,” the love that Jesus modeled: love that relinquishes power, comfort, and our illusions of self-righteous privilege too - the truth may make us weep - until the cries of our neighbors drive us to tear down that within us and in our world which keeps them bound. And then there will be justice, when all God’s children are found in shalom.