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Monday, June 22, 2015

Thoughts on Responding to Charleston

I attended the American Society of Missiologists meeting this weekend and it was so refreshing to hear the voices of missiologists as they reflected on various ways in which the church is missionally engaging the world. One speaker in particular raised important questions for me as I also reflected on the gun massacre/terrorist attack on Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina.

One question in particular was premised on the idea that if culture consists of patterned ideas of thinking and behaving, then is the public behavior committed by social actors predictable – meaning are we just typically behaving in the ways in which our place and position in culture has prescribed for us? And if so, is social change sparked in part by social actors who opt to break out of that predictable behavior? I look at a couple of historical examples to help highlight this.

One historical social actor who broke out of her prescribed public behavior was Rosa Parks. She, like other African Americans of her time, was expected to sit in the back of the bus and even relent those seats as more whites got on. Her refusal to stand up and give her seat to a white man, her refusal to obey the orders to move from both the bus driver and the police who subsequently were called to intervene, and then her willingness to be dragged off the bus and arrested, sparked a one day boycott of the buses by all African Americans in Montgomery. This led to what became an almost year-long boycott and the eventual eradication of segregation on buses in Montgomery. The rest, as they say, is history, and good history at that.

Another more recent example is in 2010 when DREAM Act students engaged in a campaign called “Undocumented and Unafraid” whereby the DREAMers went “public” with their immigration status and refused to be cowed into silence or marginalization. This campaign transformed the immigration reform movement entirely, and brought about the near passage of the DREAM Act. It failed the Senate by just four votes, but the change in the public conversation about immigration has not been the same since these brave young people risked their own place in US society and put themselves out front.

In both of these examples – and there are many more we can look to – it would be a terrible mistake to believe that the unpredictable behavior – refusing to move or publicly claiming undocumented status – occurred suddenly or out of the blue. These actions were not unplanned though they were unpredictable to the predominant culture.

Rosa Parks was trained by the Highlander Center, which had helped build the labor movement and was often accused of being communist. Rosa Parks had actually refused to move on the bus previously and so this behavior was nothing new to her. She was trained as a radical activist along with others she worked with through the local chapter of the NAACP and she regularly put that training into action. There was nothing accidental about what she did. She was prepared. It simply was unknown to the whites in Montgomery. The same is true of the DREAMers who had been organizing for years, were trained as leaders long before their message ultimately captured the heart of the movement and catapulted so many of them into national leadership.

So, all of this brings me to the gun massacre/terrorist attack at Emanuel AME Church last week. As has been rightly said by many folks including President Obama; we have been here before. This all seems too familiar. And that is the problem.

A horrific shooting with innocent victims will be followed by sadness and outrage. We feel tremendous compassion for those who have been killed and for their families who will now have to endure a lifetime of heartache and inconceivable loss. And, at the same time, we feel tremendous outrage that these shootings continue, largely unabated; with absolutely no policy change in sight. We feel powerless and defeated which spurs, for a short time at least, more anger and outrage. We are not always sure who to direct it towards, so, almost without exception, about this time someone associated with the NRA or another guns-without-restrictions person makes some incredibly thoughtless and stupid remark.

Case in point for the Emanuel AME gun massacre/terrorist attack, the head of the Texas NRA blaming Emanuel Pastor and state legislator Rev. Clementa Pinckney for his own death by not adopting the policies of guns-without-restrictions. Also stepping into the spotlight of stupidity, Governor Rick Perry who called the gun massacre/terrorist attack an “accident.”

This fuels more outrage and we finally have someone to direct our anger at – for the immediate time. But outrage simply does not last. And being angry at these people actually changes nothing; it is merely cathartic. And the NRA and those in favor of guns-without-restrictions know they just have to wait. And so they do. The outrage burns itself out. We understandably get tired – you cannot live every day on outrage. And so we get distracted by something else: another issue, another story, or just with our own lives.

And nothing changes.

And then there is another shooting. And the cycle continues. It is sadly, maddeningly predictable.

But what if, as suggested this past weekend, we decide to break this predictable cycle and act unpredictably? What if we choose some part of the cycle described above that illustrates the patterned behavior and change it radically, like Rosa Parks or the DREAM Act students?

I can’t get this idea out of my mind. Social change will only happen if we choose boldly and radically to utterly alter our predictable behavior. So, the question naturally is, which part of the above cycle should we break? To break it will not be easy – let’s not kid ourselves. We have to be bold, we have to risk, and we HAVE to be committed. But if we truly are tired of this cycle and we really want change, I believe we have no other choice.

As I said before, we cannot sustain outrage – it’s just not possible. The only place to break our predictability and allow even the possibility for social change to break through is to choose to not get distracted. During the inevitable upcoming silence – the time when the outrage over the Charleston gun massacre/terrorist attack dies down, the media will go on to other stories and we are tempted with distractions, we instead choose to adopt practices that will build a movement so that the next time a gun massacre/terrorist attack occurs – and we can rest assured that it most certainly will – we will be prepared to respond powerfully with a new agenda that will create change and alter the national conversation in a significant way. We will be prepared because we have been preparing.

I would like to offer several practices that we should adopt immediately, even as the outrage will begin to fade away. Adopting these practices will build us individually and most importantly, corporately so that we will respond not with bewilderment and empty outrage, but with purpose, power and specific objectives in mind.

So, here are some steps that we should take if we are serious about ending gun violence:
  • Since gun violence is steeped in racism – consider not only this event, but the fact that so many people were (rightly) outraged by the gun massacre/terrorist attack at Newtown and yet so few have similar outrage when people of color are regularly killed by firearms every day in our urban centers throughout the country – those of us who are Anglo MUST enter into solidaristic or incarnational relationships with people of other races. This is more than inviting one person of color into our homes or congregations. This is instead us going to theirs. And it would not be a bad thing to first consider joining or creating solidaristic relationships with our brothers and sisters in AME churches. It all starts here. 
  • Similar to the first one, we must have one on one conversations with people who have passion to end gun violence. And we should start cross-racially. There is absolutely no way we are going to even see the smallest of reductions in gun violence if we attempt individualistic activism. We should sit with someone once a week and share our passion, listen to their passion, and discuss ways we can educate others and instill this same kind of passion in others.
  • Building on the first two, we must engage in rigorous study. Pervasive gun violence is seen as unsolvable often because the only voices providing possible solutions are the ones funded by or representing those who benefit from the guns-without-restrictions status quo. We can start with Gunfight by Adam Winkler which puts the contemporary debate in proper historical context. It is an excellent resource and should be read with a group of people you have created a team with. We also desperately need to be able to talk about this issue theologically so I suggest you and your team go through the three week Bible study, Kingdom Dreams, Violent Realities. There are many other resources, but this is a good place to start.
  • And we must weigh in with our elected leaders. Regular calls by you and your team (remember, don’t do anything alone) asking them what they have done to appropriately address the epidemic of gun violence will let them know that there is pressure they must answer to for their irresponsible leadership. This should be done by phone calls every few weeks or so and then at least once or twice a year, bringing your new team together to meet with your elected leader or their staff in their district office.
  • And be in touch with me! We must build a coordinated movement among people of faith and I want to make sure all who are moving towards a more peaceful society are acting in concert and connected. I can help provide resources that could help in all of these ways. Just ask me!
There is only one way out of the same predictable cycle of outrage, silence and inaction: we must quit being silent and inactive. The choice is ours and how we choose will largely determine how many more people have to die. 

Monday, June 15, 2015

The Best of Intentions

Dear Jesus,

I am writing this to better explain my actions as of late. I think there has been some misunderstanding and I have unfairly been mischaracterized as some kind of “bad person” when you can ask around – I am anything but that! So, please permit me to not just share what I have done, but what I meant when I engaged in specific actions. I think you will see I always acted with the best of intentions.

I understand, since you are like, the Savior of the world and all, you don’t like racism. I don’t like racism either! I even stopped listening to Rush Limbaugh for two whole weeks when he said Indians, um, Native Americans, have nothing to complain about being victims of a holocaust because now they run casinos. You can ask all of my white friends – they know I am not a racist! I admit I have laughed at racist jokes; I mean, they are funny and I love to laugh. But I want you to know, I don’t laugh at jokes about Indians, um, Native Americans. That’s where I draw the line. You know I am 3/15 Cherokee right? I mean, those people are MY PEOPLE. I always cry when I see that old commercial of the Indian, um, Native American man, standing on the side of the road and crying at the littering – something I have tried really hard to mostly stop doing. So, I know I am not Martin Luther King, but I am also not riding around minority neighborhoods in a white hood! I only use that in my own neighborhood and only for Halloween when everyone knows it is a joke. I am not perfect, but I have had the best of intentions.

Speaking of minority neighborhoods, I did serve on the missions task force at my church that brought in an Angel Tree every Christmas for church people to give gifts to children of people who are in prison. I know you said you wanted us to visit those in prison, but seriously? Scripture says a lot of things that there really is no realistic way of doing. Prisons are probably just much more dangerous than in your time. So, visiting people in prison? Yeah, I don’t think so. I mean, their children are so much more cute, especially the ones I see on the posters for Angel Tree Christmas! I think it is easier for people to help poor children rather than visit directly the dangerous criminals who belong in our prisons. We need to keep our streets safe and I know this especially, my streets in my gated community are the safest I know! So, I think the best thing for me to do, besides keeping my own street safe and secluded, is to continue to buy toys for those cute kids on the posters. I am not perfect, but I know I have the best of intentions.

You know more than anyone, we have to do what is best for our children. That is why, even after moving out to the farthest suburb I could find, and even after finding the best schools in our area, I just had to home school my kids. I had heard so many terrible things about the neighborhood schools – there were more than three fights in one school year on the brand new playgrounds, there was cussing in the school hallways, and one of the girls from our church who goes to the high school even got pregnant. Never mind it was on the church youth ski trip – you know she learned that behavior from her school! Look at what happens when they remove God from the schools – girls get pregnant on their church ski trips! Me and my closest friends from church – all of whom are homeschooling – have adopted your saying, “Let the children come to me,” into our motto, “Let our children stay with us.” I just know I have a responsibility to love those nearest me and thanks to the gated community we live in in a suburb miles from the nearest town or city, those nearest me also happen to look like me so loving them is so wonderful for me. Thank you Jesus, for giving me such great intentions.

Now, you must be aware of all the money I have raised to eradicate malaria. Even after taking out the necessary administrative expenses such as dinners, staff salaries, and a slick public relations campaign I have raised enough money for thousands of nets for those people in the parts of the world that have to deal with mosquitoes (Louisiana?). I had thought about focusing on eradicating AIDS but they didn’t have as slick a public relations campaign. Plus, didn’t some people kind of get the disease because of their own behavior? So, malaria seemed to be a safer bet; the more sympathy we can generate the more funds we raise! Now, I know there was a New York Times article that showed that many of the nets were actually being used as fishing nets by people for whom hunger is a greater threat than malaria. And the problem is that the mesh for preventing mosquitoes is much tighter than traditional fishing nets and so the use of malaria nets for fishing is actually causing great damage to an already precarious source of food for millions of people. In addition, the insecticides placed on the malaria nets has also proved damaging when used for fishing to other life in the lakes. But Jesus you know how good this campaign to eradicate malaria makes us feel! Maybe there are some things that are happening that are negative, but isn’t the smile on the faces of the people in my church when they give $10 worth it? Please don’t hold me responsible for the bad things happening with this. You know me, I only had the best of intentions.

So, as I write all of this I am a little baffled. As you can see, I am far from perfect, but I have a good heart and I do my absolute best, within reasonable limits. So, why did you send me to hell? I would like a second chance if possible.

Please respond as soon as you can – it is a little stifling down here. But the one good thing is, I am surrounded by so many people I know. All of us with the best of intentions.

Love,

The North American Church