racial justice

Whose Fear? Which Newsfeed?

Protestors gather in Washington, DC, December 2014. Image via Rena Schild/shutte

Protestors gather in Washington, DC, December 2014. Image via Rena Schild/shutterstock.com

In “A Newsfeed of Fear” (Sojourners, May 2015), Gareth Higgins argues that our newsfeeds often scare us into believing the world is getting worse when the world is actually getting better. 

Although I resonate with a call for calm in an age of violent clickbait, we cannot discuss “A Newsfeed of Fear” without talking about race in post-Ferguson America. When we say our newsfeeds are filled with fear, we need to think more about which newsfeeds are making us afraid and whose fear we’re discussing.

For example, when Higgins bemoans “horrifying, brutal videos, edited for maximum sinister impact,” perhaps a reference to the all-too-familiar videos of ISIS hostages, I actually envision Walter Scott and Eric Garner and Tamir Rice and all the others.  While the videos produced by ISIS are fearmongering propaganda intended to provoke, we wouldn’t want to call newsfeeds unmasking the reality of police brutality a corrupting influence on our society, right?

And in this context Higgins’ claim that the world is actually getting better is especially dangerous. Advising police brutality whistle blowers to keep their violent videos to themselves because they paint “too cynical a portrait of the improved race-relations in our society” would border on the insane.

The problem with media is not so much that it makes us fearful, but that it makes certain people fear certainthings and certain other kinds of people.  It makes my mom fear that her granddaughters will get kidnapped in a very safe neighborhood. It makes me, a white guy, fear walking past black men in hoodies at night, and not white guys in polos. What you fear depends on where you’re standing and what you’re watching.

From where Higgins is standing, “our culture has been hoodwinked by the idea that we’re living in the center of crisis, when actually we’re in the midst of the evolution of hope.” In his eyes, our culture cultivates a false sense of constant terror.

But we need to ask: whose culture? When I read #BlackLivesMatter activists, they seem to say: “no, most people have been hoodwinked by the idea that ‘our’ (meaning American) culture is living in the midst of the evolution of hope, when actually ‘a certain (black) culture’ is indeed in the center of crisis.” So who’s right about the value of violent, fearful newsfeeds?

It depends on where you’re standing and what you’re watching.

Update: Open Letter to Franklin Graham

Image via gst/shutterstock.com

Image via gst/shutterstock.com

We want to extend our sincere gratitude to all who signed the Open Letter to Franklin Graham in response to Graham’s original Facebook post on March 7. One month later, the open letter’s original team of writers, along with the Sojourners community, has been deeply encouraged by the broad support the letter has garnered. Thousands of faith leaders across the country have signed the letter with more joining in solidarity every day.

We thought you might be encouraged to see this updated list of principal signatories who have joined their voices to the thousands calling for repentance and reconciliation. Stay tuned for more ways to stay engaged in this conversation.

If you haven’t signed the letter yet, it’s not too late. Click here to sign the Open Letter to Franklin Graham.

The Southern Baptists' Challenge on Race

Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission President Russell Moore leads a panel disc

Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission President Russell Moore leads a panel discussion. Image via Adelle M Banks/RNS

In the wake of tragic shootings of unarmed black men at the hands of vigilantes and white police officers, many institutions across American society, from the president on down, have sought to foster “national conversations” about race.

Perhaps surprisingly, an agency of the Southern Baptist Convention is sponsoring one of the most important and fruitful such conversations. The SBC’s public policy arm, the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, has hosted a summit on racial reconciliation last week in Nashville, Tenn.

Founded in 1845 in a split over slavery, the SBC has made laudable efforts to overcome its racist past. Some moderate and liberal Southern Baptist leaders prophetically denounced racism and supported the civil rights movement, but those very leaders were forced out of the denomination during a period of conservative resurgence in the 1980s. Today’s SBC leaders are in the tenuous position of saying that moderates were right about race but wrong about everything else.

Southern Baptist leaders are determined to challenge the lingering indifferent or crude attitudes on race where they still exist among the denomination’s mostly white, mostly Southern constituency.

Charged with carrying out the SBC’s political priorities, the ERLC is best known for its advocacy for religious freedom and against abortion and same-sex marriage. Yet in the wake of unrest over last year’s deaths of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., and Eric Garner in Staten Island, N.Y., the ERLC hastened its plans to hold a summit on race.

The Nashville event drew more than 500 clergy, lay leaders, and seminarians from across Southern Baptist life. Thousands more watched a live stream online. The speaker lineup was male-dominated but was decidedly mixed race. The ERLC was much more eager to hear from ethnic minorities at this summit than it was to hear from gay people at its fall conference on homosexuality.

While the sexuality conference projected certainty and unanimity — acceptance of homosexual expression is inconsistent with Christianity and will not be tolerated in Southern Baptist churches — white Baptists came to their race summit with genuine humility and a spirit of repentance for the harm racism has caused.

Dean Inserra, lead pastor of City Church in Tallahassee, Fla., challenged the audience: “When you say a school or neighborhood has ‘gone downhill,’ what are you saying?”

Conceding his own need for greater empathy, Inserra recalled asking a black clergy colleague to help him understand how police violence affects black communities.

A Holy Week of Resistance

Angel raising a fist. Image via Neil Lang/shutterstock.com

Angel raising a fist. Image via Neil Lang/shutterstock.com

Someone recently asked me how I answer critics of the Open Letter to Franklin Graham that I co-authored last week. The points of particular interest were these:

1.     In the spirit of Matthew 18, how do you justify writing an open letter to Graham without first going to him and speaking with him in private?

2.     Your letter seems to advocate disobedience to the police. Is that what you’re saying?

Great questions! They’re especially relevant as we close the season of Lent and look forward toward Holy Week. For it is Holy Week when Jesus himself had the most interaction with the earthly authorities of his day.

The first line of the first paragraph of our letter explained that we write in the spirit of Matthew 18 in order to reconcile. Our intent in that was not to bash Dr. Graham; it was to make him aware of the need for reconciliation.

But why didn’t you go to Graham privately first, some have asked.

Notice the actual language of Matthew 18. Jesus says “If another member of the church sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone.”

Jesus does not say, “If another member of the church sins against millions, and hundreds of thousands begin to follow his lead on the issue, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone.”

This is a very important point. There is a difference between sin that affects one person and the sin of a leader that has potential to oppress and lead the church astray.

In Galatians 2:11-17, Paul publicly confronts Peter when his sin threatens to harm the whole church.

Choosing Courage: An Appeal to Christian Leaders

Courage. Image via sibgat/shutterstock.com

Courage. Image via sibgat/shutterstock.com

In the last several days, our country has witnessed and experienced, yet again, the effects of the unresolved issues of racism. We cannot rest complacent, convincing ourselves that everything is and will be all right on its own. That is a lie. The racial divide in the United States is boiling — we see the big cloud that rises over the roaring mountain. If we don’t act, the volcano will eventually explode. Our all-gracious God is calling us to turn from our wrong path.

Above other civic institutions, the church is responsible to do the work of healing. Our nation is desperately in need of healing. The sins of racism, classism, violence, and ideological intransigency are violently shaking and destroying the soul of our nation.

Where are the godly leaders in our country who are ready and willing to strip their souls of religious and ideological allegiances and surrender without fear, to seek the path that the Holy Spirit is eager to show us?

There is a way forward. We know that Jesus the Christ came to show us that way. We need to quit insisting that the way forward is my way. It is not my way — it is Christ’s way. No one Christian leader can claim to speak for God. Neither does God need any one of us to make the way clear — God can speak for God’s self.

There is one condition necessary for us to hear God’s voice: “If my people who are called by my name humble themselves, and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven and will forgive their sin and heal their land.” (2 Chronicles 7:14.)

Someone once said that change happens by listening and then starting a dialogue with the people who are doing something you don't believe is right. There is no virtue in sticking to our allegiances. Our allegiances should not be to the right or the left or even the center. If we follow Jesus, our allegiances are to repentance, forgiveness, and reconciliation. Our life and our only hope are found in the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

Thomas Merton wrote, “You do not need to know precisely what is happening, or exactly where it is all going. What you need is to recognize the possibilities and challenges offered by the present moment, and to embrace them with courage, faith, and hope.”

The truth is that we do know what is happening, and we know what is going on. Our individual and collective sins are robbing us of our dignity. We, the Christian leaders of this country, can choose to wage war with the weapons of our ideological, denominational, and theological perspectives and convictions. Or we can choose to “recognize the possibilities and challenges offered by the present moment, and to embrace them with courage, faith, and hope.”

Weekly Wrap 3.20.15: The 10 Best Stories You Missed This Week

1. An Open Letter to Franklin Graham

"Within one day, tens of thousands of [Graham’s] faithful followers liked and shared his short, patronizing post that called ‘Blacks, Whites, Latinos, and everybody else’ to ‘Listen up’ and tune in to his take on why so many black people have died at the hands of police officers recently. According to Graham, the problem is “simple.” It can be reduced to their lack of obedience and bad parenting. … Thankfully, we have a response: We invite you to join with us in signing on to an open letter to Rev. Graham calling him back to the Gospel's ministry of reconciliation. Sign on now.

2. PHOTOS: The First Day of Spring and a Total Lunar Eclipse

Space.com offers this gallery of images from this early morning’s lunar eclipse (not visible from the United States). In addition to coinciding with the vernal equinox — kicking off Spring, as snow fell across the Northeast — the eclipse also overlapped with the supermoon. ...And astronomers across the world geeked out. 

3. Ashley Judd Pressing Charges Against Misogynist Internet Trolls

“Everyone needs to take personal responsibility for what they write, and [for] not allowing this misinterpretation and shaming culture on social media to persist,” Judd said. “And by the way, I’m pressing charges.”

4. This Is What Life in Syria Is Like After Four Years of War

According to the U.N., 200,000 people have been killed. More than half of the country’s 21 million residents have fled their homes. Life expectancy has fallen by 20 years. It has becomes the world’s deadliest country for reporters. BuzzFeed interviews three Syrians to get a feel for life in the war-torn country.

5. Gay and Mennonite

From The Atlantic: “Mennonites are wrestling with the same questions faced by other churches across the country, made all the more complicated by their heritage: How should the faithful balance tradition and modern life? How should scripture inform people's understandings of same-sex relationships? And when members of a denomination disagree, how should they find their way forward?”

6. Pentagon Loses Track of $500 Million in Weapons, Equipment Given to Yemen

“In recent weeks, members of Congress have held closed-door meetings with U.S. military officials to press for an accounting of the arms and equipment. Pentagon officials have said that they have little information to go on and that there is little they can do at this point to prevent the weapons and gear from falling into the wrong hands.”

7. You May Be a ‘Poser’ Christian and Not Even Know It

According to Jarrid Wilson, author of Jesus Swagger: Break Free from Poser Christianity, cosmetic Christianity is an epidemic. Jonathan Merritt interviews the author to find out more.

8. U.N. Workers Accused in Nearly 80 Cases of Sexual Assault in 2014

United Nations personnel were accused in nearly 80 cases of rape, sexual assault and sex trafficking in 2014 alone, with the bulk of the cases involving peacekeepers deployed to some of the most troubled parts of the world.”

9. Where My Ladies At? Gender Avenger Tracks Inequality at SXSW and Beyond

Wondering whether your favorite conference or event has its equal share of men and women at the podium? There’s an app for that. The Gender Avenger Tally (soon available on mobile) lets people calculate via event hashtag the levels of gender representation. 

10. Happy Spring! Read Walt Whitman’s ‘The First Dandelion’

Simple and fresh and fair from winter’s close emerging,

As if no artifice of fashion, business, politics, had ever been,

Forth from its sunny nook of shelter’d grass — innocent, golden, calm as the dawn,

The spring’s first dandelion shows its trustful face.​

Selma: 'To Come Away Changed'

Marchers stopped at Edmund Pettus bridge. Image via Penn State Special Collectio

Marchers stopped at Edmund Pettus bridge. Image via Penn State Special Collection/flickr.com

The white ministers didn’t fly down to Alabama in January, when Sheriff Jim Clark clubbed Annie Lee Cooper outside of the county courthouse, nor in February when a state trooper fatally shot twenty-six-year-old Jimmie Lee Jackson in the stomach for trying to protect his mother after a civil rights demonstration.  

But on Bloody Sunday everything changed. At 9:30 p.m. on March 7, 1965, ABC news interrupted a broadcast to show hundreds of black men, women, and children peacefully crossing the Edmund Pettus Bridge toward Montgomery and a sea of blue uniforms blocking their way. The marchers were given two minutes to disperse, and then the screen filled with the smoke of tear gas, police on horseback charging the screaming crowd, burly troopers wielding billy clubs and bullwhips, a woman’s hem rising up over her legs as a fellow marcher attempted to drag her away to safety.

Overnight the nation’s eye turned toward Selma. Rev. Martin Luther King sent a telegram to hundreds of clergy that Monday, urging them to leave their pulpits and join him in Alabama to march for justice. Some supporters, like the reporter George Leonard, packed their things immediately after watching the newscast from Selma.

“I was not aware that at the same momemt ... hundreds of these people would drop whatever they were doing,” Leonard wrote later.  

“... That some of them would leave home without changing clothes, borrow money, overdraw their checking accounts, board planes, buses, trains, cars, travel thousands of miles with no luggage, get speeding tickets, hitchhike, hire horse-drawn wagons, that these people, mostly unknown to one another, would move for a single purpose to place themselves alongside the Negroes they had watched on television.”

Selma changed the course of history by paving the way for the passage of the Voting Rights Act, but its impact didn’t end there. The spirit of Selma rippled outward, forever changing those who made the long journey to Alabama — including a white minister from Washington, D.C., named Rev. Gordon Cosby.

Widows, Orphans, and #BlackLivesMatter

Woman holds a 'Black Lives Matter' sign. Image courtesy Rena Schild/shutterstock

Woman holds a 'Black Lives Matter' sign. Image courtesy Rena Schild/shutterstock.com

The lives of widows and orphans mattered. In Exodus 22:22 God tells Israel, “You shall not abuse any widow or orphan.” God was so concerned for the widow and orphan that the law provided for their care. It was mandated that grain be left behind for them during the harvest and along the edges of the fields (Deuteronomy 24:19-21, Leviticus 19:9-10). Failing to provide such care provoked God’s wrath.

Why this penchant for the widow and orphan? Did God value them more than anyone else in society? No. The Bible says that God shows no partiality (Acts 10:34). Yet, God does show compassion and concern for those who are most vulnerable. God lifts up the plight of the last and the least because they are at the greatest risk. And given this concern, God requires that we take special care so that these vulnerable, tender members of society are not neglected and forgotten. To take them for granted, to forget or abuse them invites God’s anger that their plight might become ours.

If we were to cast this concern into today’s context, I believe that God would assert that Black Lives Matter in the same way that the lives of widows and orphans mattered. Black lives matter because blacks, suffering numerous disparities that serve to disadvantage, are vulnerable in society.

A Challenge to My White Brothers and Sisters — Acknowledge Your Defensiveness and Learn to Listen

Communication breakdown illustration, durantelallera / Shutterstock.com.

Communication breakdown illustration, durantelallera / Shutterstock.com.

Our tenth anniversary kicked off a season of unprecedented strife, most of which was circumstantial. My husband and I were homeschooling our three sons (all under the age of six), navigating multiple part-time jobs, and trying to manage my sudden health crisis. Both of us lacked sleep, energy, and patience. Prior to this time period, conflicts had not been an issue for us. We had them, processed them, forgave each other, and moved on. But a decade in, something shifted. And it wasn’t for the better.

In retrospect, we regressed to deeply embedded patterns from our families of origin. My northern European clan silently withdrew from one another and stoically pretended nothing was wrong. His Italian American household vocalized anger in operatic fashion. Tempers flared, voices cracked — and then someone made a joke and served dessert. That dynamic may have worked for them but when my husband applied it to our marriage, he unequivocally trumped me. Unable to match his emotional output, I resentfully deferred.

In the midst of one blowup, I made a tearful plea. When I’m angry, what if you listened rather than responded defensively? Based on his expression, this was indeed a new concept. As soon as he stopped matching my anger, the tenor, severity, and duration of our conflicts changed — this time for the better.

When he dialed down, he created a safe space for me to talk, which de-escalated my anger and validated my concerns. From his side of the equation, quieting his defensive tendencies allowed him to see that I was not imagining problems but rather responding to something real. When he was culpable — which was certainly not all the time — and offered me an apology, it calmed the raging sea and allowed us to address the actual issues rather than endlessly reacting toward one another.

This was not an easy or quick shift for us. I had to coach myself to speak up, present my side without blaming or accusing, and choose to trust him. He had to weather my tempest and face a degree of powerlessness. Fourteen years later, we’re still learning how to do this well.

I’m not a sociologist but I wonder if is this same dynamic contributing to the racial tension that we are now experiencing in the United States.

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