What is surprising about the tragedy in Ferguson is that we are surprised. Week after week, we see stories and statistics that reveal deeply rooted systemic racism in our nation. A few examples: When it comes to marijuana, a recent study demonstrated that it is used at similar levels in the white and African American communities. However, the arrests for marijuana use are as much as 10 times higher for African Americans than whites in some large cities such as Chicago and New York. If current trends continue, one in three black males born today can expect to spend time in prison during his lifetime.
Since these undebatable indicators of systemic racism are widely covered by the media, again, why the surprise when young African Americans are unjustly shot or beaten? Why do we, as Americans, choose to ignore what we see? Why do we refuse to name the obvious?
In a country that remains in such deep denial about its discrimination against people of color, what is the role of the church? First, a word about what the role is not. Our role is not to stoke the understandable rage many experience as they watch violence directed at people of color. I live in a city where it has taken 50 years to rebuild sections of Washington, D.C. that were burned down after Dr. King’s assassination. The anger was justified. The rage-fueled destruction was not.
Certainly Jesus faced many horrific injustices in first century Israel. Historians tell us that the roads leading away from Jerusalem were lined with crucifixes, upon which dying or dead human beings hung. Surely, he saw Herod’s and Roman troops do many other unspeakable things to impose their rule. And yet, despite seeing such outrages, the Gospels record Jesus losing his temper only a few times. Our Lord and Savior had too much work to do. So do we. Leave the rants and rage to others. We, like Jesus, have to find concrete, difference-making ways to channel our anger if we are to be effective peacemakers.
How should congregations in the PC(USA) respond to the repeated examples of racist behavior in our communities? First, let us acknowledge that Ferguson isn’t some bizarre aberration. The people and police who live there aren’t monsters. They are the same people who live in our communities. They are part of the same society that jails massive numbers of young males of color. Racism is alive and well in each and every one of our communities.
The PC(USA) will not become a change-agent in the ages-long battle against racism by passing actions at the General Assembly or presbytery levels. Our impact must take place in our heart of hearts — the PC(USA) congregations in most cities and towns in this country. Our strength is at the “bottom” of our denominational hierarchy, not the “top.” Our congregations are perfectly positioned to make a difference in their communities.
If a moderator the General Assembly appeared in a small town to talk to the mayor about racism, she would spend the first thirty minutes explaining what a moderator is. Seriously. But when a local pastor makes an appointment to talk with the mayor of her small town, the mayor already knows who the pastor is. The mayor has to pay attention to what the pastor says. And if she doesn’t, the pastor should go back and tell her congregation that the mayor is tone deaf when it comes to justice issues. If that happens, the mayor will soon be visiting the pastor! We have the power to end racism because we are known commodities in our communities. Officials ignore us at their own risk, especially when we link arms with other faith groups in our community.
The church in Europe lost its credibility as it stood by and watched millions of its neighbors hauled off to death camps. We in the PC(USA) risk losing our credibility as we watch, at the congregational level, thousands of our neighbors being locked away in jails for non-violent crimes and innocents being beaten or killed because of the color of their skin. When it comes to racial justice, our congregations have the local connections and networks to put an end to these outrages once and for all — one town and city at a time. May the PC(USA) become a relentless servant of God in the battle against racism – today.
Yours in Christ,