Tuesday, February 17, 2015

What Will I Say When I'm Asked About the Banner?

A few Sundays ago during our church's annual business meeting, we approved a budget, agreed upon some goals for our church in the near future and debated putting a banner in our church building's front yard reading "Black Lives Matter."  It was a civil and respectful conversation and in the end we voted to display a banner that reads "Black Lives Matter Equally."  The vote wasn't entirely unanimous.  I think some who voted against it wanted to keep it reading "Black Lives Matter," since that's what protesters of police brutality across the country have said.  Some others may have voted against it for other reasons I don't know.  Yet, to my knowledge everyone walked out feeling that his or her voice was heard and the discussion was worthwhile for our church.
Based on what people told me, everyone agreed that black lives do matter and that racism continues to pervade our culture, including our criminal justice system and law enforcement.  The chief concern I heard--a valid one in my opinion--is that the debate over the slogan in the media has been framed--like it or not--in such a way that many people hear "black lives matter" as saying "police lives don't matter."  I think that is a completely false understanding of what protesters have been saying--other than the few who are violent extremists and who do not represent the overwhelming majority of people protesting police brutality towards black people.  Yet, no matter what I think there is a media industry that chooses to propagate either/or controversies.  
So, we debated whether our banner should read "All Lives Matter" or "Black Lives Matter and so do Police Lives" or other variations.  We settled on adding the word "equally" to the "Black Lives Matter" slogan.  I'm not sure if that defies misinterpretation--no matter what you try to communicate, some will choose to misinterpret your message and others will misunderstand it.  I believe, however, that our congregation voted to display the banner, because not saying anything about the deaths of black people is unacceptable.  We are a largely white church that claims to be a "Peace With Justice" church, so we cannot be quiet if we wish to live out our identity.
I will be surprised if we don't get a negative reaction from some people.  I expect some church members who have neighbors who know what church they go to may get questions as well.  When UCC churches in New York hung banners they received hostile phone calls and other harassment.  I hope we won't get such a response, but we are in a largely white area of KC, so I have to prepare for such a possibility.  
Both here and at my previous church, I've received threatening phone calls and nasty letters when I or the church has been public about supporting LGBT equality.  On those occasions, I took a certain pride in knowing we were getting under the skin of some homophobic people.  I always feel like you aren't following Jesus unless you are making at least a few folks mad because you are standing up for oppressed people.  If we get negative blowback from this banner, I will most likely take similar pride in threatening some folks' white privilege.
When I'm asked by people who actually are willing to engage in a real conversation, here is what I'm going to say:
1.  Our church believes all lives matter, but based upon what's happening in our culture right now it seems as if black lives matter less than white ones.  Every day across our country new names are added to the list of young black men (and sometimes women) killed by police officers.  The frequency of these shootings of black men seem to be in contrast to how white men are treated.  For example, in August a black man with an air rifle at a Walmart was shot and killed by police, but in December two white men who shot pellet guns at each other and customers in a Walmart were arrested without incident. Recently, a white man in north KC chased his wife out of their house with a rifle then shot her and was pointing his gun at neighbors.  Police showed up just before he killed his wife.  Despite orders to put down his gun, he raised it at officers.  They shot him but not fatally.  If he had been black, would he have survived that encounter?
2.  Racism is not something that we as a country ended fifty years ago during the Civil Rights Era; it remains today.  Despite living in the "Age of Obama" our nation's long history of oppression towards African Americans did not just disappear.  As Ta-Nehisi Coates says in his excellent article "The Case for Reparations:"
"Two hundred fifty years of slavery.  Ninety years of Jim Crow.  Sixty years of separate but equal.  Thirty-Five years of racist housing policy.  Until we reckon with our compounding moral debts, America can never be whole."
3.  All lives do matter, at least to any person who claims to be moral, but saying those words does not make them a reality.  Scholar Judith Butler puts it this way:
"When we are taking about racism, and anti-black racism in the United States, we have to remember that under slavery black lives were considered only a fraction of a human life, so the prevailing way of valuing lives assumed that some lives mattered more, were more human, more worthy, more deserving of life and freedom, where freedom meant minimally the freedom to move and thrive without being subjected to coercive force. But when and where did black lives ever really get free of coercive force? One reason the chant "Black Lives Matter" is so important is that it states the obvious but the obvious has not yet been historically realized. So it is a statement of outrage and a demand for equality, for the right to live free of constraint, but also a chant that links the history of slavery, of debt peonage, segregation, and a prison system geared toward the containment, neutralization and degradation of black lives, but also a police system that more and more easily and often can take away a black life in a flash all because some officer perceives a threat."
4.  No, our church does NOT believe all police are racists.  A very small percentage of police today would meet a textbook definition of racist.  Our society asks police to do dangerous and horribly difficult jobs in exchange for little if any thanks.  Our church is grateful for the job police do for our community.  Yet, police officers are human and are raised in the same culture we are raised in--one that remains permeated with racism.  Sure, we've come a long way since the days of Bull Connor sicking dogs on children in 1963 Birmingham, but racist stereotypes remain a reality in our culture.  Every white person who is honest will admit to racist attitudes, and when put in a situation where instinct overcomes reason people with racist attitudes may very well act upon them--even police officers.
5.  Hanging this banner is about more than police brutality towards African Americans.  Sadly, Missouri once again leads the nation in its rate of black homicides.  Many of those deaths are happening within a few miles from our church building.  By saying black lives matter equally, we are also speaking out against poor schools, poverty, a culture of violence, crime, a gun industry that profits from criminal demand for handguns and so many more factors that feed the number of black people dying in our city.
6.  We are a largely white church in an historically white part of our city--an area that until such practices were outlawed excluded African Americans.  A banner does not erase history nor does it make up for past racism, but it is a start.  It is an expression of solidarity with African Americans and a positive statement that their lives do matter despite evidence to the contrary.  Hopefully our banner will be matched with our actions and relationships that live out that solidarity.
Grace and Peace

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