A Fair Critique of my “Letter to Roy.”

I have been overwhelmed at the response to my Letter to Roy. The responses have been overwhelming as many people of color see themselves in the experiences of my friend that I describe. But to be clear, not all of the responses have been positive. Some have pointed out that although my sentiment may be genuine, at times it smacks of insincere opportunism further exploiting the black body of my friend. This was certainly not my intention, but I believe it is a fair critique.

Those of us who enjoy the privilege our white skin affords us in this systemically racist system are clumsy at best and still covertly racist at worst in our attempts to repent of the personal and collective sins of our white supremacy. I have a lot of work to do!

As I mentioned in my letter Roy and I drifted apart as adults. I take full responsibility for this. He joined the military and died at far too young of an age which was unrelated to his military service. Some have pointed out the insensitive nature of parts of my letter, which I certainly recognize. I wanted to acknowledge their voices here. I have been inundated with messages and request, so if I have missed some of the other folks offering critiques I apologize.

I have spent a lifetime learning. In the last ten years I have focused specifically on shedding myself of white privilege. I still have a great deal of work to do, as my efforts have been mostly centered on listening to friends and being active on social media. There are far better voices than mine that need to be heard. Listen to them.

This is my commitment to learn, grow, change, repent and act. I need to think seriously about what I intend to do, because simply speaking up isn’t enough. I need to rethink how I spend my money, invest in my students, and serve others, especially those in the black community.

This particular critique from Drew John Ladd was particularly powerful. Thank you Drew and all the other dissenting voices in response to my letter. I invite you to watch his response in its entirety. And then watch here what happened next. You will be amazed. Also consider supporting Drew and his work.

Listen, learn, and do better.

I still have much work to do.

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What is July 4th to a slave?

The Fourth of July holiday is a day set aside to celebrate the independence we enjoy as Americans, but that Independence was not always enjoyed by every American. In fact on July 5th, 1852, Frederick Douglass made a powerful speech exposing the hypocrisy of asking a slave to celebrate the Fourth of July.

Frederick Douglass was an escaped slave who became a symbol of freedom as he was paraded around the country by the Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society on speaking tours. Douglass was an effective spokes person because of the education and natural abilities he possessed. As one biographer observed, “As a youngster, he learned to read and write. He purchased a copy of The Columbian Orator, a popular anthology of rhetorical masterpieces that Douglass used the same way it was used in the schools…Douglass’ rich voice, handsome physique and superb command of the English language gave him the attributes which ordinarily would make a speaker very persuasive, but these same qualities made some of his early listeners doubt that he was a fugitive slave”. Douglass’ credibility was strengthened by the publishing of his book, Narrative of the life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave. It is against this backdrop that Douglass gives his speech on July 5th 1852.

The historical impact of this speech is measured by not only its effectiveness when it was given but by its lasting significance. Coupled with the speeches of others, this speech gave a visible symbol to the American people of what an educated black man could accomplish. Together with the mounting rhetoric of the abolitionist movement, it was these ideas which eventually led to the Civil War, and the emancipation of the slaves.

I find it interesting to notice that during his speech, Douglass employed the language of liberty to expose the hypocrisy of slavery, often citing scripture to leverage his point, “By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down. Yea! we wept when we remembered Zion. We hanged our harps upon the willows in the midst thereof. For there, they that carried us away captive, required of us a song; and they who wasted us required of us mirth, saying, Sing us one of the songs of Zion. How can we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land? If I forget thee, O Jerusalem, let my right hand forget her cunning. If I do not remember thee, let my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth.” This quote from Psalm 137, written while Israel was in exile is descriptive of a people who do not live up to their destiny. Douglass was pointing out like Israel of old, America was not living up to the greatness of her potential.

As Douglass goes on to point out, “What, to the American slave, is your 4th of July? I answer: a day that reveals to him, more than all other days in the year, the gross injustice and cruelly to which he is the constant victim. To him, your celebration is a sham; your boasted liberty, an unholy license; your national greatness, swelling vanity; your sounds of rejoicing are empty and heartless; your denunciations of tyrants, brass fronted impudence; your shouts of liberty and equality, hollow mockery; your prayers and hymns, your sermons and thanksgivings, with all your religious parade, and solemnity, are, to him, mere bombast, fraud, deception, impiety, and hypocrisy – a thin veil to cover up crimes which would disgrace a nation of savages.”

It is obvious that America has not always lived up to the great principles of life, liberty, and justice for all. But thanks to people like Frederick Douglass and others, these principles are now embraced by all. I wonder how many times, like America, the church has not lived up to our calling. I think that perhaps our Sunday services are sometimes testimonies to our hypocrisy rather than our worship. I think we should all answer a few questions, why do we come to church? Are we Christians by culture or commitment? And what to a slave of sin is a Sunday morning service at any church in town? The sad commentary is that many of us have become consumers of the latest gospel products rather than culture changing, world changing catalyst that Christ intended for us to become. We have forgotten that our mandate was to go to all the world with the gospel, not to all the pews. When we do come together it should serve to remind us that there are still “slaves” who are waiting to be liberated, Christ commissioned us to do this, it our manifest destiny.

The good news is just as America continues to make progress toward the ideas embodied in “The Declaration of Independence” the church can continue to embrace the Word of God and the Gospel of Jesus Christ. This Fourth of July, lets celebrate not only our freedom as Americans, but as Christians, and let us reach out to all of those who have yet to experience liberty in Christ.

Learn better. Do better.

As a white evangelical my relationships to people of color is complicated. My religious heritage is one that told black people they were equal in Christ, but everything about how we actually lived our lives in relationship and community said otherwise. 

Consider that in my white church I was told the following at different times in my life:

  • I shouldn’t ever consider dating anyone outside of my race because a.) “The bible forbids it.” Or b.) “Even though the bible doesn’t forbid it, it is difficult culturally to explain and navigate.” 
  • I heard black people described in terms of their conformity to white culture as “they’re not really black.” While others that refused to conform were described as “divisive and uncooperative.” 
  • When we would bring children to church from the black community there were many voices that protested “They are disrespectful!” “They don’t know how to act in God’s house.” “They are taking away from our own kids.” 
  • “Rap music has no place in the church.” I even once had my Christian rap albums confiscated by church leaders. 

What’s disturbing is that I was often complicit in perpetuating these philosophies. For far too long I supported church leaders that often used the n-word and embraced these kinds of beliefs. The black community was condemned as culturally inferior to the white community and often identified as the reason for the crime and poverty in our Arkansas Delta town. 

I recall one conversation that I had with a black couple attending our church. The context was the LA riots after the acquittal of the police officers who beat Rodney King. I was pontificating on “Why are these black folks burning and looting their own community!?” My friends who were from LA patiently endured my racist diatribe, until my dear sister in Christ went off on me. “Scot! You have no idea the rage and anger of black people!” I was put in my place quickly. To my dear sister I am sorry I caused you this pain. I was wrong. I was wrong for a long time. You were right. You were justified in your anger in response to my white arrogance. 

I’m reminded of the words of Dr. King: 

“First, I must confess that over the last few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in the stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Council-er or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I can’t agree with your methods of direct action;” who paternalistically feels he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by the myth of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait until a “more convenient season.

Shallow understanding from people of goodwill is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.” 

In spite of my shattered dreams of the past, I came to Birmingham with the hope that the white religious leadership of this community would see the justice of our cause, and with deep moral concern, serve as the channel through which our just grievances would get to the power structure. I had hoped that each of you would understand. But again I have been disappointed. I have heard numerous religious leaders of the South call upon their worshippers to comply with a desegregation decision because it is the law, but I have longed to hear white ministers say, “follow this decree because integration is morally right and the Negro is your brother.” In the midst of blatant injustices inflicted upon the Negro, I have watched white churches stand on the sideline and merely mouth pious irrelevancies and sanctimonious trivialities. In the midst of a mighty struggle to rid our nation of racial and economic injustice, I have heard so many ministers say, “those are social issues with which the gospel has no real concern.”, and I have watched so many churches commit themselves to a completely other-worldly religion which made a strange distinction between body and soul, the sacred and the secular. 

So here we are moving toward the exit of the twentieth century with a religious community largely adjusted to the status quo, standing as a tail-light behind other community agencies rather than a headlight leading men to higher levels of justice.” 

Martin Luther King, Jr.
“Letter From The Birmingham Jail”
April 16, 1963

When we learn better, we should do better. This is my attempt. 

A letter to Roy. He’s the black guy in my pictures.

Dear Roy, 

You were the friend of my youth. You are black and I am white. When we became adults, we drifted apart. You served in the military. I served in the ministry. You died too soon for me to tell you this in person, so I’ll tell you now. You endured more than you should have, suffered more than you deserved, and were held to the unreasonable expectations of white culture, yet still you were my friend. 

You came to my white church. You stayed in my white home. You ate at my white table. Yet I never stayed at yours. An occasional visit to your world was all my whiteness could warrant, yet you were expected to live in mine. 

Roy at my birthday party.

I was in your presence when the n-word was used, on multiple occasions. I said nothing. You ignored it, while others laughed at your expense. You were teased by folks in the church, mocking your blackness, pretending to be welcoming. We wore our whiteness that arrogantly paraded unceasingly before you. We expected you to conform to our culture because we thought it superior. We saw ourselves as the savior your community needed, that you needed. We deceived you with pictures of a white Jesus, and never told you the truth that he was black. Jesus was more like you than he was like us. Yet we pretended otherwise. Because to do differently would have elevated you above us. And we couldn’t have that. 

People shook my hand and patted me on the back. “How good of you to befriend this black boy!” they said, without even acknowledging you standing there. My white world treated you as anomaly, a novelty, tolerated only as long as you were obedient, subservient, and didn’t try to date any of the white girls in the youth group. 

Roy and me at the Pentecostal Youth Camp in 1986

In retrospect, I now know that my white world abused you, stifled you, truncated your growth and experience. Long before Eric Garner or George Floyd cried “I can’t breathe” all us white folks were stealing your oxygen. You sung our songs, read our bible, believed our gospel, all of which were stolen 100 years earlier from another black man at Azusa Street. We never told you his story, only ours. 

Perhaps it was a saving grace that you were spared the turmoil in our world today? Had you been given time to reflect on the harm brought to you by my culture, you may have justifiably lost your mind, leading to a compounding of your suffering. You would have been justified in your anger at how you were treated, marginalized, ignored. You were present in my world, but remained largely invisible. Only seen on the occasions we wanted to justify our sins by pointing to your body as a token of our righteousness. We were hypocrites and fools. You were patient and endured our taunts longer than you should have. 

Roy getting ready to ride with us. Raising money for missionaries.

Ironically, many white folks reading this that shared our history, will remember all of this differently. They will recall how kind we were to you. How we payed your way to youth camps, bought you meals, had you in our home, and were gracious enough to include you in all our activities. “We treated you like family” they will protest. Refusing to reflect on the motivations of why we chose to do so. Refusing to confront the arrogance of assuming that you should come to us to learn, because we know better than you. 

Roy, I’m sorry man. I’m sorry that I didn’t know better. That I didn’t do better. I’m sorry that I’m just now saying this, years after your death. I’m listening now. I’m learning now. I’m speaking up now. 

I hope you can hear me. 

I love you. 

Scot 

(Please note: Follow up your reading by seeing this critique as well.)

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Is Unity the ultimate goal?

“If anyone will not welcome you or listen to you, shake the dust off your feet when you leave that place, as a testimony against them.” -Jesus in Mark 6:11

It is interesting that Jesus didn’t advocate for unity above everything. In fact, He said that He didn’t come to bring peace but a sword. Meaning that by definition our allegiance to Christ, His words, actions, and principles are likely to separate us from others. And at times our commitment to Him even means that we may be separated from those who disagree with how we should engage the world on His behalf.

In the current climate, there is a great call for unity. And certainly unity is a worthy goal. But should we unify in spite of the major divisions that separate us? Should the problems that have created a great gulf between us and have existed for centuries, simple be glossed over in the name of unity? Are there worse things than division and polarization?

I do understand that in order for the current divisions to be bridged drastic, cataclysmic, systemic changes are going to have to take place. I advocate for these changes. But I understand that first these changes must take place within me.

Sometimes people comment to me “You’ve changed!” Sometimes they mean I’ve changed in a pejorative sense. But please remember that change is a necessary part of life. It would not be considered a virtue for me to say, “I still believe everything that I believed about math or science when I was kid.” So why do we consider it virtuous if our knowledge of Christ and His Word have not changed since we were a kid? True faith in Christ demands that I learn more of Him, and that by definition means that some of my views will change. And by God’s grace they will change some more as I grow older in the wisdom and knowledge of God.

Unconditional love means not only loving as we are, but loving who we may become. A love we should extend to others and ourselves. And at times extracting ourselves from relationships and situations that are no longer sustaining that kind of love.

A confession of guilt

One of my prized possession as a child was a Bible study chart. The chart had simple illustrations that highlighted my denomination’s doctrines. It was a chart based upon a dispensational view of Scripture, which was developed in the 1850’s by John Nelson Darby of the Plymouth Brethren and made popular in America through sales of the Scofield Study Bible. That chart would serve me well as an aspiring preacher. I set through countless lessons and taught it more times than I can remember. I taught friends, neighbors, relatives, anyone who would be willing to sit down with me and invest for an hour for twelve consecutive weeks was qualified. I can still list the seven dispensations from memory and pontificate at length on a multiplicity of Tribulation/Rapture theories. 

My Dad did not attend church, so we also had a television, which was one of the prohibitions of our church at the time. I, like any other kid, liked to watch TV, I liked some of the shows I watched nearly as much as I liked my Bible study chart. It was one of those things that we didn’t talk too much about, but every time it was preached against I would feel guilty. To this day I struggle with feelings of guilt about most everything. Even though I understand that my salvation is secure in Christ, and have embraced the reality of the gospel, the residual guilt of my long-practiced religion, based in my ability to conform remains. 

I remember on one occasion, we had an older couple in our home from church. After dinner I was sharing my wonderful chart with them, attempting to impress them with my piety and Bible knowledge. As a know it all kid attempting to share the complexities of dispensational theology, I am sure I was a bit obnoxious. But I made a mistake in the conversation. I mentioned something I had seen on tv. The older church gentleman quickly picked up on my faux pa. “Where in this Bible chart does it say it’s ok to watch TV?” He laughed at my embarrassment. My face was hot with shame. I knew that I didn’t measure up. Because I watched TV, I wasn’t committed enough to the faith. My orthopraxy fell short of my Pentecostal orthodoxy. I felt guilty. I didn’t have an answer and retreated from the room as quickly as possible. 

I don’t know what ratio of personality and environment apply to my feelings, I just know they exist. It is difficult for me to authentically enjoy experiences, resulting in over indulging in them and expecting too much in return. These experiences cannot bare the weight of my expectations. My relationships tend to suffer from these expectations and guilty feelings. I overthink, overanalyze, overindulge. Every experience is less about the moment and more about what is next. This led to quite the imagination that always envisions grandeur at heroic levels. I’m the hero. But life doesn’t live up to those expectations. I end up feeling guilty. Then I feel guilty for feeling guilty. 

As an adult I still struggle with guilt. It leaves me with existential angst reminding me that there is no nirvana of sexual pleasure, dietary delight, or intellectual stimulus that will ultimately satisfy or make my feelings dissipate. I think the Bible is right, “All that is in the world is passing away.” (1 John 2:17) 

Karen Swallow Prior writes, “A world of many rules and expectations lends itself to outward conformity that makes an impression -an impression that need not be in agreement with internal nature. The more appearances matter, the more counterfeits abound.” 

I have lived most of my life trying to maintain appearances. Maybe this is where most of the surplus guilt originates? At times, for the sake of appearances, I’ve been mean to my children and my wife, expecting them to conform to standards I can’t even live up too. I’ve pursued friendships with toxic people because I wanted to be associated with them. I’ve been cruel, condescending, disingenuous, arrogant, greedy, lustful and more. I’ve wanted people to think me better than I actually am. I’m not. I’m far worse. The thing that you are ashamed of, I’ve probably done or at least thought about, I’m not as good as you think I am. 

I’ve said things that I thought you wanted to hear. I’ve lied to myself and others. This is an attempt to think through some things. I’m better now at speaking the truth because I understand the world doesn’t revolve around me. I offend many of you because I know longer defer to your feelings at the expense of what is true. I’m trying harder to not “go along to get along.” 

I want to be kind. I want to be empathetic. I want to be honest. But mostly I want to be real without feeling guilty about who I am, what I think, what I’ve done. I want to exist without hedging my bets or contemplating every conceivable outcome ad infinitum. I want to enjoy thinking and you be ok with whatever I think about, understanding that it may be a developing thought and not an ideological edict. I want to change my mind. Especially if I’m exposed to new information that proves me wrong. I don’t want to hold onto bad tradition for the sake of honoring the past. How can perpetuating a lie be honorable? Help me understand this? 

The world is divided. What is required is some unconditional love. I think I could benefit from giving that gift to myself as well. You will too. Maybe this is where the search for truth ends. And begins?

The primal fear of White America

When I was in Junior High School, I had a history teacher tell me during a class lecture on the Civil War era, that black slaves were “cared for and treated as family.” I raised my hand and protested, “but they were still slaves, right?” I was then asked to go sit in the hall for being obnoxious. 

These kinds of arguments, that dismiss or excuse the original sins of America is a tired expression of white supremacy and privilege. It is the height of absurdity to insist that people who were considered chattel were “treated well.” And amazingly when confronted with the realities of history, too many White folks want to try and find a “silver lining” in the horrors of our heritage. 

Yet when confronted with obvious evils, there is a temptation on the part of white Americans to dismiss such atrocities. The murder of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police officers is another example of how this maddening rhetoric works. White people are quick to dismiss Floyd’s death as an evil anomaly. It is described by many as a tragedy that has saddened them, with many evoking theological terminologies such as “sin” to describe the whole ordeal. And while true that murder is sin, by applying this general label, it seeks to minimize the systemic and repeatable harm that continues to be inflicted on black bodies in this Nation. Then, while dismissing Floyd’s murder as an isolated incident, they are quick to condemn the response of marginalized communities who have been denied justice for so long as “more of the same of what we have come to expect.” 

Too many who are quick to minimize murder are then maximizing looting and arson, because as white Americans we have been conditioned to believe that order is the highest priority and must be defended at all cost. It is a response of white Americans rooted in the intrinsic primal fear that eventually there will be a recompense that comes due for our centuries of crimes against other human beings. What white Americans so often miss is an undeniable connection to our history in the United States, a history of real sin and injustice, in which the American Church has often been complicit. 

As my friend Corey Leak points out, “The lynching of black bodies is a sacred American tradition with theological roots, and it’s one of the oldest religious rituals in this country.” Corey also shares that the late Dr. James Cone in his book The Cross and the Lynching Tree wrote: “The claim that whites had the right to control the black population through lynching and other extralegal forms of mob violence was grounded in the religious belief that America is a white nation called by God to bear witness to the superiority of white over black.” 

The Revivalist Charles Finney’s philosophy is still an often-repeated argument as to why Christians shouldn’t advocate for equality, and why many white Americans continue to engage in silly rhetoric advocating for a desire to sweep things under a cultural rug of compliance to normative majority standards of behavior. As Jemar Tisby observes in his work The Color of Compromise, “Charles G. Finney was an outspoken abolitionist, but he was not a proponent of black equality. He advocated for emancipation, but he did not see the value of the ‘social’ integration of the races. Though he excluded white slaveowners from membership in his congregations, he also relegated black worshipers to particular sections of the sanctuary. Black people could become members in his churches, but they could not vote or hold office. Finney’s stance for abolition but against integration arose from his conviction that social reform would come through individual conversion, not institutional reform. Finney and many others like him believed that social change came about through evangelization. According to this logic, once a person believed in Christ as Savior and Lord, he or she would naturally work toward justice and change. ‘As saints supremely value the highest good of being, they will, and must, take a deep interest in whatever is promotive of that end. Hence, their spirit is necessarily that of the reformer.’ This belief led to a fixation on individual conversion without a corresponding focus on transforming the racist policies and practices of institutions, a stance that has remained a constant feature of American evangelicalism and has furthered the American church’s easy compromise with slavery and racism.” 

This attitude is symptomatic of what many people suggest should be the disposition of Christians in America. An attitude that says we really shouldn’t be all that concerned about social issues, but rather, by contrast we should be concerned exclusively with the proclamation of the gospel. But by doing so we miss the intrinsic nature of sin that is imbedded in our institutions and culture. I think we should absolutely proclaim the truth of the gospel, but that we should also do good where we have opportunity to do so, and speak up, at the very least about these issues. 

As Christians, we are called by God to be vocal about what we believe to be true and to make a difference in society. We should seek to be the salt and light. We should be that, “City that is set on a hill that cannot be hid.” 

All too often we hide behind our churches and bible when we should be declaring decrying injustice wherever we see it. And often when we do speak up it is reactionary at best, As Estrelda Alexander in Black Fire: one hundred years of African American Pentecostalism, points out, “Klaude Kendrick says this about Pentecostal churches but I think it applies to Christianity as a whole in America, ‘Its approach to ethics with regard to racial discrimination has been reactionary. It has determined its course by what the status quo of society and particularly its expression…in evangelicalism have directed. Its major concern has been with what white America would find acceptable and it has acted only when forced to do so by circumstances beyond its control or when imitation of associate organizations has appeared safe…It has proven willing to accept black Americans only when such actions involves little or no risk to its palatability among its white constituency.'”  

Consider that in 1919 in Elaine, Arkansas, the number of black people killed by federal troops is unknown, because no one considered their lives worthy of being counted. Estimates are anywhere from 200 to near 1000 people. This all happened because a group of black farmers dared to question the fairness of a system that paid them less for their harvest, than what white land owners received. The primal fear of white Americans’ fears of a black uprising resurfaced and once again black people died as a result. I did not know of this event until I was 44 after having lived in Arkansas most of my life. I wasn’t taught about it in school. No one ever mentioned it. 

White America loves to romanticize the past and ignore the present. “Make America Great AGAIN!”, is the chant, but to romanticize a past, a recent past, where more black people were lynched in this country than all the victims of the 9/11 attacks stretches the bounds of credulity. Especially when you consider that, as James Cone writes, “Between 1880 to 1940, white Christians lynched nearly five thousand black men & women in a manner with obvious echoes of the Roman crucifixion of Jesus. Yet these ‘Christians’ did not see the irony or contradiction in their actions.” This is the truth of the past for people of color, so I could never in good conscience say ‘Let’s return to the good ole days.’”

“I can’t breathe” was what George Floyd uttered, it was what Eric Garner said eleven times before dying in 2014. It is the collective cry of black Americans that we as white Americans must acknowledge and act to resolve. By doing so, we must commit to dismantling a system that favors us and work together to build a better future of equality and dignity for all. 

This article previously published at faithonview.com

If you’re privileged and you know it say “Amen.”

I have never been looked at as a suspect while browsing in a retail store. 
No one has ever called me out for being the only member of my race at a gathering or event. 
My motives are never assumed to be nefarious. 
I have never feared for my life during a routine traffic stop. 
Generally, people in power have always been willing to help me. 
And when they did so, they didn’t assume they were doing me a favor. 
When I share my experiences, people believe me. 
My experiences aren’t excused, diminished, or otherwise dismissed based upon other plausible explanations. 
I have never been in a position where I did not see ample representation of people who look like me in positons of success, wealth, power, and prestige. 
I can choose to think about these issues. Or not. 

This isn’t an exhaustive list, but it describes some of my experiences of “White Privilege.” 

Now many would push back against that term. The argument goes something like this: “I’ve worked for everything that I have”, “I haven’t received any special treatment” “I’m poor, I’m not privileged.” But I think all of us can agree that we have blind spots, we all have a certain inability to see things that are true about ourselves, because we have an inherent bias in favor of ourselves and our circumstances. In short, we are the heroes of our own stories. So, it is possible, whether we embrace the term “White privilege” or not that there are blind spots about ourselves, of which we need to be made aware. 

In the book White Awake, the author Daniel Hill is confronted by his friend. His friend reveals to him that “White has a culture” and that when that culture comes into contact with other cultures it usually wins. Daniel then embarks on a journey of self-discovery and arrives at the conclusion that the United States has a “normalization of whiteness”, in other words every culture in America is expected to conform to normative notions as established by white people. There is an unspoken expectation of white supremacy that has existed in our culture predating our Revolution and continuing to this day. Hill quotes, Rev. Julian DeShazier, who defines white privilege as “the ability to walk away.” Hill observes, “This is one of the essential truths we as white people need to remember (or become aware of, if it’s new) as we contend with the normalization of whiteness. When the journey begins to feel like any combination of scary, confusing, disorienting, or even painful, we have a privilege that people of color do not: we can walk away; we can go back to ‘normal,’ if we choose.”

So what do we do about it? White normative culture always demands an action plan. And this may miss a crucial step in bringing about effective change.

Daniel Hill writes,

 “It became abundantly clear that the dichotomy between a triumphalist and lament approach to church is more than an interesting theological exercise; it has a tremendous impact on how we process pain and suffering in the world. When we’re under the influence of triumphalism, we search for ‘success’ in virtually every circumstance, so when a societal problem surfaces, it must be fixed so we can feel a sense of achievement. Therefore, an unresolved problem poses a threat. We don’t know how to manage the dissonance created by the unsolvable problem, and we struggle to understand the nervous energy created by that tension. Lament, on the other hand, doesn’t function according to the rules of success. It sees suffering not as a problem to be solved but as a condition to be mourned. Lament doesn’t see the power of salvation as being in the hands of the oppressors; instead it cries out to God for deliverance from the grip of injustice. Lament is a guttural cry and a longing for God’s intervention. It recognizes, as the psalmist so eloquently stated, that hope is found not in chariots and in horses but in God alone. (Psalm 20:7) Lament gives us permission to admit that we aren’t capable of fixing (and may have been part of causing) the problems we’ve suddenly become awakened to. Lament gives us resources to sit in the tension of suffering and pain without going to place of shame or self-hate. Lament allows us to acknowledge the limitations of human strength and to look solely to the power of God instead. 

To lament is to ask God the haunting questions ‘Where are you?’ ‘What are you doing?’ ‘How long must we wait?’ To ask these questions is not to doubt or challenge God. Instead, as Dr. Dan Allender eloquently states, ‘It is crucial to comprehend a lament is as far from complaining or grumbling as a search is from aimless wandering. A grumbler has already reached a conclusion, shut down all desire and postures with questions that are barely concealed accusations…A lament involves even deeper emotion because a lament is truly asking, seeking, and knocking to comprehend the heart of God. A lament involves the energy to search, not to shut down the quest for truth. It is passion to ask, rather than to rant and rave with already reached conclusions. A lament uses the language of pain, anger, and confusion and moves toward God.” 

We cannot change what we refuse to acknowledge.

Understand before demanding to be understood.

Psalm 137
By the rivers of Babylon we sat and wept
    when we remembered Zion.
There on the poplars
    we hung our harps,
for there our captors asked us for songs,
    our tormentors demanded songs of joy;
    they said, “Sing us one of the songs of Zion!”

How can we sing the songs of the Lord
    while in a foreign land?
If I forget you, Jerusalem,
    may my right hand forget its skill.
May my tongue cling to the roof of my mouth
    if I do not remember you,
if I do not consider Jerusalem
    my highest joy.

Remember, Lord, what the Edomites did
    on the day Jerusalem fell.
“Tear it down,” they cried,
    “tear it down to its foundations!”
Daughter Babylon, doomed to destruction,
    happy is the one who repays you
    according to what you have done to us.
Happy is the one who seizes your infants
    and dashes them against the rocks.

Psalm 137 is the cry of an oppressed people. Taken from their homes and forced into a life of servitude. A demand was made of them by their captors, “Sing and play for us!” “Part of your obligation as a slave, is to also entertain us!” In essence what the captors were demanding was, “Appear to be happy and carefree!” An effort to appease their own condemning conscience and curtail fears of a deserved rebellion and retaliation for their collective sin.

But the oppressed people refused to sing. They hung up their harps and instead fantasied about bashing the heads of their captor’s children against rocks. We don’t like these portions of Scripture do we? It tends to make those of us who have enjoyed power and privilege uncomfortable. As it should. Scripture is perhaps the most transformative when it challenges me instead of just comforting me.

We find ourselves at a pivotal moment in history. We are in the midst of generational, political, and social change. It seems to me that history and Scripture point to the fact that God has a preference for the poor, the oppressed, the marginalized and hurting. To echo the words of Abraham Lincoln, perhaps now is not the time to consider whether or not God is on our side, but rather, if we are on His?

I appreciate the passion of those who may disagree, and believe it comes from the sincere place and desire for peace, for the most part. As does mine. Indeed, no one responsible would condone the destruction of property or further loss of life. The attempt here is not to condone, but to help people understand. And of course, all people need to come to repentance. 

But when I call on white people to repent specifically for the sins of systemic racism, I’m drawing attention to the fact that, as white people, we continue to benefit from this system. So as beneficiaries we continue to perpetuate a system that helps us and harms others. That is not working in the “spirit of reconciliation” that God asked us to represent. 

As far as the autopsy is concerned, no matter the cause of death, the point is that Floyd’s death would have been far less likely, if at all, if the Police officer hadn’t kept his knee on Floyd’s throat for 8 + minutes, or if the other officers would have intervened when so many people, including Floyd himself, were asking for help. All I would ask you to do is consider the point of view of those who have been victimized and marginalized for centuries, in the same way you continue to seek to understand the perspective of the cops involved. For some of you, going as far as to say that “Floyd may have not died from the knee to the throat.” This stretches the bounds of credulity. 

Our own history as Americans is reflective of this, when a tyrannical government refused to listen to our concerns, the Founding fathers threw tea into the Boston harbor, resulting in the loss of property to the tune of one million dollars. There was a protracted war fought for independence and we waved flags that said, “Don’t tread on me.” We call that patriotism, but when others do it we call them “Thugs who riot.” I guess it depends on which side of power you find yourself? 

Even Jesus destroyed property, turned tables over, and chased people out of the temple at the end of a whip, Why? Because religious leaders were taking advantage of the poor. Jesus did this twice. This is part of the reason they killed Him. He was a marginalized peasant preacher, and dark skinned at that, so I think if I want to “choose a side” I’m always going to identify with marginalized groups, because, honestly I think that is where Jesus would be.

Three ways to deal with dissenting opinions.

This is a moment in history where it is necessary to speak up loudly and clearly about what is happening in our world. People will disagree with you. It should be expected. Here are three ways that I have learned to handle dissenting opinions, while avoiding falling into the trap of personal attacks.

1. Remain humble: James 4:6 teaches us “God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble” Humility shouldn’t be viewed as weakness or low self-esteem. But rather humility is a strength given by God to understand who we are, and what we have been called to do. Jesus was able to wash His disciples feet because He knew who He was. Jesus even challenged Peter in that context, when Peter expressed a dissenting opinion, “You will never wash my feet.” But Jesus responded with the strength of humility, “Unless I wash your feet, you have no place with me.” (John 13: 1-9)

2. Learn as much as possible: If you listen carefully to dissenting opinions, you will learn something. Criticism can serve as the greatest source of coaching. Through seeking to understand what is being said, insight can be gained into how what you are doing as a leader is impacting others. You can also gain insight into the life of the person who is the source of the dissent and by doing so become better equipped to serve them. As Proverbs 1:5 instructs us, “Let the wise hear and increase in learning…”

3. Look for solutions: It is a fool’s game to attempt to please everyone. As a leader if you try to please everyone, you end up pleasing no one. Often though, solutions come from listening and learning from the voices that surround you. As a leader you are tasked with the mission of finding workable solutions. In order to do so you must have a clear understanding of the problems, seek to gather as much information as possible, and then make a decision and live with the consequences. There will always be “Monday morning quarterbacks” who will seek to second guess choices made. But at the end of the day, God has called us to lead with clarity and conviction. So look for the solution, make the decision and then stick by that decision.

Listen to the gifts of those God has surrounded you with. Understand that every person He brings into your life serves a purpose. Do not fear dissenting opinions, but welcome them. But you are under no obligation to tolerate abuse, racism, rude, or ignorant rhetoric and behavior. There is a difference between honest inquiry and just plain hatred being shared for evil intent.

Samuel R. Chand observes
“Healthy teams foster the perspective that failure isn’t a tragedy and conflict isn’t the end of the world. Great leaders welcome dissenting opinions, as long as they are offered in good will and with an eye toward a solution. These teams are willing to take great risks and even to fail miserably because they’ve gotten over the notion that failure is a personal flaw. That believe God is worthy of noble efforts, and they trust that God smiles on them as they attempt great things for him” 

May we all seek to continue attempting great things for God, and see all the voices around us as resources to that end.