Archive for July, 2015

Behind the safe security of white privilege and stained-glass windows

Thursday, July 30th, 2015

Indictments of killer cops like Ray Tensing who murder black men like Samuel Dubose don’t let the rest of us off the hook.

Last night I attended a discussion and showing of the film Selma at the Dr. Carter G. Woodson African American Museum in St. Petersburg, Florida. Given the recent news of police killing people of color like Dubose, I couldn’t help but draw parallels over the 1965 shooting of Jimmie Lee Jackson.

For years, state trooper James Bonard Fowler claimed Jackson was reaching for his gun and the shooting was done in self-defense, but in 2010, 45 years later, the seventy-seven-year-old confessed to the murder. Historians believe that there would have been no march from Selma to Montgomery and less urgency for the Voting Rights Act had Jackson not been killed. It was the event that precipitated Bloody Sunday that woke white America’s conscience—bringing many to travel to Selma to add their bodies in solidarity against racism and white supremacy.

It made me wonder, what is it going to take today to move Americans, and specifically white people in this country, to take responsibility for what is happening? How many people of color have to be killed to stir us to outrage?

As a white man I know it is easy to compartmentalize oppression happening to others, only caring about it when I choose to. I don’t have to ever fear driving while white. If I do get pulled over, I have never once ever felt I was in danger of being shot. This is not the reality of many people of color in this country.

And it is easy for me to breathe relief when a bad officer gets indicted for one of these murders. It is good for my white conscience, but the words of Dr. King don’t let me off that easy. He says the killer “did not act alone.”

A state trooper pointed the gun, but he did not act alone.

He was murdered by the brutality of every sheriff who practices lawlessness in the name of law.

He was murdered by the irresponsibility of every politician, from governors on down, who has fed his constituents the stale bread of hatred and the spoiled meat of racism.

He was murdered by the timidity of a federal government that can spend millions of dollars a day to keep troops in South Vietnam and cannot protect the rights of its own citizens seeking the right to vote.

He was murdered by the indifference of every white minister of the gospel who has remained silent behind the safe security of stained-glass windows.

And he was murdered by the cowardice of every person who passively accepts the evils of segregation and stands on the sidelines in the struggle for justice.

- Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. at the funeral of Jimmie Lee Jackson, 1965

It’s never a lone wolf. Racism is a system that wraps its tentacles around me and all white people. When we see obvious white supremacy like Tensing or Fowler, I fear it leads more to progressive whites patting ourselves on the back rather than making us get off our ass and choose to place our bodies in solidarity with people of color who are literally targets.

Do you know the arrest and killing by police statistics of your community? Is it disproportionate by race? What are you doing to interrupt that? If we are indifferent, we are part of the problem.

Do you know local politicians whose rhetoric is directly or indirectly feeding racist hatred? What are you doing to interrupt that? If we are indifferent, we are part of the problem.

Do you know federal politicians who decry murder out of one side of their mouth while supporting the same act with drones all over the world? What are you doing to interrupt that? If we are indifferent, we are part of the problem.

Has your pastor or bishop remained silent on the murder of Samuel Debose and other people of color, perhaps behind the excuses of there being people on both sides of this issue in the pews or that we don’t know all the information yet? What are you doing to interrupt that? If we are indifferent, we are part of the problem.

MLK’s words haunt me because they call me to face the truth that these people are being murdered not by lone bigots, but by the cowardice of every person who passively accepts the evils of racism and white supremacy, and stands on the sidelines in the struggle for justice.

When I face this truth, I have no choice but to get off the sidelines. Will you join me and encourages others to do the same?

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Rev. Andy Oliver is an elder from the Florida Conference of The United Methodist Church, currently organizing in the Tampa/St. Petersburg area against racism and other forms of injustice. Contact or follow him on social media at www.andyoliver.me.

Photo Credit: Murder of Jimmie Lee Jackson by Jonathan Frost

The Day the Protesters Showed Up at Church

Tuesday, July 21st, 2015

At Arch Street UMC, located in the heart of Center City Philadelphia, there's no such thing as a “typical” Sunday. Even so, from time to time there are days that stand out. This past Sunday, July 19th, was one such occasion. From 9:30am to 11:30am, Arch Street was the target of an anti-abortion protest by a group of about a dozen or so people from the Abolitionist Society of Philadelphia (not to be confused with the Pennsylvania Abolition Society). Stated intentions and horrifying photo-shopped posters not withstanding, the true nature of the group seemed to be one of generalized Christian extremism. During the days leading up to the protest, many of us had wondered why they chose to bestow this perverse honor on us, but in the end it appears that there was little reason. One woman I spoke with didn't know anything at all about Arch Street's history or recent activism. They were just targeting the United Methodist Church generally and we happened to be the most convenient local congregation.

It's difficult to make much sense of what happened here.  For one thing, Arch Street doesn't give any sort of reproductive rights litmus test to its members, so I can't authoritatively say where the congregation “stands.” However, it does seem to be the case that many of us acknowledge both the grim solemnity of abortion and its absolutely critical role in safeguarding health and justice. But the protesters didn't know or care about any of this. We were just a pretty backdrop for their Instagram photos.

So what other takeaways could there be? I have a few personal thoughts:

1. Threats, intimidation, violence, and fearmongering don't have a place in God's kin-dom. Does this really need elaboration? Let's be honest—each one of us has a God-given talent at smelling plain-old hate from a mile a way. It doesn't matter if somebody's foaming at the mouth about Jesus or the return policy at Macy's, we can all tell what's going on. If you need or want people to feel scared or disgusted, then you're the one in the wrong.

2. What you do find in God's kin-dom is community and diversity. It was really inspiring to see the many ways that Arch Streeters and our guests approached the situation. Members of the San Carlos Apache tribe were our guests for the morning, on their way to a rally in Washington, DC to defend their sacred lands from copper mining. They shared some interesting observations about the protester's offensive tactics, their ignorance of history—rejecting the protester’s comparison of abortion to genocide as disrespectful to the 100 million native people in the Americas killed by European violence and disease—and the intersectionality of race and power structures. We also had members and friends draw parallels with our denomination's exclusion of LGBTQ people. Others were moved to share thoughts about our society's relationship with healthcare and science. It was inspiring to see our community doing what it does best: being a diverse and thriving body caring for each other.

3. Righteous anger can be toxic when ingested in large quantities. Just like life-saving medicines, it's crucial to get the dosage right. When we see injustice in our society and in our own church, it is appropriate to feel and express righteous anger. We are called to put the last first and to lift up the downtrodden, and anger is an important tool in that process. But righteous anger can also clearly be misguided. It must always be accompanied by humility and self-examination, and it must not be taken on for longer than necessary. These protesters were so consumed by anger, presumably for so long, that they came to a point of rationalizing indiscriminate harassment.  Any attempts at conversation with them were quickly met with bizarre, unwarranted personal attacks. We who call ourselves progressive Christians must learn from their mistakes and always guard ourselves against the pressures to generalize and dehumanize, to be rigid and inflexible.

In the end, I think my wife, Jennifer, put it best when she said we should just think of the day's events in much the same way that we think of natural disasters: sometimes unfortunate things like this just happen. This group was so small and extreme that there's little that can be done about it. My hope is merely that on this and all other occasions, joyful or sad, we may come to see ourselves more clearly through others and move a little further in the right direction.

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Phillip Gressman is Professor of Mathematics at the University of Pennsylvania. He is a member of Arch Street United Methodist Church in Philadelphia.

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