Editor’s note: This post intentionally uses language that is offensive and characteristic of hate. I choose to use this language to help broaden the conversation on issues of race in our culture.
One day, over ten years ago, I was talking with a man in the town where we lived. It was a rural, Southern town, with a heritage of racism. I wasn’t yet serving a church, however I was certainly on the path to ministry. And, by this point in my life, I had been through several workshops on racism, and had some sense of what constituted racist speech.
I don’t remember the exact words of the conversation, or for that matter how the subject came up, but before I knew it this man (almost out of the blue) was making comments about his feelings on African Americans:
“I hate it when niggers get uppity,” he said. “They need to stay in their place!”
As one who had been raised in the south, these thoughts weren’t foreign to me. Yet, at that time, some thirty plus years after the Civil Rights Movement, I was shocked that this person who really didn’t know me that well would openly express such thoughts. Surely this man had to know that this language was inappropriate? Surely he wasn’t expecting me to agree with him?
Of course, what I needed to do at that moment was to respond, to tell this man that I found his comment offensive and repugnant. What I needed to do was ask the questions roiling through my mind at that moment. What I needed to do was to stand up for those who have been oppressed by such thoughts for so long.
However, this man was connected to the church that I attended, and in the midst of my confusion and bewilderment I decided that responding would be counterproductive. I remained silent, unwilling to risk the alienation of our relationship by standing up for those who had gone unheard for so long. I was timid and uncertain, and looking back on my inaction, I think both naive and fearful about taking the step that Christ demanded.
Recently, I have received from a variety of sources several e-mails about many of the different candidates. Some are the typical mildly humorous screed that one expects during these times. However, there have been several directed toward a specific candidate for president, Barack Obama, which question his integrity and most specifically the validity of his candidacy. These e-mails attempt to paint Senator Obama as a racist, based on the mission statement and focus of the UCC congregation that he is a part of. They take half truths and assumptions and marry them together in such a way that the argument can be made that Senator Obama is anti-American, and participates in an exclusionary system. Ultimately, however, the basic argument is that Senator Obama is black and proud of it, which (according to the author of the e-mail) precludes him from service to all people as president.
Of course, anyone is welcome to their opinion of Senator Obama and the policies that he espouses. One can question his political philosophy or his voting record. Senator Obama struggles with the critiques that all candidates for office experience. However, these attacks are not with anything related to politics. No, these are attacks based solely on theological identity and congregational participation. These are messages that trash the heart and intentions of a fellow brother-in-Christ, and it is time for those of us who benefit from our identity in the majority culture to stand up and shout that we will not ignore these messages, but instead work to bring about a new way of thinking.
I have reached a point in my life and ministry in which I can no longer be silent. The alienation of relationship may have to occur when we are being prophetic about what God desires for the world. To be silent is to be complicit in a system of power and control that flies in the face of Christ’s call to love and humility.
That, of course, is difficult for a pastor, for our call to be “pastoral” often collides with our prophetic voice. I am a person who generally wants to be involved in reconciliation, not prophetic attacks. I want to love people into a new way of thinking, offering grace upon grace, rather than hitting them upside the head with rebukes on belief and behavior.
Yet, to fail to speak is to affirm that the lies are true. To sit back in my chair and delete these messages without speaking is to follow in the footsteps of my forebears who opposed racism, but said “not yet.” As King reminded these forebears from a jail cell in Birmingham, the time is now to speak. Waiting is not an option. God’s call of justice demands it.
It is especially important for those of us who are part of the “majority” class, the one’s who bear the scars of being the oppressor, to speak. It is our responsibility to stand up against messages of hate, following in the footsteps of Jesus by speaking up for those whose (as Howard Thurman said) “backs are up against the wall.” To fail to speak is to abdicate our call to justice and to ignore the true meaning of discipleship.
I could offer all sorts of arguments to counter the messages that I received in my inbox.
But that is not my purpose for writing this.
I write to say that the time to speak is now.
And if we don’t, then we will indeed be judged by the one who says “Whatever you did or did not do for the least of these, our brothers and sisters, you did or did not do to me.”