Content notice: The following message concerns the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery and countless other acts of violence against Black people in the United States. It was written with the community of students, staff, and faculty at the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago (LSTC) in mind. I am sharing it publicly as part of the work I believe people of faith and goodwill are all called to at this moment: to offer a public witness in opposition to all the violent and murderous consequences of the racism on which the United States was built and has worked so hard to maintain.
I am writing to you from a place of hurt and hopelessness, anger and confusion, in the wake of the latest in a series of homicides of Black people in Minneapolis, MN (George Floyd); Louisville, KY (Breonna Taylor); and Brunswick, GA (Ahmaud Arbery). These scattered sites remind us that this violence is not confined to any one place or region. Their common thread is the use of unchecked deadly force by police (active or retired) against Black people. This violence cannot be explained away as accidental or unfortunate, because it belongs to a pattern that can be seen all across the United States stretching back to its foundation. It continues because this nation allows it to continue and, specifically, because White people as a political majority allow it to continue.
There is so much that needs to be said and there are many teachers and preachers and leaders who are speaking out powerfully in their pulpits, on the news, across social media and in the streets. In this moment and in my role as pastor to this community, I want to say something focused on our relationships to one another as a school – a community of students, staff and faculty who have already been distanced from one another for weeks and are still struggling to find ways to stay connected in useful and meaningful ways. I’ll start with a short story from my own experience.
I was 25 years old in October, 1998 when Matthew Shepard, a young gay man in Laramie, Wyoming, was beaten, tortured, and left to die on a fence post along a deserted rural road. This was well before the age of social media, so I found out what had happened on television along with everyone else. It was the middle of the day and I immediately left work so that I could be with other gay people to process our shock, anger, fear, and grief. When my parents reached out in an effort to console me, I told them I couldn’t speak to them, or to any straight people, yet. In those first raw moments, I could find no comfort outside of the community of people who shared my own experience – even from the people who had known me longest and loved me the most.
In a moment like this, when Black lives are snuffed out while camera phones capture and transmit the images across the world at the speed of light, we are all brought into one another’s presence virtually and immediately with no preparation or protection. Some among us need to withdraw, to be in the company of those who share their experience, to find safety and solace among those who do not need these tragedies to be unpacked and explained. Others are left reaching out, trying their best to say or do the right thing only to find their efforts unwelcome or inadequate to the needs of the moment. What is said is insufficient. What is left unsaid is negligent.
Holy scripture is filled with words of comfort and reassurance to people and communities under oppression and in exile. God speaks to the people through the prophet Isaiah with promises of protection and restoration,
“Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine. When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through the fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you.”(Isa. 43:1-2)
But those words can ring false and hollow in the face of unchecked evil and murderous power. So we join Jesus in recalling the words of the psalmist,
“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Why are you so far from helping me, from the words of my groaning? O my God, I cry by day, but you do not answer; and by night, but find no rest.”(Psalm 22:1-2)
To members of our community of African descent, who carry the weight of daily uncertainty because of the color of your skin, I simply want to say what should go without saying: that your lives matter, that your experience is sacred and holy, that your truths are trustworthy, that your anger requires no apologies.
To other communities of color among us, who also face deadly racism every day, I want to add to the above what you already know to be true: your stories and experiences are not secondary or subordinate in this moment, your strength and your struggles are essential to any true movement for liberation, that you belong everywhere and anywhere you choose to make your home.
To those in our community who are White I want to say: I know that your hearts also break, that you may struggle with confusion and uncertainty about what to say or how to act, that you wrestle with feelings of guilt and defensiveness when confronted with reality of racism and its consequences, and that you are no less necessary in the work of dismantling racism. In fact, the opposite is true: we must use every bit of unearned power and privilege afforded us by this racist system to take it apart from the inside out.
The work of reformation is ongoing and is possible only by God’s power and through God’s grace. We are witnesses to that truth. May each of us, in all the ways we can, offer our testimonies to the living, loving, and liberating presence of God – the one who brings power and life to people and places left for dead.