About two weeks ago this country celebrated the life and legacy of Martin Luther King Jr. Here at St. Mark's as we prayed for King's dream to be realized not only in our community but around the nation. Because...let's be honest, King's dream is far from realized. Racism and prejudices continue to run rampant, economic subjugation stymies the American dream to get ahead, and violence often seems to be the only response when no one listens to the voices crying out on the street. These unfortunate circumstances apply to all peoples, not just the African American community, however the current events of police shootings have made the American conscience one again aware of racism.
Coming from a white, middle class, Protestant (Lutheran) perspective on life I am privileged and have never had to worry about any racist consequence from society. However, the reality is that racism is still present. Last week I spoke with one of the founding staff members of the Polar Pack program, Sylvia Neblett, to learn from her experiences of racism growing up.
Sylvia grew up around the U.S. and in Germany as the daughter of an Army sergeant. At a young age she traveled from Washington state across the country by car for the east coast where they would soon move to Germany. On one of the few stops that her family made, her father approached an ice cream restaurant to get get the formula for her infant sibling warmed. At the rough age of six she watched her father approach the side window where a white employee yelled, "Boy! You know better. Go to the back." Sylvia's response as a confused child who was not used to such treatment was to ask her mother, "What did they say to my dad?" Her mother quickly hushed her as they waited for his return with the formula.
Now one might have assumed that Sylvia's mother silenced her so quickly because she did not want attention drawn to themselves as a family traveling across the country. However this was not the case. As an adult Sylvia's mother told her that she was listening to hear if her husband was going to be beaten, stabbed, or shot. Listening was her way of being prepared for the worst and saving the rest of her family.
This is the sad truth of racism in this country's past...but it still lives.
A few weeks ago it was discovered that the North Miami Beach police used mug shots of people from the community, specifically all black men, for target practice at the shooting range. The response from most people was a general disgust for such an action. But some clergy have taken a bold step in responding to this overt racism by posting their picture with the handle "#UseMeInstead." This was a great way for clergy to offer support for the African American community from around the nation, but all of us can do more in our unique contexts.We can't wait for things to resolve by themselves.
Back in 1963, 8 clergy members in the south wrote a letter titled, “A Call for Unity” urging for people to use common sense and the courts to wage the battle for civil rights. Not a terrible idea, but what rights did African Americans in the South have in all reality? When sitting in a restaurant was cause for arrest? The answer is little to none. Martin Luther King Jr. responded to this piece in his work, “Letter from Birmingham Jail.” In it he discusses why there is a deep need for non-violent direct action such as sit-ins and marches to bring the issues of injustice to the forefront of people’s minds, that the status quo of injustice can no longer live.
Yet so often we choose to wait taking the stance, "let’s take a step back and look at things and get a larger perspective." But this waiting has almost always meant never. Justice too long delayed is justice denied. Action is what we are called to do as Christians. So do not think we are not still living with such racism. This type of injustice lives and in fact thrives today. Poverty prohibits healthy food options and are forced to settle for the dollar menu; inequality fails equivalent opportunities in schools; racism blinds the eyes to see only hatred.
Do not be afraid of exercising your voice, your prophetic voice that God has gifted you. It may not be the loudest or clearest, but use it none the less. “I am in
Birmingham because injustice exists here,”
writes King. “I cannot sit idly by in Atlanta
and not be concerned about what happens in Birmingham. Injustice everywhere is a threat
to justice everywhere. We are caught up in an inescapable network of mutuality,
tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly affects all
So too we must not sit, letting the world go by as if we have no power or anything to do in it. We are gifted by God to act in it. Let us live a prophetic life by living out our discipleship to God, live out our gifts, live out justice and righteousness, live on behalf of others. This work of justice is not creating tension, rather it is bringing to the surface the tension and uneasiness that we all seek to suppress, it is as Martin Luther said hundreds of years ago, calling a thing what it is.
So get out of the comfortable confines of yourself, get out into the world and work for God’s Kingdom to reign. Live out your calling as a child of God and do more of God’s work in the world. As disciples we are not called to be stagnant. Not to be sitting idly by. Not to watch the world go on without our participation. Not to let sin run rampant and unchecked. We are called to act, to do, and to bear forth God’s Word to a weary world that is pleading for God’s justice to rain down like manna from heaven.
I imagine some of you are uncomfortable with this message, it may be too extreme. But was not Jesus an extremist for love: “Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to those that hate you and persecute you.” Was not Amos an extremist for justice? “Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever flowing stream.” Was not Martin Luther an extremist? “Here I stand, I can do no other so help me God.” The question of the Christian life is not whether you will be an extremist or not, rather what kind of extremist you will be. Will it be for love or hate, injustice or justice?
This is where God is calling the church into our world, radical involvement and action. Why? How? Look to Jesus. If we don’t the church as the body of Christ will be viewed as weak with an ineffectual voice, the archdefender of the status quo. If today’s church doesn't recapture the prophetic voice and other gifts from God it will lose its authenticity, forfeit the loyalty of millions, and be dismissed as an irrelevant social club with no meaning for the 21st century. We have the awesome responsibility to be God’s people. Get up, stand up, live into the unity God calls for that bears the fruit of God’s Kingdom.
My first step: