Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Hi, I’m Mike, and I’m White

On October 3, 1995, a jury found O. J. Simpson not guilty of the murders of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald Goldman. Watching the news that evening I saw film of a group of young African-Americans—I think they were college students—bursting out in cheers and applause when they heard the verdict.

I was puzzled by their reaction; it seemed to me that they were celebrating a miscarriage of justice. I wondered how anyone could cheer when two people had been brutally murdered and their likely killer had been set free. I had not viewed the trial as “the case of a famous black man who had allegedly killed his white ex-wife and her white friend” but rather as the trial of a man who had allegedly murdered two human beings.

Clearly that group of young people saw it differently.

I suspect that their celebration was not fueled by a belief that Simpson had not committed the crimes and thus an innocent man had been freed. I am certain that they did not think that a person who killed two other people should not be held accountable for his crimes.

I think maybe they were celebrating because the legal system that had in so many cases failed to provide justice to African-Americans had, in a very public way, worked in favor of a black person. Perhaps, while I’m sure those celebrating held no animosity toward the victims and probably felt sympathy for their families, there was even a wry pleasure taken in the very real possibility that Simpson had actually done the deed; after all, how many times had African-Americans been victimized—suspected of, charged with, and even convicted of crimes they did not commit— by the justice system? How many times had it seemed that whites had been unfairly acquitted of crimes against blacks (the trial of the officers accused of beating Rodney King had just occurred in 1992)?

But I’m not black. So I’m hesitant to draw conclusions about what those students were thinking and feeling. I’m admittedly guessing and that’s dangerous.

What I am is a white man who has always lived in a predominantly white culture and so I have difficulty putting myself in the place of someone living as a member of a minority in that culture and dealing with systems of power that seem not to offer justice to me and my kind.

I have listened to African-American commentators talk during the coverage of the Ferguson, Missouri situation—and these are very accomplished, professional people—about how they had to teach their children, and especially their sons, how to act when confronted by a police officer; they offered such advice as “Keep your hands in plain sight” and “Don’t talk back.” The shocking thing to me was that they had to assume that their sons would be so confronted, and probably confronted many times, whether or not they had done anything wrong.

My father never had such a conversation with me. The assumption in our house was that police officers (and all people in authority, for that matter) were our friends who were there to protect us. The further assumption was that if a police officer stopped me he would have a very good reason for doing so and that I’d probably be safer in jail than I would be at home under such circumstances.

So now we have the Ferguson crisis before us. I do not know what actually happened that led to the shooting of Michael Brown by Officer Darren Wilson. I do not know if justice was or was not done in the grand jury’s decision not to indict Officer Wilson. I do know that there are serious systemic issues in Ferguson that hopefully its citizens will work together on improving. I also know that the rioting and looting hurt and don’t help the situation. I know that I have serious questions about the increasing militarization of our law enforcement entities and the possible role it plays in exacerbating such situations.

But I don’t know how black people in Ferguson, Missouri feel. Shoot, I don’t know how black people anywhere feel. How could I? I’m a white man in Fitzgerald, Georgia.

Truth be told, I have to admit that I don’t know how other white people feel, either. Sometimes some of them say and do things that puzzle me just as much as did the reaction of that group of black students to the Simpson verdict. As a matter of fact, I don’t know how anybody else feels. And sometimes I’m not real sure that I really know how I feel.

It seems to me that one key to improving race relations and other kinds of relations in this country is for each one of us to face up to who we are and to how our individual identity is shaped by such factors as race, economic status, education, sexuality, religion, genetics, and community. We need to understand and accept who we are, insofar as we are able to see who we are, so that we can analyze the place from which we begin to deal with situations that challenge our societal relationships and with the people involved in those situations and relationships.

As for me, I’m a white straight middle-class professional Protestant Southern male who is respected in my community so that the assumption about me of those in power is that I am not in any way a threat to anybody. While I would not go so far as to say that I’m treated with deference, I would go so far as to say that I am always given the benefit of the doubt. If it’s a close call, I can live comfortably in the knowledge that it’s probably going to go my way.

In other words, I have it made; the only way I could have it more made in this country, or at least in my part of it, would be to have more money.

It is very helpful for me and my kind to remember that before we claim to know too much and before we talk too much about the experiences and reactions of people who don’t have the privilege of having it made.

Oh, I forgot to mention that I’m a follower of Jesus Christ. It seems to me that that reality really ought to have a good bit of impact on how I feel about, think about, pray about, and treat other people, even those that I don’t understand.

Which is, after all, everybody …

Monday, November 24, 2014

So Very Kind of Pretty Much Thankful

On the one hand, I have an easy time giving thanks.

On the other hand, I have a difficult time giving thanks.

Let me try to explain.

Giving thanks comes easy to me because I have so very much for which to be thankful.

I am thankful for my family. My Good Wife and I have been married now for going on thirty-seven years; I am thankful for the love, grace, commitment, tenacity, and joy that have characterized our relationship so that it has been fulfilling as well as enduring. Our two children are grown, educated, employed, out of our house, and happily married. I am so thankful.

I am thankful for my career. I sensed God calling me to the ministry over four decades ago and I have been privileged to pursue and to live out that calling ever since. While my ministry has taken various forms and my career has careened down some interesting paths, I have had and still have a career that intrigues and challenges me and hopefully does some good in the lives of some folks. I am so thankful.

I am thankful for my growing wholeness. I can honestly testify that at this point, after almost six decades of living, I am relatively sound in my spirit. Given the struggle that it has always been for me to have a sense of peace, I am most grateful to be at the place I am. I do not think that I am as whole and sound as I will become; I also know that things will happen that will challenge even the level of wholeness and soundness at which I think I have arrived. Life is, after all, a journey. Still, because of the grace shown to me by the Lord in allowing me to learn some ways to approach proactively the development of our relationship, I am spiritually healthier than I have ever been. I am so thankful.

Yes, I am truly thankful. And yet I have difficulty expressing whole-hearted thanks. Why is that?

I think—I hope—it’s because of my love for other people, a love that has grown as my sense of being loved by God and as my love for God have grown.

So while I am thankful for my family I am also mindful of people who have no family, whose families are busted and broken, and whose families are characterized by manipulation and by abuse.

So while I am thankful for my career, I am also mindful of those who are unemployed, who are underemployed, who are in unsatisfying careers, or who find no meaning in their work other than the making of money.

So while I am thankful for my increased and increasing wholeness, I am also mindful of those who are struggling, who see no light at the end of their particular tunnel, and who would give anything to believe that there is a God who loves and cares for them.

I think—I hope— that it is my growing and developing Christian faith that causes me simultaneously to be thankful and not thankful. On the one hand, I am so thankful to God for all the blessings that are mine. On the other hand, how can I be truly thankful so long as so many others are struggling to find the blessings for which I am so thankful in my own life?

So during this Thanksgiving week as I give thanks to God for all of my blessings I am also asking God to bless those who are struggling to know blessing—and to show me how to help them and thereby bless them.

Perhaps you will join me in such prayers …

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Top 10 Reasons that Baptists Should Attend Their Church's Business Meetings

#10: Because it’s when we decide how the money we give is going to be spent (so if you're not there we assume you don't give anything or don't give enough to care what we do with it).

#9: Because there’s no sermon.

#8: Because it’s an exercise in Baptist thinking and practice; we take that priesthood of the believer, soul competency, and church autonomy stuff so seriously that we actually let anyone talk and everyone vote and we live by the decisions that we make.

#7: Because since anyone can bring up anything they want and can say anything they want you sometimes hear some really interesting and even entertaining things.

#6: Because decisions affecting the life, ministry, and witness of the whole church are made and so it’s important that the entire church be represented.

#5: Because you get to experience the dynamics and discussion firsthand and so when folks are talking to you in the days following the meeting about what happened in the meeting you’ll be able to be a well-informed participant in the conversations rather than have to accept what you hear second or third or fourth or fifth hand.

#4: Because it’s great practice at speaking the truth in love.

#3: Because it’s an expression of our joint commitment as Christians to worshiping God, to following Jesus, to serving our community and our world, and to loving each other with the love of Christ.

#2: Because it's one way that we demonstrate that we take seriously our responsibility as members of Christ’s Church.

And the #1 reason that you should attend your church's business meetings: You never know what will happen. You just never know