Saturday, December 13, 2014

Wearing black, seeking justice

John 1:6-8, 19-28

This week, I asked Barb to send out an email asking you all to participate in sending a message to put an end to targeting Black men in the US. The letter asked you all to wear black today as a symbol of standing up against injustice. I want to start by sharing a few observations from my own life.

·         I was born on the south side of Chicago, and lived in an apartment building in a neighborhood that was mostly European immigrants. I had lots of Swedish relatives in the area.
·         By the time I was four, African Americans were beginning to move to our neighborhood, and my parents did what many other white families did; we moved to the suburbs.
·         The black population in my high school was about 20%. There were a few – a very few – black kids in my college prep classes. I knew there were black students I enjoyed being with, and white kids I prefered to avoid. My mother said to me, “You can date a black boy, but don’t you ever plan to marry him!”
·         While my sons were in school, there was an expensive legal battle to prevent the school district from annexing a section of mostly white students away from a mostly black school district. The people in the white district had wanted better schools for their children.
·         The world administrative headquarters of Whirlpool is in Benton Harbor, Michigan. Executives there earn big bucks. However, in the days before black families were shown very different housing opportunities than were white families.
·         After my divorce, I bought a house I could afford in a mixed neighborhood. Next to me on one side was a single gay man with a beautiful yard and two cats. On the other side was a black family. Two years later, I sold the house so I could move to seminary. A school teacher who lived across the street asked me, “Do you know if the buyer is white?”
·         I have shared with you before my concern when I was nearing a corner in Chicago near the seminary. I crossed the street in the middle of the block in order to avoid a group of young black men.
·         In my first congregation, I was delighted when a black woman married to a white man joined the church. She had some much-needed gifts and skills, and he was a delightful person. Suddenly, they were missing, with no notice. There was a rumor that one of the church members had said something offensive to the woman, apparently a racial slur. We never saw her again.
·         Some of our grandchildren are black, adopted intentionally because their parents wanted to make a difference in the lives of a few children. Their parents have experienced prejudice when in public places with their children.
While we like to pretend that racism has ended, it still exists. I have tried for several weeks to tiptoe around the issue of justice and injustice as regards the recent killing of black men by white police officers. I have said I want justice for all, and similar statements. Yet such statements really whitewash what I have been thinking.
The simple yet powerful symbol of many people wearing black during worship on Sunday sends a message to our black friends that we agree that excessive violence is unjust. It is unjust whenever and wherever it occurs, in the arrest and shooting of a suspect, as well as in the riotous burning of neighborhoods.
We point at the justice system in this country and say the laws provide for fairness for all people. But the laws are enforced mostly by imperfect people, imperfect police officers, imperfect lawyers, imperfect jury members, and imperfect “regular” citizens.
It does not make sense to us that white police officers would take their commitment to protect and serve, and then answer the call to stop crime by shooting to kill unarmed men. It does not make sense that a police officer would continue to use a chokehold – a forbidden move that the officer calls a legal head lock – even after the offender cries repeatedly that he can’t breathe. Excessive violence leads to death.
I also agree that it does not make sense that riots cause the destruction of shops and businesses that serve the very community where these men live. This violent response is equally excessive. Sometimes, of course, these shops are owned by predatory white people, charging unjust prices for basics like food. Black people are frustrated, tired of being victimized, tired of the status quo. Conditions in the hood must change.
Policing in the “hood” – the neighborhood -- is dangerous business. Black and white officers alike put their lives at risk every time they enter the hood. Some of the black men who have been killed by police officers have been suspects, even known criminals. They deserve to be arrested. They are not innocent victims. They have been involved in crimes and know they are disobeying the law. In some cases they have been killed while violently resisting arrest. In contrast, however, white men carrying a gun and resisting arrest are less likely to be killed by a police officer.
Prosecution rates tell an important story. Almost half of the men in prison in the US are black, even though blacks make up only 14% of the US population. There are some sociological reasons for this statistic: poverty, single parenting, teen pregnancy, the pressure to join gangs; despair that life will never get better. People living in the “hood” are often living in deeper darkness than we white folks can ever know about.
I remember a black mother in Chicago telling me that her son told her that he did not expect to live to be 21. She had already buried two other sons. The “hood” is a violent place to live, and a scary place for police officers to serve.  
For many years – decades, actually -- black churches have been standing up against such conditions, such violence, such racism. We remember and honor Martin Luther King and many others for their witness to us. White churches are beginning to join them in protesting the injustice of black men being singled out as violent criminals.
Our youth ‘get it.’ Last week I asked this question. If Jesus was going to be born today, where would it be? Their answer: “The Hood.” Jesus would be born where we least expect to see him. Jesus would be born to a young, single, black woman, living on food stamps, trying to stay in school so she can earn enough money to get out of the hood. She can’t even work at McDonald’s, because there are no McDonald’s in her neighborhood.
… John the Baptist stood at the river’s edge, baptizing and calling people to pay attention.  In John’s gospel, baptism is not the big deal it is in the other gospels. In John’s Gospel, John the Baptist points at Jesus. He refutes repeatedly claims that he is the Messiah. “No, I am not the messiah. No, I am not Elijah. No, I am not the prophet. But, I can point to the one who is the Messiah. He is right here, in our mist, today. You think I am great, but I am nothing compared to him.” John points to Jesus and away from himself.
John called the people to see that light was about to break into their darkness. It was light such as had never been seen before. It was light that shone into the dark places of the world and changed everything.
In days such as this in America, do we not need more light? Do we not need more truth, more exposure of the darker aspects of our society? Do we not really need Jesus to help us shine the light more strongly right now?
Jesus’ light shines through us. Are you willing to let the light we claim shine through you? Are you willing to be among those who stand up and say that we have had enough of this violence? Are you willing to seek ways right here in Citrus and Marion counties to expose the darkness of violence and change it by the very act of exposing and objecting to it?
As we choose to stand up against violence, we point to what we believe.  We point to Jesus who can help us change the world by shining his light into the darkest corners in our community.
To do this in our part of the world, we will need to partner with other congregations and organizations. This is a benefit of being part of Christians United in Christ. We already know a lot of potential partners. At minimum, we can participate in King Day celebrations in January. We can do more, but it will require the commitment of all of us, and the intentional work of a few willing to explore deeper relationships – in this case with our Black sisters and brothers who have much more experience with this than we do.
As we prepare for Jesus’ coming into our midst once more as an infant, let’s consider where his light needs to shine more brightly. How will you let Jesus’ light shine through you? In what ways do you resist its movement in your life?

Please pray with me. Lord of Light, John pointed to you and your coming ministry. You shine your holy light into all parts of our world, including the darkest corners. Help us to point to you always and bring your light with us wherever we go. Amen