Really? In 2016?

Death ThreatI wrote a few weeks ago about my colleague Phil, driving home from a day on campus, only to be stopped by police, forced to lie on the ground and be hand-cuffed.

On Monday, two black women with ties to the ministry I work with had profoundly scary experiences. Charlene, our Director of Black Campus Ministry, was taking care of the yard of white friends of hers when a policeman pulled up and without warning pulled a gun on her, suspecting her of breaking and entering. We have a new crime to add to “driving while black” and “walking while black.” Now there is “taking care of your friend’s property while black.”

I was at the same table in leadership meetings less than two weeks ago with Charlene. I find myself shocked and angered that she was within one false move, or even a nervous twitch, of possibly losing her life. I can vouch that this would be the loss of a wonderful life and gifted leader. I find myself wondering if the police would have given a second thought if it was a white woman in the same setting, or even if the police stopped, whether the response would have been as aggressive.

Sure, I know the dangers police face. My city is grieving the loss of an exemplary officer who died in a hail of gunfire last week. The alleged shooter was a middle-aged white man, suspected of arson. Yet I cannot find in this justification for the terror my colleague faced.

The other instance is even more insidious. Christena is an African-American professor at a distinguished seminary. She spoke at a national conference sponsored by our organization in December and is an author of a book on racial reconciliation published by the publishing house that is part of the organization for which I work. On Monday, she received the death threat reproduced in this post. I apologize for the vulgarity but I think these things need to be brought into the light rather than be hidden in the darkness.

This stuff happens in America. It happens to people I care for. I’m not sure I know what else to do at the moment except to use my “privilege” as a white man to name this evil for what it is–the demeaning of persons who exist in the image of God simply because of the color of their skin. I’m angry because these are sisters in the faith who love the same God and follow the same Jesus I do. I cannot remain aloof from what they are experiencing any more than I can say my foot is not a part of my body.

There has been a lot of push back, particularly in conservative white circles around the BlackLivesMatter movement. Truth is, it is messy. The anti-police rhetoric is not helpful, even if it is wrong that my colleague had a gun pulled on her while tending a friend’s lawn. We cannot raise up one group by demonizing another. But the truth is, ever since we brought the first African slave forcibly to this country, we have been saying Black lives don’t matter. When we said Blacks are just three-fifths of a person, we said their lives don’t matter. When we red-lined Blacks into confined areas of our cities, when we lynched them, we said their lives don’t matter.

When we remain aloof or silent when friends and colleagues like Phil, Charlene, Christena and others are demeaned and put in danger, we act as if their lives don’t matter. I cannot do that any longer. The lives of these, my brothers and sisters in the faith matter. And because they represent so many others who face such indignities, even in 2016, I think it is time for whites, believers or not, who believe in the dignity of their lives as “created equal, with certain inalienable rights” to say their lives matter. At least it is time for this old white guy to say “Black Lives Matter.”


"The Scapegoat" by William Holman Hunt

“The Scapegoat” by William Holman Hunt

Scapegoating. It’s a favorite political activity these days. You identify a particular group of people and blame them for some or all of the nation’s woes. Right now it seems that teachers, public service unions, immigrants, and the police are particularly popular ones. A few years ago “welfare mothers” were popular but that seems to have passed.

The term “scapegoat” comes from the Bible and it is an apt one for what politicians and pundits are doing. The story is in Leviticus 16 and it has to do with dealing with the national sins of the people of Israel. As part of this, two goats were selected. One was sacrificed and the other was the “scapegoat”. The priest would confess the national sins of Israel over the goat, and then it would be led into the wilderness, “bearing” those sins.

The idea is one of making a particular person or persons responsible for the sins or problems of a nation and then sending them into the “wilderness”–socially ostracizing them in some way, treating them as a lesser class of human beings.

It trades on this haunting awareness that nations aren’t what they think they ought to be, that there is something wrong with us. Instead of acknowledging that the problem really is with all of us, in all of the complexity that involves, scapegoats make life simple. For example, one candidate said if he were king, not president, he would abolish teachers lounges.

It’s interesting that we scapegoat the people we trust to teach our children. I suspect most people, when asked, actually think their own children’s teachers do a pretty good job, it is just those “other” teachers. Is what we are dealing with an awareness that our schools, our children are not turning out as we would want them to, which may be a far more complex problem than just our teachers? Could this not also involve school leadership, education funding, media usage, and parents themselves? But that’s complicated, and may put the spotlight on us. Let’s just blame the teachers.

One of the reasons scapegoating works is that you can always find an individual example because, among a group of people, there will always be one. And thus the whole group is suspect, a specious form of logic at best.

I, for one, think this is far from a harmless activity. It can have consequences that impact the liberty, livelihood, and even life itself of people. Nurtured over time, it can even become genocidal as was the case with Hitler’s treatment of the Jews. Tell a lie long enough, loud enough, repeatedly enough and people will believe it to be true and you can use it to incite people to action.

Scapegoating is playing God. Only God could designate scapegoats in the Bible, and there were only two in all of history–the scapegoat of Leviticus, and his own Son, who bore the sins of all humanity. Christians believe that this was enough to deal with individual sins and national sins. No more are needed.

Every country has its problems, but it seems to me that we need the genius and efforts of all our people, and even the industry of those who want to make their home in our country, to address these. A culture of blame and scapegoating will prevent us from seeing the truths about ourselves that may be the real first step to progress. Let’s leave scapegoating to biblical times and to God who may know better about these things.