By Rev. Ruth Hawley-Lowry,
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Our nation has a problem. It is not a “black” problem or a “white” problem — or any hue in between — but a human problem that we all succumb to — and have the power to change. Our beloved nation was NOT “conceived in liberty” OR “dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal,” despite President Lincoln’s well intentioned words. That was the hope but it has never been the reality.
Many of my African-American sisters and brothers are furious. Yet another child has been felled. The challenge is this — if a tree falls in the forest and white folks don’t hear it, does it make a noise? Many of us who are white do not have the contextual experience or the “ears to hear” (in Jesus’ words) to understand the fear and the fury.
More than a decade ago I pastored in a community that was predominately African-American. It grew from 72 percent to 98 percent African-American in just seven years as a result of “white flight.” In the course of this time the police force struggled because it didn’t listen to the people. Most of the officers were white and could legally live up to 30 miles away; as a result many (including the chief) lived in another state.
At one heated meeting the police chief informed us what we “could” and “could not” do as we discussed community initiatives that included the older white and adolescent black residents in conversation and collaboration. Finally, as the pastor of one of the larger churches in town, I stood up and said, “Chief, please understand that we are not asking for your permission. We are telling you what we, as citizens of this town, are going to do. Now we need to know — are you with us? Or not?” The African-American residents stood and clapped loudly. I witnessed their pain and the reason for what some perceived as “paranoia” but what I knew to be legitimate fury.
In Archbishop Desmond Tutu’s book “God Has a Dream” he writes: “Perhaps it is our deep human understanding of what Africans call Ubuntu that we admire those who work not just for their own gain but for the common good.” Indeed, when my husband was hospitalized, one of his supervisors phoned. I greeted him and asked, “How are you?” Our friend (who is African) said, “I do not know. I cannot answer that until I know how YOU are.”
We see racial division lines broadening and the gulf becoming greater. However, this is NOT because of African-Americans (or even having an African-American president, despite some spurious suggestions). It is because, even after all these years, we who have privilege do not listen. I hesitate to write that, because I know from experience some people will stop reading at this point. However, please know that if you do not fear the police — and if you don’t have a sick feeling in your gut every time your teen child runs to the grocery story — you have privilege. My friends who have children with dark skin are besides themselves every day and for good reason.
During this latest conflagration in Gaza, where the violence inflicted on those in Gaza is disproportionate to those in Israel, Naomi Wolf (a Jew) lamented and reflected on her life of hearing the promise: “Never Again” a Jewish Holocaust. She queried: “What if we Jews understood our spiritual mission just a bit differently? What if ‘Never Again’ which you hear constantly growing up Jewish meant, never again for anybody?”
So, my fellow Americans, what if we start to live into the promise and hope for liberty for everyone? What if we hope to believe and live like everyone is created equal? What if we actually lived like everyone IS my neighbor?
An older Jewish gentleman interviewed by the “Humans of New York” told his story. His Jewish family fled Europe and eventually went to the Philippines, which was overtaken by the Japanese. He recollected:
. . . soon we were discovered by Japanese soldiers. They lined us all up against the wall to be executed. We begged and begged and begged for our lives. They finally allowed my mother and the children to step aside, but they told my father to stay. My mother dropped to her knees and asked the Japanese commander to imagine it was his family. And he finally let all of us go.
What if it was YOUR family? What if Trayvon Martin was YOUR son? What if Renisha McBride was YOUR daughter? What if Eric Garner was YOUR brother? What if Jordan Davis was YOUR grandson?
When Emmett Till was murdered in August of 1955 his mother, Miss Mamie, insisted that his casket be opened to reveal the evil imposed on him from the hatred and fear of others. The Rev. Dr. Freddy Haynes recently preached at New York’s Riverside Church and noted that Miss Mamie did this to “expose the hypocrisy of the American practice of democracy.” Sadly, this hypocrisy is as present now as it was in 1955 as it was when President Lincoln gave the Gettysburg address 150 years ago. At this point in Ferguson, Missouri several parts of the Bill of Rights have been infringed upon — including the freedom of speech, freedom of the press and the right to peaceably assemble. We can live into who we yearn to be only when we admit what we aren’t. Really — what if it IS YOUR family? What if Michael Brown was YOUR child? If you really want the America we pretend to have, we must recognize that our silence and complicity have assisted in the continued death of OUR children. And we ALL need to ask — when will it end?
The Rev. Ruth Hawley-Lowry graduated from Hope College and Princeton Theological Seminary and has pastored urban churches in the NYC, Chicago, and Grand Rapids, MI areas.