Spotting Injustice In the Moment

One of the most insidious dimensions of having power and privilege is that you often can’t see one’s power and privilege in the moment.  This is particularly true when we are in a moment of crisis.  In the moment of crises, we unconsciously (or in some cases, consciously) tap into our power and privilege when our survival instinct kicks in.  It’s when we have the luxury of looking back from our position of safety that we bother to deconstruct the injustice of how things played out.

I’ve known this to be true for many years.  I am seeing a powerful example of this play out now right before my eyes.  Let me tell you what I’m talking about.

Last spring and summer – in the days following the murders of Ahmaud Arbery, George Floyd, and Breonna Taylor – people understandably and rightfully took to the streets to protest the long-standing pattern whereby some law enforcement figures targeted Black Americans in the use of excessive violence.  The refrain was that we need to look at systemic expressions of racism and address them.

“Absolutely!” I would agree.

But did we mean ALL forms of systemic racial injustice, or just those forms involving the police …

Fast forward seven months to the rollout of the COVID vaccine.

The early numbers indicate we are currently experiencing a profound racial imbalance in those who are receiving the first doses of the vaccine.  There was a great article in the Los Angeles Times today (sadly tucked away in Section B rather than the front page) that discussed the racial disparity in those receiving COVID vaccinations.  They cited a statistic that indicated the rate of Latino deaths (40 deaths per 100,000) is nearly three times that of whites (13 deaths per 100,000)!

There are a lot of systemic factors that play into it.  Access to health care via health insurance and access to technology that speeds up the sign-up process being just two of the factors.

What amazes me is that so many people who talked about the importance of addressing systemic racial injustice when it came to one issue (police reform) are now looking the other way when it comes to another racial injustice (health care access) in order to benefit from the injustice.

Of course, the matter of COVID vaccines isn’t the only way this manifests itself.  Sadly, there are so many areas of our society where it is so difficult to see one’s power and privilege when we are in the midst of a crisis.

I wanted to share my thoughts on this matter as a way of provoking us (myself included!) to be more aware of our power and privilege in the moment.  For while it is important to protest injustices after they occur – it can be even more powerful to identify those injustices while they are happening and refuse to participate in them.

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Individual Rights and Community Well Being

After a long break, I’m excited to return to writing.  Today’s question comes from Yvette.  Yvette actually submitted the question a month ago, but I was too tired to respond.  I’ve caught my second wind and am now ready to respond.

Yvette wrote: “Pastor Craig my comment is actually a question of Christianity— why do so many ‘Christians’ put their ‘freedoms’ above the teachings of Christ and still claim Christianity?? IE— wearing a mask of COVID19 to protect his fellow brother and sister?? I am truly baffled.”

Great question, Yvette!  I am bafflected – and saddened – by the way so many people of faith have responded to the COVID crisis as well.  Let me see if I can respond based upon my experience.

In a perfect world, those who follow Jesus would be SO committed to that journey that they would be able to rise above the social context in which they live (i.e. the prejudices and biases) and walk exclusively in the ways of Jesus.

Sadly, that has rarely been the case.  Like most folks, followers of Jesus tend to get shaped by the culture and times in which they live.  Instead of using Jesus’ radical vision and values to reshape the world, they instead use the world’s vision and values to reshape their understanding of Jesus.

Let me give you an example.  Many followers of Jesus, for instance, grew up in a society that reviled and persecuted LGBTQ+ people.  The persecution and revulsion was often embraced in the name of Jesus.  When the laws began to change and treat LGBTQ+ people as if they were equal, these followed of Jesus ignored biblical injunctions that said, “If anyone says, ‘I love God,’ and hates his brother, he is a liar; for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen cannot love God whom he has not seen” (1 John 4:20 – ESV) and instead screamed that their First Amendment Rights were being violated that allowed them to discriminate/hate on their sister or brother.  Notice their appeals for the right to discriminate are based on the Constitution and NOT Scripture.  I have wept many times over how regularly some have tried to twist Jesus to justify their bigotry.

Of course, this is not a new phenomenon.  It has been going on for centuries.  Those who participated in the slave trade in this country four hundred years ago used certain passages of Scripture such as the book of Philemon to justify the existence of slavery.  In the late 19th and early 20th Century, many followers of Jesus used the pastoral letters in the New Testament to justify their decision to deny women the right to vote.  I could go on and on with examples of these horrors, but I think you get the idea.

In all of these cases, individuals are elevating THEIR personal agendas (and their personal interpretations of Scripture) over what’s called the metanarrative of the Christian Faith (i.e. “The most important [commandment] is this : ‘Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one.  Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength.  The second is this: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’  There is no commandment greater than these” – Mark 12:29-31 – NIV).

That’s the part from which many followers of Jesus need to repent: putting our perspective over Jesus’ ways in ways that denied our love of neighbor.  As the first Republican President of the United States – Abraham Lincoln – said so powerfully over 150 years ago: “Sir, my concern is not whether God is on my side; my greatest concern is to be on God’s side, for God is always right.”

Which takes me to the other half of the equation: our cultural obsession with elevating the desires of the individual over the welfare of the community.  This is something that was created not just by those who profess to follow Jesus – but by people of many traditions, and no traditions.  It’s not only the followers of Jesus who have put the individual before all else.

If we are ever going to move forward and care about the welfare of others/community, each of us will have to find a way to balance individual rights with the community good in our own lives and relationships.  It’s going to take hard work.

I am certainly committed to balancing what – in my religious tradition (The United Church of Christ) is referred to as the balance of autonomy (individual) with covenant (relationships with God and others).  My question for each reader is this: “What will YOU do to balance the rights and demands of the individual with the welfare of the community?”

The only way we can solve this challenge is if each and every one of us – Christian or not – commits to doing our part to restore the balance.

So what do you think?

Also, what other questions are on your mind as we start this new year?  Thanks Yvette for getting us started in 2021!

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An Important Message for Our Times

My friend Stevie sent me this link to a 2017 Ted Talk by Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks. The title is “How We Can Face the future without Fear”. In these days following the election, Rabbi Sacks offers words that can move us forward – together.

I hope you will listen to the 12:36 message. Please feel free to share your responses as well.

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Two days ago, I asked my readers what was on their minds.  I received two responses right away.  I wrote about the first response yesterday.  Today, I want to share my thoughts about the second response from Beverly.  She wrote: “I’ve been thinking a lot about accountability. Mostly my own accountability toward people who suffer from systems that benefit me, but also how to balance holding others accountable for their behavior against staying in relationship with them. How can I ensure that I don’t enable others’ bad behavior (toward me or those more vulnerable) by offering them an unconditional relationship? Or if I choose to make the relationship conditional on observing certain boundaries, how do I set those boundaries in a way that is healthy for both my own ethical well-being and the relationship?”

For the last several weeks I’ve been preaching a steady message of “love your enemy” and the importance of living in unity to the degree that’s possible.  Lots of folks have pushed back hard given these difficult and polarized days.  Beverly’s comments give me a perfect opportunity to respond to these valid concerns.

In talking with those who have pushed back against the words attributed to Jesus in the Gospels, I realized immediately that many folks equate “loving your enemies” with keeping one’s mouth quiet and not challenging a “loved” one’s positions.  They assume loving your enemy means we are supposed to an enabling doormat that encourages others with VERY different visions of – and values for – the world to take over.

Whenever I face these assumptions, I am so grateful for the opportunity I had to teach in a juvenile detention center when I was just 22.  Let me tell you about the experience, and how that experience helps me respond to the question.

The school in the juvenile detention center was based upon a strict behavior modification system that went to great lengths to separate a person’s words and behaviors from the person’s value and worth as human being.

Six hours a day – 48 weeks a year – I spent my time verbally addressing words and behaviors that were inappropriate and doling out consequences in a way that empowered the students/offenders to make choices that would define the nature of our relationship.  If, for instance, a student/offender decided to use her/his pencil as a weapon against another person; the student/offender knew that the consequence would be a security officer would be called to the classroom and she/he would be escorted to her/his cell where the individual would remain until the individual was ready to return to the classroom and abide by the rules.

At first, the students/offenders would lash out and blame others (i.e. the teacher or aide who doled out the consequence) for their punishment.  Over time, however, most students/offenders grew to understand that the staff deeply cared for them.  It was that genuine concern that motivated the staff to spell out the boundaries as well as the consequences for violating them.

When we disciplined the student/offender, we would typically walk them through the process.  The conversation would go something like, “What’s the consequence for using your pencil as a weapon?”  “Removal from the classroom.”  “So, what did you just do?”  “I used my pencil as a weapon.”  “So what am I going to do now?”  “You are going to buzz the security officer to come get me.”  “And what’s going to happen then?”  “I’ll will lose the ability to attend school until I’m ready to follow the rules.”

I can hear what some of you are thinking.  “That might work in a tightly controlled situation like a detention school classroom, Pastor Craig, but it would NEVER work in the real world.”

I know some think that.  I have used a similar approach, however, in a wide variety of situations over the past 31 years.

When I’m having a difficult political conversation with someone, for instance, about the recent protests and someone uses offensive language to talk about the participants, I will find a point when I can interrupt them and say, “I understand that the situation is frustrating.  And I get that it’s easy to use words we might normally not use when we get frustrated.  With that said, however, I don’t participate in conversations that use offensive words about people I care about.  And I personally care about those on the streets working for racial justice.  So, I’m going to end our time together now.  If we want to come back and talk about how to address the deeper issues that drove so many people to the streets – issues like systemic racial injustice and abuse of authority – I’ll be happy to talk AS LONG AS we both agree to communicate in ways that respect both of our perspectives.”

I have said words like that many, many times.  And when I said those words, I have not hated the person I said them to.  I might have hated the words they used.  I might have been angry about their unfair portrayal of a situation.  But I haven’t hated the person her or himself.

In those instances, I try to focus on the love that God has for that person.  And if I can’t figure out how I can tap into that love and exhibit God’s love for the person through my words or behavior, then I remind myself I’m a part of the Body of Christ (and for my friends of other faiths or no faith, a community bigger than myself) where another person might be able to express love for them in ways that I can’t.  That frees me up to move one and not get trapped living in a place of anger, resentment, or animosity.

So that’s how I try to deal with the challenge of loving my enemies in a way that does not enable my enemies nor violate my values and ethics.

So how about you?  How do you negotiate difficult relationships and times in ways that don’t cause you to lose yourself to hatred and anger?

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Feeling Overwhelmed …

Yesterday I asked readers what was on their minds.  Here is the first of two responses I received.  I will reply to the second response from Beverly tomorrow.

The first response came from Cheri.  She wrote: “So much! COVID – just learned I was exposed, the election and the likely unrest no matter the outcome, the ongoing riots, teaching grandkids and an extra 5th grader via Teams/Zoom. It becomes overwhelming.”

Thanks for your response.  I appreciate your honesty, Cheri, and truly feel for the depth of your challenges!

These days are some of the most challenging I’ve lived through in my 53 years – not just because of the number of challenges we face.  What seems unique is how many challenges are coming at us simultaneously.  We barely have time to catch our breath before something else is thrown our way.  It’s no wonder we are overwhelmed!

So how do we deal with it?

I know each of us has had to develop our own coping mechanisms.  I’ll share four strategies that have gotten me through the past seven months.  Please keep in mind that I know it is not possible to enact these strategies perfectly.  Rather, I use these strategies to inform the way I approach each day.

Strategy #1 – Resist my drive to multi-task 24/7 so I can be as present as possible to what I’m doing in any given moment.

Strategy #2 – Pour my time and energy into those things I can control.

Strategy #3 – Let go of those things that are beyond my control.

Strategy #4 – Carefully monitor what I am putting into my mind, body, and soul to ensure I’m consuming healthy, life-giving nutrients.

Those are the most important strategies I’ve employed to get me through the challenges so far.  What about you?  What strategies have you been using to survive these tumultuous times?

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