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Bubble Gum, Black Lives and the Struggle for Truth

by | Sep 3, 2020

When I was four or five years old (the age of my son now), my dad found me in my bedroom closet stuffing my mouth full of grape chewing gum that I had stolen. I snuck the purple pack up and under my white shirt because my dad wouldn’t buy it for me at Walmart.

We headed back to the store straightaway where I confessed what I had done to the cashier. I was petrified and embarrassed.

The cashier? I think she thought it was cute.

That short little story holds so many truths for me. I’ve thought of them often. About responsibility. About fatherhood. About telling the truth even when it’s embarrassing. About how the bubble gum isn’t nearly as good as you think it will be.

I’ve assumed I gained dozens of truths on that day, and then I was done. Like truth is static: You learn it once, and then just keep reflecting on what you learned once.

But today I realize that’s not how truth works. We must keep gaining truths from experiences, even when—especially when—the new truth we come to consider presents a challenge to the truth of which we were once certain.

It’s a struggle.

 

An invitation to struggle for truth.

All of life is a pursuit of truth. It’s a pursuit that comes with struggle. Without struggle, we don’t have truth. We have the ideas, dreams, and myths someone else gave us. They may indeed become truth to us, but not yet. Not before the struggle.

So, I’m inviting you to struggle with me.

I specifically want to invite white people in my community to struggle for truth with me. I’m asking this of you because maybe you have some struggling to do like I do. To get to the truth. To live for the truth.[1]

I’m guessing, like me, you’ll resist the struggle at first. You’ll want to deny the need to. You’ll write off what I’m saying as political. Maybe heretical. Maybe stupid.

It’s strange. We are, on one hand, wired to resist struggle, to maintain homeostasis, the balance our bodies and minds are used to. On the other hand, we are called and destined to struggle for the sake of redemption. For the sake of new, abundant, eternal life.

I want to talk with you about racism. I know. You may be wary of such talk. You might be critical of “Black Lives Matter.” You may be skeptical of people who sound like liberals. Will you trust me for a minute, that I am neither republican nor democrat? In fact, I’ll tell you my bias. I have completely lost faith in both of those political parties. I am trying to follow one person and one person only, Jesus of Nazareth.

I am not talking as an expert on racism. I am not one. I am simply sharing my story of struggling for the truth.

I am speaking to white people because I cannot speak for black people, though my struggle for the truth involves listening to the stories of black people in America.

A note on America. I love the vision of America. That all people are created equal. That all people have the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. I am thankful for all the men and women of all colors who have fought and died to bring this vision to fruition. I also acknowledge as a Christian called to justice by Jesus am struggling with the reality that there is racism in our roots, and those roots have produced the rotten fruit of slavery, lynchings, segregation, and ongoing discrimination and violence.

Here’s the truth that is emerging as I struggle: I used to think that the rotten fruit of racism was mostly in the past. I thought to myself, Yeah, it still happens here and there and rarely, but most of that rotten fruit happened back then with those people, and we’re not like them. We definitely are not to blame for what they did. But, as I struggle, as I pray, and as I listen to black people and friends who are willing to share their stories, I realize this rotten fruit is very much a part of this world, very much a part of right now, and it’s not enough for me to say, Well, I’m not racist.

It may be true that I am not to blame for the violent racism of the past, but I am responsible for the fruit we bear in the present. And the past and present are definitely connected.

Jesus said a tree will be known by its fruit. I don’t care what Republicans say is true. I don’t care what Democrats say is true. I care about what Jesus says is true. I care about what he says about the fruit of my life. I care that he calls me and you to make wrong things right.

 

A Christianity that lacks fruit.

I grew up with a Christianity that was about making some things right. It was a religion of believing in God in a way that affects a person’s individual moral behaviors and a person’s individual salvation.

I learned things like:

Don’t love things or worship people. Love God, worship God alone.

Don’t lie. Tell the truth.

Don’t curse, don’t take the Lord’s name in vain. Tame your tongue.

Don’t disrespect your parents. Honor them.

Don’t drink (too much) or do drugs. Treat your body like a holy temple.

Don’t harbor anger or be rude. Be forgiving and kind.

And so on.

 

All of these teachings and others like them are valuable and can reflect Jesus wonderfully.

But too often this was the only version of following Jesus I heard about in the churches in which I grew up. I was shown a religion that says worship, Bible studies, and individual moral behaviors are the only things that matter. As for wrong things that need to be set right, they exist in you as an individual and in your personal relationship with God. The goal of making those things right is your personal admission into heaven.

What I have just described does not reflect Jesus of Nazareth. At all.

That Jesus comes to set all things right in individuals and society. He announces the kingdom of heaven is near. He says, Behold, I am making all things new.

He comes to fulfill two great commands, Love the Lord your God with all your heart, mind, soul and strength and Love your neighbor as yourself. Two commands, not just the first.

He comes to show us God’s forgiveness, compassion (literally “suffering with” us) and God’s justice, God’s will that wrong things shall be made right. He shows us that God is a God of love who requires love and a God of justice who requires justice.

 

Let’s grow up to justice.

I have been talking about justice in a way I hope my son could understand and be a part of: setting wrong things right in us and in the world we live. And now perhaps a bit past what he could understand, by justice I mean a growing spiritual awareness of what is not right or just in us as individuals and in the society of which we are a part—accompanied by a faithful commitment to set right what is wrong or unjust. To say it another way: What would Jesus do? What did Jesus do?

He said he was sent to liberate the oppressed (Luke 4:18).

He said the religious legal experts of his day who cheated widows out of their homes would be judged most harshly (Luke 20:47).

He subsequently pointed out a widow who gave a penny’s worth of a donation and explained how righteous it was (Luke 21:1-4).

He traveled across a lake to a region where “unclean” folk lived to heal and liberate a man who “lived among the tombs” because he was demon-possessed and spent much of his time in chains (Mark 5:1-20).

Jesus himself was dangled from a tree like a piece of meat after a mockery of a trial to expose how empires do justice. He was raised from that self-sacrificing death to show what God means to do with such injustice.

I could go on and on.

Jesus moves us beyond the morality of confessing stolen bubble gum, important as that is, and invites us to be people of justice like him.

 

Let’s grow up to anti-racism.

Back to the bubble gum.

With the help of many voices and perspectives of black brother and sisters and other friends, I have come to see how that moment of confessing childhood thievery would likely not have been cute for a black child with a black father.

It might have been traumatic. It might have been deadly.

Now you might really be crying, Bull****! Can I ask you to consider a few scenarios?

From the moment my dad and I got in our car to drive to the store, my dad could exceed the speed

limit and only fear a ticket. Is that true for someone who is black? Hear me out. I work alongside the sheriff in my county. I believe him to be an honorable person of faith and integrity. There’s a police officer in a nearby town who’s the best policeman I know, who’s been a person of peace to me and to his community every day. I know those guys put their lives at risk all the time. Still, the question stands: Is it true anywhere and at anytime that being pulled over as a black person is a more traumatic and potentially more dangerous experience than for a white person?

From the moment my dad and I arrived at that retail store, we could walk in the parking lot and worry only about…what would we worry about? We could enter that store with no one—or maybe only a few people and not nearly everyone—wondering whether this white man with his white little boy was a good man. Is it true anywhere that a black man with a black little boy would have been looked on with more suspicion just because he’s black?

And that stolen pack of bubble gum and repentance of it? It was a valuable lesson for me thanks to my dad. And to the cashier, it was honorable, even cute. What if we were black? Might it have ended differently? Is there any chance? If so, racism is here. It is now. It’s our responsibility.

What if Jacob Blake, George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Tamir Rice and so many more were white? Perhaps you’re saying, People who follow the law don’t end up in those situations. Even so, if they were white, do you think there’s any chance it would have changed the facts of what happened? George Floyd said, “I can’t breathe,” and called out for his mother before he died with a man’s knee on his neck. Ahmaud Arbery was gunned down by white civilians in broad daylight. Jacob Blake was shot in the back seven times. You may say that all these men were not law-abiding. Even if that is so, did they deserve the death penalty outside a court of law (let alone inside a court of law)? What about Tamir Rice, that 12-year old boy with his toy gun? Did he deserve the death penalty?

I believe this is all wickedly rotten fruit. But, a friend has helped me to see how part of being white is only seeing those tragedies but not also considering other racist realities, other pieces of rotten fruit.

  • Here’s a snapshot of unjust mass incarceration from Pew Research: “In 2017, blacks represented 12% of the U.S. adult population but 33% of the sentenced prison population. Whites accounted for 64% of adults but 30% of prisoners.”[2]
  • Here’s a glimpse into housing inequality from the National Low Income Housing Coalition: “Twenty percent of black households, 18% of American Indian or Alaska Native (AIAN) households, and 16% of Hispanic households are extremely low-income renters. Six percent of white non-Hispanic households are extremely low-income renters…This racial disparity is the result of higher homeownership rates and higher incomes among white households. Decades of racial discrimination in real estate, lending practices, and federal housing policy have made homeownership difficult to obtain for minorities (Rice & Swesnik, 2012).”[3]
  • According one NPR report, racial disparities in wages boil down to discrimination based on how researches were able to control for other factors that would “reasonably influence” wages.[4]

Whenever such wrongs happen, goodness is threatened everywhere. In his “Letter From Birmingham Jail”, Dr. King said, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”

 

Growing Up to Responsibility

Those of you who are white and consider yourself Christian like I do, do you agree that it is our responsibility to commit our lives to listening to voices of people of color, to learn, and take consistent continued action against racism?

I am speaking as a white Christian to white Christians, because I have not fully understood how proclaiming and showing that black lives matter and must be treated with dignity and with equity everywhere and at all times is a central part of following Jesus here and now. It’s not an act of charity we can do here and there. It has to be a way of life. I am hoping to bear the fruit of anti-racism together. Not fruit of color-blindness. We need to see color, listen to voices of color, believe their experiences and act. Not the fruit of not racist—the root system has too much injustice in it for that to be enough. I’m talking about the fruit of anti-racism—working to see the racism in the roots our hearts, our communities, societies, and working to end it to bear the fruit of justice.[5]

If white people only take up the common good work of anti-racism sometimes and lay it down others, then we are yet again benefiting from our skin color, because people of color cannot take off their skin and rest from the violence of which they could be victims at any moment.

If you are a person of faith like me, then we have no excuse, as I demonstrated above. From beginning to end, the Bible tells us that God requires God’s people to be people of justice. People of God’s justice pay close attention and care to those who are mistreated. People of Jesus’s justice live faithfully to make wrong things right.  For those of us who have been baptized, we have been baptized into this work with Christ. We have been buried with Jesus who was unjustly killed by being hanged from a tree to expose human violence for what it is and to bury it. Despite what our churches may have taught us, the central point of being Christian is not about having our individual sins made right so we can get to heaven. According to Jesus, it is about rebirthing people into a heavenly citizenship so the ways of heaven and will of heaven come to earth. (Have you prayed the Lord’s Prayer recently?) If we are Christians, we must be about the work of justice, and in our time anti-racism is a central part of that work.

 

Growing Up to Action

Friends, I have not arrived. I am trying to listen. I am hoping to learn. I am realizing more and more of of how my heart and life must be changed by grace. I am learning how to act.

As some of us discussed in one of our Sunday conversations, there are practical things we can do here and now (though this is not remotely exhaustive):

  1. Invest in relationships with people of color, and ask permission to be in dialogue. Black people aren’t obligated to educate white people on injustice, but when and if they are willing to speak, we should listen and seek to understand.
  2. Engage more intentionally in relationships with white people. Some of the most critical conversations we will have will be at dinner tables, workplaces, and on telephone calls when no one else is watching. Be anti-racist there.
  3. On that note, let’s make what we do in private—what you do in prayers and reading and one-on-one conversations—as consistent or more consistent than what we do publicly. Let’s not practice anti-racism for show or for a badge. If you’re religious, Jesus spoke against showy religion. He spoke for genuine acts of love and justice. Practice it when no one is watching…and when people are watching.
  4. On that note, pray (or mediate if you’re not religious) and focus your energy and resources. If we don’t do the inner work of contemplation and discernment to help process what we hear and see, we will run the risk of inauthenticity and/or we will either diminish or overestimate our role. You cannot do everything, but you must do the something you are called to do. All that being said, I think it is better to stumble while trying to move forward in anti-racism than to sit still making sure you don’t make mistakes. This piece has mistakes behind it, in it, and after it.
  5. Engage with literature and media written by and featuring people of color. One book that is challenging me—offending me!—to the core is Ta-Nehisi Coates’ book Between the World and Me. I struggling with that one. Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech gets tons of attention for good reason, but I think “Letter From a Birmingham Jail” is the one to read for this time. There are many great follows on Twitter and other social media outlets.
  6. Make local commitments—and stick to them—to work for the common good. It’s important to vote for anti-racist political candidates and to advocate for equal rights with lawmakers. There is also so much we can do with our churches, schools, neighborhoods, local law enforcement and local government. Our church has local partnerships as one of our six values. We work with organizations that are faith-based and not faith-based for the sake of the common good. Is there a small group you can join? If you’re already a part of one, what can you do together to work for justice in your community? Is there something you are called to do in your neighborhood? In your county? Do you know what’s really going on in your county? Working for justice starts with praying, listening and awareness.
  7. Take a step. Then take another. And another. And know there is no greater love than to give up your life for the sake of your friends, especially ones who are suffering because of injustice.

 

One Day

One day, we will face a real Judge—not a cashier—seated on a throne of goodness and justice. We will have to give account of our lives. It won’t just be about our personal moral transgressions, like when I stole grape bubble gum. We will have to answer for how we did or did not act faithfully against what was wrong in our communities and society. In the name of Christ and for the sake of our black and brown brothers and sisters, let’s pray, listen, learn and act.

 

Footnotes:

[1] I am saying “in my community” because I can’t speak for/to all communities everywhere. I am committed particularly to the county where I live and work.

[2] Pew Research Center. John Gramlich. “The Gap Between the Number of Blacks and Whites in Prison is Shrinking.” 30 April 2019. Accessed June 1, 2020. https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2019/04/30/shrinking-gap-between-number-of-blacks-and-whites-in-prison/

[3] National Low Income Housing Coalition. “Racial Disparities Between Extremely Low-Income Renters.” April 15, 2019. Accessed June 1, 2020. Accessed  https://nlihc.org/resource/racial-disparities-among-extremely-low-income-renters

[4] NPR. Gene Demby. “Racial Disparities In Wages Boil Down To Discrimination.” 23 September 2016. Accessed June 1, 2020. https://www.npr.org/sections/codeswitch/2016/09/23/495013420/black-white-wage-gap-racial-disparity-discrimination

[5] This term and way of life has become a part of my awareness thanks to conversations with black friends and colleagues as well various people I follow on social media like @MsPackyetti. I have not yet read Ibram X. Kendi’s book, How to Be An Antiracist, which I have seen many people reference. It is on my list. I am learning how “not racist” is not enough.