If we hope that meaningful societal change can come out of the civil unrest displaying righteous anger after the murder of George Floyd by a white Minneapolis police officer, we're going to have to do several things. At the top of the list: Listen to each other more attentively and focus not on individual prejudice but, rather, on systemic racism.
In fact, I think the term racism should be reserved for systems that wield power. Systems can be racist, while individuals acting as individuals are best described as prejudiced or bigoted. Racism requires actionable power.
It's no longer enough (and, in fact, never was enough) for individual white Americans to treat individual Americans of color with respect. Yes, that's necessary, but that doesn't fix broken systems (policing, education, employment, transportation, housing, on and on) that keep society's knee on the necks of black and brown people.
In this RNS interview, two black leaders make that point well. Jemar Tisby, author of The Color of Compromise: The Truth about the American Church’s Complicity in Racism, which I wrote about here last year, says this:
"We also need relationships. It’s hard to love somebody you don't know. The problem, especially with white evangelical Christians, is that they tend to stop there because they think the problem of racism is primarily how I feel and act individually towards someone else. That's things like using a racial slur, excluding someone from your business. So if that's the problem, then the solution is, well, then I'm going to treat people nicely, and some of my best friends are black. What they fail to realize is that racism operates on a systemic level, too."
And the Rev. Tyler Burns, pastor of New Dimensions Christian Center in Pensacola, Florida, says one of the necessary answers is "putting in place systems that directly address the racism that is evident and flourishing within so many white churches and white Christian spaces. And that takes root, as Jemar was mentioning, in so many of our places of power, in the way that we spend our money."
It's important for people of faith to be angry about the right things -- not trivialities -- and to seek systemic solutions. Christians can use Jesus as a model for that.
If, for instance, you read the story in John 2 and Mark 11 of when Jesus overturned the money-changing tables in the Jerusalem temple, you discover that he was angry not at individual money changers or dove sellers but, rather, at a system that oppressed poor people.
Jesus wanted people treated fairly, which wasn’t happening, and it made him angry enough to take action because God’s house was being desecrated.
In Mark’s version of the story, after Jesus turned over the tables used for currency exchange, he quoted the Prophet Isaiah (56:7), who, in turn, was quoting God: “My house shall be called a house of prayer for all the nations.”
Almost any time you see the word “nations” in the New Testament, it refers to non-Jews, or Gentiles. So in this case, Jesus seems to be addressing the fact that all this buying and selling of animals for temple sacrifice was going on in what was called the Court of the Gentiles, which was the outer space in the temple. From the outside to the inside, there was the Court of the Gentiles, then the Court of the Women, then the Court of the Israelites, then the Court of the Priests.
If Gentiles were there to pray — which happened often enough that such Gentiles were given the name God Fearers — they were restricted to the Court of the Gentiles. In that court the noisy marketing of animals made it almost impossible to think, much less pray. In other words, the system wasn’t set up to be a good neighbor to non-Jews, despite the repetitive teaching that Jews were always and everywhere to welcome the stranger.
So the goal of Jesus was to call attention to broken systems.
That should be society's goal now, too. It's not enough for individual police officers to treat individual people of color kindly. Instead, our whole system of policing needs to be overhauled, including not assigning police to be first responders in cases of domestic violence, mental illness and similar matters.
At any rate, the interview with Tisby and Burns offers more insights into how people of faith can begin responding sensibly and effectively to current conditions in the U.S. I hope you'll give it a read -- and give Tisby's book a read, too.
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LOOK FOR NON-PROFIT PROPHETS
The Catholic writer Fr. Thomas Reese has some good ideas in this column for how to tell real prophets from fake ones these days. He writes: "Religion can be a political prop or a prophetic voice. History should teach religious leaders not to get in bed with political leaders. Religious and political leaders can work together for the common good, but they should be enriching the community, not each other. A prophet can speak courageously about issues, but when he starts endorsing political parties and candidates, he is no longer speaking for God."
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P.S.: Would it help to hear someone who lives overseas cheering on the American people as we struggle with not just the pandemic but the hopeful and widespread reactions to the murder of George Floyd? Then give this piece a read. It's by my friend Markandey Katju, a former justice on India's Supreme Court. We were schoolmates for a time in India when we were boys. Note: In the seventh paragraph, the words "swimming schools" should be "swimming pools."