Marty Kuchma, Senior Pastor
How we look at the world affects our understanding of it, and how we understand the world shapes how we might act to change it. As we intentionally engage as a congregation in the work of anti-racism, we will do well to look more broadly and deeply at what is happening in the world around us.
At this moment, for example, I am quite interested to see what happens in the trial of the Dallas police officer, Amber Guyger, who shot a black man, Botham Jean, who was in his own apartment eating popcorn on his sofa. As I write, the case is just beginning. So far, it looks like the defense is going to emphasize that Guyger said 22 times that she thought she was in her own apartment and was defending herself from an intruder, while the prosecutors are trying to make the case that she would have had to overlook many obvious identifiers that the apartment she was entering was in fact not hers. I have also heard speculation that the officer and the man she killed had an ongoing feud as neighbors, and that the shooting may have been an outgrowth of that.
What I am most sure of is that I wasn’t there and there is so much I don’t know and never will know about what happened on that fateful night. May the judge and jury be blessed with the gift of discernment and a clear sense of equal justice for all. And in issuing their ultimate judgment, may they account for the pervasive cultural bias and persistent racism that are intricately interwoven into this case.
There are bigger issues surrounding the events now under review in that Dallas courtroom. Even if Guyger did think she was entering her own apartment, and even if she was too tired or distract-ed or whatever to notice the clues that might have deterred her from entering the apartment belonging to someone else, my question has to do with why it seems to be so easy to shoot unarmed black men. Jean, according to all that I have heard, presented no real threat whatsoever to Guyger. He didn’t have a weapon. He didn’t lunge at her or make any kind of threatening move toward her. He didn’t raise his voice at her. And he was across the room. So why did she feel free to unleash the deadly force that ended the life of an innocent man who was simply making his way through another day? And would the result have been the same if the person Guyger encountered in whoever’s apartment it was was white?
If we step back, we realize that the shooting took place within a larger context of race and privilege. Indeed it happened in a nation that has dealt disastrously with race for 400 years since the arrival of the first ship bear-ing captive slaves from Africa. It happened within a society in which white dominance is the unchallenged status quo. And it happened within institutional structures that systemically withhold equity and equality from people of color who are continually held back and beaten down.
Systemic racism limits where people can live, for example, which in turn determines where they can go to school, which in turn influences the quality of education they can receive, which in turn has impact on their ability to earn money and obtain wealth, which in turn contributes to the general quality of life. All of that takes place against the backdrop of law enforcement and criminal justice systems that disproportionately dis-advantage people of color compared to people who are white, and that routinely disrupt families and whole communities. And there are historic and ongoing efforts to limit the electoral power of people of color, denying fundamental rights to make decisions that matter. Indeed just this week a group of citizens filed a lawsuit against the State of Mississippi for resurrecting a portion of the state’s 1890 Constitution that established electoral laws with the stated purpose of preserving “white supremacy.”
At some level, fighting racism is about monitoring and managing interpersonal and group interactions, ensuring that all people treat all other people with dignity and respect. But, much more significantly, fighting racism is about addressing the larger systemic is-sues that continue to make it so that living in the United States is a vastly different experience for people based on skin color. And the latter focus on systemic racism requires much harder work.
So we have much work ahead of us as we study racism and deliberately engage in the struggle to end racism and bring about racial justice. Toward that end, the Anti-racist Congregation Leadership Team has met – 22 people strong! – and begun mapping out a plan for us to delve deeply and broadly into matters of race and racism. At this point it looks as though our period of study and reflection will include regular, maybe even weekly conversations about race and racism for those who are interested, investment of time and energy in our education programs for all ages including a month-long focus in Seekers in January, thematic presentations and pro-grams, continued networking with individuals and organizations committed to racial justice in our community and in the wider church, various events around the anti-racism theme, book studies and the collection of useful resources, and movie screenings, along with sermons and worship services on a routine basis, seeking in all things to address questions about what it is we are called to do about racial justice as people who identify as followers of Jesus.
No doubt there is much to learn and much to do together. I am excited about the possibilities of immersing ourselves in this vital work. And I am grateful to be doing this work with you!