Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Thanksgiving and Ferguson

It’s my understanding that in India, one of God’s characteristics is that of a destroyer. The idea is that if God does not destroy you, God is not a good God. All of our problems – our suffering and our struggles in this world – happen because we have each been constructed by the world around us unconsciously. In many ways we are accidental creations, shaped by our culture, our parents, our education, our class, and our privilege (or lack thereof) If God does not help each of us to destroy the suffering associated with our unconscious assumptions – if God does not help us reconstruct our world with intention – then God is not good. So in Indian culture, God is not here to save us. God is here to destroy us. The ancient prayers were not, "O God, save me," or "O God, give me this or give me that." The prayer was "O God, destroy me! Please destroy me the way I am so that I do not have to exist in separation from you."

A similar theme emerges in stories told by the Dakota people. They say an evil person keeps his or her heart in a secret place separate from the body. The hero must find that secret place and destroy the heart in order to stop the evil.

I planned to write a lovely “Happy Thanksgiving” message to the church. But as I watched the grand jury verdict from Ferguson and listed to the prosecutor’s news conference, as I watched the President speak from the White House press room on a split screen next to images of police in riot gear dispersing angry mobs as they stood under a Season’s Greeting’s banner, I realized that our holy day of thanks is spoiled by destruction. I wonder if anything good, if anything redemptive, can come out of this. I wonder what actually needs to be destroyed.

If we want to address racism with prayerful action, we need to allow God to do a work of destruction in us and our institutions. We need to pray in the spirit of ancient India: “O God, destroy me. Destroy anything in me that wants to oppress another person. Destroy in me anything that wants to use my power to dominate or subjugate another. Destroy in me anything that works against the law of love.” If we want to confront racism on individual, systemic, and institutional levels, first we need to be open to brokenness. My hope for healing begins with listening for brokenness. Brokenness is a type of destruction, after all.

Can we offer good news to those who are broken, those who ache and grieve deeply? Speaking very personally – speaking just for me – I cannot until I do the difficult work of listening to my own brokenness in the events I wish to condemn. I know something about myself. I know that when I see somebody else do something wrong, I may self-righteously call on God for justice. But when I do something wrong, I self-righteously call on God for grace. How can I ask for justice and also be a grace-filled person? When it comes to awareness of discrimination, as a white person of privilege, the problem is not whether I love people who are different than me. The problem is whether I unknowingly participate in and benefit from systems of racism. I need to admit that when it comes to racism, I am an accidental creation. I've been conditioned, down to my synapses, to accept racism without thinking about it. I’ve inherited stereotypes and fears that need to be destroyed. If I denounce oppression without also using it as a mirror to see inside of myself, I’m just passing the problem off onto a societal scapegoat.

Sometimes our own Thanksgiving tables are microcosms of the need for positive destruction. Seen many posts on social media this week about how to survive Thanksgiving dinner with the proverbial “racist uncle.” Imagine this scenario: after all of the polite conversation is used up at the family dinner, someone brings up Ferguson. That relative who always says something terrible starts up with the racist ranting. Will you politely ignore it and change the subject? Do you shut it down? Do you give your relative a piece pile of turkey with a lot of bones in it and cross your fingers? Do you send your relative down to the basement to get more cranberry sauce and lock the door?

Whether it’s at the dinner table with the extended family or on the national stage, I urge each of us to find the courage to speak up and speak out when voices emerge that threaten to turn back the clock on civil rights and undo the work of those who came before us. Those of us who are white must especially develop new skills as allies in dismantling white privilege and fostering new dimensions of racial justice and equity.

This Thanksgiving, as I offer my gratitude and cook dinner for my family I will be taking some time to prayerfully connect with the pain of broken social, religious, and economic systems – places that may be secret and separate. I will be fostering awareness of how my actions affect others and thinking of ways that, in my own brokenness, I can be guided by deep intuition and openness, courage and creativity. With thanks and with awareness, I will be asking God to destroy my own damaging behaviors such as arrogance, self-centeredness, superiority, inferiority, doubt, worry, fear, and anxiety. I will ask God to help me develop compassionate awareness, tender love, wild generosity, and courage when evil abounds.

This thanksgiving, I will not just count my blessings, but count my privileges.

Yours on the journey,
Pastor Matt

Pastor Gloria and I will host an open conversation on Ferguson, racism, and our ongoing response on December 9 at 7 PM. We hope you can come and share your feelings, frustrations, and hopes as we seek to embody Christ’s love and live out our anti-racism commitments. Please mark your calendar and stay tuned for more details.

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