The following was presented as a shared reflection by my spouse, Susan, and myself in the online service for Rockway Mennonite Church (Kitchener, Ontario, Canada) on October 4th, 2020. The sermon references two readings: Daniel 5:1-12,22-30 and these words from Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates (pg 97-99, published by Spiegel & Grau):
But my experience in this world has been that the people who believe themselves to be white are obsessed with the politics of personal exoneration. And the word racist, to them, conjures, if not a tobacco-spitting oaf, then something just as fantastic — an orc, troll, or gorgon.
“We would prefer to say that such people cannot exist, that there aren’t any,” writes Solzhenitsyn. “To do evil a human being must first of all believe that what he’s doing is good, or else that it’s a well-considered act in conformity with natural law.” This is the foundation of the [American] Dream — its adherents must not just believe in it but believe that it is just, believe that their possession of the Dream is the natural result of grit, honor, and good works. There is some passing acknowledgement of the bad old days, which, by the way, were not so bad as to have any ongoing effect on our present. The mettle that it takes to look away from the horror of our prison system, from police forces transformed into armies, from the long war against the black body, is not forged overnight.This is the practiced habit of jabbing out one’s own eyes and forgetting the work of one’s own hands. To acknowledge these horrors means turning away from the brightly rendered version of your country as it has always declared itself and turning toward something murkier and unknown. It is still too difficult for most Americans to do this.
I apologize for the delay in the posting of this transcript; however, it was not without reason.
For those of you who don’t know, on March 13th Breonna Taylor, a black EMT in Louisville, Kentucky, was killed in her home by police searching for her ex-boyfriend, who (as it turns out) was already in police custody. There’s a ton I could say about the details of this tragedy, but I want to focus on one of the most recent developments – one that really encapsulates what it means to be black in America. On Wednesday, September 23rd, the Kentucky Attorney General announced that only one officer would be charged for the raid, and that the charge was for the “reckless endangerment” of her white neighbors. No charges were filed for the death of Ms. Taylor. The clear message? You’re quite justified in shooting at black bodies – as long as you don’t miss.
This might seem to be an exaggeration – hyperbole to make a point – if you downplay (if not outright ignore) the historical context. Trayvon Martin, Jordan Davis, Renisha McBride, Eric Gardner, John Crawford III, Michael Brown, Laquan McDonald, Tamir Rice, Freddy Gray, Aumaud Arbery, Aiyana Jones, Yvette Smith, Rekia Boyd, Walter Scott, Anton Sterling, Philando Castile, Charles Kinsey, Sandra Bland, Botham Jean, George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Jacob Blake… The list, compiled over almost a decade now, is nowhere near complete, but trying to keep track of them all is, quite frankly, exhausting and demoralizing.
The incident with Charles Kinsey is particularly surreal. Kinsey, a black mental health professional, was retrieving a autistic non-verbal white patient who had run away from the facility. Police arrived, responding to “reports of a man (the autistic patient) threatening to shoot himself”. Kinsey, lying on the ground with his hands in the air, attempted to simultaneously convince both the police and the patient to calm down and cooperate. For unknown reasons, one of the SWAT officers fired a single shot which struck Kinsey. (Evidently he was asked twice afterward why he’d shot the black man with his hands in the air, to which he twice responded, “I don’t know.”) After being shot, Kinsey was handcuffed and searched, but received no first aid or medical attention until an ambulance arrived 20 minutes later. The officer who shot him was found guilty of a misdemeanor – culpable negligence – and was sentenced to 100 hours of community service, one year of administrative probation, and to writing a 2,500 word essay on “communication and weapon discharges.” To my understanding, there’s no criminal record, and he’s still employed as a SWAT officer there.
So when I say that the U.S. sees the abuse of black bodies as being fully justified, that statement is rooted in a history that is both atrocious and well-documented. The website MappingPoliceViolence.org compiled data on police shootings from 2013 through the present, and found that black people are 3 times more likely to be killed by police than white folks. Of course, this violent record doesn’t begin in 2013; America’s disdain for the value of black lives is enshrined in its founding legal document, the Constitution, and has been reflected in every hard-fought step since: from slavery to Jim Crow, segregation, red-lining, voter suppression, economic discrimination, the New Right, mass incarceration, and now police brutality and the denial of its impact. Today’s protests are also a part of a long history of black resistance: from the underground railroad to the Civil War, Reconstruction, the Great Migration, the ‘60s Civil Rights Movement, hip-hop and rap music, the development of African American Studies, and now Black Lives Matter.
Unfortunately, our recent political climate has seen a resurgence of outright denialism, and even embrace of the white supremacist core of the American Dream. Our president has openly endorsed eugenics at his political rallies, signed an executive order against any form of discrimination training, and is pushing schools to adopt “patriotic education […] a pro-American curriculum” – one that reinforces the Dream and downplays (if not outright ignores) the historical context – what Ta-Nehisi Coates referred to as “something murkier and unknown” that one must turn to, in order to acknowledge and understand the horrors of living while black in the modern day. It goes beyond the president, however – New Hampshire State Representative Jim Spillane advocated for the burning and looting of houses displaying Black Lives Matter signs. Johnson County commissioner Michael Brown used the hashtags “All Lives Matter” and “Blue Lives Matter” to urge his followers to “buy a firearm and ammunition”, and that “war is inevitable.” White nationalists have shown up in droves to confront Black Lives Matter protesters, often armed and belligerent; not only are the police not confronting these vigilante groups, they’re actively aiding them. The FBI has long warned that far-white militants and white supremacists have been infiltrating police departments for years; in addition, the Department of Homeland Security’s Office of Intelligence and Analysis has identified “white supremacist extremists” as posing “the greatest threat of lethal violence”, although representatives of the administration have instructed the analysts to “play down the threat”.
Despite calls for “law and order” and “non-violent protest”, the writing is on the wall: the government itself has declared war on the US population, and black lives (and those who support them) are square in its gunsights.
There’s a lot to be said, intellectually, about the passage we are bringing today from the book of Daniel. It describes the last day of a king’s rule, and shows that while all the signs pointed to that downfall, neither the king, nor any of his friends or counselors could read or understand the implications of the writing on the wall that was warning them that there would be judgement for their actions. They were flaunting their wealth, and using vessels they’d plundered from the Temple in Jerusalem to drink wine from in their feasting.
Most of the commentaries say that the words on the wall were in Aramaic, a language that the king’s counselors should have known. But they couldn’t understand what was right in front of them. It’s like everyone had short-term memory loss. For those of you who’ve seen the movie, Finding Dory — it’s a Pixar movie from 2016, about a little fish with short-term memory loss. She can comprehend just about anything, but she can’t hold on to it. So, her family and friends have to explain things to her over and over again. And each time she’s hearing it as if for the first time.
I wonder if it was like that for King Belshazzar and his counselors. I know it feels that way here in the U.S., and it’s crazy-making. Every few days or weeks or months or years we wake up to a horrible news story of some inane excuse that a Black American has lost their life, or the inevitable news story months or years later letting us know that the legal system decided that that death was lawful and right. And there’s a burst of outrage from many white Americans. “Oh my gosh! Racism! How did this happen?” And then it happens again, “Oh my gosh! Racism! How did this happen?” And then it happens again: “Oh my gosh! Racism! How did this happen?” But in between, we keep doing exactly the same things, upholding the same laws, supporting the same establishments, setting up the same dominos in the same configuration for it to happen all over again. And we say we’re surprised.
The writing on the wall isn’t even in a language we don’t understand. We just can’t retain the comprehension of it. Teman has modified an Upton Sinclair quote in response to this very idea: “It’s almost impossible for people to recognize that which their salvation requires that they not recognize.” Whether or not we can recognize it for long enough to do something about it, the current writing on the wall communicates a damning message, and a bleak outlook for the country. But while many progressive white Americans are joking about leaving the country because of Trump, that bleak outlook is pretty theoretical to most white Americans. It’s just all very embarrassing. And it will become more tragic to witness the violence. But overall, white Americans assume that we’ll all be able to take that stance — the stance of witness or observer. But history (even current events) tell us that Black people will not be merely witnesses to increased violence. The first and worst victims in increased violence and unrest will be Black people — after all, even that statement “Black Lives Matter” is somehow a controversial statement, an impertinent provocation. And in fact, this movement, to affirm that Black lives matter, will likely be blamed for whatever violence or unrest lies ahead by many white American Christians — and probably some white Mennonites. Because Black people — pointing out that they matter and that they shouldn’t be murdered — are already being blamed for the current unrest.
When I was in seminary, one of my major critiques of my preaching class was that we were expected to go into sermon preparation already knowing what we intended for our listeners to get out of the sermon. I am also the granddaughter of a tent evangelist, so I have some admittedly personal issues with types of preaching that seem to be very clearly leading the listener to one, and only one, correct response to the message.
And here I find myself today coming to you with a message that feels a bit like a Trojan horse for a very personal question. The scripture we’re delving into was chosen, not because it’s today’s lectionary text (it’s not), but because it is a scripture that I (we?) have been visited by as we discern how to be and what to do in the United States in 2020.
As a white Mennonite woman, whose family tree is almost exclusively Swiss-German and Mennonite as it’s possible to be, I don’t have stories in my recent family history of forced emigration, as many Mennonites (both American and Canadian) of Russian-Mennonite extraction do. I am used to being a part of discussions about how we help them (whoever the “them” might be in whatever crisis is brewing, domestically or internationally).
But today I’m part of the them that is in need of a we. I am white, but my family is not. We were on a family vacation two years ago on a ship. Whenever you leave the ship, you have to go through a security line to get back on board. There’s one big line, and then when you get close to the ship, they allow a few people at a time to get in one of the lanes for screening. Just like in an airport. Teman and I and our two daughters would go through this line, and invariably the security person would send Teman and the girls to one line, and then gesture me over to a different one. Granted, we were vacationers getting on a boat. This was not a dangerous situation. But it was eerie to be repeatedly not recognized as a part of my own family, and to have someone try to separate us. I just said each time, “Hey, that’s my family!” and they let us through together. Much like Teman and I often getting asked when we eat out together (back when that was a thing!) if we want separate checks, it’s not life-threatening, but a frequent reminder that we’re not seen as a matching set. And I’m not about to be sorted into a different lane from my family right now. No way in hell.
Today I come to you as a person who is trying to manage the safety of my own family. Contemplating what it means that we need help. We may need to leave our home. Teman and I (well, to be honest, it’s probably just I — since I’m the one of the two of us who grew up steeped in Bible stories) find ourselves feeling a bit like Noah. God hasn’t spoken to us directly to build an ark, but we are trying to figure out what we need to build to weather this storm in our country. Cuz its raining. It’s been raining. And the water’s rising.
So, the writing is on the wall. And we are wondering what to do. Where to go. There is plenty of pity and wondering from white progressive Christians. But little belief or understanding, it seems, for the acute danger we feel. We can’t just hope that progressive white Christians will stand up for us if things get bad. We wonder if Canadians (Canadian Mennonites?) might be willing to play a part in helping Black lives in danger in the U.S…. Helping to be a safe harbor? How do you read the writing on the wall?
I share this in full knowledge that I am fulfilling an American stereotype — that our reality is more important (“trumps,” dare I say it?) the realities of everyone else in the world. I have been thoroughly immersed in our reality south of your border, to the detriment of my awareness of international news, I’m sure. I want to acknowledge that you are fighting your own battles (non-violently, of course!). But our present danger, and our connections of faith and blood allow me to presume to come to you with these questions.
We shared these feelings of fears with my cousin, Amanda, in recent months. And shared our wonderings about whether we might need to leave for our safety, and wondering whether Canada would be a safe place for us. And in large part because she loves us, we are here today. But in honesty, it’s not just us. I have a huge safety net at my disposal as a Mennonite. I can probably, maybe, hopefully “Mennonite My Way” to safety and bring my family with me.
Most Black Americans have no such safety net. I can trace my ancestry back past the boat my ancestors came over on. Most Black Americans can’t trace ancestors earlier than 1870, the year that the census first began recording the names of African Americans in the South, after the Emancipation of enslaved persons. And every generation since slavery has been denied the ability to accrue wealth or security through a changing gauntlet of laws that promise freedom on the other end but only ever lead to new and dangerous obstacles.
So, I am seeking to activate my own Mennonite safety net, for me and mine, fully aware of the privilege I have to be able to do that. But I’m also wondering if there’s a role that Mennonites across our two countries can do to address the very real danger Black Americans find themselves in. It’s not a new reality. But as we’ve outlined to you today, our strong feeling is that it’s about to get much worse again.
Just a small ask, eh? I remember saying to Amanda in my message to her: “I don’t even know what I’m asking you for.” And I feel a bit the same way now, after so many thousands of words poured out for you.
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I thoroughly enjoyed your sermon. You two should preach that way more often.