Now is the time for people of goodwill to make our presence known in reclaiming our public square and beginning anew the work of building a society in which we all have place and building a society worthy of our devotion.Stephen G. Ray, June 1, 2020
A statement in this moment? On the death of George Floyd? On racism? On riots? On white privilege and American history? On the dignity and sacred worth of persons, all created in the image of God? Where and how would an honest and helpful statement in this moment begin? And a harder question: where would it go? to what should it point?
There is so much in this moment that calls people of goodwill to bear witness. We see in this moment centuries of wrong, generations of struggle and suffering and sacrifice, decades of progress and setback, hope and disappointment. In this very moment we can see the last 56 years of expansion and advance in the cause of civil rights and equal justice, and a surging movement of violent white nationalism and racist authoritarianism as old as this country, now brazenly embraced as a political tool by those who would sow alienation and chaos to maintain their privilege and power.
Should we focus on the last nine minutes of George Floyd as he lay face-down, handcuffed and subdued, with the knee of a uniformed white police officer on his neck, dispassionately choking the life out of him? Should we concentrate on the human loss and the grief of his loved ones, or the week of rage set off by that horrible injustice? Should we talk about lynchings and extrajudicial killings and the incredible number of unarmed black people who have died in police custody, or in the process of arrest, or “by mistake?” Should we consider the compromise with evil that is the original sin of the United States, and the continuing toleration – sometimes accommodation – of racism that is every citizen’s responsibility? Should I make a statement about the stain on all of our hands, that won’t be washed away by statements, no matter how righteous and true?
Choking on anger and frustration, grief and shame and fear, I wonder how to begin an honest and helpful statement in this moment, and where to point it. Complexity, chaos and confusion have left me questioning what I have to say that would do anything more than just add to the noise. Surely that is the strategy of the devil and the devil’s political agents and, in my case, they have been pretty effective, reducing me to impotence.
But, as a person of faith, I am still listening for the hopeful and encouraging word of a living and loving God who is still speaking. I am listening to the pain of the moment, most especially to the anger and longings of the oppressed, and I am asking God, humbly begging of God, to give me the inspiration and show me the way to do something better than just add to the noise.
And I do believe God is answering that prayer. On Monday I received a message from the Rev. Stephen G. Ray, Ph.D., president of the Chicago Theological Seminary, which is a seminary of our United Church of Christ. Stephen is a pastor and scholar, a respected leader and an African-American. He wrote…
Greetings in the key of hope.
We find ourselves at what is clearly a moment of turning within our society. Our society and everyone in it stand at the intersection of plague and economic calamity, all the while as malice strides among us more brashly than at any point in many of our lifetimes. Laid bare are the illusions many of us held just a few short years ago about the possibilities of building a society in which all might find a place and whose commonwealth would be available to all. I say illusions because it may yet be the case that the work is harder than we thought and the effort requires more than our generation can offer but, the hope behind it may prove to be sufficient to building this future.
If we are to build this future together, we must begin by rejecting the lethal malice which is coursing through our society. We must engage in political and social action that finally rejects the hope of a few that the United States of America, our nation, can ever have any future as a bastion of white nationalist hegemony. This requires that we reorder our political life so that the politics of white resentment and Christian nationalism be driven back into the shadows so that the light of common purpose may shine. We need to reorder our material and cultural relations so that every police department takes as its charge the solemn duty of protecting and serving every citizen and not just those who are white, monied, and armed. We must reorder our economic life so that both opportunity and sustenance are available to all. Finally, we must normalize the basic fact that the public square belongs to us all; not just white people; not just Christians; not just the economically well off; not just people with papers; but, to us all.
At this moment of turning within our society we must not delude ourselves. The powers of evil and malice are seeking to turn this moment to their favor. With every image of the brutality and raw power which is being unleashed on largely peaceful protestors, malice seeks through fear to drive people of goodwill out of the public square. It seeks to drive us into our homes and into the enclaves of alienation which have been created through the years. We must not let malice have its victory. Now is the time for people of goodwill to make our presence known in reclaiming our public square and beginning anew the work of building a society in which we all have place and building a society worthy of our devotion.
Listen to the pain of the moment, most especially to the anger and the longings of the oppressed. Confess your place and your responsibility in the sins of our society. Humbly beg God to give the inspiration and show the way to do something better than just add to the noise. And be ready, when the Word comes, be ready to act: act with generosity and courage, act with creativity and conviction to rebuild the witness for peace with justice, shalom, at the center of the public square. Trusting in God’s faithfulness over your correctness, look the devil in the eye and demonstrate who you are. Fundamentally, the devil is a liar and a coward who will back away from the power of truth.
Save us from weak resignation to the evils we deplore; Let the search for your salvation be our glory evermore. Grant us wisdom, grant us courage, serving you whom we adore. – Harry Emerson Fosdick
The Rev. David Pattee is the interim senior pastor at Irvine United Congregational Church