Prayer for June 9, 2020

Prayer for June 9, 2020: Please pray with me.  God of all, boy do we need help.  We make ridiculous divisions among human beings – we literally make them up.  At least we are creative huh?  But seriously Lord, what is it about human beings that our desire to separate people?  What is it that we refuse to see a fuller sense of your creativity in creation?  What is it that we love about being in control and controlling others that is actually helpful?  Why can’t we see that we are intimately connected?  Why can’t we get it through out thick skulls that our salvation is tied up in one another?  Soften our hearts.  Clear our vision.  Loosen our fists.  And if need me, smack us some sense into us.  We are a stubborn people – really, really stubborn.  Empower us to abandon our stubbornness so that we can appreciate your embrace.  Amen.

All Lives Matter? Show me.

Black Lives Matter.

All Lives Matter.

Let the hashtag battle and rallying cries begin – never mind, they’ve been going on.  In America there always has to be two sides – only two sides.  There always has to be an epic struggle.  There always has to be a dichotomy of two opposing sides caught in a battle with loyal followers and there has to be an enemy.  Why would race be any different.

It isn’t possible apparently in this country for everyone to start being on the same side.  No, that would mean some folks would have to start seeing how we’re all so very connected, or to use another common phrase – how we are all in this together.

I’m struck by the All Lives Matter mantra.  Besides the obvious fact that it is only shouted out as a response to Black Lives Matter, I wonder about this phrase.

Look, let’s be clear about something.  Black Lives Matter understands that indeed all lives do matter.  They are simply saying that when there is a problem for some people, those folks deserve some extra attention in order to get things straightened out.  That’s pretty logical.  We humans use this logic already for many situations.  When one of our kids gets injured or hurt, we don’t go around saying – all of our children matter, as if nothing happened.  No, we take care of the child who’s life is in danger.  Duh!  That child’s life matters in that moment and needs special attention.  It doesn’t mean the other kids don’t matter.  It means that one of these needs the focus.

So here’s the question I want to ask those who shout out All Lives Matter.  I’m going to take you at face value in your belief that all lives matter.  I think you are being sincere.  At least I hope so.

If you really mean it, then what changes are you proposing that would match up with the statement?  What legislation are you proposing that would move our nation forward in the direction that all lives would in fact matter?  What culture change would help bring that about?

Move past the rhetoric and start sharing your proposals.  Unless you think nothing needs to change and that we are already in a place in our society where all lives matter already.  If so, prove it.  Do you believe that we are already in a place where all lives matter?  Do you honestly believe that our society and nation have systems in place that support the notion that all lives do in deed matter?

Or is this just an empty rhetorical device designed not to stir conversation and proposals, but really just another rhetorical weapon meant to shut people up?

Is the chant of All Lives Matter sincere?  Or is it just another convenient rhetorical grenade in the never-ending partisan political battle?

When you say All Lives Matter, do you really mean Keep the Status Quo?  If not, then what needs to change?  Seriously!  I’m not being sarcastic here.

I’d really like to hear the policy and legislative and cultural changes that need to happen in order for us to move to a point that all lives do in fact matter.

And secondly, if all lives matter, then does that not include black lives?  Wouldn’t an improvement for black lives mean that we are moving in the direction of making the statement all lives matter truer?  How exactly is if Black Lives Matter in opposition to the idea that you keep chanting – that all lives matter?  Wouldn’t black lives improving mean an improvement for all lives?

Or is the statement All Lives Matter really designed to make the problems we face too big to actually do anything about them?  Is it designed to prevent anything from happening?

If all lives matter, then what are we doing to make that a reality?  And why aren’t we starting with those in the most need?  If all lives matter, then what do you propose should change for those living in poverty?  Or who are homeless?  I mean, if all lives really matter, then it should go without saying that we should do something to improve the lives of these folks right?  Their lives matter right?  If we improved the situation for those in poverty, wouldn’t that have an improvement on all lives?

How about people who suffer from mental health ailments?  What do you propose to improve their lives – they fall into the “all” part of All Lives Matter right?  How about education?  What do you propose we change so that all lives matter in education, especially in schools that have a variety or socio-economic challenges?  Do they fit into the definition of “All?”

How about people who have different physical or mental abilities?  Or what about those who work multiple jobs and are barely surviving?  Or how about the Indigenous Peoples of America whose land was swindled from them so long ago and who have to live with the after effect?

All Lives Matter, right?  So to the person who stands by this statement, my question is sincere – what are you proposing that would move us in the direction that the statement was actually true?  What would you propose that would show the world that we actually thought that all lives mattered, that we were willing to put our money and reputation and energy and focus on the line?

If all lives matter, then prove it.  Don’t give me empty words.  Show me.  And start with those who are struggling the most.  That will show me that you are sincere in your belief and not just trying to keep the status quo.  Because if this is just empty rhetoric, you should really think twice about saying it.  By chanting All Lives Matter when you don’t actually believe it and aren’t willing to do anything that moves us towards it being true, then what you are really saying, without words, is that not all lives matter – only your life matters.  What you are saying is that your comfort matters.  What you are saying is that your convenience matters.  Let your actions speak louder than your chants.  Words are empty if they aren’t backed up with action.  You’d be better off not saying anything otherwise.

We’re all in this together, right?

Here’s a post I wrote for the Lower Susquehanna Synod Towards Racial Justice team.

Dear fellow white friend,

We’re all in this together. That is the phrase I’ve heard the most in the midst of pandemic and stay-at-home orders. It is a nice phrase to say, isn’t it? A phrase that seems obvious in a time like this. It’s what we are expected to say. It’s what white folks like myself and you like to say in times like this.

We’re all in this together. It is a sentiment that expresses what we hope for, even as we know that reality doesn’t really match up with it. Can we be honest about that or am I already touching a nerve you’d rather not have touched?  While the thought is nice, if we are honest we would admit that we’ve never really all been in anything together despite the words that we say.

All one needs to do is look at the following chart to see the reality that we aren’t all in this together.  Some are more in it than others.

We’re All in This Together … Right?  by Rev. Matthew Best

But this chart isn’t a stand-alone statistic.  It is just one piece in the puzzle that we have been putting together for a really long time.

Maybe you can stomach thinking about the many men and women who have died for the “crime” of being black. In recent years, we’ve had so many examples. All you have to do is list off the names. How does we’re all in this together fit into these scenarios? Take Ahmaud Arbery, for example. He was out for a run and was fatally shot by two white men because they took the law into their own hands; they thought Arbery looked like a person whom they suspected in a series of break-ins in the area. They chased Arbery down and struggled with him, finally shooting him with a shotgun. I could go on, showing stats about how African-Americans suffer from significant health problems, higher incarceration rates, and so much more. But really, what’s the point? We’re all in this together, right?

What does it mean to be all in this together anyway? We could just as easily shout out a similar phrase: All Lives Matter! Remember that slogan? It is the same sentiment, isn’t it? If all lives matter, then we should take a good hard look at that chart again and pay attention to the data that shows that blacks are dying at a rate that is twice as high as any other ethnic group. And we should ask an obvious question – why?

Charts like the one above aren’t just data collected for a specific time period. Stories like the shooting of Arbery aren’t just isolated cases. Articles about health problems and incarceration rates aren’t compartmentalized instances that have no relationship to anything else. They are all pieces in a large puzzle that we have been working on for a really long time. A puzzle that has been coming together to show us the picture we have been making all along. We handle the pieces and act surprised at the picture they form. But why?

We’re all in this together, right? I doubt Martin Luther King, Jr. thought so. He certainly wished we were though. All one needs to do is read his Letter from a Birmingham Jail to know that he understood that not everyone was in it together and how desperately he wanted everyone to be. Here’s what he said:

“First, I must confess that over the past few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action”; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a “more convenient season.” Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.” (Source)

It seems that MLK, Jr., didn’t see everyone all in this together, especially not from his jail cell where he wrote the letter. To him, it didn’t appear that the white moderate was all in together with him and other blacks of the time. It did not look like all lives mattered.

But, we’re all in this together now, right?

Go back and look at the chart. Look at the numbers. See how all in you are compared to blacks when it comes to this pandemic. Ask yourself why the chart shows what it does. And then ask yourself this: what can we do to show we are really all in this together like we claim we are? Or is it just an empty phrase designed to coddle and comfort us from a painful reality we’d rather not deal with?

Crisis doesn’t create all new problems. Often, it just exposes problems that were already there for a long time. COVID-19 doesn’t target blacks. It just brings to light the challenges that blacks already face. It shows the vulnerability that already exists and has for a long time. It exposes the broken systems that have been impacting black lives for a long, long time. We don’t come to a point in which a virus is twice as deadly for blacks than for anyone else overnight. The death rate is higher for blacks for a variety of reasons, reasons that have been building for centuries. It is almost too easy to look past all of that though because there is too much.

But remember, we’re all in this together.

If you look at the chart apart from the larger picture, you are missing so much. If all you do is look at it as a piece of compartmentalized data, then you are deluding yourself in short-term thinking. You see, short-term thinking allows us to see the chart, to hear the stories of black men and women being shot just for living, to hear about long-term health and criminal justice challenges, and to not connect the dots (dots that create a painfully obvious picture).  Short-term thinking creates convenient throw-away phrases and slogans that give the appearance of caring, while their real purpose is to distract people from the painful reality of inconvenient truths, truths about ourselves that we don’t want to face.

We’re all in this together, remember?

When are we going to stop looking at scapegoats to blame for anything that goes on in this nation?  When are we going to look at ourselves in the mirror and say, “we are to blame, ourselves?”  We are to blame because we refuse to do anything about this. When are we going to look at a chart like that and deal with it?

We are to blame. We are all guilty, not innocent like we want to believe. Yes, you and I have never owned slaves. But we are to blame for so much because we refuse to do anything to change the current situation.

We are to blame for gun violence that continues in this nation, killing innocent children and men and women, because we refuse to do anything about it.

We are to blame for the destruction of the environment, impacting the lives of humans and animals all over, because we refuse to do anything about it.

We are to blame for poverty because we refuse to do anything about it. It is always someone else’s fault. We see nothing wrong with bailing out billion-dollar companies but withhold basic life-sustaining needs for someone experiencing poverty.

This will continue until we are willing to stop believing the lie we tell ourselves that someone else is to blame. This will continue and get worse until we decide to repent, to be radically reoriented in how we see the world and one another. Until we are willing to be honest about the broken relationships we have with one another, with ourselves, with God, and with the rest of creation. This will continue as long as we think that we are special, anointed, different, better.

This will continue as long as we continue in our privileged life of not having to worry about getting shot while driving, or jogging, or pulling a cell phone out of our pocket in a public place. This will continue as long as we remain blind to the image of God in people who look different from ourselves. This will go on as long as we accommodate and coddle people because we believe they can’t handle self-examination and difficult questions. This will go on as long as we believe that accepting current circumstances is more convenient than changing them. This will go on.

But I won’t. I’m tired of it. Black men and women deserve better. They deserve the best we have. They deserve to be heard. They deserve the truth. They deserve a better life. And they are intimately connected to us. They are us. We are them. Our survival is linked. We thrive together or we will suffer separately (some more than others). But in the end, we all lose.

By doing nothing about these situations, we aren’t screwing them. We are screwing ourselves. Remember, Paul said “We are one body, but may parts.” Our safety is intimately tied to theirs. Our very lives are tied to theirs. When a black person dies because they committed the crime of living while black, we should not see it as a far-off tragedy. We should see it as if it was our own mother or father, brother or sister, son or daughter who was killed, whether we are talking about COVID-19 or anything else. Until we, white people, see ourselves as a black person, this will continue to get worse and we will be impacted in ways we would prefer not to be impacted.

Remember, we’re all in this together. Now let’s actually live into that. Do you have the courage to do that? Remember, you aren’t alone. You don’t have to do this alone – you and I can’t.

But, we’re all in this together.

Protests and riots

The last few days has me thinking about protests and riots.  These terms get used a lot.  We use them without thinking about how they are defined.

We make assumptions about these terms.  Protests are generally viewed in a more positive manner than a riot.  Protests are assumed to not include violence or destruction of property.  Riots are assumed to be chaotic and destructive.

Protests are thought of as a group of citizens marching or gathering, holding signs, maybe hearing speeches and possibly chanting something.  The idea is to voice ideas about a situation/injustice/event/etc to those who are influencers and decision makers – it is a way to bring about change.  Protests have been successful in the past, which is why they are still used.  But not all protests work.

Riots are thought of as an unorganized collective of individuals who have turned off their intellectual thinking abilities and are expressing rage – riots are ways of lashing out at anything and anyone that gets in the way.  Riots involve people with masks covering their faces to prevent being identified – those that have intent on doing something illegal or destructive or deadly hide their faces so they can’t be identified.  Riots work from the stand point of reaching a specific goal – to cause damage and destruction.  In some cases the damage is about physical property.  In other cases the target of the damage is less concrete – institutions, ways of being, rights, forms of governance, etc.

How we use these terms is important.  What I have watched in recent days is the interchange of these words depending on who is covering a protest/riot.

Protests and riots may not seem to have much in common – but they do actually.  There is a thin line between a protest becoming a riot.  Some protests are pushed over that line intentionally.  Others just happen to go that way on their own.

Regardless, protests and riots have me thinking about a more theological idea.  Christianity has been in the business of proclaiming a few key foundational ideas.  One is summed up in three words – life, death, and resurrection.  In most circumstances when these three words are proclaimed together, they don’t get much of a response, even within a church.  It’s church-talk really.  We know what these terms mean without really defining them, much like we do with protest and riot.  And like these other terms we make assumptions about life, death, and resurrection.  I wonder how accurate those assumptions are though.

I think that people don’t mind talking about life, death, and resurrection.  They may find it uncomfortable at times though.  The same could be said of protests and riots.

But it’s the implementation of any of these terms that really causes much angst for people.  Actually living into these ideas is painful and if we are honest, it is destructive – destructive to our identity, our sense of control, our relationship with God, our ability to do self-examination, etc.

What does it really mean to live in the context of life, death, and resurrection?  What does death really mean in that context?  What does it mean in practical terms of how we live into our death?

Death isn’t something we like to think about.  We don’t like to envision what it means for us.  I think most people are afraid of death really.  Even Christians who proclaim that death doesn’t get the final say are afraid of death.  It feels too final.  Even death metaphorically is difficult for us to live into.  Jesus calls on followers to die daily to self.  What does that mean in practical terms?  It means we aren’t in control.  Ouch.  If we aren’t in control, then someone else is.  And if someone else is in control, then we probably have to pay attention to the one who is and follow their lead.  We don’t like that.  This is why so many will voice the words, but resist allowing the words to flow through them, transform them, and shape them.

Resurrection is another difficult one.  Because we know deep down that in order to get to resurrection, we have to go through death.  And death just sounds so final.  But resurrection is a complete change.  We lose control in death and in resurrection we don’t gain it back – we don’t need control any longer.

Are protests or riots related to life, death, and resurrection?  I don’t know.  I’m not interested in making an argument about that.  I do know this much – when we really start to examine what words actually mean, it opens us to new possibilities, to new understandings.  It opens us up to seeing the thin lines that divide.  It opens us up to letting go.

Prayer for June 3, 2020

Prayer for June 3, 2020: Please pray with me.  God of the Word, you come to us through words.  You come in lots of ways.  But why words Lord?  What it is about words that you determined would touch us, would connect us with you?  Why words?  Maybe it’s because words give us boundaries – something we can get our arms around.  You are an incarnate God, so being able to get our arms around you makes sense.  Maybe it’s because words convey images and ideas.  You are a visioning God who lays out for us what your Kingdom is like.  Maybe it’s something else or a combination of so many things.  Regardless, thank you for giving us words that we can use to express our love of you.  Empower us to use words to participate in the unfolding of your Kingdom.  Amen.