Race and Justice: Moving from Protest to Action

By Joe LaGuardia

Now that protests are waning, the question becomes, “Now what?”

What are you going to do about racism, discrimination and prejudice aside from marching around the block a few times?  Now its not about slogans or whitty tweets.  Now is about shifting our entire culture away from violence and bigotry to understanding, reform, and restoration.

Some churches and faith leaders are scrambling to figure out how to move forward. They are moving to a new arena after finally realizing that silence will no longer suffice in bridging communities of privilege with communities of disparity.

This is where I found myself nearly 7 years ago in my last church, in Georgia, when protests broke out over the death of Michael Brown and so many others.  I stopped judging others and their methods, and I refused to let anger have a say.  Instead, this is what I did to take action–and they may be good “first steps” for you:

First, I got an education. Like many white communities, my own church was paralyzed by analysis and political rancor because we didn’t understand how and why racism is institutionalized. We didn’t know the right questions, so we had trouble arriving at productive answers.

I turned off the television and began reading. But not many people have time to read, so if you can read only one book, be sure its Divided by Faith: Evangelical Religion and the Problem of Race. If your community is not evangelical, read it anyway–a majority of your neighbors are likely evangelical, so its a good start.

Memoirs are also helpful: Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me has brought understanding, as well as memoirs by civil rights activists, such as MLK.

My personal favorite is Baptist preacher-without-a-steeple Brother Will Campbell. Right now, my 12-year old son and I are reading Campbell’s Brother to a Dragonfly together every night–We began this memoir before all of the news hit about the death of George Floyd. It is important to teach our children about injustice and justice, and how to differentiate one from the other.

Second, I made friends. You cannot go through life and have opinions about people or issues in which you have no experience. Just because you are a smart, rational human being doesn’t make you competent or literate on a subject, especially when ethnicity, culture, and marginalization is involved. As for my church, we integrated our staff and tasked our gifted associate pastor, a woman of color, to educate us on everything from the Black Lives Matter movement to emotional intelligence. Our friendship was based on brutal honesty and on-going education.

I also made friends with clergy of color in the community. We listened, sought understanding, and dialogued–sometimes in private and sometimes in front of our congregations. We hosted joint worship services and fellowships in which we swapped pulpits, talked to one another, and fellowshipped in a safe space.

I learned not only to walk in another’s shoes, but to pray in another’s shoes. That kind of prayer will break you and change you.

Third, I began to educate others. Once I cleaned up my own house in my heart, I sought to clean up my house of faith: We made it our effort to help (white) folks realize that race is systemic and part of our national architecture, not only the result of a few bad apples. We brought in our local law enforcement as a part of this educational endeavor, not just friends of color.

And we used research-based data to show how injustice goes beyond personal indiscretions or discrimination. We proved that institutionalized, racial disparities exist in real estate, healthcare, banking and lending (as well as predatory lending), education, federal funding, and access to high-education (which includes internships and networking opportunities).

We made truthful conversations the basis for our congregational culture, and we came up with concrete initiatives that transcended partisan politics and race-baiting sound bytes.

We began partnering with a major denomination of color, helped build bridges on a state level, and joined minority communities to promote other justice issues, like gun control legislation and access to voting registration.

This allowed us to build a grammar of race reconciliation. Once we got educated, we knew how to speak differently, how to speak to one another, and how to speak in ways that encouraged healing and action rather than tension and hostility. Justice is a biblical word. Reconciliation is our entrusted ministry, and God calls us to repair the world, not tear it apart and break it more than it already is.

Each community has to take responsibility to be a part of the solution rather than the problem. When I talk with (white) clergy, they feed me the same lines: “If our hearts would only change…” “If we had love in our hearts…” Love and change are wonderful and theological. But, as James says, “Faith without works is dead,” and, as John says, “If anyone says, ‘I love God,’ but hates a brother, he is a liar.” Our culture, not just our hearts, have to change.

Race, Rage, Wrestling with Silence, and the Disinherited

By Joe LaGuardia

My friends have been telling people that we can’t stay silent in exposing racism. In the face of the deaths of people of color — Ahmaud Arbery, George Floyd, and Breonna Taylor most recently – staying silent is counted as complicit as the murders themselves.

So I’ve spent the last few days wrestling with what to say and how to say it. Does putting a post on Facebook really make a difference? Twitter? What, with all of the algorithms moving the letters in those alphabet soups, you might as well be publishing your opinions to the grass outside. They don’t make no difference.

Is there a way to say what you need to say in a way that changes the world? That’s the question.

Some of my friends miss a deeper point still: silence is not always complicit acceptance. In the Bible, sometime the silence within the text and beyond the text (God’s silence) act as mirrors exposing our worst selves.

In the wake of the murder of Uriah and the rape of Bathsheba, for instance, King David almost got away with a grand political conspiracy. If it weren’t for the prophet Nathan, David would not have come clean. But Bathsheba does not have a single line of dialogue in the entire episode.

In fact, scripture refuses to call her by name, choosing to call her “Uriah’s wife” (pointing to the fact that David treated her no better than property–the “hook” in Nathan’s parable to David) until after she and David’s child dies. Scripture does not do so to perpetuate violence but to show the perpetuation of violence by people who think they can consume others by force or coercion. Textual rhetorical nuance by those who authored Scripture, and (within the text), prophetic poetry, by way of a parable and political interruption, is the only thing that survives silence and leads to action.

Same goes for Dinah, daughter of Jacob and Leah, who was raped by the spoiled Prince Shechem of the Hivite tribe. She is rendered silent by scripture, not to silence her for good but to stand in solidarity with the voiceless. Jacob, exacerbating the situation by refusing to take responsibility in bringing Shechem to justice, is more concerned with good business relations with the Hivites.

Judah’s inaction results in rage and genocide: Dinah’s brothers take revenge. They plot, scheme, riot, and wipe out the entire tribe.

For me, having PTSD, my own sense of rage means sitting silent in the face of violence. It is my default setting. With political levers of power refusing to turn the tides on common sense gun control all while celebrating violence and perpetuating ingrained racism (Consider the facts: the Highest Leader of the Land call [white] gun, tactical-gear-toting protestors “good people”; called one man of color who protested police brutality peacefully in the NFL a “son of a bitch”, and refused communities of color due process of law by threatening to shoot looters on the spot) we victims are rendered mute.

My wrestling match with silence also has to do with law enforcement. I have good friends who are cops and some with whom I’ve worked in race reconciliation initiatives in Georgia. Some are brothers who share with me in the PTSD struggle. How do you speak out when other friends are in the trenches with you and are just as sensitive when their profession incites protests?

Most of my friends who speak out have not targeted law enforcement (I’m sure right-wing media outlets would have you think otherwise, if not today then tomorrow–bet on it!). That would be scapegoating–no more useful in bringing change than, say, blaming immigrants for the lack of jobs. Rather, my friends are indicting all of us–our nation and systematized injustice that stands against people of color not just in the last two weeks, but in the last 400 years of one race claiming superiority over another.

For the rest, rage has led to rioting, and since our (mostly male) leaders have refused to do anything substantive, rage has also seen a rise of Mothers committing political interruption with poetic and prophetic grief instead. (Read this and watch that.) Rachel still refuses consolation (Matt. 2:18).

Here is the rub: Injustice of the disinherited breeds trauma that is inherited. Despair is one option. In a recent New York Times article, Charles Blow wrote, “Despair has an incredible power to initiate destruction. It is exceedingly dangerous to assume that oppression and pain can be inflicted without consequence, to believe that the victim will silently absorb the injury and the wound will fade.

Healing, however comes by way of hope, and bringing healing to that kind of wound requires more than saying a name, publishing a post, or even writing a stupid blog article. As Mayor Bottoms said, there is no “out-concerning me.”

But just as the Bible indicts injustice from cover to cover–from the earliest rise of violence in the Garden of Eden to the oppression of marginalized Christians under Rome’s commoditization (thank you, Brueggemann) of violence in the name of Pax Romana— it boldly claims that love stands alongside it, ever inspiring Beloved Community.

Jesus didn’t go to the cross only because of injustice, but to enact forgiveness and love as the alternative to revenge and retaliation. Jesus shows us a better way, but — make no mistake — he stands in solidarity with those in our common history who haven’t been able to breathe for 400 years. His lungs filled up and eventually expired so that hate and racism can have an expiration date.

What really matters is the recognition — the explicit acknowledgment — that racism runs deep. It takes more than prayer and repentance. And it certainly doesn’t require the way of a reckoning. Justice requires poetic and prophetic interruption. It requires a cultural shift in which the disinherited can inherit the rights afforded all people (the check of our Founding Father’s has not yet been cashed; in fact it just BOUNCED!), and when people of color can find safety while jogging, in the street, in their car, bird-watching, in their constitutional right to bear arms or have due process, and in their own homes. Until our brothers and sisters are safe, none of us are safe.