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.

Wrestling with Masks, Coronavirus, and CPAPS. Or not…

By Joe LaGuardia

Churches are facing unprecedented times in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic.  At first, we were all united in our efforts to keep people engaged and worshiping at home.  We invested in online platforms, learned how to speak into cameras (an audience of one), and utilized crowd-sourcing social media to facilitate group worship.

Then, when things began to open in early May, churches (or at least clergy and church leaders) faced new questions: when and how to open.

These questions, in my experience, created more anxiety than actually closing the churches.  When we were in the same boat, we found comfort in numbers.  We all knew we needed to close.  But questioning “when and how” brings no consensus…at all (as the meme below, posted around Facebook, demonstrates)!

Most pastors with whom I spoke wanted a modest approach: We’ll give it several weeks, see where the virus infection numbers go, and then decide.

Our answer to the first question of “when” relied on CDC data, regional numbers, and contextual elements–for instance, the size of the congregation in comparison with the size of the sanctuary.

The next question of “how” fostered various answers, from whether to take everyone’s temperature like the folks at Disney World plan to do, or to “just let adults be adults” and go as they please.   In this case, leadership meant fielding suggestions and then making the best decision for the whole.

In my case, the greatest consternation came with our decision to make masks mandatory for worship.  We decided on the timing (finally), and we plan to open with a caveat: Requiring masks for everyone 12 years or older.

Many praised the move, but some found it insulting and burdensome.

Masks are inconvenient for sure.  They get hot, remind us of our bad breathe, and go against our instincts to (as Vice President Pence said) “look people in the eyes.”  (Everyone made fun of the VP for saying that because masks do not cover eyes, but most of us who are public servants know what he meant.)

I come at this from a slightly different point of view.  Over the past year, I have been wrestling with a new way of sleeping by having to use a CPAP.   A CPAP is a device for sleep apnea and other related illnesses.  It pushes air into the mouth or nose to open airways.

Wearing a CPAP is not fun.  In fact, its downright miserable.  With a CPAP, you are unable to bury your face in a comfy pillow.  When you sleep on your side, there are chances to bump the CPAP causing it to blow air in your face all hours of the night.  Doctors told me I’d get used to it by now, but I still throw it off in the middle of the night at times.

The CPAP makes me feel hot sometimes.  It can get claustrophobic.  Its annoying.  It gets in the way of hugging my wife.  The CPAP hose entangles me when I toss and turn.

At the same time, if I head to bed early enough (meaning, not so late that I’m grouchy) and I put it on with a little optimism, things shift.  It can become a comforting friend and security blanket.  Its rhythmic cycle opens airways and lets me breath without having to deal with allergies.  When I wear it through the night, I feel refreshed–like a “new man”–in the morning, and I am not grouchy the next day.   Yes, its annoying, but its necessary for my health.

Perhaps wearing a mask at church can bring about the same self-awareness.  We wear masks because we are concerned with health — of ourselves and others.  It is not political.  It symbolizes that we care and “love our neighbor as ourselves,” and its really easy to do.  Easier than a CPAP!

Consider our pop culture superheroes.  I like Batman.  He wears a mask.  When we adorn our masks, we are superheroes.  I know its corny, but its true.  And, yes, it may muffle our hymnody and singing, but praise is not only about song and sermon–there is something to be said of “doing for our neighbor” that is a part of praise to our neighbor’s Creator.

“Above all, maintain constant love for one another…Be hospitable to one another without complaining” 1 Peter 4:8, 9.

We ask God to bring healing to our lives; sometimes the very tools we have to stay safe is God’s way of bringing healing to our lives.  So when you waver about wearing a mask to church–or anywhere for that matter–just know that there are people that are much worse off than you are.  You are alive, and that’s a gift.  You don’t have to wrestle for a good night’s sleep, and that’s something.  You can still worship without getting beheaded, so you have that going for you.  Don’t complain.  Its only temporary.