Having grown up white in a mostly white rural area in the Pacific Northwest, moving to North Carolina in 2004 was a bigger culture shock than moving to Germany had been the year before. Sure, the heat and humidity wrought havoc on my system, but I remember even more keenly my surprise when it seemed like every checker at Target, bus driver in Durham, and housekeeper on Duke University’s campus was Black. These are important jobs, but they aren’t the kind parents dream of for their children. The socio-economic disparity along racial lines was stunning. I began to seek education and understanding of racial issues and history in the U.S. because I felt my ignorance was culpable. I read books, took classes, participated in both intentional and ad hoc conversations, and—most importantly—began to get to know some people for whom knowledge of race and racism isn’t optional.
Ten years later, I had been feeling inured to matters of race in the U.S. when the news exploded with reports of Mike Brown’s shooting in Ferguson by a white police officer. My sense of “This again? Are we still dealing with this?” was a pitiful blip in light of what Black people in the U.S. face on a daily basis, and for them it is a matter of life and death. Mike Brown’s death is one among many instances where a white officer shot an unarmed Black man and was not indicted. People—human beings whose lives matter just as much as mine—are being killed because police are too quick to use deadly force.
Since August, my Facebook newsfeed has filled with laments, outrage, anger, grief, and sadness—especially since Tuesday when the grand jury’s decision not to indict Darren Wilson went public. At the same time, I have been dismayed to learn how many people still do not recognize how deeply racism contributed to getting Mike Brown—and so many others—killed. Imagine if Mike Brown, instead of being an African-American teenage boy, had been a white girl or boy of the same age. Would s/he have been shot in the first place? Would the officer ever have felt like he had no option but to use his gun? Would the stories and surveillance video from the convenience store episode ever have made it into the media? Were the teenager in the story white, there would probably be no story because s/he would still be alive. Ferguson has reminded me that my silence speaks eloquently of my privilege. It is a privilege not to be forced to think about race. Until people of every race have that privilege, it’s not one I want to embrace.
Yesterday was Thanksgiving. As always, words can’t express the gratitude I feel for the abundance of wonderful people in my life, the security I enjoy, and the fulfillment I experience in everyday life. These are also privileges, and while I am thankful for them, it feels hollow to express thankfulness and gorge oneself on turkey and all the trimmings amid the news of people who are struggling for survival. This morning, especially in light of Black Friday and BlackoutBlackFriday, I found myself meditating on Amos 4:1-5:
Hear this word, you cows of Bashan
who are on Mount Samaria,
who oppress the poor, who crush the needy,
who say to their husbands, “Bring something to drink!”
2 The Lord God has sworn by his holiness:
The time is surely coming upon you,
when they shall take you away with hooks,
even the last of you with fishhooks.
3 Through breaches in the wall you shall leave,
each one straight ahead;
and you shall be flung out into Harmon,
says the Lord.
4 Come to Bethel—and transgress;
to Gilgal—and multiply transgression;
bring your sacrifices every morning,
your tithes every three days;
5 bring a thank offering of leavened bread,
and proclaim freewill offerings, publish them;
for so you love to do, O people of Israel!
says the Lord God. (NRSV)
I have never shopped on Black Friday—not for any virtuous reason, but because I dislike crowds and consumerism (even as I am totally complicit in consumerism). But Black Friday had never before made me feel sick. This morning when I thought about going shopping I felt nauseated. To shop today felt too much like being one of the fat cows of Bashan, who enjoy luxury at the expense of the poor, who ignore the cries of the oppressed while calling for more drinks, and then turn around and give thanks to God for their blessings. I read the prophets’ frustration with Israel’s blindness and feel convicted at how I participate in the patterns they condemn. I have become convinced that ignoring the issues raised in Ferguson calls into question my witness to Jesus.
The verdict out of Ferguson, Thanksgiving, and Black Friday have converged to convict me, and the start of Advent coming on the heels of those events is beginning to light the way forward. Advent is a season to wake up: to acknowledge how the world is in fragments, how mired we are in vicious patterns from which we cannot extricate ourselves, and how deeply we need a Savior. Advent merges confession of sin with hope for salvation. Advent enjoins penitence amid thanksgiving for God’s generosity in not leaving us to our self-destruction, but instead coming to be with us in person and save us. May God truly save us, and teach us who call Jesus “Lord” to be with all God’s beloved as God is with us.