The national anthem of the United States begins with a call for sight. Strictly speaking, the anthem paints the picture of a torn and battered flag of stars and stripes, waving majestically through a fierce battle. I think the call for sight, though, ought to extend much wider than the flag itself, since the flag doesn’t mean much without a people unified by it, aspiring to fulfill the notion of “land of the free and home of the brave.”
Today, there is much that calls to us, in the United States, to be noticed, to be seen, to be considered. Some of those things are not so challenging for us to lift up: the brave medical and public health personnel who persevere in the face of a terrible virus; the courageous women and men who volunteer to serve in the military; and school teachers who creatively maintain a commitment to learning in these extraordinary times. And, there are plenty of other examples too.
But, there are other, much more challenging, issues that call to us as well. O say, can we see?
Can we see the ugly persistence of racism? Can we appreciate the damage that’s being done, the injustice, the inhumanity? Can we see that we have a serious problem that demands attention?
In the midst of the horrifying issues surrounding the deaths of George Floyd in Minneapolis and Ahmaud Arbery in Brunswick, Georgia, and the rage and fury now unleashed in so many cities across the U.S., I find myself playing over and over again another confrontation, the one in Central Park, between a black man and a white woman. Perhaps because it feels a little more accessible, in that no one was killed, and that it was such a simple encounter that escalated so alarmingly quickly, I find myself hearing over and over again the hateful words of the white woman, and the quiet, calm words of the black man.
It was early in the day, and in a heavily wooded part of Central Park. The man was out looking at birds, and the woman was walking her dog. Despite posted rules, the dog was not leashed. The man asked her to leash the dog. And, that’s when it all got really ugly, really fast. It was especially disconcerting to hear the woman declare her intention of not only calling the police, but to tell the police that an African American man was threatening her. In a simple matter of seconds.
We are being called to see, to listen, to acknowledge, to reflect: we have a serious problem. And, the serious problem is not just located in small pockets that are so easily dismissed, for their location or for those who, stereotypically, live there. The problem is widespread, and runs deeply in our national culture and psyche.
For people of faith, this ought to be a matter of profound concern, and considerable response. As people who believe that we are called to share the love of God, and to see in every human being the image of God, we must open our eyes and our ears to what is happening, and to seek a path of response. This is especially important for those of us who are white.
But, what is the appropriate response? Protest? Demonstration? I’ll admit that I’m not sure, especially given the complications of public gatherings in these days of pandemic. What seems important, though, is that we open our eyes and perhaps even more so, that we open our ears and our minds. We must listen, and learn. We must consider and reflect, and challenge ourselves to step into another’s shoes, and another’s experience.
I’ve been thinking quite a lot, in recent days, of Dr. Martin Luther King’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.” In that letter, Dr. King wrote about his great disappointment in the white moderate, those committed more to “‘order’ than to justice.” Dr. King expressed his fervent hope that white moderates “would understand that law and order exist for the purpose of establishing justice and that when they fail in this purpose they become the dangerously structured dams that block the flow of social progress.”
Dr. King’s letter was written in April 1963, well over fifty years ago. It’s heartbreaking to see that we are still in the quagmire of injustice, where black people are treated with such violent inhumanity and white people are so quick to make false and dangerous accusations.
It’s time for good people of faith to seek the path of justice, and that begins with listening. In this season of Pentecost, of celebrating the gift and presence of the Holy Spirit, we ought to allow the Spirit to bestow upon us the courage and grace we need to learn the lessons we must learn, that positive change may become reality. We are not a land of freedom and a home of brave, and loving, people. But, with hard, holy work, we can be.