How Can We Be Silent

Amy Epp
10 July 2016

I had a whole thing written about the story of the good Samaritan.  A familiar story that we’ve all heard a bazillion times.  I was going to talk about looking at this story through the eyes of the nameless person thrown in the ditch and left to die.  About how we need to think about who we hate and reimagine seeing that person as Christ. Which is how Luke casts the Sarmaritan – an enemy positioned as the one offering mercy, just as God has mercy on us in our vulnerability and weakness. I had to rack my brain to think about who I would hate and fear so much that I would be loathe even to accept help from them if I was dying in a ditch and the truth is that while I came up with (I think) not a terrible analogy, there really is no one.

And that is my privilege.  That is our privilege.  So instead I offer something different.  Something a little rough and full of the words and examples of other folks, because I’m still listening and watching.  But the story is still Jesus’ story.  In fact I feel like Jesus and the lectionary have given us this gift and challenge.

There is a person walking down from Jerusalem to Jericho.  Or driving up to Minneapolis, or sitting outside the Triple S. hustling CDs.

And some robbers beat the traveler, stripping and leaving that one for dead.  Or some officers pull him over for a broken tail light, or advance on him for selling CDs outside a store.  His family does not know if he is alive or dead but his blood is running in the street.

And a Levite walks by and then a priest, and they cross to the other side.  And a pastor walks by, but crosses to the other side.  Some Mennonites, peacemaking people of good conscience walk by.

But a Samaritan sees the man and stops.

I think it’s pretty common knowledge that Samaritans and Judeans were enemies.  This story is sometimes recast as team rivalries, or like Seattle vs Portland.  But this is not that.  This is a loathing, a visceral and bone-deep, gut level “Should we call down consuming fire on them?” hatred and contempt.  That was the response of Jesus’ disciples after leaving a town that was not welcoming to them (the disciples were essentially being Judean missionaries).  James and John a few verses prior ask that question when the town they travel to isn’t interested in what they have to say.

These are rivals of the sort who go out of their way to destroy and desecrate the sacred places of the other people.  So when Jesus tells a story of a Samaritan that sees and stops and responds with mercy, it is beyond shocking.  It is an act of unbelievable and radical disregard for that cultural divide and animosity that brings the Samaritan on his donkey and with is wealth to help the man in the ditch, and I think (even while he seems to have no choice) an act of hospitality by the man in the ditch to accept the help

I admit I did not watch the videos of Alton Sterling or Philando Castile’s murders, although the advice I am hearing in social media is that as a white person I should watch and bear witness and experience this thing that people in black and brown bodies are constantly fearful of.  I dislike and avoid even fictionalized movie violence and I could not bring myself to it.  But I did read the transcript of Diamond Reynolds’ interaction with the cops in MN, which even in reading, show clearly her horror, her fear, her panic, her desperation, as her boyfriend, pulled over for a broken tail-light, is fatally shot – in front of her and her four-year-old – and she is also treated like a criminal, put in the back of the police car – with her daughter – and told nothing about the situation and treated only to expletive laden abuse by the police who shot her beloved and detained her.

Jason Frelot, a black man who is the Community Outreach Coordinator at the Well/Queen Anne UMC, initiated a movement, a ‘radical act of love’.  He rallied over 30 churches, coordinating through social media, to give flowers to police officers.  Then he himself, along with his 2-year-old daughter, handed out flowers to officers on duty and to black folks.  Based on that transcript that I read, and the literally hundreds of other incident between police officers and people of color, the people in uniform are folks Jasen has every reason to be very fearful of.

He posted a video to his Facebook page: “People may be wondering why we did this today and not for the deaths of two black men. There’s no excuse for not acting when our brothers and sisters in Christ are being killed.  I felt compelled because I felt scared, quite frankly.”  He talked about the emerging notion that black Americans and ‘blue’ Americans are at war.  While he doesn’t characterize what’s going on that way, he does say, “I don’t think it’s a war that we would survive.”

Black parents in America have conversations with their sons and daughters about what to do if they are stopped by a police officer – because they (legitimately) fear for the safety of their child in such a situation.  I tell my child to stay on the right when she’s riding her bike so she won’t get in the way of traffic.  Black celebrities are posting videos about how where to put your hands, your wallet, your license and registration in the case of being pulled over so that all parties can come home safely.

Jasen Frelot says of his flowers4cops action that he acted in love.  But he goes on: “I wish I could say that it was in the interest of police officers.  I think it was in the interest of our family, in the interest of black America, and in the interest of the Christian cause…What I hope happens…is that this will inspire [white churches] to no longer be silent in the face of oppression…There can never be enough images…of white churches…showing their support for black people and people of color.”

In a video meme that’s been circulating on social media, Janet Elliot, a white anti-racism adeucator and activist asks her audience, “If you would be happy to be treated like black folks in this society are treated, please stand. No one is standing.  That says to me that you all know what is happening you know you don’t want it for you.  I want to know why you’re so willing to accept it or to allow it to happen for others.”  How can we be silent?

Last week we sat in here and we listened to Megan preach powerfully about interdependence.  How can we be silent?  If this is the road to Jericho, there is not just one beaten man but a whole ditch, the whole side of the road covered with the bodies of black and brown men and women and the whole country is walking by.  The world is walking by and we are walking along with them.  Claudia Rankine writes in the New York Time Magazine: “Though the white liberal imagination likes to feel temporarily bad about black suffering, there really is no mode of empathy that can replicate the daily strain of knowing that as a black person you can be killed for simply being black: no hands in your pockets, no playing music, no sudden movements, no driving your car, no walking at night, no walking in the day, no turning onto this street, no entering this building, no standing your ground, no standing here, no standing there, no talking back, no playing with toy guns, no living while black.”

And I am walking by, crossing to the other side.  It is in part because I feel totally helpless.  I have all kinds of reasons.  We all do.  Maybe some of these reasons for not acting and speaking are familiar to you.  These are from ‘Blessed are the Feet’ a blog by Colleen Mitchell: I’m afraid I don’t know enough.  I’m afraid I’ll do it wrong.  I’m afraid I don’t get it – the societal implications, that speaking up will make me look ignorant.  I’m afraid I’ll be more offensive than helpful – I don’t want to say the wrong thing so I so I don’t say anything.  I’m afraid it won’t be enough.  I’m afraid to make people angry.  I’m afraid I’m doing it for the wrong reasons.  I’m afraid of my own sins and prejudice, which I will have to confront if I am to speak up and reach out.  And I am afraid to enter into the pain.  There is a lot of pain.

But I, at least, have run out of excuses.  As Mitchell notes at the end of her list, all of those excuses start with ‘I’.  A good neighbor sees the crisis and stops, offers the balm and place of healing.

“Love doesn’t win in private if I am silent publicly.” She Mitchell says, “Reconciliation doesn’t happen behind closed doors and not affect how I respond publicly. When a black men’s death shows up on my social media newsfeed, I have a responsibility to respond. To lament. To enter the pain. To accept the anger. To elevate the voices of the marginalized and oppressed. To educate myself, my children, and my circle of influence. To demand justice. To advocate. To speak.”

Now is the time to claim the peacemaking and radical non-violent action of our Mennonite inheritance right now and to abandon once and for all ‘quiet in the land.’  The church is called to prophesy.  How can we be silent

I have already, since Michael Brown and before been talking to my children (well, the older one, anyway) about their privilege and I do not hide the violence from them.  Their peers who are black and brown do not get to hide from it.  And their parents do not even consider not having matter-of-fact conversations about how to encounter police, about how to move about in the world and come home safely when encountering racism. But I am convicted that just talking to my own family is not enough anymore.

I need to continue to educate myself.  (Like Grace said when they came out here a few weeks ago: Google is your friend) And I need to follow the lead of others who are in this work.  I need to join other white folks especially to learn more about our privilege and spread the call to prophesy.  I need to read, listen to and watch media made by people of color (which I already do, but want to seek out more). I need to do more to support my local businesses owned by people of color.  And I need to use my privilege and my whiteness to protect and get in the way and continue to undo white supremacy and to make justice for black lives matter.

Instead of saying all lives matter, Jesus said, “Samaritan lives matter.”

Instead of saying all lives matter, Jesus said, “Children’s lives matter.”

Instead of saying all lives matter, Jesus said, “Gentile lives matter.”

Instead of saying all lives matter, Jesus said, “Jewish lives matter,”

Instead of saying all lives matter, Jesus said, “Women’s lives matter.”

Instead of saying all lives matter, Jesus said, “Lepers’ lives matter.”

Even though Jesus loved everyone, he went out of his way to intentionally help specific groups of people – the alienated, mistreated, and those facing injustice.  So saying ‘Black Lives Matter” is one of the most Christ-like things we can do. (quoted from here)

How can we stay silent?

So, specifics?  Here’s a suggestion from one Seattle activist, Ijeoma Oluo, (I’ve copied these and put them on the back table) for starters:

Call Mayor Ed Murray and demand the following:

–          Reinstate civilian watchdog Pierce Murphy at SPD’s Office of Professional Accountability

–          Strong civilian oversight in the new contract with seattle police officers guild

–          Refuse reelection campaign donations from SPOG PACs

–          Stop the construction of the $160M North Seattle Police Precinct (ours) and the $210M new youth jail and use those funds for education, officer training and alternatives to incarceration

I hate using the phone.  But I’m going to suck it up and call.  How can I stay silent?

This afternoon there is a gathering at Westlake for a call to stop police brutality.  And I welcome others to meet me there.  It’s time to stop being silent.  And I know that many of you already act but friend, I preach for my own sake.  Yesterday I went and got poster board and markers and it is a small thing, perhaps, but I have a rainbow fish in my window, why don’t I have a black lives matter sign?  I invite you to join me.  We can put up signs in our windows here, we can take home signs for our windows at home.  We can take them downtown with us this afternoon.  We can declare ourselves comrades for justice.

May God have mercy on us.  May God strengthen us.  May God strengthen and give courage to, uphold and surround our black kindred and especially comfort those families who are grieving this week.  May we seek to see, to stop, to respond with mercy in Jesus name.  How Can We Keep Silent?

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