What the Church Must Now Do : Listen

The Church is so accustomed to preaching to the culture. It needs to listen.

For the first time in Minnesota history, a white police officer has been found guilty on three counts of murder of a Black man. The killing of George Floyd, captured on video, ignited a year of protests and riots, memorials, local distress and international outrage, all during a historic worldwide pandemic. It was horrible, and the impact, frightening and exhausting. The verdict, braced as we were for more violence, gave a sense of victory and relief.

Many are hopeful that this verdict is the signal that white Minnesotans are finally ready to confront innate racism, an implicit fear of people of color in general, and Black men in particular. But while we celebrate this milestone of difference and change, the deaths of Black citizens during interactions with police has not stopped, and the trials continue. Several weeks ago, 20- year-old Daunte Wright was killed during a traffic stop and arrest in Brooklyn Center.

How did Minnesota, a state proud of its progressive politics, the land of Hubert Humphrey and Paul Wellstone, a culture that continues to claim the Christian value of welcoming immigrants and refugees, and is proud of its tolerance and high quality of life, create a culture where darker skin color seems to automatically signal inferiority or threat, even to police officers who carry weapons and are trained in use of force?

Implicit bias began long ago with European colonialism, its slave trade, and 250 years of slavery in the South. The struggle to end slavery sparked our Civil War. What followed — Emancipation, the South’s surrender, Lincoln’s assassination, federal Reconstruction, and Reconstruction’s reversal — soon made room for the policies of widespread legal racial discrimination.

Inequity based on skin color was routinely written into American family and marriage law, banking and mortgage lending, employment, voting rights, education, housing, public transportation and accommodation laws. All of which was routinely supported by teachings, sermons and policies of most Christian churches. These practices and attitudes effectively created a two-tiered American society, based solely on perceived skin color.

Minnesota was not immune. That century of legal segregation and migration out of the South shaped where children attended school, what families lived near whom, and where Americans worshipped, worked and played. It shaped where poverty was concentrated, where resources were located, how schools were funded. It has been such a part of our culture that our religious life has unwittingly reinforced these racial divisions.

What can we do as people of faith in response to this terrible legacy? We in the Christian church are quite accustomed to speaking to our larger communities with the words of our faith and traditions. Many of us are coming to realize we have been tone-deaf to the impact of our attitude and practices on people of color. It’s time we listen more than we speak.

Remember when most churches taught that homosexuality was an aberrant, shameful, sinful lifestyle? That majority religious opinion changed only when many of us began to really listen to the life experience of gay neighbors and friends. Opinions about sexual orientation have changed faster than during any other social movement in American history. While racism is decidedly different, it is our calling, as Jesus followers, to repent and renew ourselves for the sake of our neighbors’ lives and dignity.

These times call for the courage to relax our loyalties to the past and wonder how we might better embody the grace of God in a world of diverse history, race and experience. I believe we are being called by God’s spirit to humility as we consider how Christianity has been used to bolster the cause of slavery before the Civil War, and again, during the generations since. Even in our own state, in our churches, and in our families.

It’s not easy to shift our primary focus from indifference to curiosity, from speaker to listener, from confidence to humility. It means working against our own mental habits, our language, our assumptions about people and their experience in the world. But if we want to live lives of authentic discipleship, we must respond to the world around us as it is. We can work to listen and learn from neighbors we have excluded, judged and dismissed. Even when what they tell us confuses us. We may have tried to create churches that embody the gospel of Jesus, but our own history, revealed in eyes of those we have systemically excluded, shows us all otherwise.

  • Originally published as Spiritual Reflections column, The Savage Pacer, May 8, 2021

ANOTHER death by police

On this past Memorial Day, May 25, 2020, George Floyd was thrown to the ground during an arrest on Chicago Ave, Minneapolis, two dozen miles from my home. He had gone into Cup Foods on the corner to buy some things, using what the store clerk believed was a counterfeit $20 bill. Did George even know it was a bogus bill? We can’t know because instead of conversation, the lead officer on that team of 4 police officers subdued him with his knee on his neck for nearly 9 minutes.

Passers by shouted, screamed, and begged the officers to get off his neck as George cried out “I can’t breathe” and called for his mother. A 17 year old on her way back home down the street had the presence of mind and the courage to video the entire scene. And then the strength to put that video onto the internet and it flew around the world.

George died under that restraint while the officer looked unmoved and even amused by the outcry the bystanders were creating around him. He knelt there while George died with his hand in his pants pocket, as if this was just a walk in the park. He has been charged with 2nd degree murder, and his fellow officers arrested and charged with aiding and abetting murder and other lesser crimes. The investigation and trial preparations continue by our state Attorney General.

George was a black man in a city and state that has always prided itself on being Nice and Progressive and Diverse. At least, for the white citizens of Minnesota. I am among those white citizens who, until now, may have known things were occasionally hard for our fellow citizens of color, but had little personal experience with the way police treat BIPOC people as if they are criminals and dangers to our way of life.

As our city and state exploded in peaceful protests and bitter and violent burning and looting, the world erupted in shock, shame, and revolt. Wave after wave of pent up despair caught the energies of many who filled the streets, airwaves and internet with stories, anger and hope for a finally awoken white populace to SEE the white skin supremacy that undergirds nearly everything and every institution in America.

People have been shaken and thrust into a new image of our state and country. White people are racing to catch up to the witness of black and brown persons who have lived this fear and racism all their lives. Not every white citizen, of course. But many, many more who have stood passively alongside before and who are now engaging, reading, marching, talking, writing, giving, and listening to try to understand and change.

I have been and remain committed to better understanding the white supremacy of our culture and how it has shaped me, my decisions and assumptions, and future vision of the world. May millions of us use the brutal lynching of George Floyd on a corner of Minneapolis one holiday evening during a pandemic and the presidency of Donald Trump to listen, to repent, and to work to change the world.

May George be the very last in the innumerable line of lynchings of black Americans. May his name be the last on the list of black men and women killed by our peace officers. May this nation pull itself toward equity and peace. And may all our leaders, including our highest office, once again reflect justice for all.

#lynching #GeorgeFloyd #blacklivesmatter #vote2020

Racism and Trauma

For decades, family therapists and other mental health professionals and researchers have believed that trauma in one generation can be expressed in the genetic code and passed as psychological suffering and vulnerability in following generations. This fact has been demonstrated in animal studies for years, but few human trials have followed.

A research team at Mt. Sinai Hospital in New York City, studying the DNA and mental health of survivors of World War II Nazi atrocities and their children, have newly demonstrated genetic changes in the children of these survivors. The Guardian article of August 21, 2015 describes the changes in a specific gene sequence associated with the regulation of stress hormones. What therapists have seen in their practices has begun to be proven in the laboratory: when emotional and mental trauma happens to us in our early life, it can change our genes, and those changes can be passed down to our children.

It helps to explain the increased mental health issues in children of Holocaust survivors, victims of political terror, accidental trauma, severe poverty, famine and the progeny of African slaves in the United States. This “epigenetic inheritance” can linger for generations and effect the culture, as it has done in the Jewish communities around the world after 1945.

The continuing hurt, vulnerability, anger and rage expressed in Native American tribes and African American communities in the United States against the majority white population can be understood as both cry for justice in the present, and a echo of generational trauma that was endured for nearly 300 years on our nation’s shores.

We have a responsibility as a nation to be struggling to heal the racial injustice and majority privilege that still stains our daily interactions. And therapists need to recognize the layers of trauma that their clients of color may bring to their offices, seeking healing for individual pain that may have been generations in the making.

UPDATE: Here is the link to the mouse study with traumatic epigenetic changes in following generations : Nature Neuroscience, Volume 17, Number 1, January 2014: