First off, this is going to be long. A topic like this isn’t something that can be handled in a short 2-3 paragraphs.
Even if you are not a religious person, please take a few minutes and go and read Psalms 105 and 106. They are a bit lengthy but the rest of this won’t make a lot of sense without that background. Ok…welcome back. These Psalms speak directly to why I have both of these signs up in my yard – bear with me with a little background.
So, I am reading through the Psalms during this Covid time and I came to Psalm 105 this morning. The Psalm is a recounting of the early history of the Hebrew people from the earliest days of Abraham and Sarah, to Isaac and Rebekah, to Jacob, to the story of Joseph in the land of Egypt (including how he got there – being sold as a slave by his brothers) and then ultimately to their slavery as a people and the eventual Exodus. It is a powerful recounting of their story and the celebration of the presence, power, and love of God. As I finished reading, I noted that the header for the next Psalm was “A Confession of Israel’s Sins.” This piqued my curiosity and I started reading. Well, for as much as 105 was a recounting of the high points and celebrations of the people, 106 was a recounting of the low points and the brokenness of the people. It speaks of their rebellions against God in the wilderness after the Exodus – naming several specific moments of individual and collective sin against God. There’s no glossing over, no “exceptionalism” of how wonderful they were, just an honest recounting of their brokenness. And towards the conclusion comes a plea, “Save us O Lord our God and gather us from the among the nations, that we may give thanks to your holy name and glory in your praise.”
When I was in seminary, one of my professors shared something that has stuck with me well over 20 years later now. She shared that one of the concepts of the Hebrew people in their scriptures was that there was an ability to hold two or more ideas together in tension even if it seems they may be contradictory. So, we can read about the God of the Hebrew Scriptures being One who is all loving and compassionate but also jealous and vengeful at the same time. She noted that as Christians, we also have to deal with the same when we confess a belief in God who is at the same time One but also Three. There’s a lot more to this but that’s the general idea.
But that goes against so much of the way that we have been taught to approach the world. The ways that we have been taught is that there can’t be any grey areas in-between. It is all right or all wrong. It is black or it is white. One can’t be the same as Three. And so forth. That’s what we hear from our politicians today regardless of party or affiliation. You’re either a Democrat or a Republican. You’re either a liberal or a conservative. Your news source is either CNN or Fox News. You either have a Black Lives Matter sign or Support our Police sign in your yard but not both. And the list can go on. It is tiresome and honestly it isn’t the way that the world is. Yet we keep wanting to try to make our worldview fit into that framework and it is quite literally destroying us.
So, back to the signs. Several weeks ago, my wife heard of someone in Wyoming who was collecting money to put up Black Lives Matter signs in yards and she ordered one and we put it out. A neighbor then asked me where we got ours and I told her that I could set up an order and then it snowballed from there as I posted on social media asking if others wanted ones. Since that time, I have put in 6 orders of signs (nearly 200 of them) and we have collected enough extra money that a donation of nearly $800 has been sent to The Poor Peoples’ Campaign. I am up to 21 more people who are interested in another order and that is going in sometime in the next few days.
We put up a Black Lives Matter sign because we have seen the reality in our country that our nation’s policies, our justice system, elements in policing, economic situations, historical events, and so much more have sent the message directly and indirectly that the lives of people of color (and when I say this I also feel I need to include Indigenous people as well as they have faced many of the same realities – after living in South Dakota for nearly nine years and seeing the realities of life on reservations, we have witnessed this first hand – end of excursus)…that the lives of people of color are not worth as much as white lives.
What does this look like? Well…I am one who has NEVER had to worry about being pulled over just because I look suspicious. I have NEVER had to worry about being followed around a store just because I walked in. I have NEVER had to wonder whether I would be discriminated against when applying for a loan. I have NEVER had people that I have witnessed cross to the other side of the street or clutch their purse or bag because they saw me coming. I have NEVER had to call someone to tell them that I’m trying to go into a building that I have a right to go into just in case someone saw a black man trying to enter a building late at night. (This last one is an absolutely true story of a phone call I got about a coworker needing to get into the church where I pastored and it was at about 930 at night). I have NEVER had to have “the talk” with my boys about how they should handle themselves when getting pulled over to avoid getting killed. I could keep going. But you get the idea. I have NEVER had to do those things above because our society values my life and others like me over the lives of people of color and that has to change. That is not the world that God desires for us. That is why we need to work not just against racism but about how to become ANTI-racists.
So, that is why we have a Black Lives Matter sign in our yard. Because we need to send the message that the lives of people of color matter just as much as my life or the life of anyone else because ALL of us are created in the image of God. All of us.
That doesn’t mean that I agree with or support every single thing that is tied to the “official” Black Lives Matter movement. When we participated in one of the downtown marches, I was by myself while my wife and kids were ahead of me when a white woman next to me yelled at a group of police who were simply standing next to their vehicles in their uniforms. She yelled at them, “Fuck you pigs, I hope you die!” I actually went over to her and said that I didn’t appreciate hearing that and messages like that will not help us move to a new place. She flipped me off and told me to “Fuck off” too. But I said what I needed to say and I hope that spoke to her. And ask I walked I prayed for her that she could see a new and different way. As she yelled those words, I thought of my dearest friend Taylor who is a cop in Tennessee and of Louis who is a cop here in Cincinnati. One is white. The other is black. And both try every single day to do their very best to uphold the law equally, to treat each person like a human being, and to stay faithful to the pledge they made when they put on the uniform. And every other cop who is trying her/his best to do the right things to the fullest extent of their ability.
But there are cops who are not doing their jobs in the right way. There are systems and structures in place that discriminate and actively work against the lives of people of color. There is a justice system that is broken and incarcerates a far higher percentage of black people (especially black men and boys) than white. There are cops who do not face justice when they commit crimes such as what happened with Sam DuBose here in Cincinnati several years ago and so many other cases before and since. There is a system that allows a George Zimmerman to go free or that doesn’t seek to investigate or pursue suspects in the death of Ahmaud Arbery until it makes the national news months later.
And so that’s why when I saw the message on Facebook that one of our city council members was giving away signs to support the our local police department, I asked him if I could have one as well because I wanted to send the message that it can be a both/and. I can be for Black Lives Matter and I can support our police. He responded back asking if we could do a trade – a Black Lives Matter sign for one of the Police ones. Absolutely, I said. So you’ll also see the pic of him and me when he came over to swap signs.
I am going to continue to advocate for Black Lives Matter and the core message that needs to not only be recognized but must lead to lasting and transformative change at all levels in our country. But I am also going to continue to recognize and support the police who are doing their jobs in the ways that it should be done and that they have my full support.
Going back to the Psalms and to the Bible as a whole…Those two Psalms show that the writers of those songs were willing to be honest with who they were. They were honest about their strengths and celebrations and their flaws and brokenness. They could have one song that sings of the tremendous working of God in their lives and also their stark confession of how they had walked away from God. They could exist with the both/and. We need to do similarly. We can celebrate our history as a country on this 4th of July for there is so much that this country has done for good in the world and for people throughout our 200+ years – protection, peace, innovation, and so much more. I am deeply proud to be an American in the sense of the deepest ideals of what our country can be.
But at the same time, we cannot hide from the realities of our history as well. That our ancestors in this country committed genocides upon the indigenous peoples who were here long before anyone sailed across an ocean. That we participated in a slave trade that was horrific in its origins and its practices and in the long-reaching after effects. That we continue to propagate systems that keep some people in generational poverty and oppression. Just to name a few things. But we need to confess and repent of these things just as those who wrote Psalm 106 were seeking to do.
As one who seeks to follow the way of Jesus, I also see this in the story of Jesus that we have in the New Testament. Jesus was a both/and type of person. Jesus’ work was pointing to something new – a new way to relate to one another, a new way to structure society, a new way for people to live. He sat at meals with people of all kinds – those on the fringes and those in power. He spoke words of comfort, encouragement, challenge, and conviction to ALL people – not just to some. That’s the way that I seek to live my life. Do I do it perfectly? Not at all. Like the writer of Psalm 106, I can find time after time when I don’t live the way that I am called to live. But that doesn’t mean I am going to stop.
So, I am not going to be silent in the face of the oppressive systems and structures that keep people under the thumb of empire. But I am also going to be sure that I can find ways to stay connected and with those with whom I disagree. I will still speak what I believe but I will seek to do it in love and respect.
One of the most powerful stories in the last century is how the end of Apartheid came about in South Africa. It did not happen with Nelson Mandela leading a revolution and arresting those who were in power. It happened with Mandela and F.W. De Klerk coming together to see how a NEW South Africa could emerge. It was Mandela living his words when he said, “If you want to make peace with your enemy, you have to work with your enemy. Then he becomes your partner.” He also said, “Know your enemy – and learn about his favorite sport.”
So, that is why both signs are now staked in my yard. That is why I believe and I hope in what can be and not simply looking at what is today. I believe that we can be so much more.
And a quick update…Yes, we both should have been wearing masks but it was a quick pic outside…