Love Your Neighbor as Yourself

What a couple of weeks it’s been! Keeping up with the news has once again been like trying to drink from a fire hose, especially since the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis. As individuals, it was abhorrent and overwhelming even to hear about. (I can’t bring myself to watch it.) It is also part of a larger picture.

What’s been on my mind is the idea of “systemic racism” as a factor in American life. Merriam-Webster defines “racism” as: “a belief that race is the primary  determinant  of human traits and capacities and that racial differences produce an inherent superiority of a particular race.” The phrase, “systemic racism,” is harder to define. In seminary, we came to understand it as a set of unspoken assumptions that help to reinforce racism as it is defined. We had an example of that about two weeks ago, when a woman in Central Park called the police to report “an African-American man threatening my life” after he asked her to leash her dog. The man, Christian Cooper (who is African-American), recorded the episode on his phone. (You can see it on YouTube by searching his name. I’ve watched it. Also, she has since apologized.) First, it’s clear that she’s not being threatened. Second, she indicated that the alleged perpetrator is African-American. Why name his race in the absence of any other identifying features? It appears to me that she believed she would benefit from including that fact, whether (in her mind) by hastening the arrival of police officers, or as a threat to Christian for how he would be treated by the police for threatening a white woman. Whatever the intended specific effect, her unspoken assumption was that naming his race would serve as a deterrent to Christian or otherwise work to her advantage. Where did that assumption come from? And why did she think it was okay to say what she said? That is what “systemic racism” looks like.

I was also struck by two profound expressions of hope as we face in this time of heightened racial tension and awareness. They provide ideas for how we can work together to understand and begin to challenge racism and its effects on those around us. The first thing we can do is to acknowledge the reality of racism. In Genesee County in Michigan, a demonstration in protest of the death of George Floyd was unfolding. Sheriff Chris Swanson arrived with his officers in full riot gear. As the sound increased, the Sheriff removed his riot gear and stepped into the crowd. “We want to be with you all for real. I took the helmet off and laid the batons down. I want to make this a parade, not a protest. You tell us what you need us to do.” The crowd chanted, “Walk with us! Walk with us!” With a wave of his arm and cheers from the crowd, he joined the march.  Sheriff Swanson has said that the killing of George Floyd is “not indicative of nationwide law enforcement. . . in 8 minutes and 46 seconds, the entire good of police was erased.” That kind of support doesn’t fix the problem, but nothing will be “fixed” without taking racism seriously along with mutual respect and a shared understanding that we are all in this together.

The second expression of hope was on a Southwest flight last Friday. American Airlines CEO Doug Parker was on it because the American flight was full. He had with him the book, White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk about Racism,’ by Robin DiAngelo. JaqueRae Hill was his flight attendant and unaware of his identity. She’s African American and noticed the book. Near the end of the flight, she sat down to ask him what he thought of it. “Fantastic,” he said, “I’m halfway through.” She said, “It’s on my list to read and I saw you bring it onboard and I just wanted to talk to you. …” And then she started to cry. Parker consoled her as they spoke, saying, “The best I could do was tell her that the book talks about how white people are horrible at talking about racism and that what we need are real conversations. She agreed. I told her I was trying to learn, and through tears and a mask, she said, ‘So am I.'”

Knowing that we are in this together, we can learn about racism. I know from seminary how difficult it can be to talk about racism, but perhaps one day we can. I’m getting that book, too. Inside the front cover, I will include the words of Jesus from Matthew 22: He replied, “You must love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your being, and with all your mind. This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: You must love your neighbor as yourself. All the Law and the Prophets depend on these two commands”

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