The Reading Progam is just one United Methodist Women resource that addresses racial justice.
The Assault on African-American Lives: How Must Christians Respond?
As followers of Christ, we are called to seek justice, particularly in times of crisis. The killing of Michael Brown in St. Louis, Missouri, left many feeling confused, dismayed and heartbroken. In the face of a series of killings of unarmed African Americans, including Eric Garner, Trayvon Martin, Renisha McBride and many others, we are presented with a moment of reckoning with our nation’s still unfinished business of racial injustice.
Today, the United States is in the midst of an epidemic of extrajudicial killings of African-American men. This is not an abstract crisis, and, painfully, the killing of African-American men is now a regular occurrence. According to a recent study [PDF], an African-American man is killed every 28 hours in America by police, security personnel or vigilantes. There are many reasons why this kind of seemingly indiscriminate murder continues to afflict our nation.
The pervasive profiling and targeting of African-American communities give us one part of the story. Police brutality and overpolicing are “much more prevalent in ethnic minority communities, partly because police in minority communities are usually a nonresident, mostly white occupying force” (Resolution 3376, The Book of Resolutions of The United Methodist Church 2012). But police brutality, militarization of local police forces and the blanket suspicion thrown over whole communities of color are mere symptoms of the larger issue of ongoing racial injustice throughout our nation. The relentless criminalization of African-American communities also means African Americans face harsh consequences for criminal convictions that most white people with the same convictions rarely endure. Exacerbating this trend, African Americans facing criminal charges can often lack effective legal counsel, further stacking the deck against them.
Beyond the staggering inequities of the criminal justice system, all Americans continue to grapple with inadequately addressed racial oppression in every level of our society. We are called to more. We are called to realize God’s kin-dom on earth, and we are falling far short. Yet our faith must be a guide for how we can work to end the punishing legacy of racism. As United Methodist Women, our social policy on the Criminalization of Communities of Color in the United States is a decisive call to “actively work to dismantle current policies that depict whole groups of people as criminals and that respond with profiling and mass incarceration.” The criminalization of communities of color is a deeply rooted systemic reality. Blaming one police officer will not end the killings, but holding those cops who kill unarmed people to account through investigation, arrest and prosecution is a start. Letting police officers face real consequences for a pattern of reckless disregard for African-American life is one way a severely biased criminal justice system can begin to be accountable to communities of color.
In the Wesleyan tradition, our call is, as ever, to do all the good we can, by all the means we can, in all the places we can, to all the people we can, as long as ever we can. But it is becoming increasingly difficult to know how to “do good” in the face of such relentless repression of African-American life. In most instances, African Americans occupy the bottom rung of the ladder in our society. In fact, the structures that limit and criminalize African-American life have impacts for all people of color in our country. Indeed, from mass incarceration, which disproportionately targets African-American and Latino men and families, to the mass deportation of immigrants, to the extreme marginalization of First Nation peoples, to the hypersurveillance of Arab, Muslim and South Asian communities, racism remains an intractable reality for all people of color, with African Americans bearing among the heaviest burdens.
As United Methodists we can turn to some of the strongest tenants of our faith, scripture, tradition, reason, and experience to understand our required response at disorienting and agonizing moments.
A Wesleyan Response to Racial Violence
What does scripture tell us about the nature of evils like racist violence and racism and the Lord’s demand that we seek justice in the face of such evils? Looking to Proverbs 24:11-12, we see our mandate clearly defined. The Message interpretation urges us to “rescue the perishing; don’t hesitate to step in and help. If you say, ‘Hey, that’s none of my business,’ will that get you off the hook? Someone is watching you closely, you know—someone not impressed with weak excuses.” We are asked to step in to interrupt injustices when we see them and to realize that we must contend with injustice especially in moments where we may not feel comfortable. Being able to effectively interrupt injustice means honing our skills to identify and act to undo unjust practices and policies. This passage is also asking us to take risks for justice. We must use moments of strife and questioning not for hand wringing but to sit down and continue talking cross-racially about how to stop the ongoing barriers to racial justice we all face. How we respond in those moments and afterward matters. Persistent bravery, compassion and risk-taking are necessary if we are to grow the modern movement for racial justice so that all lives matter.
- TAKE ACTION: Expand your conversations on racial justice by using the Showing Up for Racial Justice (SURJ) police brutality action kit. Use this to begin to host cross-racial dialogues in your church or community. SURJ is a national network of groups and individuals organizing white people for racial justice. Through community organizing, mobilizing and education, SURJ moves white people to act as part of a multiracial majority for justice with passion and accountability. The work of the Black Alliance for Just Immigration (BJAI) is also a great resource to help spur multiracial conversations. Use BAJI’s video “The Real Crime”, to examine how criminalization impacts all communities of color. BAJI is an education and advocacy group that provides the African-American community with a progressive analysis and framework on immigration that links the interests of African-Americans with those of immigrants of color.
In all of our many iterations, United Methodist Women has had a long tradition of doing the hard, mundane, messy and necessary work of racial justice. Methodist women have for nearly 150 years worked to undo the practice of racism in our own organization, the church and the wider world. We have sought to hold our institutions accountable for racially unjust policies, like the separation of African Americans into the Central Jurisdiction. Methodist women have also led the fight to change policy with in the church, as in the decades-long fight to get the Charter for Racial Justice Policies in an Interdependent Global Community adopted at General Conference. But United Methodist Women has also been at the forefront of racial justice struggles to build cross-racial alliances, support civil rights movements and end lynching. Today, we must honor our tradition by recognizing the modern-day lynchings and follow the lead of our brave foremothers to sound the alarm in our homes, churches and communities. Our antiracist witness deepens our tradition, faith and commitment to Christ.
- TAKE ACTION: Research, know and understand Methodist women’s tradition of working on the front lines of racial justice. Read and share the seminal work by Alice G. Knotts, Fellowship of Love, Methodist Women Changing American Racial Attitudes, 1920-1968 (Kingswood Books, 1996). This book is an honest and hopeful accounting of the challenges and wins that Methodist women endured in their early work for racial justice. It is also important to regularly examine United Methodist Women’s obligation to respond to the modern-day manifestations of racism that comes directly from the Charter for Racial Justice, which encourages us to “work for the development and implementation of national and international policies to protect the civil, political, economic, social and cultural rights of all people.”
During times of social crisis it can be hard to understand the complexities of a situation. Here our faith asks us to bring to bear discerning and cogent thought on issues of injustice. Yet, it can be hard to know how to make reasonable assessments about a situation like the one in Ferguson, Missouri, in the face of fast moving realities and potential misinformation swirling about the media. What is clear is that over the last 40 years whole communities have been deemed criminal and have been overly policed, profiled, locked up and killed in increasingly frightening numbers. What is also clear is that the media has often played the mouthpiece of this 40-year war on communities of color by often publishing unquestioned police accounts of criminal cases and suspects. We also see media trying cases in the “court of public opinion” frequently tainting jury pools and resulting in coerced confessions or erroneous convictions, as in the case of the Central Park Five.
- TAKE ACTION: Use a wider variety of media sources. View media through a social justice/racial justice lens. Color Lines Magazine (online) offers content that examines the social justice aspects of the news of the day. You can also analyze the media through the tools of organizations like Center for Media Justice and Free Press.
Our experiences can often be the defining factors that help us discern how to act in instances where issues of justice are on the line. But the call to engage our experiences is also a call to know when our experiences may not be enough. Everyone lives with relative privilege. White privilege, able-bodied privilege, economic privilege, male privilege and more. We must uphold the United Methodist Women tradition of keeping close to and following the lead of those who are most often marginalized and directly impacted by injustice, particularly racial injustice. But we must also use our judgment to discern if we need more information, knowledge and time to get a fuller understanding of the world’s injustices. Our experiences matter in how we view injustice and act for justice, but we must also listen to the realities as impacted people see and experience them.
- TAKE ACTION: Use the Reading Program and the annual mission studies to deepen your understanding of other people’s experiences of injustice. In 2014, a Reading Program selection to focus on to deepen your consciousness about racial justice would be Dear White America, A Letter to a New Minority by Tim Wise (City Light Books, 2012) and from the 2012 reading list The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness (The New Press, 2010). You can also revisit the 2014 spiritual growth study, How Is It With Your Soul, to reflect on how you must answer Christ’s call to be his disciple, for justice. Use the study to pray, learn, mentor, collaborate and act for racial justice in your home, church, community and world.