Phone calls came quickly the morning after the shooting of Alton Sterling. I had hardly put down the receiver before a second round of calls came in, filled with a wide range of powerful emotions related to a second murder this week of Philando Castile, another black man. Then again, just after I hit the send button to share this letter, news of five Dallas police officers murdered by one or more snipers downloaded on my computer screen. The horror, violence and anger come in storm-like waves.
Our emotions fill a wide range, from weeping and deep grief to strident anger. We continue to search for meaningful ways to respond to what we know to be a deep and devastating dysfunction throughout our nation and within our local communities. Calls come looking for ways to mobilize the witness of our regional Presbyterian community to respond to what has clearly become an epidemic of racial violence. Our Synod community has been engaged in the hard work of addressing the racial brokenness of our larger communities and the lust for weapons that seems to only be escalating.
As I write this letter I am aware that too much, and yet not enough, has already been written. I commend to you the words of our General Assembly Stated Clerk, J. Herbert Nelson, and of our General Assembly Co-Moderators, Denise Anderson and Jan Edmiston. I am moved by and grateful for the leadership of our national church.
We know with certainty that the news will come that yet another black man will be murdered, that undue force will be used and courts will excuse it. I find myself doubting if anything will ever change. Change and transformation, however, are at the heart of the Gospel that weaves us into community. Despair is not an option. Justice is the cord that binds us. Care for the oppressed and marginalized is what defines us. Giving up in discouragement is not an option for those who choose to follow Jesus.
I’d like to share a few things I have learned along the way of facilitating systemic change. Deep change can only take root with honest personal reflection. A recent video produced by our Synod begins with the words “we confess.” It moves into a litany of confession for some of the ways we as a community of Christians have ignored injustice. As we worked through our own process of transformation which we have called A New Way Forward, we had to confess that as a church we have held and continue to hold immense privilege as a majority white community. Our aspirations to become a new kind of community, even to become an expression of the Beloved Community would demand both confession of our sin and a pervasive commitment to lay down our undeserved privilege. This is one way to participate in the change for which our hearts ache.
After each death occurs, my first response is to hold those on the frontline of grief in prayer. I know you join me in this, but we can’t stop there. Each senseless death demands a new round of confession from deep within each of us. I must again and again acknowledge to myself, my community and my God that I am also indicted in this death. That the system which brings forth each of these acts of racial violence is the system that gives me security and privilege.
What I can’t do is to shift the blame. I can’t just hang this on police officers or other perpetrators. While we must demand transparent and impartial prosecution, that alone would only deflect the deeper problem. The transformation that will lead to faithful Gospel values must begin with confession and repentance of our complicity in systems of white supremacy and racial violence.
There will be programs offered by our Synod and many other partners. Our Synod has a Working Group on Race that is charged to facilitate this sort of transformation. Plans are developing for anti-racism education as a pre-event to our annual Synod Assembly scheduled for October 13-14, 2016. A team from the Working Group on Race is coordinating a Sankofa immersion trip in the next year. We are exploring ways to create regional learning groups to address the root causes of racism. In the meantime I hope you contribute to existing efforts, led by those in affected communities. I do hope you will commit to joining us on this journey, and share your own idea of how we can make a real difference.
Harold M. Delhagen