Confession. Conviction and Response ©

The headline in Tuesday morning’s Fort Worth Star Telegram read, “A Day of Outrage in Response to Shootings.” Such a headline calls to mind our need for confession, conviction and response. It is morally bankrupt to simply receive the news of the tragic death of Atatiana Jefferson and move on. Once again, painfully, we are to be reminded that every crisis also represents an opportunity.

Last week, following the Atatiana Jefferson shooting, I met with many of the African-American clergy of the Central Texas Conference. One of pastors wisely reminded us all, “if we see anger, we know that it is because of pain.”  In a class on Christian ethics years ago, I was introduced to the quote “that justice too long delayed was justice denied.”  We students were reading from Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s famous letter and ethical treatise “Letter from a Birmingham Jail, ” in which Dr. King referenced the quote as coming from a “distinguished jurist.”  Later in his brilliant treatise on Christian Ethics, Dr. King famously states, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly.”

During the meeting with the African American clergy, one of the pastors asked for a show of hands on who had had a gun pulled on them (Remember, this is a group of clergy in good standing!) Well more than half the room raised their hands. In later conversions, some shared having such an experience during a regular traffic stop. I was stunned!  I have never had a peace officer pull a gun on me at any time, but especially not during a traffic stop. Carefully, I am quite willing to grant that most police officers do their very difficult job with a heartfelt attempt to be fair. What I believe I witnessed in the show of hands was a deeper institutionalized unconscious racism.

It is as a white male that, at this juncture, I must confess that I have been too complacent in the ongoing conflict of institutional racism. In a previous blog post in which I shared an open letter to the mayor of Fort Worth Betsy Price, I noted that the shooting of Atatiana Jefferson is not an isolated incident but rather the heralding of an ongoing issue of injustice. We Christians believe that reform and renewal begins with confession. I invite the Christ-followers of the Central Texas Conference of the United Methodist Church to confess our complacency and to embrace a deeper conviction. We are led by the one who said, “I give you a new commandment: Love each other. Just as I have loved you, so you also must love each other.” (John 13:34)

My conviction is that we must continue to seek a more just society through our response. There is no “magic” we can apply. This is, for Christians, the hard work of advancing the kingdom of God “on earth as it is in heaven.”  During our latest Cabinet meeting, we had a long and open discussion on how we might encourage Christian engagement in combating racism as we continue to operate out of three core, driving values that have guided our decisions during the majority of my episcopacy here in the Central Texas Conference.
  • 1. Christ at the Center,
  • 2. A focus on the Local Church,
  • 3. Lay and Clergy Leadership Development.
We believe that through such a focused commitment toward “making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world” we gain intended consequences of greater missional engagement, inclusivity and spiritual formation.

At the denominational level, the Council of Bishops of the United Methodist Church is focusing on fighting institutional racism around the world in our upcoming Active Bishops Learning Retreat starting Nov. 3. Here in the CTC, we have already been working on improving our cultural awareness with the Board of Ordained Ministry of the Central Texas Conference. Previously, the Cabinet had already agreed to read The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander. Out of the Cabinet conversion we are asking each District to address the issues of cultural competency and racism. This will include planning conversations with clergy (especially African-American and other clergy of color) in their respective Districts. A rough and very preliminary outline for these conversations might include the following elements...

1. Why this conversation? How does this affect our mission?
  • We live in a diverse world:  different looking people, different thinking people, different believing people, different acting people.
  • Yet, for ALL these people, Christ came to earth, was crucified and raised from the dead.
  • In order for us to fulfill our God-given mission of making disciples, we must learn how to reach all the different kinds of people in our midst.
  • Reaching them requires maintaining self-awareness and understanding and appreciating those who are different (i.e. becoming interculturally competent).
2. What are the desired outcomes?
  • Clear understanding of racism and its impact
  • Increased capacity for recognizing racism
  • Increased willingness to work to dismantle racism
3. Group exercises
  • Poll the room and ask those who are willing to share any personal experience with racism?
4. What is racism?
  • Sin—Genesis 1:27 (all humans are made in the image of God); Luke 10:25-37 (loving neighbor as self)
  • Personal— Personal racism is manifested through the individual expressions, attitudes, and/or behaviors that accept the assumptions of a racist value system and that maintain the benefits of this system (Book of Discipline). Belief in the superiority of one race over another. It may also mean prejudice, discrimination, or antagonism directed against other people because they are of a different race or ethnicity.
  • Institutional/Systemic—Institutional racism is the established social pattern that supports implicitly or explicitly the racist value system. Racism, manifested as sin, plagues and hinders our relationship with Christ, in as much as it is antithetical to the gospel itself (Book of Discipline). Racism is an interconnected system of policies, practices, and norms which sustains a racial hierarchy benefiting people racialized as white to the detriment of people of color. Prejudice plus power.
5. Recognizing Racism
  • White privilege
  • Implicit bias
6. Dismantling Racism - A focus on Intercultural competency : the following elements are suggestions from the UMC General Commission on Religion and Race General Secretary Erin Hawkins...
  • Be accountable: Build relationships with others that keep you accountable for effectively dismantling the systems of racism and oppression while at the same time building community amongst the whole human family. We need to be committed to both, not one or the other.
  • Be inclusive: Stop putting superficial parameters on who is worthy of your love, respect, and acceptance. Race, class, gender, age, and sexual identity are not legitimate reasons to hate, exclude, and dehumanize.
  • Be courageous: Don’t shy away from conversations about race and the “isms” just because they are uncomfortable. We need constructive dialogue—and by constructive, we mean conversations that lead to community and action.
I wish to again stress that the outline above a very preliminary draft. It will be amended and improved many times via input from many across the conference and connection. We hope that it will be adapted for each district in a manner that best fits that district's local context. It will not be presented as a “top down” solution from “Headquarters,” but rather as one small step which we will all share and work together in shaping.

Together, under the Lordship (the rule, the leadership) of Jesus Christ, we are called to confession, to deeper conviction and to a greater response.