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The BLM Movement, and a Privileged White Response

A pdf version of this commentary can be read and/or printed here.

Sacrilege Incarnate

 

As reactions to racial inequities have boiled over once again in recent days, the question is now repeatedly asked whether or not our country has at long last reached a tipping point? But in the midst of it all, brute force is deployed to clear a path so the current occupant of the White House can go to church. The act in and of itself is unusual; since the President is not much of a churchgoer.

But instead of entering that sacred space that’s only a short trek from the White House, Donald Trump and his entourage pause before the church sign that declares “All Are Welcome,” to simply pose for the now-infamous photo-op. He’s handed a Bible, and  holds it aloft.  A reporter shouts a question, “Is that yourBible?” The President responds, “Yes, it’s a Bible.”

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Faith leaders subsequently react with righteous indignation. “Let me be clear,” said the local bishop of St. John’s Episcopal Church. “The President just used a Bible, the most sacred text of the Judeo-Christian tradition, and one of the churches of my diocese, without permission, as a backdrop for a message antithetical to the teachings of Jesus.”

And the President’s presumed rival for the Fall election just five months away offered his own acerbic wisecrack about Trump’s use of the Bible, saying, “I just wish he’d open it once in a while.” Biden then went on to reference certain verses that clearly run contrary to his preening rival’s posturing and policies.

Regardless, the term ‘sacrilege’ is generally understood to mean the violation or misuse of something deemed to be sacred. As such, Donald Trump’s crude stunt represented the very embodiment of sacrilege.

Scriptural Graffiti

 

In the President’s defense, of course, it is common knowledge that the Bible has often been misused, and similarly weaponized; with select verses cherry-picked to lend scriptural authority to just about anything one wants to espouse.

“Happy is the one who seizes your infants and dashes them against the rocks.” is one example that readily comes to mind (psalm 137:9). While most preachers might choose to turn a blind eye to that verse, a Commander-in-Chief who longs to dominate others, as evidence of weak leadership, might be loathe to follow a different saying attributed to the Jesus figure. Turn the other cheek.

As I did for decades, some preachers follow a common lectionary that assigns the biblical texts to be undertaken each week; in order to accept the challenge of deciphering the entire canon of scripture. The texts were provided, and we had to do our best to find whatever sacred relevance to our lives might still reside in what were still deemed to be “living words.” Still, it is plainly evident that however divinely inspired one might want to believe that compendium of human history may be, it is ultimately a humanly created document. And, within the front and back covers of that leather bound book, a Galilean peasant sage might still be trying to convey a pertinent message or two to us today.  What might be one of those messages?

Last Tuesday night, a roving band of vandals attempted to set fire to the aforementioned St. John’s Church, which sits across the street from Lafayette Park and the White House beyond. The church building sustained some minor damage; including what was described as “graffiti” by a television reporter, when he interviewed the parish rector on camera the next morning.

In the exchange, the cleric took the opportunity to address a national audience, and reiterated a basic church tenet; speaking about the sanctity of all lives in general. As such, it was equivalent to that theological apologetic that suffers such disdain when one evades our national dilemma at hand by simply muttering, “oh, but all lives matter.”

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And all the while, the most pertinent texts had actually been delivered by a marauding evangelist the night before. They were scribbled on the walls behind them, but were completely overlooked by both the rector and reporter. They included:

  • Mt. 19:24
  • “God is still watching …” and
  • “BLM” (Black Lives Matter)

Matthew 19:24: “And again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to squeeze through the eye of a needle than for a wealthy person to get into God’s domain.”

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The message emblazoned with spray paint on the burnt walls of a sacred space where even a President might deem to venture were about the blatant economic inequities that have contributed to the shared plight of a national dis-ease that has finally reached pandemic proportions that even exceed the latest viral contagion.

For those whose lives which are indisputably far better off in a society where racial inequities have remained largely unchanged for the length of our American experiment, I am compelled to ask myself how I might be the change I would espouse; based on those certain teachings from so long ago that are still deemed to be closest to the authentic words of Jesus?

A Privileged White Response: How Many Roads?

How many roads must a man walk down
Before you call him a man? …

How many years must some people exist
Before they’re allowed to be free? …

And how many times can a man turn his head
And pretend that he just doesn’t see? …

How many ears must one person have
Before he can hear people cry? …

And how many deaths will it take ’til he knows
That too many people have died? …

The answer, my friend, is blowing in the wind
The answer is blowing in the wind.

                                                 Bob Dylan, 1962

I was a sophomore in boarding school when the folk trio, Peter, Paul and Mary, stood on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial and sang the lyrics to Dylan’s anthem of the Sixties to throngs of marchers during the civil rights movement of 1964.

Fifty-six years later I sit in front of my flat-screen and watch the news of another demonstration in the same place, with scenes eerily reminiscent of bygone days. What’s changed? What has not? The questions posed in Dylan’s song still provide an all too familiar text for today’s message.

I reside in a relatively safe and moderately affluent suburb in the San Francisco Bay Area. I readily acknowledge my education, subsequent professional career choices, and even racial status have all afforded me privileges greater than many others. I am grateful for my good fortune. And but for that good fortune, go you or I.

Collected cross-data studies today indicate the wealth disparity in America collectively shows black household income at .59 cents for every dollar of white households. What does that mean? For one thing, it might mean Donald Trump and I share at least one thing in common. We don’t need to try to pass a counterfeit twenty-dollar bill and risk having our life squeezed out of us.

Last week, in the midst of an otherwise peaceful demonstration in my city, some vandalism and looting occurred not far from where I live. Stores in the upscale shopping district now have boarded up windows that resemble what are frequently referred to elsewhere as “low-income minority communities.” The mildly disquieting scenes have encroached everywhere and crossed the city limits.  There’s talk of things like unconscious or implicit bias, and it does seem the times they are a-changin’. Again. And perhaps, just maybe, once and for all.

Yesterday, my spouse and I walked to a demonstration rally, held in a downtown park. We were motivated to participate, if for no other reason than to add the substantial crowd size estimates that might get reported.  The speakers, while mostly inaudible, were nonetheless certainly animated, if not agitated; repeatedly using enough four-letter words that assured they would not be seen or heard on the 6-o’clock news broadcast.  However, I did hear the topic of white privilege raised, and it is for me an issue of primary importance for me.

Walking home from the demonstration, my spouse and I talked about those issues of white privilege, economic inequities, and even the question of reparations. I reiterated something I’ve believed for a long time. It’s about admittance of wrongdoing, penance and amendment of life. It is not about paying our debts to society, the old penal standard by which justice is meted out so disproportionately in our judicial system. It is about mending.

We are not guilty for the sins of our forebears, but we are responsible. We can’t change the past, but we can take hold of the present, and – for the sake of our national fabric that is so tattered and torn — amend our lives and our social order, going forward. But how?

We are not guilty for the sins of our forebears, but we are responsible. We can’t change the past, but we can take hold of the present, and – for the sake of our national fabric that is so tattered and torn — amend our lives and our social order, going forward.

Dylan’s song from so long ago suggested the answer to all those questions that still persist was just “blowin’ in the wind.”  Some may look back on the last half-century and conclude that refrain means any solution remains as elusive as ever.

But as any old preacher will remind us, ‘wind’ and ‘spirit’ come from the same Greek word for ‘breath’ (πνεῦμα, pneuma). It is not surprising then that the phrase, “I can’t breathe” has become the battle cry of the BLM movement. Where once the word might have been understood in a merely metaphorical sense, it has now taken on a quite literal meaning.

So, how many roads, Dylan’s song of long ago asked again and again? Perhaps there’s just one. Wherever it may lead.

And it’s quite obviously the road not yet taken.

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© 2020 by John William Bennison, Rel.D.  All rights reserved.

This article should only be used or reproduced with proper credit.

To read more commentaries by John Bennison from the perspective of a Christian progressive go to http://wordsnways.com

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