Originally posted on the Patheos “Emerging Voices” channel…
The work I find most rewarding nowadays is helping communities of goodwill find courageous responses to challenges relating across differences in identity. So when asked to become a regular contributor to Emerging Voices (to come home, as it were, to this space now hosted by Patheos that started as the Emergent Village blog where I used to converse and co-convene years ago), almost immediately it came to me to use the opportunity to explore the theme of “courageous responses”. It is such a joy to be able to explore these hopes with you.
The first courageous response I’d like to propose came to me no more than a day after being invited to post here. It was early morning 29 August, and I was checking my “black twitter” feed. (Who knew there were more black people on Twitter than any other demographic? We’ll see how long Twitter lasts!) I saw at the top of my stream a tweet by Rachel Held Evans, that sent me to a post by Justin Lee (black twitteratti that they are). The post was a YouTube video of a young gay man from Kennesaw, GA, who was evicted by his parents for refusing conversion therapy. The video was entitled “How Not to React When Your Child Tells You that He’s Gay.”
It was heartbreaking to hear this teenager demeaned, cussed out, beat up and kicked out because in his stepmother’s words (speaking for his biological mother, biological father and others present), “I will not let people believe I condone what you do.” My heart broke not just for what the young man’s family did in the name of Christianity, but also because I grew up holding faith in a way that, though it may not have condoned the physical violence, definitely would have justified the parents’ posture toward their son.
While I wasn’t looking, the video went viral. I saw it again that evening when my cousin, a local news anchor raised in the same fundamentalist tradition as I, played the video and made it the focus of her end of the broadcast commentary. Her commentary? “That’s your child. And at the end of the day, that’s your child. Period. Nothing more to argue.”
The 19-year-old Daniel Pierce’s video at the time had over 3 million views and the Go-Fund-Me campaign he had set up to raise a mere $2,000 for living expenses was nearing $80,000 in donations in two days. It was amazing and wonderful: the compassion and generosity of spirit and support poured out toward this young man. It was a privilege to stand in solidarity with Daniel and queer friends everywhere.
But here’s where my encounter with Pierce’s story gets complex and awkward and risky to write about: for a split second, I was resentful. Loss of housing simply doesn’t compare to loss of life. And I couldn’t help but wonder, What if 3 million white people in 2 days had raised their voices in collective outrage over the slaying of Michael Brown or any of those who came before or after him? (By way of comparison, in 1963 it took less than 10,000 committed citizens to bring the city of Birmingham, AL–the biggest, badest, most belligerent southern bastion of inequality–to initial overtures of repentance and to instigate the national Civil Rights Act.)
Now, for sure, I have no idea how many white people stand in support of Michael Brown any more than I know how many black people or other people of color, how many gay people or how many women versus men or how many people from various religious backgrounds. All I can see are the profile pics that show up in the list of comments and donations on Daniel Pierce and Michael Brown’s respective YouTube and GoFundMe pages as well as what I’ve been privy to in my own Facebook and Twitter feeds. There is a smattering of cross-racial support to be sure, but not as much as one might imagine, knowing the billions who claim to follow after a God who specifically claims to stand with the oppressed.
This strikes me as a deeply important faith conversation that needs to be had at a level of vulnerability we don’t often risk. So let me make a goodwill attempt. I have over 1000 Facebook “friends” (not a lot, but more than I can keep up with). The majority of them are both people of faith and beige (go “white facebook”!). When yet another unarmed person of color is killed, assaulted or maligned by white authorities (or wannabes) and beige friends remain silent, I confess I wouldn’t mind losing a few–namaste. Moreover, when in maintenance of the privilege of perpetual (not just “presumed”) innocence beige friends remind me “we don’t know all the facts,” as if there were some special fact that makes the loss not loss, I find myself trying to remember the deep breathing techniques I learned when my wife, Leslie, was pregnant with our three children–woosah. And when so many of my beige friends, in earnest belief in the so-called “justice” system’s ability to render justice (you know, the same system that took more than 200 years to settle the question as to whether or not I was human, 90 years to denounce the first Jim Crow, 30 years to convict Medgar Evers’ self-admitted murderer… what was that about “justice delayed…”?), respond with the ever reasonable “let’s not rush to judgement,” somehow oblivious to the irony that a person who looked like me was just victimized by an actual rush to judgement, it takes everything within me to remain civil. Especially when I see the very same folks en masse instinctively rally, publicize, advocate, endorse, finance, go out on a limb for, give the benefit of the doubt to or speak so well of the next victim who looks like them.
One would think faith would have something more useful to offer than this sort of petty tribalism. Lots of younger victims of historic marginalization have stopped looking for the church to provide leadership in rectifying the oppression they encounter, in part because in the church even within identity groups the tribalism shows up. So, if people of faith are going to bother to show up, I would argue that the courageous response–the response worth folks caring that we showed up–would be to show up in defense of ALL HUMAN DIGNITY everywhere.
So while justice orgs with no faith connection continue to fight-the-good-fight in silos if they must, I’m talking about faith-rooted queer orgs, women’s orgs, immigrant orgs, black orgs, brown orgs, white orgs, interfaith orgs, etc, publicly joining forces (1) to campaign for an intersectional justice that strikes at the roots of structural oppression, (2) to raise our numbers to a critical mass that cannot be ignored and (3) to exemplify the improvements in interpersonal dynamics we say are possible but haven’t gotten around to demonstrating (much like the Forward Together Movement in NC). As long as people of faith continue to stand for only those portions of human dignity with which we personally identify, we perpetuate the same fragmented, colonial morality that gave us the script of disintegration we currently have. However, if people of faith began to practice solidarity with ALL whose human dignity is being denied, we could write a whole new story of what is possible in the world. Now that’s a witness!
I don’t need my beige friends to have all the answers or even to know what to say all the time, but when people of color are feeling the terrorizing effects of the same violations time after time for time immemorial, it would mean a lot if those I call friends would stand with me as I stand for human dignity.