An open letter to the 'Man'

September 23rd, 2016

So the Lord sent Nathan to David. When Nathan arrived he said, “There were two men in the same city, one rich, one poor. The rich man had a lot of sheep and cattle, but the poor man had nothing—just one small ewe lamb that he had bought. He raised that lamb, and it grew up with him and his children. It would eat from his food and drink from his cup—even sleep in his arms! It was like a daughter to him. “Now a traveler came to visit the rich man, but he wasn’t willing to take anything from his own flock or herd to prepare for the guest who had arrived. Instead, he took the poor man’s ewe lamb and prepared it for the visitor. ”David got very angry at the man, and he said to Nathan, “As surely as the Lord lives, the one who did this is demonic![a] 6 He must restore the ewe lamb seven times over because he did this and because he had no compassion.” “You are that man!” Nathan told David.

2 Samuel 12:1-7 CEB

An open letter is a written criticism, a document of protest or appeal addressed to a particular person or group, yet intended for publication and public consumption. A letter serving notice to someone or group of someones offered as protest while encouraging one to exhibit their best self or a better way. Truth told, though the letter is addressed to one specifically, it’s intended for a larger audience.

In the text, the prophet Nathan is sent by God to David and raises a mirror up to David. The role of the prophet is to hold up the word of God to systems of power on behalf of the people, causing them to reflect upon what they currently are and remind them of what they ought to be. In the spirit of the text, this open letter is addressed to the Man. Who is the Man? The Man is the ungendered representative of governmental, institutional or spiritual agency and other forms of authority that exercise power over the lives of the other.

Again we find ourselves forced to learn the names of individuals killed at the hands of police officers, and once again, the church largely remains silent on the mounting death toll of black folk being murdered in the streets of America by those purposed to serve and protect.

Every recurrence of fatal encounters between citizenry and police undresses the scabbed-over remnants of the deep abrasion my family and my community experienced in August 2014 in Ferguson. The political pandering and pseudo-intellectual prognosticating, seemingly non-stop racist rants and looped footage of brutality and dehumanization pains my heart and pricks my soul. These emotional and spiritual electric shocks serve as constant reminders that my community, my family, and my body are black in America. My awkward awareness of this combined with suspicion towards assigning allegiance to a dystopic form of democracy does not mean that I am unpatriotic. It should not result in bastardization of my civil liberties nor raise question of my adherence to faith.

Far too often, the response from our United Methodist connection, from the episcopacy, general agencies, conferences and local leaders, is slow and low, or absent altogether. A lack of response speaks volumes. At this point, silence no longer signals discernment or political correctness, it is instead an act bordering on abuse. Silence in the face of such egregious violence, in light of such apparent injustice, is a decision to turn mute or render another’s reality invisible. It is a choice to maintain comfort and decorum over the lives of our brothers and sisters. It willingly allows this pattern of disrespect for human life to continue. This silence is unloving. It is selfish. It is cowardice. Silence in the face of injustice and death is not Christlike and is an affront to our Methodist heritage. Truth told, large swaths of church sit both silent and idle during periods of war, political and social maleficence, slavery, civil rights and black nationalist periods, and now!

Silence is no longer an option. We are past the point of discussion regarding the particularities of individual shootings. We have exceeded the statute of limitations for mere collegial conversation that fails to wholly address prejudice, misinformation or even hate in order to avoid discomfort or offense. Holy conferencing and huddling is not stopping folks from getting killed for doing what they are either instructed or constitutionally afforded an opportunity to do. Neither are such covenantal acts furthering Jesus’s true message, nor are they reflective of his unconditional love or equitable acts. It is time to speak up; to stand up and act up!

In his “Letter from the Birmingham Jail,” King states, “...but the white moderate, who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: ‘I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action.’” Our religious institutions have remained moderate for far too long. It is time to do more, to expect more from our church and our leaders. As Christians our intervention can no longer be delayed by our handicaps framed in questions of “what do I say or do?” Each of us must self-determine to consciously commit to admitting our shortcomings, intentionally engaging in turning away from our sins and moving toward wholeness.

The United Methodist tradition espouses that, “We affirm all persons as equally valuable in the sight of God. We therefore work toward societies in which each person’s value is recognized, maintained, and strengthened. . .We deplore acts of hate or violence against groups or persons based on race, color, national origin, ethnicity, age, gender, disability, status, economic condition, sexual orientation, gender identity or religious affiliation.” The problem here is that while we disavow acts of hate and violence out of one side of our mouth, we remain silent with the other when confronted by them.

Although we may have a desire to do something good in response to these recent tragedies, our ability to do so is inhibited by the inequitable nature of our denominational structure. According to a Pew Research study conducted in 2014, the UMC is one of the least diverse religious groups in the United States. While this study may have failed to take into account the transcontinental nature of our church, it raises an interesting question: How has the largest mainline denomination and one of the biggest proponents of social holiness maintained institutional whiteness?

In order for us to begin moving from silence and idleness to proclamation and action, we have to make some changes structurally. It is no secret that the UMC has struggled with fully incorporating those who are non-white into the life of the church. Consider the formation of a whole host of other denominations, which we now refer to as Pan-Methodists, that have their origins in the Methodist Episcopal Church and Methodist Episcopal Church, South. By failing to fully embrace its black brothers and sisters, these two denominations left a stain that we have yet to recover from. Imagine the level of true diversity that we could boast if the members of St. George’s MEC had acknowledged the sacred worth of Richard Allen and his colleagues, inviting them down to sit on the main floor rather than confining them to the balcony.

Furthermore, where would we be if the dissolution of the MEC’s all-black Central Jurisdiction had not been predicated on an impending merger with the Evangelical United Brethren Church, but on the basis of God’s love for all humankind?

In response to these ever increasing waves of brutality and dehumanization, the Department of Justice is requiring that cities, municipal and federally subsidized law enforcement agencies take responsibility for their history, systems and cultural constructions that have resulted in implicit bias and institutional preservation. Likewise, our faith tradition and existential reality necessitates that we take responsibility and accountability for both ourselves and one another. If our tradition is sincerely striving to align with the word, witness and will of God, our efforts must live beyond pious ritualistic pageantry and toothless typographic rehearsing of divine imperatives and precepts. Our affirming of God’s beloved and their sacred and inalienable worth must materialize in full this time.

In this violent time, we each have three primary duties. First, we have a theocratic responsibility to listen for God’s voice amidst the noise of our everyday experience and media-drenched culture. In practical terms it is recognizing how and where our faith calls each of us to respond and engage.

Second, we have a democratic responsibility to invest and/or reinvest in the individual for collective good. Simply praying for change to come and abstaining from struggling with one to become the change is counterproductive. The “Connection” is challenged to genuflect to its own practices, presence (or lack thereof) and perpetuation of race-based inequities. Each of us exists within a net of mutuality knitted by the thread of our respective sacred personhood. It is a reexamining and aligning of misguided, oppressive and abusive theological and social constructs towards healthy, loving, and just relations and practices.

Third, empathic responsibility requires us to engage in faith-filled dialogue and to actively participate ethically in the public square. It embraces a radical love ethic, as well as transformative thought and action. It requires more than good intentions and lip service. It requires us to make ourselves, and maybe those whom we love and respect, feel uncomfortable.

The time to respond is now. 

F. Willis Johnson is the author of Holding Up Your Corner from Abingdon Press.

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