The mighty cloud of black witnesses is on my mind and heart today as our communities search for the words to match the depth of heartbreak and the hope for change in this time. The latest to join the ranks and way too soon is Jordan Edwards. Who is Jordan Edwards? He is a beloved son of his mother and father, a beloved friend to his brothers and schoolmates, and a child who participated in the completely normal and non-violent activity of attending a party at a friend’s house on a Saturday night. We must demand an end to police brutality – the use of brutal force against black people – in the name of fear and in the name of faulting the victim. This. is. racism. full. stop.
I know that some of my siblings in faith are struggling around the language proposed by Black Lives of UU and religious educators to hold a “UU White Supremacy Teach-In” for fear that we will be confused with pro-active white supremacists and the alt right. However, I think if we open our eyes, we will see that we are living in a White Supremacy Teach-In every day. Black lives are lost, locked up, and left behind every day because of the systemic racism and white privilege that pervades criminal justice, education, healthcare, housing, work places, houses of worship, and local and national governments.
While visiting our regional gatherings over this last month, many people have asked me about the language of “white supremacy” with a spectrum of thoughts and feelings from positive to concerned about the use of these words. As someone who has Jewish heritage, I have a visceral reaction to these words and the way that a Jewish cloud of witnesses reminds me of how we too have been disregarded, discarded and dealt a hand of death by a culture of white supremacy.
My response is that “white supremacy” names the system we are living in every day. The consequence of it is that black lives are extinguished at the hand of violence – gunshots from officers every day – whether or not they have participated in something violent or any wrongdoing at all – and, then, to add insult to injury, they are blamed for their own deaths! The language of “white supremacy” invites us to name the root of the system and the culture we are currently participating in, whether we want to be or don’t want to be participating in it. The words “white privilege” and “anti-racism” are more comfortable for some people. While I get that, “white privilege” and “racism” are the effects and “white supremacy” is the cause. We must have the courage to name and dismantle the root of the system that is disregarding, discarding and dealing a hand of death to our black siblings in faith and our black siblings on our shared planet.
I don’t want to be participating in a culture and in the systems of white supremacy that surround us, and to stop participating will require supporting large and challenging measures to counter it. It will require dismantling the root of the problem rather than staying at the level of the symptoms that flow from it. It will require a willingness to make mistakes and to making amends. Our culture has been practicing and promulgating this system for centuries, and we will not build a new way without missteps. However, discomfort with language and discomfort with not getting everything right are mere nothings when compared to the moral call before us. We must respond with a whole hearted “Yes!” to what love demands of us and “Yes!” to what justice for a mighty cloud of beloved black witnesses looks like.
One final thought for this morning: Before we used the hashtag #BlackLivesMatter, we called it the #EndPoliceBrutality movement. Today, I feel called to use both. I want to affirm that black lives matter through the thoughts, words, and deeds of my life whenever and wherever I can. I also want to name clearly that if police want the focus of our anger and grief to move away from them, then they will need to claim that their system is badly infiltrated by white supremacy and that criminal justice and law enforcement have rightly earned their reputation for being deadly to black people.
Just like I as a white person, may not like being included in a system of white supremacy, defensiveness and focusing on our preferences gets us nowhere. We must see the water we are swimming in and begin to care a whole lot more about being part of the change and being part of a movement that values life and vigilantly pursues the systems that snuff it out.
May all of us do everything within our power to listen to the collective leadership of people of color and to hear all the ways that our systems lead us to decisions that are oppressive at worst and callous or complacent at best. I believe we can do better, if we are willing to see, name, and practice new ways rather than defend old ways. Nothing less than life is at stake. There is no more worthy project.