Response-Ability

Wisdom and Contradictions in Joining the Movement

Sermon by Kirk Witzberger
August 16, 2020

Part 1

On June 9, the day after our Worship Associates encouraged summer Sunday Service leaders to promote racial justice, I discussed with my 32-year-old daughter, Shea, what I might say at the June 14 service I led. I wanted to create a sense of urgency. I told her that the Black Lives Matter movement, for tragic reasons, was gathering momentum, and I wanted more white allies to help maintain that momentum and support Black leaders. 

Shea is a millenial social justice warrior, plugged in to current, young, Black, feminist thought leaders, and she said that this sense of urgency, this rush to action, this focus on quick outcomes, is seen by some Black people as a characteristic of White supremacy culture. I was reading different Black authors who said that the time to act is now. A contradiction.

Since then I’m seeing contradictions everywhere. John Lewis said “Our struggle is not the struggle of a day, a week, a month, or a year, it is the struggle of a lifetime.” He also said, “There comes a time when you have to say something. You have to make a little noise. You have to move your feet. This is the time.” 

Organizer and prison abolitionist Miriame Kaba wrote, “We have to act with the urgency of the moment and the patience of a thousand years.”

An aside: I’m a White cis male baby boomer with a lot to learn. I’m just learning to use BIPOC for Black, Indigeneous, and People of Color. I have at least implicit bias and I’ll get stuff wrong and make mistakes. White people like me should take a back seat and support Black leaders, with me listening, not preaching. The contradiction: Silence signals complicity. So you’re damned if you do, damned if you don’t. Well, I’m “doing” and hope to learn from my mistakes.

Back to race. Some of what I’ve discovered is hard for many White people to hear. I’ll start gently, since White fragility is a thing.

The Mercator world map used in U.S. schools was created in 1569, over 450 years ago, when Earth was no longer flat and people needed help sailing between Europe and the Americas. Any 2-D map of our 3-D world will be distorted, but the map served its purpose, even with distortions like the equator, which should be dead center, is nearly two thirds of the way down. And Greenland, about the size of Mexico, is as big as Africa. This map makes Africa small and White occupied land bigger.

The Gall-Peters Map accurately represents area. Africa is 14 times bigger than Greenland. Why do schools not use better maps? Maybe a culture of white supremacy doesn’t want to see how small we are in comparison?

Another contraction: This image of Jesus has been reproduced a billion times, not counting internet views. Jesus, born in the Middle East, with sandy blonde hair and blue eyes. Maybe Christians in a culture of White supremacy don’t want to see as their ultimate authority a person of color?

Note that I’m not calling any of us a white supremacist. But I am saying that we live in a culture of white supremacy.

Another contradiction: The U.S. is the land of the free and the home of the brave.

“Land of the free.” The U.S., with 5% of the world’s population, has 25% of the world’s incarcerated population, disproportionally people or color. And if you think that prisoners are there because a jury of their peers put them there – I’m not even going to address the “jury of their peers” part – 97% of those in our federal prisons never had a trial. 97% never had a trial in the land of the free.

“Home of the brave.” Another contradiction is about what White people think about bravery, heroism, and standing up to oppression and aggression. Look at the four guys on Mount Rushmore. Currently four. George Washington and Thomas Jefferson led a violent revolution against British oppression. Abraham Lincoln led a bloody Civil War to keep our states united. Rough Rider Theodore Roosevelt formed the 1st U.S. Volunteer Cavalry Regiment to fight in the Spanish-American War. In the run-up to that war he said that war with Spain would be “taking one more step toward the complete freeing of America from European dominion.” 

In America, our White heroes stand up to oppression and do what’s right by any means necessary. Black people don’t get to do that. Good moderate White Americans like me acknowledge racism, oppression, and police brutality, but our Black heroes are Martin Luther King and John Lewis, who preached nonviolent protest. White Americans like me quote them, as I did in the June 14 service. 

We’re not fans of Malcolm X or the Black Panthers, who in the 60s advocated freedom by any means necessary, but in that way they were like the four guys on Mount Rushmore. I believe in nonviolence, but I wonder if there isn’t some racist hypocrisy in me. White heroes can fight oppression with guns, but Black heroes have to have nonviolent sit-ins. 

By the way, I was brought up thinking the Black Panthers were criminal thugs. But the University of California Press says they were a “serious political and cultural force” and “a movement of intelligent, explosive dreamers.” Their platform included a free breakfast for children program, community health clinics, housing, education, and an immediate end to police brutality and murder of Black people.

Yes, they believed in open carry citizen patrols, like the white militias we’ve seen in the last couple of months protesting the Black Lives Matter protests. The NRA defends these white militias’ right to do so, but when the Black Panthers did that in the 60s the NRA pushed for gun control.

Other contradictions, opposites that coexist, that I’ve read and heard from BIPOC include

  • There is only one biological race (see the human genome project); AND different races are a socially constructed reality. You can’t be colorblind to race, but you can’t see only race.
  • White privilege is what White people get that they didn’t earn based on race. AND White privilege is not what you got but what you didn’t have to go through.
  • This is not White-centric work and is not a time to focus on what White people need; AND White people need to do their own work — to learn and become more conscious — for this movement to have the allies and support that will result in more equal power. 
  • Enough talk, we need to focus on outcomes; AND we need productive dialogue and an eternal conversation.

Part 2

We are the breath of our ancestors. What kind of ancestors will we be? Layla Saad asks this in her book Me and White Supremacy: Combat Racism, Change the World, and Become a Good Ancestor. John Lewis said “When you see something that is not right, not just, not fair, you have a moral obligation to say something. To do something. Our children and their children will ask us, ‘What did you do? What did you say?’”

Generations from now people will tell stories about 2020: the year of the COVID pandemic, the actions we took or did not take about climate change, and the Black Lives Matter protests in the streets. When our ancestors are doing genealogy work they’ll see what we posted on social media. They’ll see the times our names appeared in the press. They’ll find postings from organizations we belong to. They’ll see what we wrote and pictures of us in action. What will they discover? I’d love for my ancestors to see that at least in some small way I was part of something that changed the world.

I believe we can change the world through conversations. I resonated with what Sherry Watt called an “eternal conversation,” and her focus on who we are, on how we are being in conversations. When I focus on who I am, on how I am being, I focus on my values. Last December I updated my values, which I post on my LinkedIn profile, and I begin by stating that:

I declare my values as a way of stating what matters to me and who I am when I am at my best. Because I constantly practice aligning my actions with my stated values, my values help me become my best self.

The first value on my list is:

Response-Able – being the creator of my responses to all circumstances; being neither a victim nor persecutor nor rescuer; paying attention to my whole self (body, mind, heart, spirit) in choosing my responses

For me this means that amidst all the contradictions we run into, we get to choose how we respond. For instance, how might we respond when we hear a viewpoint that’s different from ours? One healthy choice is to hear it as a perspective, an assessment, a viewpoint that is neither right nor wrong. The person expressing that perspective may believe that they are right (and you are wrong), but we can choose to hear it without judging it, or them, as right or wrong. And when we speak, we can remind ourselves that our viewpoint isn’t right or wrong, but one perspective based on our unique experience.

We are also fully able to respond to a controversial conversation by being open to being changed. When two people have an exchange of monologues no one is changed, and it is exhaustive and unsustainable. When two people are in a genuine conversation, both persons leave changed, and it can be invigorating and sustainable.

We can choose to see the mistakes that we and others will make as a sign that we’re learning. Noticing mistakes can be a cause for celebration, not regret. A cause for regret might be not making mistakes because we’re probably not doing anything or not doing anything new. Many of us may not be great at having difficult conversations about race. Let’s have them anyway, make mistakes, get feedback, and get better.

Another thing that I think is essential is to have inclusive conversations. Talking with people who already see the world through a similar lens doesn’t lead to much learning. How can we be more inclusive? Include more BIPOC, young and old, rich and poor, and, as Chris Peters with Braver Angels talked about two weeks ago, liberal and conservative. With the exception of hate-based individuals and groups that inflict trauma, let’s be as inclusive as we can.

Finally, trust will be essential in these hard conversations about race. Race is socially constructed, not biological, and it is all about power. Getting to a place of equality regarding power is going to require vulnerability, humility and non-attachment. This truly is the struggle of a lifetime, and it’s worth it.