Last weekend I drove down to Washington, DC to participate in the annual gathering of Christians known as Ecumenical Advocacy Days (EAD). EAD is three days of fellowship and learning, followed by a day of advocacy on Capitol Hill. Each year the gathering selects a theme. The theme for 2016 was Race, Class and Power. The workshops ran the gamut of issues from threats to voter rights and immigration reform to TPP’s corporate power grab and mass incarceration. The breadth and depth of information we were given was incredible. We were asked to examine not just the obvious ignorance and blatant prejudice that exists in world, but also to take a critical look at the structural and institutional racism that exists in our society, and even in our church. That’s right, I said it. There is racism within our very own church. And it’s high time we started to deal with it. While some feel that in 2016 the US is a “post-racial” society, it’s very clear that it is not a post-racist one.
The evidence of our ongoing struggle with race can be found on the front page of newspapers across the country in articles about the murders of unarmed black men and women by law enforcement, anti-immigrant rhetoric and race baiting presidential candidates. But I found a morbid irony in the story of Rev. William Barber’s removal from an American Airlines flight, right after preaching at EAD last Friday night. He preached a stirring sermon about the need for people of faith to live into Jesus’ call for us to love one another. He spoke of the need to abandon false labels like liberal and conservative; labels that serve only to force us into boxes and to keep us at odds with one another. Well, it seems that after that sermon a tired Rev. Barber was on an AA flight waiting to go home, when he heard a passenger seated behind him make a racist remark. So he rose, and turned to confront the passenger about the comments. Someone on the flight called security and, instead of asking the passenger making the racist remarks to leave, the airline staff asked Rev. Barber to leave and allowed the bigot to continue on the flight. Just hours after preaching an truly moving message, Rev. Barber was face to face with the kind of insidious systemic racism underpins our society. The kind that always gives the benefit of doubt to whites and automatically presumes that the person of color is in the wrong. (For those of you who don’t know Rev. Barber is the founder of the Moral Mondays Movement, and President of the North Carolina NAACP.)
On Saturday, at EAD, when we heard that Rev. Barber had been escorted off the plane, all those at the gathering were dutifully horrified, some were shocked, but that shock and horror didn’t translate into any kind of action. We were sympathetic and disappointed and then we went back to our schedule of activities. We didn’t organize a twitter campaign, a phone protest or even an email campaign with the more than 1000 people that were in attendance. We didn’t react because we’ve become accustomed to the daily acts of micro-aggression, used to the unspoken privilege, and numb to blatant acts of racism and hostility that permeate every aspect of life in America. In recent years we’ve seen, men, women and children brutalized and/or murdered in the streets and managed not miss choir practice, session meetings, presbytery meetings, or get off schedule in any way. So it can hardly be a surprise that a mere ejection from a flight doesn’t stir us. But it does make me wonder what it will take to jolt us into action? What would it look like if we actually took the commandment to love our neighbors as ourselves seriously?
Mark 12:28-34 New International Version (NIV)
The Greatest Commandment
28 One of the teachers of the law came and heard them debating. Noticing that Jesus had given them a good answer, he asked him, “Of all the commandments, which is the most important?” 29 “The most important one,” answered Jesus, “is this: ‘Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one.[a] 30 Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’[b] 31 The second is this: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’[c] There is no commandment greater than these.” 32 “Well said, teacher,” the man replied. “You are right in saying that God is one and there is no other but him. 33 To love him with all your heart, with all your understanding and with all your strength, and to love your neighbor as yourself is more important than all burnt offerings and sacrifices.” 34 When Jesus saw that he had answered wisely, he said to him, “You are not far from the kingdom of God.” And from then on no one dared ask him any more questions.
Lori Hylton is the Food Justice Advocate for Hudson River Presbytery and attends Palisades Presbyterian Church.