White Supremacy Killed Tyre Nichols

“Every police officer who killed Tyre Nichols was Black. This can’t be white supremacy.”

These are words spoken and written by people who see the water pouring from their kitchen faucet and don’t think about the long path of the water coming out of it; the circuitous miles of pipes it had to travel to get to their glass and what it passed through on the way over time and space.

The officers who killed him were simply the spigot. White supremacy is the plumbing.

The idea that the violence against black people committed by officers of color here and elsewhere is simply about power, dehumanization, or hatred, fail to understand the larger picture. That violence (the kind that assassinated Tyre Nichols) is a localized expression of the exertion of power over, the dehumanization of, and the hatred for black people that has been absorbed and internalized from the institution itself. It is a legacy inherited, a culture adopted.

The myth of discrimination is that it is only an individual act, a singular expression of a personal belief.

The truth is, we exist in both stories and in systems.

We are specific, individual human beings participating in larger systemic realities affecting the collective. We are all products of those systems in ways we aren’t aware of in ways that we’d never admit to. And when those systems are polluted, when they are broken, when they are toxic, the poison seeps in and trickles down into those individual stories and into the people we work alongside, live with, and worship next to.
It trickles down into our communities.
It trickles down into our workplaces.
It trickles down into traffic stops by black officers.
It trickles down into videos of executions that defy belief.
The sick system reached Tyre Nichol’s beautiful story.

Law enforcement has long been a polluted system. A simple survey of the civil rights movement illustrates this in a way that can’t be debated, neither in the past nor the present. The disparities of incarceration between white and non-whites, the realities of racial profiling, and the disproportionate acts of deadly violence against black people by police, show the supremacy baked into the institution. When an individual participates in that institution, it ends up subjugating itself to that institution, even if not intentionally so.

When black officers pulled Tyre Nichols over, they did so as representatives of a faulty apparatus, one that has for decades perpetuated the message that black people are less than human, that they are fractions of people—and that message made violence in the moment not only possible but easy. It was a violence that would have never been exacted against a white motorist, which is the heart of all of this. Tyre’s crime was his pigmentation.

The same people who don’t understand that misogyny can be perpetuated by more than men, don’t understand that white supremacy can be perpetuated by more than white people. Racism and misogyny are not only conscious choices and specific acts performed with intent, they are embodied values that manifest in our phobias and prejudices, in our fears and false stories.

We cannot merely make individuals accountable. We cannot simply work in stories or look at the specific people involved in acts of discrimination and try to adjust this collective sickness there. We also have to fix the systems that shape and alter (and in the case of Tyre Nichols) violently end stories.

What To Do When You’re Losing Your Faith?

Woman looking introspective

 

“I just don’t know if I believe anymore—and I don’t know what to do about it.

“I hear words like these every single day from people from every corner of the planet, from every strand of the Christian tradition, from every conceivable segment of society. They are once-religious people who for any number of reasons are now finding the very ground of faith eroding beneath their feet—and they are panicking.

And this fear is understandable. After all, this is terrifying stuff to endure. It’s one thing to question the institutional Church or to poke holes in the religious systems we’ve put in place or even to critique the Bible and how we interpret it. Those are all sustainable losses. We can endure such things, experience these crises and still hold a steady confidence in the belief that God is and that God is good. Even if on some days, those are all that remains of our fragile faith narrative, they can be enough.

But what do you do when with all the sleepless wrestling and the furrowed-browed prayers and the ceaseless questions and the best-intended efforts, even that seems out of reach? What happens when the very reality of God (or of a God who is good) seems too much for you to claim ownership of? How do you keep going while in the middle of a full-blown spiritual collapse?

It often isn’t a matter of just being more determined or more “religious”. Most of the time people have reached these desperate moments despite continually reading the Bible and praying and volunteering and attending church services and trying to believe. They haven’t refrained from those disciplines, in fact they often are as devout and engaged as ever, only these pursuits no longer yield the clarity and confidence and comfort they once did.

Many people come to me in that barren spiritual dryness and they almost always carry the crushing guilt of failure. They are grieving deeply, feeling helpless to get back what they’ve lost, and angry at themselves for not being faithful enough to conjure up belief that used to come as a simple given. (And they’re often pretty ticked off at God too.)

If you’re in that place right now, I won’t pretend there’s any easy way out or a simple path back to faith. I can’t even promise that you’ll ever find your way back, at least not to what you used to call belief. It may be a very different experience in the future.

So what can you do right now?

It might prayer or read the Bible or find a new church—but maybe it’s something else.

Maybe it’s about asking yourself what you still know to be true; about the goodness of people, about the things that matter to you, about the gifts you’ve been given.

Maybe today it’s just about what’s right in front of you: about what you can see and hear and touch and smell and taste. Maybe the best thing you can do right now is to experience all of the things that you can know, and simply receive them with gratitude: a delicious meal, the evening breeze, some music that moves you, the laughter of your best friend, the depth of a relationship, the smell of your child’s head as you hug them. Those measurable and tangible things can form a working theology of beauty and awe and gratitude.

Maybe just accepting these great, pure, measurable gifts and presently cherishing them is all the faith you are able to have right now, and that’s OK. Maybe that’s as close to proof of the Divine as you can consent to. To simply live and to find appreciation in the living is itself a spiritual pursuit; it is a holy thing. And as you do this, you may find that this contentment is the straighter pathway back to what you’ve lost. It may clear the road to God that has been cluttered by sadness, disappointment, doubt, and yes even religion.

But don’t lay that expectation on yourself right now, because that would only turn this gratitude into a means to an end, a result to achieve, another religious exercise to evaluate. For now, just receive the goodness and pleasures of this day and allow them to speak to and surprise you. You may find there, the beginning of a new season of faith.

And don’t feel guilty and don’t worry about what anyone else says. You’re the one walking this road and you understand it in ways they never will.

And above all, don’t worry about God. If God is indeed God, then God is big enough to handle your doubts and knows exactly what you’re going through and why belief is such a struggle right now.

You may have indeed lost your faith or you may have just lost your way a bit. Either way, this might be a good time to breathe, to look around, and to find joy in what is beside and around you as you travel.

If that is all the faith you can muster right now, let it be so.

Be encouraged.

 

Do White Americans Really Love MLK’s Dream?

Dr King

Dr. Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream” speech at the Lincoln Memorial is one of the most well-known and celebrated monologues of all time, and for good reason. It is vivid in its imagery, stirring in its tone, and clear in its aspirations—but it’s probably other things that we don’t remember.

Most white progressives and moderates (and perhaps less self-aware conservatives) would say they love the speech.

But, do we really love it or do we just think we love it?

Do we love the idea of the equality it alludes to more than what it will take to manifest and maintain that equality?

Do we want the beautiful dream without paying the unpleasant cost in our waking lives?

Do we simply hope for everyone to reach the mountaintop without being willing to descend to make sure everyone makes it up the face?

When professed white allies of racial justice read through or listen attentively to Dr. King’s speech, we realize that it isn’t as comforting as we might want it to be for those of us of profound privilege. There is cost and messiness and there are expectations of change and sacrifice and discomfort:

Dr Kings says:
We have also come to his hallowed spot to remind America of the fierce urgency of now. This is no time to engage in the luxury of cooling off or to take the tranquilizing drug of gradualism.

He warns stated co-laborers in this work cannot be satisfied with the pace of progress or pause to rest in the present or pat ourselves on the back for what we believe we’ve accomplished. He cautions us against being lulled into assuming that the long moral arc of the universe will bend toward justice on its own. He reminds us that we must be the passionate and impatient arc-benders.

He goes on:
It would be fatal for the nation to overlook the urgency of the moment. This sweltering summer of the Negro’s legitimate discontent will not pass until there is an invigorating autumn of freedom and equality. 1963 is not an end, but a beginning. Those who hope that the Negro needed to blow off steam and will now be content will have a rude awakening if the nation returns to business as usual. There will be neither rest nor tranquility in America until the Negro is granted his citizenship rights. The whirlwinds of revolt will continue to shake the foundations of our nation until the bright day of justice emerges.

Dr. King assures us that incarnating the dream of the glorious mountaintop isn’t going to be easy or pretty. He is forecasting turbulence and guaranteeing struggle. He is laying out the cost and the necessary frictions. This is not some tame, gentle request for respect and dignity (as we often sanitize it into), it is a forceful demand for it, and he warns against dangerous contentment of those of us believing we are anti-racists.

There are those who are asking the devotees of civil rights, when will you be satisfied? We can never be satisfied as long as the Negro is the victim of the unspeakable horrors of police brutality. We can never be satisfied as long as our bodies, heavy with the fatigue of travel, cannot gain lodging in the motels of the highways and the hotels of the cities.

We cannot be satisfied as long as the Negro’s basic mobility is from a smaller ghetto to a larger one. We can never be satisfied as long as our children are stripped of their selfhood and robbed of their dignity by signs stating: for whites only.

We cannot be satisfied as long as a Negro in Mississippi cannot vote and a Negro in New York believes he has nothing for which to vote.

No, no, we are not satisfied, and we will not be satisfied until justice rolls down like waters, and righteousness like a mighty stream.

Dr King’s dream is one that will not simply come but it will need to be engineered, co-created, and defended through repeated action and continual sacrifice.

I imagine that many of us would declare ourselves champions of racial justice, believers in the inherent value of disparate human beings, insistent on the value of a black life—but we have to reckon with the reality that 60 years after this mountaintop dream speech, that systemic inequities still abound here, that diversity is still elusive, that people of color remain underrepresented and underserved. White Americans aspiring to be opponents of racism need to wrestle with the possibility that some of this is because we have not done enough to push back against injustice or we have rested in apparent progress or that we have sidestepped our responsibilities.

We also can’t forget that before months before the mountaintop dream there was the jail cell.

From Birmingham, where he was imprisoned as a participant in nonviolent demonstrations against segregation, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote a letter as response to a public statement of concern and caution issued by eight white religious leaders of the South. In this portion, he discusses the less obvious instruments of systemic racism and prosperous white supremacy.

I must make two honest confessions to you, my Christian and Jewish brothers. First, I must confess that over the last few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in the stride toward freedom is not the White Citizens Councillor or the Ku Klux Klanner 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 can’t agree with your methods of direct action”; who paternalistically feels that he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by the myth of time; and who constantly advises the Negro to wait until a “more convenient season.”

White friends, we each need to examine our consciences and inventory our actions and make note of our silences and our inactions and realize where we have been dream-resisters, people hesitant to help everyone make it to the mountaintop because of the inconvenience of the collateral damage of those efforts.

In the presence of the kind of cancerous hatred that killed Dr. King, the same kind that killed George Floyd and Brianna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery, the kind that is having a renaissance here in America—there aren’t moderate grey spaces to sit comfortably and observe from a distance.

We either actively oppose the inhumanity or we abide it.
We specifically condemn the violence or we are complicit in it.
We loudly declare ourselves fierce and vocal adversaries of bigotry—or we become its silent allies.

Read Dr. King’s mountaintop dream speech again, and don’t be distracted by its beauty and resist the urge to be disarmed  by its poetry.

Understand how costly freedom for all people is, for those of us who already enjoy so much it as our default experience.

Ask yourself what the mountaintop is actually worth to you, what you are truly willing to spend of yourselves on behalf of the dream.

I hope we love the dream enough to demand it.

 

Does Prayer Really Heal People?

Seeing NFL player Damar Hamlin suddenly collapse on live TV after a seemingly routine tackle was a moment those of us who were watching will never forget. The dread was palpable, the urgency, breathtaking.

And witnessing his phenomenal progress since that moment has been nothing short of miraculous.

Miraculous.

We throw that word around easily but do we really mean what we appear to mean?

Within seconds after Hamlin fell unconscious and news of the gravity of his condition became apparent, the #PrayersForDamar hashtag trended, with people all over the country joining in a movement of passionate solidarity with this young man. It has galvanized and united this terribly divided nation in ways that few things have.

And in the hours and days that followed as the news began to trickle in of his almost unfathomable improvement, we all celebrated—with many declaring these results as an affirmation of “the power of prayer.”

But does prayer really heal people?
Does God move in response to people’s prayers in a way God would not otherwise?
Is profound medical recovery ever a purely spiritual movement?

As a longtime pastor, these are questions I’ve wrestled with every day for the last twenty-five years.

When someone we know or love or read about is gravely ill, we default to asking people to pray for their healing; more specifically, we ask others to ask God to heal them. We enlist people to take our cause (this sick or injured person) to the Almighty.

I have asked for such prayers thousands upon thousands of times over the past two and a half decades. I’ve solicited my congregations to pray for children in accidents, young mothers with cancer, and teenage gunshot victims. We have held prayer vigils and extended our hands in church services and created online prayer chains and stood circled around ICU bedsides. In countless moments I have privately and desperately petitioned God to bring miraculous cures, to reverse seemingly hopeless situations, to circumvent dire diagnoses, to move in a particular moment and a particular person.

I believed healing was possible—and I believed we could sway God with words to bring it.
I’m not sure I believe that any longer.
Here’s what I know about prayer.

I know that praying for people is a beautiful expression of care and solidarity, an effort to somehow stand beside someone in unthinkable trauma, to let them know that we love them and feel their desperation.

In this way, prayer surely works. It lets someone understand the depth of our concern for them, to allow them to feel a little less alone, to lift them emotionally and physically as they face the senseless suffering of this life. We should pray and let people know are praying for them; that we are pulling for them and thinking of them and standing with them from where we are.

And I know that prayer changes our hearts as we pray,  it tethers us to one another, and it increases hope in otherwise hopeless situations—but I’m not sure it actually works to save sick people from death, and that might not be a good thing if it did.

To contend that God heals when we pray for those who are terribly sick or physically damaged, is to imagine a creator who needs to be convinced. It is to paint an image of a God who, though already fully aware of the gravity of the situation and the worry of loved ones and reality of the injury—refuses to move until we ask “Him” to.

Prayer appeals almost become spiritual GoFundMe campaigns, where we’re told that if we “just get enough people praying” that healing will happen; that there is a magic number or critical mass that will move the Almighty in our favor. We feel the pressure to adequately make our case that a newborn baby or a teenager with cancer or a grandfather in a coma or a fallen athlete should get a reprieve.

The problem with prayer for someone’s healing—is that we have to make sense of the results. If the person lives or recovers, we somehow believe that we have engineered their survival and need to process why our prayers were enough and the person’s in the hospital room next to ours weren’t. And when healing doesn’t come, we second guess whether we’d prayed hard enough or we lament that we didn’t enlist enough “prayer warriors” to effectively move God, or we try to figure out why our petitions failed. Either way, it’s not a healthy way to live.

Not long ago, we lost a dear family member at the age of twenty-three. He was a compassionate and kind and funny and brilliant young man. He’d been sick for much of his life and in matter of days he worsened and he passed. He was loved by thousands and his life touched countless people and the ripples of this life were changing the world. I prayed for him. An army prayed for him. He didn’t get better. I refuse to try and figure out what that says about God’s character or about our prayers. That isn’t a good use of our grieving. It’s simply tragic and horrible as a reality, and that’s enough.

I still ask for people to pray and I still pray, but I try to reorient my prayers these days.

I no longer believe in prayer as a cause-an-effect endeavor.
I don’t believe in a supernatural Santa Claus who dispenses life and death based on the conduct or heart of the recIpients.
I don’t believe in a God who withholds miraculous healing or compassionate care—until sufficiently begged by us to do so.

I believe prayer works by unlocking our empathy for others.
I believe it binds us together in relationship and reminds us of our commonalities.
I believe it to be a beautiful expression of love for people who are suffering.
I believe it connects us personally to God and to each other in ways that cannot be quantified.
I believe it is a sacred act of kindness.

But I don’t believe prayer can change God’s mind about healing people we love—nor do I want it to.

Damar Hamlin’s physical recovery may just be the confluence of the great fortune of receiving life-saving care within seconds of his injury, of being surrounded by a small army of highly-skilled trainers prepared for just that kind of emergency, and of the tireless work of a caring and dedicated medical staff that received him.

And in some ways, that is enough of a miracle to testify to and believe in: the way that compassion, science, and the human will can somehow work together to do beautiful things that we can’t quite fathom.

And seeing a multitude of disparate and otherwise divided people coalesce around the fate of a single human being and watching their effusive joy at his recovery: that is a fairly miraculous thing in itself—and a certain answered prayer.