April 29, 2015
Dear White People:
It was the napalm remark.
I am in quiet anguish over all the black lives that haven’t mattered enough to still be alive (or free, or whole). From Ferguson to Baltimore and so many places in between, and before, and no doubt after. But my anguish has been too quiet; my dis-ease too comfortable.
As the sorrow and rage of my black brothers and sisters roiled in the streets of Baltimore, one of my FB friends commented, “I say, send up helicopters with napalm.” You don’t have to be white, male, and Christian to make such comments, but I suspect it helps. In any case, it pricked my own white, male, Christian conscience so much that I have to state a few things very clearly.
I abhor violence. Especially violence against human dignity and human bodies. I happen also to dislike violence against property, but I am less concerned about the number of buildings burned or the number of arrests made than the number of black lives lost to legal violence in the past year—or the past ten years, or the past one hundred years—or the centuries-long systemic efforts to enslave, exploit, impoverish, and humiliate black people. Burning buildings and breaking windows may not help, but for a people already under full-scale assault, such things can’t hurt either.
The very fact that such outrage strikes me (and so many others) as counter-productive shows how little we understand of the desperation that lives just barely contained in many black communities. My job—even as I impulsively lament the violence—is to hear the desperation. And the mainstream news absolutely does not want me to hear that.
I respect police officers. As a white man of very modest means, that’s one of the few luxuries I can actually afford. But I have to acknowledge that many black people cannot afford that same luxury. Because some police are “bad apples,” and because even a few bad apples—with badges, authority, and guns—can create some really bad scenarios—and can do so repeatedly and often with impunity. And because, in a society that is overly charged with racial tension rooted deeply in a past we’ve never come to terms with, even the best police (just like even my best self on my best days) see through a lens that mis-shapes their best intentions. And because in a racially charged society with escalating economic inequality and degenerating social security—in a society like this, police are inescapably made stewards of unjust conditions that they did not create, but which they are hired to police and preserve.
The words of the Hebrew prophet Jeremiah (6:14) are relevant: “The whole society is deluded. They treat the wounds—the fractures—of my people lightly, as if they are not serious. They say, ‘Peace, peace,’ but it is a lie, for the peace that is, merely prolongs the wounding of my people.”
The first truth that must be uttered by every news reporter, every pastor, every arm-chair pundit wishing to speak on the happenings in Baltimore right now is that we live in a system in which black lives are regularly, consistently, intentionally, brutally, structurally, impersonally, and (sometimes) very personally un-mattered. Until that is the first word of every conversation, there is no second word worth speaking. Least of all about napalm.
Want to complain about everything that’s getting broken in Baltimore? Want to invoke the legacy of nonviolence? Want to invite everyone to pray? FINE. But only after you acknowledge in your gut—and on your lips and through your life—that structural racism is as American as apple pie. Because, dear white people, until that’s our beginning place, we aren’t going anywhere.
David R. Weiss is the author of To the Tune of a Welcoming God: Lyrical reflections on sexuality, spirituality and the wideness of God’s welcome (2008). A theologian, writer, poet and hymnist, David is committed to doing “public theology” around issues of sexuality, justice, diversity, and peace. He lives in St. Paul and speaks on college campuses and at church and community events. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org; read more at www.ToTheTune.com where he blogs under the theme, “Full Frontal Faith: Erring on the Edge of Honest.” He recently published a playfully profound and slyly subversive children’s picture book, When God Was a Little Girl (2013). Learn more at www.WhenGodWasaLittleGirl.com.