Countless news reports depicted mass marches of protest. Television screens flashed images of hurt and anger setting cities aflame. In the wake of the non-indictment of officers Darren Wilson and Daniel Pantaleo, each night brought new stories confronting our comfortably-held notion that we have progressed to a post-racial society. A nation-wide spark lit the long fuse of racial history in this country yet again. The reality of continued racial tension fired off as clear as a flare against a barren night sky. The specters of Rodney King and countless others lurked darkly in our racial memory. With my friends of color, the non-indictments pervaded the majority of conversation. Deep concern for the continued loss of black lives was expressed. With my white brothers and sisters, the conversation ranged, albeit with a number of exceptions, from “Race has nothing to do with this!” to “They disobeyed the law!” to no conversation at all.
When I witnessed no significant organized commentary arising from the seminary as a result of the non-indictment in the Mike Brown case, I could not help but feel this was an indictment of our lack of attentiveness to our students of color, however unintentional that may have been. When the only voice I heard responding to Eric Garner’s tragedy were a few lines in a prayer and chapel message; though these were appreciated, I could not help but feel we as an institution have not given our students of color full voice. We have not given them space to express their hurt. And thus we have left them, along with Eric Garner, huffing out from constrained vocal cords, “I can’t breathe!”
At the suggestion of my mentor, CTS graduate Darrell Delaney, I reread Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail.” It challenged me to deeply consider my individual response to these events, as well as our corporate response. Shortly after, Paramount Studios released its portrayal of the civil rights hostilities and struggles in Selma, Alabama. It reinforced in me the urgency with which I personally, and we corporately, must undergo this self-examination. In written word and in cinematic depiction, King chides us for our silence about issues of race and our insistence on delaying justice. His rebuke still rings out for us to hear.
Let me first place a proviso on this piece, borrowing from one MLK suggested in his letter. I do not bring these thoughts forward as one of those negative critics who searches to find something wrong with the seminary or our denomination. But rather “I say it as a [soon-to-be] minister of the gospel who loves the church [and this seminary], who was nurtured in its bosom, who has been sustained by its Spiritual blessings, and who will remain true to it as long as the cord of life shall lengthen.” I also bring these thoughts forward knowing that I may have neglected to recognize or may have misread the seminary’s response. However, the perception of the students, particularly students of color, that I spoke with, was that the seminary was silent as far as a corporate response to these matters. And for many students, both of color and white, this increased their hurt instead of healing. Thus, I felt convicted to bring Reverend King’s ideas forward.
Let me also add the caveat that I do not presume, as a white man, that I can speak in the line of Martin Luther King, Jr. However, I feel his words for us, though written some fifty years ago, are fitting and timely, and it would be a shame not to bring them into our conversation at the seminary and listen attentively to their challenge.
Finally, let me stress that the intent is not to indict any individual serving us in the seminary’s administration or faculty. The blame is a corporate one, in which we all share. My mirror provides me with the first target for my own commentary. The intent is to encourage us all to reconsider how we provide spiritual and emotional sanctuary to persons of color. The emphasis should be on learning from these occurrences to pave a path towards future reconciliation.
Having laid this framework, we now look to one of the early challenges MLK offers to the white church. He calls for white congregations to recognize that, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly.” We might be tempted to think that because the events in Ferguson, Cleveland, or Staten Island are outside of our context, they are secondary matters for a small seminary in Grand Rapids. We may think that we are an academic institution, and speaking to matters of racial justice is beyond the parameters of academia. But, isn’t the desired ends of CTS’ education to train persons for a life in ministry in which every plane of our physical, mental and spiritual reality is claimed in the name of Jesus Christ? And if we as an institution do not give our students the sensibilities to identify racial injustice and do not train our students to engage these realities, won’t the churches that we shepherd be prone to a similar lack of awareness? Our response to these events has implications for congregations’ daily responses to ongoing racial tension. Our outspokenness or silence inevitably weaves its own strand into the garment of history. We should always confront ourselves with a self-examination that asks whether we are adding a strand worthy to dress the bride of Christ.
We could also be tempted to examine these events within their specific contexts, asking the question of whether the grand juries were correct in their judgment, a pattern I noticed quite frequently in comments from my white brothers and sisters. Though such an exercise may be important, shouldn’t we recognize that its pursuit is nested within a far deeper web of indignity resulting from our system of law enforcement and justice that continues to dehumanize dark-skinned lives in both blatant and subtle ways daily? We can also engage in another very important exercise by asking persons of color “What do you experience every time you walk into a retail establishment?” or “How many times have you been pulled over by the police without any hint of wrong-doing? or “Have you had to educate a loved one on how to avoid being the victim of a police shooting?”
We also could be tempted to assign blame elsewhere. It is true we did not pull the trigger. We did not deliver the chokehold. However, doesn’t our silence reinforce this continued systemic pattern of choosing to take black lives? And as such, our silence may speak loudly. It gives the perception that we are not concerned over black and brown lives. It gives the perception that the deep hurt of communities of color ought to be expressed elsewhere. A posture of listening is good and necessary in circumstances such as these, but how can students of color voice their feelings if they are not given a vocal invitation to do so? And if we stay in a listening posture and are never moved to break the silence and speak, how will this systemic pattern be disrupted? Though these three killings claimed the lives of three black men directly, they affect all of us indirectly. Injustices
on the streets of Staten Island threaten justice in Grand Rapids. We are caught up in an inescapable network of mutuality, wherein if one member suffers, all suffer with it.
Yet another temptation has been to condemn the various demonstrations arising after the non-indictments. In fact, we saw this case-in-point at the college just across the pond. After a “hands up walk-out” hosted on campus, a peaceful protest aimed at standing in solidarity with those hurt in Ferguson, a multitude of malicious responses flowed via social media. In his letter, MLK mourns the fact that though many are quick to show they deplore the demonstrations, they refuse to “express a similar concern for the conditions that brought about the demonstrations.” They are too willing “to rest content with the superficial kind of social analysis that deals merely with effects and does not grapple with underlying causes.” It is unfortunate, he says, that demonstrations must take place, but it is even more unfortunate that the “white power structure left the Negro community with no alternative.” Because of our silence, the voices attacking the protest were the only ones heard by the public. Those deafening voices deploring the demonstration became the expression of “Calvin’s” stance toward the events, since we offered no alternative. Our silence also gave the impression that we lack concern, as MLK warned, for the conditions that led to such demonstrations. This in turn indicates a wider lack of concern for the conditions of our students of color daily. Certainly, this is not what we desire.
Interestingly, MLK has stronger words for those half-heartedly supporting his cause, who remained silent about the demonstrations sparked by racial tensions, than for those attacking his movement outright. He says, “Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.” We should not remain well-intentioned people who are silent. We simply cannot afford to give mere lip service to racial reconciliation, considering it as one secondary issue among many facing the seminary. This qualifies as “lukewarm acceptance,” and betrays our shallow understanding of how race has been entrenched in our history. How it has seeped into the mortar of our hallowed halls. Thus, we must work as an institution to hear what underlying causes are feeding into such demonstrations. We must question how it is that our structures have left our black and brown brothers and sisters with no other alternative but to cry out.
If we don’t, I worry we will once again have to come to MLK’s “regrettable conclusion” that people of color’s “greatest 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.” To pray for a generic “peace” to come about as “riots” or protests flare, while rooted in good intentions, will mean we return to the pre-existing racial tensions boiling up prior to the demonstrations. One can hardly call this peace. To merely abide by the order of the seminary, moving forward with business as usual, with events as planned, when such national tragedies occur will leave positive peace lacking. We must open up space to pray for the presence of justice. We must open space in which our sisters and brothers of color can voice their hurt. We must open space for all of us to experience the healing touch of Jesus Christ, who is reconciling all things to himself. Because the Lord knows how direly I need it, and I imagine you may need it too.
I close by suggesting that we pause and take time to dwell deeply on MLK’s warning when he says, “We will have to repent in this generation not merely for the vitriolic words and actions of the bad people but for the appalling silence of the good people. We must come to see that human progress never rolls on wheels of inevitability. It comes through the tireless efforts and persistent work of men willing to be coworkers with God, and without this hard work time itself becomes an ally of the forces of social stagnation.” It may be, then, that we need to individually and corporately repent for our “appalling silence” as “good people.” Together, we must question whether we “have been more cautious than courageous and have remained silent behind the anesthetizing security of stained-glass windows.” And we must speak into the tension of these events so that we do not fall into merely mouthing “pious irrelevancies and sanctimonious trivialities.” We must move beyond lip service, giving only a few sentences about such tragedies, to opening space for our students of color to voice their daily experience of racial tensions at CTS. Otherwise, we risk becoming ministry leaders who perpetuate a church that is “a weak, ineffectual voice with an uncertain sound.” And we must go about this hard work persistently. As coworkers with God, cloaked in humility and empowered by the Holy Spirit.
 Martin Luther King, Jr., “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” 1963, Martin Luther King, Jr. Papers Project, < http://mlk-kpp01.stanford.edu/kingweb/popular_requests/frequentdocs/birmingham.pdf>
By Grant Hofman