Charlottesville & Beyond: The Tricky Work of Justice

I knew, as soon as I read about Charlottesville, what laid in wait for us.  The population that we’ve “rediscovered” in the later part of this century’s second decade was insisting on making itself heard, a message of delusion from the 19th century wrapped up in 21st century methods and words.  Meanwhile, a worthwhile and necessary opposition had to be formed.  Social media posts, coming from both directions, was a surety.  The protest must happen.

Of course I believe that we fully need to stand against hatred in whatever form it decides to clothe itself.  Counter-protests and social media posts are important; the message that we cannot regress back to organizations such as the KKK and Neo-Nazis must be stated emphatically, from afar and in person.  Each person must reassert it for himself and herself.  It is a work that must be done.

Here comes the rub, however.  I always fear that, for many folks, the work ends there.

We stand up, we do the merit-filled work, we receive cheers from our side, and we go home.  But the work of justice is a tricky thing, and it is never as simple as making a social media post or standing in a necessary, adrenaline-fuled protest line.  Or changing our profile picture to one that has a cool sticker or layover.  (I’m very cynical about those things.)

Let me illustrate this a little bit.

While our world was gearing up for this showdown between the forces in Charlottesville, I was, on Thursday night, preparing for a family-oriented, Christ-centered event at our church.  The program is called Families 4 Christ.  It was started by our former Vice President & Custodian, who passed away in February of this year.  Since his passing, I have been carrying the torch, not one of oppression and hatred but one of welcoming and sharing.  One of the reasons for this program coming about is that, many times, our neighbors, poor black folks, are left out of church leadership entirely.  The people who push out our neighbors are not dressed in hooded robes nor are they throwing up heils.  They might be retired folks, they might be soft-spoken, and they might be people who consider themselves liberals and who stand in protest lines.  This is not a violent form of pushing out, but it is a pushing out nonetheless.  One detractor of the Families 4 Christ program, a volunteer from another Lutheran church, once told me the following, illustrating why he thought that our neighborhood folks should not be allowed to run the kitchen for our program:  “Do they even know how to use the sink system?”  By sink system, he means the system that he established for the church’s sinks, meaning that one sink is for rinsing only, another sink is for soap only, another sink is for bleach only, and another sink is for hand-washing only.  Now, I get there are indeed health procedures that can be helpful in preparing food well and in cleaning up afterwards.  But, tell me, when we’re doing a family-based meal and not a dreaded mass feeding program, do we need to make the sinks a litmus test for who can and cannot exercise leadership and direction, for who can and cannot experience themselves as a disciple at work in the world for the sake of the Gospel and other people?  Yet, this same person might find himself donating ample amounts of food to a pantry near or far.  He might also be spotted screaming at the neighborhood kids for listening to rap music at a church event, not stopping to think that – when they aren’t at church – their world at home is a rap soundtrack.  Has someone checked all of his country music CDs at home for clerical approval?  There’s an imbalance and it is subtle and tricky.  It is very subtle and tricky.

This brings me to my next point.  Good and evil is rarely as clearcut as protestors facing Neo-Nazis and militias.  It can be really clearcut sometimes, but more often, I fear that evil and good are very mixed and very difficult.  Evil is not always loud and boisterous.  Sometimes it is subtle, and sometimes its tiniest and littlest, but always very important, roots are almost invisible to the naked eye.

Another example.  If a white man, with a conceal and carry permit, goes to an inner-city church and never brings his gun on Sunday, what is his justification for bringing it to a neighborhood block party at that same church?  The reason is pretty clear if you’re willing for the brutal and hard honesty.  Yet, he is well within his legal rights.  The question is this, with God knowing the heart: is he well within his divine “rights”?  There are two answers to that question, and good and evil come forth from those answers.  The tiny roots, the ones that have to be worked on, and worked on hard, come after Charlottesville.  Voicing the protest and facing the overt forces that represent the racism that has never been uprooted, not through the Civil War, not through the failed Reconstruction of this country, not through the Stalemate that existed through and up to the time of the Civil Rights Movement, and not in the aftermath of that same movement, is an uprooting that must happen, but the hardest work, the real and in-daily-life work, remains, for all of us, for each one of us.

If Charlottesville is just a chance for you to speak and earn merit, that’s okay.  We needed speakers.  But know that the real work remains, in the homes of the poor and oppressed, in the system where felonies and multiple tack-on charges are used to enslave masses of people, where prisoners are fed crap, and where we have absolutely no idea how to honestly share our wealth well nor share our time and conversation – sometimes even in the least.

One last illustration:  When outside groups come to Families 4 Christ, I tell them, and only once, that they are not there to serve but to be with us.  I also request that those folks share their meal while in conversation with someone from our neighborhood whom they do not yet know.  Some groups do this really well.  Most do not.  Often, I come in to find the group eating by themselves, barricaded in the kitchen, either before or after serving the food to our neighborhood’s people.  Once, I saw a group politely refuse the help of one of our neighborhood women whom I had earlier introduced as a great helper and guide.  She actually did want to serve, but the polite refusal, “No, that’s okay.  We can do it,” sent her through the dole line to get her food and be gone.  I can’t draw up a protest line for that action, and most people will think that I am crazy for pointing out the everyday tragedy that happened in the kitchen that night, but knowing the person, knowing what was a opportunity denied and a dream deferred, I have to find a way to work against, to transform a seemingly nice instrument, a polite refusal, into actual equality and relationship.  A society that sees a charity case, a burden, a being that exists only to be given something, to then go away, just such a society must open its eyes to the human being.  We all must constantly be in the process of being awoken again and again, like a bad parody of the movie Inception, until we finally get that this is the human being.  And the scary thing is that this is an everyday, seemingly mundane and petty task.  Yet, it is the most important one of all.  It is often thankless and unrewarded.  It is often punished.  Yet it is the work that remains after Charlottesville.  It is the work beyond Charlottesville.  It is the everyday tragedy.

One comment

  1. well said, Mike. It is the everyday tragedy of dehumanizing people right in front of us, that is the true front line of this struggle/battle. Somewhere I want to write a however. . . . but it is not forming any kind of shape right now. So I will leave this with ‘well said, Mike’

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