A Letter From the Bishop

A Letter From the Bishop

Blessings and peace to you in the name of Jesus Christ. Thank you for this time of sabbatical; it has been a tremendous gift to have time away for rest, reflection, learning and reading. I am taking time for silent prayer and meditation each morning, and for the past two weeks, hiking in the desert in southern California in Joshua Tree National Park, the Thousand Palms Oasis and near Mt. San Jacinto. But even in these remote places, the news from around the country of the death of two more Black men at the hands of police, and the killing of five police officers and the wounding of seven others has broken into the incredible beauty of these places. It has pulled me back to the reality of our country’s great need to see these events as a call to greater understanding, justice, peace and hope – and perhaps, finally, a step towards a new reality for all the people of America.

I commend to you the statement of Presiding Bishop Eaton, the lead article of this week’s e-newsletter by Acting Bishop Nancy F. Nelson, and a statement from the Conference of Bishops of the ELCA for you to consider as you wonder where God might be leading you and your congregation or ministry in these days. The events of the past week are not far from us — the Black Lives Matter movement was born in Oakland, and the death of Oscar Grant reminds us of that. Any of our rostered leaders who spent time at Luther Seminary in St. Paul, MN know the area of Falcon Heights well. The place where Philando Castile was killed is about a mile from the seminary. It is only one block from the gas station where I worked for three years while I was a student at Luther. That, and the fact that my brother and sister-in-law are retired sheriff’s deputies, has put away any distance from my call as bishop I might have hoped to maintain for the remaining weeks of my sabbatical. And so I write, compelled by God’s Spirit to encourage all of us to be in deep and prayerful conversation about these events.

A significant part of my sabbatical time has been spent in learning about the experiences of Latinas/os, Native Americans and African Americans throughout the history of this country to the present day. A significant (and hard) read has been “The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness,” by Michelle Alexander. The thesis of her book is that Black Americans have been subjugated by white Americans first through slavery, then through “Jim Crow” laws and attitudes, and now through a criminal justice system that has disproportionally arrested and incarcerated Black men and women. This system goes on to disenfranchise Black Americans from being able to vote, find meaningful employment and decent housing, provide for their families, or feel as though they are seen as anything but suspects by the police. This book is a challenging read, and one that I highly recommend. If white Americans are to have any meaningful dialogue with African American citizens, it will be crucial to try to understand the experience that many Black people have had and are having in this country. This book can be an important step in the process.

As a civil rights lawyer, Dr. Alexander carefully makes her case through an analysis of the laws and leadership of this country that have sought to maintain white privilege at the expense of the rights and freedoms of Black Americans. Corporate, institutional and individual racism have all played a role in leading us to where we are today – where the cries and hopes of those who believe “Black Lives Matter” are met with disdain or calls that cheap topiramate online “All Lives Matter” or “Blue Lives Matter.” I don’t know that I can now or will ever fully be able to understand the pain that African Americans feel when their cries for justice go unheard or are muted by those who wish to minimize their anguish and experience. Black Lives Matter — not because they are more precious in God’s sight than anyone else but because Black men and women have been and are being disproportionately targeted and marginalized by our justice system in ways that can no longer be denied.

I also don’t know if I can truly comprehend the pain of the families of the five police officers who were targeted and killed by a gunman bent on revenge — officers who only moments before had been standing with those who were peacefully protesting the deaths of two more Black men at the hands of the police. The reality is that police officers literally put their lives on the line every day to serve and protect the citizens in their charge, which the vast majority of police officers in this country do with honor and distinction. Yet once again, we have been confronted with the deaths of two of our citizens, who, had they been white, would likely be alive today. I can only wonder what might come from finding a way for all seven grieving families from Baton Rouge and Falcon Heights and Dallas to gather together to share their deep grief from a holy place that only God’s grace in Jesus Christ could occupy and eventually bring healing, hope and restoration.

In that spirit, I need to listen. To listen to the voices of the family and friends of Philando Castile and Alton Sterling and Lorne Ahrens and Michael Krol and Michael Smith and Brent Thompson and Patrick Zamarripa. To listen to the voices of those who fear seeing blue lights in their rear view mirror. To listen to the voices of police officers who simply wish to serve and protect. I invite you to listen to the voices of the community where you have been called to serve. To listen to the voices of those whose experience of our justice system has been different from your own. To listen as you attend an Anti-Racism workshop. And to pray, before, during, and after those conversations. Pray together. Pray that God may, as President Obama reminded us from the prophet Ezekiel during the Memorial Service in Dallas this week, give us new hearts. I leave you with the President’s moving call to our nation:

“In the end, it’s not about finding policies that work. It’s about forging consensus and fighting cynicism and finding the will to make change. Can we do this? Can we find the character, as Americans, to open our hearts to each other? Can we see in each other a common humanity and a shared dignity, and recognize how our different experiences have shaped us? And it doesn’t make anybody perfectly good or perfectly bad, it just makes us human. I don’t know. I confess that sometimes I, too, experience doubt. I’ve been to too many of these things. I’ve seen too many families go through this. But then I am reminded of what the Lord tells Ezekiel. ‘I will give you a new heart,’ the Lord says, ‘and put a new spirit in you. I will remove from you your heart of stone, and give you a heart of flesh.’ That’s what we must pray for, each of us. A new heart. Not a heart of stone, but a heart open to the fears and hopes and challenges of our fellow citizens.”

May it be so. And may God have mercy upon us, direct our words and our deeds, and give us peace.

BP  Mark