Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Refusing to Plead the Fifth

You have heard most, if not all, of the stories.

A young white man walks into a prayer meeting at a historic African-American church and kills 9 people.

The same week, Israeli religious extremists set fire to a historic church in the Galilee.

A man is stabbed while sleeping outside of the St. Luke's Mission Center, where many of my students have volunteered.

Even as millions celebrate the Supreme Court ruling in favor of same-gender marriage, many LGBTQ folk brace for backlash.

Black churches are set ablaze across the South.

I have not written much about any of these events. I have shared a post here or a status message there.

I have been quiet, not because I don't care, but because I have felt -- to use language that perhaps comes more comfortably from the mouths of some of my more evangelical sisters and brothers -- convicted.

It has seemed to me to be too easy to write in outrage about events in South Carolina, or to wax poetically about the death of a man I did not know in DC, or to write my thousandth post about what we can do to bring some sanity to the violence we sponsor in Israel/Palestine. It has seemed to me too easy, as I relax in my apartment in the far north(white)west corner of Washington, DC, or sit in the comfortable office at the private college where I work, to rage about racism or gun violence or religious extremism.

I've felt convicted. Indicted. Called to the witness stand to speak for myself.

And I'm wondering what it looks like to refuse to plead the fifth.

The city that I live in has deep racial and economic divisions. The faith communities of the city tend to reflect these differences. The university where I work, and the beautiful and lively faith community that I minister with there, is situated -- geographically and demographically -- within those divisions. Students at American University or Wesley Theological Seminary could easily spend years in DC without ever going east of the Anacostia River.

I can easily do that.

What am I doing to change that?

I could name a few things here, a few things there.

I am the beneficiary of the systems of racial and economic injustice that makes these divisions possible.

What am I doing to change that?

I did not know Joel Johnson, the man who was stabbed at St. Luke's. The man who slept outside of the building where I take students to do some good. We volunteer inside the building that people sleep outside of for want of shelter; and until he was stabbed, I did not know this man's name.

What am I doing to change that?

We're deeply connected -- in usually unhealthy ways -- to the violence that happens half way around the world.

What in my life challenges that? And what in my life simply upholds it and allows it and enables it?

That's how I'm feeling. Conflicted. Indicted.

I don't mean that I feel guilty, in the sense of personal guilt. I mean that I feel the world calling me to task, posing me with a question: What about your life?

The great Quaker mystic Thomas Kelley once wrote, "We cannot die on every cross, nor are we expected to."

But, of course, he was referencing another old mystic, who said something like, "If you want to follow me, you're going to have to take up a cross."

I have no illusions that I can take on every cross that this world has to bear.

But surely, there is one.

I step into the witness stand, and the prosecutor says, "Some churches burned, and some looked away, and some walled themselves off. You stand accused of complicity. You stand accused of bystanding. How do you plead?"

I don't know, yet, what I could respond. But I refuse to plead the fifth.

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