A Response to Recent Events in the United States
By Rev. Dr. Kimberly Reisman
June 1, 2020
Events in the United States often impact the rest of the world. Though World Methodist Evangelism is a global organization working through a network of 80 million Methodist Wesleyans in over 130 countries; I feel it is important to speak out on the current unrest unfolding in the US.
I have been trying to mentally and emotionally process what has been happening recently in my country, the United States: to comprehend the storming of government buildings and escalating threats of violence. It demonstrates the universal human response when people feel their rights are being denied or their freedoms restricted. When I think about US history, it makes sense. We Americans have always protested injustice. From the American Revolution to the Civil War, when we believe our freedoms are being taken away, we protest. When we feel the government is “treading on us,” or limiting our rights, we protest. All of us can understand the anger and frustration that arises when we feel the government is exerting too much control over our lives.
It makes sense on the one hand, but I’m confused on the other. Because I never thought armed protests and people with AK-47s storming a state capital would happen over the issue of reopening hair and nail salons or being asked to wear a mask.
Now, protests have occurred again in my country – many peaceful, but not all. And they too have been in response to restricted freedoms, denied rights, and excessive control. We ought to all be able to understand how that feels, at least to a certain extent. Afterall we are all human.
But there is a difference here.
I’m part of a global Methodist Wesleyan movement that has not shirked the responsibility of speaking truth to power. My personal mentors in this movement fought Apartheid in South Africa and Jim Crow in Mississippi. They taught me to understand that, in contrast to people protesting in response to lockdowns and masks, what is happening at this moment is in response to a much deeper spiritual problem.
Some call it racism, but for me that’s too general a word to describe the US context. The spiritual problem besetting this country is white supremacy. It’s not a new problem, and it’s not the domain of the alt-right. Our country was founded on the assumption of white supremacy. It undergirded the Doctrine of Discovery which was crafted in the mid-15th century and continued to be used until the mid-20th century. It influenced the drafting of the US Constitution, was a foundation of the slave trade, and was the germ of the idea of America’s manifest destiny.
For the four centuries since the first enslaved Africans arrived here the assumption of white supremacy has been our spiritual problem. For the 155 years since those enslaved Africans were first emancipated it has been our spiritual problem. For the over 5 decades since the voting rights acts were passed, it has been our spiritual problem.
The assumption that people who believe themselves to be white are superior to others is the scaffolding on which our society has been built. It has infected us to such a degree that we have great difficulty recognizing it as sin, and many have already stopped reading this because I’ve suggested that it is. And yet, whether we are willing to admit it or not, this enduring sin of white supremacy is continually laid bare by the ongoing killing of those labeled black. From the disregard for Africans kidnapped into slavery through the murders of Emmett Till, Trayvon Martin, and Aiyana Jones, to Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and most recently George Floyd.
As a Christian, American, and one labeled white, the most painful part for me in this most recent of tragedies, is the reminder that the church identified as white has been for the most part silent regarding this besetting sin of ours; and because of that silence, we have been complicit in its consequences. Through our white flight, we’ve created bubbles of white privilege, quarantined ourselves from suffering, and consciously or unconsciously put ideology – including the ideology of white supremacy – over the call of the Gospel.
As Christians, we believe the Spirit of Jesus lives in each of us – we celebrated that belief only a few days ago on Pentecost Sunday. When Jesus first spoke of the Spirit, he said, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, and to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” (Luke 4:18-19)
If the Spirit of Jesus lives in us, then we are to bring good news to the poor, proclaim release to captives, and to set the oppressed free. And yet, George Floyd’s gasps of “I can’t breathe!” illustrate with overwhelming clarity, that we have not done so.
The reality of life in America is that nothing changes unless enough people identified as white want it to change. That means the question for Christians in America is are we willing to break free from the narrative of white supremacy? Are we willing to admit that if all lives really matter, then Black. Lives. Matter. Are we willing to trust our black and brown sisters and brothers when they tell us that there is another narrative of life in America and that it involves over-policing, poverty, environmental catastrophes, food deserts, and little access to health care and proper education? Are we willing to trust them when they tell us that they were deemed “essential workers” until they got sick, and then were turned away when they sought testing or treatment for COVID19?
If the Spirit of Jesus is alive in us, we must be willing to believe that our sisters and brothers identified as black and brown are telling us the truth about their experience in this country.
I believe them. And because I believe them, as an American I will do the following things:
- Call my friends identified as black and brown to offer solidarity and care.
- Lead WME in a way that honors and nurtures the gifts of all people.
- Work to end educational inequality in this country.
- Work for processes and procedures that ensure the right of every US citizen to vote and to have equal representation.
There is so much to be done, but as a Christian, American, labeled white, I can start with this.