Wednesday, November 26, 2014



The events of this week are making it hard for me to face Thanksgiving. It’s hard to settle into the warmth of hearth and home when the world outside is filled with violence and injustice. I’m finding it hard to shut out the cries around me.

Seeking comfort, I found myself turning to a most unusual scripture for this time of year. It is one which is read right after Christmas day. And I mean right after. We barely say the Amen on “Joy to the World” before we encounter a most disturbing historical account of violence found in Matthew 2:13-23.

You see, Herod, who was a front man of the Roman empire, ruled over Israel. When Jesus was born, word got to him that others were calling Jesus the King of the Jews. He sent wise men to see the boy. Herod told them it was so that he could honor him, but really he wanted to know his whereabouts so he could kill him. The wise men, after laying their gifts before Jesus, are warned in a dream not to return to Herod, and Jesus’ father Joseph is always warned in a dream to flee with his family. When Herod learned that he had been outwitted, he ordered the murder of every boy in Bethlehem under the age of two. This is known as the Slaughter of the Innocence and fulfills the prophesy of Jeremiah:

A sound was heard in Ramah,
    weeping and much lament.
Rachel weeping for her children,
    Rachel refusing all comfort,
Her children gone, dead and buried

Rachel, weeping for her children who are gone, dead and buried.

There is a steady drumbeat of violence in this country. A war has been declared in America, and the enemy has been labeled by skin color. A war specifically being waged against black and brown men. Ferguson or Fruitvale, New York City or St. Louis or Los Angeles or San Jose. Too many black and brown men have lost their lives by the very ones who are supposed to protect them.

I can’t get out of my head the sound of Rachel, Rachel who will not be consoled. Rachel who is weeping for her children who are gone, dead and buried.

How can we comfort Rachel? How can we push back on the pandemic of racism in this country, one that was literally written into the constitution? Earlier this fall, Glide’s Associate Pastor Angela Brown and I had a meeting in Little Rock, and we stopped into Central High School, a National Historic site where the Little Rock 9 broke down a color barrier and ignited a fire storm, simply by going to school. It was at the visitors center that highlights of the Constitution were presented, a reminder that from the very birth of this nation, racial inequality was the law of the land.

Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. pointed this fact out in 1967, and his words are hauntingly true nearly 50 years later: “When the constitution was written, it declared that the Negro was 60% of a white person.  Today, another formula seems to declare that he is merely 50% of a person.  Of all the good things in life he has approximately one-half those of whites, of the bad he has twice those of whites.”

There continues to be a racial divide in this country, and it remains just as deadly as it did from the start of this country. If you don’t believe it, if you no longer pay any mind when another young man of color is gunned down, just listen for the cries of Rachel,  for her sobbing is all around us.

This is specifically for my white brothers and sisters: because for many of us who live comfortably and even blindly with the privilege that comes from our white skin, too many of us want to stick our head in the sand and pretend that we live in a post-racial society. We hear our black and brown brothers and sisters tell of their racist treatment and we often interrupt and say, “It’s not really like that any more.” Or “You should see what happened to me.”

Thank God that prophets like Jeremiah, who help us remove our blindfolds and unstop our ears, still are walking around in our day and age, because we need them more now than ever before. Hear these words from one of the great prophets of our day:

Racism isn’t an inconvenient social construct.  It is a deadly way to control others. Herod killed the babies of Bethlehem because he was afraid, afraid of Jesus’ power. So he killed innocent ones to keep himself feeling safe.

When we refuse to hear the truth of the lived experiences of others, we become Herods, exercising power over others as a way to keep ourselves safe. And as a result, there are a lot of Rachels weeping over the deaths of their babies.

I will never forget the day I realized that my walk in the world was different from that of my friend of color. In college, one of my professors (yes, one) was black. Every day he came to class dressed so dapper. In an era when jeans and flannel shirts were the rule, he stood out by his three piece suits and hat, even though he was only about 5 years older than the students he taught. He told us about how not once, not twice, but nearly every time he drove through the town to get to work, he would be pulled over by police. This wasn’t Birmingham in the 50’s, it was New Jersey in the 70’s. And whether with a colleague or his children, he would suffer the indignity of the police asking him to step out of the car for questioning. His crime? Guilty while driving black.

This busted open my world. Made me see my own privilege, and began my commitment to be an ally in the dismantling of racism.

But we still have so much work to do and it will require all of us.

From Birmingham of the 50s to New Jersey in the 70s to San Francisco in the 2010s. Just a few months ago I was nearly to the door of Glide when a taxi pulled out and one of our church's matriarchs--who is black--literally fell into my arms sobbing. I asked what was wrong and she said she had been standing at the curb at the Ferry Building for 45 minutes, trying to hail a cab. Literally hundreds passed her by without stopping. Finally, a white man noticed what was going on and asked if he could help. He raised his hand and immediately a cab stopped.

Rachel is weeping. Rachel is weeping.

Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg had an interesting perspective on why the struggle for racial equality seems never ending while the gains in lgbtq equality have seem to leap forward in a relatively short time span. She said:

“Once [gay] people began to say who they were, you found that it was your next-door neighbor or it could be your child, and we found people we admired,” she said. “That understanding still doesn’t exist with race; you still have separation of neighborhoods, where the races are not mixed. It’s the familiarity with people who are gay that still doesn’t exist for race and will remain that way for a long time as long as where we live remains divided.”

Some have noted that while once the most segregated time in America is no longer Sundays at 11am, but it is noon lunch hour at work.

Proximity doesn’t breed contempt, distance does.  Proximity  breeds a familiarity that gives birth to  empathy.

How can we comfort the crying Rachels and make a world of opportunity and life for all people, including black and brown young men?

I was speaking at a conference recently, and one of the other speakers was from Zimbabwe. He told me about the traditional greeting in Zimbabwe which he says has no real English (and I would dare say American) equivalent. It is called “Chabadza” and it is always said when you pass someone and it means something like, “Hello, can I help?”

Unlike here, where we say without even meaning it, “Hi, how are you?” in Zimbabwe they mean it. He said to me,  “When we say Chabadza, what we mean is ‘Greetings! Let me stop a while and help you with what you’re doing. We will work together and we’ll talk a bit and then I’ll be on my way.”

Chabadza is the sharing of a moment, a participation in the task at hand and an acknowledgment that life is best when it is shared.

Life is best when it is shared. As long as we live in silos that separate us by our differences, we don’t get to enjoy the best of life and in fact life turns deadly for those who are feared because of differences.

What would it mean for you to practice chabadza in your office, in your community, as you walk down the street. How would your living change if you took the time to look others in the eye and say "Let me join you, side by side work with you, so I can learn from you and make your walk in this world a bit easier."

This is what it means to comfort the Rachels who are crying. This is our task as we work for racial equality. This is what we must do to stop the flow of blood of our young men. This is what is required of us as children of God.

Chabadza. Hello. How can I help?