That’s a difficult quote for me. After listening to this quote on our Midrash NYC podcast I must confess that I’m bothered. I’m bothered by this quote because I know that Nikki speaks a very important truth. It asks me to take personal stock of the way I operate within the American culture.
As a white male I can skate through life with nary a concern for the Latin and Central American employees working in the kitchens of each restaurant I frequent. I have the ability to make sweeping statements about the “recklessness” of minority groups. I can say woefully short sighted phrases like, “I’m colorblind” or “I see everyone as equal so It’s all good” without listening to anyone’s story. I can walk this path through life without ever dealing with the consequences of my short sighted world view.
Nikki’s astute observation is further portrayed in a book I recently read titled, “The Short and Tragic Life of Robert Peace” about a man from the streets of Newark who “makes it” at Yale University. Upon his move to Yale, author Jeff Hobbs remarks on the fact of white culture being a required course.
“But a deeper transition (Into the community at Yale University) affected people of color in this dazed context. Before course selections and extra-curricular sign-up sheets, before bags could even be unpacked in rooms, black students had to situate themselves within their own race. The process was complicated, conflicting, usually silent, highly fraught, and wholly invisible to their white classmates, most of whom had never actively had to consider the role of race in their lives.”
If we’re honest, caucasian Americans rarely consider the role of race in our daily lives. The truth is this; with the Black Lives Matter Movement, with the increasing news about Syrian refugees in need of peace and shelter, with each passing story about immigration, and a significant decline in middle class status, caucasian Americans are unable to avoid actively considering the role of race in their lives. One could argue that with each news story, personal story, and statistic, that other cultures are ultimately becoming required courses for caucasian Americans.
And how are Americans responding?
We’ve decided that we need to make “America Great Again.”
I believe that our wanting to make America great again goes beyond political slogans and even the politicians themselves. I think for most white people in the U.S., making America great again has an underlying meaning. This underlying meaning is damaging at best because its main objective is to make other cultures, ethnicities, and socioeconomic statuses nothing more than the elective course it’s always been.
To make America great again is to relegate the minority cultures back to a simple curiosity, a course for those with a willingness to try something new. To make America great again is to hear the stories and protests and to discount them as small and inconsequential voices.
After all, making America great again has often meant silencing any voice that makes us come face to face with a minority view. America has quite the track record.
But surely we’d agree that America was not great when we forcibly removed 12.7 million African and Caribbean natives, 26 percent of whom were children forever separated from their families.
Was America great again when settlers raided the lands of Native American Tribes through the government sponsored Indian Removal Act?
I wonder if America was great again when we forced these same Native Americans westward in what is now called the Trail of Tears? It was easier to see 10,000 Native Americans die than to take a course in their culture.
Was America great during the Industrial Revolution when we oppressed women and children, created unsanitary and unsafe conditions where it was commonplace for US immigrants to die in factories or on the streets. It was easier to do that than to study the effects of these harsh conditions on human beings and make changes that allow for minority voices to thrive.
Was America great during the Jim Crow south, the establishment of separate but equal laws, or during the bloody lynchings, bombings, and beatings that mark the civil rights era? We refused to hear stories. It was easier to pass laws creating separation.
Is it possible that America was great during one of it’s many attempts at imperialism in Vietnam, Panama, The Philippines, and most recently, Iraq? Instead of sitting down to required courses it was much easier to colonize others.
To be fair, there are many great things about America. It’s a privilege for me to live in this place. I’m humbled by the many men and women that have fought for our rights. If we’re really honoring those who have worked to truly make America great again it’s time for us white Americans to sit down and start our required coursework.
Now more than ever I believe that we make America great again. I believe our community can help make it happen.
You may have noticed that we’ve quietly changed our vision statement.
What does a Just and Generous Expression of Christianity look like? One of the ways that we carry out this vision is to live out the words of prophets who prepare Israel to see the true character and expression of God.
This is what the LORD of Heaven’s Armies says: Judge fairly, and show mercy and kindness to one another. Do not oppress widows, orphans, foreigners, and the poor. And do not scheme against each other. – Zechariah 7:9-10
Take your evil deeds out of my sight; stop doing wrong. Learn to do right; seek justice. Defend the oppressed. Take up the cause of the fatherless; plead the case of the widow. – Isaiah 1:16-17
A Just and Generous expression of Christianity means that we acknowledge the fact that each person is made in the image of God and that each culture, ethnicity, status, and story is a required course. To do anything less stops us from living out our vision.
A Just and Generous expression of Christianity asks us as a church to acknowledge the fact that racism and oppression are like a smog in this city, we’re breathing it in and we rarely acknowledge the damage. To not acknowledge this damage stops us from living out this vision.
A Just and Generous expression of Christianity begs us to have the courage to organize others, to gather up voices, and to participate in movements that end oppression and racism. We’re called to make this place just a bit more like the kingdom of heaven. This is how we live out our vision. This is how we make America great.
I’m asking you to take this journey with our church community. I’m asking you to say, “Yes” to seeing our vision come to fruition.
Say, Yes to making the culture and stories of others more than just an elective. Let’s make it a requirement.
Say, Yes to the just and generous expression of Christianity.
Say, Yes to considering our role in God’s kingdom and the role that we have to bring God’s kingdom to this place.
We can make this community, our city, and America great again. It starts by saying, “Yes.”