What strikes me as I read the account of Stephen’s testimony is how Stephen does not simply tell his personal story but places that story within the context of the larger story of what God had been doing for generations with God’s people.
So often we see both the acts of grace people do, like Dr. King’s March on Washington, the recent choice by the people of Mother Emmanuel AME to extend forgiveness to their shooter, the work of groups like the Campaign for Southern Equality for LGBT equality here in the south-land, or the work of Organizing Against Racism in Greensboro to help work toward reconciliation and healing across the lines of race and class as individual people doing good deeds.
Similarly, when we see acts of violence against people of color by police and by armed gun-men, when we see people thrown in jail for illegal drug use, when people struggle to get by at minimum wage jobs, or people who can’t get appropriate medical care, we can look at this as on the one hand just bad people making bad choices and on the other individual people experiencing tragedy.
Stephen’s example, though, suggests we cannot ignore the context of any of these situations.
A year ago I was blessed to attend a Racial Equity Institute workshop done by Organizing Against Racism North Carolina at Pullen Memorial Baptist Church of Raleigh. This workshop proved transformative to me, as I did not know the ways in which I would see the principles I learned there lived out in as public and widespread a way as I have across our country this year . What the Institute challenged in those meetings was the misconception that racisms is just one’s personal feelings felt in their heart. No, the Institute suggest. Racism is not just choices here or there to discriminate against people of a different race than me, it argued. Instead it’s a whole pattern of life in which we are swept up that exists throughout our culture and is woven into all of our institutions from the start of this country. Without raising our awareness to its effect, it can influence us without us even realizing it. The fact it colors our mind’s unconsciously with racial bias has been shown to in studies of children’s reactions to pictures of people of varied races. Even before explicit racism can form, children raised in our climate of structural racism and implicit racism in the US already at an early age begin to make racial judgments. In order to combat racism, we must become aware of the history and context in which racist acts occur, so that we can help combat racism’s effect on our thinking and change the climate of our culture at large.
This same theme is true on other issues. Ecological problems don’t just happen; they come out of a context of negligence about caring for the earth. Drug abuse is in part such a problem not just because of the way in which people make bad choices but also because of how our country handles access to medical care, the way it criminalizes addiction instead of providing treatment options, the way in which it treats those in poor communities. Mass incarceration at the rate we face it in this country is no accident but, as The New Jim Crow explains, is a direct result of the policies we have in place.
Likewise, change and transformation for the good don’t just happen but occur in a context. The expansion of recognition of LGBT people as persons deserving rights has occurred as a result of people coming out, raising their voices, engaging in dialogue, letting the community know their needs. In the late 1800’s and early 1900’s laws that protected children from abusive labor practices and the groundwork toward education for all children came about not out of nowhere but out of the blood, sweat, and tears of activists, of outspoken churches & preachers, and the expressing of the costs of not having such laws in print. Together these changed the conversation. Communities that are now accessible to people with disabilities didn’t just become that way over night. No. Laws were passed and enforced. People spoke with city councils and businesses. People with disabilities, their families, and friends all raised their voices. And, despite many obstacles, things changed.
Stephen’s example reminds me of my need to continue to not just look at things on a surface level but deeper. It also invites me to consider how I might help raise my own & other’s awareness in order to help be a part of what shapes the context into life-giving and liberating ways. After all, isn’t the call of the people of God to be able to join Jesus in being ones who say the Spirit of the Lord is upon us to proclaim liberty to the captives?
Let it be so!
Your progressive redneck preacher,