The theme of the month at Emerson Unitarian Universalist Chapel (www.emersonuuchapel.org) the congregation I serve, is letting go. Starting in early February, I began working with the 4th to 7th Grades to create our annual worship service. I asked them to reflect on the theme of “letting go” and they came up with the topic of forgiveness. It was incredible to me, the insights they had on forgiveness. We talked about when it’s easy to forgive and when it’s not. What does it mean to forgive and what it does not mean (like forgetting)? What does it take to forgive?
I have found myself thinking a great deal about forgiveness and what it means in the context of justice. I spent considerable time reading the Department of Justice Report on Ferguson, and reflecting deeply on it. Honestly, it was worse than I had suspected. Even as a dedicated white ally, committed to believing the stories of blacks in our city who spoke of feeling preyed upon by law enforcement, I was shocked by what I had read. I found myself wondering how anyone could have been a party to such overt discrimination and oppression? I wondered if the leaders really understood what they were doing. And if they did, what did that mean?
I found myself wondering about how good people can do evil things and still believe they are good. It was easy to become judgmental reading the report. “‘Those’ people did this to our black brothers and sisters.” But in whose name? Were they really just protecting Ferguson, or were those leaders doing this in our name? It is a common thing to hear during coffee hour after worship that St. Louis is a segregated city. But rarely do we talk about our collective responsibility for that reality. It is much easier to distance ourselves from the dynamics that created the segregation and the systemic violence that maintains it.
Following the report, many Black Lives Matters leaders reaffirmed what the report shared, that the actions of the leaders in Ferguson were not unique to Ferguson. This is happening throughout our city. Blacks are systemically harassed in the ways written about in the DOJ report, throughout St. Louis. In fact, in the annual report about traffic stops in the region of St. Louis, Chesterfield ranks particularly high as a city that practices racial profiling. So do many of the communities that our members and friends live in. These law enforcement practices, supported by our elected leaders, are also implicitly and unconsciously supported by the residents of our many municipalities.
I have come to believe that one of the ways we start is by acknowledging what we have at stake in the status quo. You have to recognize what you’re responsible for before even considering asking for forgiveness. You have to recognize that you actually need forgiveness because we have helped create what exists now. And then, we have to undo the status quo that continues to damage and destroy so many lives.
When the Ferguson shooting first happened, I was deeply uncomfortable with the slogan “Shut it Down.” I felt it went too far. After reading the Department of Justice Report, I no longer feel this is a radical statement. When systemic racism is so deeply embedded, one wonders whether simple reform could ever be sufficient. I understand more deeply why the new generation of civil rights activists have largely abandoned the politics of respectability that shaped the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s, It’s been 50 years since Blood Sunday and the march for voting rights. They are tired of waiting, tired of being polite, waiting for the rest of the country to recognize and understand what is happening to them. After reading the Department of Justice report, I can understand why they are tired and impatient.
So this Sunday we will see a sweet play about forgiveness. But look deeply at the message in the story, and let’s ask ourselves, what does it really mean to ask for forgiveness? What does it ask of us? What are those we are asking to forgive us being asked to let go of?