"Community cannot feed for long on itself; it can only flourish where always the boundaries are giving way to the coming of others from beyond them -- unknown and undiscovered brothers." - Howard Thurman, The Search for Common Ground: An Inquiry into the Basis of Man's Experience of Community
America must understand that Black Lives Matter is a movement born from the human spirit seeking community, harmony, and flourishing.
It is biblical in its cause, revolutionary in its spirit, and democratic in its goals.
It is a loud, physical and passionate invitation to 'America' to acknowledge unbalance and disharmony in its own house.
It is a spotlight on the real injustices arising from the value status assigned black and brown Americans by many of our cherished institutions.
It is a demand letter to dominant white-oriented society from unknown and undiscovered sisters and brothers.
It is a call for justice, not vengeance.
Howard Thurman--the theologian, philosopher, civil rights leader and mentor to Dr. King--wrote that Rodin's wondrous Hand of God sculpture is a "memory of a lost harmony," a reference to Jung's thought on collective unconscious. There in the The Search for Common Ground... he also discussed the concept of "racial memory" placing it in a theological and civil rights context.
The idea of "racial memory" is the memory born from experiences shaped by race that yearns for a once-extant and creational harmony of the human race. The racial memory is born from the experience of cognitive dissonance.
Black Lives Matter is an invitation to America to acknowledge the real contradictions existing in the assumed experiences and real experiences of brown and black lives in America. It is an invitation to close this gap in public and private institutions, businesses, organizations and communities.
It is an invitation to a certain kind of dissonance, for white America to own up to a racial memory that lives in the same universe as that of black America.
My experience with racial/cognitive dissonance
I believe in policing and I cherish the peace protected by good policing. I also respect police officers because I recognize the commitment required in good policing. But I also have a sober perspective on the cultural and structural elements that shape good policing. I also understand that my race and gender shape my views.
Sometime in 1993 or 1994 after college, I worked on and off at my father's business. One night I left the office close to midnight. As I turned onto my street I was pulled over by police. I knew my record was clean. I trusted the police then as I generally do now. I have friends and family who are officers. I am a white male.
Two black officers checked my license while I waited outside my car. Soon they handcuffed me and informed me they found a murder warrant for my arrest. I quickly became angry and frightened and was handcuffed to the bolts in the back of the cruiser with metal cutting into my wrists. I was 25 years old and shocked.
After a couple of hours in the cruiser and two phone calls to answering machines, I was placed in a holding cell with at least twenty other men. I believed I had nowhere to turn.
After an hour, one of the officers retrieved me from the holding cell and told me they had picked up the wrong man. Apparently, I had an outstanding traffic ticket from East Texas on my record. He then made a comment that I will forever remember.
He said, "Now you know how it feels." That's all. No explanation.
Across town, I spent another hour in a holding room with a man working off a chemical high. I was able to reach a work colleague who paid my bail. The next day a clerk in East Texas acknowledged a mistake and that I indeed had paid the traffic fine on time.
In the following year I had ugly thoughts about that night and those cops. On my worst days they were racist, especially around some groups of friends, for which I felt shame. Most everyone offered the same advice: sue the police department. Those officers were negligent, many said. Criminal, racist, and derelict others said.
Confused and troubled, I suspended judgments about this experience until I moved from Texas to Virginia to study theology some months later.
After seminary, my wife and I relocated to North Carolina for her associate pastorate position and more theological education for me. In the small town where we lived, I was mentored by an African American chaplain as we ministered to a marginalized community. He was a blessing to me.
As I learned more about the reality of structural racism and injustice, my mentor helped me reflect on my arrest. Whether the officer planned the lesson ahead of time or not, I'll never know. I realized, though, that I got a small sense of what it means to be wrongly or perhaps unjustly arrested by a system I was supposed to respect.
If I put all the pieces together, however, my false arrest was a lesson racial profiling. I have no proof this was the officer's intent, and most likely his comment was part of a communications blunder. Still, perhaps they targeted me because I was white, if not through the arrested or jailing, but by way of the officer's final comment. Even then, I would resist calling their actions reverse discrimination.
I believe the black officer--hopefully knowingly--offered me a sacred invitation to cognitive dissonance; an invitation to receive a racial memory in the same universe as black and brown people, even if an incomplete and skewed one. It was an action to include me in the lives of unknown and undiscovered sisters and brothers. It was an act of hospitality and generosity, an act square in line with the sit-ins and freedom rides.
Solidarity with the Other
Where, I ask, is the public advocacy and action for a common good and a common racial memory?
It is where dissonance is generated and critically examined for the purpose of reflection and change. I believe one instance is Black Lives Matter. Another is the degree-bearing education of incarcerated persons in light of their release into community. Another is the reform of the criminal justice system. And I believe another is the community-based reshaping of policing in our communities.
Yet, we must continuously vigilant to unhealthy dissonance and its consequences: murder, racist inflammatory speech, violent militancy, and the selfish use of power.
In 1967, King lamented, "For years I labored with the idea of reforming the institutions of the society, a little change her, a little change there. Now I feel quite differently. I think you have to have a reconstruction of the entire society, a revolution of values."
Nearly 50 years later, it appears a reconstruction is taking place yet again, one that seeks to restore a lost harmony even as citizens perpetrate evil on the attempts.
As a Christian, I call it a struggle for reconciliation, a political and spiritual act that creates solidarity with the other rather than against the other.