Can We Be Trusted?

I just finished a book study at church, weeks of being stretched and pulled and pushed into uncomfortable places. This was no ordinary study, no “let’s explore our faith and dig a bit deeper”study. We were led by a member of our staff who has a heart for social justice and was on her 3rd round of teaching the book as we read “The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness” by Michelle Alexander. What began with a group who was often skeptical ended with a call to arms, a search for ways to become active. This book made a difference, these words changed us all.  A church consisting of almost exclusively white, upper middle-class, highly educated people who love Jesus and had little understanding of white privilege, who knew nothing of the systemic, intentional devastation on the black community that the War on Drugs has created, we gathered each Sunday evening to explore what we had read and challenge what we have been taught. Jesus surely is nodding, saying, “Yes, children, yes. This, see all of my children.”

The premise of the book is that the War on Drugs has targeted black and brown people, criminalizing addiction, creating a profitable industry of prisons, rewarding local police  with federal dollars for every increasing arrests, dismantling 4th Amendment rights, and most of all, selling it all to the American people by creating the image of the black criminal. I won’t debate any of this with you, read the book, Michelle Alexander does an excellent job of backing up her assertions with facts, real facts, not the alternative ones we are being fed these days. I understand if you are skeptical, any of us were at first as well. Incredulous, even. We are educated, remember. How could we have fallen for this? How did we miss this? We are aware, many of us are liberal leaning, we think we are open to seeing racial injustice. We still missed it. We got sucked in and got complacent. We thought having a black president meant things were better. Better is not an indicator, better is relative. Like between contractions, you might feel better but the big ones are coming, it is going to hurt like hell. America, we need to hurt to fix this mess.

As a fifty plus woman, I have been taught to say we don’t see color, that we are striving to be colorblind. Is this familiar? We aren’t supposed to talk about race, that makes us racist. Michelle Alexander says this: “The colorblindness ideal is premised on the notion that we, as society, can never be trusted to see race and treat each other daily fairly or with genuine compassion.” As followers of Jesus, does that not strike a blow? I can’t stop reading that line. We can’t be trusted to SEE each other. I write constantly about my own brokenness and search for grace, about taking off the mask and allowing God to meet me in my vulnerable places. I ask to be seen as a child of God, but I have subscribed to a philosophy that teaches me not to SEE black and brown people.  I am convicted by this line. She goes on to say:”A commitment to color consciousness, by contrast, places FAITH in our capacity as humans to show care and concern for others, even as we are fully cognizant of race and possible racial differences.”  Yes, faith, trust, belief, that we are taught each week in church to see everyone as a child of God, and to behave accordingly. By pretending we don’t see color, we are pretending we don’t see what happens to people of color also. I never would have imagined admitting to my own racism, but I have found that my search for the holy grail of colorblindness has led me to a wicked chalice of racial indifference. This is a horrible admission. I can do nothing but begin today to correct the path and acknowledge that I was wrong.

Ultimately, as a Jesus follower, I am called, we all are called to keep seeking truth, to push away the lies and distortions and help our neighbors get what we have and then share some more. Who is my neighbor though? We have been able to insulate ourselves in our safe suburbs where we find mirror images of ourselves, so easy to love our neighbors. I think Jesus meant something else, was casting a wider net. I know He is asking more of me and I am listening, yes, I am listening. The battles over immigration occurring right now surely are not pleasing our Jesus, are the next wave of prisoners to fill the costly buildings being emptied a bit by softer laws on marijuana use. I can’t unsee what is being sold to me as a safety issue, as a threat to my security. I know now how this goes down, who loses and who wins big. Our Jesus was brown. Would you let Him in to our country, would you fear Him today? Ask yourself why and question where the information is coming from and who stands to gain from teaching us to fear people of color.

This book is not an easy read, is best done in a group with someone to hold you accountable and listen as you struggle. But if you don’t have a group, read it anyway. If you think I am crazy, really read it to prove me wrong. If you are scared to read it because you think I may be right, read it anyway. If you want to make America great again, read this and tell me when it was great for ALL Americans. We have some work to do and it is going to hurt like hell. As it should. People of color have been feeling the pain for far too long. Do you dare join me and the others who have read this book and found a new path towards Jesus that includes dealing with our own leper colonies, our own outcasts, that shows we are held captive, we all are imprisoned by racism? I want to be trusted to see all people and treat them fairly and with genuine compassion. That is my Holy Grail. Will you join me? You have to know up front it is going to hurt.


My Plum and I love to play with bubbles, we make huge ones that float around us, giant rainbow colored orbs that shine with drippy soap as they are carried away on the breeze. Plum chases them, delights in bursting them with his stick or sword or ninja kick. Maybe he is on to something that I have forgotten: bubbles are beautiful but must be broken. I always secretly root for them to escape his reach, bypass the branches, I want them to pass freely into the sky. Sometimes bubbles enclose us, surround us in bands of bright colors reflecting the light, hiding the darkness all around.

The Sunday night book group at church is breaking my heart. I knew going into it that I would be vulnerable, that my heart would be on the line. The seriousness of the topic, how closely it fit my own reality, I knew it was dangerous. Still, I felt called, pushed, to sign my name on the clipboard, I felt prodded to buy the book and say I would join. “The New Jim Crow”  by Michelle Alexander is risky stuff, threatening our happy bubbles, perilous to our long-held beliefs. For those of us well acquainted with the criminal justice system, it is even more painful.

I finished grad school about 25 years ago, I haven’t read serious works since, not full books on social justice by intelligent authors. I read snippets, I follow news. I live life and experience events but have not stayed up on scholarly readings. This is my confessional, where I come clean about my own intelligent ignorance. Much like when my son showed signs of substance abuse but I knew that I had already covered all of those bases, I was too smart to let that happen in my own family, I missed what was in front of me. My knowledge was not sufficient to understand the greater issue, my response was not great enough to halt the problem. My bubble kept me from seeing what was really happening to/with my son, until it all burst, our life snagged on the jagged edges of addiction, destroyed by the criminal justice system once again.

Getting comfortable in our own bubbles is dangerous, as the current national situation can attest. The seriousness of the racial divide is irrefutable, once the bubble of denial is popped, the soul cleansing can begin. I don’t want to know what I am reading, I don’t want to be aware that politicians I have loved are complicit in this current divide. How much soap will it take to clean us all? Will we ever be washed free of this ugliness? I don’t have the answers to fix such a horrific systemic problem but I know the first step is breaking those bubbles, those beautiful alluring floating orbs that can calm my mind and distract me from what is true and what is real. Indeed, blisters are bubbles as well, patches of skin rubbed until the skin reacts angrily. A burn that shows the damage has occurred, attention is required. Bubbles, blisters, mass incarceration, racial caste.  My soul is aching and my memories are fresh. The first step in healing.