James Baldwin once commented on the disconnect he often witnessed, confronting supposed white supporters of the Civil Rights Movement when they acted in ways that directly contradicted their verbal support of equality. His response was classic: “I can’t believe what you say because I see what you do.” It is precisely this disconnect between intent action that this week’s author, Sarah Derrick, so boldly admits and grapples with – how despite her passionate desire to help, often her privilege gets in the way of following through. Read, comment, and share.
Rev. Dr. Linda E. Thomas – Professor of Theology and Anthropology, Chair of LSTC’s Diversity Committee, Editor – “We Talk. We Listen.”
I’ve been able to put this off.
I was asked to write and reflect on my experience.
Sure, I thought, not even responding to the email, I will absolutely do that once I get home.
Classes started, work began to pile up, suddenly the experience of ISNA seemed distant, lower on my list of priorities to address, it seemed less important to invite conversation around engaging our Muslim neighbors, more important to turn inward, and reflect on my own situation. Then last November came, political rhetoric was even more charged with xenophobic, anti-Muslim, racial bigotry. I was reminded once again that I had been invited to challenge this in some sort of written reflection. I had every intention to do so.
Donald Trump was elected. I was angry at the country.
I wanted to speak up.
Yet, once again, I put it off.
This tidal motion of my intentions, actions, and feelings are, I believe, reflective of my privilege as a white Christian in this country. I can be bothered, invited into action, and choose whether or not it is convenient for me to engage in the moment. I can choose to put off speaking on a topic, put off engaging with the brokenness we see around us. My privilege allowed me to go one year without responding to an invitation to reflect on anti-Muslim bigotry and the church. I say this to point out that I could have said something much sooner, to point out my choice to keep an arms distance. In my complacency, I had contributed to the problem. And to shift this out of a personal confessional into a corporate one, I invite all of us to think about how we as a collective people often times put off speaking up. I wonder what that has looked like, I wonder what the implication of our inaction has been.
What has happened in the year plus since I was invited to write?
Political tensions heightened, a leader many are frightened of is now president, anti-Muslim and anti-Jewish hate crimes have been on the rise, groups like ACT for America have organized anti-Muslim protests around the country, people have lost their lives for defending their Muslim neighbor. The election of Donald Trump has not only given permission for the incidents just listed, but I believe it has also given permission to white Christians to continue in their complacency. I can’t tell you how many times I have heard family and friends say some variation of, “wait and see” or “give it a chance first”.
I actually believe that most white Christians would not align themselves with extreme hate groups, that they do see anti-Muslim bigotry as a problem in this country. But I also see the complacency of individuals and communities to take actions to address the brokenness to be the same as endorsing the hate.
A while ago I went to Washington, D.C. for Ecumenical Advocacy Days. In one plenary session, we heard of the faith community’s silence in public witness. We heard that where legislative offices are bombarded with 4,000 calls a day from organizations like the NRA, the same offices hear far less from faith communities. So when it comes time for legislators to make a decision, they can say that they are voting on behalf of their constituents.
Our silence allows dangerous legislation to flourish.
While I was at the Islamic Society conference, I picked up a print of a quote from Rumi, “Love is the bridge between you and everything.” When I went to pay for it, the woman running the stall asked if I was a new convert to Islam. When I shared with her that I was there with other interfaith religious leaders, she gave me the print as a gift, saying she felt grateful that there were people who wanted to learn and show up. I have this print hanging in my apartment, and it has been both a source of encouragement, but it has simultaneously been a reminder of the ways I have fallen short in showing up.
The Center for Christian Muslim Engagement for Peace and Justice at LSTC partners with is Shoulder-to-Shoulder, a non-profit that works to combat anti-Muslim bigotry. The calls to action they release are always twofold: 1. Speak up—write letters to the editor, op-eds, blogs, and 2. Show up—join an iftar during Ramadan, visit the mosque in your neighborhood, build relationships with interfaith leaders in your area so that when tragedy strikes, you have a relationship that is allows you to work in response to the needs of your neighbor, not in response to your own needs.
I see this twofold invitation to be particularly challenging in my own context as a white Christian. One of my professors in seminary always teaches that the people of the United States, and I think in this context we can say mainline, white US Christians, are great at playing host, but we are not great at being hosted. We are used to being in charge, to calling the shots, to having people over on our terms, but we are much less inclined to give up some of that control in order to be a guest. I was able to attend several iftars over Ramadan last year year, in those meals, learning the stories of my neighbors in Hyde Park, I was once again reminded of the invitation I ignored one year ago. I think that reminder was the work of the Holy Spirit. She often shows up among strangers, over meals, and She often makes us uncomfortable.
Amidst the ACT for America anti-Muslim protests, and now the Muslim travel ban, I finally responded to that invitation I received – though a year late. I deeply regret that it I ignored the invitation, and that I could ignore the pain of my Abrahamic family when it wasn’t convenient to engage. The both/and of showing up and speaking up means we are living into what it means to be a guest. We are speaking up when our neighbors need it, not when we need it to feel better about ourselves. We are showing up at the invitation of our neighbors.
This is hard, and is something I have a hard time with holding in tension. It seems that when I feel especially adept at speaking, I at times leave relationship behind, or when I am in relationship through interfaith gatherings or meals, I at times fail to follow up by speaking against narratives that demonize those I am in relationship with.
My having written this article doesn’t resolve my privilege to err into complacency. I see this being something I continue to struggle with, as perhaps evident in what I have written. My hope is that the next time, it won’t take a year for me to respond to an invitation to speak when my neighbors are suffering. And my hope for the church is that we recognize that a “wait and see” attitude is fueling the hate we see around us.
Sarah Derrick having finished her second year of Masters of Divinity studies at LSTC, she began an internship in Seattle this past August, working in a parish as well as an interfaith advocacy organization. Originally from South Carolina, Sarah enjoys being in the kitchen, exploring new places, and finding reasons to throw a themed party.