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Assistant Minister's Column

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I wrote this a few days after the devastating murders in South Carolina.  Because of the nature of our newsletter publication deadlines, and because of how quickly it seems our culture moves from topic to topic, I'm unsure of the collective psyche when you read this.  Every time I try to understand racism and violence in the south, I keep coming back to the following.

Growing up, I always understood that we Louisianans, we southerners, had so much blatant racism and segregation because we were more ignorant, evil and depraved than the rest of the nation.  I twisted into bizarre contortions to justify and rationalize why so much violence and mistreatment happened toward people of color here.

Too often I feel like we are offered only two options.  One is to embrace southern heritage and ignore all of the trauma and tragedy of the south.  This feels like implicitly justifying centuries of oppression.  Mentioning how economically devastated the south still is after the abolition of slavery scares me.  I worry about being associated with people I've labeled racist when I advocate for southerners and for holding the entire country accountable for their part in slavery and its continued effects today.

The other option is to fully reject everything about southernculture.  It is to demean the people I grew up with.  We could choose to distance ourselves by saying that we are not like the rest of the south.  But this way adds to the culture of scarcity that still causes so much pain in the south.

I know many peoplewho have picked one of these two options.  Ultimately both of these are unfulfilling and spiritually treacherous.  They do not add more love and understanding to the world.  My spiritual quest is to find a third option, a third way.

I've heard it said that if you don't give a child a religious home, they will find one anyway - it just may not be the one you want for them.  I wonder if the same thing could be said about pride.  If we don't give people healthy ways to feel proud of whre they're from, they will find it some other way - and it may not be the way that is best for the world.

None of this is intended to excuse or absolve the centuries of violence and systemic injustice white people have heaped on African Amercians, which continues to manifest most blatantly in the former slave states.  Dangerous and destructive behavior should be named as such.  Instead, I'm suggesting the solution to the perpetuated violence we've seen manifest most recently in South Carolina is a more robust and honest third way.

The south doesn't exist in a vacumn.  Its slavery and racism were and are parts of a larger national system.  Blaming the south for all the evils of slavery and racism is the oil that allows the system to run without even a whimper.  When I brag about my church being a progressive oasis in the fundmentalist desert of Baton Rouge, I perpetuate that mythology.

The south gave America jazz, blues, hip-hop and country music.  It gave America Martin Luther King Jr., Mark Twain and the Southern Poverty Law Center.  It has given a segregated America hundreds of years of white and black folks trying and working for liberation.

A holistic third way means acknowledging the pains and mistakes.  It means acknowledging the violence and discrimination.  It means adknowledging that we live in a state that is roughly half black but has only one elected black member of congress.  It means acknowledging that the blacker parts of town continue to lose hospitals and schools and grocery stores and pools.

The third way requires us to acknowledge the good AND the bad.  It means that we find a way to give people pride and hold them accountable.  Each person's path to this third way is different.  For me, I need to have more conversations with people of color.  And it means that I have to do more listening than talking.  I have to notice when I am telling someone else that their experience and feelings are wrong because I feel defensive.

It also means being more loving.  It means finding a way to love the hell out of all people.  It means making space for people to fully explore who they are and to trust that deep inside of them is the work of God - the work to find wholeness and justice.  It can be scary work, but I can't think of a better city to do it in than ours.  If we can make racial reconciliation and justice happen in Baton Rouge, a city that has yearned for it for hundreds of years we can (and should) be a model for the nation.