One of the dangerous delusions we live with in this country is that America is a “color-blind” society. This common cultural spin suggests that once the civil rights movement brought about legislation which provided new (and more just) levels of freedom and opportunity for black people, our country has successfully moved beyond issues of race.
The depth of this delusion was brought home to me this past summer, first by a book I read – The New Jim Crow, by Michelle Alexander, an African-American attorney and university professor. Written in 2010, Alexander claims that the War on Drugs, which began in the 1980s, was really a war on young black men, who have been systematically, and almost indiscriminately, incarcerated on rather minor drug charges; to the extent that the prison population has quadrupled over thirty years. Locked up, and out of sight and out of mind. And once convicted of a felony, ex-prisoners lose their right to vote – which brings us to a new version of Jim Crow. And for a society that is unofficially color-blind, we are left with little or no way to address it.
This delusion was further brought home to me – visually and viscerally, a few weeks later by the Michael Brown tragedy in Ferguson, Missouri. The reaction to his death – in Ferguson and across the country, has demonstrated – to me at least, that there is much more fear and resentment on issues of race than we want to acknowledge. And that there is more work to do. It called to mind a forum that was held when I was Rector at Christ Church, Hackensack, in April 1992, right after the Rodney King trial. To many in the congregation, the “not guilty” verdict of a cohort of white police officers who brutally beat Rodney King during an arrest (all captured on video), was all about law enforcement doing its job with what they assumed was an out of control suspect. That changed when a warden, who happened to be a woman from Jamaica, got up and expressed her intense fear that her young son, whom everyone knew and loved, might someday be the target of a similar police action. That made it real – and personal. Her passionate witness changed hearts and minds.
There have been a lot of words written and spoken on the Ferguson tragedy. The words bring the issue home. Many of the words are healing. Some of the words are polarizing – and ratchet up the resentment and fear – and solidify our delusions.
We need to continue the important work of exchanging words in open, honest – careful conversations. But more powerful and abiding than words are blessings. In the Episcopal Church we end all of our worship services with some sort of blessing. A blessing is an act, an intention, done with words and action, to fill another with God’s grace, mercy and hope. Blessings are offered in the faith that the act of blessing can indeed heal hearts, open minds and broaden vision.
In the dangerous and violent world we live in today, we desperately need blessings. People want to be blessed. Blessings, if grounded in God and not in ideology, are an antidote to delusion. I invite you to join me in offering public blessings – blessings for a wounded world – on Thursday, September 11, a day remembered for its violence and danger. I will offer blessings at Penn Station in Newark, the soup kitchen across from Episcopal House – and at the newly refurbished Military Park outside our Cathedral.
You don’t have to be ordained to offer blessings. For clergy, blessings are visible and verbal. For non-clergy, God’s grace, mercy and hope can be offered silently or aloud. God is at work in the world – in Ferguson, West Africa, Gaza, Ukraine, Iraq and Syria – and at the southern border of the US. Not to mention the places of conflict in our own lives.
God is at work in the world. God is always offering blessings to a wounded world. Our blessings – along with our hands, feet, hearts – and hope, can join with what God is already up to. God needs our help.
Harrington Park Mayor Paul Hoelscher and I will be at HP's 9/11 Memorial on Thursday morning to remember, to talk with those who come to remember, and to seek ways to build hope and healing into this wounded world. If you will be in our part of Bergen County, you are invited to join the conversation. If you are elsewhere, seek out a conversation. May we become the blessing we seek.
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