Part of the humanist commitment to universal human worth and dignity is a commitment to work toward a society in which people are not treated unfairly because of the color of their skin. We have a long tradition of working toward racial justice that continues up to the present. (See James Croft’s recent piece “There Are Humanists in Ferguson”.)
Yet humanists are not immune from the difficulties many congregations are having in talking about what’s been happening in our city and now in cities across the nation: We too have members who support or have been part of protests, as well as members who fear that the protests encourage violence and lawlessness. We are still learning how to have constructive dialogue across such differences.
In my community as well as in conversations elsewhere, I see many well-meaning people caught between competing values—on the one hand, concern for the safety of black youth and anger at racial profiling; on the other, belief that most cops are doing their best at a difficult job most of us don’t want to do. I see honest disagreement on whether aggressive policing is keeping dangerous neighborhoods from being more dangerous, or whether misguided police tactics might be causing more problems than they solve. And I see these tensions keeping a lot of folks paralyzed on the sidelines.
I hope that future generations will look back at 2014 as an important milestone in the long road to a truly fair society. But in order for that to happen—in order to move from this place of anger and confusion and pain—we need everyone to enter the conversation. We need to learn from everyone’s different experiences; we need to learn to listen and to talk to one another; and then we need to act in an organized and effective way on what we learn.
That’s why, on January 25 at 3pm, the Ethical Society of St. Louis plans to join with other congregations and individuals in the area to begin Metropolitan Congregations United’s “Sacred Conversations on Race(+Action).” This is a process that will unfold over several months, providing safe and facilitated opportunities for people to share their stories, experiences, and understandings of race and racism; then creating partnerships with other congregations; and culminating in action plans to help congregations work for justice in our local areas.
Over the past few months now, I have been watching people in the streets chanting “This is what democracy looks like”—and I have chanted it in the streets myself before. And protests do advance issues into the public discussion and higher up in politicians’ priorities, both vital steps in democratic change. Yet democracy looks like a lot more than protests. And I think we are focusing too much on the pros and cons of the protests themselves—because it’s so much easier to talk about than the complex and painful issues of systemic racism, and how we have chosen to police ourselves and run our criminal justice system.
What institutionalizing democratic change actually looks like is long meetings, and coalitions, and partnerships, and signature drives; it’s also conversations at the corner store, and learning how to dialogue on Facebook rather than blocking people who say things that make you spit out your coffee, and joining your local neighborhood associations and meeting your local cops, and voter registrations, and running for office, and so on and so on. . . .
Protesting is our right as Americans and has its uses. And for those who are concerned with inequality but can’t or don’t want to protest, there is also plenty for us to do. MCU's sacred conversations plus action seem like a promising first step for a new year, and I invite others to join us in that process.