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Thursday, July 30, 2009

Is It a Teachable Moment?

Four characters living out the drama of racism in America in the headlines.

Professor Henry Louis Gates, a prominent Harvard professor, returns home from a long trip and can't get the door of his house open. Enlisting the aid of his cab driver, he tries to push the door open. He identified himself as the owner and yet seems to have lost his temper. Would you if someone was still questioning you in your own house?

A neighbor, Lucia Whalen, responds to the request of an elderly neighbor who saw the men tryiing to get into the house by calling the police. Is she being a good neighbor to the elderly woman or her community when someone sees something unusual?

A well-respected police officer, Sargent James Crowley, responds to a 911 call. He is a trainer for helping prevent racial profiling. What overrode his own training in the heat of the moment?

The President of the United States hears about the incident and comments in such a way that ratchets the conversation. Later he reflects a little on what it's like to be a black man in America and calls it a "teachable moment."

Later today they are all, except the woman who called 911, expected to have a beer together in Washington. I think it's good modeling that they will sit down together and I hope we'll have enough of a window on the conversation to allow it to truly be a "teachable moment" in how to talk about racism.

In a predominantly Euro-American state with our diversity in many different ethnic and racial groups, it's easy for us as Minnesotans to ignore the realities of racism. And yet every day there are incidents in our own state with our neighbors who are Native Americans, Hmong, Hispanic, African, African American and the rest of our emerging diversity of peoples. Our neighbors are literally next door to us in all of our neighborhoods as individuals and as churches. Many of our churches are located in neighborhoods filled with people who don't look like those of us worshiping in the buildings.

How are we making this headline news item a "teachable moment?" What do we have to learn from this incident? And what do we have to teach from it as Christians and in the context of gathering as people of faith for worship, Bible study and prayer? What are we saying? How are we praying?

Is it a teachable moment?



Clay Oglesbee said...

A Christian friend in Atlanta has worked for decades with homeless, poverty and race-related ministries there. He once said, "We imagine the Kingdom of God, but our plans rarely allow for the effects of human fatigue and confusion." One teachable facet of this moment is a three-fold insight: (1) We are created to dream great things; (2) we fall away from our dreams, and (3) by the grace of God and the forgiveness of our neighbors, we may be restored to the Dream. "There is no fear in love" (1 John 4:18).

Anonymous said...

Absolutely it's a teachable moment! It preached on Sunday. We looked at the David and Bathsheba story from the vantage point of the unnamed silent ones: those who bowed to power and colluded with an unjust system because they didn't call David out or the system that deemed human people tools to be used for the pleasure of the powerful. I raised the issue of the Gates event and asked us to get beyond the "he said she said" of who was right or wrong or if Obama was right or wrong. What was real in the interchange was pain: the pain of oppression that lingers and is easily jostled. We considered racism. How is it that we (my congregation is largely white and middle class) are the silent who "go along" either by being unwilling to allow that the blight exists or by being unwilling to speak against it when we encounter it both within and around us. I was able to end with the gist of a conversation I had had that week with the wondrous Gloria Roach Thomas. When asked how it was Camphor is seeking to celebrate diversity and the richness of the real challenge and grace of being a multi racial Body, she said that it was in the telling of stories, seeing the Christ in each, and the valuing of difference that the Body is being made more whole. So heck yes, it is teachable. Here at Richfield we were blessed to be challenged by the issue. And not too many people avoided eye contact with me in the greeting line! Now that is grace.

Duane said...

"...a time at which a person ... is likely to be particularly disposed to learn something or particularly responsive to being taught or made aware of something..."

To even recognize a "teachable moment" is to practice the art of teaching/ learning, or, to act intelligibly at the time the way a good teacher/ learner acts. So, is this, or is this not what is being claimed? Maybe this is drama: the idea of teaching, or learning moving toward a certain focus of attention for the sake of releasing the tension fallen upon those whose character is being displayed under such a focal awareness.

The beer, the talk of "cooler heads prevailing," the atmosphere of friendship -- these all fit together into a scene of dramatic action; and, these can also form the model of a certain mature, adult, manner of learning to reckon one with another. So, the "is this, or is this not," remains up for grabs.

However, if the three are the complete triangle of those in the lines of communication that, once 'triangulated', had distorted the matter, then putting two-way conversation into place on all three sides of the triangle can be said to present something like a "teachable moment," I think.

What if the President of the United States, in a moral "Everyman" sort of way is simply saying he has learned something, or can learn something, in this moment, as to what there is to teach, this taken to be edifying for us all? What if the teacher in this triangle is being respected on the same ground as the learner -- whether the learning be located in either one, or all three who are party to this conversation, together?

Or, what if this is being staged, so to speak, for our benefit as the alleged audience whose perspective bears on the direct effect of what is said about what has been and is being done, especially with an eye toward the implications, if not the ramifications of "what is the case"?

Friendship as possibly the only option for getting beyond the conflicted and conflictual, if not the mere stresses and strains, or sharp edges of the world, where forgiveness and reconciliation have no model, let alone a story, is something, even if it either is, or is not a teachable moment, as the case may be.

So then, isn't it true the question is what shall we have learned?

Kansas Lake said...

Thanks for the reminder that this is a teachable moment. It is a nice fit with the lectionary readings from Ephesians. It is only the love of God that can move people, transform people, from the division of racism, and profiling (which is only an example of how we divide) to the oneness that is for all people in and through Jesus. (Joel Xavier)-the google account may say something else. I have tried it this way before.)

Marj said...

The mainstream culture is a culture of White domination, historically and in the present. No one doubts the truth of this, historically. However, I have to back up my statement as it relates to the present because part of the reality of White domination is that Whites do not have to know the experiences of people of color. If they did, the present state of White-domination would be self-evident.

So how do I back up this statement? By pointing out that in the present Black drivers and their cars are more likely to be searched during routine traffic stops than Whites (7.1% of Black drivers stopped vs 3.5% of White drivers stopped) (US Department of Justice, Bureau of Justice Statistics, Contacts Between the Police and the Public) and Blacks are more likely to experience the threat or use of force by the police (3.5% of Blacks vs to 1.1% of Whites (ibid.) yet White drivers, when searched are more likely to have drugs in the car! (Results from the National Survey on Drug Use and Health, National Findings, Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration). Likewise, look at the placement toxic waste sites, lead paint in the housing, nuclear power plants and waste disposal sites and you will find non-White neighborhoods bearing the burden.

I think it is also born out in the direction talk has gone regarding this Gates-Crowley incident. Black commentators have had to protect White people from the horrible realization of the racism that people of color face. Obama had to back down from his statement that the Cambridge police “acted stupidly” not because he was wrong, but because it hurt White people’s sensibility that if our society is fair. It ratcheted up the conflict not because it was wrong, but because it made White people feel bad. And White people voted for him because he made them feel good! I even heard a White commentator say, in effect, that Obama was an ingrate for having said what he said after so many White people voted for him! So, Obama and others have to couch the truth of their experiences in words that won’t upset White people’s view of our society. This is a sign that we are in a White-dominated culture.

It seems in the media that the goals of this “teachable moment” are for us all to “respect each other” and “put this whole thing behind us.” Unfortunately, as best as I can determine, “respect each other” seems to mean for White people to be patient and understanding with Black people and their irrational assumptions. You see, discrimination used to be a reality in their lives and they still haven’t gotten used to the reality that there is no more discrimination. Black people, in turn, have to make an effort to look honestly at what they might have done wrong and dig deep to understand that the White police officer was just doing his color-blind duty.

The problem with these goals is that they return us to the steady-state of racism that messes with people’s lives every day. It is not worthy of the “body of Christ” or the communion table or of the prophetic vision of “the lion lying down with the lamb.” But it’s familiar, so we go back to how things were.

As a church, we are called not to be conformed to this world but to be transformed. When addressing racism, this implies resisting the very strong urge to bury realities that challenge the status quo and to go through the discomfort of facing our sin so that we may come out three days later on the resurrection side of things.

Not many churches are willing to go to the cross before the resurrection. We need to intentionally hold the vision—of transformation, of being born again, of the baptized dying with Christ and being raised with Christ, of being a new Creation in Christ, of resurrection—we are not deficient in imagery—but we must intentionally hold that vision before ourselves while acknowledging the specific challenges to sticking with the non-conformity, dying to self, crucifixion particularly inherent in challenging racism.

Heather E. said...

Sometimes the challenge about a teachable moment is 'what did it teach?'. Listening to the news, to MPR, to comments in daily connections, it is hard to decipher what was truly caught and held from that moment. A reminder that we are not there yet? Definitely. A chance to open the dialogue in ways that move us forward in positive directions? I hope so. An excuse to raise the rhetoric on both sides to a level that cancels listening and moves us backward? Unfortunately.

I choose to believe that this happened for a reason, that can move us in directions that can affirm God's intention for all people, if we allow it to teach as is intended.

We are diversity and it is a wonderful gift.

Anonymous said...

As if Whites aren't victims of hate and racism as well.

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