Beckett: 2020 Student Convocation on Race Relations – Listening, Discerning, Acting

As a result of recent racial injustice events, the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod (LCMS) decided to hold a 2-day event for their seminary students (i.e. future pastors and deaconesses) at Concordia Seminary to begin a conversation on race relations, especially as we begin to enter our future congregations we’ll be serving. Thus, this was for current seminary students only. Nevertheless, the goal of the convocation was to encourage us to begin conversations with people. The convocation took place on September 22nd and 23rd.

Because of the pandemic, they had to limit who could attend the convocation in person. First year students attended in person. As a 4th year seminarian, I had to watch it online through our student portal, SemNet. From my previous experience at the theological symposiums on campus, I was expecting it to be largely lectures. However, I pleased to see that although there was some lecturing, a large amount of time was spent on building a dialogue on race relations. To avoid passing a microphone around because of the pandemic, students would email their questions to a specific email address and a representative would read the questions with any Black LCMS leader from the panel answering the questions. It wasn’t perfect, but it’s the best that could’ve been done because of the pandemic.

Because it was mainly dialogue based, it is difficult for me to relay everything that was talked about. Personal stories were told, really good questions were asked, and they were discussed adequately. The event was more of a “should’ve been there” event, but I’ll do the best I can to relay what I think is really important to write about in this format.

Before I get started, the seminary defined the threefold goal of the convocation as follows:

  • LISTENING: A panel of LCMS Black leaders will discuss their reactions to current events, including the death of George Floyd, how they have processed such events as Lutheran pastors, what gives them pause and what brings them hope in these troubled times, and what they would like students to know as people being formed for ministry.
  • DISCERNING: A plenary presentation and panel will address ‘blind spots’ or obstacles that prevent Christians and LCMS Lutherans from dealing with overt and subtle racism in the church, and ‘bright spots’ or contributions from the Lutheran theological confession or the Lutheran Black churches for engaging racism both critically and constructively.
  • ACTING: A panel of LCMS Black leaders will discuss specific ways that they, guided by their Lutheran faith, have acted to affect change in their personal lives, in their congregations, and in the church at large as a result of recent events. They also will speak to ways that white LCMS members and students being formed for ministry can address racism as they draw on their Lutheran faith.”

Throughout all these discussions, the dialogue the leaders led were very Christ-centred with a healthful distinction between Law and Gospel.

Listening

Rev. Dr. John Nunes, president of Concordia College New York, led most of the discussion this first day of the convocation. What follows in this section and the two that follow are what I’ve gathered from my notes.

Before we can discern and before we can act, we must first know how to listen. Just because you have ears doesn’t mean you know how to listen. As Rev. Nunes said, “Listening is a choice. Hearing is a biological function.” Simon and Garfunkel were well aware of this in their 1964 song Sounds of Silence, “People talking without speaking / People hearing without listening.”

This accentuates what we’ve been learning at the seminary as future pastors/deaconesses regarding active listening. Often when we’re having a conversation with someone, we “listen” while thinking about what we’re going to say next in order to prove we’re right or in order to persuade. This isn’t listening; this is arrogance that deposes your neighbour. Rather, truly listening requires two things.

First, listening requires intellectual humility, which is the mark of learning and listening. To exercise intellectual humility is to walk into a conversation knowing you don’t know everything. Take Black Lives Matter, for example (the movement, not the organisation; more on that later). Clearly, these people are angry about something. And they’re scared. Why are they angry and scared? It goes deeper than you think. It’s a lot more than what you read about on your liberal or conservative opinion page. You cannot know or understand why these people are angry and scared without talking to them and listening to them—that is, to these primary sources rather than a secondary source who hasn’t listened to these people either. You don’t know everything that’s going on in these peoples’ lives and their communities. Neither do I. So, let us talk to them about it and listen to their fears and concerns.

Second, listening requires empathy. Empathy is the ability to relate to another human being regarding what they’re experiencing even though you may not have experienced the same thing. This is different than sympathy. For example, I can empathise with my wife who’s on the spectrum of autism because I also experience anxiety, but only to a lesser degree because I’m not on the spectrum of autism. By listening to her, I am more able to empathise with her because I have the humility to know that I don’t know everything she experiences as an autistic. Conversely, I can sympathise with my wife whose parents have divorced because my parents have divorced as well. In this regard, not much conversation is needed to understand what she went through since I’ve experienced that myself. Nevertheless, we can still converse about it since we’ve experienced the same thing though with minor, distinct experiences (such as what age we went through it, etc.).

If you lack intellectual humility and empathy, you are incapable of listening to another human being. Sociopaths/psychopaths do not know how to empathise with other people, so you might want to reconsider your position if you refuse to show empathy toward Black people who’ve been consistently experiencing discrimination and injustice.

Intellectual humility opens up the door for you to actually understand the other person’s experience. Empathy opens up the door for the other to know they’re actually being heard, and it opens up the door for both of you to come to a reconciling understanding of each other. Without these, discernment cannot follow and, more importantly, proper action is impossible.

One thing Rev. Nunes talked about was flipping on its head our usual way of thinking about “privilege.” He spoke at length about how everyone has some kind of privilege. As President of Concordia College, Nunes has certain privileges others do not, for example. He told a story of when his Black son was pulled over by a police officer who was going to take him to jail for an unpaid parking ticket. To be sure, Nunes admits that his son absolutely should have paid the parking ticket fine because he and his wife raised him better.

When the officer saw that the address on his son’s driver’s licence said Concordia College, the officer asked, “Oh, you go to Concordia College?” Nunes’ son said, “Yeah. My dad’s the president.” Not too long after, Nunes called the sheriff to get this situation taken care of, and the sheriff gave him the number of a person to call to make it go away. That simple.

Nunes said he has privilege. He’s a Black man, but as president of a prestigious college, he has privilege that others do not. If I was in the same exact situation and my dad called the sheriff, this would not have happened because my dad doesn’t have that sort of privilege, even though he’s white. He’s an internet security consultant; who is he to ask for a phone number to make it go away?

I’m Black and Puerto Rican, and even I have privilege. As a middle class citizen whose built a good reputation with my credit, I have privilege that poor people do not have: I can lease a brand new car. At Concordia Seminary, I receive a large endowment for my ethnicity. Say what you will about affirmative action, but because of this, I have a lot of privilege that white people do not have, which brings me to the main thing where Nunes flipped our usual thinking of privilege on its head.

Nunes said, “Privilege is a stewardship opportunity to do some good for the sake of others in the world. It’s okay to have privilege. What’s not okay is if you don’t use it.” Not what you expected to hear coming from a Black man, was it? I certainly didn’t expect it, but it’s very Lutheran. 

Privilege is a stewardship opportunity. That’s beautiful. Whatever your privilege is, God has given you this privilege not for you, but for others. That’s Lutheran. Affirmative action might imply that I’m at a lower level than whites, but I would be stupid not to take advantage of that money, yet not for myself, but for the sake of others. What am I using it for? I’m using it toward my seminary education to become a pastor in the LCMS—specifically, to be called to a congregation where I can preach and teach the Gospel and administer the Sacraments for the forgiveness of sins, and to go to a place wherever God calls me to counsel His people with His Word through Law and Gospel. That would be a lot harder without the endowment. Therefore, I use it to get to that goal for the sake of others.

What about “white privilege?” I’m not going to discuss here whether or not it exists. If it does exist, how might you use it for others? One thing about white privilege is the notion that White people have easier access to platforms where their voices can be heard more than Black people. If this is true, you as a White person have the stewardship opportunity to use that privilege to speak for your Black brothers and sisters. If people won’t listen to them, make them listen! But you can’t make them listen if you yourself don’t first listen to your Black neighbour.

Discerning

Day 2 of the convocation consisted of panel discussions on discernment in the morning and action in the afternoon.

What I gathered from the panel discussion was to think about discernment as getting to the core of the problem to bring about reconciliation. This, of course, takes place during listening. By the way, all three of these take place simultaneously. As you listen, you can begin to discern where there is anger and where there is courage.

Several stories were told to illustrate this, but say you have two opposing parties: say, a Black man and a White police officer. Following the Christian tenet of reconciliation, you can listen to both of them at separate times to discern where they’re coming from. The Black man says he was angry that the officer disrespected him and he was afraid because of all the police brutality that’s been occurring. When you talk to the officer, he says he was angry that the Black man disrespected him and he was afraid because officers keep dying at an alarming rate.

So, they were both angry and afraid, and it is according to these intense emotions that they both reacted. Only something bad can come out of this. Not only that, but as Nunes pointed out, behind their reactions is also 30-40 years of experience that led them to being angry and afraid, significantly more than the 15 seconds you watch on a YouTube video.

Now you’ve discerned they were both angry and afraid. You are now at the place where you can sit them down together to peacefully and calmly talk this out. Because you understand them and where they’re both coming from, now you can begin to help them understand each other and come to reconciliation. This doesn’t happen often, unfortunately, but it does happen, as Nunes and the others shared some stories that showed how. Sometimes reconciliation won’t happen because one or both parties are content with living in their sin, but you would be neglecting your Christian duty not to try.

Another thing to discern is where there is courage. For Nunes, this is “courage to dare to do the deed that calls out to be done.” In other words, courage is having the audacity to do what ought to be done. Where is this occurring? Well, the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement.

Now, don’t get your britches in a bunch. I’m aware the BLM organisation is Marxist, socialist, and “Woke,” but this is not what I or they meant by BLM. In this regard, part of discernment requires distinguishing between the BLM movement and the BLM organisation.

Nunes made a great comparison: Do you stop calling your local church a “church” because heretical sects like Mormons call themselves church? Or will you stop calling your church “Lutheran” because the heretical ELCA call themselves Lutheran too? No, we don’t; that’s stupid. So, why can’t we say “black lives matter” even though BLM as an organisation uses it for their erroneous agenda? Do not undermine the spirit of a movement just because there exists some problems within that movement, which in this case is the BLM organisation.

“Black lives matter because of the 5th Commandment,” Nunes said (“you shall not murder”). Amen to that.

So, as you begin to talk with and listen to others, discern which sense of BLM they’re talking about: the movement or the organisation? Most often, they are talking about the spirit of the movement, which is necessary. Then discernment is also necessary to distinguish between the rightful peaceful protests versus the lawless rioters and looters who do so “in the name” of the BLM movement. The latter must be rejected; the former must be endorsed. As Nunes said on day one, “If the church was doing what it’s supposed to do, black lives matter wouldn’t be necessary.”

Acting

Now that you have listened and discerned, you are now ready to act. In these panel discussions, the Black LCMS leaders spent significant time talking about hospitality, which is a mark of the church in action. The panel speakers characterised this as (1) educating yourself and empathising with the community (listening) and (2) mentoring (building relationships, i.e. hospitality). Remember that listening, discerning, and acting are simultaneous. You cannot listen and discern without first acting on hospitality to listen to your neighbour, which will provide opportunities to act from there.

After listening, discerning, and acting on hospitality, one way you could act is by getting involved in the dissemination of the Rosa J. Young academies. Or going on peaceful protests. Or if you’re a writer, writing on it. Or if you’re a pastor or leader in the church, speaking on the sin of racism and calling racists to repentance and reconciliation. As Rev. Dr. Roosevelt Gray said during this segment, “It is incumbent upon the church to speak about racism. Hearing about your sin is uncomfortable, so you need to be uncomfortable.” So, in order to listen, discern, and act on hospitality, you need to go to places that make you uncomfortable and have conversations that make you uncomfortable. If you are not willing to make yourself a little uncomfortable to hear about the struggles of your Black neighbour, you will always be too afraid and indolent to act on their behalf.

Conclusion

I will end this by urging you not to make this about politics. Black lives matter is not a political issue; it’s a deeply spiritual issue. If you make BLM as a movement into a political issue, you are not listening or discerning and you are using your politics as an excuse to keep you from acting on behalf of your neighbour. Conservatives and liberals—Republicans and Democrats—have sickeningly turned the spirit of this movement into political propagandas to support their talking points, which has only served to make the Devil smile. The issues going on in Black communities should’ve united both sides and parties together; instead, they have both decided to use the victims as objects for their philosophies and political agendas and the church is too scared to do something about it.

The church is supposed to be vastly different than the world. Sadly, we identify our politics with our religion. Jesus is not concerned with conservative or liberal values; He is concerned with preaching and doing the Gospel for the forgiveness of sins and salvation. Someone might be a Marxist, or socialist, or pro-choicer. Nevertheless, this does not exclude you from preaching the Gospel to them.

Stop getting so bogged down with whether you should view this movement through a liberal or conservative lens. Rather, view it through the lens of the cross and start being the church that brings reconciliation between brothers and sisters and brings the forgiveness of sins and salvation in Christ to sinners.

2 thoughts on “Beckett: 2020 Student Convocation on Race Relations – Listening, Discerning, Acting

  1. Rev. Dr. Richard Zeile October 7, 2020 — 09:40

    Dear Sir:
    I deeply appreciate your report and reflections on the symposium at the St. Louis Seminary on racism. I grew up in Detroit and have served in the city 25 years as pastor, teacher, principal, hospital chaplain and was elected to the State Board of Education as a Detroit resident, and raised my 4 children there who attended Detroit Public Schools as well as Lutheran schools. So I have been deeply concerned with these issues for all my life. All my grandchildren are either Black or Hispanic so, again, I am deeply concerned for their future.

    President Nunes argued that the BLM is speaking the truth. They are not. Statistics show, as Candace Owens has remarked, that for the average Black person, your chances of being killed by police are less than being struck by lightning. The famous examples protested include George Floyd who was mistreated but a felon, arrested for a felony, high on drugs, suffering from Covid, etc. I do not deny wrong-doing on the part of the officer in charge, but if his fellow officers had not been distracted by a crowd, they may have been free to concern themselves for the prisoner. Breona Taylor had dated a drug dealer, was living with his brother, allowed a car she owned to be used in a crime within the year of the raid that killed her. She may have been an innocent bystander but there were prudent actions she could have taken to avoid putting herself in danger. This does not justify any wrong-doing on the part of the officers involved, but does show exceptional circumstances which have nothing to do with race. So I am deeply disappointed that Dr. Nunes could assert that truth is being told by this BLM movement.

    But he is asking the right question, “Who is telling the hard truth?” And this is it- structural racism is a mirage. Your eyes tell you there is water ahead on the road, but when you get to it, it disappears. When Obama-era Attorney General Eric Holder investigated the handling of the Ferguson, Missouri incident, he could find NO wrong-doing on the part of the Ferguson Police in handling that particular incident. They claimed to find other incidents and infractions and required what most on both sides of the issue regarded as meaningless changes (superficial measures for what critics argued was a systemic issue).

    Dr. Nunes argues for empathy- and you make a good exposition of this from your own experience. Point well-taken. But apply this to one who has fear of flying. There are incidents of air accidents, tragedies, which are real, vivid, and true. But the statistics of the matter show that the most dangerous part of your air trip is the drive to the airport. Those who have this fear of flying are handicapped by it. Kenneth Clark’s classic study “Dark Ghetto” discusses the damage that racism has done to American Blacks in making them self-conscious about race. This self-consciousness is self-perpetuating, even when the outward circumstances have changed. For example, I have rarely heard the word “nigger” used by white folk, but have heard it pretty regularly in certain circles (as well as in rap music). The NAACP even devoted a effort a few years ago seeking to “bury” the N-word, acknowledging that the Black community uses the word to their own detriment.

    One of the great insights of Thomas Sowell was the realization that prejudice/racism were so common and widespread that they did not explain anything. Jews and Japanese, Hatian and Nigerian immigrants have higher standards of living in America despite historic prejudice. Sowell’s own view (which I share) is that cultural values are the real explanation for the relative status of various ethnic/social groups. There is good news here for the Black community. Our fate is determined less by racial prejudice and more by our own values. This was the view set forth by Booker T. Washington, in the days when the deck was really stacked against the freedmen, the heyday of Jim Crow. Self-determination, economic independence and cultivation of personal excellence were his prescription for Blacks in a racist society. “Become the best carpenter in your town and even the most prejudiced will pay you to build their porches,” he famously observed.

    America’s experience with lynching should caution us in this time of mob violence. Ask those who turned out for a lynching and they would say (because they sincerely believed) they were against rape. But this was a misplaced, misguided belief that ignored the facts in favor of a popular narrative. And now the shoe is on the other foot. Just as those who associated with those who committed hangings were guilty of great shame, so those who associate with the BLM movement whose record of “peaceful protests” has given rise to many more deaths and destruction in the Black community than the police actions that sparked them, associate themselves with a cause that is misguided and a movement that is evil. If racism is evil, than BLM which is more anti-police than it is concerned with Black lives lost in urban violence, abortion, or drug use, is evil.

    From this perspective, the pastoral task is what it was during the time of lynching- to persuade hearers of the truth, sometimes administering only as much as the patient will accept. The Lutheran approach to these issues is “Know the Truth and the Truth shall make you free.” The truth is that Black communities more than any other needs to heed Paul’s counsel about government in Romans 13, support local police, hold them accountable by all means, but avoid mob action, especially that which has no clear policy goal and only lead to the frustration that issues in anger and violence.

    Your thoughts would be valuable to consider.

    Like

    1. Dr. Zeile,

      Thank you for your thought provoking comment. I grew up in and around Detroit and the city was where I experienced my first encounters with racism as a young child in kindergarten. Admittedly, I’m still having difficulty wrapping my mind around what to think of the whole BLM movement particularly because I haven’t been exposed to it. All the information I receive is from news headlines, which seldom gives the whole story. My mind is made up on BLM as an organisation—that they are evil—but I’m still formulating my own thoughts on the BLM MOVEMENT. If it wasn’t made clear in the article I wrote, let me say here that I do not, in any way, endorse BLM mob mentality groups like the rioters and looters. These violate the 4th, 7th, 9th, and 10th Commandments. The peaceful protests, on the other hand, I am more willing to accept. However, there is also the issue of what you brought up concerning the criminal history of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor. Not to justify the wrongdoings done against them, like you said, but I think the issue goes deeper than one-sided racism. I agree with your closing statement, “that Black communities more than any other need to heed Paul’s counsel about government in Romans 13, support local police, hold them accountable by all means, but avoid mob action, especially that which has no clear policy goal and only lead to the frustration that issues in anger and violence.” I could not have said it any better myself.

      Like

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