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Slow down for justice

by Judith Roberts

Originally published in Gather, October 2015

Sometimes we need to practice slow faith. But is that still the case when it’s a justice issue?

Today, when we deal with racism in the U.S., mass incarceration, injustice in policing—and globally, the cries of Palestinians and others, do we really see those most affected? Our baptismal covenant calls us to do justice.

Imago Dei

I spend a great deal of time traveling by planes, trains and automobiles. No matter where I travel, at some point a child will catch my attention, make eye contact and smile. Children effortlessly make this natural connection, using the most basic and universal form of human expression. Experts say children smile up to 400 times a day. Regardless of their race, ethnic or cultural background, children see me as they too want to be seen. Even in a brief nonverbal encounter, we can see the face of God (Imago Dei) in each other.

As the mother of a 21-year-old, I recall my child, Julian, at that age—a happy, playful little boy with an infectious smile. I remember his openness and willingness to see and connect to total strangers—no matter what the setting.

I also see the challenges he encounters in the world as a young, black male between the ages of 18 to 35. As a black mother, it hurts my heart to see him pained by the stereotypes placed on black males in society.

I recently had a conversation with another black male regarding the current racial climate in America. Myles is a young, soft-spoken African American man. Like my son, he faces the everyday experiences of being young and black in the United States. He can name the times he’s been stopped and questioned by law enforcement officers for simply walking or driving in his middle-class neighborhood.

Now 24 years of age, Myles has lived in the same community since first grade. He says his mom also fears for his safety, “Every day before I leave for work, my mom reminds me to be careful, especially after Trayvon Martin was shot and killed. You just never know if you will be next.”

“It’s not what you look at that matters, it’s what you see.”— Henry David Thoreau

According to Harvard psychologists, Christopher Chabris and Daniel Simons, “We think we see ourselves and the world as they really are, but we’re actually missing a whole lot.” The two psychologists tested this theory in an experiment known as the “awareness test.” The visual experiment involves two teams preparing for a game of basketball. Viewers were given instructions to count the number of ball passes that the team wearing all white would make during the game. The majority of viewers counted the accurate number of ball passes but failed to notice the moonwalking bear gliding through the middle of the scene. For many, the bear isn’t detected until the scene is replayed in slow motion. The moonwalking bear is analogous to how we tend to see racism in our society. We can miss what we’re not looking for. Racism dehumanizes people of color—it is the normalization of devaluing others by not seeing their intrinsic worth. This distortion of reality is not limited to a visual distortion in terms of physical sight. Racism and other forms of oppression also affect our thoughts, our knowledge and ability to reason.

If we see racism through a narrow view, we miss what’s happening in the bigger picture. The summer of 2014 was filled with racial tension all across the United States. Young people of all races protested the shooting death of Mike Brown, an unarmed black teenager in Ferguson, Mo., by a white police officer. In the months following the non-indictment by a grand jury of the white officer, Pew Research Center conducted a poll on race relations in the United States. Polling consistently showed that blacks and whites have different views about race relations and racial equity. The survey reported that only 32 percent of blacks believed the country had progressed toward racial equality as compared to 48 percent of whites.

This past spring, the city of Baltimore erupted after 25-year-old Freddie Gray, a black man, died from major spinal injuries while in the custody of law enforcement. Following Gray’s funeral, demonstrators took to the streets in protest. Several major news outlets captured the explosive actions involving looting and the vandalism of property.

The late Martin Luther King Jr. said, “A riot is the language of the unheard.” Rather than seeing human beings outwardly expressing their anger and frustration, the public seemed to see them as a group, dehumanizing them as without intrinsic worth.

We learn about the world from early encounters with parents, family members, caring adults, teachers and peers. Early on we are taught to see race (or not). We receive messages of racial superiority of white skin and racial inferiority of people of color who are nonwhite. These messages are internalized within our own thoughts and minds—and are reinforced by institutions such as schools and churches as well as by the media and cultural norms.

We bring these private beliefs about ourselves and others into interpersonal space with others. From generation to generation, we rinse and repeat the cycle of racial socialization—unless the messages are interrupted.

Jesus at the temple

My first book of children’s Bible stories was a Christmas gift from my maternal grandmother, Emogene. To this day I still remember the story and illustration of Jesus driving the buyers and sellers out of the temple (Matthew 21:12–17). In the story, after Jesus uses intentional force to drive out the money-changers, he heals the sick. This story, recorded in the Gospel of Matthew, is the only time Jesus resorts to using violence. It had become common practice for the money-changers to conduct business within the institution. They did not see the suffering of the people. Jesus clearly saw the abuse of power by those with resources and status and the denial of access and opportunity for the people outside of the temple. The temple was built for all people but only the merchants and money-changers benefited from its use.

When institutions in our society repeatedly deny access and opportunities to people and communities on the margins, it keeps oppression in place. In major cities all across the United States, large pockets of black and brown low-income communities have been left behind due to residential segregation and concentrated poverty. According to 2014–2015 school enrollments, 84 percent of 84,976 children in Baltimore Public City Schools are eligible for free or reduced price meals. When barriers exist for families and individuals to access good paying jobs, affordable and healthy foods, well-funded schools and decent housing, the outcomes of success and the quality of life are drastically lower for people in that community.

Living a daring faith

Lutherans believe faith is a living, daring confidence in God’s abundant grace. This understanding of faith calls us to a deeper relationship with the power of the Holy Spirit. It calls us to listen to God’s Holy Word. This faith stirs us to move beyond ourselves, our congregations and our communities—and join with others out in the world.

In addition to our faith, we put our trust in people, companies, political parties, institutions and systems. We believe that decisions made by leaders of organizations, policies of corporations and political actions will indubitably bend toward just treatment and equal opportunities for all across society. However, when unfair treatment and disadvantages persist in harming people and communities (based on race, ethnicity, socioeconomic class, ability, sexual orientation and other forms of oppression) while simultaneously advantaging those with privilege as a group, we must slow down to see the brokenness of injustice that exists within institutions across society and globally. We must slow down to see the image of God (Imago Dei) in each other—that each one is fully deserving of all dignity and respect. Together through our baptismal covenant, we must act to strive toward justice.

Message to my son

As I watch my beautiful boy mature into an amazing man, I cannot shield him from the realities and ugliness of racism in its overt and covert forms of discrimination. However, I can remind him of the faithfulness of a living God who dwells inside of him. I can encourage him to defy raciststereotypes that are placed upon young, black males. I can remind him of his ancestors who have come this far by faith. I can tell the history of the interracial group of Freedom Riders that traveled the highways sacrificing life and limb in hopes of creating a beloved community.

When it feels like he’s carrying the weight of the world on his shoulders, I will continue to let him know I’ve got his back. I will remind him that he is not alone and encourage him to join with others striving for justice in the world. When there is nothing more I can do or say to make the hurt go away, I will slow down from my busyness and make time to just listen.


The season of Pentecost is a time to remember the outpouring of the Holy Spirit that both forms the church and calls the church into mission and ministry in the world. Guided by the power of the Holy Spirit, may we take the time to stop, look, listen and respond to the holy yearnings of all of God’s people.

Let us slow down to pay attention, to look closely and listen carefully for the urging of the Holy Spirit to follow the Light into the world by putting our faith into action.

Together may we...

How can we work to make change?

Stop to see the dignity and value in each person we encounter. Slow down to notice when messages of racial superiority or inferiority are playing in our heads. Check assumptions about an individual and/or community. Refrain from rushing to judgment and relying on stereotypes.

Look for inequities within your own community that perpetuate unequal treatment through policies, practices and attitudes toward low-income and/or communities of color (i.e., criminal justice, educational system, healthcare system and housing).

Listen to and learn from people and communities of color about their experiences, history and aspirations.

Speak up and out about racial injustices. Share with others ELCA Presiding Bishop Elizabeth Eaton’s March 25, 2015, message, “Call for Conversations on Racial Equity,” available on the ELCA website at www.elca.org/News-and-Events/7732.

Join with others in your congregation and community to connect faith with public life. Visit the ELCA Advocacy webpage www.elca.org/advocacy and sign up for action alerts.

Offer to host a community forum at your congregation on enhancing relationships with law enforcement. Study the ELCA social statement, “The Church and Criminal Justice: Hearing the Cries” (downloadable online at www.elca.org)

Pray for and promote the dignity and humanity of all people.

Judith Roberts attends Bethel Lutheran Church, Chicago, and serves as ELCA program director for racial justice ministries.

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