This article was originally published by Mennonite World Review

White privilege, guilt

The night in November when the news broke that officer Darren Wilson would not be charged in the shooting death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., I joined a group of religious leaders intent on providing a witness and a peaceable presence in Philadelphia.


We met at a Methodist church just north of City Hall, led by POWER, a faith-based community-organizing campaign with a former Mennonite pastor at the helm and supported by numerous Mennonite congregations in the city. The acquittal wasn’t unexpected, but in a room with mostly African-American leaders, I nonetheless felt ashamed — embarrassed that this system I mostly trust to bring about justice had once again largely failed the expectations of my sisters and brothers in the room. There was head shaking. There was wincing. Together we held two minutes of silence. After a spoken prayer together, we walked out onto North Broad Street.

There were a lot of police. Police on foot, in vehicles, on bikes, with horses. I’m not afraid of police. I imagined myself a mediator. The police in my life experience have largely been on my side. They protect my civility, property and community. Engaging with them, I am for the most part respectful. I know not everyone there had those same feelings or experiences; for many the police represented the power to oppress, to demonize, to threaten, to kill.

POWER is well-organized when it comes to public witness. The image of clergy in the midst of provocation is both relieving and jarring. We were focused on a peaceable presence. I walked silently with the group. While the chant “black lives matter” echoed loudly in the streets, a few African-American women occasionally attempted to steer the vocalizing to “all lives matter.”

I didn’t join the chants. I couldn’t find a way to authentically participate in the liturgical movement of “hands up, don’t shoot.” I was fascinated by and couldn’t figure out my struggle. I couldn’t get past knowing I’d likely never have to utter those words. Was raising my hands with the people of color in the crowd irony, solidarity or inauthenticity? Truth be told, I don’t participate in hand raising at church either, and I attend a congregation where lots of others find that a meaningful part of worship. I never really settled that internally that evening.

I had echoes of hip-hop artist Macklemore’s lyrics in my head: And my subconscious telling me stop it/This is an issue that you shouldn’t get involved in/Don’t wanna be that white dude million-man marching. . . . /White privilege, white guilt, at the same . . . time.

In the movie Selma, there’s a scene when protesters walk across the bridge. Martin Luther King Jr. speaks to Greek Orthodox Archbishop Iakovos and thanks him for coming to Selma, Ala. His response is, “When you called, I had to come.”

On that night of unrest and frustration, I wanted to respond, to join with those in this city, in this country — those who are colleagues and people of faith, citizens of this land of both opportunity and broken promises, those who don’t yet experience the fullness of their own worth. I wanted, even in my awkwardness without any words, to walk in the streets of one of the country’s largest cities almost until midnight. Our peaceable walking was intended to attest to the truth that all lives matter. And, specifically, to respond to the question for many of our sisters and brothers: Do black lives matter despite the brutality, fear and legal rulings that seem to suggest otherwise?

Stephen Kriss is a teacher, writer, pastor, student and follower of Jesus living in Philadelphia.

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