Buffalo, The Church and the Call for Beloved Community
May 19, 2022
Drive seven hours west from Cambridge along route 90, and you’ll arrive in the working class, lake-side city of Buffalo, teeming with life. Were it in Massachusetts, it would be the second largest city in New England. Along the way, you’ll drive north of a little town called Conklin, where a young man grew into a violent white supremacist, so much so that he travelled to Buffalo last weekend with the intent to kill Black Americans. He drove to Tops Friendly Market in East Buffalo, a mostly Black working class neighborhood, where there was much to love and celebrate. Tops was the only grocery store around, in what would have otherwise been a food desert. Its existence was a triumph of community organizing, entrepreneurship, and American food distribution systems. Instead of wonder and abundance though, the city’s visitor was consumed with bitterness, entitlement, resentment, and violence. He opened fire, killing ten, injuring more.
Ruth Whitfield had just visited her husband in his nursing home. Aaron Salter, Jr. was working a shift as a security guard, after a recent retirement from the Buffalo Police Department. Heyward Patterson was loading groceries into the car for a client he was driving. Andre Mackneil was out buying a cake for his three year old son, Margus Morrison buying snacks for a family movie night. Pearl Young knew food distribution well, as she’d been running a food pantry for twenty years. Geraldine Talley and Celestine Chaney were both grandmothers. Roberta Drury had been helping her brother recover from cancer. Katherine Massey had just been dropped off by her brother, one of the many in her large extended family. All ten of them were shot and killed, victims of a violent, racist rampage. All ten of them were image bearers of the living God, enfleshed reflections of the beauty and vitality of their creator. God weeps with their families now.
The cancer of gun violence in America is not new. Each year, we hear of and read about dozens, perhaps hundreds of victims of shootings – mass shootings, suicides, domestic murders, police shootings, and more. The cancer of racial violence and white supremacy in America is even older, with us from the first days of a nation littered with the traumas of slavery, genocide, forced migrations, mass incarceration, lynchings, and manifold hate crimes that enfold before our eyes still.
Christians have a decidedly mixed record in our history of racism and white supremacist violence. Most leading abolitionists in the 19th century were Christians. America’s great civil rights movement of the 1950s and 60s was birthed in and led by the Black church. Movements of liberation throughout the colonized world found courage for their fights for freedom in theologies of God’s solidarity with oppressed peoples. The New Testament itself proclaims God made known in human flesh in the birth of a brown-skinned, colonized, Jewish refugee and contains a letter that celebrates the faith and dignity of a runaway slave, insisting on his freedom.
And yet American slaveholders were also mostly Christians, supported by expressions of Christian faith that insisted that this was all God’s will. Most white churches sat on the sidelines of struggles for civil rights in the 20th century, or actively resisted them. Movements of colonial liberation were necessary because Christians proclaimed that the colonization of the world, including the violence and slavery and cultural erasures involved, was the holy duty of baptized Christians. Even in the 21st century, if you’re a white and a Christians , you’re more likely to be resist immigration, more likely to hold anti-Asian and anti-Black and anti-Jewish stereotypes and resentments, and more likely to prefer white history and white culture and white people than if you are white and non-religious.
The problem isn’t the faith itself. The faith of Jesus is one of healing and liberation, celebrating the created dignity of all humans and the infinite, redemptive beauty and possibilities in all people and all cultures. The problem is the culture of white supremacy that festers around many forms of white Christians culture, and the even greater prominence of apathy and disinterest among even more Christians and churches.
Given this context and history, it is the call of every white pastor and every white Christian in this country to specifically and clearly reject and denounce all forms of white supremacy. People of color manifest the image and glory of God every bit as much as those of us who are called white. Asian Americans, Black Americans, Latin Americans belong in this country and have a right to liberty and flourishing every bit as much as the descendants of Europeans. And let’s be frank: Native Americans’ claims to belonging and these rights are doubly, triply, infinitely stronger.
As Jesus began his ministry, John the Baptizer quoted the prophets to say he was preparing the way, that every valley be lifted up and every mountain be made low, that all flesh could see the glory of God together. None made lower, none seeking to be higher, all flesh together. This is the anti racist, beloved community call of every disciple of Jesus and every church that bears his name. It is to stop centering and preferring the history, the culture, the theology, and the privilege of those who for centuries, churches have lifted up too high. And it is to humbly learn from and celebrate and center and prize the history, the culture, the theology, and the beauty of those who for centuries, churches have sought to make or keep low.
All flesh – the Black flesh of grieving families in Buffalo, the Asian flesh of grandmothers terrified to walk alone in our cities, the queer flesh scorned and rejected by churches and families, even white flesh that was never meant to be elevated or centered – yearns to see the glory of God together. Those that bear the name of the risen Christ, keeper of the beautiful vision of beloved community for us all, dare hope and strive for nothing less.