The Cost of Being an Ally, and the Cost of Not Being an Ally

There are a lot of calls today to ally with the African American community in their struggle for justice. While I prefer to to be a friend with my black brothers and sisters, OK, let’s go with ally. Good enough. The rally cry is to not let down our allies by growing weary in listening to and lamenting their struggle, standing with them, crying out for justice, and making sacrifices along the way. I see many of my white friends and colleagues, some for the first time, identifying with the black community and raising their voices in solidarity, even vowing to stay true to the #BLM cause. I hope they do.

What I want to offer is a counting of the costs of doing so, and, a counting of the costs of not doing so.

Jesus said we should count the costs of being in his kingdom which includes crying out for biblical justice and in solidarity with the oppressed and hurting. There ARE REAL COSTS in doing that. And there are REAL COSTS of NOT. Pastor Tim Keller describes biblical justice like this. God created humanity to be a beautiful tapestry made up of many colors and diverse threads. Sin, both personal and systemic, has torn the human social fabric. It is frayed, ripped, torn, shredded, tangled in many places. Doing justice is WEAVING YOURSELF AND YOUR FAMILY AND YOUR RESOURCES into the places that are torn, frayed, ripped and shredded. With that definition in mind, here are five costs of being an ally, and five costs of not being an ally to the torn fabric in the African American community.

COST #1: LONELINESS

Trends come and go. So does sympathy. Right now it is a badge of self-rightness to stand with the Black community in their struggle, to raise the #BLM banner and march in the protests. But one day that fervor will fade. What will be left is the hard, sacrificial, lonely work of doing justice, of solidarity. When we moved to Indy we made the conscious choice to send our kids to Indianapolis Public Schools (IPS), not to the private Christian school down the road near our church. That decision and calling was our own. It was our way of weaving our life and our family’s life into the ripped social fabric. That decision meant that we were very lonely. For many years we were the only family in our church who attended IPS. Our kids were left out from the circle of kids that went to the private school and had their stories and memories. For many years no kids from IPS came to our church. Our kid’s hearts ached. And our hearts ached for them. When you’ve woven yourself into the social fabric, and you look around and all the #BLM protesters have moved on to the next sexy cause, are you ready to be lonely?

COST #2: LOSING CONTROL

White people are used to being in control. We are used to calling the shots, even using people to get to our goals.

We soon realized that IPS was led by the African American community. Not that there weren’t white principals, administrators, and teachers, but that on the whole IPS was not a white-controlled institution, but African American led. Pat Pritchard, a white guy, was the superintendent of IPS when we started, but then Dr. Eugene White took the helm. (Still today, he is one of the greatest leaders I had the opportunity to watch in action.) When white flight happened in Indy in the 1940’s, 50’s and 60’s due to racism, white folks not wanting to lose the values on their property with blacks moving into the neighborhood and other racial prejudice, they left downtown and IPS by the droves. The African American community stepped into leadership. And even though downtown Indy was becoming gentrified by the time we moved into a historic downtown neighborhood in 2002, few middle class whites were sending their kids to IPS. I don’t know their motivation. Test scores were cited. Violence in IPS was cited. But I wonder if it was more than that. I think for some people it was the fear of giving up control, control their child’s education and future. They were able to purchase “the best education” and “true education” for them. They had the ability to still be in charge. But if you really want to do biblical justice, you will have to give up the control. Count the cost!

COST #3: DANGER

When our kids were in elementary school, it didn’t feel dangerous. All the little kids were so sweet. I’d play with my kids and their friends at recess at School #14. We’d have a blast. But as kids get older, stronger, and as the pain in their hearts mounted as it does in all of our hearts as we grow older, Indianapolis Public Schools got more dangerous, just like a fight between high school boys is much more scary than a fight between elementary school boys.

I saw this firsthand. For two years served at Arsenal Tech high school as a lunch supervisor. I stood at the food line and said hi to kids as they came through; they’d look at me thinking “whose that crazy white guy.” I’d wander around when they were eating, sometimes stop to talk and sit with them, clean up their trash when they were done. And there were times, many times, when all of a sudden all the attention of the 300 or so youth in the lunch room would turn to one spot where two guys or two girls, or three or four, were about to fight. The school police would leap into action, spray pepper spray/mace and clear the area out. One time I broke up a fight, or tried to, between two very strong boys. Afterwards my arm ached and trembled, adrenaline coursing through my body. Once I tried to stop a very big young woman chasing another around the cafeteria, screaming at her. I was more scared of her than the guys fighting! It was in moments like these that I thought to myself, “am I crazy. What am I doing sending my kids to IPS.”

To weave yourself into a frayed and broken community is to expose yourself, and your kids to danger. Are you ready for that?

COST #2: BLOOD, TOIL, SWEET AND TEARS

Winston Churchill famously said to the British people at the onset of World War II that he had nothing to offer them but “blood, toil, sweat, and tears.” The war was going to be long and costly. There was no surety that the war would be won. Big sacrifices were going to have to be made. Fighting for Biblical Justice is something like that. We use the language of systemic racism, and there is such a thing. But behind it and feeding it is a more deeply lodged condition, sin, the human heart curved in upon itself, and human society motivated by self-interest and egotism. And not only is sin and systemic evil pervasive – its dividing line going through every human heart – but there is also an EVIL ONE, Satan, whose whole purpose is to steal, kill and destroy. He can use racism in human hearts and systemic racism in society to do this. And he can use ideologies like #BLM and self-righteous protesters to do this too. He is crafty and evil.

If you really want to count the cost of doing Biblical justice you need to be ready to do it down to your last breath, like William Wilberforce, the British parliamentarian who rallied a group of like minded allies to join him in the fight to abolish slavery. They lived together in intentional community in the Clapham neighborhood of London, and poured their resources into the decades long fight. Wilberforce was on his deathbed when an act of parliament abolished the slave trade. To be an ally with the black community you must be ready to be in it for the long haul and pay the heavy cost of doing so. My friendship with many in the Indianapolis African American community didn’t end when we moved.

I’m currently working with my old friend Donteau on a project called “Faith of a Mustard Seed.” The vision is to bring white men and black men together in a common cause, to build relationships, friendship and understanding, and to share resources. We will renovate homes in Indy using volunteer labor to empower the African American community through home and business ownership.

If you want to do justice there will be costs to the last days of your life. Are you willing to pay them?

COST #1: YOUR RIGHTEOUSNESSI

keep coming back to this because more heinous and ugly and vile than any sin, even the sin of racism, is pride. For it is pride that feeds racism. Pride compares. Pride is competitive. Pride looks at the other person and wants to be better, faster, prettier, richer, stronger, righter.

What have you gained in the end if you give your life for justice, stand with the oppressed, sacrifice your time, money and family in solidarity with your African American brothers and sisters, and in doing so, look down on all the people who haven’t paid that price? If your doing justice puts you on a platform of superiority, of smug self-righteousness, you are even more evil than when you began. Pride is the Devil’s sin. It is the root of all sin, including racism. It pollutes and destroys the soul. To do Biblical justice the biggest cost you pay is to give up your superiority, your sense of doing and being right. If that is your heart, you’re simply using African American folk to make yourself feel good, to pad your moral resume. That is much more selfish and sinister than the blithe indifference you showed before. At least then your selfishness and smallness of heart was more obvious. But when you’ve poured out your life for others so that you could “do the right thing” and “prove your love for humanity” and “establish your rightness” on the outside it looks good and will win accolades. But God doesn’t judge the outside. He sees the heart.

The only way to do biblical justice and sustain biblical justice is when you do it from this posture: that God is perfect justice would have been righteous to condemn you for your sin, pride and racism, etc. But instead God sent his son to bear the judgement you deserved and give you mercy you did not. When you have been welcomed into the family of God by mercy and grace, it breaks the back of self-rightness and mauls pride. Then you do mercy as one who was shown mercy. And when you do it you will not be proud but just thankful that you can do for others what your Heavenly Father did for you.Now, those are the costs of being an ally.

What might surprise you are that there are FAR GREATER COSTS of not being an ally. This I think is the point that is far too often missed.

When white people think of being an ally, we think of coming in as the stronger, as the helpers, as the saviors.That is completely misguided.That is what we thought at first too.

We thought that we were going to be part of the solution, of helping fix and renew and restore IPS to its glory days before white flight happened. We dreamed of the day when our white peers and colleagues would view IPS as a legitimate option for their kids. What we came to see after years was something much different. Our alliance and friendship with the African American community was an immense cultural treasure and blessing for our family. So here are the costs of not allying yourself with the African American community.

COST #5: COMMUNITY

Yes, our solidarity with IPS meant that we were very lonely. Yes, sometimes our hearts ached. But what it did was to drive us out of our gentrified, white, creative class enclave into community and friendship in the African American community. I won’t call it belonging, because we could never really know the struggle. We weren’t from the hood. We lived in gentrified neighborhood, in a mansion, compared to most of the kids in IPS. Yet in some ways, it was a real belonging. We we accepted, loved, even liked. We became part of the IPS family, black, white, hispanic. I’m glad that we didn’t just lock into and participate in just the white, creative, professional, middle class community in Indianapolis.

The movie I am making, “We are Family”, documents the awesome ride that we got to go on because we had solidarity with the African American community in IPS and specifically, with the basketball team at Arsenal Tech. Even though we have moved away, we are still part of that community. Are you willing to play the cost of a bland life, a homogeneous community? I’m not!

COST #4: TRUE SAFETY

Becky Baer Porteous has written an article entitled “The Only Home That Is Safe.” In it she quotes James T. Bertachaell from the book Families At The Crossroads by Rodney Clapp. The exact quote is: “No child can be truly secure in the hands of parents whose care for him is purchased by the neglect of other people’s children…. The only home which is safe for anyone to be born into is the home that is ready to welcome someone who does not belong there by right of kinship, but belongs there in virtue of hospitality.”

We believe that we are protecting our kids by shielding them from dangerous places like IPS Schools. We think we are keeping our kids safe by providing them with a private education in a school that people like us control. We think we are keeping our kids safe by shielding our kids from by living in our gentrified neighborhood and opening our door only to “safe” kids and “good influences.” But Porteous makes the point that our thinking is flawed. By paying for our kids education and with it their safety, by using money to distance ourselves from the poor, hurting, and “riff raff”, we actually hurt them. How? Because we are not truly safe people. When we use our money, our privilege, our power to shield our children, when we don’t weave our lives into the lives of the hurting, poor, and oppressed, when we exclude racial minorities from our home, in other words, when we refuse to do biblical justice, WE ARE NOT TRULY SAFE PEOPLE, and our homes are not truly SAFE HOMES. We our raising our kids on the poison of exclusion, pride and trusting in the idol of money and control. And, even more terrifying, we – and they – will have to answer to the God who commands us to do justice and love mercy.

Will you risk the real danger of solidarity int he African American community for true safety?

3. CULTURAL TREASURE

I believe that each person is particular. We share solidarity and equality because we bear God’s image. God confers the status of personhood. It is irrevocable. Each person shares immense dignity. At the same time, we are particular. God weaves our sexuality, culture, ethnicity, family of origin, history to make us special, radically unique, singular. So on the one hand, as persons we share a fundamental solidarity as sons and daughters of Adam and Eve. At the same time, each of us are individuals, distinct from all others. Culture and ethnicity are an important thread God uses to weave each of us. While ethnicity and culture can be made into an idol, as it was in 20th century German ideology that elevated the “arian race” and devalued Jews, and how an over-emphasis on racial identity today, including black identity, can also be destructive, yet God has blessed humanity with a diversity of cultures that enrich.

The African American community in American has greatly enriched our nation, in so many ways. Think of the great African American educational, political, academic, intellectual, and spiritual leaders; consider the black cultural institutions. Think of the rich spiritual tradition and theology, that comes out of the African American experience in America. Shoot, just consider professional athletics and culture today. Where we would be without the cultural treasure that is the African American community.

We experienced that firsthand in IPS. From Ms. Odle, who was principal at IPS School #14, to many great black teachers and coaches. Judah Dorsey and Julian Dorsey both attended Crispus Attucks community school which is a legendary black academic institution. Our kids learned how to “break bread” with their black friends, and through the experience of being a minority welcomed into the dominant black culture, have a very different view than many of their middle class white peers. At the end of our time in Indianapolis, we realized that we had received far more than we were given. If our white friends didn’t want to experience the cultural, academic, and relational treasures of IPS, what could we say? It was their loss.

Are you willing to pay that price of cutting yourself off from the cultural treasure of the African American community?

2. FRIENDSHIP And over time we made friends, friends that we still have today. I used to go out for burgers with one of my friends, Donteau. He was raised in the hood, had spent eight years in federal prison, so he had great wisdom for this white guy. I would tell him my troubles in pastoral ministry. One time I laid out for him a big mediation I was in, and all the complications and struggled of it. He listened, and then said, “you’ve got a situation.” That was all I needed to hear. I had a “situation.” That one word, but especially the way he said it, and who it came from, and all the situations I knew he had been in all his life, and the deep reservoir of pain and struggle he had gone through. All he needed to say was that I had a “situation.” That brought more light and truth than all the words my white friends, and seminary trained friends, could have, no slight to them.

My son, Julian, played on the same basketball team as his son, Donteau Jr. After Tech lost in the sectionals their senior year, Donteu and Julian hugged each other and wept. Donteau said to Julian between tears. “you’re my F***ing N*****. They were not words we could or would have said, but they were words of true and deep community and friendship. Are you willing to pay the cost of not having rich community and friendships with African Americans? I’m sure not.

1. GRACE

To me, the thing that stands out the most about the African American community in Indianapolis was its relational warmth and grace. If pride is the most insidious of sins, the ugliest of spiritual evils, humility is its opposite. Humility is created by grace. When you know that you are a mess, a train wreck, and that God had mercy on you, rescued you, lifted you up, that is grace. Grace is dependency on God. Grace is God’s unmerited favor. When you have a record, when you served time, when you are in the midst of the struggle, you are not coming from a position of pride and superiority. The African American community exuded warmth and welcome and non-judgment, because they were coming from a place, not of pride but of humility, not of rightness but of grace. Now I’m not saying that every person in the African American community had owned that they were broken people who needed the grace of Jesus. Not at all. But many had. And there was, overall, a warmth, a posture of grace, that I felt and miss today.

In contrast, people speak of the “Seattle Freeze.” In the northwest, people are nice. I have to be careful not to generalize, how do I say this. But they are also wealthy. Smug. Smart. Superior. Now I now that inside they are total messes, train wrecks, screwed up people who have records of crime on their own consciences. But outwardly they hold their shit together. They posture and spin and have a clean front. I long for the day when people in the region I minister to, are humbled and brought to a point where they too, see their need for grace.

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