(Below is an article I submitted to The Commons this week. I have no idea if it will make it into print or not. ~Susie)
On Thursday, July 23, our United Church of Christ congregation in Westminster West received our “Black Lives Matter” lawn sign and placed it in a visible spot on our land. On Sunday, July 26, I interrupted a man as he was taking it away. I had just participated in a memorial service for two of his relatives (whom I’ve since been assured would have been supportive of the sign and appalled at his behavior), and was shocked that he would do such a thing, but I was so angry that all I could initially squeak out was, “That’s our sign. What are you doing with it?”
Now, I am not naive, and I have followed online and real life discussions by people who feel the message is somehow dishonoring to white lives (the “it should be #AllLivesMatter” crowd). I knew that by placing the sign on our property, we would undoubtedly be offending somebody, and I’ll be disappointed but not surprised if some signs in our area go missing or are defaced. After all, if there were general agreement, openness, and trust in areas of race relations — if we as a nation truly lived as if all lives matter on an equal basis — the signs wouldn’t be necessary.
I was intrigued by the arguments the man made when I confronted him about taking our sign, though. Yes, he raised the “it should be ‘All Lives Matter’” canard, but when I pushed back on that, what he actually focused on was this: as a child he had lived in our village, so he feels ownership of the village including the church, and the church should not be involved in matters that offend people.
I’ve been thinking about this ever since. What is the role of institutions of faith in addressing moral questions in our society? Surely we all know that religious organizations are not allowed to engage in partisan politics (though some on both sides of the political spectrum do). But just as surely, the role of religion for those who claim to follow God in one form or another is to help those adherents follow a particular moral path that is somehow in line with the faith’s understanding of God. And to the degree that God leans toward love and forgiveness and justice, that’s the degree to which the Church ought to be vigorously engaged in those activities. Sometimes that engagement will offend someone, but that doesn’t make it wrong. In fact, it could be argued that if faith traditions are entirely mainstream and entirely supportive of the status quo, they aren’t doing their jobs. In our country, all of us have a right to choose (or not choose) any religious path we wish. We do not have a right to never encounter faith groups doing things we think are offensive.
In confronting the man who was taking our sign, I don’t believe I changed his mind about the message it promotes. He said at least three times, “I’m from South Carolina. I don’t want that message infecting this place.” That was not an argument I was going to win. What I kept going back to was this: “It’s our sign. You have no right to take it. Put it back.” Eventually, I just got in my car and drove away, so agitated that I couldn’t continue the conversation. Still, there was a minor victory: when I arrived at church on Monday, the sign was back where I had placed it, probably still offending someone but also still promoting a stance that is in line with our faith understanding of God’s deep and abiding and justice-seeking love for all of creation.