This won’t be a usual sermon. I need to lay something at the feet of the church this morning. The past week and a half I’ve been thinking about something President Obama said a month or so after Trayvon Martin was shot and killed. As he reflected on the incident, the President said, “you know if I had a son, he would look like Trayvon.” I can’t get those words out of my head.
Because a week and a half ago, a seventeen year old named Kyle Rittenhouse drove to Kenosha, Wisconsin with his gun. His social media posts were full of support for police and “Blue Lives Matter.” In a brief interview with a right wing news site, Rittenhouse said he felt it was his job to protect Kenosha businesses from riots. A few hours later he had shot and killed two people.
I am a new dad. Just over a year into parenting, I can’t stop thinking, “I have a son, and he looks like Kyle Rittenhouse.”
We adopted through the foster system, knowing it was likely we would be parenting across a racial divide. Ellis and I had conversations about how we would work on our cultural competency. We found ourselves grateful to be part of such a diverse congregation. A couple of our longtime black women members offered, if we ended up adopting a little black girl, to teach us how to do her hair. We ended up adopting a little white boy. Next month he’ll turn two. This week I realized, I still need my church’s help. I am scared about what it means to raise my child in his own culture. I feel in over my head.
The first mass shooting that touched my life happened at the high school down the road from mine. Two white boys killed themselves and 13 others at Columbine. I will never forget the names Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris. I’ll never forget all the profiles the news ran, of these two kids who lived in my same county and who looked like me. I also keep thinking of Dylan Roof, that troubled white kid who killed so many of God’s people at Mother Emanuel, who wanted to start a race war.
Jesus in today’s Gospel: Report it to the Church
Jesus says in today’s Gospel “if your brother or your sister sins against you, go and correct them…if they won’t listen, take one or two others with you…if they still won’t pay attention, report it to the church.” I wish I had answers for you today, I really wish I did. It is tempting, as a preacher, to climb up into this pulpit and pretend I have the solution. This Sunday, I really don’t. I need to report to the church that we are missing the mark, as a culture, in how we’re raising white boys. This conversation isn’t working privately. We need to take it public. We need to take it to the church.
A disproportionate number of mass-shootings are committed by young white men. I don’t think there’s been enough, not nearly enough, research that problematizes whiteness, and maleness as an identity. We need psychologists and sociologists to study white men, not as some “normed” group, but for the aberrant behavior. What is it that happens at the toxic intersection of masculinity, whiteness, and gun-culture? What messages can we avoid? How can those of us who are parents steer our boys in a better direction?
If I’m honest, it’s not just the mass shooters that scare me. It’s the guys I grew up with. I knew too many young white men, people I considered friends in high school, who went off to Afghanistan or Iraq with the US military and came back using racist language. They had awful names, dehumanizing names, for the people of the countries where they were deployed. The racist language didn’t stop there.
Some of those former military folks are now working as police officers. Police departments across the country, including here in St. Louis, have been credibly accused for fostering a culture of casual racism, misogyny, and/or homophobia, perpetrated largely by white men. Even as I say these words, I don’t want you to hear that I am “anti-police.” I’m not. I am upset that so many of my tax dollars are being paid out to people who were harassed or hurt by the police. I wish it were as easy as taking a side. I wish just voting for the right candidate, just putting the right sign in my lawn could fix this. I bring this to the church today because I know it’s not that simple. I don’t know the answer.
Not being right, getting it right
If I’m honest, I don’t know if I challenged that language enough with my friends. I know I sometimes let things slide, because I didn’t want to get into a big fight about homophobia or racism. I’ve been through a number of anti-racism trainings. Every time I’ve had to work against an urge inside myself that says, “Mike, you don’t need this. You’re not a racist.” Just showing up has been hard. Every time I go ahead and participate in a training, I realize, this can’t just be about me “being right.”
Brene Brown says, as a white woman, when she is questioned about race or privilege, she has to take a moment to disengage before she responds defensively. She has to say, “do I want to be right, or do I want to get it right?” If I am out to prove I am not a racist, I’ve already lost. Because racism is a lot bigger than me. I need to work on my little piece of getting it right. I need to be willing to be corrected, to learn. And I’ve got to get my eyes out beyond myself.
The Passover: The Story of the children God Spared
I’ve also been thinking this week about the Passover, the story of the children God spared. I remember after Mike Brown was murdered, I went to a number of gatherings in churches in Ferguson and Florissant. I heard black parents talk about how hard it was to raise a black son, how they had to teach their boys to keep their hands visible and to speak respectfully if they encountered a police officer.
Parents in North County talked about how hard it was to keep their son out of trouble, off the streets. I’ll never forget the anger in Lezley McSpadden Michael Brown’s mother’s voice as she told reporters, “Do you know how hard it was for me to get him to graduate [from high school]?” I remember talking to the parents of black children in the wake of Michael’s death. To a person, they told me, they felt like it was by the grace of God their child had been spared.
I know, as the white father of a white boy, my worry is nothing like that faced by the parents of black children. The police let Kyle Rittenhouse walk away from Kenosha. He is alive to face charges. The police treatment of Dylan Roof focused on the Burger King meal they bought the killer before they booked him.
My sister still lives in Jefferson County, Colorado. She is a school psychologist and has done some work with the mother of Dylan Klebold, one of the Columbine shooters. Sue Klebold speaks around the country about the importance of suicide prevention and mental health work. She talks to parents about “moral injury,” the pain that folks face when they feel like they didn’t do enough to stop tragedy. In an interview a few years ago Sue Klebold said:
“If we get into an argument and say, ‘This is because of mental illness or this is because of bullying, [because of white supremacy], because of guns,’ none of us is right. It’s a combination of many things that work together in a perfect storm of opportunity and readiness… Never simplify how these things happen, why these things happen.”
It’s not simple: We all need help.
I come before you because I know it isn’t simple, and I know I need help to raise my son.
I also stand in this pulpit today to tell you, I know a lot of wonderful thoughtful caring good white men. I do. A number of my closest friends are straight white Christian men, who care, who work to dismantle racism and homophobia, who respect women, who are working to keep guns out of the hands of criminals, who are working to educate and to help. I hope my son will be grow up to be like them. And I know raising a good caring Christian child isn’t simple.
This last week and a half, I know I can’t do it alone. I can’t raise my son to be culturally competent alone. So today I come to you, my church, to say I need help. Jesus says wherever two or three of us are gathered, he will be in the midst of us. We say we are a church that seeks to follow Jesus and to make Christ’s reconciling love known. Usually I think of that mission in an outward direction. But this week, I know we need to face in as well. We live in a broken and sinful world, and I need your help to make sure my kid faces that world with love instead of hate.