On Race, and Fear that Separates

Tonight I’m sad, and the constant refrain of The Hopeful echoes in my thoughts: how long, O Lord? How long?

The country is watching my city tonight, wondering if or when chaos will descend as it has before. And I sit in my comfortable apartment, surrounded by the safety that comes with living at the top of this hill, on this side of a river. And I think about a cop who looks like so many guys I’ve known, senselessly killing a man who looks like so many I haven’t known, and I wonder why that can happen. I wonder how long a just God will stand by and watch.

I want to ignore racism as a bygone issue. I want dismiss the claims of systemic prejudice as leftist propaganda. I want to pretend it’s just not that big of a deal. But this is the second time in my life Cincinnati has drawn national attention because a white cop killed a black man. It’s an issue, and I’m right in the middle of it.

As race relations have come to the forefront of the American conversation over the last two years, it’s been easy to have an opinion. But this time it’s not Ferguson, it’s not Baltimore–it’s Cincinnati. Sam DuBose died less than ten miles from my apartment. And I think of all the conversations I’ve had in my life about which neighborhoods you can walk in, and how you’ll be treated at a McDonald’s on MLK, and how the crowd on the bus changes when you cross into Walnut Hills, and the race issue becomes unavoidably and disturbingly concrete. Suddenly it’s not so easy.

I don’t know Ray Tensing, and I don’t know what his motives could have been. But, unnervingly, I know it’s not too far-fetched to assume he was afraid, that he felt threatened, just because the man in the car was black. No, his thoughts never should have drifted to the gun at his side. From the evidence we have, he violated his humanity and killed another man who didn’t need to die. There is no excuse or reason. But how often do we, do I, feel threatened, defensive, and afraid as we pass someone on the street, simply because he’s black?

I’m not convinced hatred is the overriding emotion when it comes to race relations. I don’t have many white friends who dislike black people on principle, or who feel some ingrained sense of white superiority. But what I do see, and what I have felt myself, is fear. Fear that keeps us segregated, that drives us away from the most beautiful and vibrant areas of our city, that won’t make eye contact and ignores the holiness that is another human standing next to you. It’s fear like this, not hatred, that is the true opposite of love.

I’m tired of fear, and I’m tired of what fear has done to a city I love. So I refuse to stay away from downtown, and I refuse to look at the sidewalk instead of looking someone in the eye. The only way to heal our city is to be willing to rub shoulders with people different from us, to not just acknowledge, but to celebrate the dignity of every single life.

So to my friends in Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky, now is not the moment to give in to fear. Now is not the moment to lock doors. In fact, if there was ever a moment to open your doors, this is it. We have a chance to be the city that locks arms instead of descending into violence or disdain. I think we can be that city. We can be those people.

Tonight I’m sad, but I’m also hopeful, because I stood in a room with a thousand people, and we prayed for reconciliation in our city. I took Communion, and I shared bread and wine not just with a diverse group in Cincinnati, but with people from every tribe and nation and age. And the groan in our chests that cries, “How long, O Lord, how long?” is not an empty yearning. For we have a God who redeems even this, and who sends us out as ministers of the impossible.

I think Cincinnati can be a glaring exception, the city that changes the conversation about race in America. But it starts, as so many things do, with courage. Let’s not be afraid.

Comments? Questions? Spirited critiques? Let's hear 'em.