Whatever, don't get out!
“In a presidential election, fear often beats idealism.” So observes the Economist in a perceptive article in this morning’s briefing, observing how President Trump - with Bible held aloft - is seeking to exploit his nation’s racial trauma for his own political ambition. Just a few years back Jacqui and I along with her brother Bill revisited their childhood home in Seminole Avenue, Detroit just four miles from the city centre where the General Motors Global Headquarters is situated in its swish Renaissance Center. From all accounts the appearance of the neighbourhood hadn’t changed very much. It all seemed very suburban and typically American with its timber single-family houses and open front gardens. Some children were playing in the road. “Don’t get out!” People had warned us beforehand on no account “Do not leave your car.” Keep the doors locked, the engine running. As it was we were taking a risk just by being there. Essentially we were witnessing the result of “white flight” as white families moved out while African American families moved in. As it happens we took a deep breath and decided to get out of our car to look around. Soon we were engaged in conversation with the locals. The young lad I was talking with knew about Everton even though he preferred basketball to soccer. It was all very relaxed, although the current resident of Jacqui’s former house stayed on her porch, not inviting us even into her front garden. Clearly she was wary of us, keeping her social distance. Michelle Obama recalls in her memoir, "Becoming" how the racial demographics of her childhood neighbourhood changed as white families moved away. "And I always stop there when I talk about this out in the world because, you know, I want to remind white folks that y'all were running from us -- this family with all the values that you've read about. You were running from us. And you're still running, because we're no different than the immigrant families that are moving in ... the families that are coming from other places to try to do better." Fear is a terrible dynamic and this is what undergirds so much racism. As Michelle’s husband commentated: “In too many communities, too many young men of colour are left behind and seen only as objects of fear. Through initiatives like My Brother's Keeper, I'm personally committed to changing both perception and reality.” Today the MBK alliance has an impressive track record in “building safe and supportive communities for boys and young men of colour where they feel valued and have clear pathways to opportunity.” In the unlikely event of President Trump actually opening his Bible and reading from page 1, he would soon come across the passage which inspires the MBK movement, where Cain says to God “Am I my brother’s keeper?” (Genesis 4:9). His response anticipates the answer NO as Cain would sidestep responsibility for his brother’s welfare. The sad fact is, of course, that he has already slain Abel in a fit of jealously. Adam and Eve may well have been ejected from Eden but the LORD – the writer uses God’s covenant name – continues to be engaged in his creation. He first seeks to dissuade Cain of his resentment and then holds him accountable for his actions. Genesis describes the cause of the fraternal feud somewhat tersely and without explanation: “Now Abel kept flocks, and Cain worked the soil.” (Genesis 4:2). This led presumably to a difference in culture and lifestyle.
At the other end of the Bible, we read the apostle John: “Do not be like Cain, who belonged to the evil one and murdered his brother’” (1 John 3:12). Instead we are to live the very opposite: “For this is the message you heard from the beginning: We should love one another.” This is no mere sentiment. For John continues: “This is how we’ve come to understand and experience love: Christ sacrificed his life for us. This is why we ought to live sacrificially for our fellow believers, and not just be out for ourselves.” (1 John 3:16). So we pray for America, for the residents of Seminole Avenue and those who work a million miles away in the Renaissance Center, for a mutual respect and openness. And especially for ourselves, in our own context. We need the Holy Spirit to ask us the question “Where is your brother or sister?” They may be very different to us in all kinds of ways, some of which we may find threatening. Even so the message of scripture is clear: we are accountable for each other and not just for those who are like me and my friends, those who – so-to-speak – belong to the same club. The good news is that the cross of Jesus has destroyed every barrier. As we live in his victory, we may know ourselves beloved and valued by God, whoever we are. Such love, as the apostle John rejoices, drives out all fear! (1 John 4:18) Even in presidential elections.