08/18/2014 04:11 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Race and the Soul of the Country -- An Open Letter to People of Faith

This is not yet another letter of sympathy to a grieving family for the loss of their child. We do grieve with the family and community of Michael Brown. We hold our own children close and try to imagine his family's sorrow, yet cannot. But grieve we must, not only for this family, but also for ourselves because we are at risk of losing the soul of our country.

Today, I write a letter from the jailhouse of race. This jail has no visible walls, but there are walls nonetheless. If we do not rise up against them and tear them down, we will remain trapped and afraid.


Racism continues to plague our nation and communities. Instead of lynchings, we have prisons; instead of segregated schools, we have the systematic dismemberment of public schools. Our prisons, schools, and public works are being signed, sealed, and delivered into the hands of for-profit carpetbaggers of the 21st century, while teachers, parents, and children are left with little or nothing if they are Black, Brown, or poor.

Overwhelmingly, Black and Hispanic students now have a price on their heads. Why? These students have been promised to the prison system because for-profit prisons and detention centers have contracts that guarantee filled beds.

Even our churches are not immune.

On August 8, 2014, we learned of the apparent cold-blooded murder of yet another Black teenage boy who had just graduated from high school. From all witness accounts, a policeman reportedly provoked, attacked, and repeatedly shot Michael Brown as he tried to kneel down with his hands raised in surrender. Mike was unarmed.

No letter of sympathy is enough, because there are too many letters of sympathy to write. Michael Brown is just one among countless victims of racism. We must all fall to our knees and confess that we have not done enough to break down the walls of race.

When we get up off our knees, we need to take time to read the Bible with new eyes. Woe to those who let widows and orphans starve! Woe to those who ignore the poor and needy! Woe to those who have power to change things yet do nothing!

People in religious authority and people of faith who could reach out but don't, will gnash their teeth in the darkness of despair when, one day, they meet their maker and realize they could have loved and served their neighbors, but instead, they washed their hands and pretended they are colorblind with no power.

The time for pretending has long passed. The time for confession and action is now. Racism and a police state targeting people of color are not just in Ferguson, Missouri, or just on the border where children and their mothers are being treated like criminals instead of asylum seekers from drug wars.

As I watched the video of militarized police in SWAT teams and armored vehicles attacking citizens of Ferguson, Missouri, with tear gas, rubber bullets, and incendiary devices, I remembered the words of the Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in his letter from Birmingham Jail.

I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro's great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen's Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to "order" than to justice; ... who constantly says: "I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action;" ... Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.

It is time for us to rise up -- not in violence but in creative non-violent action, which pulls back the curtain on the inherent violence of racism and race-based policing. We remember the words of Jesus and the words of almost every angel in the Bible who upset people's lives: "Fear not!" You can do this!

Be creative! Today, there are Freedom Schools springing up across this country. Be part of it! Today, there are foster homes in our churches that are opening up to the children crossing the border. Learn Spanish! Put yourself on the path of change. Speak out! Say "Hello" to someone who appears different from you. Start small, but think BIG! Organize! Start where you are. Work as a team. Just start!

Build a new heaven and a new earth. Use the power in your hands to build a better world that is full of creativity, love, learning, and fullness of life for all our children. Build this world with open hands so that the world belongs to everyone.