Shifting Allegiances, for Alton Sterling and Philandro Castile and…

When I was in high school, my family hosted exchange students. We enjoyed the chance to hear what other people thought about life in small town Kansas (and as Canadians, we sometimes felt self-righteous when out guests thought this country was crazy). One of the clearest things we always heard was how shocking American nationalism is.

I remember one exchange student from Germany, named Christoph. He was shocked by the flags everywhere – outside houses, on banners lining Main Street, painted across the entire front of someone’s ranch house (this was central Kansas). He remarked how nervous people back home got when some German fans waved flags during the World Cup. In Germany, people saw flags as a warning sign of the return of fascism.

This past weekend the United States celebrated possibly its flag-iest holiday. We pledged our allegiance to this country, most of us, in some way, whether with explosions and flags and speeches, or just with grilling and beer. Fireworks went off around my house for three days straight.

And then, in the space of 24 hours, police murdered Alton Sterling in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, and Philandro Castile in Falcon Heights, near Minneapolis. The 114th and 115th black men killed by police in 2016. As if to remind us of what the United States is built on, what it can mean to pledge allegiance.

I wish I could walk away from it all, I wish I could renounce everything. My pain, my guilt, my anger; my citizenship (acquired at age 18), my white privilege (acquired at birth), my complicity.

For the last year, I have been involved with the Coalition to Abolish Death By Incarceration (or CADBI), a new group dedicated to ending Life Without Parole sentencing in Pennsylvania.

Right now, our state has locked up thousands of people to die in prison, and Philadelphia has the honor of having sentenced more juveniles to die in prison than any other city in the world (around 300). CADBI wants to bring these folks home, and wants to prevent anyone from ever being sentenced to die in prison again, regardless of the crime they commit. To envision a world where everyone gets a second chance, regardless of their actions, seems at once both simple and ludicrous. We are asking politicians and voters across this state to give people they think of only as murderers a second chance. Like a world free of police murders, it seems both obvious (see Iceland) and impossible to achieve in our country.

When I first heard of CADBI last June, right as it was getting started, I thought its vision was beautiful but impossible. In the last year, my heart has turned. This has happened in part because of CADBI’s victories: As Philadelphia begins the process of re-sentencing everyone who was given Life Without Parole as a juvenile, we have pushed DA Seth Williams to at least promise real change (now we have to push him to actually do it).

But the main reason I have come to believe that we will win is through relationships. As I have gotten to know members of CADBI, most of whom have loved ones who are locked up in Pennsylvania prisons, I have begun to shift my allegiance. Every month, we gather to strategize and to share about our lives. I have sat beside parents who have been overcome with sadness at the suffering their children endure in prison. I have sat beside women who have been separated from their boyfriends by steel bars for three decades, and I’ve heard them say, “I believe he will come home.” These tiny offering of honesty and hope, these little candles shared with others in the midst of an incredibly cruel world – sometimes I have to resist the urge to remove my shoes during our meetings in recognition that I am standing on holy ground.

This week, I hope those of us who are not targeted by police because of the color of our skin are grappling with what it means to be part of a world where men are gunned down for living while black. I hope we are grieving the many small ways we pledge allegiance to a nation built on violent racism. And I hope we are finding moments of holiness, where we can be present to love and support those who are grieving the hardest.

We need a change of allegiance, now more than ever. We need to truly hear both the rage and the vision of those suffering under the oppression of police brutality and mass incarceration, and recognize how the weight that crushes black and brown communities simultaneously lifts up white, middle-class communities.

Sometimes we feel our allegiance shift in dramatic moments, when we watch young men die on our Facebook walls. Sometimes we hardly notice it shifting, and sometimes we slip backwards, sitting in the comfort of privilege.

Being church together is the slow training of ourselves to pledge allegiance to God and to each other. It is the slow and steady turning of our hearts to God. It happens when we listen, when we recognize the holiness of hope and the sanctity of rage at injustice. We are part of a different kin-dom, a community grounded in a God’s creation and God’s justice. This slow shift in allegiance opens up new definitions of what is possible.

Are we willing to pledge allegiance to building a world free from white supremacy? How are we demonstrating this allegiance with our daily lives? Are we showing up for our friends of color when they need us? Are we giving of our time, talent, and income to support movements making real change? Are we taking action to challenge institutions (including this church!) to be less racist? Are we pushing our family and friends to address their own racism? In a neighborhood so recently wounded by gun violence, how are demonstrating God’s love to our neighbors? How are we doing the work not just as individuals but as a church community? Do we, like some of my friends in CADBI, really believe that change will come?

– John Bergen

Though Germantown considers itself a single community, we are all individuals with our own backgrounds, and therefore any opinions expressed in this blog should be read as the opinions of the author, and not the official position of GMC. We encourage positive discourse, so all comments will be moderated before posting.