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Why Arpaio Matters to the Church

Just after a bombshell hit the immigrant community – the pardon of Sheriff Joe Arpaio of Arizona – I had the chance to sit down with Rev. Ricardo Tavarez for a cup of coffee. We talked about immigration, hospitality, racism, ministry, and Arpaio. Check out our conversation to see why, a month later, this decision still has deep implications for the immigrant community and our country. Here are some highlights of our conversation.

Why was this pardon of Sheriff Joe a significant event?

I think there are lots of people who don’t understand what it meant for the Latino community.

Sheriff Joe had a blatant disregard for the dignity of Latino people. He treated them as less-than-human. And because he had the power of the government, he institutionalized that dehumanization. He had self-proclaimed “concentration camps” for undocumented people. He forced his police officers to profile people based on race. He kept conditions in detention centers and jails inhumane on purpose.

And he had a disregard for the law, because his actions were illegal -- and the system which tried him and convicted him and sentenced him for some of those crimes was intended to hold him accountable. So pardoning him wasn’t just saying that his actions were OK, it was saying that our system should not prevent powerful government actors from abusing, dehumanizing, even taking the life of vulnerable people.

I think the timing of it, just after the events of Charlottesville and the “both sides” soundbite, was especially telling. Together, both actions seemed to perpetuate the message of normalizing white nationalism. People of color are, according to some powerful government officials like Sheriff Joe, less than human in America.

For many Latinos, Arpaio’s pardon was a clear statement about race and power and the direction of our country. Do you think the church is listening to that perspective?

Probably not well enough. And that’s not new.

I once had a dialogue with a group of Christians leaders from around the country about whether America was post-racial. Of course we all said it wasn’t. We had a really frank conversation about what racism is, and how we experience it today. I started getting frustrated explaining it to my white friends. Finally I said, “Racism is not you burning a cross on my front yard. It’s refusing to acknowledge the white privilege you walk in every day.”

As Christians, we need to return to an understanding of idolatry. I hear some people idolizing (and sanitizing) the history of the confederacy. I think some of us are idolizing our culture -- believing that it should be valued above another. I see it in the CRC, too – one language, one form of worship, one liturgy is more valued than the gifts that another culture is bringing in.

We need to be willing to talk about sin and racism and redemption all at the same time. And understand how each of those things play a part in this time in our history. Sin is individual and communal at the same time. We participate in sin through our culture in ways that we’re ignorant to. Sometimes we need to see ourselves through the eyes of another culture to understand what’s wrong with what we’re doing.

So where do you think people can start, to see themselves or their own culture or their own church with someone else’s eyes?

I think it’s all about an openness to learning something new. It’s about the vulnerability of admitting that you don’t know everything, and letting someone teach you. I was invited to be part of a conversation on race and diversity a while ago. A brave white brother asked a good question, that required some vulnerability, “I don’t understand why white people are all in one neighborhood, and the black and Latino folks live somewhere else.” So he was introduced to redlining, which he had never heard of before. I’m glad he asked.

I think fear is a huge reason that we don’t learn. Lots of us are taught that faithfulness and having all the answers are somehow hand-in-hand. Especially those of us who are pastors -- it’s hard to admit that we don’t already know everything. So what can a pastor do?

I think you start by listening to someone else’s story. If you don’t get the Arpaio thing, then listen to someone express their deep pain, their deep fear, that’s wrapped up in that.

Read a blog. Pick up a book. Go and have a conversation with someone who is willing to talk to you. Say, “Help me understand.”

In our culture we tend to listen in order to respond rather than to listen and seek to understand. One has to be willing to suspend their own understanding at times in order to understand what someone else is trying to communicate. You can’t go into it thinking that you know the answer.

I think in the CRC, we pastors are taught to debate, to engage in a way that is always challenging or asserting, rather than in a way that submits and is humbling. Christena Cleveland wrote on her blog once about Philippians 2, how Christ emptied himself. One of the commenters on the post wanted to debate the theological points of what it meant for Christ to empty himself, completely missing the point.

I recognized that. I think we in the CRC can be like that. Always ready to defend, to respond. Never ready to serve.

So you’re on a learning curve, too. What voices are you listening to that are challenging you?

There are a few voices outside of my own culture that I’m really appreciating: Mark Charles, who is Navajo, and Soong Chan Rah, who is Korean-American. They’re helping me hear and see different things in Scripture, and in current events, and life and ministry that I could not on my own.

[Image: Flickr user Gage Skidmore under Creative Commons license]

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