Shifting Burdens

In these days we’re living, do you ever feel overwhelmed by the news cycle?

Yes, me too.

Because behind the new cycle, there are real, human stories of suffering. And so often, we feel helpless to prevent that suffering and powerless to change it.

It’s incredibly understandable to fall into those feelings. In such times, we need the solidarity of one another – that is,

. . . the sense that we are in each other’s view, that we encounter each other’s pain with empathy,

. . . the sense that we have each other’s commitment, that we are in each other’s corner for the long haul,

. . . the sense that we have each other’s action, that we covenant to act on behalf of one another, especially and most readily for the vulnerable.

Christian scripture encourages us to bear each other’s burdens. Lately, within that calling, I find myself encouraging people to shift each other’s burdens. 

We can easily become incapacitated once we realize we cannot instantly fix the systems that are causing burdens. But our empathy, and most importantly, our committed action can change these systems and these burdens. Do not underestimate what these can do.

When we see pain for what it is, we add our validation, and it shifts burdens.

When we add our resources of money, time, or skills, it shifts burdens.

When we use our voices to name wrongs for what they are, it shifts burdens.

When we use our minds to create solutions, it shifts burdens.

When we put our bodies in places that disrupt harm, it shifts burdens.

When we honor the humanity of people who are being dehumanized, it shifts burdens.

When we take direct action and demand justice for the oppressed and vulnerable, it shifts burdens.

If we want to change the large-scale systems that cause harm, we have to disrupt and dismantle them. But alongside that commitment, we have to live and model our lives with a different rhythm – with different commitments and ways of relating to one another.

We practice solidarity.

And within that way of living, we share and lighten the loads that people are carrying. We assign energy and responsibility to where they really belong.

We shift each other’s burdens.

Renee Roederer

Solidarity for Muslim Siblings

Very often, we like to believe that we are neutral observers – that we make natural conclusions based on the ways we pay attention to reality. But actually, the opposite is nearly always true. The concepts and frameworks we hold in our minds shape the ways that we construct and understand reality. For this reason, it’s important for us to examine and question the concepts we carry, especially when it comes to our fellow human beings.

Yesterday, the Supreme Court of the United States announced that it will hear a case concerning the Travel Ban Executive Order in October. In the process, the court lifted an injunction and is allowing the ban to be enforced partially now. Unless they have a “bona fide relationship with any person or entity in the United States,” people from Iran, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, and Yemen – six majority Muslim countries – will not be permitted to travel to the U.S. While Donald Trump has raised security concerns about terrorism from these nations, it is important to note that no act of terror in the U.S. has never been committed by someone from these nations.

Yet we allow the fear and the labeling, and inevitably, the stigma against Muslims to continue, both abroad and inside our own nation. Muslims face increased discrimination, and some are the victims of violent hate crimes perpetrated against them.

Did you know that when acts of terror in the U.S. are committed by Muslims, they receive 4.5 times more media coverage than when they are committed by non-Muslims? A recent study demonstrated this.

Did you know that white supremacist organizations are recruiting online faster than ISIS?

Did you know that the vast majority of victims of global terror are themselves Muslims?

Our Muslim siblings are thoroughly stereotyped, then made vulnerable in every way – physically, emotionally, mentally, socially, and spiritually – to the hatred that fuels violence against those stereotypes. 

We have to change these dangerous narratives. Imaging and messaging affect us; they have taken hold in our implicit bias. And among many, they are fueling conscious hatred.

Our Muslim siblings need and deserve our solidarity, both in support and in action.

Renee Roederer 

Stigma and Solidarity


I sat with a group of people in silence yesterday, and it felt important.

Other than my own thoughts, I don’t know any of the particulars that arose in our minds collectively, but the silence felt powerful and energized toward commitment. It felt invigorated toward solidarity.  This silence took place at Northside Presbyterian Church. I had just finished speaking about a narrative that we read together. It’s only five verses long, but it’s a powerful story.

A leper came to him begging him, and kneeling he said to him, ‘If you choose, you can make me clean.’ Moved with pity, Jesus stretched out his hand and touched him, and said to him, ‘I do choose. Be made clean!’ Immediately the leprosy left him, and he was made clean. After sternly warning him he sent him away at once, saying to him, ‘See that you say nothing to anyone; but go, show yourself to the priest, and offer for your cleansing what Moses commanded, as a testimony to them.’ But he went out and began to proclaim it freely, and to spread the word, so that Jesus could no longer go into a town openly, but stayed out in the country; and people came to him from every quarter.

It’s hard to wrap our minds around the level of stigma and shame that people with leprosy carried in the 1st century. A leper was someone who had a variety of skin diseases that were considered to be unclean under the Levitical law. According to the law, people with leprous diseases were supposed to wear torn clothes, keep their hair disheveled, cover their upper lips and cry out everywhere, “Unclean! Unclean!” They had to announce their own condition everywhere. They were seen and known only through this label. Lepers were supposed to live alone, and they were supposed to stay outside the camp or city.

Yet amidst the shame, this person, this labeled one, had the audacity to approach Jesus. Likely terrified, he came close, aware that his presence could also render Jesus ritually unclean under the law. Yet he made his request, not with a question but with a conviction. “If you choose, you can  make me clean.”

Jesus answers him with powerful words. They’re powerful when we read them on the page but even more so when we hear them aloud.

I do choose.

“I do choose. Be made clean.” And more than voicing mere words, Jesus did something that was itself audacious. He touched this man. He touched this one labeled untouchable. And beyond even that, he exchanged places with this man. The healed man is empowered to go into the community freely, but after sharing his story, Jesus can no longer enter a town openly. Instead, he stays out in the country, and people come to him from every quarter. [1]

Such a convicting story about risk, choice, commitment, and solidarity.

Yesterday, we sat in silence and asked ourselves, what kinds of healing could happen if we made ourselves more deeply present to those who carry stigma and shame in our own culture? What could happen if we humbled ourselves to learn with empathy, and if we made choices to demonstrate deep care with solidarity? What kinds of healing could be possible?

Let’s think about solidarity this week, as we honor. . .

. . . People who are immigrants, refugees, undocumented workers,
. . . People who are transgender, bisexual, lesbian, gay, and queer,
. . . People who are attacked with violence for their black and brown skin,
. . . People who are Muslim and painfully stereotyped,
. . . People who don’t know where their next meal is coming from,
. . . People who have been harmed by religion,
. . . People who have terminal illnesses,
. . . People who have mental illnesses,
. . . People who have disabilities that are culturally stigmatized,
. . . People who live by themselves and are desperately lonely,
. . . People who are imprisoned in cages,
. . . People, even little children, who know neglect and abuse,
. . . People, even young adults, who have grown up in the foster care system,
. . . And many others. . .

Renee Roederer

[1] I thank the Rev. Dr. John Alsup for this observation. Years ago, he taught this passage to my seminary Greek class, and his words about this passage, particularly about this exchange, have always stayed with me.




Narratives of White Resentment


If it’s possible to say that something is not surprising yet utterly shocking at the same time, I would like to share a particular statistic as a prime example.

In 2014, the Public Religion Rsearch Institute conducted a survey entitled, “2014 Pre-Election American Values Survey: Economic Insecurity, Rising Inequality, and Doubts about the Future.” In that study, 45% of Americans agreed with the following statement:

“Today discrimination against whites has become as big a problem as discrimination against blacks and other minorities.”

45 percent.

But that’s not all. When the same statement was read to Tea Party members, 73% agreed.

73 percent.

Is there any wonder why we are experiencing a whitelash of white racial resentment in this nation right now? In hate crimes, in violent policies, in for-profit prisons, in the stalking of immigrants from ICE, in deportations and forced family separations, and in extrajudicial killings by police officers? It’s horrific.

Agreement with this statement is absolutely absurd and worse, thoroughly dangerous. Agreement stands outside of historical knowledge of discrimination and violence that minoritized communities of color have experienced in the United States and are experiencing right now in our collective present. Agreement stands outside of awareness, or at the very least, outside of confession, that white supremacy is both internalized in our beliefs and externalized in our national structures and institutions.

I do not doubt that some white Americans are struggling in a variety of ways, and I have empathy for those struggles, particularly as stagnating economy is leaving many people in financial, social, and physical isolation. This is a serious concern.

But to voice agreement with this statement. . . ? In the wake of recent years, as black activists and activists of color have continued to organize movements against their own discrimination, this belief from white Americans sounds like a serious escalation of white fragility. Activists have further exposed white privilege and the systems that support them, and they have brought this discourse into national conversation. When these realities and systems have come into question, some white Americans have determined themselves to believe that these acts of truth-telling now signal discrimination against whites. That is simply untrue.

That internalization — a belief that discrimination against whites is now as big a problem as discrimination against blacks — does not stay internalized. This internalization expresses itself externally in acts of physical, emotional, mental, spiritual, political, and economic violence. White racial resentment is growing (or at the very least, is voiced more openly) while the demographic numbers of white Americans are shrinking. As these population numbers grow smaller over future decades, will violence escalate even further as well?

Much is at stake here. We have to change these narratives.

Renee Roederer

Deportations and The Get-Out-of-Empathy-Free Card


[Public Domain Image]

Right now, after a large scale raid in Detroit, 114 people are awaiting deportation to Iraq.

Because many of them are Chaldean Christians, they have had some advocacy from Christian organizations. These organizations are joining the families in concern that their loved ones might be targeted for violence by ISIS because of their faith.

Alongside this concern, apart from any sort of religious affiliation, this is a human trauma. The mass deportations we are watching in the U.S. (or ceasing watching) and the separations many are supporting (or simply ignoring) are a devastating human trauma for those who are detained and for their families.

Among the Iraqis awaiting deportation is a 46 year old man who grew up in the United States. He has few if any memories of living in Iraq. Deeply concerning, he doesn’t even speak Arabic. How is he supposed to suddenly make a life in Iraq, separated from his family and placed in a nation that is remarkably uncommon to him?

A 41 year old Chaldean woman has lived in the United States since she was 5 years old. She is a mother of three children who are U.S. citizens. In 2003, she was charged with fraud, though the charges were dropped after probation. Is anyone safer because she is forceably removed from her home in Warren, Michigan? Of course not. Her children are robbed of their mother and will lose familial connection, emotional safety, and physical and financial support. The members of this family are now less safe. It is devastating.

And what narrative do we tell ourselves to support these large scale, human traumas?

“They are criminals,” some say and then shrug, as if this is exactly what is deserved, or as if this outcome makes sense, or as if our hands are tied and there is literally nothing else that can be done. (P.S. There is. We can change our policies, procedures, and laws).

“They are criminals,” is the line — the justification — that functions like the Get Out Of Feeling Empathy Free Card. It lets us ‘off the hook’ when we send people straight into violence, often into nations the U.S. has destabilized (that’s why some people sought to leave; they escaped violence we helped create) and always away from crucial relationships, including in many cases, family members who are U.S. citizens.

It is the line we tell ourselves so we don’t have think about any particulars — like the fact that some of these crimes happened decades ago, or that they were nonviolent crimes, or that some were drug possession charges due to addictions (the opioid crisis gets empathy, but not these addictions) or that the criminal justice system is capable of targeting immigrants with criminal charges because they are immigrants.

We don’t want to weigh particulars. We just want to believe that immigrants facing deportations are criminals. It’s not just that they’ve been charged or convicted of crimes, but criminality is an aspect of who they are. No particulars. No empathy. “They are criminals.” It makes all the more sense if they have black or brown skin because we use the same narrative as a Get Out of Empathy Free Card for our own citizens as well. “They are criminals.” This will put the traumas of deportation and forced separation out of our minds. It will help us sleep at night.

It is true that many of these detained Chaldeans have been charged with crimes at various points in their lives. But most have faced accountability in that process and have put those years and those acts behind them. Can we change our narrative? Might we advocate for different outcomes if we said and thoroughly believed, “They are human beings”?

Renee Roederer

Who Tells the Narrative?

Word on keyboard

There is a great deal of pain in our world at the moment, and that pain is particularly acute for those who recognize themselves, their families, and their friends in the news of this week’s violence.

Philando Castile
Charleena Lyles
Nabra Hassanen
Hundreds of Iraqi immigrants in Detroit, facing deportation
The BlackPride4
Red Fawn and the Water Protectors
Residents of Grenfell
Families of the Charleston 9
Shooting victims in San Francisco

In the wake of so many killings, losses, and forms imprisonment, I find myself wondering, who is telling the narrative? Do the survivors and their families have the primary vantage point and platform to share their own pain, or do privileged individuals and systems position themselves to tell those stories? How do privileged people and systems tap into old tropes to curb accountability or deflect the possibility for large-scale changes? What kinds of labels and projections go unquestioned in their narratives?

“She had a mental illness.”
“Muslims are terrorists.”
“He feared for his life.”
“They are illegals.”

Every notice who is telling these narratives? They are rarely the people most vulnerable and susceptible to harm. They are almost always the people with more power — the very people who have a vested interest in staying precisely in that position.

When we see violence, discrimination, and harm taking place, we should listen to the voices most painfully acquainted with those realities.

Renee Roederer


Storied Sounds

Along with about 250 other people, I had the joy of singing Fauré’s Requiem last night. Three times per year, there is a local set of events called the Summer Sings in our town. A conductor leads a rehearsal on a major work for about an hour and a half. Then, after a break, we come back and sing it together.

Fauré’s Requiem is piece I dearly love and one that has a great deal of memories connected to it. Interestingly, during my pastoral years, every church I was a part of had a church choir that sang this work. Three churches. Three tremendous choirs. Three Fauré Requiems. 

I cannot sing this piece without recalling so many people I love in those communities. It’s amazing how music contains sounds that opens stories and storied connections. I’m sure that many others in the room had a similar experience last night as they recalled other performances and the connections they shared with people during those performances.

Music can open holy narratives of memory and connection. Are there particular forms of music that bring you into these kinds of memories and connections? Perhaps you can give yourself the gift to find that music and play it, allowing yourself to remember belonging, purpose, meaning, and fun.

Music connects across time, making memories and the storied connections of communities quite present.

Renee Roederer