January 5, 2016 Tom Berlin

No Off Switch

I took a flight to a meeting in Florida this week. Sitting on the plane I experienced what seemed like a new feature of the plane. The TV screen in front of me was on when I sat down. During the pre-flight stage of the journey I could see a number of programs. Every few minutes it invited me to swipe my credit card to enjoy a movie or a range of additional channels. Once the plane took off, a very limited selection was available without paying that $8 fee. That was fine, because I wanted to get some work done. I tried to get rid of the distracting light of the screen but discovered that there was no off switch. I found volume, brightness, channels and a select button but nothing that would simply make the flickering screen before me go away. I opened my laptop and began to work but was irritated, even a bit angered, by the situation the airline created for me. Who were they to insist that a small video display fill my space through the duration of my flight?

About 30 minutes into the flight I realized that a couple of people around me figured out how to make their screen go dark. When the flight attendant came by with the drink cart, I asked for a tutorial. (In case you have this problem, press the brightness button on the left until the picture disappears.) Finally my screen went dark, and I could work undistracted. Feeling blissfully in control again, I got busy with my tasks. But before I knew it, the screen was back on, this time with an advertisement for a hotel chain. This happened a couple of times. I’d turn the TV off and a few minutes later, the advertisement was in my face. Worst of all, there was no way to turn the commercial off. It had to be endured. A small thing but so irritating. The airline apparently felt that the money they received for the ad was of greater value than the customer’s desire to control his or her video display.

I have been thinking about that experience today along with a series I am preaching on race in January. Many of us have real control over where and when we think about issues of race. If you are white, you have the privilege of confining conversations of race to the books you read or choose not to read, the topics you discuss or avoid, the choice of pursuing an account in the news or looking for something different to occupy your interest. The high level of frustration I felt with the lack of an off switch on that plane correlates to the high volume of time I, as a white male, have had control in my life. My background and access to education, security, travel and numerous other good things in life have conditioned me to feel independent and in control. More than that, I feel that I have earned control. I deserve control. Much of this is the fruit of being born white in America.

As I have studied the history, sociology and economics of race and engaged in conversations with others of diverse backgrounds, I have found that most people of other ethnicities don’t have the same access to the off switch of race that I enjoy as a person of European descent. It is constantly in their face. It is in the dangerous neighborhoods where they grow up, the low-functioning schools to which they are assigned and the historical economic factors that have shaped their experience of America. Every day these issues and a host of others are in their face, including how others see them, the names assigned to them, the jokes that are shared, the fear others carry when they encounter them on the sidewalk or the discomfort some feel when the elevator door closes.

No off button can be found in their lives. Matters of race are always flickering brightly, inches away.

2015 was a hard year for America in regards to race—especially hard for white Americans because we like our racial off button. Month after month, sometimes week after week, issues of race kept rudely popping up around us. Black men shot in the street, a white supremacist gunning down members of a predominately black church gathered for Bible study, calls for a vast deportation of undocumented workers by a political candidate, videos of black teenagers being thrown to the ground at a neighborhood swimming pool and riots and arguing about the nature of the Confederate flag just kept coming over and over in every form of news and social media. Just when we figured out how to turn one off, another popped up in our face, over and over again.

As a white male who is a Christian, I see God at work in this, not in the lack of social justice present in many of these stories, the violence that plagues our society, the deplorable history of how minority persons have been treated over the decades or the poverty built on legislative and economic foundations that remain unaddressed by state and national leaders. I see God at work in the way that these issues were so in the face of a white man in the past year that he simply cannot ignore the cries of those who have no off switch for matters of race. I think God is telling us, especially those of us whose color and class have given us such access to off switches, that until we examine and interrogate ourselves individually and as a country, our prayers for it to go away will not be answered. The good Lord seems more than willing to keep the whole mess in our face until we offer access to the greatest aspirations of community and country to all the passengers around us.

Tom Berlin

Rev. Tom Berlin is the Lead Pastor of Floris United Methodist Church. Tom was raised in the beautiful Shenandoah Valley and has lived in Virginia most of his life. He is a graduate of Virginia Tech and his Master of Divinity is from the Candler School of Theology at Emory University. He has co-authored three books and is the author of several small group studies. Tom and his wife Karen have four daughters.

Comments (4)

  1. Rick Wormeli

    Hi Tom — I’m very grateful for churches and church leaders who have the courage and fortitude to address potentially explosive issues with the congregation and local community, especially issues that matter so much to everyone’s daily success, such as racism, and that so powerfully evoke what Christ asks us to address. What’s even better, it’s my own church, my own community, and you are approaching this so thoughtfully: ‘Really exploring racism deeply from multiple perspectives, honoring what others bring to the conversation, making the connections with religious faith, helping us move past the human need to sort others into categories and judge differences among us as weak and undesirable, and then inviting our substantive, not superficial, responses. Okay, not just inviting here, but compelling in a such a way that we choose it as a personal mission for each of us in the year ahead. Thank you for all the hours you put into preparing for your thinking and writing of these sermons, and for trusting in God and the congregation enough to lead us deeply into the topic of racism and what we can do about it. I loved the first sermon and this posting on your blog, and am looking forward to what’s to come. — Rick Wormeli

  2. Dick Carroll

    Tom, thanks so much for addressing this issue and placing it front and center in our spiritual lives. I recently taught a course here in Garrett County, Maryland on “Slavery and America,” connecting the dots from the post-civil war period to the current frustration in the African-American communities. Linda and I will closely follow this series. Again, thanks.

  3. Nice work, Tom. Excellent use of the metaphor for both “sides” of the equation. I hope your sermon series goes well and moves some hearts.

  4. John Clarke

    Tom, a wonderful, thought provoking treatises!
    My Father, for 51 years a pastor in the VAC, was passionate in working for fairness in race relations at a time when it could be detrimental to his pastorates. He grew up on a farm in conservative Southside Virginia, yet consistently took stands for racial equality, even becoming a member of a committee in Newpot News during the early 40’s that pushed successfully to get the first black policeman on their police force. He would have so enjoyed your thoughts on the race issue!
    Thank you, John C.

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