[Editor's note: the following constitutes speaking notes, not a formal written presentation.]
With recent months' racial turmoil regarding Ferguson, Staten Island & others, long avoided issues of race-based systematic injustice have been brought to the forefront of national attention. The Church has largely been absent in its role in restoring order and justice. How should the Church understand and engage the racial issues in America, especially in majority white Churches? Through this discussion, I'll engage how Christ equips us to uniquely act on these matters and how to overcome the obstacles that commonly inhibit this action.
Scope & Aims: The problem of systematic racial injustice in America is multidimensional, nuanced, historically-rooted, systematically-sustained, and culturally deepened. These points are a start to a long-established issue and in the following discussion, my specific goals are:
1. To frame the issues within a proper historical and conceptual context. What is the heart of these issues? How must the Church see it?
2. To awaken the Church's heart for racial injustice & gain understanding in how to engage the issues as the Church
3. To discuss solutions to the common obstructions toward this stand
4. To devise practical ways to proactively work toward engaging these ongoing issues
Framework: The perspectives discussed must originate from a specific framework within our faith. I think we as Christians are often too quick to act on serious issues without first being broken in prayerfulness about it.
“Don't tear your clothing in your grief, but tear your hearts instead." – Joel 2:13 (NLT)
If we’re torn about these issues on surface levels that truly don’t come from an internal burden, then it’s just tearing our clothes and not our hearts. With this issue, we must be desperately dependent on the Holy Spirit to break up our heart and broaden our understanding. This comes from a humble place of brokenness and repentance at the foot of the Cross. I highly recommend prior to reading any further, taking a few minutes to revisit the place where grace found us personally. Embracing the brokenness in our personal testimony that our Savior brought healing to. It is through embracing the brokenness that Christ found us in, that we can meet the Black community in the depths of theirs.(See Psalm 34:17-19) This is not to compare our past life in sin and death to the issue at hand of murder, they are not the same. This is to adapt the heart in which we approach the matter; personally drawing into the place where we each most longed for justice and restoration in our own life to petition God for the same things in this world and through the issue of racial justice and reconciliation.
As we enter into examining the matter at hand, approach this prayerfully. Praying for: revelation, healing, growth, reconciliation, restoration overcoming, humility, compassion, work, burden & conviction; praying against: insensitivity, inconvenience/sleepiness, pride, self-righteousness.
Now in examining the issue, it’s important to bring to focus the heart of the matter at hand
What’s this about?
1. This is about the state of a historically-rooted and National issue. Ferguson is America, not an isolated incident. We must track the racial trajectory of America to see its evolution from explicit to pervasive racism.
o America is a story 250 years of slavery, 90 years of Jim Crow, 60 years of separate but equal, 35 years of racist housing policy, to the current state of mass incarceration, police brutality & discrimination, and militarization of inner city neighborhoods…And if you’re a skeptic about any of that, just ask some close friends you have within the black community about some of the experiences they’ve had as a person of color in America. Please have humility to understand that their experiences cannot be invalidated and are a piece of a much larger epidemic.
2. This is about the culmination of this history to symbolize many messages and themes found within this #BlackLivesMatter Movement.
Ferguson sends the themes that America:
a. Has no regard for Black life: We affirm that #BlackLivesMatter because the justice system, media, has constantly sent the message that Black lives can be disposed without second thought and with no threat of repercussion.
b. Falsely promotes Respectability Politics: We as the black community are in solidarity as we proclaim “I am Michael Brown”. This could’ve been any of us because of the demonization of people of color. You can be going to college (Michael Brown) a father of a family (Eric Garner) or any other aspect of “respectable living” and you can still be killed and negatively stereotyped.
c. Conducts modern day lynching Murder is the surface of what happens in these incidents. When a body is left dead in the street for 4 hours for a community to see, a man is innocently choked to death on video with no consequences, and a community of unarmed civilians is agitated and terrorized by a police force with military grade equipment and weapons, the point is to send a message. The point is to intimidate a people into silence and submission through setting an example. This is modern-day lynching using the slain bodies of our brothers and sisters.
d. Silences black voices. The beauty of the #BlackLivesMatter movement is the raising of voices that are never given the opportunity to speak to our experiences and conditions. Instead, voices of white supremacy through news outlets and the media speak on behalf of black people with unchallenged errancy.
How must the Church see this?
If these are the issues, how must the Church see them? The Church is silent mostly because there is a disconnect between understanding the urgency of the situation and what the Church has to offer as those who’ve received life in Jesus. In order to respond, we as the Church, need to see these cases for the events that happened, the messages they send & the structures they represent. This gives Christians two main general steps to take:
A. Why it should matter: The heart of the matter must be that we see a community that is deeply broken, hurt, grieving, feels abandoned & that if anyone should have a place in joining along with this brokenness, it’s the people who were once dead in their transgressions but through Christ are now made alive. We must ask ourselves “are we too saved and healed to remember our brokenness? Are we too politically-minded about who we “feel is right” that we forsake the chance to radiate the grace, hope, and love of Christ for the chance to be “right” on an issue? Are we too comfortable in the privilege we’re clothed in to humble ourselves to grieve, listen, and act with our black brothers and sisters? Our job as the Church is primarily to see hurt and point it to a healing Savior, to see anger and bear with it with the grace we’ve been bestowed, to see hopelessness and direct the longing for justice and hope to Christ. This must be the first of many priorities
B. Faith and Work “Suppose a brother or a sister is without clothes and daily food. 16 If one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and well fed,” but does nothing about their physical needs, what good is it? 17 In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead” (James 2:15-17 NIV)
A genuine heart for the matter births action. Dismantling the oppressive systems that cause these issues must be the next point of action. Though my last point established the foundation in white allyship, the issue of a black life murdered still must be the focus. Please do not mistake my insight to ignore and sideswipe the issue of the murder of black lives. If you were feeding the homeless, the heart is giving from how Christ has fed you but the result is focusing on the issue with a prayerful heart of opportunity to minister. From this primary thought, the Church then must act in practical ways to restore justice. This can come in many ways. It often will come in engaging those who hold harmful and ignorant views on the issues, even if it’s your close friends or relatives. It can also joining as an ally in community organizing efforts and offering services & aids to make efforts more effective.
Being obedient to the call to act has to go past the intentions to do so. There are many obstacles that will try and inhibit this. Below I list out some of the common ones I’ve heard and discuss how to overcome them.
o Unaware or ignorant: A primary obstacle is ignorance of the nuance and depth of the issues. To this, there are several outlets where one can learn both the facts and reliable outside perspectives on the issue. Invest in looking into more than typical news outlets outside of the often skewed and biased CNN & Fox news. The Root, Huffington Post Black Voices, The Grio, The Daily Show with Jon Stewart are all some that I use
o Uncomfortable, least qualified: After looking into concepts such as “privilege”, many people will feel least qualified and very uncomfortable engaging in these tough dialogues. Don’t let this distract from dealing with it. Ignoring these issues sustains the problematic structures. If anything, acknowledge in the conversation that you do feel this way and that it’s personally important enough to work past.
o Don’t opt out: Related to the last obstacle of discomfort, don’t opt out of engaging due to ANY reason. Realize that the ability to opt out of the issue is a primary benefit of privilege altogether… Many of us wish we could opt out of this everyday reality
o Conflict: The work of reconciliation is messy, heavy and toiling; it may initially cause conflict. A huge misconception is that the ministry of reconciliation will be conflict-free if done right. The truth is that we aren’t promised seamless interaction, but in overcoming our disagreements and tensions in Christ, we should be able to overcome it and ask for grace.
o Not knowing which people to engage/be personal with: In committing to engage, there’s still the matter of discerning who and what fields to engage in. Getting past this is a matter of: Prayerfully asking God for people, thinking about relationships already established, having a disposition to listen, and not being too afraid to ask for grace in interactions.
o Fear: Fear is an emotion that too often guides our lives when it’s meant to be acknowledged, then biblically and spiritually discerned. 2 Timothy 1:7 tells us that “For God hath not given us the spirit of fear; but of power, and of love, and of a sound mind.” The spirit of love and a sound mind to discern gives us power to act past our fear. Pair this wisdom with the biblical promise of our covering in Christ; that God is always with who He calls to go.
o Difficulty: the difficulty of this work is daunting; however we must remember that so was the cross Jesus bore for us. Everything that brings life requires toil. Find strength in how Jesus took up His cross for us.
o Resistance from family or close friends. These situations are tough but we must remember what Jesus taught in Matthew 10:34 “Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword.” We can’t sacrifice justice for superficial peace. A strategy to pursue is bringing up the topic through inquiry & questions that draw conversation to the blind spots such as privilege. Make it local by talking about friends who have experienced it & centering it on the emotions & experiences they face.
o Need to prove that you “get it” Fully understanding shouldn’t be the goal. The truth is you can’t fully understand and that this goal can often be a hindrance. Instead, make the goal listening, learning, having compassion, and being burdened by what is burdening your sister or brother in Christ.
o The issue is too big to tackle: Start where you are and don’t underestimate the work God wants to do through you in your immediate community and relationships. Your call may be to challenge the people most similar to you instead of other groups. Allow prayer to direct your perspective opposed to your own judgments.
1. Be prayerful in processing and acting
2. Make the hurt the priority, don't ignore or reduce it. Hurt with your brothers & sisters. Approach the Father with it, with them
3. Educate yourself to the nuance, depth, and perspectives outside of your own experiences on the issue.
4. Embrace the inconvenience & discomfort of the matter; don’t opt out
5. Don't forsake the opportunity to minister through bearing burdens for the opportunity "to be right” with your opinion to the issue
6. Actively participate, but be a guest by not taking the attention off the issue or the amplifying of black voices.
7. Start with considering those in your most immediate community and relationships to engage with. Be guided by prayer in doing this
Overall, the state of racial relations in America is a very dismal one. Luckily, the Church must remember that God is in the business of resurrecting what seems dead. The process of reconciliation begins at the source of God’s salvation for us: compassion. If the Church can undertake America’s racial issues at a heart level where we compassionately seek to hurt, listen, walk, and work with its brothers and sisters of the black community under the healing lordship of our Father, we will be the restorers of justice God has called us to be. To do that, we have to move past intentions and obstacles and embrace the dirty and difficult work of reconciliation; just as Jesus did for us.