As a precursor, I want to mention that I call out and mention “the church” multiple times in this post and when I say that, I understand there are many in the church but I am speaking specifically to white evangelicals, although, I hope all will benefit from some of my thoughts here in this post that has been on my heart for some time.
Our country has erupted with violent protests following repeated “not guilty” verdicts of white law enforcement killing unarmed black people. There was Fruitvale Station. There was Michael Brown. There have been countless other instances of injustice with white people walking away from murder and black people being shot to death. Some have responded to the outbursts of violent protests and riots with anger and frustration at what appears simply as a bunch of violent protests and riots under the banner of political action. Others respond with frustration at the repeated injustices and watching many who observe such acts of apparent injustice and turn a blind eye to the system yet somehow seek justice against those who are protesting and rioting because of the injustice. For some of the population there seems to be confusion as to why so many are suddenly getting angry about the justice system and simply write it off as being a political movement to be ignored. For some of the population it is as though justice works against you if you’re black and the repeated injustices of people killing unarmed black people are evidence of just how far we have yet to go to see that “dream” Dr. King spoke about so long ago.
The reality is that when those injustices happen and whoever commits them are allowed to get away with it again, and again, and again, and again, and repeatedly, it is as though the words of Dr. King are ringing in the ears of people of color once more,
“… American has given the Negro a bad check, a check which has come back marked ‘insufficient funds.'”
– Dr. Martin Luther King
I’ve been reading a book lately called Under Our Skin by Benjamin Watson, pro-football tight end. Watson is a Christian, so he tries to write from a place to bridge gap of misunderstanding that spans the breadth of the US population today amidst such injustices and reactions to injustices. It is an eye-opening read as Watson is candid about his own experience having been born in Virginia and growing up in South Carolina. He writes of an experience of being good friends when he was a boy with another boy, they used to play sports together, and were often very competitive with one another. His friend was a white boy, but that wasn’t an issue for either of them at that younger age, or so it would seem. There was a cute girl in school and all the boys liked this girl, and Watson tells of how one day they were sitting at a cafeteria table and his friend noticed him looking at this cute, white girl that everybody had a crush on. His friend told him, ‘too bad you’re black, you’d probably have a chance with her.’ His friend wasn’t trying to be cruel, but Watson admits that it was the first time in his life that he felt ashamed for being black and that that moment forever changed his relationship with that friend. Watson went home crushed and hurt. There are countless other examples and Watson describes his experience far better than I am describing it here, however, in reading of his experience I was cut to the heart and found myself tearing up. You see, growing up, my best friend was black and over the years as is common with many, our lives took different paths and we grew apart. After reading Watson’s experience, I suddenly felt the need to reach out to my friends from childhood, to reconnect, and to somehow be there for them in any way I can.
Christians have responded to the race tensions in our country in different ways. Some have setup community conversations to have an open discussion where people can share how they feel and hopefully be reconciled. Some have responded with sadness that the injustices are happening, but also that the reaction to the injustices have been rioting. Some have responded as if nothing has happened except some minorities are a part some political movement and that liberal political movement is causing problems.
I believe part of the problem the church has in viewing the racial tension in our country is often that we too quickly equate it with a political movement in order to write-it off as if it doesn’t matter and so that we don’t have to think about it, but what we do when we do that is that we forget the people who are actually being hurt. We forget that despite how some church leaders have, in my opinion wrongly, separated the country and world into political us vs. them, and equated the church with a set of political beliefs, the world is not comprised simply of divisions and differences, it is comprised of people, human beings, people created in the ‘image of God’ who have dignity and value and worth in their humanity derived by their Creator. When you view a person through the lens of an opposing political viewpoint, often you discard that person’s humanity, their value, their worth, and in so doing you shirk your responsibility to love them as a human being because they don’t seem to think the way you do.
When I read that experience Watson wrote about and shared along with his family’s conflicted feeling about injustices happening without any prosecution with black people, it’s as though the noise of Facebook, the noise of the media, the noise of politics, everything went silent for a moment and I could truly listen without the distraction or interruption of so many things and the result is my heart was open and I was hurting with Watson, I was hurting with his family, I was hurting with the black community about the injustices that have happened. Does that mean I’m saying police are bad and aren’t doing their jobs? No. I think the problem is complex. Many police do their jobs and they have very hard, challenging jobs in which they are often under-paid. However, there are also the strange circumstances of an all white police force in a black neighborhood doing their jobs, except when white people are a part of their jobs maybe they get arrested and when black people are a part of their jobs they get kill shots. That is a problem.
One of my favorite things to see in those non-violent protests and marches during the Civil Rights Movement were various church members, pastors, and priests who were all there with the oppressed, with the victims, walking with arms interlocked, white and black people standing together. That’s where the church should be. The church should be with those who are being oppressed, standing up for those who are suffering, being a place of refuge, and loving even those society deems undeserving of love, undeserving of help. After all, we as Christians believe that we are sinners saved by grace through faith in Jesus. We are undeserving of the grace that God has shown us, yet, where would we be if God only showed grace to those who deserved it?
Those protests and marches with black and white people standing together, that was not all that happened. Some white people in the church were using the cross as a death threat to black people by putting crosses in the front yards of black people and setting them on fire, maybe shooting rounds from the gun into their child’s window as they drive off. There were church people who did that as well. There were likely church people who didn’t believe anything THAT severe was actually going on, or the far worse things that actually did happen. It reminds me of a scene in Band of Brothers when a Jewish concentration camp is discovered hidden in a forest, not far from a German town. The soldiers asked the Germans in the town what the concentration camp was for and many of the Germans said they had no idea there was a camp or that Jewish people were being treated poorly. I could imagine there were some German people who may have thought the horrible things that the Nazi’s did were too bad to be true, maybe they just said it’s political stuff and they wrote-it off. Sound familiar?
While I cannot say I have experienced what black people experience in this country, I can say that I have experienced prejudice against Mexican-Americans. There are a number of light-hearted jokes people make about Mexicans and often to me because I am Irish-French American myself, however, I grew up in a Mexican-American home and my family is Mexican-American. People makes Mexican and racial jokes to me because they think since the color of my skin is white that it is okay to make a racial joke to me because they think they can understand me and my upbringing by looking at my skin color, however, I am a white guy raised in a Mexican-American family and home and culture. My skin color doesn’t indicate my cultural background or heritage necessarily as it may with others. 5 years ago I was driving a U-Haul truck with my Honda Civic on a trailer behind in tow from Oklahoma to Maine to begin serving as pastor of the church I am presently with. My stepdad wanted to come with me, to help drive and/or keep me company, and then fly back to Kansas (where I grew up and he lives). My stepdad is Mexican-American and has a dark complexion, dark black hair, and a thick black mustache. I actually drove most of the trip because he isn’t comfortable driving in snow, rain, dark, or near major urban areas. That was most of the trip.
It was east of Indianapolis that he decided he’d try to drive for a stretch since it wasn’t snowing. We started on the highway and we passed two state troopers parked in the middle of the highway next to one another and I saw one state trooper for a moment look as though he were pointing at us as we drove by. Quickly, a state trooper appeared right next to the U-Haul truck and was forcibly motioning with his hand for us to pull over. So, we did. Then, he asked my stepdad to get out of the truck, he frisked him, and had him get in the back of his trooper car. After a few minutes, the state trooper came up to my window and asked for my ID and asked where I was going and why my English was so good. The U-Haul truck had an Arizona tag but most moving trucks don’t have a local tag but one from another state, many from Arizona. He then asked what was in the truck and I told him I was moving from Oklahoma to Maine for my new job and my belongings were boxed up in the truck. The trooper smirked as if he thought I was making things up and asked why I didn’t have an Arizona ID. I told him I wasn’t from Arizona, but that was just the tag on the U-Haul rental. He asked me if I was smuggling/trafficking drugs. Apparently, he thought that because the U-Haul had an Arizona tag, my stepdad looks Mexican and I (certain times of the year) have a darker complexion, that we must be trafficking drugs from Mexico. My stepdad was allowed to return to the truck but he was a little shaken up and didn’t want to drive anymore. I was shocked that that had even happened, let alone we were never told why we were pulled over to begin with other than they thought that we were drug traffickers because of the color of our skin.
I have shared that story with many since it happened. However, the sad reality is that that experience of being profiled because of one’s skin color while not violating the law is an experience many black people in this country are unfortunately used to.
Perhaps instead of people responding to the racial tension with violence or turning a blind eye to it, what if instead we opened our hearts to look past the political agendas and affiliations that we often associate with which divide people and look simply at the reality that there are human beings who are experiencing injustice in our country and we have a responsibility not only as fellow human beings, but as Christians to not turn a blind eye to those who are hurting, those who are afflicted, those who are oppressed and to open our hearts to them.
What if the church put all the political jargon that it has been saturated with of late along with the labels various media outlets have been telling Americans to believe about any given situation aside, and reached out to the black people and minorities who are in our lives and had a conversation with them and tried to put ourselves in their shoes for a moment?
There have been too many white Christians in this country unwilling to have that difficult conversation about race and too many white Christians unwilling to reach out to those who are black. People take the politically-saturated media’s story for the experience of millions of people they do not know and put those people into the stereotypes portrayed by the media in order to ignore the injustice that millions of people are facing. That’s not how the church is to love our neighbor. Yet, that is precisely what many people are doing. They allowing the media and their political stances to replace their hearts.
Just because all seems relatively well and okay for you doesn’t mean it is for everybody else. There are problems in our world because we live in a world affected by and tainted and marred by sin and it’s effects. Sin separates us from God, but sin also separates us from one another. I believe the Gospel of Jesus Christ alone helps us to be reconciled to both to God and one another. That is why Jesus summarized the Law as loving God and loving others. There are many things that can bring people together for various reasons, but nothing brings people together like the church, ideally, should. A place where there is no division between male, female, young, old, blue collar workers (slave), white collar workers (free), Jew, Gentile, but all are one in Christ. All those boundaries and barriers that our world creates to separate people from one another come crashing down in the church, or ideally, they should. The reality is that the church is described by many outlets as being the most segregated place in America on any given Sunday.
We say we believe in the church being a place where there are no ethnic barriers or divisions, but do we live it?
I think it is time for the church to show the world what this beautiful picture of the Kingdom of God looks like. For the church to do that, the church needs to not be ignoring or turning a blind eye to injustice and race problems or too preoccupied with politics to consider what Jesus teaches, but the church should be leading the way for all the world in showing what it looks like to have no divisions and barriers. We need to stop coming up with excuses to loving our neighbor and get out and do it.
If Christ were to return and see a church wrought with divisions in itself and turning a blind eye toward injustice, what do you think He would say? Hint: Read any of the prophets in the Old Testament, or simply read what Jesus said in the New Testament to those who wouldn’t associate with Samaritans, Romans, the sick, the poor, the widowed, the orphans. It’s not pretty.
Some of the most popular music in Christian music right now is Christian hip-hop, where artists like Lecrae, Trip Lee, Propaganda, Jackie Hill Perry, and others have been writing incredible music that has become so popular that many professional athletes have been listening to their music. However, when you turn on the Christian radio station, will you hear Lecrae’s powerful new song “Gangland” from his new mixtape that was one of the tope selling albums on iTunes in the hip-hop genre? Will you hear the song “Welcome to America” or “Dirty Water,” top hits from his last album which he won a Grammy for and was featured twice on Jimmy Fallon? Will you hear about Lecrae’s new book or about the rough life he had growing up? On Christian radio, if you hear any of Lecrae’s songs, you will only hear songs that are less popular and feature white singers that sound much like the rest of Christian music. You will not hear about the real, tough issues that Lecrae raps about in our culture, country, and church…
Why is that? The reason is we have a race problem in our country and we have a race problem in the church.
Church worship services sometimes feature “special music” which is a cover of a song by a contemporary Christian musician. How would you feel if that special music were to be a black man or woman rapping a cover of a Lecrae song about race or about the church? If that makes you feel uncomfortable or you would question whether that should be in a church worship service, why? Why does the music that is predominantly associated with black people make you feel uncomfortable? If the answer is that because you are not black and you don’t feel like it resonates with you, maybe you can understand how black people and minorities may already feel about the special music you are comfortable with allowing in a worship service.
If you like a certain type of music, I am not saying you need to listen to other types of music. However, just because you aren’t suffering because of your race doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be hurting with and embracing those who are. Maybe our worship services are great, but maybe we should be asking whether our worship services support the vision for the Kingdom of God that we say we’re about or whether they support a still divided, segregated culture that people believe still the church to be?
I don’t know all the answers and this problem is a complex issue in our culture, however, as far as the church and Christians are concerned, we should be a place where black and white people have interlocked arms like those pictures and films depicting those marches so long ago, however, we should not have our arms interlocked for political reasons but because we are united by the Gospel of Jesus Christ and so our arms then are not interlocked with black and white people, but with brothers and sisters in Christ, with family. And we should even reach out to those outside the church of color just as we should reach out to those who are white outside the church because although they may not be Christians, they are made in the ‘image of God’ and we have a responsibility to love them. We should envision the church as the one place on the planet that people would say isn’t segregated. Why? Because that’s God’s vision… “…every tribe, every tongue, every nation.”
It should be our vision too.