I often hold back from posting about issues of justice on social media— not because I think they are unimportant, but the opposite. I think that sometimes, platforms like Instagram and Facebook become a place for a performative activism, and especially a performative whiteness; one that lets us feel better and like we’ve “done our part” for reposting a trendy graphic that best fits our feeds’ aesthetic, instead of actively working to recognize our complicity in unjust and racist systems, and to dismantle them. I don’t want any part in that. Or, maybe, you don't say anything because you don’t know how or what. On the other hand, there are times when silence isn’t an option, for any of us, so I would ask that you pay attention— what is happening right now in our nation is not new, it is not surprising, and it is not how the world should be.
White friends, if you find yourself shocked, disturbed and heartbroken, a good place to start is by seeking to learn around issues that many folks in our communities don’t have the option to ignore. Some books that have been especially helpful to me as starting points are at the bottom. We’re going to have a conversation here that I hope you are willing to consider—this is not a conversation about the police, about who’s “right,” conspiracy theories, or what happened to that nice Weisz girl while she was away at college. This isn’t me telling you your life hasn’t been hard or carried suffering—I know that it has. I also know that if you are white like me, your suffering may have been enormous, but it hasn’t been because of the color of your skin, and that we have benefited directly and indirectly from a broken system. I know these conversations are hard, and I want you to hear that I’m not here to shame you—I’m here because I want to be honest about my own sin and ignorance, and have a conversation about repentance and awareness with you, my friends and family, and then to point you to people who have helped me learn and grow.
It is important to acknowledge here that I don’t live the experience of being a person of color in America. There are many wiser voices than I who can and should speak firsthand to this experience- some to learn from are listed below. It also feels important to say that I am still learning, still growing in my theology of how to discuss issues of race and that I recognize that I will get stuff wrong, and that scholars will devote their entire lives to these questions and only skim the surface. However, I see my own sin, ignorance, and complicity in these issues, and humbly ask you to join me in learning to do differently.
Friends— justice and reconciliation are key tasks of the church, and part of what it looks like to bring about the Kingdom of God. Amos writes “I hate all your show and pretense—the hypocrisy of your religious festivals and solemn assemblies. I will not accept your burnt offerings and grain offerings. I won’t even notice all your choice peace offerings. Away with your noisy hymns of praise! I will not listen to the music of your harps. Instead, I want to see a mighty flood of justice, an endless river of righteous living. (Amos 5:24) In this chapter, God is saying that he’s fed up with the perversion of justice, and with systems that trample on the poor and the truthtellers, that oppress people who have done nothing wrong. God will no longer accept the normal worship of the people-- the offering God desires is justice, and righteous living.
bell hooks writes “I have come to see that silence is an act of complicity” and I think this is a word to the white evangelical church—to myself, and to all of us. Our time to protest that we did not and do not engage in racist and discriminatory practices within the walls of the big “C” church is over, because it is untrue. Our time (especially as members of predominantly white churches who may have been privileged enough to not daily encounter questions of race) to ignore these topics is over. If we are committed to the whole gospel, which teaches earth-shaking equality, then we must actively seek both a church and a nation that names and confronts sin where we see it, and names a lack of inclusion and even white supremacy as issues the church must repent of. This isn’t about being “politically correct” or voting a certain way—this is a different conversation: one about admitting our group and individual sin when we recognize it, and actively doing different things.
Scripture teaches that there is no “Jew or Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for all are one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28) but we have to recognize that as much as this is true, it is also true that this verse has been used as a weapon to ignore issues of race and gender within the church. These are not words to hide behind; they are words that should invite us to seek this image of the Kingdom of God as a reality. One of my favorite passages is in Revelation- where we find out that “every tribe and every nation” will be at the wedding feast of the Lamb. The Greek is fairly clear that this means we’ll all still have our languages and cultural identity— heaven isn’t all of us becoming the same, but all of us bringing our own selves to a wedding feast.
An important part of this process is to look at ourselves first, and this is part of what the Holy Spirit can do for us. We just celebrated Pentecost-- a time when all sorts of people were united in this unique movement of the Spirit. We can ask the Spirit for new eyes to see ourselves and our brothers and sisters and lament our corporate and personal sin and complicity in systems of injustice when it is revealed to us. Scripture describes lament-- which is a fancy Bible word for being sorry and sad and saying it-- as an important part of repentance; as people who are confronted with our sin, and our nation’s broken parts, we should name it and mourn it like the prophets before us have done. Notably, sometimes we sin by simply participating in things that benefit us and harm others, and the Old Testament is filled with examples of Israel’s need to repent from doing that.
Education can play an important role in helping us to own our failure, as well as shaping our lament; but in learning we can also find freedom in how we move forward. As Christians we see the reality of the world, and resist the temptation to play pretend, while also living in abundant hope that though this world is broken, it is not how things will always be. Pastor Eugene Cho offered some helpful language for the church around our most recent news, writing,
“sometimes, in a broken world, people use broken means to convey the pain of their oppression. As Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. once shared, "A riot is the language of the unheard."
Now, in the same sermon entitled "The Other America" which also gives the quote above, Dr. King additionally shares, "Let me say as I've always said, and I will always continue to say, that riots are socially destructive and self-defeating..." In other words, he's articulating the tension that some of us feel but don't necessarily live and embody: Pain at the sight of chaos and violence but deeper pain behind what caused these actions.
This is why we have to stay engaged and keep listening...and be moved to action and solidarity.
Why? Because calling for peace without a demand for justice is another way of saying,
"Shhh. Don't rock the boat. Don't be divisive. It works for me. Isn't peace great?!"
Herein lies the difference between peacemaking and peacekeeping.”
Church, do you want to be peacekeepers or peacemakers? As we tell the story of the family of God to each other, we have a responsibility to both own our failings, but also learn from the people who have followed Jesus before us and beside us. We have a responsibility to make our churches a place where we embrace discomfort so that others might feel more comfortable; where we allow one another’s stories to touch and shape our own. As people called to a great hope, we believe that we live in the kingdom of the “now and the not yet” and we trust that even in the midst of great brokenness the Spirit is alive and well. I hope for the church to become a model for the kind of radical reconciliation that is only possible through the transforming power of the gospel of Jesus Christ. I hope that we recognize that right relationship with one another and active work towards a world where all people are included and valued and safe is a fundamental reality of following Jesus.
I’d like to close with Theologian Miroslav Volf’s charge towards justice and reconciliation found in his work Exclusion and Embrace. Early in the book, he speaks of how hard it is to seek reconciliation, writing “the human ability to agree on justice will never catch up with the human propensity to do injustice.” This is true, I think, of our national reality. However, Volf then goes on to suggest a way towards justice that I think best describes my hope, writing:
“For those who stand in the…traditions of the scripture, no neutrality is in fact admissible. These people hear the groans of the suffering, take a stance, and act. Then, they reflect… take a stance again, and act. From their perspective, the grounds on which they take their stances and their judgements as to what is just are not merely expressions of their preferences….After all, they are called to seek and struggle for God’s justice, not their own. For them that justice is not only one among many possible and equally acceptable perspectives…it is the justice—even if they are fully aware that they grasp it only imperfectly and practice it inadequately, and even if they seek correction and enrichment from others with whom they disagree but cannot presume to be totally wrong.”
May we seek this justice and for our world over and over again, recognizing that we will get it wrong, but also that it is God’s justice and not our own that we’re seeking. May we choose discomfort and humility, knowing that it leads to learning and growth. Most of all, may Jesus be honored in what we do, and may the church become a better and more beautiful Bride as we are transformed to be more and more like Jesus.
Books to Start With:
A note: a few of those books may make you feel uncomfortable, defensive, or frustrated. You might want to say “this isn’t talking about me. I’m not like that.” I would encourage you to feel those feelings, and to ask yourself where they’re coming from. You don’t have to agree with everything you read, but don’t discount it just because it makes you uncomfortable. You don’t know what you don’t know—but once you take initiative to learn, you can do better—and you can be patient with yourself for what you did not know or do well, even as you seek to grow.
Books about people’s experiences
White Awake—Daniel Hill
White Fragility— Robin DiAngelo
I’m Still Here—Black Dignity in a World Made For Whiteness— Austin Channing Brown
Between The World and Me— Ta-Nehisi Coates
What are people talking about when they mention systemic injustice? Mass incarceration is a good place to start.
Just Mercy— Brian Stevenson (also, check out the movie based off this book, newly out and at Red Box in town!)
Rethinking Incarceration— Dominique Gilliard
The New Jim Crow— Michelle Alexander
The documentary 13th, available on Netflix
Education, children, and schools:
Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting at the Back of the Cafeteria? — Beverly Daniel Tatum
Prelude to Prison—Marsha Weissman
Christianity and Reconciliation
Roadmap to Reconciliation— Brenda Salter McNeil
The Color of Compromise-- Jemar Tisby
Divided by Faith -- Christian Smith and Michael O. Emerson
A Credible Witness—Brenda Salter McNeil
Dream With Me—John Perkins
Exclusion and Embrace— Mirslov Volf
The Cross and the Lynching Tree- James Cone
https://www.saltermcneil.com/reconciliation-justice (videos and downloads for individuals, small groups, people in leadership in any job, and churches)