Have you felt unsure about how to engage on the issues of race in conversations with others or online?
You definitely condemn racism and white supremacy. But you’re not sure what else to say and how else to respond. Following the recent events in Charlottesville, I’ve found this true for many people, but especially white Christians.
If we are honest, white Christians have all too often been slow to speak on issues of race and dismissive once we do. However, I know I don’t want this to be true of me. Yet, if you are like me, you may find yourself feeling hesitant to respond and, at times, exasperated over how others are responding.
Perhaps you feel paralyzed from engaging in discussion. You want to say something but don’t quite know what or how to say it. You see the lack of racial reconciliation in your own life and your church. You may be frustrated by what seems to be the politicization of the issue and the bias (real or perceived) of mainstream media. The combination of all these, may leave you fearful of how speaking up will be interpreted and if it will be helpful.
In The Gospel and Racial Reconciliation, Andrew Walker put it this way: “It seems, at times, there are too many landmines, and too many unforgivable sins in the discourse. But in order for us to grow together, we must not let the headwinds of complexity discourage a steady course towards reconciliation.” (3)
As we face these headwinds of complexity, my fear is that we will either dismiss these issues as too difficult to address or become indifferent to their importance in our lives, our communities, and our churches. Trillia Newbell warns us: “So often what hinders racial reconciliation is apathy to the topic of race.” (48)
Rather than dismissing the conversation out of apathy, we must lament and weep over the pain of racism and white supremacy. Rather than shut down out of exasperation, we must make room for conversation—to both listen well and speak wisely. Rather than ignoring the voices of others, we must seek to learn and live out racial reconciliation.
To do this will require overcoming some of the reflexive thoughts we often have in response to this topic. Instead, a better response would be to grow in understanding, press into conversations with others and work for change and reconciliation in our personal lives, local churches, and communities.
What are some of those reflexive thoughts? You might be thinking…
I’m not a racist!
I’m grateful that the vast majority of people would refuse this label today. However, in recent days we have also seen many who do not. We must realize that our aversion to the title does not dismiss the possibility of prejudice in our hearts or the presence of racism within our society.
Thabiti Anyabwile captures the importance of this type of honest reflection:
The potential for racism lurks in every human heart, even if we have experienced a large measure of victory over it. We must be vigilant. We must set a guard over our hearts, minds, and mouths. If we don’t, we are going to continue to be ill-equipped for this work of reconciliation. We are going to continue to find ourselves surprised and even upset and divided when we least expect. We must take seriously the reality and the deceitfulness of sin and protect God’s image in one another if we want to see progress and racial reconciliation. (30)
One way we can take seriously the reality and deceitfulness of racism is entering the discussion with a posture of humility. Sin runs deep in our hearts. We ought to always leave room to evaluate our own hearts, confess our sins, and lament the sins of our society. This is not to say you are racist even though you say you are not. But don’t let this response dismiss your part in the larger discussion or avoid pressing deeper into the issue.
Two particular areas many white Christians often avoid are white privilege and systemic racism. There tends to either be a reflexive dismissal or merely a passive acceptance of these two realities. If I am honest, I am guilty of this as well. It is at these points that white Christians need to learn from and engage in conversation with people of color. In this area, I have benefited greatly from the work and leadership of Jemar Tisby, Thabiti Anyabwile, Jarvis Williams, Trillia Newbell, Walter Strickland and D. A. Horton. These conversations so desperately need to happen in the context of the local church because only in Christ can we see the depth of sin in our society and respond to our position in it (whether privileged or not) for God’s glory and the good of others. We need the eyes of God and the people of God to see and rightly respond to white privilege and systemic racism.
Racial justice and reconciliation is ultimately a matter of discipleship. Anyabwile asks a provoking question, “Do you have a place under the banner of Christian discipleship for renewing your mind on racial issues? Is that mind renewal central to what it means to be a Christian and a follower of Christ?…We are immobilized because we are not discipled.” (33-34)
I don’t want to be told what to do!
I get it. Nobody likes being told what to do. In this case, it often feels like the demand to speak comes with a condemnation that you are not speaking. Accusations of virtue signaling can begin to creep into your mind. You might think to yourself: Can people really care this deeply about all of these issues? Why don’t people speak up so vehemently about abortion or religious freedom?
In these moments, remember the legacy of white Christians who have too often rejected the urgency of now and taken the tranquilizing drug of gradualism. If, like me, you grieve over this legacy, then only we can do something to change it.
So, what can you do? Speak out of conviction. It does not always need to be on social media. In fact, the real need is for conversation on our streets and around our tables. Speak in the places God has put you and given you influence. If you’re engaged on social media, speak what is true and speak with compassion. Martin Luther King said, “In the final analysis, racial discrimination must be uprooted from American society because it is morally wrong.” If it is morally wrong, let us say so. Bring gospel truth to bear upon the issues we are facing today. Seek wisdom for when to speak, what to say, and how to say it. Remember that your voice and your actions have the ability to build up the body of Christ, provide clarity in the midst of confusion and bear witness before a watching world.
Why such a big deal about the statues now?
This has become and inevitably will remain a contentious topic. I do not presume that I have the answer nor that there are easy answers. Slippery slopes are inevitably difficult to walk down. That is the contention on this issue. If we take down confederate statues–like the Robert E. Lee statue in Charlottesville or the Jefferson Davis statue in New Orleans, what will we do with the statues of George Washington and Thomas Jefferson. After all, these men were slave owners and espoused equally racist views as those within the Confederate South.
In this moment, I would encourage you read broadly on this topic. Don’t just listen to your favorite sources. Listen to the perspectives of people of color. Engage with others in your community. Don’t assume you probably have the right solution, but you can certainly be a part of finding it.
As a white Christian, I must exhort you to also consider this issue from the perspective of our black brothers and sisters. Imagine being a black high schooler at Robert E. Lee High School. Imagine a black family having to take their children to play at the Jefferson Davis Memorial Park. When statues, memorials, and locations are given in honor of a historical figure, they call upon future generations to remember and emulate these figures. And it does not seem that the vast majority of theses statues were erected merely to recall the valor, bravery, and courage of these men. Rather, they appear to spike during the Jim Crow era and Civil Rights Movement. Theon Hill provides some helpful perspective on this issue:
Ultimately, this debate extends beyond questions of who we were to who we want to be. Commemorating the past elevates it as an example to emulate in the future. King David continues to be held in high esteem within the Judeo-Christian tradition because even when he failed, his heart was bent toward what was right. The Confederacy is not an honorable example of imperfect people trying to do the right thing, but a tragic warning of what happens when we pursue our interests at the expense of others’ humanity.
We may ultimately come to different conclusions about whether these statues should all come down, when they should come down, and what to do with them if they come down. There may be different proposals for how we can avoid erasing history and better tell our history to the coming generations. But, for white Christians, we cannot fail to see our need to walk a mile in the shoes of our black brothers and sisters.
What about the other side?
If you’ve seen any footage from Charlottesville, you will recall seeing a great deal of violence. The most appalling display of violence was a domestic terrorist attack on a group of counter-protesters, which took the life of Heather Heyer. Among the counter-protesters, there were some who identify as Antifa or anti-fascists. This far-left group made up off communists, socialists, and anarchists advocate for opposition, even violent opposition in stopping white supremacy or any other group they deem racists, fascists, or bigoted. While they are right to oppose white supremacy (except the violence), some fear they may oppose other groups, perhaps even Christians.
One thing must be clear: sin is sin (that’s what my mom always said). The violence and anarchy of many who identify as Antifa is wrong. The suppression of free speech is wrong. Yet, we must never let the wrong of the other side distract from or dismiss the wrong that is so blatantly before us, which in this case is white supremacy and racism. It is too easy to let politics begin to cloud our judgment on this point. Wherever we see sin and injustice, we must call it out for what it is. Set aside political posturing and denounce hatred, violence and injustice in whatever form in takes and on whatever side of the political aisle it falls.
What difference does it make anyway?
In a speech at Cornell College (Mount Vernon, IA) on October 15, 1963, King asked a pressing question: “Are we making any real progress in the area of race relations?” He noted three different responses. There are both extreme optimists and extreme pessimists, who either see progress as inevitable or impossible. King says that these two positions agree on this point: “They both feel that we must sit down and do nothing in the area of race relations.” However, King argues for a third response: honest realism. Honest realism acknowledges we have come a long and we still have a long way to go before racial justice is valued and reconciliation is enjoyed.
Part of King’s honest realism involved calling upon white people of goodwill in the South. He was convinced that there were millions of white men and women who were on the side of justice and racial reconciliation. Yet, he lamented, “[B]ut most of them are silent today because of fear—fear of political, social and economic reprisal.” King’s prayer should be ours today as well:
God grant that the people of good will will rise up with courage, take over the leadership, and open channels of communication between races, for I think that one of the tragedies of our whole struggle is that the South is still trying to live in monologue, rather than dialogue, and I am convinced that men hate each other because they fear each other. They fear each other because that don’t know each other and they don’t know each other because they don’t communicate with each other, and they don’t communicate with each other because they are separated from each other.
Dear white Christian, you can make a bigger impact than you think. It will take courage and perseverance. It will take personal and organizational change. It must begin in our hearts and homes and spill over into our churches and communities. Getting to know your black neighbor will make a difference. Speaking up for your black brother or sister will make a difference. Seeking greater diversity in our churches and church leadership will make a difference. Doing something about racial injustice in our society will make a difference.
We must refuse to be the pessimist who doesn’t see how God can work in the present situation or how he can use us in it. Embracing the position of honest realism doesn’t promise to be easy. Eric Mason suggests:
Likely, there will be pain, difficulty, and some awkwardness as we pursue an objective that is strained in the society we live in. Our hope is to see there be systemic gospel change through the church of Jesus Christ. Instead of us arguing race issues, we become agents of reconciliation to the glory of God through Jesus Christ. (68)
*image: Alejandro Alvarez/News2Share via Reuters