Let me tell you a story about my friends. Ann is a young white woman who grew up in the city and works as an artist. She has blonde hair, blue eyes and ivory skin. Her husband, Trey, is a black man in his twenties. He is a pastor and an anointed leader.
It’s been suggested that we live in a post-racial society, where racism is a thing of the past. Ann and her husband are living proof that this assumption is painfully untrue. They have been mocked by strangers walking down the street, heckled by disapproving shoppers at the mall, and stopped by “concerned” citizens wanting to make sure Ann was “OK” in the presence of her black husband.
A white man in America with a criminal record is 5 percent more likely to get a job than a black man with a clean record. 71 percent of white people will receive a bachelor’s degree versus only 21 percent of people of color.
Racism is a violent reality of our time. It is an actual threat producing powerful, devastating consequences. It’s messy and complicated and can be difficult to pinpoint, even harder to address. Racism is one of the most successful tactics launched by evil against humanity, against God’s people.
We are the Church, the hands and feet of Jesus commissioned as peacemakers, justice seekers, love lavishers. But in the face of heartbreaking pain and inexcusable violence, a large portion of the Body turns away. Some are defensive, many are silent, distancing themselves from the cries of the sanctuary next door.
The world is broken and bleeding and we are, as Dallas Willard described, “spokespersons” for Christ, whose very heart was for the marginalized and the oppressed. We can’t afford to meet complicated issues with apathy.
Struggling to know where to begin? Me too. Let’s start here:
1. You don’t have to understand. You don’t even have to agree. You must listen.
I didn’t get it. For years, I conveniently dismissed racial tension as an exaggeration, because after all, I hadn’t seen it. I hadn’t lived it. My insulated world had afforded me every possible opportunity. Once I slowed down long enough to listen to the stories of those who experience it, scales fell from my eyes. I stopped assuming I already knew and came to understand that I had no idea.
Some will argue that racism is a two-way street and will cite having been on the receiving end of prejudice due to their white skin. Yes, that happens. But wrestling with tension from your minority co-worker or friend is not and never will be the same thing as centuries of suffering. As a white woman, my most “uncomfortable experience” cannot be compared to the deep-seated oppression my non-white brothers and sisters have faced. It isn’t just the atrocious acts we’ve seen highlighted in the news. It’s the devastating gap between my day-to-day, breathing in and out living and theirs.
“You, Lord, hear the desire of the afflicted, you encourage them and you listen to their cry, defending the fatherless and the oppressed, so that mere earthly mortals will never again strike terror” (Psalm 10:17-18).
Listen well, with humble hearts and open hands. Listen to the stories of your co-workers, friends and neighbors. Ask them about their world. Turn off the dramatic filters of the media that tend to dehumanize for the sake of cheap headlines and continuous airplay. Pay close attention to the real life, flesh and bones people at the center. Look at their tears and listen to their stories. Then ask yourself what you know to be true of Jesus; how does He respond to the marginalized?
2. Yes, it’s complicated. Engage anyway.
Human rights activist Desmond Tutu said, “If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor. If an elephant has its foot on the tail of a mouse and you say that you are neutral, the mouse will not appreciate your neutrality.”
I’m a white woman raising my kids in the suburban south. Minus a few social work classes in college, I have very little formal education surrounding racism. I can’t speak with expertise on the long history of abuse and systemic injustice that have brought us here. But I understand compassion and I recognize hate. I’m aware of the luxuries I have as a result of my skin color and I see the disparity between my experience and the experience of my non-white friends. I see the pain and I hear the cries. My job is to stand and proclaim it: I see you. I believe you. I am for you.
Deep within the heart of God, we find His fierce love for the oppressed. We cannot join Him there by reading the news, shaking our heads at the horror, closing the computer and moving on. To acknowledge evil and then not intercede on behalf of the oppressed is to become those who see suffering, but move to the other side road rather than kneeling down to bandage the wounds of the victim (Luke 10:25-37).
To much of the world, Christians have become known for being embarrassingly vocal about the immorality they find outside of the Church (which is unbiblical in itself—see 1 Corinthians 5:9-13), yet shamefully silent, if not defensive, on matters of racial injustice.
Stop waiting for someone to give you permission. God’s word is full of commands to seek justice and defend the oppressed. Permission granted. Speak!
3. When you disagree, do so with grace and humanity.
To dismiss, diminish or justify the abuse of another is to stand in opposition to the message Jesus lived. We are made by God, in the image of God. Words like “thug” or “animal” belittle that creation and undermine the hard work of healing. On all sides of the lines, this language must break the heart of our Creator.
Revelation 7:9 paints a picture of Heaven—the Church surrounding the throne of God, worshipping in their native tongues. Jesus prayed that it would be on earth as it is in Heaven; we can’t afford to miss this vision. We cannot tune out the cries of a teenage girl being thrown to the ground for talking back to an adult police officer. We cannot afford to silently recognize racism yet avoid testifying to what has happened and what is happening. We cannot afford to throw entire communities—black, white, law enforcement, etc—into all-inclusive pots of condemnation and attempt to justify vicious name-calling. The Kingdom of God, full of precious human lives, is at stake.
The world will know us by our love, or our lack of it. Let’s live, breathe, preach and pour out the richest legacy of love we can.