“I am more convinced than ever that African Americans and Whites live in two different worlds. How could they ever be brought back together?”
I still remember this question, and how it shook me almost 10 years ago. It was posed by Dawn Turner Trice, a columnist at the Chicago Tribune, in the wake of the Katrina tragedy. I was still in my process of understanding the depths of historical racism at that time. I was a pastor, and by then I had already come to the clear conclusion that diversity (a word I don’t really like anymore), reconciliation, and multi-ethnicity were important to the witness and call of the Church.
But I still hadn’t fully grasped the difference between holding that as a conviction, versus having a comprehensive understanding of both how we got to this place, and how deeply the sins of racism still were embedded and ingrained within the very fiber of our country. When Dawn Turner Trice wrote her article, and specifically this line, I remember it burning a hole in my brain. It was so true. White America and Black America live in two very different worlds.
As a pastor within a multiethnic church, that reality remains near the top of my consciousness on a regular basis (within this blog post I’m focusing on the poles of this struggle – it would take me too far down a different path to try to discuss how this might affect other racial-cultural groups). But then something happens within society, like the murder of Trayvon Martin (and the acquittal of George Zimmerman), or the murder of Jordan Davis, or now the murder of Michael Brown (see a good overview of the tragedy here), and we see once again just how true this remains. White America and Black America live in two very different worlds.
There are exceptions of course, but at a macro-level it’s hard to overstate the gap. It’s apparent everywhere I look. Within my friendships, within church relationships, within my FB friends, within my Twitter community there is a night-and-day difference. One set of people are mourning, lamenting, fuming, and wrestling with what is just one more reminder of the rampant racism that’s still alive and active. Another set of people are… well, not. Some may be aware of it in the news, and even feel a degree of sympathy. But then others are immune to it, and it hasn’t even registered. And then others are in full defense mode of the tragic set of circumstances, explaining it away with various arguments.
As I write this I am aware that it may sound like I am doing a lot of finger pointing, or that I am somehow trying to present myself as the enlightened White person. I’m not meaning to do that. I am as complicit in this whole mess as anyone, and am still trying to place myself before God and others with the hopes of becoming something more.
One of the many things I am praying for in the midst of this tragic set of occurrences is vision. I remain steadfastly convinced that at the heart of the character of Jesus Christ is the will and the power to reconcile all things to himself (read Colossians 1 to see how strongly Paul the Apostle describes this). Coming from the perspective of a Christian, I think there are some really important things Jesus wants us to see during times like this. In John 3.3 Jesus told Nicodemus that one can only see the kingdom of God through a spiritual transformation process, and that is what sets the stage for having clear vision. Here are some of the things that I think we need to be able to clearly recognize and see in the midst of all this hurt and confusion:
1.) Stuff like this infuriates Jesus
“If anyone causes one of these little ones–those who believe in me–to stumble, it would be better for them if a large millstone were hung around their neck and they were drowned in the depths of the sea.” (Matthew 18.6)
There are not many things that provoked the Prince of Peace to use violent language (like nothing), but this was the one exception. When Jesus talked about unjust treatment and harm of children, he warned that the perpetrators would be better off having a large millstone hung around their neck and drowned than face the judgment that awaited them when they met their maker.
We have witnessed a non-stop string of senseless murders of our children in our country. We can debate the details surrounding each case, but it doesn’t change the larger picture. Children are being killed, and there is a system that is perpetuating this violence. It’s serious business, and it has to be stopped.
2.) Stuff like this should therefore infuriate us too
Ebony Adedayo wrote a great article today for Christianity Today on this, and its worth reading (check it out here). In it she references a website that one of the women in my congregation just forwarded to me earlier in the day. It reveals an absolutely astonishing fact: every 28 hours, a black man is killed in America by police or vigilantes.
Can you even comprehend that?
That this infuriates Black America is absolutely justifiable. Why wouldn’t it? The fact is though, it should infuriate far more of us — it should, in fact, infuriate all of us.
There is a saying that gets brought up a lot in Chicago, and I cringe every time I hear it… mostly because I believe it’s probably true.
Our city is one of the worst when it comes to youth violence, and it’s heartbreaking to see how many kids have died on our streets. I’ll be at a prayer vigil tonight around the corner from our church to remember the lives of two more kids who were shot and killed in our neighborhood.
When conversations like this come up, the “Two America’s” reality is again obvious. The problem of violence (and all the surrounding factors that instigate it) is being constantly grieved and discussed in some circles, and largely ignored at others.
Here is what is often gets said about the lack of concern in white circles… this is the statement that makes me cringe every time: As soon as white kids start getting shot and killed, this will become a national issue.
What’s under this is the belief that our country values the lives of people at different levels (read values white lives over black lives), and therefore responds accordingly. It seems hard to argue this point, and even the possibility of it being true should be enough to wreck us all.
The Bible couldn’t possibly condemn this type of thinking more strongly. The opening chapter of Genesis teaches us the doctrine of the Imago Dei – that every human being is created in God’s image, that every human being is valuable, that every human being has dignity, and that every human being deserves to be loved, protected, and fought for.
We must re-center the Imago Dei. We must remember that every person matters, and that just because one group of people has more status in society than another doesn’t mean that they somehow have the right to look down upon or treat another human being as less than human.
Whenever the Imago Dei is violated – no matter who it is – we must become infuriated. All lives matter to God!!!! To see people any less than this is an absolute violation of the heart of God.
3.) Kingdom language means we look not just at individuals, but systems
Let me go back to John 3, where Jesus says one can only see the kingdom by the transformational power of the Spirit. This imagery forms the very foundation of how Jesus talked about his ministry – he had come to pronounce and usher in the kingdom of God. Jesus is king, and he is building a kingdom, and he wants us to see and participate in the building of the whole enterprise. For Christ followers in particular, we have to remember that kingdom language points not just to individual people, but also to systems and structures.
In 2000 a landmark book (particularly for White Christians) came out by Michael Emerson and Christian Smith called Divided by Faith. Dr. Emerson made the case that White Evangelicals were generally unable to participate in any type of authentic and transformational dialogue about racial reconciliation because they could only comprehend the problem at an individual level. The solution for the typical White person who struggles with racism was to become friends with someone of color. The solution for the typical person of color (from the White perspective) was to be opportunistic, work hard, and work their way up the economic ladder.
I don’t think we can ever lose the individual component of reconciliation. White people really do need authentic friendships where they can learn and grow, and all people need to steward the gifts that God has given them and work hard to fully actualize their potential. But the conversation becomes absolutely dishonoring when we reduce the tragedy of many of these senseless murders into some type of referendum on how individuals could have handled the situation better. It just burns me every time somebody talks to me about how kids should learn how to be more respectful to police in inner city neighborhoods or should be better prepared for dealing with the various challenges they face. It completely ignores the incredibly powerful and systemic forces that are at work every day.
If this idea is a new one, I would suggest immediately reading The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander as a starting point. She is a brilliant thinker, lawyer, and writer, and she lays out the history of mass incarceration in a way that is irrefutable. I’m not sure how anyone could read that in an unbiased way and then walk away thinking that the problems we are facing are primarily about individuals better navigating their opportunities.
There are so many systemic forces at play in the persistent violence, abuse, neglect, and disparity that we continue to see. It’s impossible to have any type of meaningful and substantial conversation about how to change things without the common ground of seeing systemic evil and injustice.
And for those who take the Bible seriously, re-read Ephesians 6. Paul the Apostle was real clear that our battle was not just against flesh and blood, but against principalities and powers. There are structural evils that have been in place since the dawn of our country’s existence, and those have got to be dismantled.
Thank you for taking the time to read this. I’m sure the national conversation will continue to evolve quickly on this, and one of the places you can follow the conversation is #NMOS14 and #BlackLivesMatter. I will conclude this post by sharing the passage of Scripture that has shaped my calling more than any other any in the Bible. These words seem more important than ever:
“For Christ’s love compels us, because we are convinced that one died for all, and therefore all died. And he died for all, that those who live should no longer live for themselves but for him who died for them and was raised again. So from now on we regard no one from a worldly point of view. Though we once regarded Christ in this way, we do so no longer. Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here! All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation: that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting people’s sins against them. And he has committed to us the message of reconciliation. We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us. We implore you on Christ’s behalf: Be reconciled to God.” (2 Corinthians 5.14-20)
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