In my previous article I asked a pointed question: when it comes to tragedies in the African-American communities, will we weep with those who weep? I want to go a bit further in this post. This is an intensely difficult piece for me to write. I am not African-American and will never fully understand what it means to be black in America. But I truly believe that a desire for unity in the body of Christ should compel us to seek to listen to the experiences of our African-American brothers. We must seek to understand their concerns, and find common ground from which we as fellow believers can seek justice in our society.
Take a look at this recent tragedy in Ferguson, Missouri for a moment. A young black man is dead. He was unarmed. Some will tell me to wait for all the facts to come out. Why? Whatever the facts of this case, the fact there even is a case like this amplifies the different ways that blacks and whites experience life in America and interpret such events. There is outrage and heartache in the African-American community. There is little response from white Christians.
We interpret such events differently. Most whites people I know want to wait for the facts before coming to any sort of opinion. While we wait, we tend to trust police and our default position is that the police are probably in the right. We hesitate to classify such cases as police brutality. If the evidence shows that they did in fact use excessive force, we still maintain that such actions and attitudes by police are rare. We reason that most police are not racist and these are isolated incidents of a few “bad apples.” There is certainly no epidemic. We do not understand when communities protest or riot. We don’t understand why this is a race issue at all.
We experience such tragedies differently. Most African-Americans have had negative experiences with security and police. They see such incidents as part of an overarching pattern where African-Americans are suspect, profiled, and harassed — where black lives are not valued. They observe an institutionalized undercurrent of racialization in which news media tends to portray blacks in a negative light, stop-and-frisk practices disproportionately affect blacks, stand-your-ground laws favor white assailants, racial profiling of black males occurs on a routine basis, excessive force is a common, where the war on drugs has disproportionately incarcerated blacks, where blacks consistently receive longer sentences for the same crimes, where unarmed black men are gunned down.
Indeed Black and White experiences are different. When I have a talk with my children about the police it includes things like: police are your friends, you can always go to a police officer for help, we should thank police officers for their service. When a black father talks about the police with his son, it necessarily includes what to do if when you are stopped by police: be respectful, don’t speak first, don’t make any sudden moves, make sure they can see your hands, ask permission before reaching for your wallet, don’t give them any reason to escalate the situation. When I see police lights, I fear getting a ticket – many of my African-American brothers fear for their personal safety and even their life.
And I have limited my remarks to the criminal justice system. Much more could be said about economic and educational inequalities. Most whites do not understand institutional racism and many reject the concept. We find ways to justify the status quo in order to make the systems align with our own personal sensibilities. We maintain a pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps philosophy where all of us are equal and hard work can overcome any obstacle. We reject the idea that the problems that divide the races are systemic. We see the real progress that has been made for racial equality, but we don’t recognize racism where it still exists. Most of us white Christians feel that we are innocent of the sin of racism because we are personally free from animosity toward people of color and our actions do not demonstrate prejudice toward non-whites. We fail to see how the very systems of our society continue to treat blacks and whites unequally.
Here are the pointed questions for this post: Are white Christians guilty of sins of omission in regard to the plight of our non-white brothers? Are we willing to listen and hear their concerns? Is there anything we can or should be doing in regard to these issues? Do we even recognize that there are real justice issues in this country that affect minority communities? Are we willing to use our collective voice to speak out for and with our African American brothers? Will we weep with those who weep? Will we stand for justice in our communities? Even when we disagree with their conclusions, will we listen and dialogue and work to find common ground?
As we evangelicals have shed our personal prejudice, its time for us to also shed our partisanship, our defensiveness, our naivety, and our myopic worldview and open our eyes to the real issues, concerns and experiences of African-Americans. It’s time to stop seeing justice issues as their issues and causes and embrace them as ours as well. It’s time for us as white believers to begin to understand the real life experiences and pain of the African-American community. If we truly desire racial unity in the body of Christ, it’s time for white Christians to listen, understand, dialogue with, pray for, and stand with our African-American brothers and sisters. Until we do, we will never truly be one people of God.