In light of the racial and political unrest that has dominated the media in the United States over the past several months, I’d like to take a moment to share a few things I’ve learned in my experience as a white pastor in a mostly black, inner city context.
The conversations surrounding race, social justice, and police are sensitive for everyone, but I am not able to address everyone. Therefore I am directing this article specifically to white Christians for the simple reason that I am one, and it is the population I can most closely understand and relate to.
I don’t intend to single out white people, but I’d like to offer advice to those brothers and sisters who may find themselves angry, confused, or uncomfortable with the many conversations about race and justice that are becoming more frequent in the Church. With that said, here are a few suggestions I have for white Christians who desire to better understand the racial tensions that exists in our country today.
1. Prioritize Understanding Others over Being Understood.
I am often preoccupied with the need for people to understand me more than I desire to understand them. This isn’t a white problem; it’s a human problem. We have a tendency to believe that we are right about most things and we have an extremely difficult time understanding another person’s viewpoint. I have repeatedly found myself confronted by my unwillingness to understand others when reading this prayer by St. Francis of Assisi:
O Divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek to be consoled as to console.
To be understood as to understand.
To be loved as to love.
At this juncture in time, white Christians should seek to understand more than to be understood. If you are not black, then you literally cannot understand the black experience in America, so you must rely on your black brothers and sisters to help you understand. This is not the time or place for them to hear you out. It’s time for you to hear them out with a heart that genuinely wants to learn.
2. Acknowledge Large-Scale Racial Sins.
One of the loudest and most political religious groups in the United States is Evangelical Christians. Ask any politician and they will tell you how important it is for them to appeal to Evangelicals because they are such a politically powerful people.
For a group that is so loud about abortion, gay marriage, Israel, and the military, it’s amazing how quiet Evangelicals are when it comes to acknowledging racism and social injustice. And as Protestants who boldly declare, “All have sinned” I’m surprised by how few Evangelicals will acknowledge corporate and systemic sins.
If we believe every individual is sinful, then why is it so hard to admit when groups of individuals come together to form sinful policies? I regularly hear statements like these:
- “I never owned a slave.”
- “I never shot a black person.”
- “I never forbid black people from worshiping with me.”
While these statements may be true, we must still acknowledge the sins committed by the people group we identify with. In the Bible, God held people accountable for corporate sins all the time, and he made sure their great-great grandchildren were aware of these past sins. Keeping past sins in front of a people group was not intended to keep people in a place of perpetual guilt, but to keep them from committing the same evils again.
If you are a white Evangelical then you need to acknowledge the large-scale racial sins that occurred in the past and continue to occur in the present at the hands of our people. While you may not have personally committed acts of racism, most of our white ancestors were complicit in supporting a system of racial injustice and we all have benefited from this unjust system in one way or another. If we cannot speak out against past and present injustices, then we are no better than our religious predecessors who remained silent during slavery and civil rights.
3. Validate Black Christians Even When You Do Not Understand Their Pain.
I’m a white man who is married to an African-American woman, mentored almost exclusively by African-American men, and pastors at a mostly African-American church. Yet I have to admit, I don’t fully “get it.” I don’t feel the same grief, I don’t experience the same outrage, and I don’t feel the need for justice in the same ways that black people do. I see the world through my experience, and that’s something I cannot change.
However, I do have a choice in how I respond to the black community: I can choose whether or not I validate black people in their grief and outrage. I have to accept the fact that blacks are the experts in black issues, and I am not. I don’t advise scientists about science or lawyers about the law, therefore I will not advise black people about black issues. They are the specialists here!
If I claim to love my black brothers and sisters in Christ, then I have to be willing to affirm them in their pain even if I do not understand it. But beyond that, I need to affirm that their pain is valid and is based on something real. By refusing to validate their claims, I would be charging them with delusion, or even worse, dishonesty. Black Christians across the globe claim that this type of oppression exists, so to deny it would be to completely question their integrity.
4. Repent of Nationalism.
On July 4, 2016 the Christian Hip Hop artist Lecrae tweeted a photograph of slaves on a southern plantation with the caption, “My family on July 4, 1776.” I showed this tweet to my wife and we together scrolled through the responses in a state of disbelief.
Many of Lecrae’s white fans were completely outraged as they brought serious charges against him, accusing him of divisiveness, ingratitude, and immaturity. But one response stood out to me.
One fan accused Lecrae of being “borderline unpatriotic.” Borderline unpatriotic? Was this person implying that being unpatriotic is a sin? And even if Lecrae were “unpatriotic,” why would you expect him to be anything else? He’s looking at a picture of his family enslaved on a day when the rest of the country is celebrating freedom! His family was literally in bondage when America was “set free.” The fan that tweeted this accusation, along with the hundreds of others who rose against Lecrae, chose to defend the reputation of the United States rather than affirm a brother in Christ who was doing nothing more than exposing a real, factual, historic sin.
The fact that Lecrae’s post offended so many white Christians exposed a problem in conservative Evangelicalism that is more serious than I ever imagined. Because if you are a Christian, then you are primarily a resident of a transnational entity called the Church. The Apostle Peter calls the church a “holy nation,” and she is the one and only Christian Nation.
America is not God’s favored nation.
Christians are not responsible to make any nation “great.”
Christians are not called to fight on behalf of or defend any nation.
Our allegiance must be to Christ and his kingdom, not to the United States or any other country. But the Evangelical commitment to nationalism has led many of us to favor “American values” over the duty to love fellow Christians. Whether we support dropping bombs or are denying racial injustice, we are choosing to defend a corrupt nation instead of “the least of these.”
I know much of what I said may not sit well with those who I am addressing, but please know my intention has not been to cause division. I know the conservative Evangelical narrative very well, and know it is very difficult to see the other side. Please, for the sake of unity in the church, do not disregard what I’ve said. No one expects you to “get it” right away. I only ask that you take a posture of humility and choose to listen and learn.
(This blog originally appeared on RAAN)