How Black Lives Matter can help White Evangelicals Grow in Grace
I need to start by saying this is tough for me. A friend (who is not a church-goer) reminded me just a few moments ago that typically organized religion likes to “re-arrange the deck chairs on the titanic.” We like to maintain what we have, pick sides, and above all try not to rock the boat. I suspect that has something to do with why this person doesn’t attend church, and to be completely honest it has a lot to do with why I don’t really feel comfortable expressing these thoughts. As a pastor, I am supposed to be the director of the band that nobly plays while the ship sinks! And calling white evangelicals to pay attention to black lives matter feels a bit like throwing the throttle and aiming for the iceberg.
It is also difficult for me because I have dear friends who are currently or have served as law enforcement. These men and women know with certainty that their lives are in jeopardy every day they put their badge on. In training they learn about how often police officers are killed in the line of duty – sometimes simply walking up to someone’s car window. These murders of our men and women in uniform are absolutely unjust and they justifiably create in any sane police officer a fear for their own life. They should be respected and we should try to understand the struggles they have every day. It is hard because in the water we swim in any recognition of black lives matter feels like a slap in the face to them. It shouldn’t, but our culture is polarized so it does.
It is also hard because Black Lives Matter has become a movement that certainly has a few aspects to it that I would not defend. And it has taken me a while to recognize that there may be something good in it spite of that. God knows I am a man who has quite a few aspects to him that I would also struggle to defend. Does that mean that nothing I say is ever worth hearing?
It is also hard for me because while I see the problems that arise like death, murder, rioting, fear, distrust, anger, misunderstandings and suspicion; I really don’t have any answers for the problems. Sometimes people must be shot by police either for the protection of society or of the police officers themselves. But I think it is fair to say that sometimes human error is a reality. I don’t know if it can ever be completely done away with, I don’t know if error should always be punished as strictly as possible, but I also doubt that it’s always punished (or even acknowledged) the way it should be. The point is, I have a lot of doubts and a lot of questions without answers.
But here is how I think white evangelicals can grow in grace by listening to black lives matter.
1) Our politics are far too often American Politics rather than Kingdom Politics
White evangelicals side overwhelmingly with the Republican party. That’s not entirely a bad thing. Republicans have been the ones (for the most part) speaking on issues of life and the “sanctity of marriage” that we believe to be biblical and essential. These issues being pretty important to us we have tended to equate being a Christian with standing on the conservative issues. And let’s just be honest. Black lives matter feels liberal. Not only that, we also know the movement that has risen up is also attached to the LGBT community. They have wed these two movements a little bit and that’s also uncomfortable. White evangelicals don’t really want to agree with the LGBT agenda on anything after all. So because we have to stand against things that are liberal we must stand against that.
But Kingdom politics are not always republican and conservative politics. Conservative politics in the 1960’s held onto segregation. Segregation (only after 60 years are we comfortable saying this) was not a part of Kingdom politics. Kingdom politics seek justice, reconciliation, and empathy. Paying attention to black lives matter can help us to become Kingdom minded rather than right or left. We are going to need this ability more and more in the generation to come as the right and left parties both continue to leave us behind.
2) We can Become more Empathetic
If we have brothers and sisters in Christ who tell us that because of the color of their skin they fear for their lives when they encounter police, we MUST listen to that. I have colleagues, black pastors, men who are godly, moral, wonderful men, who fear being pulled over by the police. Now, let’s be honest, we all do. When I see a police car I check my speed and my seatbelt. I constantly look in my rearview to see if he might pull me because I’m afraid I will get a ticket. I know pastors who are afraid they might get killed.
Now white evangelical reader, I know you are thinking “that’s stupid! If he doesn’t do anything wrong he won’t get shot.” And I won’t lie, I tend to have those same thoughts, but we’re white. The experience of our brothers and sisters is their experience. And they are telling us this is their experience. We should hear it. Whether it’s right or wrong – we can debate later. There will come a time to figure out some answers. But right now we must at least try to have empathy. To hear what they are saying.
This is good for us. Whatever policy or cultural changes may or may not ever transpire, whatever ways we figure out to answer the questions we have, we white evangelicals need the ability to listen and empathize.
My own story hit me hard in the face the other night. And this revelation is the reason for this post.
When I was about 19 I made the stupid decision to run from police after trying to pass off a false ID. I was stupid, I was immature, I was not the most upstanding citizen at the time to be sure. I’m not about to justify any of it. I deserved everything that happened. Two of them chased me and caught me. Now, when they tackled me to the ground, I struggled. In my head I was resigned to the fact that I’d been caught. I can still remember thinking “ok guys, I’m sorry, you got me.” I even said it out loud. But my body struggled, there were knees on my chest and my hands were being wrenched around my back. Trust me, I know from experience, it’s incredibly difficult in that situation not to struggle a little bit. And eventually they had to use pepper spray on me in order to subdue me. Now, granted the whole thing started because I was breaking the law and running away. Again, this is not an episode I am particularly proud of, but through that experience God dealt with me and eventually called me to where I am today.
But I had a terrifying thought the other night, “if I were black would I have survived that encounter?” I know some of you will say, “that’s ridiculous, you weren’t even armed!” but I can assure you there are many wonderful men with black sons who will say, “that’s a good question.”
Again, I’m not saying we should place blame. Just listen. Hear what their experience is. And just try to have empathy. Empathy is a key ingredient of reconciliation, and you and I are called to be ambassadors of reconciliation.
3) It Helps us break the Seduction of Power
We white Evangelicals have pretty much been the power base in our culture at the very least for a generation. We have held significant sway in elections, we have been able to assume that people agreed with us or they would at least be quiet because we could shame them as outsiders if they disagreed. As whites we have inherited power pretty much since European strains of smallpox wiped out 97 percent of the native population of North America. Black lives matter is a bit of a threat to that. The emancipation of slavery was a threat to that, desegregation was a threat to that and now black lives matter is a threat to that. We want to wholeheartedly say, “well, yeah, but all lives matter!” And no one disagrees, but when we begin to have empathy we can begin to realize that for generations it has felt like black lives matter a little less than white lives.
I remember a black friend telling me the reason the African American community celebrated when O.J. got off wasn’t because they thought he was innocent. They knew he was guilty. But they finally envisioned a world where a rich black man can get away with murder too!
Privilege is real. I’m not sure how far it really goes. To be fair, I suspect there are some who imagine it goes much further than it actually does, but I know it’s real. And we need to learn to lay that down.
The most privileged person who ever walked the face of the earth was a God-Man. His name was Jesus. He had not only the power and authority, but the right to demand worship from every single person he encountered. Think about that, not only the power and authority, but the actual RIGHT to demand that everyone fall on their faces and sing songs about his goodness and his perfection. This man humbled himself. He ate with people who were not “on his level,” he washed camel poop from the feet of the man who was about to send him to the cross for 30 pieces of silver, he endured beatings and mocking, and he carried a cross – a symbol of shame and death – through the streets and then he died on it. All the while he had the power, the authority and the right to take himself down and demand that all present bow down to him. But instead, he humbled himself.
He didn’t call his followers to stand up for the status quo. He didn’t call his followers to rise up and take the kingdom by force. He called his followers to take up crosses of their own. He called his followers to love what he called “the least.” The outcast, the foreigners, the lowly, the discarded, the despised.
As his followers, we must be willing to do the things he called us to. This will truly help us to grow in grace. We can have authority and power or we can have grace and be like Jesus. We cannot have both.
One more word because I know what you might be thinking
Let me acknowledge one argument I know you might have. “But there are some real problems with fatherlessness and a criminal element in the black community.”
First of all, can we acknowledge that we have been a part of that? Slavery intentionally separated families for financial gain, Jim Crow forced families into poverty, poverty forced the impoverished into crime, the war on poverty rewarded single mother households, the criminal justice system harshly punished criminals that probably could have been rehabilitated, and all the while white evangelicals moved away from the inner-cities and trusted government institutions rather than local, relational ministries to deal with these problems.
Secondly, let me point out to you that rather than standing out, we are catching up. I see more and more white “evangelical” men stepping out on their families, turning to porn, drugs or gambling, abandoning their kids and leaving the next generation fatherless. So before you tell me there are problems in the black community I need you to build faithful families yourselves and then also find a way to deal with the problems in the black community.
Be the church. Don’t be a megaphone. Seek the politics of the kingdom of God, put things right that are broken. Do justice, love mercy, walk humbly with your God. Listen and grow in empathy. Lay down your power, take up your cross, love well, seek to build bridges and bring healing. This is what the church does. Be the church.