Can we all just get along? For a while, that was the famous mantra uttered by Rodney King after video surfaced of him being beaten mercilessly by several white police officers. Those images of King caused community unrest, and coverage of civic outrage flooded the airways once again showing our deep racial divide.
Rewind time to 1998, Jasper, TX, where James Byrd Jr. was beaten and dragged to death by several white men. Travel to back Mississippi, 1955, where 14 year old Emmett Till was tortured and killed by several white men for allegedly flirting with a white woman. In 2015, we are again entrenched in headlines with an all-too-common narrative of injustice against black men at the hands of whites, proceeded by a rally for justice. It seems as if everyone chooses their political, social, and theological sides when events like this take place, but what about those who feel stuck in the middle? What about those who feel their voice is gone? What about the angry black Christians? I am unapologetically a black, male, Christian. Those are inseparable and intricate aspects of my identity, and each laments every time I see these headlines. I am emotionally drained and unspeakably angry.
I’m angry because for many blacks these stories make headlines not because of their uncommonness, but because they are commonplace. Many of us either know someone, or have personally experienced the harsh side of injustice at the hands of power and privilege. Although America has some very ugly sides, these stories are not reflective of it in its entirety. I am even more tired of the church’s silence. We worship and attend social functions together, but seldom know one another in deeper, more meaningful relationships. Racism is very alive, even in the church, and silence will not make it go away.
Racism is very alive, even in the church…
I’ve always had a desire to explore my American, African, and ethnic identity. I was the kid some people called “militant.” I still get those references. I wasn’t always able to say this, but I love being black. Growing up in the church taught me many things, most of which heavily emphasized my spiritual identity. However, I was culturally poor, socially ignorant, and ethnically immature. As much as it hurts to admit, the church did a terrible job helping me develop a sense of self, and an even poorer job demonstrating where the gospel intersects social injustice and identity development. I’ve been a member of several denominations, but not once did we have a course, sermon, small group series or discussion on ethnic identity development. The church’s silence on these salient issues was one of the primary reasons I rebelled against religion, especially Christianity. The religion I was presented depicted an erroneous picture of a narcissistic Jesus who forced you to assimilate into a religious experience at the expense of your individuality and culture. It was a real turn off, but by God’s grace I have come to know about my identity through intentional study, conversations, and cross-cultural immersion experiences. A significant amount of these experiences were provided by a parachurch organization, not my local church. The underlying pedagogy in most of my local church experiences articulated that becoming a Christian dismissed my blackness and Jesus was not concerned with “that part of me.” I now know this is far from the truth.
Through study of the scriptures and crucial conversations, I’ve come to understand this simple fact: although my spirituality supersedes my ethnic identity, it doesn’t diminish it. This means who I am, in its entirety testifies of the indisputable truth that I am uniquely designed to reflect God’s matchless creativity. I still grieve when I see churches remain silent on these important areas of ministry. These areas that can often disrupt our congregational unity. There are parts of the body that are seriously injured and have been for some time now, so where do we go from here?
The first step is acknowledging that some of us are hurting and need to be healed. The second is critical conversations with suspended judgment in emotionally safe zones. It’s going to take more than a Sunday morning exegesis of a couple of scriptures. It’s a healing series. If one of us hurts, we all hurt. These issues pick at an old, unhealed wound because for many of us the oppressed share the same pigment, hair texture, and accent of them in our community.
The first step is acknowledging that some of us are hurting and need to be healed….
We must learn to initiate conversations, ideologically re-posture ourselves, suppress the urge to debate case forensics, and transition into the role of listener. We must journey into our brother and sister’s pain to find the heart of God. When we simply focus on case facts instead of digging deeper to the core of racial conflict, we become the ones with stones as seen in John 8. Jesus stepped in between law enforcement and the law breaker in a beautiful expression of uninhibited, impenetrable grace.
In that incident the law created a platform to promote judgment and condemnation. If not careful, we can operate in that same spirit. It’s a spirit that can produce division instead of empathy, and defensiveness instead of authentic vulnerability. If we are serious about bridging cultural gaps and tearing down walls of racism, then we must be committed to educating one another about God’s creativity and how it’s manifested through our differences. Being multicultural/multiethnic isn’t simply having church members from various backgrounds; it means having multiethnic expressions of ministry, worship, and curriculum while not consciously or unknowingly superimposing one expression over the other.
Before we get to this place, we simply need conversations about where we are and how it’s impacting us. The longer we wait for our problems to dissolve the more irrelevant Jesus becomes to the one looking for himself in the gospel. Let’s be unafraid to venture into some uncomfortable, messy places that can potentially lead us into healing, empowerment and powerful demonstrations of love. Sometimes the ones on the pews next to us are deeply hurting and in mourning. If we are truly disciples of Christ, let’s listen instead of speak, educate instead of indoctrinate, and walk towards healing. Then, we will be able to better serve all of the complex, ethnic identities that make up our congregations.