Racism and Our Christian Responsibility
The tragedy in Charlottesville may no longer be dominating our headlines, but the issue is still an important one. Christians have an obligation to continue the conversation and propel it toward unity, wholeness, and justice.
The week that culminated with the Charlottesville violence was a difficult one. Most of America sat, horrified, as the hate-filled images poured across our TV screens and smartphones, permeated social media, and headlined the concerned texts of family members and friends. We watched in disbelief as history repeated itself in the form of various hate groups gathering for what, according to the Associated Press and other sources, was one of the largest white-supremacy gatherings in at least a decade and possibly longer. We watched these white supremacists lob insults and slurs at counter-protestors and anyone who dared to oppose them, and they repeated chants and slogans and sentiments that many of us, whether rightly or wrongly, thought had been buried with history.
In front of our own eyes, we are watching our country wrestle for its very soul.
Friends, these are crucial days. As the church, what we do in response to these moments will define the impact of the American church for generations to come. Prophetic rights are earned in times like these, and how we behave in the aftermath of an event like Charlottesville will speak volumes to our fellow Christ followers as well as to the unbelieving world around us. However, in these moments of darkness, it can understandably feel overwhelming, and knowing where to begin can be difficult. It’s my hope, however imperfect it may be, for us to begin to think through three tangible next steps together.
1. We have a responsibility to acknowledge our place. What happened in Charlottesville did not begin in Charlottesville, or even in this century. Systemic, racially motivated oppression has been present in subtle and not-so-subtle ways since the earliest days of our country. White people have been running this country since they won the Revolution, and they (we) have consistently and repeatedly enacted specific laws and legislation that have made the experiences of our African American brothers and sisters vastly different from the rest of us.
People of color routinely experience racial bias solely based on their names in something as simple as employment applications, and they’re often profiled unfairly by citizens and law enforcement alike because of the clothes they wear, the hairstyles they choose, or even for walking in the “wrong” neighborhood. Black drivers in the United States are more likely to be pulled over and searched without cause than white drivers, while being less likely to be found carrying illegal contraband.
My reality as a white person is that my race has afforded me opportunities others have not been offered, and I know that many reading this are in that same boat with me. The odds of success are stacked in our favor, and though nobody should feel shame or guilt over their race since we are all made in the image of God, we will need to acknowledge our privilege as white people if we hope to move out of the present pain and into a future where all are given justice—and not just acknowledge our privilege but repent, socially, of the ways in which we’ve turned a blind eye to the systemic injustice around us. Acknowledgment and repentance can be summed up in one word: reconciliation. And reconciliation is difficult but necessary work.
Every light matters. Every voice carries, and every word can shake the foundation of a world that needs beauty, reconciliation, and justice in the deepest possible way.
In his book Just Mercy, Bryan Stevenson says it powerfully: “We are all implicated when we allow other people to be mistreated. An absence of compassion can corrupt the decency of a community, a state, a nation. Fear and anger can make us vindictive and abusive, unjust and unfair, until we all suffer from the absence of mercy and we condemn ourselves as much as we victimize others.”
2. We have a responsibility to learn. This learning will take two forms.
First, it’s important that we find a way to broaden our relational circles. Maybe we introduce ourselves to the pastor or another member of a predominantly African American congregation in our community, and maybe it looks like bringing our two congregations together for a meal, or a frank conversation, or for partnership in a service opportunity. Maybe it looks like opening your home to a Muslim neighbor, spending time together, breaking bread together, sharing stories together, laughing and crying together.
Now, broadening our relational circles can make us susceptible to the danger of tokenism, which is easy for anyone to do, so we must be diligent to watch for and resist it at all costs. The relationships we have with our brothers and sisters of color do not exist to make us feel better about ourselves, nor do they exist as talking points we can use to prove to others that we’re not racist. Very few people would begin relationships with tokenism as the primary or stated motivation, but it’s incredibly easy to subconsciously turn these friendships into tools we use to make us feel better about ourselves. “See!” we might find ourselves saying, after something as simple as saying hello to a black person at the grocery store, “I’m different from those people on TV.”
Instead, we invite people of color into our inner circles, we reach out to our neighbors who practice different religions or cultural traditions—not to gain sociopolitical points but simply as friends and allies because we’re better together. We reach out from a deep belief that, when a group of people experiences racial and systemic injustice—though we don’t share that experience ourselves—that negative experience impacts us all and pains the heart of God. We reach out from a sincere belief that people of color have been historically mistreated in this country, that they are still being mistreated today, that they deserve dignity, love, and respect, and that we as white people are in a unique position to uplift them to the equality we say they deserve. We reach out because their stories deserve to be heard, and their rights deserve to be defended. Most importantly, we reach out because they are our neighbors and fellow human beings.
Second, it’s important that we learn by exposing ourselves to new voices and ideas. Read books by authors of a different race or ethnicity from yourself. If you’re interested in learning about the systemic problems in the United States, consider reading any of the following:
Just Mercy, by Bryan Stevenson
The Cross and the Lynching Tree, by James H. Cone
Between the World and Me, by Ta-Nehisi Coates
The Christian Imagination, by Willie James Jennings
God of the Oppressed, by James H. Cone
Disunity in Christ, by Christena Cleveland
The New Jim Crow, by Michelle Alexander
If you’re into documentaries, consider:
13th, directed by Ava DuVernay
I Am Not Your Negro, written by James Baldwin
Slavery by Another Name, directed by Samuel D. Pollard
If you enjoy podcasts:
Race Matters, by NPR
This American Life, by NPR, specifically these episodes: “Three Miles,” “The Problem We All Live With Parts 1 & 2,” “Cops See It Differently Parts 1 & 2,” and “A Not So Simple Majority.”
3. We have a responsibility to make our voices heard. In the days immediately following Charlottesville, I felt encouraged by how many Christians shared our denominational stance on racial oppression, and I’ve also been encouraged by the number of pastors who have preached from their pulpits about the evil of racism. However, we cannot stop there. There’s more we can do. We can write to our representatives in Congress, demanding they take action against hate and systemic injustice. We can host racial-reconciliation roundtables at our churches. We can march with other clergy in opposition to those who hate. We can use our social media as a platform, showing the world the church does not stand for this sort of hate.
Friends, when the world is this dark and evil this thick, it can feel impossible to push back or make a difference. What can a single voice do in the midst of such vast darkness? However, every light matters. Every voice carries, and every word can shake the foundation of a world that needs beauty, reconciliation, and justice in the deepest possible way. So, friends, may we acknowledge our role in this mess (even if it’s unintentional). May we choose the posture of learners, and may we stand in solidarity with our brothers and sisters of color—because we cannot claim to be people of love if we also choose to turn a blind eye and a deaf ear to injustice.
As Cornel West says, “Never forget that justice is what love looks like in public.”
Michael R. Palmer is a husband, father, ordained elder, and writer who serves as pastor (along with his wife, Elizabeth) of Living Vine Church of the Nazarene in Napa, California. He is an avid Cardinals fan, lover of blues and jazz, conversational instigator, and deeply passionate about issues of justice and spiritual formation. You can follow him on Twitter at @michaelrpalmer and Facebook at @mryanpalmer85.