Last week was undeniably tragic, a week that for many of us has sparked difficult thoughts, conversations, and emotions. As I have reflected over the last few days and processed what the deaths of Alton Sterling, Philando Castile, and the five Dallas police officers mean for me, my wife, my children, and for our church, I’m reminded that our world is broken, and we as Christians can only respond by crying out, “Come Lord Jesus.”
As we continue to process all the tragedies that have taken place, there are many questions that have come up. As an African-American pastor in a predominantly white congregation, there is one question that I want to answer today. It’s a question that a significant amount of white brothers and sisters have sincerely asked me: “What can I do as a white person to help? I see the injustice, and I see the pain, but what do I do?”
Here are three basic things I think all white brothers and sisters can do.
Reject White Fragility
White fragility, in short, is a defensive reaction or anger that many white people have and feel when they hear a black person bring up the pain of the past and injustice of the present. Often white Americans experience that reaction because they believe they are personally attacked and condemned. They think that when blacks bring it up, they are being divisive or are just plain ignorant (often by choice) to what’s going on around them.
White fragility is sinful because it goes against what Paul teaches in Galatians 6:2 to “bear one another’s burdens,” or Proverbs 31:8 which encourages us to “speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves; ensure justice for those being crushed.”
White fragility happens because of a failure to believe that the gospel frees you from guilt, shame, and condemnation. I’ve seen too many white Christians be defensive, and I suspect in part it’s because they feel guilty for what they have said or done in the past. Remember, faith in the life and death of Jesus frees you from the worst of your thoughts and deeds. Look to Christ, repent if you have sinned, talk with a mature Christian, and do justice.
Shame is rooted in who we are. Some people feel shame because of their ancestors’ sin. Perhaps in your history, there were slave owners or parents who were racist. In Christ, you are a new creature. Remember there is no condemnation because Christ stood condemned for you. You can face the truth of your past without allowing your personal identity to crumble because your identity is in Christ; that you are risen with Him is what matters most.
As a black man, when I write or speak on the subject of race in America and how black lives matter, I’m not bringing it up to divide any more than Paul brought up Peter’s hypocrisy to divide. The issue is brought up to inform, teach, stir, equip, and ultimately encourage the church to stand up in the unity of the Spirit, fighting against apathy and systems that keep people oppressed who are created in the image of God.
Rejecting white fragility should lead you to a posture of listening well. Since you as a white person haven’t experienced life as a black person, you should listen and grieve with those who are black. During times of racial tragedy it would be wise and kind if you reached out to a black friend and asked them how are they doing and processed the events with them.
Listen to the pain that we have. Listen to the stories that we share and the fear that we may have. Listen because some blacks tremble at the sight of police car behind us simply because of the color of our skin. Listen because there’s a good chance these experiences are foreign to you.
In the past when I’ve had conversations about race, the majority of the people I talked to empathized with me as a black man, but there were some who negatively critiqued my experience by putting words in my mouth, questioning the context or even the validity. Rather than put your brother or sister on trial or accuse them of “surely having done something to provoke the officer,” listen with attentiveness, humility, compassion, and a longing to see things made right. Listen with a heart that says, “I’m here with you. I’m not here to correct you, or to tell you to wait for more evidence to come out.” As we look at the ministry of Jesus we see that he asked questions and listened to how people answered. We as the Body of Christ are called to do so as well.
Lastly, I encourage you to participate. The hard thing about cases of police brutality is that people of all ethnic types feel powerless. The reality is we are not. There are actions to be taken. While they will not solve the problem of racism and discrimination (only Christ changes hearts), these concrete actions can offer healing and model Christlikeness:
Reach out to community leaders. Call or write to a congressman or congresswoman, mayor, or local police chief and let them know of your concern. Ask them how are they working to ensure that the next hashtag does not occur in your city. Hold those in power accountable for the conditions and environment of the poor. This also includes your pastors and pastors within your community. Help them to think through and strategize how to address policing issues.
Speak up for the oppressed. I’m not always for Twitter or Facebook activism—many times social media can do more harm than good—but there is a place for it. There is a time to let people know that you are speechless, or that you are hurting with your brothers and sisters in Christ. You can do this by writing a private message or email, or writing on your wall and tweeting. Trust me, this will go a long way with your minority brothers and sisters. If you feel like speaking out against these injustices on social media isn’t for you, ask yourself why that is. Make sure your reluctance is not driven by fear. If you’re on the other side and are posting, make sure your eagerness is based on conviction. If you’ve examined your heart, and feel that posting on social media is not the best decision for you, know that it is okay! Whether you’re white or black, you’re not any less of a Christian if you choose not to post anything against injustice on Twitter or Facebook. But don’t stop there. Find ways to participate in your community and learn from each other.
Participate. I’m praying that more churches and a well-deserving community organization will thoughtfully plan more non-violent marches and protests. There is great confusion and uncertainty about how this should look. We as the Body should think through how we can express ourselves in a Christ-honoring way more often. Perhaps churches can have a presence at a non-violent protest by wearing t-shirts that distinguish them from other groups, and serve water and pray for people? I’m exploring with others how this should look.
Learn. Be intentional to learn the part of history that most American schools hid from you. Educate yourself on the contributions of blacks in America. This past Sunday, I visited a church in Cincinnati, Ohio, that was all white in 2001, but now is multiethnic and on the front lines of planting multiethnic churches. According to their pastor, Chris Beard, the congregation now has many nationalities represented, and it started with education in small groups and from the pulpit on black history.
Why was that an effective message? I imagine it was effective because it taught some, and reminded others, that there are no superior ethnicities. I imagine that it reminded his members that America, the home of the brave, included the backs of brave slaves and forgotten heroes that this country was built on.
Be teachable. Learning about men and women like George Lisle (America’s first international missionary) and Phillis Wheatley (a dynamic poet and author), or Lott Carey (a Baptist missionary), will give you a greater appreciation for the blacks around you and counter the caricatures that often fill our culture. Build relationships with your black brothers and sisters in Christ so that you can grow as a person and see the world from a different perspective. This will require grace and patience for all those involved in the conversation.
As we think about this last week we see the brokenness of man and the brokenness of systems. We’re reminded of the fact that we can’t heal ourselves. Healing only comes through Jesus Christ, and as the church we should be reminded that we have hope in something greater. I trust the Lord will use this pain and brokenness to bring the church together. It’s time for the church to stand up, to be who God has called her to be, and to show the world what we have together in Christ.