Philando Castille. Alton Sterling. Gregory Gunn. Tamir Rice. Freddie Gray. Eric Garner. Walter Scott. Eric Harris. John Crawford III. All shot dead or killed in the past two to three years. I might not know all that happened, but I know that someone should not die in response to selling CD’s or reaching for their identification or selling cigarettes or playing with a BB gun in a park or talking on the phone in a Wal Mart or running away or being contained in the back of a van or walking home at night from a card game, etc, etc, without due process or without being tried in front of a jury of their peers if they are actually indicted for crimes. I don’t have to know everything to know that this is wrong and these deaths should not have happened and that they are both unbiblical and unconstitutional (Fifth Amendment) and the fact that these things keep happening means that we need to look at why and try to stop it. And, we need to mourn with those who mourn and love our neighbors enough to consider what so many are going through right now in our nation in response to these events and violent crime that plagues many of our communities. We also really need to be praying daily for police officers in our communities who have an incredibly difficult job to do.
When people bring up race in these deaths, if we are white, we need to listen more than we speak and grieve alongside our neighbors and consider what is being said and the long history of institutional violence against black people in our nation and realize that there is a really good reason why people would think that racism is involved in these situations – at least in an underlying way. And while we cannot know motives, we do not need to be so naive as to think that racism doesn’t sometimes play a part implicitly and even explicitly because of the world we inhabit. We need to pray for Justice, Mercy, and Humility with God (Micah 6:8) because only God can make this right, but He calls us to cooperate with Him and to be his hands and feet and to put His justice and peace into action. When we do that, He calls us “blessed.”
But, we aren’t there yet, obviously. So, after listening, I think it IS time to speak and act. This is a sickness that is growing in our nation – a dragon unleashed with fear driving it that causes people to see “black” or “brown” or “foreign” as evil and scary and a threat. Any justification of that fear that says, “Well, black people need to stop commiting crimes and killing each other and maybe then I won’t be afraid,” is a basic definition of racism. You are responsible for your fear and where it comes from and what you do with it. “Black” people are not committing crimes and killing each other. That racial designation is what racism is. People commit crimes and kill others. That is what sin does and it infects all people and it is not a respecter of a certain skin color or nationality. The Bible tells me so. It is not particular to “black” people. If you think that one race is more prone to violence or crime than another because of their skin color, then you might be working from a racial prejudice. If you think that “your people” are the good ones and “those people” are the bad ones and should be feared primarily on the basis of skin color or cultural background, then you might be struggling with racist beliefs. The vast majority of black people do not commit crimes and kill people and there is nothing about someone’s race that would cause them to do so and if you think there is, then you are working from a racist paradigm.
And, that is the problem. A great number of white people see it that way. I hear it and read it on social media constantly. “What about Chicago?” “Why don’t black people care about black-on-black crime?” They don’t? Every time someone says something like that then they are working from a racist perspective that says that what happens in Baton Rouge or Minnesota is somehow connected to a criminal in Chicago ONLY because of skin color and that white people should be afraid. This view dehumanizes both blacks and whites. The idea goes that if a black man is shot and killed by police then he probably did something to deserve it. And, the thinking goes, if the policeman is afraid for his life when he confronts a black man it could be because it is justified fear because of something some other black man did somewhere else. If that is in your thinking, you are suffering from textbook racism and that means that every black person, whether they are law abiding or not, is treated the same and could be shot and killed because of stereotypes. And, if that is what police officers are having to deal with, then it is incumbent upon all of us to intervene in our communities and help solve the problem together.
The whole community also needs to support law enforcement in the excellent and difficult work that they do in our communities. I believe that the vast, vast majority of police officers are doing amazing work in protecting and serving and they work hard to make sure that they treat people fairly and according to the law without regard to race. That these events have happened should not impugn all police officers by any means. Actually, they should mobilize all of us to give more community support to law enforcement so they do not feel isolated and to address larger issues in our communities and nation so police officers on the beat do not have to navigate all of this alone (I have learned a lot from watching our Montgomery Chief of Police and Police Department work hard in calling for community involvement in this regard over the past few months). I cannot imagine what they face each day and we all have a role to play in keeping our communities safe. What I am talking about here are underlying attitudes behind how we see these issues in our society and how we react to what happens to people.
Do I know if those pulling the trigger in these recent killings are racists? No. Absolutely not. I cannot judge hearts or motives. And, I cannot judge the situations that occurred. That is not within my purview. But, I can judge the justifications offered by others, and over recent years I have seen a lot of white people give racist responses to all of this while not thinking that they suffer from any kind of racism at all. And, THAT is a major problem.
So, racism and injustice still plague us and we fall into it easily because our identity is often more in our skin color and culture than it is in Christ. What does all of this have to do with Religious Freedom? Everything. Read Isaiah 58. We can bemoan the de-Christianization of America and the loss of our spiritual influence. We can meet and pray and sing and fast and ask God to work and to reclaim America. We can look to political leaders who promise to defend our rights and freedoms as Christians and we can put our hope in them. But, here is the deal. Unless our prayers and worship of God causes us to turn toward those who are suffering, who are under the yoke of oppression, who are suffering from violence and corruption and we “spend ourselves on behalf of the hungry” and lay down our lives on their behalf, there will be no restoration of the witness of the evangelical church in America, no restoring of the breach or of the cities and age old foundations. Our freedoms and position will continue to erode. We will grow weaker and weaker because our focus is on ourselves and on sustaining our own position. If we don’t see the suffering of even our fellow brothers and sisters in Christ who are African-American or disempowered or poor or widows or orphans or immigrants/sojourners/refugees and if we don’t lay our lives down for them and with them in sacrificial community, then claims of a loss of religious freedom and influence are more related to the potential loss of our own position and power than from a concern for others – even whether they live or die. And, God won’t bless that.
Last week, speaking of Isaiah 58, I said this:
“All over America, Christians are bemoaning the secularization of our culture and the loss of religious freedom. Yet, right now God is providing the very way that we can regain our witness and see our ancient ruins rebuilt. If we would only turn toward those in need who are suffering, we would see raised up foundations and the breach repaired. When the bonds of oppression are loosed, it speaks of our Deliverer who sets the captive free.”
It is time to turn away from ourselves and toward those who are suffering.
The Better Way of Jesus
There is a way to heal our cities and our land. It is the better way of Jesus – the way of sacrificial love where we lay down our lives and our own interests (Read Philippians 2:1-11) and consider others better than ourselves and take on the mind and nature of Christ who became a slave and went to the cross for us. The way of sacrifice is the only way to bring healing and see our churches and nation restored. Yes, we are already free people, but as 1 Peter 2:16 says, “Live as free people, but do not use your freedom as a cover-up for evil; live as God’s slaves.” Our religious freedom is not so we can just have more for us and so we can protect, promote, and defend our way of life over and above others. Our religious freedom is so we can be slaves of Christ and give our lives away for others just as Jesus did for us. If we miss that, then we have missed the implications of our own salvation. If the focus is self, then it is idolatry. If the focus is on God and others, then we will find our rightful place as salt and light in society, and while we will still be persecuted, it will be as a witness to Jesus and His love for people.
People are dying and are losing hope. Neighborhoods live under the specter of gunfire. People are lost and without knowledge of God all over the land because they cannot see a witness of real Christianity. Immigrants and refugees flock here for protection and a better life and then face rejection and closed doors and hearts. Murders are justified or ignored because victims are black or brown or foreign. If we say, “they need to stop killing each other,” what do we mean by “they”? Black people? Brown people? THEY are killing each other? Really? Even the victims are “they”? Can’t you see the racism in that statement? “They” are guilty and need to stop killing each other because “they” are black and are all the same – murderers and victims alike. Is that what we are saying?
This has to end and the only way that it can is for the “better way of Jesus” – the way of sacrificial love and care and concern for neighbor – to begin to take over the concern for self and our own “way of life” so that all across America churches of every kind come together out of sacrificial love for neighbor to stamp out fear and dehumanization of all kinds.
NOTE: If you are surprised that I am saying these things in this way, then you never read my 2014 book, When Heaven and Earth Collide: Racism, Southern Evangelicals, and the Better Way of Jesus. All of this is in that book in much more detail with over 300 pages of background, history, over 200 footnotes, theology, and examples from hundreds of years of economic, political, and social/cultural history and analysis. Racism is not the root cause. It is just a symptom of a deeper desire of people to get their way and promote their own prosperity and way of life over others. But, it is a heinous thing that destroys us and it can only really be killed by the Cross of Christ. We need to put it down once and for all and replace it with the love of Jesus.