I promised in my last post to put together some more practical suggestions for what Christians can do to fight racism in America. But first, I’ll begin with three qualifications.
First, keep the cross of Christ before you at all times. I will follow up this post with another one about the spiritual nature of “this present darkness” we are going through. But for now, remember this: the gospel is the power of God to everyone who believes (Rom 1:16). Don’t be ashamed of it. If we truly want to see meaningful improvement in racial tensions in America, the church can’t sideline the gospel in the process. The gospel is the cure, not an obstacle to racial healing.
Second, everything I’m suggesting in this post should be categorized as “good works.” When Jesus tells us to love our neighbors as ourselves, he means something more than sentimental well wishing. Modern Americans think love is a feeling, as though all Jesus requires of us is to feel good feelings towards other people. This is wrong. Biblical love takes action on behalf of others for their highest good. Those loving actions are called “good works” (Heb 10:24). As James says, “faith without works is dead (2:17).” From what I’ve been hearing from white Christians in my church and elsewhere, people want something meaningful to do, but they don’t know where to begin. That’s what this post is about.
Third, good works must be done freely, not under compulsion. Paul tells the Corinthians to give freely and cheerfully, “not reluctantly or under compulsion” (2 Cor 9:7). Paul says he could have ordered Philemon to treat Onesimus as a Christian brother, but did not do so because he wanted Philmon’s goodness to “not be by compulsion but of [his] own accord” (Philemon 14). Peter tells church elders to shepherd God’s people willingly and “not under compulsion” (1 Peter 5:2). Why does the NT emphasize the freeness of good works? Because the sincere desire of Christians to obey God can easily turn into a guilt trip, and guilt-burdened Christians are easily manipulated. All it takes is a few Bible verses and a little public shaming to get them to comply with whatever promises to ease our consciences. Before long, they wind up burned out or jaded. A good conscience is a glorious gift of the gospel. It is for freedom that Christ has set us free! (Gal 5:1)
I make this point about the freedom of good works because I see churches, denominations, and networks quarrelling about what “the church” should be doing right now. It goes something like this: some Christians want to deny any racism or systemic injustice in America. “Nothing to see here, move along.” That’s the wrong approach. In a sinful world, we should expect to see these things. Other Christians, however, want to recruit Christians and churches into political activism. “Silence is violence! You must say something! You must act NOW!” That’s the wrong approach too, because those are the tactics of guilt. Sure, some Christians will be motivated by this to do something, but it won’t last and they’ll resent it later on. The Holy Spirit gave us different spiritual gifts for a reason – let’s use them.
Every Christian should oppose the sin of racism, not because it’s trending on Twitter, but because the gospel demands it. It is a sin against the image of a holy God in another man or woman. But we should not expect every Christian who truly opposes racism to oppose it in the same way. God has been and still is raising up devoted Christian men and women who are doing good works to promote racial unity that feel no need to tell everyone about it on Facebook. They aren’t “silent” – as some accuse them of being – they are active. They are plodders. Steady and faithful. God sees their secret deeds and He will reward them (Matt 6:1-4).
The point is this: Christians who want to do something about racial tension in America need to keep their eyes fixed on Jesus, do good works to love and serve their neighbors, and do so willingly, in the power and gifting of the Holy Spirit, not under compulsion.
Well then, here’s a few, simple suggestions of things you can do right away.
#1. Learn about the black experience in America
When you first meet someone new, you usually ask a few questions to hear their backstory. Where are you from? How many brothers or sisters do you have? Where did you go to school? These questions help people discover common interests, which give us something to build on.
I met a visitor at my church a few months ago who was from my hometown in WVa. There was an immediate connection. We could talk about schools, restaurants, and cultural quirks of our community. My small hometown has been in the midst of a drug war, leading to a massive spike in the murder rate. We were both shaped by a few similar experiences that provided context to begin a new friendship.
In some ways (I’m admittedly overgeneralizing here), some experiences are common for black people in America that white people are not familiar with. These shared experiences form a sort of cultural “hometown.” In one sense, black folks have a natural, relational starting point because they come from the same cultural hometown, “Black America, USA.” (Again, forgive the overgeneralization.) White people can learn better ways to love and serve them by spending time in their cultural hometown. This gives white people a better starting point for relating to black people as people, not as a “learning experience.” The learning experience is done on our own through books, videos, and similar resources.
There are lots of resources out there for this; too many to list. As with any topic, some resources are more helpful than others. I’ll mention three. In 2001, Michael Emerson and Christian Smith published “Divided by Faith,” which uses research and interviews to present a data-driven analysis of race and Christianity in America. George Yancey’s “Beyond Racial Gridlock” examines four different secular solutions to racial problems from a Christian perspective and suggests a Christian approach he calls “Mutual Responsibility.” I found his book very helpful. Another option that looks promising is Carl Ellis Jr’s online course called “History and Theology of the African American Church.” I haven’t completed the course yet, but I have a lot of respect for Ellis. I’ll include notes about how to access this for free at the bottom of this post.
#2. Acknowledge the pain and grieve with people of color
In the immediate aftermath of George Floyd’s death, I spoke with several non-white people in my church who were personally affected by it. This makes sense – I was personally affected too, but not like them. It made me sad and angry, but their reaction was much more intense. They expressed a blend of anger, sadness, exasperation, confusion, despair – all at once. Many of them live with a constant anxiety that their own death could be the next viral video.
When I was a kid, the video rental store near my house had a documentary series called “Faces of Death.” The concept was simple. The film contained footage of people getting killed. We didn’t have cameras everywhere in those days, so video footage of this sort was almost always captured accidentally and not released to the public out of respect for the dead. But the filmmakers were able to gain access to them anyway and turn them into movies, complete with the “parental advisory – extreme footage” warnings all over it.
What about now? Youtube and Facebook have thousands of videos just like this ready to view anytime, anywhere. My own children saw George Floyd die on the 6PM news. Up next, the weather. It’s so common now that we’ve become numb to the fact that we are watching people die violent deaths on our phones. God help us. The indignity of a man dying in front of an amateur paparazzi has become a common feature of our modern, social media age. And as soon as the video goes public, hyper-political and familiar narratives quickly emerge. Camps form. Division ensues.
But one simple fact remains – this is extraordinarily painful for black people in ways that white people can not easily relate to. For white people, it’s a senseless tragedy. For black people, it’s a pattern. It’s a threat. A simple way for white Christians to love our black neighbors is to recognize that these events hurt them in ways we don’t understand. That’s OK – we don’t have to fully understand in order to communicate love and concern for them. For people of color that are in your immediate spheres of influence (family members, neighbors, coworkers, church members), reach out to them personally with your prayers and love as you follow the lead of the Spirit.
#3. Start with one simple, clear, and specific goal – then pursue it faithfully
As I stated above, every Christian should oppose the sin of racism, but not every Christian is called or gifted to go about it in the same way. Some Christians are gifted at using social media to make a real and meaningful difference. The rest of us suck at it. The more we say, the worse it gets. If God has called and gifted you to do ministry on social media, do it well, for the glory of God. If not, remember that even our use of social media use will not escape God’s judgment. Our words, thoughts, and motives will be brought under the bright light of God’s scrutiny, where we will all give an account for every careless word (Matt 12:36).
To truly do something worthwhile, start with one simple, clear, and specific goal – then pursue it faithfully. Before you begin, state your goal and count the cost (Luke 14:28). Make it a realistic goal with a clear, attainable outcome in mind. For example, “ending racism” is a good desire, but not a realistic goal. Racism is going to continue to be a problem until Jesus returns. Until then, we have to find ways to limit its effects in society. Some people may intentionally live in a particular neighborhood out of a desire to love and serve the people who live there. If so, put down deep roots and commit to it. What could some goals look like in this situation? As a suggestion: (1) meet everyone on my block in the next year, (2) invite one person from my neighborhood into my home for a meal in the next two months, (3) share the gospel ten times in the six months, (4) try to build three significant friendships in the next year.
In 2008, my wife and I moved into an intentionally chosen Cincinnati neighborhood with our two children. We’ve been here for twelve years and we’ve had two more kids in the process. We had to be realistic – we were planting a church in a tough environment and our kids were really young. But over the years, little by little, we’ve established ourselves in our neighborhood and God has opened doors to significant and meaningful ministry. We’re plodders. Slow and steady wins the race.
As a pastor, I have broader influence than most people, but it’s still limited. My greatest influence will be in my local spheres: family, neighborhood, and church. There are great racial injustices that occur in places far away from me. For example, I have no influence with the police department in Minneapolis where George Floyd was killed. But I have friends and brothers in Christ who pastor churches there, and I can pray for them and support them from here. I do have influence in my own city, and God has renewed my commitment to steward that influence for the good of the city where I live (Jer 29:7).
As for you, begin with yourself: repent of the sin of partiality in your heart, seek forgiveness from anyone you’ve sinned against, and teach your children to do the same. Then, get to know your neighbors and love them with your good works as the Spirit leads you. In your workplace, treat others with respect and do not participate with others in the sin of partiality (AKA racism or racial injustice). If you are able to identify unjust practices in your neighborhood, workplace, or community, speak up for those affected by it and do your best to correct them. If you have a community council, join it and attend the meetings. This is a good opportunity to meet local law enforcement officers and talk to them about your concerns, ask them questions, understand what’s going on in your community, and take prayerful action. Whatever influence you have in your community can be leveraged to love and serve your neighbors in whatever ways that fit your context.
In your church, if there are specific prayer or serving initiatives that you can get involved in, choose one that you can fully commit to and go all in. Remember, good works are free and not compelled, so commit to what you can do and enjoy a clear conscience when you can’t.
The bottom line is this. We can do the most good for others focusing on and faithfully pursuing clear goals where we have the most influence. For most people, that will be in our homes, neighborhoods, workplaces, and churches.
As mentioned above, here’s how you can access for FREE Carl Ellis Jr’s 7-hour mobile ed course on the history and theology of the African American church. If you don’t already own Logos Bible Software, here’s what you can do. First, download the free version of Logos Bible Software. Second, purchase (for free) this course, “History and Theology of the African American Church.” Third, check out this Facebook group that has frequently updated lists of FREE books that are available through Logos. You can build a mini library with free books. Currently, there is a CSB Apologetics Study Bible available for free.
I found book reviews for the two books mentioned above.