Monday, August 18, 2014

Humble Suggestions For White Christians

I call 911 sometimes.

I’d bet I call 911 more than about anyone else reading this.

But in the last week, I've noticed new streams of thoughts running through my head that I’d like to invite you all to consider along with me.

In fact, let me just walk you through my morning.

Today is the first day of school in Jacksonville. A wonderful occasion, a new year, full of hope and excitement and brimming with potential for growth, learning, and new beginnings.

I woke up at 6:18 to my house alarm going off (it was a false alarm). The Safetouch dispatcher over the two-way intercom asked, “Do you want me to call the police?” My immediate thought, “NO!”

This was because 1. I knew it was just a system error and 2. I wasn't sure what would happen next.

Here’s the thought process my (always very active) mind went through: An officer will show up, he or she will ask to see my ID. I will realize my driver’s license is on my bathroom counter and will have to lead the officer through the serpentine path from my front door, through a hallway, through my bedroom, then around a U-shaped bend to my bathroom where I would get my wallet. But what if, while I’m doing all this, my roommate who is a 23 year old black male with tattoos wakes up and groggily comes out, shirtless, to see what’s going on. What if he walks in a little too quickly or loudly or yells something (as he sometimes does). What if . . . something goes bad.

So, no, I didn't have them call the police. Not entirely or even mostly for that reason, but that whole thought process all crossed my mind.

I then made sure a middle school girl caught her bus in time and came back home and took my Bible out on the back porch. There I noticed that overnight someone had kicked in the door of the abandoned house behind my residence. I ran through the same thought process. “Oh, I should call that in . . . but what if . . .” 

Am I right to think this way? No, I don’t think so. At least, I really hope not.

But the thought process is there nonetheless.

The thought process is there because I've spent enough time and invested enough of myself in the community of Brentwood that I can’t help but think from the point of view that dominates the mindset of my friends and neighbors.

Before I go any further, let me be clear. Let me be crystal clear, I know multiple police officers in Jacksonville, who want nothing but the safety, protection, and flourishing of all parts of the city. I know officers who care about people, who give them second chances, who work with people instead of treating them as enemies to be contained or defeated. I know this. These people are out there. I’d even be hopeful to say they are the vast majority.

But, I also know city officials have used the term “human blight” to describe people in my community. I know people who have been put in squad cars and questioned for walking down the sidewalk. I know people who refer to the Jacksonville Sheriffs Office (JSO) as “Just Shot One”, meaning shot one of us, not we shot at them. I've been to Bible studies where people hearing about Jesus before Pilate compared it to their own experience with law enforcement in this city.

There is not an inherent trust of authority in this community. And it definitely has a lot to do with race.

Yesterday, my pastor included in his sermon advice about how young people should interact with authority. The stated reason wasn't so they could get good grades or land that job during the interview, the stated reason was because knowing how to do so could potentially save their life.

I've never heard that in a sermon in the suburbs.

I also know that in Jacksonville, “authority” doesn't necessarily just mean your boss, law enforcement, or principal, I know that in Jacksonville “authority” means “anyone with white skin”, because here, if a white man asks you to turn your music down and you don’t comply, you might just get killed.

This is a reality I have chosen to allow myself to experience and come to understand.

But, for millions of other Americans, this is a reality that they live and walk with every single day.

America is experienced very differently by those of non-white skin color.

There’s the statistics that show even though white-owned vehicles more often have contraband, black-owned vehicles are more often stopped and searched. There’s the statistics that show drug sentencing being highly disparate by race. There’s the fact that a white mass murderer is labeled a “brilliant, yet troubled mind” while a black victim is questioned about “What they did to deserve it.”

All this is very real. And all this is very invisible to most white folks.

Too often though, I can be prone to get lost in the conceptual, the outrage, or (worse) cynicism. But, today, I want to write, more pragmatically.

So, what can be done?

If you are a white Christian reading this, I have some humble suggestions.

1. Pray. 
Ask the Lord to move in supernatural ways to bring about repentance, reconciliation, equity, and justice in our country. I firmly believe that these are spiritual issues, but good news, Jesus Christ is reconciling all things by His work on the Cross (Colossians 1:20), so He has a vested interest! He died to bring these things about, let’s not fool around thinking we can do it without His power in the lead.

2. Learn about the systemic. 
White evangelicals love relationships, when asked how to deal with injustice or racial reconciliation they have a one page playbook: Build friendships with people not like me! 

And that’s great. It is the only way there will be real understanding and real repentance and real reconciliation, however, without accessing and truly empathizing with the systemic factors in play, this will be cheap and (potentially) paternalistic reconciliation.

The reason white and black America have very different outcomes and experiences is largely the result of systemic structures (some of which I outlined above). Also, the reason white and black Christians usually don’t have these “real relationships" is the result of these systemic factors. To truly move towards one another, these systems need to be understood. I’d encourage you to educate yourself. I’m going to link to a series of resources at the bottom of this blog. Some are books, some are articles. Some are very long. If you really want to understand this and be an ambassador of reconciliation, I would STRONGLY recommend you bookmark this blog and read these articles over the coming weeks. Try it! Read one a week. I challenge you.

3. Experience. 
Put yourself in situations where you actively experience what I discussed above. I stole these items from this blog:
  • Choose a new church home and sit under the preaching of a black preacher for two years.
  • Choose a new neighborhood where your fate is intimately tied to the fate of people of color.
  • Go back to school and take a history class from a black professor where your academic success lies in the hands of a person of color.
  • Choose to be mentored by a person of color every week. You do what they say, when they say it. No excuses.
  • Choose to go places where you see the stories behind the statistics, where someone can connect history to the present for you.
  • Send your kids to a black or brown school.
  • Need the wisdom of people of color to survive.

All of above is hard.

But, Jesus has already done the hard work for us.

In Ephesians 2, the Apostle Paul addresses the very issue of race and the church and he does so by pointing to Christ and saying this:
For He Himself is our peace, who has made the two one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility, by abolishing in the flesh the law with its commandments and regulations. His purpose was to create in Himself one new man out of the two, thus making peace, and in this one body to reconcile both of them to God through the cross, by which He put to death their hostility, He came and preached peace to you who were far away and peace to those who were near. For through him we both have access to the Father by one Spirit. 
Consequently, you are no longer foreigners and aliens, but fellow citizens with God’s people and members of God’s household, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus Himself as the chief cornerstone. In Him the whole building is joined together and rises to become a holy temple in the Lord. And in Him you too are being built together to become a dwelling in which God lives by His Spirit.

Black Bodies, White Souls: A plea for how white Christians should respond to injustice.
Michael Brown and Black Men: NYT Op-Ed about being a black man in America.
Segregation Now . . . : A profile from The Atlantic about school segregation. Spoiler: It's worse now than before Brown v. Board of Education.
The Case for Reparations: This is the advanced course. Lots of history. Lots of despair.
The Letter From a Birmingham Jail: THE primary document of the Civil Rights Movement.
This American Life Harper High School Part 1 & Part 2: Everyone should listen to these two radio stories profiling a high school in Chicago.
Divided By Faith: The definitive book for Christians about race. (Here's the blog series I started about it if you want a preview, oldest posts at the bottom)
The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness (also a book)