I wrote last week’s discussion concerning privilege and racial reconciliation with no idea of the events of Wednesday, June 17 at Mother Emanuel AME Church in Charleston. We mourn with our brothers and sisters who lost their friends and family members at the gun-drawn hand of Dylann Roof. His actions were, in no uncertain terms, the result of racism, hatred, and fear – held both in the heart of the killer and in the history of the South and our nation. Within these events there are stories of hatred, bravery by survivors, and lament from a community. We have also seen families, through Christ, find the ability to extend forgiveness to Roof, calling him to repentance and faith in Christ. This is truly amazing and has brought hope to many as we seek to make sense of these events.
As beautiful as this is to watch, I wonder if by disproportionately sharing and promoting this one part of the story, the part about forgiveness, over other elements of the story that are more pointedly about race, we do damage to the white community’s understanding of these events by giving a false sense of closure. For the white community, it is easier to view this event in isolation, but for people of color, it is yet another event in a history of racism and terror that has lasted for generations. We cannot over-estimate the damage it does to people of color who live where there are reminders of a painful history that is not healed and continues to resurface again and again. There is no doubt our country has come a long way, but the white community, especially those who claim Christ, must learn to listen to the voices of those who are hurting under the injustices they still face today.
A significant step for those of us in the white community is first to recognize our privilege and then find ways to align ourselves with those who have been oppressed. Consider the thoughts below as four ways – based on my attendance at the Justice Conference – that one might begin to make these ideas practical:
COME WITH HUMILITY
There were many times at The Justice Conference when I heard something that was particularly challenging to my way of thinking that I could feel my defensiveness rising to the surface. It happens still as I read and learn and become aware of my seemingly never-ending lack of awareness. We must, however, remember that there is no room for pride in the kingdom of God. Paul shows this clearly in his letter to the Ephesians, chapter 2, when he shows us as having been made “alive together with Christ” (v. 5) only because of the rich mercy of God, though we were dead in our sin and, by nature, children of wrath. Not only is no one able to boast on their salvation, which was the gift of God, by faith, but neither can we claim credit for the good things we have done. We were “created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.” (v. 10) Simply put, the Gospel should make us humble. Defensiveness and its cousin, shame, are both rooted in self-protection and end up being counter-productive. We must practice listening and trying to understand another’s point of view before we try to defend ourselves.
DIVERSITY YOUR NEWS SOURCES & THINK CRITICALLY
Recognize the frequency with which the dominant white culture attributes missteps of white men as individual occurrences, triggered by extenuating circumstances:
“He had a stressful day.”
“He feared for his life.”
“He had mental health issues.”
The following responses, in contrast, are fueled and bolstered by unjust characterization and criminalization of those who are not like us:
“They haven’t been taught any better.”
“He shouldn’t have run.”
“She shouldn’t have been so disrespectful.”
These sentiments invalidate what it is like for people of color to operate in a country in which they and their ancestors have experienced acts of terror for generations. Though each of us is an individual, we do not function independently. Our thinking is the product of implicit biases created by our overall understanding of those who are not like us, embedded in ways we cannot always see, and by sources we don’t always recognize. It is important for us to challenge these narratives and spend our efforts on identifying these biases in our own hearts.
DON’T CONSIDER YOURSELF A ‘VOICE FOR THE VOICELESS’
I’ve heard the phrase before that standing up for oppressed people is “being a voice for the voiceless.” I see it now, however, that advocacy is not condescending from positions of privilege to give some people equal access to that same privilege. Solutions involve reciprocity – laying down privilege and restoring humanity. Pre-conference speaker, Sandra Van Opstal said, “There are no voiceless people; just people who are not being heard.” Consider this advice from another pre-conference speaker, Kathy Khang. One of her practical ways to dismantle privilege is to invite people of color to speak at your church, particularly if it is a predominantly white congregation. If you are not in a position to make such decisions, seek out ways to have an influential voice in this area. Note the difference between a white person speaking on behalf of an oppressed group versus stepping aside and letting a representative of the group speak.
START WHERE YOU ARE
Pray for God to stir your heart to make it more like His – inclined toward the oppressed and downtrodden. Find a friend who would want to read a book with you. Pray for more people who are like-minded or are at least interested in investigating these issues. Seek out friends whose views challenge yours. The more diverse the group is, the better.
The goal of racial reconciliation is unity in the body of Christ, and that the church would be a credible witness to the world of the power of God to change hearts and lives as we model and strive for God’s Kingdom to be on earth as it is in heaven. When we look to Scripture to understand what God’s purposes are for Christians in this life, we see that God is in the process of making all things new. This is evident by looking to the beginning of Scripture and to the end for clues for what is happening in the middle. All of redemptive history is bookended by creation in Genesis and the words of King Jesus seated on the throne saying, “Behold, I am making all things new.” (Revelation 21:5) These are the words of Jesus that unify the whole of Scripture. This is the work He is doing in this world and in this life. Thus, justice is not an option for Christians – it is an imperative. We must find a way to partner with and learn from one another, in unity and humility, as we align our hearts with God’s purposes for justice in this world.
Further Information on The Justice Conference:
Lindsey Yoder is the mother of two and a student at Reformed Theological Seminary Atlanta.