Sometimes you tear up the publication schedule. Given COVID19, we had an article on loneliness by Molly Wicker planned for this week, and given our emphasis on Vocation, we had an article about the New Testament and Doomsday Approaches by Bruce Lowe scheduled for next week. Those are now pushed back a week or two because of the protests and the violence that have gripped our nation. We do not always pick the issues of the day, but today’s issues demand comment.
When it comes to this past week’s protests, we cannot take race out of it, because the issue is fundamentally racial. White and black (and every other racial group) ought to be on the same side, standing for what is right. And every one of us must look at this and acknowledge that it IS racial.
As my colleague Phillip Holmes wrote at TGC, America still obviously has a race problem. I am statistically less likely to die if I get stopped by a policeman than a black man would be, simply because my skin is white. Nor do I believe that such a statistic is because I am less likely to have committed a crime. Are there statistical differences in crime rates between various races? Truth is, I don’t know. But even if there are, that doesn’t explain it all, not close.
For instance, a few years back my intern and I pulled into our church parking lot late on Saturday night/Sunday morning, returning home after a church retreat. Our church parking lot is near the expressway, so officers often idle in the lot, a place off the road that enables them to quickly be on the move wherever they need to go. The difference in reactions was telling. My reaction, at 1:00 AM in a dark parking lot, seeing a police cruiser? “Oh, that’s comforting. If anyone else were around, the presence of the police protects me.” My intern’s reaction? “If you weren’t here with me, I would drive right back out of this parking lot and come back tomorrow. In the wee hours of the morning, you don’t drive into a suburban parking lot with a policeman there if you look like me.” The only difference? I am white, and my intern that year was a black man. We are friends, brothers in Christ, both ministering in the same denomination, and we come from basically the same socioeconomic background.
My wife and I teach our children to be respectful of law enforcement, and we have explained to them that if we get stopped, we keep our hands in sight on the steering wheel; we move slowly; we ask permission to get the insurance card from the glove box. But we have not had to teach our children to fear for their lives in that situation. We teach them to trust what the officer says and do it, and they can trust everything will be fine. If I were a black man, I would not be able to teach that lesson the same way.
It is not white guilt to state this truth. It is simply acknowledging a clear fact. I do not feel guilty that I was born exactly the way God made me. But I do feel the world is very, very wrong when someone God made with a different color skin is more likely to be killed just because of the color of that skin.
The causes are both individual and systemic. Are some police racist? Certainly. Are many (I pray most) not? Also certainly. The officers I personally know are wonderful men and women that I would trust completely. Does police brutality occur towards people with white skin? Sure. But it remains, I am safer than my black brother in police presence. But the actions of individuals do not exhaust the issue. It is not simply good and bad policemen (and others). It is also the long-term structural issues of our society that have perpetuated hopeless situations. And when you put it all together, I am safer simply because I was born with skin that is white. However you untangle and weigh the causes, at the end of the day, it’s still not right. It’s still not what the world should be.
The Washington Institute aspires to be a place where we publish articles with nuance, where we ponder a faith big enough to make sense of all of life. But sometimes we should leave the nuance behind.
First, denying the image of God in another human being is a sin, period.
Second, leaving all complexity aside – America, and the American church, has struggled and failed with this issue again and again. Has there been progress compared to 100 years ago? Certainly. Has it been too little? Most certainly. The Kerner commission report in 1967 identified a lot of things that were obviously wrong, and we as a society haven’t improved that many of them.
You also cannot improve many of these things without a long-term willingness to do so, without a staying power. Does our modern American society have the long-term staying power to lean in on something like this? Tempted to cynicism, I fear we may not. The ability to sacrifice now for the sake of our grandchildren’s grandchildren seems missing in so many debates today. We seem a short-term gratification, “get mine” culture. Does our society have in it what it must to fix these things? Maybe not.
But the church must. We do not have the option to be like the world in this. The Bible gives us a picture of “what ought to be” – the Hebrew word shalom. The word is often translated “peace,” and if you must pick a single English word for shalom, that’s as good as any. But no single English word will do. Shalom is the full flourishing of the world. It is the absence of conflict, for certain, but it is really the full flourishing of a society: culturally, economically, socially, politically – everything. And the Bible’s picture of shalom pointedly includes people “from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages.” (Rev. 7:9)
The church as an institution (the church gathered) is called as an institution to worship, to preach the gospel, and to nourish the souls of its members. And its members (the church scattered) are called to work for shalom in every aspect of our lives and worlds. That call is why work matters; it is why politics matters; it is why culture matters; and it is why it is not our option to hide from dealing with the race problem that still exists in our nation.
Is this a complicated issue? Yes, in many ways. What is the role of the church versus the state? How can the church recognize her role, not attempt to be governmental, yet still hold the state to account? And how can that be done in a hyper-partisan political environment? Is the distinction between the church gathered and scattered really that clear? How does the church speak to these issues without losing her way into the social gospel? How do we avoid an overplayed doctrine of the spirituality of the church, such as the one that was terribly used to justify slavery in the pre-Civil War south? How can issues which are far more than spiritual – economic, societal, governmental – be healed? How can we overcome the complex of educational, environmental, economic, and social barriers that reinforce so many of these problems? What role does an individual person have when confronting societal issues? These issues have bedeviled generations of people far smarter than I am. (You cannot be an expert in very many things, and my expertise is in a very different area – ancient languages, in fact.) So this is no plea of “Do X right now.” What to do is terribly difficult to discern. But what we cannot do is ignore it, let the moment pass, and then forget about it all because it is challenging.
I remember long ago reading Charles Colson’s autobiography Born Again. If you have not read it, it is the story of Colson (known as Nixon’s “hatchet man”) and his turn to faith. To be blunt, Colson was a mean person before that turn; ruining many who were in Nixon’s way, a self-described “dirty tricks” man. In the aftermath of his illegal attempts to smear Ellsberg and on the way to prison, when Colson came to the Christian faith, anyone would have been forgiven for questioning whether he was genuine. It looked like the most cynical and transparent of all moves, an attempt to avoid the due consequences of his actions. I cannot quote it exactly (as my copy of the book is at the office, and I cannot go there due to COVID19), but I remember it recounting him being asked by an observer, “How do we know this isn’t just a ploy?” Colson’s response was telling: “I guess you don’t. You’ll just have to see what happens with me in the next 30 years.” Colson went on – hardly perfectly – to live out his faith, to start prison ministries, to care about people who were forgotten. He evidenced a long-term commitment to bringing shalom in one area.
Society seems to forget these issues of racial injustice until they are thrust upon us again by renewed protest and violence. Watts gave way to Rodney King gave way to many others, small and large, gave way to this week. Once the moment passes, faced with the difficulty of dealing with our race problem, society buries it and moves on, only renewing the cycle. The church must not. What will people see when they look back at us 30 years later?