September 1, 1989
September 1, 1989 in Brooklyn, NY – a tragedy that I trusted was a tipping point. It was the day before my 21st birthday, and I was mad as hell. The movie of the year for me was Do The Right Thing, by Spike Lee. The song regularly playing on my Walkman was Fight the Power, by Public Enemy. On this day I responded to the call of Sonny Carson, Rev. Al Sharpton, and the New Black Panther Party for a Day of Outrage protest march.
A common description of NYC at the time was as “a melting pot.” But I think Mayor David Dinkins was right in his corrective word when he said that NYC wasn’t a melting pot, it was a quilt. It was a patchwork of different neighborhoods with different racial and socio-economic dynamics, those patches often hostile toward each other. And on August 23, 1989, 16-year old black teenager Yusef Hawkins was in the wrong patch of the quilt. He and three of his friends traveled from his Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood to Bensonhurst, a predominately Italian neighborhood. He went there to inquire about a used car for sale. Little did he know an angry mob of white men were on the lookout for Black and Latino youth they suspected were trying to date a girl in their neighborhood. Ignorant of this situation, Yusef found himself on the block where this mob had set up their ambush. Not only did they bring bats to execute their devilish desires, but also at least one person brought a gun. They attacked Yusef Hawkins, and someone shot him dead.
We were tired of Black men being killed at the hands of whites in NYC. There had been too many incidents of racial violence in the 1980’s. In 1986 three Black men were attacked by a group of white men in Howard Beach, Queens after their car broke down in the neighborhood. “Kill the n****rs,” the mob yelled. One of the Black men, 23-year old Jean Griffith, ran onto the Belt Parkway in his attempt to escape the mob, was struck by a car, and died. It was dangerous to be Black and traverse certain neighborhoods in NYC.
The murder of Yusef Hawkins was a tipping point. When I heard the call to march, I was all too ready to join in. We assembled at Grand Army Plaza in the late afternoon and began our march down Flatbush Ave. As we marched, the numbers swelled to about 7,500 people. Flatbush Ave leads straight to the Manhattan Bridge. Police formed a barrier to direct us towards Tillary Street and away from the Manhattan Bridge; however, following Tillary Street leads you to the Brooklyn Bridge. The police formed a line to block us from marching across the bridge. The crowd began to shout, “Take the bridge!”
Now the Brooklyn Bridge has a walkway for pedestrians, but the shout, “Take the bridge!” was a call to take the roadway and shut down the bridge. That’s when the march turned violent. The police were not going to let us shut down the bridge. Marchers began to hurl objects at the police. The police responded by swinging billy clubs in our direction. I remember grabbing the rail to climb the wall from the roadway to the walkway to avoid being struck by a billy club or a flying object. Dirty and dusty, pants ripped from getting caught on that rail as I climbed, I was full of exuberance as the march dispersed. I remember saying to an elder in our group the following day, “Things are going to be different now. There’s real energy for change.” In my naivety I believed that event would be a tipping point in the ending of racial violence against Black people in NYC. We were on our way.
Let me say something else about myself on that day. I hated the Christian faith. I was hostile towards Jesus. I liked Dr. King, but I didn’t like his God. And my hostility towards Christianity had at least two implications. One, I had no ability to grasp the impact of human depravity, not only on those who were perpetuating racial violence but also on those who were on the receiving end of that violence. Two, I therefore could not root the victory we wanted to achieve in the victory of God. Here is what I mean: victory, in my 21-year old mind, was black people being on top; black people gaining control – thereby making us immune to unjust treatment by non-black people.
But that is not the victory of God. The victory of God is the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, guaranteeing that God is going to unite all things in Christ. Any victory we seek that is not rooted in that victory is idolatry. To be clear, the victory of God in Jesus Christ ensures that injustice and oppression, biased policing practices, racist ideas, and racialized violence falling upon Black bodies will not have the final word. But it is far more than an immunity against unjust treatment. It is the presence of unity; mutual love where contraries have been reconciled, hostility has been put to death, and the freedom for all to flourish is present. This understanding actually enables us to persevere in pursuing justice with hope. We believe that day is coming, and desire to see God give us a taste of it now.
June 3, 2020
Fast forward to June 3, 2020, one week ago. I responded to another call to action over the unjust killing of another Black man, George Floyd, now as a Christian pastor in Washington, DC. This time, the call was to join other Washington, DC clergy gathering in the midst of the protest march for a prayer vigil. I do not know how many clergy showed up. I gathered with a group of men and women for prayer. I could hear conversation taking place a few feet away from us by people watching us pray. One individual was explaining to someone else why he didn’t adhere to the Christian faith. Several more feet away from us there were other clergy in conversation with a few protestors. The protestors were animated in their accusations against the church for inaction, and their clear communication that these clergy weren’t welcome.
I do not intend here to demonstrate the inaccuracy of the protestors’ claims. An examination of the historic Black church in America would suffice to dismiss those claims. And there are unquestionably thousands of Christians marching over these several days. My point is that moment served as a flashback for me to 1989. You see, 1989 to 2020, I am still deeply angered, grieved, and dismayed over anti-Black violence in America. And I know how that animosity toward Christianity feels on the inside when that violence results in public outrage. I heard myself in their voices. I understand the source of their rage.
Why the rage? It is difficult for a majority culture church, one that has not lived our experiences, to understand. Part of that animosity has to do with the way the majority white evangelical church in America too-often reduces its understanding of racial violence and injustice to only the sins of individuals. Even as a 21-year-old who had rejected the Christian faith I understood the realities of systemic racism and white supremacy.
Unlike 1989, I believe that we are actually at a tipping point in America on the issue of racial injustice. Like the Civil Rights Era, the country and the world has taken notice. The world is literally watching and crying out. Ta-Nehisi Coates, a leading American public intellectual, is a self-proclaimed black atheist. According to him, what makes his black atheism black “is the recognition that white people, like all peoples, are inclined towards self-interest and therefore appeals to moral conscience or universal laws about racial injustice are bound to have little effect.” So, in 2018 he proclaimed, “I am not hopeful.” He refused to have a positive outlook on racial injustice improving in the U.S. However, in a June 5, 2020 article Mr. Coates was asked what he sees right now as he looks out at the country. Surprisingly, he responded, “I can’t believe I’m gonna say this, but I see hope. I see progress right now, at this moment.” This hope for him is seen in the unexpected way that black people’s struggle against the way law is enforced in their neighborhoods is resonating with white people in Des Moines, Iowa, in Salt Lake City, Utah, in Berlin, in London, and in other parts of the world. For atheist image bearers hope is a most fragile thing because it can only be rooted in a trust of human ability. Even so, this moment is so substantive that he is proclaiming hope.
The question is whether Jesus’s Church will grasp the significance of the moment and prophetically engage the cause of justice for the good of our neighbors and the glory of God. Or will non-believing society pass us by? Because the Church understands the pervasive nature of sin, we should be the first to admit that depravity extends beyond individuals to systems and structures. The prophets in the Old Testament condemn Israel and Judah for injustice and oppression of the poor and the marginalized. Their sin of partiality was systemic, not just individual. The Spirit of God gives his people eyes to see structural corruption. It is no different when we come to the topic of white supremacy. Although this ought to be obvious, Tom Skinner put his finger on the pulse of the problem fifty years ago in his 1970 Urbana Address, The U.S. Racial Crisis and World Evangelism. If you have not heard his address, I commend it to you. He captures the essence of the evangelical church’s response to disruptive anger over white supremacy when he says,
To a great extent, the evangelical church in America supported the status quo. It supported slavery; it supported segregation; it preached against any attempt of the black man to stand on his own two feet. And where there were those who sought to communicate the gospel to black people, it was always done in a way to make sure that they stayed cool. ‘We will preach the gospel to those folks so they won’t riot; we will preach the gospel to them so that we can keep the lid on the garbage pail.’
For whatever reason, the brutal and heinous murder of George Floyd has blown the lid off of the garbage pail in ways that the killings of Treyvon Martin, Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Freddie Gray, Philando Castile, and too many others have not.
It cannot only be due to the video evidence. There was video evidence in 1995 when Rodney King was brutally beaten by the L.A. Police. But we did not have this. Perhaps it is that George Floyd’s death creates a terrible trifecta during this COVID-19 pandemic with the killings of Ahmaud Arbery and Breonna Taylor. Perhaps the world was already experiencing a level of frustration and anxiety, glued to its screens, void of other activities that normally draw its attention. I cannot say. What I can say is that I hope you are aware of the church’s need to engage. After all, the only sufficient answer to the problem of individual and structural sin is found in the word of God and the gospel of Jesus Christ. It is imperative for the church to be engaged and present to communicate the message that the seeking of justice is rooted in the victory of God. God himself is committed to the renewal and reunion of all things in Jesus Christ. This is why justice matters and why systems of injustice must be dismantled.
Nor is it simply the tearing down of unjust structures; it is also the call of God to a beatific vision for flourishing. I love what the Lord God said to Jeremiah when he called him to be a prophet:
See, I have set you this day over the nations and over kingdoms, to pluck up and to break down, to destroy and to overthrow, to build and to plant. (Jeremiah 1:10)
The Lord is merciful and gracious, slow to anger and full of steadfast love and faithfulness. Therefore, his response to Judah’s systemic injustice and oppression was more than a word of dismantling and taking apart. It was a hopeful word of renewal, building and planting. Christians are able to trust that the Lord is still committed to renewal.
Sunday, June 7, 2020
What then shall we do? I am hopeful. There’s a third march in this story. Sunday, June 7 in Washington, D.C., what seemed to be over a thousand Christians responded to the invitation from Faith + Works DC for “A Christian Response to Racial Injustice” protest and prayer march. As Pastor Thabiti Anyabwile, one of the march organizers, said,
We want to witness to something different. That our lives do matter. That when blood is shed, it cries out to God. God hears it and there’s a reckoning. We want it to be the reckoning of the cross, and not the reckoning of the sword. We want it to be the reckoning of reconciliation and the reckoning of peace, and not the reckoning of conflict and violence.
What is the way forward in this reckoning? Those who are, like me, African American and those who are other ethnic minorities know the experience of living in a racialized society, and it means we have a great gift to offer you. We understand freedom in the gospel and how it is our only hope in life and death. The Lord Jesus Christ made us in these ethnically identified bodies. God did it on purpose, and he has given our racial diversity to the church as a gift – to show us the pursuit of unity in diversity. And to live into that, take a step in that direction.
Not everyone marches. I get that. But everyone has a role in this moment and moving forward; particularly every person of faith. What is the role of a majority culture woman or man, for instance, who is not going to march? Actress Viola Davis provides a helpful parting word.
Some are posting on social media. Some are protesting in the streets. Some are donating silently. Some are educating themselves. Some are having tough conversations with friends and family. A revolution has many lanes—be kind to yourself and to others who are traveling in the same direction. Just keep your foot on the gas.
How? Particularly to those who are a part of the majority culture, first learn to lament. Lament over injustice and the ways in which image bearers of color have borne the weight of injustice in this country and still do in many respects. Learn the language of lament and experience it. Second, go deeper into the history or our country and your own personal history. Refuse to turn away from or dismiss the ugly parts. Resources abound for this good work. You will find much to lament. Of course, we as Christians do not lament in despair, but in hope. Third, do the hard work of engaging and forming authentic relationships across lines of difference. Lord willing this will take place within the context of your local church and your church will have a desire to begin bridging divides and differences along the lines of race and ethnicity and class. It is not quick work, and it is not easy work. It is good work, worth doing, for ourselves, for our God, and for our world.