It happens with regularity and the responses are unfortunately predictable. The August protests, counter-protests, and violence on display in Charlottesville, Virginia did not create a new problem, but exposed a very old one: the United States is still engrained in implicit and explicit racism. And in streams of evangelical Christianity, it continues to manifest a variety of reactions.
I speak specifically of evangelicals because, through knowing and growing up in thoroughly evangelical circles, I know they’re capable of better. We are all capable of change. While some leaders have spoken and acted justly—on behalf of refugees, immigrants, lost innocent black lives, politicized LGBTQ people, and the poor—a prevailing hesitance or even opposition to such people remains in many evangelical circles today.
Many in the religious sector have responded to Charlottesville, including an increasing number of evangelical leaders standing decisively against racism and white nationalism in particular. For these, I am grateful, because they represent the best among those who provided love and teaching foundational to so much of my story. Some spoke on the president’s failure to consistently condemn the moral invalidity of white supremacy. Others offered blanket statements of general disdain for racism. Some barely acknowledged the situation.
Curiously, some evangelicals tried to argue the problem is that minorities are the ones always bringing up racism, implying prevailing white supremacy and historic oppression isn’t to blame. In matters of enacting justice, there was more concern that God clearly disapproves of Christians praying alongside people of other religions. Does that even get in the vicinity of the selfless love and concern so taught and displayed by Jesus?
Are these defensive decoy tactics instead of doing the hard work of listening and learning from others?
Jemar Tisby notes:
“Spending too much energy indignantly proclaiming one’s innocence shows that the concern isn’t really for the one who was hurt. It tells minorities that their pain is less important than the reputation of the perpetrator. If it doesn’t seem like white Christians care as much about the harm caused as the intent of the offender, then racial dialogue will continue to flounder.”
I’m perplexed at the lack of willingness many others show to enter the conversation, either because they’re uninterested in “getting political,” don’t see racism as a systemic sin issue, think anti-white racism is equally widespread, or some other reason.
I wondered: am I part of the problem, too?
Repentance Before Reconciliation
Some may cast this aside as white guilt. OK. I don’t need to argue with people who are preoccupied with dismissing ideas their worldview cannot account for, or whose hearts have no inclination to be open to others. It’s not about guilt, but something important and urgent, especially for any of us who claim a religious conviction: to embrace the transforming way of repentance.
To repent means to change your mind, to acknowledge what you thought or did was a lie or a mistake. It’s grieving the loss of what was and what went wrong. It’s turning away from the old and toward the new.
In the evangelical tradition, I learned this admittance of personal imperfection and neediness was always necessary in relationship with God. How can we accept forgiveness and truly love unless we’ve known and admitted our own inadequacy? That kind of grace, while displayed by some, is lacking in common evangelical circles when the topic of racism arises. When we realize our full belonging and sufficiency in light of divine grace, are we not moved to share it with others?
“If we do not begin with feeling for one another, are we not then truly cursed? And to those of faith: if private prayer does not lead to action, then what good is it? I am not exempt from this struggle, either, as I continue to realize that if I don’t use what words I have to speak up for justice, and seek to know the mind of Christ in these matters, I will lose my faith altogether.” — Natasha Oladokun
Is part of the problem the failure of us to listen to each other? How can we repent and realign our ways if we never hear how our actions or words—whether intentional or unintentional—harm others?
Regardless of our perspectives, are we not capable of more than this? Can’t we all agree that our country has a deep wound that violence and demonizing from the right or the left will never heal? Does this not invite us all to pause a moment, like the solar eclipse brought a moment of awe in our human experience, and consider our place in the universe and reconciliation with our fellow humans?
How Change Can Happen
“True change requires every person on every side to bend to the other versus pointing fingers and shouting at who is in the wrong. How can it happen?
- Recognize that there is actually another side.
- Consider where you (the individual) may have ignored, bypassed, discredited, minimized, etc. the other side's POV or experiences.
- Ask yourself, ‘How would I feel if I was on the receiving end of the answers in the previous question?’
- Repent. In other words, do your best to consistently turn from your previous thoughts & actions.
- Learn and try to understand the other side.
- Build bridges to connect with people on the ’other’ side. At the end of the day, these ’issues’ are actually people. When you begin to connect with them, you'll actually begin to care.
- Engage in conversations and activities that help move people forward and navigate the process you have gone through yourself.”
Are we willing to engage in those conversations and be open to change? To be allies for people in pain? Are not people of faith called to put love into action, particularly for the grieving and the vulnerable?
“Everything depends on reverence for who we are and what we are, on the sacredness implicit in the human circumstance. We know how deeply we can injure one another by denying fairness. We know how profoundly we can impoverish ourselves by failing to find value in one another. We know that respect is a profound alleviation, which we can offer and too often withhold.” — Marilynne Robinson
Let’s be humble enough to admit none of us have all the answers, and be willing to develop empathy by listening to and learning from people of different races, views, and experiences. I invite you to join me in listening to more people of color share their experiences and reflections, starting here:
John Weirick is a freelance writer living in Greenville, South Carolina, and is the author of The Variable Life: Finding Clarity and Confidence in a World of Choices.