At Religion Unplugged, Jacqueline Rivers (Harvard/The King’s College) has a powerful essay on what a distinctively Christian response to racial violence and injustice would look like. Here’s a selection:
For centuries, the lives of black people have been held cheaply: from slavery, through Jim Crow to race riots. Race riots, such as the one in Tulsa, Oklahoma, in 1921, typically left many black people dead but very few whites. The Tulsa Race Massacre was one of several incidents in which black towns were destroyed by rioting whites envious of the economic prosperity of their black neighbors. Similar destruction occurred in Rosewood, Florida, in 1923.
The Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s was very effective in reducing the terror with which blacks in the South lived until then. However, in the late 20th and the 21st century, the devaluation of the lives of black people, especially black men, has continued. We have witnessed a pattern of criminal conduct by a minority of rogue officers, which in almost every case has gone unpunished. Incidents range from the murder of Arthur McDuffie, a former Marine, who was beaten to death in December 1979 in Miami; then the beating of Rodney King in Los Angeles in March 1991; to the murder of Amadou Diallo, who was shot 19 times by police outside his apartment building in New York City in February 1999; the death of Philando Castile while reaching for his license in St. Paul, Minnesota, in 2016; to the death of Breonna Taylor in 2020; to the most recent outrage over George Floyd’s death and countless others. None of the officers in these cases was ever held criminally liable for the violence against these unarmed black people. The frustration boiling over now has deep roots in this history.
As Christians we are called to forgiveness, yet we are also commanded “Be angry and do not sin” (Ephesians 4:26). In righteous indignation, Jesus overturned the tables of money changers who were defiling the temple (Matthew 21:12). The Son of God had harsh words for religious leaders who led people astray, blocking their entry into the kingdom of God. He called them a “brood of vipers” (Matthew 23:33), “whitewashed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside… are full of hypocrisy and wickedness” (Matthew 23:27-28).
In the face of egregious, enduring evil, anger is required of the Christian. Yet, we are to be angry and not sin. Surely the many thousands of protesters who are marching and shouting slogans without attacking police officers or destroying property or looting stores are being angry without sinning. Many of them are not Christians. But the Bible tells us that if we do not praise God, the rocks will cry out (Luke 19:40). These non-Christians who are standing up for justice and righteousness without breaking the law are the stones crying out because we as the church have done so little to challenge racial injustice.
We find clear biblical instructions regarding looters and other law breakers. Since we must respect civil leaders and recognize that their authority is from God, we uphold law enforcement action against those who commit crimes in conjunction with the protests (Romans 13). Perpetrators of violence and property destruction should be arrested and prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law. Often such lawlessness punishes the residents of low-income communities, minority business owners and neighbors who suffer the loss of their livelihood and essential services, many of which are not readily replaced. Furthermore, rioters undermining the important goals of the protests cost their cause the support of many people of good will. They serve as a powerful distraction from the central issue of racial injustice.
So what do we, the church, do in the face of the current events? The most important action is for us to pray. Pray for those enraged by the injustice of Ahmaud Arbery’s, Breonna Taylor’s and George Floyd’s deaths. Pray for wisdom for our leaders in responding to the situation. Pray for wisdom for ourselves in doing our part.
Prayer is paramount because the problem we confront is essentially spiritual. White supremacy is stubbornly resistant; it has persisted from the period of chattel slavery to the present. It has demonstrated an ability to morph into new forms even as we defeat old ones. Just as slavery became Jim Crow segregation, white supremacy continues now in the extreme economic and health care disparities and other disadvantages that black people face. Its persistence and mutability point to a force beyond human control. The most powerful weapon against the spiritual force of white supremacy is prayer.
Next, we must educate ourselves and learn about the enduring structural racial inequities that fuel injustice as varied as death of unarmed black men, the impunity of police officers who commit these crimes and the disproportionate number of deaths among African Americans from COVID-19. God’s provision of laws that would radically reduce economic equality among the Israelites every seven years and every 50 years is a powerful example of the importance of social structure (Leviticus 25, Deuteronomy 15:1-11).
Far too few whites understand the nature of institutional racism, the barriers to education, employment, health and other goods that black people face throughout their lives. We should seek out books such as When Affirmative Action Was White by Ira Katznelson or Divided by Faith by Michael O. Emerson and Christian Smith, and documentaries such as 13th by director Ava DuVernay, that provide insight into the nature of the problem. We must establish book clubs or church groups to study the problem together. It is the responsibility of every Christian to understand and work to eradicate America’s original sin: white supremacy.
Prayer is paramount and education is critical. But is it essential that they lead us to act. We cannot hide in our prayer closets or behind our books. Perhaps what is most important for the current moment, is for us as Christians to do all we can to support structural changes that will reduce the frequency of incidents such as the death of George Floyd.
Read the rest here.
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