Breaking the silence
It isn’t the first time we’ve seen it. A black man shot to death by a white police officer. And yet, this week’s disturbingly horrific images of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile being gunned down have struck a nerve. At the same time, reports are coming in–even as I write this–of attacks on police officers,…
It isn’t the first time we’ve seen it. A black man shot to death by a white police officer. And yet, this week’s disturbingly horrific images of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile being gunned down have struck a nerve. At the same time, reports are coming in–even as I write this–of attacks on police officers, presumably as retaliation.
White American evangelicals increasingly do not have the luxury of simply looking away. We are being confronted with the inescapable reality that so many of our black and brown sisters and brothers have experienced for so long. And yet I find that many white pastors feel inadequate, convicted, confused, and fearful about what their pastoral duty is at this moment. But silence is not an option.
The events of the past week have been horrific to watch. While they are not new–in fact, they are revealing to many white Americans what has been happening for decades–they are pricking the conscience of many. And I believe there are increasing numbers of white pastors who are coming to terms with a full gospel witness and a whole-life pro-life social ethic, recognizing that systemic racial injustice and inequality persists at the deepest levels of our national life.
[Tweet “True justice, true reconciliation, true hope can only come through our churches.”]
So let me offer three suggestions for white pastors who are prayerfully and humbly ready to take the first step toward leading their churches down the path of reconciliation and justice. If our churches won’t stand up and speak up, we can have little hope for our life together as a nation. We desperately need advocates for just laws and equal treatment in our civic life. But true justice, true reconciliation, true hope can only come through our churches. While there are real sociological, political, and economic factors at play in all of this, there is a fundamental spiritual problem. If our churches are silent, we are handing our neighbors over to a hopeless and soulless path, failing to proclaim the fullness of the good news that Jesus came to reconcile sinners to God and to one another.
First, learn to listen.
Our evangelical tendency is to tweet/post/speak first, often without the requisite knowledge, and to ask questions later. It might surprise some, but pastors are not always known as the best listeners.
Perhaps the best thing you can do to start is to take a humble posture, recognizing that you have a racialized worldview of which you are likely unaware. Your beliefs, attitudes, and values have been formed in ways deeply informed by whiteness.
You can learn to listen by reading good books (see some recommendations at the end of this article). You can listen to wise presentations and messages (for example, check out Mika Edmondson’s excellent address).
But there is no form of listening more powerful and formative than the kind that happens in Christian friendship. Do you have non-white members in your church? Ask them about their experiences, their fears, their challenges. Have you sought out friendships with non-white pastors in your community? It will require you letting your guard down, admitting your ignorance, and asking for help.
Pastors and leaders are prone to rush to strategies and plans, but our first instinct should be toward prayer, recognizing our dependence on God to see this kind of transformation in our hearts, in our lives, in our families, in our churches.
Let me suggest three specific ways you can pray. First, pray God would stir up your church to good works as your church pursues the path of reconciliation. You and your church members will often feel overwhelmed, inadequate, even apathetic. But the Word of God is indeed active and powerful; it will not return void. Second, pray God would raise up leaders in your church from underrepresented ethnic and racial groups. You can’t do this work alone. So ask God to provide you with brothers to partner with you. Third, and most importantly, pray that God would get glory for himself in your community by making your church a catalyst for gospel-focused racial reconciliation.
Third, approach this as a matter of Christian discipleship.
White evangelicals rightly understand that the sanctity of human life and the defense of the unborn is more than a “political” issue, but that it represents a basic category of Christian discipleship. But we desperately need these same churches to see what Christ would require of us when we see black boys and men gunned down in ways that bear evidence of a racialized double standard in our communities.
Here’s the thing: reconciliation is at the center of the gospel and God’s design for the church. It’s not an optional “upgrade” to standard Christianity just for some. It is the basic path Christ calls every one of his disciples to follow.
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After you’ve listened and prayed, be prepared to teach and preach on this. Keep the gospel front and center. Some of your members, hopefully most, will receive the Word with gladness. Some will not. They might even leave your church. You may be misunderstood and maligned. But it’s always been that way for those called to proclaim the whole counsel of God.
Don’t Miss the Joy
Breaking the silence will not be easy. You will be maligned and misunderstood by some. You will make mistakes along the way. And you will be tempted to give up and check out. But in the end, if you do, you will miss out on extraordinary joy. Reconciliation is a way of life for the Christian, not just a destination. But it is a path to joy! Our eternal joy will be expanded by the reality of a reconciled people of God (e.g. Revelation 5), so we dare not rob ourselves of joy now through indifference or disobedience to God’s call. Obedience is usually not easy, but it always leads to joy.
[Tweet “Reconciliation is a way of life for the Christian, not just a destination.”]
Dupont, Carolyn. Mississippi Praying: Southern White Evangelicals and the Civil Rights Movement, 1945-1975. New York: New York University Press, 2013.
Emerson, Michael and Christian Smith. Divided by Faith: Evangelical Religion and the Problem of Race in America. New York: Oxford University Press, 2001.
Williams, Jarvis. One New Man: The Cross and Racial Reconciliation in Pauline Theology. Nashville: B&H Academic, 2010.
Matthew J. Hall is the Dean of Boyce College in Louisville, Kentucky. He is also an elder at Clifton Baptist Church. You can find him on Twitter at @MatthewJHall.