The Common Good

'Silence is Golden': The White Church and Race in America

I don’t go to the movies often, but when I do I am always reminded to turn off my electronic devices, to refrain from sidebar conversations, and to be mindful of the other patrons. The crescendo is a sudden quiet, with the words “Silence is Golden” displayed prominently on the screen.

Locked church doors. Photo courtesy vesilvio/shutterstock.com
Locked church doors. Photo courtesy vesilvio/shutterstock.com

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Over the past week, as the nation has wrestled with the implications of the “not guilty” verdict in the George Zimmerman trial, I have concluded that many in white America are desperately trying to remind African Americans that, when it comes to race in America, silence is golden. Their effort implies that any honest dialogue about race that includes the stories and experiences of African Americans disturbs the idea of the “American experience” for those of a lighter hue.

This message came through loud and clear last Friday following President Obama’s unexpected and personal reflection on the death of Trayvon Martin and the verdict on the trial of George Zimmerman.

The president offered the press and the nation a small glimpse into what it is like to be black in America, recounting experiences personal to him and many other African American men —department store workers following him around in stores, drivers locking their car doors when he walked by.

"When Trayvon Martin was first shot, I said that this could have been my son. Another way of saying that is, Trayvon Martin could have been me 35 years ago,” he said.

Many jumped on the president, claiming he was not being presidential, was too personal, and was exasperating an already widening racial divide. One of those commentators was radio personality Sean Hannity.

"Now the president's saying ‘Trayvon could've been me 35 years ago,’” Hannity said. “This is a particularly helpful comment. Is that the president admitting that I guess because what, he was part of the Choom Gang and he smoked pot and he did a little blow — I'm not sure how to interpret because we know that Trayvon had been smoking pot that night."

Notice how Mr. Hannity deliberately shifts the conversation from the context of race to drug use. Hannity and many others want to change the subject so we aren’t expected to wrestle with the heartfelt experiences of African Americans.

In the book of Ecclesiastes, the author says that there is a time for everything under heaven, including “a time to be silent, and a time to speak.” (Ecclesiastes 3:7. Over the past two weekends, the vast majority of African American congregations have spoken up, publically wrestling with responses to and implications of the Zimmerman verdict.

Most white congregations have remained silent.

In truth, for many white Americans — and particularly for most in the white evangelical church — silence is the norm. When it comes to race in America, white evangelicals tend to behave like it is always time to be silent, and never time to speak.

We white evangelicals are insistent that we are not and never have been racist. At the same time we are insistent that white privilege and embedded white supremacy remain unexamined — preferring to focus on personal responsibility.

So how can we change this? Where could we start?

I wonder if the best first step for white evangelicals, and for white America, would be to put into practice the simple words of the Apostle Paul from Romans 12:15 —“Mourn with those who mourn.”

If we are unwilling to speak ourselves, can we at least listen to the cries and pain of our African American brothers and sisters without dismissing or debating them? Can we simply be with them? Can we refrain from imposing our discomfort with race and America’s racist history onto those closest to the pain — pain resulting from our tragic shared history?

For the future of the church and our nation, silence is not what is golden.

Listening is golden. Mourning is golden. Love is golden.

Troy Jackson is Director of Ohio Prophetic Voices, and was formerly senior pastor of University Christian Church (UCC) for 19 years. He is part of Sojourners’ Emerging Voices project.

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