Tamir Rice. Sandra Bland. Laquan McDonald. Freddie Gray. These young black Americans, and many other men and women whose names never made national headlines, were recent victims of state violence. But they were also victims of deeper structural racial sins that go back to the founding of our country. Despite all the chatter, and hope, a few years ago about the prospect of a “post-racial” America, our awareness and response to these sins still painfully falls along racial lines.
We’ve failed to realize the “beloved community” envisioned by Martin Luther King Jr. and defined by Paul in his letter to the Galatians (3:28): “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.” Too many Americans — particularly Christian Americans of my own generation — continue to worship at the altar of whiteness, defining themselves by their status as members of a temporary and illusory racial majority.
It has to end. And to begin building that beloved community, white Christians must start acting more Christian than white.
The Public Religion Research Institute American Values Survey released in November produced a devastating finding: 72 percent of white evangelical Protestants, 71 percent of white Catholics and 73 percent of white mainline Protestants — together, effectively, white Christians — said they “believe that killings of African American men by police are isolated incidents.” A smaller majority, 65 percent, of white Americans surveyed, regardless of religious affiliation, had the same reaction.
Which stands in sharp contrast to the 82 percent of black Protestants and 80 percent of black Americans, generally, who believe these incidents are “part of a broader pattern of how police treat minorities.”
These numbers reveal that race is more determinative than denomination or theology when it comes to people’s perspectives. White Christians are, as a whole, less likely to believe the experiences of black Americans than non-Christian whites — a shameful indictment of the church.
The nation’s premier lawyer for the wrongfully incarcerated, Bryan Stevenson, speaks the truth when he says that black men and boys are presumed guilty and dangerous by virtue of who they are.
Black families know this, even as many white families seem to deny it. Stevenson says, “Of course innocent mistakes occur but the accumulated insults and indignations caused by racial presumptions are destructive in ways that are hard to measure. Constantly being suspected, accused, watched, doubted, distrusted, presumed guilty, and even feared is a burden born[e] by people of color that can’t be understood or confronted without a deeper conversation about our history of racial injustice.”
The Black Lives Matter movement, led by a new generation of people of color, is challenging the structures that perpetuate those racial biases. And many of us in the faith community are affirming the theological truth that black lives do matter, because while all human beings are made in the image of God, it is black lives, specifically, that have been devalued in our country — and our social systems must be held accountable.
In this presidential election season, leading Republican candidates have been unwilling to take the concerns of Black Lives Matter protesters seriously — their movement has gained almost no mention in a series of GOP debates, and when front-runner Donald Trump brings the subject up, often it’s to lambaste Sen. Bernie Sanders for ceding the microphone to activists at a Seattle rally. Notably, an African American protester was roughed up at a Trump rally, an incident Trump tacitly endorsed. Trump has found disturbing traction with primary voters each time he offers denigrating remarks about immigrants and refugees.
Since 57 percent of Iowa GOP caucus-goers identify as evangelical, other candidates including Sen. Ted Cruz, Sen. Marco Rubio and Dr. Ben Carson have made overtures to demonstrate their faith. But in spite of the fact that these three candidates are of color, I fear they are peddling a divisive and misguided, us-versus-them culture-war version of Christianity that winds up pitting white Christians against their brothers and sisters of color, from Syrian refugees to those fleeing violence in Central America to activists in the Black Lives Matter movement. It is precisely because we white American Christians lag behind society as a whole in this extreme difference of perspectives that we should make every effort to get our own houses of worship in order — to open our minds to hearing, seeing and ultimately believing the accounts of black Americans. Only then will this gap begin to close, and only after that can we start to build a bridge to real justice and reform.
There are seeds of hope. At a recent conference of more than 16,000 young evangelicals, the evangelical campus ministry Intervarsity Christian Fellowship chose to stand with Black Lives Matter and the core of what its members believe about the dignity of black lives. As a statement released on New Year’s Eve reads, Intervarsity chose to support “a movement with which we sometimes disagree because we believe it is important to affirm that God created our Black brothers and sisters” who “deserve safety, dignity and respect.” This is just one example of how the next generation of Christian leaders has made progress where my generation still lags.
“[Y]ou will know the truth, and the truth will make you free,” said an itinerant rabbi named Jesus. And the lie that many white Americans still need to be set free from is the presumed rightness of our whiteness. Whiteness is a religious idol, and idols separate us from God. Whiteness blinds our minds, binds our hearts and must be repented. True repentance, however, means more than offering apologies. It is the changing of hearts and minds. It requires white Christians to focus more on Christian values than race, and doing our part to build the bridge to a new America.
By 2040, that new America will be a majority-minority nation. On this score, I feel what King called “the fierce urgency of now.” By repenting of our original sin, we will do more than simply cope with our demographic destiny. We will begin to fulfill our spiritual calling.