The High Cost of White Evangelical Silence on Crimes Against Blacks

Commentary
College student Richard Collins III seen at the ROTC (Reserve Officers' Training Corps) Commissioning ceremony at Bowie State University in Bowie, Maryland, U.S., photo received May 23, 2017. Bowie State University/Handout via REUTERS

There is an inexcusable and disheartening silence from white evangelical Christians over the unprovoked killing of Richard Collins III at the University of Maryland over the weekend.

Collins, 23, was a member of the ROTC. He was recently commissioned as a second lieutenant in the Army and was scheduled to graduate from Bowie State University on Tuesday. His father, a military veteran, said his son loved lacrosse, soccer, and was a runner.

Collins was African American. His alleged killer, Sean Christopher Urbanski, 22, appears to be a white nationalist, a member of a Facebook group called “Alt-Reich Nation.” Urbanski was charged with murder and assault for the attack that University of Maryland Police Chief David Mitchell called "totally unprovoked."

Since hearing the news, I have anguished over one question: Why did white evangelical silence over this unprovoked attack by this white man on the black man bother me so much? Certainly racial attacks against African Americans by white Americans is not a new phenomenon. My answer came in reading the response of the judge where the attacker was held without bond.

"He is an absolute danger to the community," she said.

I believe that the real “danger to the community” about which the judge spoke does not just apply to the alleged killer. It also applies to white evangelical Christians, professing a faith rooted in justice for the oppressed, but whose silence over America’s “open season” on black lives can only be read as consent.

Perhaps this silence comes from the fact that the alleged killer is a white nationalist. Maybe the excuse here for silence comes from a mindset that says, “I’m not a white nationalist. I would never kill a black person just for the color of their skin, so this killing is not about me.”

Tragically, the same excuse was made by white evangelicals each time a black person, mostly unarmed men and boys, were killed by cops. Sadly, we have heard these names and too many others: Jordan Edwards, Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Tamir Rice, Jordan Davis, Eric Garner, Alton Sterling, Laquan McDonald, Walter Scott. The list goes on of those struck down by police.

Repeatedly, black community pain, outrage, and resistance over these escalating killings have been met by the silence of the white evangelical community. These killings have taken place mostly without a word, even from often outspoken white evangelicals. Perhaps something about the victims made them unworthy of compassion, outrage, or speaking out. She had a police record. He was selling untaxed cigarettes. He had a busted taillight. He was reported to have had a weapon. She resisted arrest. He was running from the police. The excuses are varied, but no less painful.

The Collins murder reminds us that whether or not an African American is an upstanding citizen, doing all the right things, or has a flawed background, their killing is sill met with the same silence, not the least bit of outrage.

Richard Collins III was a soldier, an honor student, just three days short of graduating from college. Not even these extraordinary attributes and accomplishments were enough to provoke Christ-like compassion and outrage from white evangelicals. His life did not matter to them, any more than those who were considered too imperfect to elicit any measure of moral indignation.

I view this silence in the face of oppression of a fellow African-American citizen especially troubling from a biblical viewpoint. First, every person born is created in the image of God (imago dei) and is, therefore, worthy of equal dignity, respect, and honor. Second, those who profess to have placed their faith in Jesus as Lord of their lives, are called to “bear one another’s burdens.”

Studies confirm that African Americans are more likely to be stopped, frisked, arrested, and abused by the police than white citizens, even for the same crimes. Therefore, the biblical call to protect and cover the weakest parts of the body, is a call that makes silence an inexcusable and troubling response to the escalating attacks on black lives.

I am a committed bridge builder and reconciler, deeply rooted in the biblical command to “love my neighbor as myself.” Therefore, I will continue to be in communion with my white evangelical brothers and sisters on ways we can raise our voices together against a dangerous and disturbing trend in our nation. This is a cost too high for the people of God to continue to tolerate.

Reuters reporting contributed to this story.

Dr. Barbara Williams-Skinner was the first female Executive Director of the Congressional Black Caucus (1974-1981) and is currently CEO of the Skinner Leadership Institute, which provides the mechanism for networking, bridge-building and leadership development between congressional leaders, business executives, college students, faith leaders, young professionals, and urban youth.

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