I’ve been calling it the Summer of Helplessness.
From the conflict in Gaza that has left more than 1,000 civilians dead, to the downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 over the skies of Ukraine, to the Ebola breakout getting worse by the day, to the shooting of yet another unarmed black teenager here in the U.S., the news of late is enough to make a person feel paralyzed with helplessness and despair. My prayers these days are of the tired, desperate sort: How long, O Lord? Will you hide your face from us forever?
But when it comes to violence and oppression, we are rarely as helpless as we think, and this is especially true as the events unfolding in Ferguson force Americans to take a long, hard look at the ongoing, systemic racism that inspired so many citizens to protest in cities across the country this week.
I’ve heard from many of my white friends and readers who say they aren’t sure how to respond to the anger and grief they are watching on TV or hearing from their black friends. They want to be part of the solution but don’t know where start. They may even feel a little defensive when they hear people talking about white privilege or inaction on the part of white Christian leaders. I’m in the process of learning too, but as I’ve listened to people of color whose opinions I trust, I’ve heard them issue several calls to action we can all heed:
In his letter to the Romans, Paul tells Christians to “rejoice with those who rejoice and weep with those who weep” (Romans 12:15). In the wake of the events in Ferguson, those of us with racial privilege should avoid trying to regulate the emotional responses of our black brothers and sisters and instead listen and learn so that we better understand those responses, and ultimately, share in them. Anger can be startling, certainly, and it might even make us uncomfortable. But anger is not a sin. Anger is the right and just response to inequity and inaction. When people of color express anger or frustration regarding the racism they have experienced, the worst thing white people can do in response is shrug off those stories as insignificant in an attempt to return to our emotional comfort zone.
Desmond Tutu said, “true reconciliation exposes the awfulness, the abuse, the hurt, the truth. It could even sometimes make things worse. It is a risky undertaking but in the end it is worthwhile, because in the end only an honest confrontation with reality can bring real healing. Superficial reconciliation can bring only superficial healing.”
When we see an image of a room full of young black people looking into a camera with their hands in the air, we are being challenged to honestly confront the reality of systemic racism. What happened in Ferguson was far from an isolated incident. In 2012, more than 300 black people were killed by police, security guards, or vigilantes. In the U.S., African-American men are incarcerated at nearly six times the rate of whites. And even though five times as many white people use drugs as African Americans, the latter are ten times more likely to be arrested for drug offenses. And as many parents of black children will tell you, their greatest fear is that it will be their sons or daughters next, so much so that they often give their kids ‘The Talk,’ warning them that they will be treated differently by police because of the color of their skin.
If you’ve never had to give your kids The Talk about how they will be targeted by police think twice before you call this an “isolated incident” to which our brothers and sisters are “overreacting.”
The healing process cannot begin until the severity of these wrongs have been fully acknowledged, until the injustice of it makes us weep. Practical ways to express solidarity in this regard include joining a peaceful protest, introducing prayers of confession and lament regarding racism into your church worship service, and listening with empathy to the stories of black friends, artists, writers, and leaders without defensiveness or judgment.
2. Listen and learn.
If you were bewildered by the response to Michael Brown’s death, it might be worth asking yourself why. How might your experiences as a white person limit your ability to put this shooting into context? And how might you expand your educational and relational horizons to better understand the struggles of your brothers and sisters of color?
[It’s important to note that when white people are reminded of their racial privilege, it is not a personal insult, nor does it deny the reality of other potential disadvantages white people may experience in their lives. It simply acknowledges that the broken, sin-riddled systems at work in our society tend to favor white people over people of other ethnicities, so even a white person who may be disadvantaged in other ways — socioeconomically, physically, etc. — will still know less about racially based oppression than a black person.]
Over the past year or so, I’ve made an effort to read more books and blogs from people of color, and I’ve been surprised and humbled by how little I knew about racial oppression. Consider adding blogs like Colorlines.com or TheRoot.com to your blog reader, and pay attention to writers like Ta-Nehisi Coates, Brenda Salter McNeil, Christena Cleveland, Austin Channing Brown, Dru Hart, Soong-Chan Rah, John Perkins, Kathy Khang, the writers of color here at Sojourners, (and there are many, many more).
If you live near a college or university, try to attend lectures or special events that focus on race in America. Consider reading The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander, The Cross and the Lynching Tree by James H. Cone, Reconciliation Blues by Edward Gilbreath, and The Next Evangelicalism by Soong-Chan Rah … just to start. You might even start a book discussion at your church or through your library around one of these titles, co-led it with a person of color.
Take a hard look at your social circles and ask yourself how you might expand them to include people unlike yourself — racially, socioeconomically, even religiously. If you attend a predominantly white church, talk to the leadership about how you might partner with other, more diverse churches in the area in ministry activities.
But keep in mind, reconciliation isn’t simply about meeting a diversity quota. It’s about partnering with one another, as equals. So if you get the chance to plan a conference or church event, for example, don’t simply invite women, people of color, and LGBT folks; make sure they are part of the planning process.
3. Loose the chains of injustice.
Finally, while prayer and fasting are fitting responses to what’s happening in Ferguson and around the country, we cannot forget the Word of God through Isaiah: "Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen: to loose the chains of injustice and untie the cords of the yoke, to set the oppressed free and break every yoke?”
No single person can “solve” racial inequity in this country, but we can each do our part to loose the chains of injustice in our own neighborhoods. Hold your police force accountable, and if you witness abuse of power, don’t walk away. (You can even download ACLU’s “Police Tape” app and upload a cell phone video directly to their servers.) Talk to your representatives about enacting policies protecting citizens from police violence and misconduct and limiting police access to military weaponry.
Here in Tennessee, voter I.D. laws disproportionately affect black and Latino voters, limiting their access to the polls. If your state has similar laws, raise awareness and talk to your representatives. And if a friend or family members says something racist, don’t ignore it. Confront them with the truth, but with gentleness and respect.
Of course, the true test will be how faithfully we engage all these issues in the months and years to come, when Feguson is no longer trending on Twitter. If you are a blogger, journalist, pastor, or Christian leader, plan ahead for opportunities to study and feature racial inequity in your work. I’ve programmed the calendar on my phone to send me a message on Sept. 9, reminding me that it’s been one month since Michael Brown was shot. How much will have changed in this country? How much will have changed within my own heart?
Racial reconciliation can be a hard, discouraging road. But we are not helpless.
The same Spirit that raised Christ from the grave propels us forward, wresting us from our apathy, our prejudice, and our despair.
There is nothing to fear.
Rachel Held Evans is the author of Faith Unraveled and A Year of Biblical Womanhood. She blogs at rachelheldevans.com.
Image: Justice for Michael Brown National Moment of Silence Anti-Police Brutality Rally at Meridian Hill Park in Washington, D.C., on Aug. 14. Photo by Elvert Barnes Protest Photography / Flickr.com