The stories of young black men being killed by white police are sparking a national conversation. However, public responses to these painful stories reveal an alarming racial divide. From an unarmed teenager killed in Ferguson, Mo.; to a 12 year-old boy shot dead in Cleveland; to a white police officer on video choking a black man to death in New York City; and a startling series of similar stories from across the country and over many decades — our reactions show great differences in white and black perspectives.
Many white Americans tend to see this problem as unfortunate incidents based on individual circumstances. Black Americans see a system in which their black lives matter less than white lives. That is a fundamental difference of experience between white and black Americans, between black and white parents, even between white and black Christians. The question is: Are we white people going to listen or not?
White Americans talk about how hard and dangerous police work is — that most cops are good and are to be trusted. Black Americans agree that police work is dangerously hard, but also have experienced systemic police abuse of their families. All black people, especially black men, have their own stories. Since there are so many stories, are these really just isolated incidents? We literally have two criminal justice systems in America — one for whites and one for blacks.
Are there police uses of force that are understandable and justifiable? Of course there are. If our society wasn’t steeped in a gun culture, many of these shootings could be avoided. But has excessive, unnecessary, lethal force been used over and over again, all across the country, with white police killing unarmed black civilians? Yes it has, and the evidence is overwhelming. But will we white people listen to it?
Will white parents try to imagine how it would feel to have “the talk,” to tell their own children that they shouldn’t trust those who are supposed to serve and protect them? That’s hard to listen to, hard to hear, hard to recognize the legitimacy of other parents’ experiences when they are so different from your own.
It’s time to listen — for us white Americans to listen to black Americans; for white parents to listen to black parents; for white Christians to listen to black Christians. This may be the most important thing we have ever had to do: to listen, really listen.
Do we believe what we say about the unity of “the body of Christ” or not? In the New Testament, 1 Corinthians 12 speaks of one body with many members.
For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ….For the body does not consist of one member but of many… As it is, there are many parts, yet one body… that there may be no discord in the body, but that the members may have the same care for one another. If one member suffers, all suffer together; if one member is honored, all rejoice together. (RSV)
Another version of 1 Corinthians 12:26 translates, “If one part suffers every part shares its suffering.” What would it mean to share in the suffering of our brothers and sisters of color who suffer from a racialized criminal justice system?
Racial reconciliation is a commitment at the heart of the gospel. If we say we belong to Christ, that mission of reconciliation is ours too. What does racial reconciliation mean now in the face of America’s racial divide over policing and the criminal justice system?
Let’s get practical. If you have African Americans at your workplace or at your church, ask them to please talk to you about this, to tell you their stories — then listen. If you don’t have any black or other members of color in your church, it’s time to ask why. Reach out — and ask your pastor to reach out — to black and Hispanic churches in your community or city. We must find safe and authentic ways to hear each others’ stories, across the racial boundaries of our churches.
Reach out sensitively to black parents at your children’s schools. Ask to hear their stories. Talk to the black parents of your children’s classmates and teammates. Or maybe it’s time to realize not having children of color at your children’s school or on their teams is a big part of the problem. Parents talking to parents and hearing each others’ stories may be the most important key to moving forward in the church and in the nation.
White people need to stop talking so much, stop defending the systems that protect and serve them, and stop saying “I’m not a racist.” If white people turn a blind eye to systems that are racially biased, we can’t be absolved from the sin of racism. Listen to the people the criminal justice system fails to serve and protect; try to see the world as they do. Loving our neighbors means identifying with their suffering, meeting them in it, and working together to change it. And, for those of us who are parents, loving our neighbors means loving other people's kids as much as we love our own.
Jim Wallis is president of Sojourners. His book, The (Un)Common Good: How the Gospel Brings Hope to a World Divided, the updated and revised paperback version of On God’s Side, is available now. Follow Jim on Twitter @JimWallis.