Like many of you, I’ve been overwhelmed and deeply saddened by the events that have transpired in Ferguson, Mo. And at times I’ve felt helpless, 350 miles away in Cincinnati, as friends of mine are in Ferguson praying, marching, organizing, and working for peace and justice.
In my conversations with friends of color, I have witnessed their pain and frustration and deep angst over the events of Ferguson. The past two weeks have hit very close to home for them.
With white friends, the response has been mixed, but the overwhelming sentiment is one I’ve already identified: helplessness. I am not satisfied with this response. I believe there are ways we can respond, bear witness, be in solidarity and work for justice in this moment. Our love for God and neighbor demands we engage. If you are like me, you are praying without ceasing for the Shalom, peace, and justice of God to reign in the hearts and minds and streets of Ferguson and throughout this nation and world. So how can we pair our prayers with constructive action?
Here are ten ways white Christians can respond to Ferguson:
1) Pay Attention
Over the past few years, a lot of people have talked about white privilege, describing the benefits and opportunities that whites experience in the USA. To me the most insidious form of white privilege is that we don’t have to pay attention or care when black lives are lost and African Americans are hurting. We can entertain ourselves by binging on Netflix while people are suffering.
We need to care enough to find out what is going on, and that means moving beyond Fox News and MSNBC to get reports from people via Twitter and news sources that are not as tainted by partisan perspectives. During these tense days, if we are to pray well, we must pay attention well.
2) Recognize our own racial anxieties and racist impulses
I firmly believe whites in the United States are brought up in a highly racialized society that reinforces white supremacy. While we may not have overt or conscious racist thoughts and behaviors, most whites internalize racial bias and are participants in a racist system. In Psalm 139, the Psalmist writes, “Search me, O God, and know my heart; test me and know my thoughts. See if there is any wicked way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting.” We need to examine our hearts and confess our sins.
3) Read Langston Hughes’ poem “Harlem (A Dream Deferred)”
This short poem by a renowned 20th century African-American poet examines the ramifications and pent-up frustrations of a perpetual lack of opportunity and fulfillment. It only takes a minute to read, and then you can spend some time considering its implications.
4) Watch the award-winning movie Fruitvale Station
Oscar Grant was killed while in police custody at a train station in Oakland on New Year’s Day 2009. This movie from 2013 brings this gut-wrenching story to the screen. While not for the faint of heart, Fruitvale Station will help you understand the context for some of the tensions between police and the African-American community.
5) Have intentional face-to-face conversations with friends
This may seem cliché, but we must have real and honest conversations with white friends and across racial and ethnic lines if the church is to be a beacon of hope and justice. Facebook rants and tweets are a very poor substitute for conversations that take place while breaking bread together. Host a meal and conversation at your home or at a local coffee house, and be intentional in your conversation.
6) Read James Cone’s book The Cross and the Lynching Tree
For nearly fifty years, James Cone has been a leading practitioner of “Black Theology” by intentionally exploring Scripture and Christian faith through the lens of the African-American experience. This recent book asks why Christians in the 20th century failed to connect the story of the crucifixion with the horrors of lynching, and explores how the church has failed to address racial violence in a prophetic and powerful way.
In Romans 12, the Apostle Paul calls us to rejoice with those who rejoice, and mourn with those who mourn. Many of the Psalms are known as psalms of lament, or songs of weeping and desperation. When we see pain and brokenness in the world, one of our most basic human responses is to have compassion, or share the passion, of those who are wounded and hurting. Our ability and willingness to feel with can move us to act with and work for justice in new and compelling ways.
8) Read Martin Luther King’s 1956 sermon “When Peace Becomes Obnoxious”
In the midst of the Montgomery Bus Boycott, Dr. King preached a sermon at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church on the danger of peace at the cost of justice. This March 29, 1956 sermon will take just a few minutes to read and reflect upon.
9) Recognize and Proclaim that Black Lives Matter
Perhaps the most fundamental question around race throughout American history is this: do we believe that black lives matter? The evidence is sadly mixed. Civil Rights leader Rev. James Lawson has shared that the fundamental lie that people subconsciously believe is that some people are worth more than others. Our basic call, as followers of Jesus, is to recognize and remember and act knowing that all people are created in God’s image, and that Jesus is God’s ultimate expression of God’s love for every person.
When we see any system or structure or act that communicates that black lives matter a little less, we must respond. It is time for us to be prophetic, to boldly proclaim in sermons and conversations and through community engagement, that black lives matter. And to not rest until every system and structure, and to quote Dr. King, every mountain and molehill in this nation, reinforces this fundamental truth.
10) Organize for racial justice
We need transformed and fully just systems and structures. We need just and fair and transformed politicians and corporate leaders and clergy and educators. And these changes only happen through prayerful engagement in the public arena. Connect with local expressions of the Christian Community Development Association, which lives and works and serves with and among the poor throughout this nation. Connect with local expressions of the PICO National Network, the largest faith organizing organization in America, and an organization that recently committed to put race at the center of a prophetic struggle for justice. Engage with Sojourners, which has been working for justice for over 40 years. Or find another local expression that will connect you deeply with the struggle for biblical justice right where you live. At the end of the day, one of the best ways we can respond to Ferguson is deeply engage the streets and neighborhoods in our communities.
Please try a few or all of these pathways, and add some of your own, and let’s stand up and be counted in this moment of great pain and anxiety for our nation. It is time, as Bill Hybels continually admonishes, for “the church to be the hope of the world.”
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.