By Jonathan Orbell 7-29-2015

My people — that is, white evangelical Protestants — aren’t good at talking about race.

This fact has been borne out by years of social scientific research. A number of years ago, based on thousands of interviews with evangelicals around the country, Christian Smith and Michael Emerson posited that, "evangelicals have a theological world view that makes it difficult for them to perceive systemic injustices in society."

Unfortunately, the situation hasn’t improved much in recent years. In 2014, the Public Religion Research Institute found that two-thirds of white evangelicals agree that black and white Americans receive equal treatment under the law. More than 80 percent of black Protestants disagreed with the same statement.

Despite the election (and reelection) of our nation’s first black president, we live, "in a land of two Americas divided by race, and less willing than ever to find a common ground of understanding."

Apparently, some white evangelicals just don’t think race is that big of a problem. And even if we did, we don’t have the conceptual tools necessary to address the underlying, structural forces at play.

Yet recent events have given us plenty of opportunity to reorient our thinking on race. Michael Brown’s death in Ferguson has sparked academic and government investigations into that city’s history with racial discrimination. The shooting of Walter Scott, along with the deaths of Freddie Gray and Sandra Bland, allowed many white Americans (including myself) a small glimpse into why many of our black neighbors fear even benign interactions with the police.

There have been a few hopeful signs of change lately. After hearing a grand jury failed to indict Officer Daniel Pantaleo in the death of Eric Garner, Russell Moore, president of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission (ERLC), explained, "It’s high time we start listening to our African American brothers and sisters in this country when they tell us they are experiencing a problem."

I agree. It’s time for us to start listening. But how? Where do we begin?

With Ta-Nehisi Coates.

Coates’ Between the World and Me, written in the form of a letter to his son, offers white evangelicals yet another opportunity to reflect on issues that have gone unaddressed in our congregations for far too long. Namely, black Americans’ subjugation to a regime of brutal and systemic racial injustice.

That such injustice exists is a matter of public record. But if white evangelicals are to take even a small step in that slow march towards reconciliation with our black neighbors, we must develop a sense of empathy — however imperfect our empathy may be — for their struggle. And developing this compassion necessitates a commitment to listen, and to do so humbly.

It may seem strange for an openly Christian writer to argue so wholeheartedly for engaging a thinker like Coates, who describes himself as being "raised conscious, in rejection of a Christian God."

Would it not make more sense to write about a thinker who shares my belief in a God of eternal justice? Maybe, but something about Coates pulls me in. Perhaps it is the mere precision and force of his prose, his ability to convey so much in such limited space. He accomplishes in 150 pages what most would struggle to do in 1,500.

Whatever the case, it seems this book has led to Coates being "drafted as white America’s designated racial explainer." And while he may eschew that role, my people desperately need an explanation.

In Between the World and Me, Coates grapples with the experience of inhabiting a black body in modern America. Simply living in a black body, he asserts, is fraught with danger. The possibility of violence — meted out regularly by both state and private actors — is ever-present.

As a result, "fear" becomes something of a theme in Coates’ letter. Indeed, it seems central to the black American experience. Fear for oneself, fear for one’s family. I can’t begin to imagine it.

Where Coates is most successful, in my opinion, is in connecting the dots between macro and micro, in demonstrating the degree to which institutional violence is brought to bear on individual subjectivities.

In his wildly successful piece, "The Case for Reparations," Coates details the myriad ways white Americans have succeeded in plundering their black neighbors. In doing so, he engages the legacy of slavery, Jim Crow, and housing discrimination. Here, readers are presented with a 15,000 word portrait of the macro.

Between the Wold and Me takes a different approach. It aims "to make racism [more] tactile [and] visceral." Its spotlight shines on the micro, illuminating the debilitating fear inflicted on individual black minds by a society bent on erasing black bodies.

This fear is not felt by "the dreamers," explains Coates, those unworried citizens residing in recently remodeled homes with white picket fences and impeccable landscapes. I know. I was one of them.

To some extent, I still am. Concern over the potential destruction of my body has been an irregular experience, not a daily one. Granted, I had my problems growing up. But my problems were conditioned by my immeasurable privilege. They were existential in nature, concerned more with meaning than survival.

This is why white Americans — people like myself — must be so committed to listening. One cannot listen to Coates tell of Prince Carmen Jones’ death and agree that black and white Americans currently receive equal treatment under the law. We "dreamers" cannot encounter Coates’ discussion of housing discrimination and continue to believe that discrimination against whites has become as big a problem as it is for blacks. At least, not with our integrity intact.

This must be all the more true for professed Christians. Are we not commanded to love our neighbors as ourselves, to empathically enter into their suffering, as Christ so lovingly entered our own?

Yet, we can’t empathize with our black neighbors when we think, talk, and act as if their suffering doesn’t exist.

So, white evangelicals, I implore you: sit down, read this book, and confront its painful truths head on. Not with an eye for correction or editorializing, as some have chosen to do. Rather, let us read humbly and respond apologetically. In doing so, I pray we may begin to close the chasm.

JonOrbell

Jonathan Orbell is a freelance writer and graduate student in theology at Fuller Theological Seminary.

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