American race relations are getting worse by the day. With the decision not to prosecute the New York officer who killed Eric Garner in a choke hold, we’ve moved into new, scary territory.
In the shooting death of Michael Brown, many facts remain in dispute. So, white folks like me can still comfort ourselves that maybe it was just a terrible misunderstanding, certainly an aberration. But between grand jury acquittals and recent research (see, for examples, the studies on excessive force, arrest rates, incarceration rates, and execution rates noted by Today's Christian Woman), we’re beyond aberration territory. We white folks who are so desperate to put this race thing behind us—especially those of us who lived through the Civil Rights Era up through the election of Barack Obama—are likely to despair.
More to the point: in light of recent events, we whites are confronted with a reality that we find hard to admit, that we have no idea what it’s like to be a black person in America. We like to imagine we can be empathetic to the point of understanding anyone, but if recent events show us anything, it’s how much we don’t understand.
Even the construction of that last two paragraphs signals a deep problem. The divisions between blacks and whites in America are so deep, none of us can pretend to speak for all of us. You either address this issue as a black person or as a white person. Our biases cannot be washed away under the banner of “Can’t we all be one?” We are not. So let’s not pretend that we are. And let’s write from our perspective, as frankly and as fairly as we are able.
We at CT have covered racism and reconciliation many times in our pages, but we’re now committed more than ever to helping ourselves and our readers navigate race relations in our country. It’s clear that systemic injustice infects many national institutions, the criminal justice system being but the lastest example. We’ll see what we can do to bring light and justice to at least some of this.
In the meantime, we in the church can do two things.
The Strange Truth of the Gospel
For one thing, we can take a fresh look at a biblical and theological truth that CT blogger Derwin Gray noted recently. The Bible puts it this way:
Now in Christ Jesus you who once were far away have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For he himself is our peace, who has made the two groups one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility.... His purpose was to create in himself one new humanity out of the two, thus making peace, and in one body to reconcile both of them to God through the cross, by which he put to death their hostility. He came and preached peace to you who were far away and peace to those who were near…. Consequently, you are no longer foreigners and strangers, but fellow citizens with God’s people and also members of his household (Eph. 2:13–19).
Paul is speaking of the reconciliation of Jews and Gentiles—between those who were said to have been divinely chosen and those who were not. Paul is saying that in the church, there is no distinction now between Jew and Greek, nor between any other division we experience—gender, citizenship, and race. “The dividing wall of hostility” has been “destroyed.”
Despite the seemingly manifest truth that even Christian blacks and Christian whites are as divided as the rest of America, the gospel says something strange. It says the wall between us is no more real than the Berlin Wall that was torn down 25 years ago. The wall between us in the church was torn down some 2,000 years ago. It may not feel like it; it may not look like it, but the reality is every black Christian is a brother or sister to every white Christian. We are no longer strangers to one another, but are family.
This is not fanciful theology, or mere spiritual theory designed to make us feel better. This is a reality that changes behavior on the ground. Let me illustrate with an experience from my family.
It started with a phone call I received during Superbowl XXXVI (2000). The person on the other end of the line said, “I’m a private detective. My client, Betty Johnson, wants permission to contact you directly. She claims to be your sister.”
This didn’t come so much as a shock as a pleasant surprise. Given my mother’s checkered past, and some rumors that had floated around the family for years, learning I might have a sister seemed almost expected. So I readily agreed to be contacted.
That led to a phone conversation, then a visit. And then a number of visits, sometimes Betty coming to our home, and sometimes my wife and I visiting hers. We’ve met each other's friends; we’ve explored the past that we missed sharing; we’ve learned how each of us has suffered in our own way. We’ve created a few memories of our own, and a few inside jokes and teasing. We’ve become what we discovered we were: family.
If someone would have told me before this that it was my Christian duty to get to know this one woman—with a history and politics and social world so foreign to me—I would have balked. Naturally. What do I have to do with her? If you would have convinced me that she was a person with special needs I could perhaps assist, I might have taken a few steps to help out, but I would have kept this woman at arm’s length.
But when it became clear that this woman was my flesh-and-blood sister—that changed everything. Now it was not a matter of duty or obligation to get to know her. Nor was it always a delight, because getting to know someone has its awkward moments, hesitations, and hiccups about what to say or share—a lot of effort, yes.
Still, once I discovered that this woman was my sister, it was natural that I get to know her so I could get to love her. It’s what family does.
So I’m thinking that the second step black Christians and white Christians can take is this: begin to believe the strange gospel truth that “those people” are brothers and sisters. Flesh-and-blood family.
To be sure, it’s more complicated than that. There is a history of not only mutual ignorance, but the historic oppression of one group over the other. This is not true just at a national level. It’s been true in the church as well. We have a history of family abuse. So there’s healing to be done, not just getting acquainted. But getting acquainted is at least part of that healing. Since according to a study cited in the Washington Post recently, 75 percent of whites do not have non-white friends, this is one thing we can do to change the reality on the ground.
But as I said, this is the second thing we might do. The first thing, the thing we whites need to do today, is simply sit with the black brothers and sisters we do know and grieve with them. We need to listen. And to pray with them, if that’s invited. We need to be that quiet presence that says, “To be frank, I do not really know what you’re experiencing, but that fact you, a brother or sister in Christ, are angry and grieving, well that makes me angry and sad.”
That’s the thing we do today and tomorrow. And then when the time is right, we pick up the phone and say “Hey, I understand we’re brothers. We should get together. We have a lot to talk about.”
Mark Galli is editor of Christianity Today.