If you are white, Christian, and American, and want your fellow citizens to flourish and prosper together, you should be deeply troubled right now. In fact, “troubled” is too soft a word.
2020 has brought an assault on our senses and a challenge to our very ability to live together as a people. It began with the rancor and strife of the impeachment process—which now seems like a lifetime ago. The coronavirus onslaught ravaged bodies and beat down our spirits. Then came the wave of economic devastation from the lockdown and 40 million Americans filing for unemployment. Now, in rapid-fire succession, the no-knock raid and death of Breonna Taylor, the hunting and killing of Ahmaud Arbery, the execution of George Floyd, and the rioting and looting of America’s urban centers.
As Michelle Goldberg of The New York Times has pointed out, we have revisited some of the most traumatic experiences of the past century all in the space of five short months—from the Spanish flu in 1918 to the economic crash of 1929 to race-related killings and urban unrest in 1968 to impeachment in 1974. Throughout all this, our leadership, especially in the political and media worlds, has brought more heat than light. There are exceptions, but in general we don’t know whom to trust.
Given everything, we feel disoriented, and many may wonder whether we have lost our moorings about who we are as Christians and Americans. It’s not only natural but right, in response to the mistreatment of our brothers and sisters and fellow citizens, to feel angry. There is a time for righteous anger, and that time is when children of God are robbed of their humanity and denied the most basic of dignities (to freely walk or breathe). If you’re not angry and feel deep sadness in this moment, it may be time for a soul check.
Chaos, conflict, carnage, and confusion reign in our communities and in our hearts. We know this is not how it is supposed to be—not who we are supposed to be, as Christians and as Americans—yet we don’t know the way forward.
I grew up in a very white working class and rural community before heading off to Philadelphia for college in the 1980s. There I fell in love with my wife, Jean, the daughter of Chinese immigrants. Jean has always told our four children she is the product of the great American dream; her parents left China with a single suitcase, no money, and no home to greet them on the other side yet established a remarkable place for themselves in America.
At Penn, I had the tremendous fortune to form deep relationships with people of all colors and backgrounds, particularly in the campus African American community. I sang in the university’s gospel choir and joined Alpha Phi Alpha (the first of all black fraternities, and the fraternity of Martin Luther King Jr., among many other great men). A white guy joining a black fraternity raised some eyebrows, but it was transformative for me. The experience of marrying into one racial heritage and investing deeply in the brotherhood of another laid a foundation for the past three decades of our family’s life. We can’t help but see ourselves as part of a beautiful American mosaic, where we all participate fully and truly benefit from the distinctive experiences of people of all heritages.
With these foundational experiences, I ran a campaign for the US Senate in 2018 with a core management team that was black and white and Latino and Asian, as well as Democratic and Republican and Independent and Green. We found that people had lost their way; light was confused with darkness, truth with untruth; and anxiety, depression, and loneliness were exploding in every demographic. 150,000 deaths of despair per year. People searching for purpose and meaning. Long before 2020, we were divided, falling, and grasping for hope.
America was afflicted with a pandemic of the soul before it faced the pandemic of the body.
What are some first steps, then, toward finding our way forward?
Remember who we are, and who God made us to be.
As God’s children, we are all beings made in the image of God, not only individually but also collectively reflecting his being and his character. This is the fundamental truth of who we are as a people.
Yet, from the earliest beginnings we have been tragically broken and divided, oppressing one another both inside our closest ethnic group (Cain slaying Abel) and outside (Taylor, Floyd, and Arbery). The arc of God’s movement throughout the history of humankind—to restore us to one another and to himself—will ultimately not be thwarted. The apostle Paul tells us we are created to be together no matter which category of people we belong to—Jew or Greek, slave or free, white people wearing MAGA hats and card-carrying Black Lives Matter members—and to take up the burdens of the other without respect to identity (Gal. 3:28).
In heaven, when everything is made new and all is set to right, the togetherness for which we are made will be restored! The apostle John describes a vast crowd from every nation and tribe and people and language, reflecting the glory of their Creator (Rev. 7:9). That is the glory for which we were made. When these trials and tribulations fade away, our truest essence—together!—will emerge.
Listen, lament, and give thanks.
We will only begin to heal as a people when we begin to hear one another. Those who have walked by God’s grace through great grief and lament in their lives (often in our more marginalized communities), and have chosen to not be victimized by it have many times forged into their souls the greatest moral and spiritual authority. Without defensiveness, without counterargument, without self-justification, we as white Christian Americans need to listen to our black brothers and sisters, whose experience of this country is often radically different from our own.
If we truly listen, we may begin to feel the grief and lament. We may recognize that at times, there are no words to touch such deep places. The word “injustice” fails to describe the violence to Taylor, Arbery, or Floyd, or the psychic cost to all black Americans who have experienced something in the same vein, or simply bear the burden of knowing that such things all too often happen to people who look like them. We can and we should hold onto that on behalf of our brothers and sisters, lamenting in the great spiritual and biblical traditions.
If we are not people who have experienced this other side of the American experience, then we should be grateful for all those (particularly in the black community) who have stayed so patiently with us in this American process. When they do not give up on the church, America, or even us as individuals when they would be so abundantly justified in doing so, that is grace and extraordinary strength in action.
Raise your voice and take action.
It is not enough to be non-racist. We need to use our voices and take action to stand against racism. Our brothers and sisters need us to speak. They are (too often literally) dying for it.
In the words of King, “There comes a time when silence is betrayal.”
Our faith—which is one of sacrifice and redemption, not power—has been used as a tool by political forces for centuries, and that is never more tragic than when it is used to oppress people in the name of Jesus. In the US, in too many cases the white church notoriously advanced a theology that the slavery of African people was intended by God, and we live and breathe that heritage today. As just one of a nearly infinite number of examples of that legacy, in the church of my upbringing (in Connecticut in the 1970s), the mixing of races and intermarriage was forbidden.
If you see our faith used in the name of power for those who would oppress others, reject it. It is anathema to the sacrifice of our Lord and will poison our gospel witness.
One final note. As you look for leaders in the political world, sources in the media world, or consider any others vying for your trust, ask God’s Spirit to lead you. If you don’t sense in their words and approach an anger and sadness regarding this injustice and its heritage, gratitude for those who continue to labor with us in forming a more perfect union, and a belief that all are God’s children and truly equal in the republic—do not follow them. Their spirit is not of God.
John Kingston is the author of American Awakening: 8 Principles to Restore the Soul of America, and founder of American Awakening.
Speaking Out is Christianity Today’s guest opinion column and (unlike an editorial) does not necessarily represent the opinion of the publication.
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