For many of us, anger, sadness, frustration, and fatigue are not episodic responses but chronic conditions. In recent days we’ve all seen, heard, and read of the lynching of Ahmaud Arbery, the shooting of Breonna Taylor, the use of the police by a white woman to threaten Christian Cooper, Minneapolis police officers executing George Floyd, and of the fact that COVID-19 disproportionately harms black and brown people. I have been a pastor in Minneapolis, and my heart is heavy as people have taken to the streets to demonstrate against injustice. The videos have helped some white people to see a bit of what many black and brown people know: White America has long had its knee on our necks. I am sure that some who just read that sentence are saying, “Not all of white America.” But that’s the problem. It’s hard for people of color to feel that white America is with us and not against us. White America has not demonstrated the collective resolve to repent, rebuke, and reorient itself against racial injustice. That includes Christians. White Christians can opt out of outrage over racial injustice. The status quo works for them.
Consider, for example, the tenacious support many evangelicals give to President Donald Trump, who told police on Long Island, New York, in 2017 to “not be too nice” with suspects. He appeared to encourage heavy-handedness, if not outright brutality. His then press secretary, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, had to walk back the president’s comments, saying he was joking. Police brutality is not a laughing matter. White Christians are watching the screens, maybe shaking their heads, but largely immobile. Rather than justice overflowing (Amos 5:24), it trickles down, at best. In my more than 30 years of ministry—in the pastorate as well as academia—I’ve spent plenty of time with white evangelicals for whom justice is an elective course.
In 1973, Gil Scott-Heron wrote “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised,” indicting white apathy. He described how some Americans delighted in the mundane and trivial that flashed on the television screen while injustice demanded a revolution. Now people are watching their screens, seeing the violent acts as well as the protests in response, but then going back to business as usual. We need a revolution.
The Revolution Starts with Righteous Agitation
Acts 16:35–40 is the epilogue to a powerful story of God’s deliverance. The imprisoned Paul and Silas were singing hymns when an earthquake hit around midnight. Such was the power of the quake that the prison doors were opened, chains fell off prisoners, and the fear that overcame the jailer resulted in his conversion, along with that of his household. We could reflect a bit on God breaking people out of prison, but instead I want to highlight the epilogue, which tends to get overlooked in sermons from Acts 16. The morning after the earthquake, the jailer told Paul and Silas that the magistrates had released the apostles and they could “go in peace.” But Paul and Silas did not peacefully walk away. Instead, Paul replied, “They have beaten us in public, uncondemned, men who are Roman citizens, and have thrown us into prison; and now are they going to discharge us in secret? Certainly not! Let them come and take us out themselves” (Acts 16:37). Some of my friends argue that Paul’s concern here is the propagation of the gospel. Perhaps, but the text doesn’t say that. What we do see, however, is Paul’s agitation over the violation of his civil rights as a Roman citizen (a point he brings up strategically in Acts 21:39 and 22:25–29).
At the very least we can acknowledge that injustice demands a response to people in power. (For more on this, see Esau McCauley’s theology of policing.) Paul called the magistrates to account for their actions, and we must do the same. We should be outraged over injustice, and people in positions of authority need to feel our anguish.
For years, black and brown people have been doing the same as Paul in calling out injustice. The apostle Paul’s demands to the magistrates foreshadows Mamie Till’s bold move to have the body of her lynched son, Emmett, open for viewing. She wanted America to see what was allowed to happen to her son. White Christians have blamed victims of violence, waiting for some dirt on the victim to be dug up. White Christians have minimized the actions of the perpetrators by imagining there must be “another side to the story.” Perhaps even worse is the relegation of injustice to the actions of a few bad characters rather than the failings of an entire system and a worldview that vilifies non-whiteness.
The Revolution Is Really About Love
In that Acts 16 story, the magistrates apologize. They also ask Paul and Silas to leave the city. But before the apostles leave, they meet with the newly forming Christian community in Lydia’s house to encourage and admonish them. Surely this church, which now included a jailer, understood how power worked in Philippi and began their own revolution. Judging from what Paul wrote to that church sometime later (from prison!) they were to learn that the revolution means being like Jesus, considering others as more important than yourself (Phil. 2:3–4). The revolution means laying aside privilege in service to others (Phil. 2:5–11). Perhaps white Christian America can be motivated by that.
It is possible to be, like Jesus, angry at injustice while demonstrating and calling for love. In the many times over the years that I’ve been asked to speak about racial injustice, people expect me to end the message with hope. For some reason, those most vulnerable to oppression are the same ones who are supposed to give white people hope. Yet I do think about what moving forward means, especially since my wife and I have adult children and three grandsons. We think about a revolution for them. A revolution of love.
I affirm that black or brown skin and non-European ancestry is not the problem. We fight white supremacy, in part, by loving our nonwhite selves that have been created in the image of God. We don’t need to take on a Carlton Banks of Bel-Air persona to prove our Americanness (and in case you’ve forgotten: It didn’t work for Carlton Banks, either).
I affirm the use of our Christian imaginations to envision practicing the “weightier matters” of justice, mercy, and faith (Matt. 23:23, ESV). Gil Scott-Heron ended “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised” with the words: “The revolution will be no re-run, brothers / The revolution will be live.” Rather than looking backwards to some mythical past greatness, we look forward to God’s ongoing work in the world.
I affirm the revolutionary power of the Holy Spirit. I have hope that those who have pledged allegiance to King Jesus will be moved by love to thwart the evil at work in the world because worldly power does not trump or stifle the power of the Holy Spirit.
Currently, we are mostly sheltering in place, relying heavily on screens for our communication. But hopefully we will be able to get away from the screens and go beyond the videos and hashtags to join in solidarity with those who hunger and thirst for justice (Matt. 5:6, NLT). That’s revolutionary.
Dennis R. Edwards is associate professor of New Testament at North Park Theological Seminary in Chicago and author of Might from the Margins: The Gospel’s Power to Turn the Tables on Injustice (September 2020). In addition to his academic work in biblical studies, Dennis has served as a pastor in Brooklyn; Washington, DC; and Minneapolis.
Speaking Out is Christianity Today’s guest opinion column and (unlike an editorial) does not necessarily represent the opinion of the publication.