Chicago might be a strange perch from which to write this appeal for gun reform. After all, Governor Greg Abbott of Texas recently invoked that well-established dog whistle and the refuge of Republican politicians and many of their Christian supporters: the deaths of Black kids due to gun violence in Chicago. For them, my city is proof positive that gun laws don’t work.
But here I sit, as one of Chicago’s young pastors at one of its most historic Black churches, bidding for a favorable response from the larger, politically dominant, white evangelical denominations in America.
I write to them because these denominations, like the Southern Baptist Convention, are politically influential in states with senators who could, if pressured by their base, be moved to act. They have swung elections in the past, when issues important to them drove them to the ballot box. These senators and representatives might not listen to a Black pastor in Chicago, but they will listen to a cluster of white pastors in Georgia, Florida, Alabama, and Tennessee.
I am not the first Black pastor to appeal to the white Christian majority to shake off their malaise and address pressing issues of justice. Martin Luther King Jr. made a similar appeal in 1963 from another unlikely place: a Birmingham jail. The issues are different, but the admonition is the same. There must be some white Christians of goodwill who sense that something is terribly wrong with gun violence among the children in our nation.
About 30 years ago, The Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) began an aggressive recruitment of young Black clergy. Their seminaries sought young Black aspiring ministers who had no direct experience with the troubled racial history of their denomination. They offered money, jobs, and missional networks meant to help these pastors fulfill the Great Commission. SBC conferences started to intentionally feature speakers of color.
Linked to this invitation to preach the gospel together came an entreaty. Black pastors and their churches were to adopt the political agenda of the so-called moral majority. Their political agenda was presented as a litmus test for theological fidelity.
If you are true to the God of the Bible, they said, you had to affirm that abortion, adoption, pornography, and the war on drugs were the key moral issues framing the American social landscape. They deemed these issues “Christian” while labeling a host of other concerns plaguing my community as “political” and “divisive.”
The topic of gun violence, for example, has always been placed in the category of politics, but it is now considered the leading cause of death for children in this country.
In an era when hopes for interracial cooperation waxed high, Black pastors and churches migrated into dual affiliation. They did not leave their Black denominational homes of the National Baptist Convention or the Progressive National Baptist Convention. They merged both worlds as a signal of racial reconciliation. Enduring their cross and despising their shame, they sat down at the table of brotherhood.
Since then, 30 years have passed, and as far as I can measure, we are probably more divided socially and ethnically, if not politically, than we were back then.
The Black church has heard your requests for unity in fellowship and solidarity on public moral arguments. We have watched you parade the case for the unborn as the single greatest civic concern of our time. Some of us have even lent the credibility of our ministries to urge our politicians toward a more virtuous ethic. Even more of us facilitate organizations that care for women facing unplanned pregnancies. In good faith, we have joined our cause with yours.
Now we ask the same of you.
It is not our senators—those from our city-zoned districts—who reject universal background checks on the purchases of firearms. It is not our congressional leaders—those who attend our churches and speak at our back-to-school events—who are standing in the way of legislation that could prevent the next mass school shooting. It is yours. Your senators, who serve in your districts, sit in your pews, and listen to your preaching—they are the greatest antagonists to a real pro-life, anti-school-shootings agenda.
You have asked us to join in the fight for pro-life legislation, and now we ask you to do the same. Be pro-life by urging your congressional leaders to protect the lives of school kids who die at the force of weapons too easily placed in the wrong hands. Urge your senators to pass morally upright gun legislation. Be true to the same book you preach on Sunday.
We have waited for you to use your influence to lobby Congress for better school funding, access to quality health care, and food security. We have waited for you to denounce the alt-right racism that made a playboy a president. We have waited for you to declare that our lives matter. Now every American child is waiting on you to use your influence to protect them.
In short, I think you should leave Chicago’s name out of your mouth until you understand the forces that shape this city.
We are not your rhetorical whipping boy, trotted out for another session of mockery that serves your political ends. We are not your minstrel show, played on repeat on your news channels as a way to reinforce tropes about the inherent dangerousness of Black people. We see what you are doing and name it for what it is: racism. We know that you do not actually care about the Black lives lost to gun violence here. If you did, you wouldn’t use dead Black boys and girls as a political tool. You would see their tragic deaths as a catalyst for action.
Chicago is a border colony. Illinois is a gun-restrictive state. Studies have shown that nearly 60 percent of guns connected to crimes in Chicago arrive through Republican states. The loose privileges of others have a direct, negative, and destructive effect on us. And while there is no excuse for the murder rate in Chicago, there is also no excuse for decades of divestment and inferior schools.
There is no excuse for redlining and gentrification that imprison entire family lines. There is no excuse for new multimillion-dollar marijuana stores owned and operated by white men—selling the same marijuana that criminalized successive generations of Black men—who work without penalty and with permission.
Why is Chicago the scapegoat? It is because Chicago is code for Black.
What is rarely mentioned is the hard work of pastors and religious leaders on the ground in this city. When you talk about Chicago, talk about Breakthrough Urban Ministries in Garfield Park, a ministry that has rebuilt an entire neighborhood through housing, recreation, homeless intervention, and counseling services.
Talk about the work of Together Chicago, a new multipronged consortium of pastors, business leaders, community organizers, and educators reducing violence and building businesses. If you talk about Chicago, talk about James Meeks and the Salem Baptist Church of Chicago, which decreased violence by voting their neighborhood dry for two decades.
Chicago is an easy trope for those who do not know the story here.
I better understand why Martin Luther King Jr. took pen to paper in that Birmingham jail. When the laws that should liberate you imprison you, the one person a pastor expects to help him is another pastor. It’s frustrating that some of those who stand in the way of human flourishing are those sermonizing the imago Dei into a political talking point.
So I write my own letter from Chicago with the aid of these pastors listed below. We need you, our white evangelical brothers and sisters, to move your politicians to save our schools from another shooting.
Charlie Dates is senior pastor at Chicago’s Progressive Baptist Church. He holds a PhD in historical theology from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School.
This letter was written with support from the following pastors: James Meeks, Salem Baptist Church of Chicago; Horace Smith, Apostolic Faith Church, Chicago; Otis Moss, Trinity United Church of Christ; Watson Jones, Compassion Baptist Church; David Swanson, New Community Covenant Church, Chicago; Ralph West, The Church Without Walls, Houston.
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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