The past several weeks, pictures and videos of the response in Ferguson, MO to the shooting of Michael Brown by a police officer have looked eerily similar to protests during the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s. Christians from around the country got involved and insisted that the life and value of all people must be honored. While not a solely Christian movement and not one that originated in the church, the protests and voices coming out of the Ferguson case have called people to both repentance and action: repentance in the face of our country's still-present racism and action against the injustice that devalues people based on the color of their skin.
I am grieved to note, however, especially in the early voices, that many white Christian leaders were silent. Lisa Sharon Harper points out that in the immediate aftermath of the shooting, "residents of Ferguson, local and national leaders of historic black churches, and some multi-ethnic mainline Protestant and Catholic church clergy engaged. White evangelical leaders largely fell silent." One of the reasons for this silence is the structural racism still present in our culture and the identification that race issues are a "black problem" rather than a "white problem." Our segregated Sundays and daily lives make white Christians largely unaware of the realities of life in a black person's body in the United States today. When one doesn't personally experience oppression and marginalization, it is unlikely they will have eyes to see it when it happens to others. How can we act and respond to injustice when we are blind to it? It is a rare occasion in a white church when the death of a black man or woman or child warrants the attention or even mention from the pulpit; why would it when the deaths of people of color do not affect the every-day lived experience of our lives? This lack of community, this lack of connection with our neighbors, is one of the sins that we must confess and lament in order to work towards true reconciliation across race.
In my newest book, Forgive Us: Confessions of a Compromised Faith (Zondervan, 2014), my co-authors Lisa Sharon Harper, Troy Jackson, and Soong-Chan Rah and I look at different sins of which the church must confess and repent. One of these is the history of racism in the United States and the church's complicity in that sin. Many others have detailed the specific racial tension and history in the St. Louis area that provided a backdrop for the outrage over the killing of Michael Brown. Here I want to encourage Christians -- leaders and lay people -- to listen and to speak. To lament and confess. To acknowledge the sin of racism that is alive in our country, and therefore in our churches, and to repent of the way that the sin of racism hinders our ability to live into the Kingdom of God.
During the Civil Rights movement, the silence from White Christian leaders was consistent. Martin Luther King Jr. famously responded to White Christian leaders in his "Letter from a Birmingham Jail," lamenting his conclusion "that the Negro's great stumbling block in the stride toward freedom is not the White Citizens Councillor or the Ku Klux Klanner but the white moderate who is more devoted to order than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says, 'I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I can't agree with your methods of direct action.'"
Forgive us, Michael Brown.
As we reflect upon these words, lament the sin of racism personally and publicly. When you are with your Christian brothers and sisters this week, name the sin and ask them to join you in confessing the many ways we as individuals and the church continue to manifest the sin of racism. If you need some starting points, Troy Jackson wrote Ten Ways White Christians can Respond to Ferguson.
Listen to the voice of those who face oppression. Seek to live into the truth that God has created each and every one of us in his image and, regardless of the color of our skin, an individual's life is a precious gift worthy of protection, honor, and dignity.