This is a difficult time in America. How often have we had a major epidemic, a drastic economic downturn, widespread urban rioting, presidential impeachment proceedings, and such a divisive presidential election all in the same year?
I previously spoke out about the killing of Ahmaud Arbery. Then George Floyd was killed. Seeing law enforcement officers act that in such an open, public way, knowing they were being filmed by bystanders, raises obvious questions of how many other incidents there have been of such abusive policing when they thought no one was watching or before cellphone cameras.
How is the church to respond?
If the body of Christ is serious about following biblical teaching, then we must consciously seek to model a better way of addressing such challenges than how the world addresses them.
There are multiple pitfalls that we must take care to avoid.
One major pitfall is silence. Particularly for white American Christians, there is a long history of so many of us remaining silent and declining to suffer with those who suffer. Pastor Miles McPherson recently wrote:
It would help tremendously if White people spoke out against abuses of power more consistently, and loudly. But their collective silence on this issue is deafening, and constitutes a form of withholding help from their brothers and sister in need. The best analogy I can equate it to is watching someone else drown, and having a life preserver, but choosing not to throw it in. As Martin Luther King Jr. so eloquently said, “In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.”
I whole-heartedly agree with Wesleyan Covenant Association (WCA) President Keith Boyette’s recent statement, “Make Justice a Reality,” which you should read in full, and which includes these words:
As Christians we are called to relentlessly work for a society where African Americans no longer have to fear for their lives or be treated differently when encountered by law enforcement, or when they are simply going about the business of their daily lives. We must dedicate ourselves to building a church that bears witness to the dignity of all God’s people, particularly those who have been marginalized, stereotyped, and treated with cruelty and violence based on the color of their skin. The church must summon every fiber of its being to root out racism in its midst. Collectively and individually we must examine our hearts, our minds, our institutions, and our practices, and, with unwavering determination, stamp out racism.
We must also avoid the pitfall of feeling that we do not need to be too concerned about the means we use if the ends seem righteous to us and we think our intentions are good. With other social evils—abortion, greed, sexual immorality, etc.—there are ways of defending Christian values that are ultimately unhelpful, unloving, and fleshly. The same is true with racism and recent killings. One of the most recurring themes of fallen human history is how righteous outrage and the desire to “do something” so often results in people making situations worse.
So much of the world’s current reactions fan the flames of hatred, various bigotries, factional divisiveness, and misunderstanding, all of which make further violence more likely.
So much of the world is already on a hair trigger to begin broadly lashing out—in thought, word, or deed—at various groups against whom they are already prejudiced: blacks, whites, Asians, cops, Democrats, Trump supporters, etc. Christians must be especially careful to act in ways that dampen, rather than inflame, such destructive tendencies.
We do not need to join in what are really pointless ways of fighting, like the woker-than-thou shaming or the false dichotomies (“if you care about businesses, that shows you don’t care about people!”).
A related pitfall is moral inconsistency. Those of us in any sort of teaching role must avoid selectively focusing only certain problems depending on what seems convenient at the moment or what we think our own “tribe” will tolerate from us. Riots, vandalism, and looting are inexcusable, cause great suffering (including on many minority-owned businesses), have been widely condemned across the political spectrum, and must never be rationalized or justified. There have recently been numerous firsthand accounts of black peaceful protesters getting infuriated at relatively smaller numbers of disproportionately white people using the protests as a chance to get violent.
Those of us who are white Americans should especially at this time seek to speak a bit less, and humbly read, listen to, and learn from African-American brothers and sisters. In most cases, “but what about the riots?” should NOT be a main topic in such cross-racial private conversations between friends. The riots are awful, but there is much justification for suspicions that white Americans focusing on riots involves unfairly collectively blaming “those people” and avoiding the hard work of seeking to understanding the underlying pain of African Americans.
Christians of every background must be honest that we are all fallen creatures in desperate need of salvation, that ALL people are capable of abusing as much power as they have been given, and that we all have our biases and blind spots which can lead us to make mistakes.
In this era of polarized media, it is especially urgent to consciously avoid the pitfall of being too quick to believe reports – and especially undocumented memes and social-media posts – which conform too neatly with our pre-conceived loyalties vs. distrust towards certain people. When we get upset by some claim we hear and in our passion rush to pass it on without first checking our facts, there is a good chance we will be, knowingly or not, guilty of bearing false witness. Among sins, that’s one of the big ten.
We must all acknowledge and beware the sub-conscious temptations to believe unproven allegations of wrongdoing by some people and to disbelieve even documented instances of wrongdoing by others.
If we are going to comment on specific incidents, we had better get our facts straight first.
For example, lately there has been some controversy and debate about circumstances surrounding President Trump’s photo op in front of St. John’s Episcopal Church, the famous “church of presidents,” after arsonists had attacked the building.
The liberal New York Times offers the most detailed account I have seen, including an upsetting video clip of riot police roughly shoving people and viciously striking a cameraman with a shield.
The conservative Federalist website seeks to rebut the widespread narratives that for the sake of this photo op, peaceful protesters were tear-gassed out of the area. The Federalist links to a now-updated statement from the U.S. Park Police asserting that “USPP officers and other assisting law enforcement partners did not use tear gas or OC Skat Shells to close the area,” and defending their actions as a response to some protesters “throwing projectiles including bricks” and trying to grab officers’ weapons, among other threats. One reporter, who remained highly critical of President Trump, provided eyewitness confirmation, including limited video, of some protesters throwing things while other protesters shouted disapproval (see here, but warning about language).
You can read the above links and make your own judgments.
Meanwhile, officials in one liberal-dominated conference of the United Methodist Church rushed out a public statement making the factual claims that police had used tear gas on protesters and that “President Donald Trump used [St. John’s Church] as a backdrop to make a statement condemning the demonstrations against police brutality in the wake of George Floyd’s death.” I reached out to conference officials and among other things, asked about them spreading these specific claims when the use of tear gas is disputed, the New York Times reported that the president “made no formal remarks” in front of the church, and his speech immediately before his walk over to the church including him talking about being “rightly sickened and revolted by the brutal death of George Floyd” and distinguishing between “peaceful protesters,” for whom he offered at least some weak affirmation, and those committing violence.
With recent actions of our president, and of other political leaders across the partisan spectrum, there is much with which I personally find fault. But the inaccuracies in the above-quoted UMC statement is the sort of thing that needlessly promotes factional hatred and demonization.
To their credit, conference officials thanked me and told me they will be issuing a “correction/clarification.” Such humility to offer retractions and apologies is something we could use a lot more of in the UMC.
But this sort of rhetorical over-reach is too common.
Another pitfall would be over-correcting such excesses by limiting ourselves to general affirmations of principles while avoiding mentioning any specifics. But this results in victims, and those who identify with them, not feeling heard or genuinely cared about, which makes their victimization worse. Someone helpfully explained recent slogans specifically affirming the worth of African-American lives with an analogy that in a dinner party, when one guest is not served anything while everyone else progresses through their first and second courses, if he protests his need for food, it would not be compassionate to reply, “Hey, we ALL need food!”
In doing our research, we should all have some healthy skepticism about the biases of our sources. But videos often bring less ambiguity. While it is difficult, I encourage you to take time to watch the now-infamous video of what was done to George Floyd in his final moments, especially if you are white like me.
Boyette’s carefully worded statement offers a good model of strongly affirming a principled stance for racial justice, having enough prior research to highly important specifics, but without making partisan cheap shots or getting too far into details about which the facts are still being determined.
May Christians of every ethnicity and denomination stand together, clearly and unmistakably, for racial equality and against such injustices as the killing of George Floyd. May we model a more excellent way to a watching and bleeding world. May we be morally consistent. May we be servants of the truth. May those of us who are white Christians be slower to speak and more eager to listen. And may we all seek to be gracious within the body of Christ for the mistakes we will make as we help each other grow.