Racism and Redemption
Do we condemn the riots or stand with protesters? Why not both?
On February 23, 2020, Ahmaud Arbery was jogging on a back road in small-town Georgia. As he was jogging, he ran past a truck parked on the side of the road. A man got out of the truck and approached Arbery with a shotgun in hand, telling Arbery that he wanted to talk to him. Arbery attempted to wrestle the shotgun away from the man but soon realized his efforts were fruitless, so he sprinted down the road away from the truck. Within seconds, a shot rang out from a different shotgun. Ahmaud Arbery was murdered on a public road in the middle of the day while another man videoed the slaying.
On May 25, 2020, George Floyd found himself pinned to the pavement in Minneapolis, Minnesota, after being detained for alleged forgery. As a policeman knelt on his neck for eight minutes and forty-two seconds, Floyd repeatedly cried out, “I can’t breathe.” His pleas soon stopped. George Floyd was murdered on a public road in the middle of the day while a crowd filmed the killing and begged the policeman to stand up.
Ahmaud lived and died in the South, George in the North. Ahmaud was killed by self-proclaimed vigilantes, George by law enforcement. Ahmaud’s only “crime” (if you could call it that) was entering a residential construction site to look around, while George used a fake twenty-dollar bill at a local convenience store.
So what’s the common theme here? Floyd and Arbery were both black.
As I write this, America is quite literally still burning. In a sort of ethnic reckoning, peaceful protestors against systemic racism have flooded the streets all across the nation, but some have spawned violent riots. Many metropolitan areas have instituted curfews, as activists have occupied multiple blocks in downtown Seattle and declared it an “autonomous zone.” Police vehicles have been torched and property defaced, and rioters have murdered multiple officers. In Portland, unmarked officers are allegedly accosting protestors with no explanation. In Washington, D.C., police dispersed protestors with pepper spray so the president could have a photo op in front of a church. Minneapolis is planning to abolish its police department with other locales following suit. In other cities, protestors and cops stand arm in arm during marches. Countless Americans are confused, mourning, and hurting.
Racism is no forgotten relic of the sixties: it is alive and clearly doing well. Although many communities and groups of people experience racism on different levels and in different forms, African-Americans have lived through unspeakable injustices since before our nation was founded. From slavery to Emmett Till to Selma to Jim Crow to George Floyd, the black community has been persecuted for centuries.
We have come to a time of reckoning. As Christians, how do we respond to this virulent racism? Is there space for violence in protesting? Can we condemn both the riots and racism? Is it even the church’s place to say anything at all?
These questions have haunted many Christians over the past few months, and rightfully so. What we say and do right now will be remembered, good or bad. If we make the right choice, our witness to the black community and beyond will flourish.
Here are a few things that we can say and do over the next few weeks.
Justice is one of the primary themes of the Old Testament (and the New Testament, for that matter). God repeatedly commands his people to “do justice” to the poor, oppressed, fatherless, and widowed. David praises the Lord for his standard of justice in Psalm 89:14.
Righteousness and justice are the foundation of your throne; steadfast love and faithfulness go before you.
God does not simply perform just acts or simply approve of the idea, he is justice. He is the standard, the figurative plumb line. Therefore, any action that fails to align with his nature by oppressing or hurting one of his children is injustice, whether it is racism, murder, or property destruction. God can never tolerate injustice, as it perverts the perfect harmony of his creation. St. Augustine wrote of tranquillitas ordinis — “the tranquility of order.” When unjust acts violate the civil order, this divine bubble of shalom is unceremoniously popped.
George Floyd was brutally murdered by a law enforcement officer while he was crying out for help. Breanna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and now Rayshard Brooks were all killed for no justifiable reason. There was no nuance in any of these situations, and callously waiting for more “evidence” only serves to obfuscate the obvious. These killings were evil acts of injustice.
So how do we respond to these horrid injustices? First, we must mourn.
Weep for a beautiful and meaningful life lost. Mourn the interruption of a story, the loss of opportunities, and the decisive finality of death for those who rejected Christ. The violent acts themselves are enough cause for grief, but after the dust settles, broken families, friends, and communities remain. Weep for those who are hurt, hopeless, and despairing.
After witnessing an injustice, our natural instinct is to be angry, to mourn. Do that. It’s okay. We were created to lament what has been lost. After all, Jesus wept at the tomb of his friend Lazarus. Our Lord is weeping for the lives and souls lost to the terror of racism and injustice, so kneel beside him and mourn.
Listen and learn.
If America is skilled at anything, it is talking. We can speak on our own experiences and from our own wisdom all day, and when we finally shut our mouth to allow someone else to talk, we often spend that time furiously formulating our preprogrammed response. As a result, discussions are rarely true discussions. Rather than ideas and experiences taking root in the ears of the hearer, we shove ideological talking points down the throat of anyone in the tri-state area.
Clearly, echo chambers and closed minds cannot move anyone towards ethnic reconciliation. Desiring God editor David Mathis looks to Dietrich Bonhoeffer for some wise words on the art of truly listening.
Bonhoeffer gives us something to avoid: “a kind of listening with half an ear that presumes already to know what the other person has to say.” This, he says, “is an impatient, inattentive listening, that . . . is only waiting for a chance to speak.”
Instead of the shallow hearing described by Bonhoeffer, Mathis proposes a deeper listening. Listen “with both ears” by rejecting self-centeredness. Ask intentional questions not from a place of self-worth, but rather from a true interest in the life of another.
In her book Be the Bridge, African-American writer Latasha Morrison tells us about a “racial-reconciliation discussion group” that she started with a diverse group of friends months before the Ferguson protests. As they met monthly in coffee shops and living rooms, Morrison and her friends not only spoke out about their own experiences with ethnic injustice, they also intentionally listened to each other: “We pushed deeper into reconciliation and relationship, and as we did, we found we understood one another a little better. That understanding brought such healing.”
In light of ethnic injustice, we must default to a posture of listening. Sit down with people of all ethnic backgrounds in your community who have been hurt, and listen to their experiences, longings, and feelings. They have a story to tell, just like we all do, and we cannot prematurely judge the merits of their protest without hearing their voices. We cannot rectify injustice until we intimately know the plight of the oppressed.
Stand for truth and love.
When responding to injustice, we must first grieve, then listen, and finally, be moved to action.
Political philosopher Greg Forster points out that “the church is not the church if it’s not at war with the world’s injustice.” This doesn’t mean that Christians should run to their ideological tribes and adopt a culture war mentality. Pushing back against ethnic injustice and condemning violence is not mutually exclusive, as our political machine would like for us to believe. We can observe that violent means of protest are damaging to people and their livelihoods while accomplishing nothing, but then we also must come to the aid of the oppressed just as Christ would.
The practical outworking of this biblical mandate to love the oppressed manifests differently in everyone’s lives. Maybe you feel moved to attend a protest to march alongside our black brothers and sisters. Volunteer at a soup kitchen in a disadvantaged neighborhood. Lobby your local police department to adopt stricter training protocols. Take the neighbor kids shopping for school shoes. Whatever you do, seek justice, healing, hope, and the common good for your community in the name of Jesus Christ.
It is so easy to be a keyboard warrior, hiding behind a partisan veil and broadly condemning either racism or violence. Our God has already torn the veil when he literally took on the sin of the world, racism and rioting included. Christians, don’t be afraid to be bold. Be radical, not in a progressive or far-right sense, but rather, be radical for the cause of Christ. Carry the banner of justice and compassion every day while seeking the good of others in order to glorify Christ. That is what He created us to do.
Daniel Hostetter is the founder and editor-in-chief of The Citizen’s Brief. He is an incoming freshman at Liberty University majoring in Politics & Policy, and he hopes to someday work on Capitol Hill advocating for the cause of Christ.