The boy, Devonte Hart, was holding a sign offering “Free Hugs” during a Tuesday march in Portland, Oregon, in response to the grand jury’s decision not to indict Officer Darren Wilson in the death of Michael Brown.
Portland police Sgt. Bret Barnum approached Devonte, extended his hand, and asked why he was crying. The boy’s response about his concerns regarding police brutality towards young black kids was met not with defensiveness but a gentle, “Yes, I know. I’m sorry. I’m sorry.” The officer then asked if he could have one of Devonte’s hugs.
Barnum later said he approached Devonte “not as an officer, but just a human being” when he saw him crying.
There Is Real Pain in Our Land
I needed to see this picture and hear this story.
I’ve watched so many hours of news reports on the events in Ferguson that I was growing emotionally numb. Devonte’s tears reminded me that thousands of people continue to feel deep pain, fear, and confusion because of the ongoing racial, social, cultural, and political tensions in our land. These concerns are vividly summarized in an email I received over the weekend.
I’m 35, married, and a person of color. I’m also a Christian. As recently as 1997, my high school held two separate proms. In the 3rd grade, my friend told me that her mom said that we could not play together anymore because I was black. While shopping, I walked by an elderly lady and she clutched her bag. I’ve been followed by store clerks. I’ve been called a black b—- by a white man in traffic for moving too slowly. My grandfather’s uncle was lynched for looking at a white woman. It was common knowledge that a local farmer killed him. No trial, no arrests, no suspects. I was hurt by these people but God has enabled me to forgive them.
I attend a predominately Anglo church in the heart of the Bible belt on purpose every Sunday. I can’t help but wonder why a single prayer wasn’t lifted during corporate worship for the Lord to intervene in the hearts of men related to Ferguson in the same way that we pray during election season or other tragedies around the globe. I know my pastor is a genuinely loving man. I’m not angry with him … just concerned. He is a wonderful teacher and friend.
I believe that Jesus died for the sins of the racist, the prideful militant, and the one who cannot shake exploding emotions when news like Ferguson or of Travon Martin, or any other black/white issue erupts.
At the same time I wonder, does white privilege exist in America? Is it a structure–a power or principality (Eph. 6:12)? If it does exist, how do Christians respond to it? Certainly we don’t tell others to just “get over it.” How do love and justice work in harmony? How do I resist the temptation to make an assumption that an issue is racially charged when blacks and whites are in conflict? How do I disconnect my own racial/ethnic history and experiences from similar contemporary issues that are still on-going? How am I to think soberly about race in America when so many tensions and issues exist?
I’m not even sure that any of this is making sense, but I’m trying to express some hard things I struggle with. I believe the gospel informs every area of life. I’m just not certain as to how to begin to apply it when there is so much polarization among Christians on tough issues like these.
I am amazed at the humility and forgiveness this woman has modeled. I doubt I would respond this graciously to such treatment. Would you?
The fact is that I have been largely insulated from these kinds of experiences. Therefore I still have much to learn. So I offer the following thoughts only as a step forward in following the example set before us by this woman, by Devonte, and by Sgt. Barnum.
Prejudice Is a Reality in a Fallen World
I’d like to believe that I am open-minded and unprejudiced … but I’d be deceiving myself.
Prejudice and bias based on race, social or economic status, and political views—these sins are woven deeply into the human heart, into my heart. They entered the world at the fall. They are evident throughout the Old Testament (Gen. 1:8-11). And they promptly tainted the first New Testament churches (Acts 6:1; Gal. 2:11-13).
Church-sanctioned racism supported slavery in the U.S. (and also championed its abolition), and state-sanctioned doctrines of ethnic superiority fueled World War II, leading to the deaths of over fifty million people.
Although western societies now renounce overt racism, various forms of prejudice still taint our daily lives. Scientific research shows that people notice and interact on the basis of not only race but also gender, social and economic status, and physical appearance.
And it starts early. According to Howard Ross, author of “Everyday Bias,” babies as young as three months can exhibit a preference to be around people of their own race.
We don’t automatically shake these tendencies as we grow older. As Paul DeYoung writes in United by Faith, most Christians still prefer to worship with people from their own race. A study conducted at Brigham Young University showed that white NBA referees call more fouls on black players, and black referees call more fouls on white players. Another study showed that recently released white felons have greater job hunting success than young black men with no criminal record.
As Howard Ross puts it, “Human beings are consistently, routinely and profoundly biased.”
The Gospel Has the Power to Tear Down Walls
The early church was infected with these tendencies. From its earliest days, it had to wrestle with racial, ethnic, and religious walls that had grown for centuries. But Jesus came to pull down these walls. As Paul writes in Ephesians 2:14-16, 22:
“For [Jesus] himself is our peace, who has made us both one and has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility by abolishing the law of commandments expressed in ordinances, that he might create in himself one new man in place of the two, so making peace, and might reconcile us both to God in one body through the cross, thereby killing the hostility…. In him you also are being built together into a dwelling place for God by the Spirit.”
These were not empty words. Although the early church frequently struggled with residual prejudices, God gave them grace to overcome these divisions and steadily build a community that was so remarkably united that it captured the attention and favor of the surrounding world (see Acts 6:1-7; Gal. 2:11-14; Acts 2:42-47).
The gospel of Christ highlights many of the principles that are essential to this kind of genuine community:
- All people, regardless of any distinguishing characteristic, are made in the image of God (Gen. 1:26).
- God is the designer and builder of every human being; it is he who assigns each of us our race, gender and gifts—and even our human deficiencies—so that we can be channels of his grace and power (Ps. 139:13-16; Exod. 4:10-11; 2Cor. 12:7-10).
- All of us have sinned and fallen short of God’s design for us; our beliefs, emotions, and thoughts, as well as our prejudicial attitudes, words and actions toward God and one another, are all tainted by sin (Rom. 3:23).
- God sent his Son, Jesus Christ, into the world, to pay for our sins by dying in our place on the cross and to give us new life through his resurrection (John 3:16; Rom. 5:6-11).
- Having been delivered out of the dominion of darkness (including the sin of prejudice and racism), God has brought us into the kingdom of his Son (Col. 1:13), where we are all adopted as dearly loved sons and daughters, regardless of our distinguishing characteristics (Gal. 3:26-29; Gal. 4:4-7).
- As God’s chosen, holy, and beloved children, we are called to imitate his love by treating one another with “compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience” (Col. 3:12), to discern and value our God-given diversity (1 Cor. 12:12-20), and to display a unity that shows the world the reality of Jesus’ redeeming grace (Col. 3:13-17; John 17:20-23).
Practical Steps You and I Can Take Today
These spiritual truths require a concrete response on our part. Although the events in Ferguson were fueled by many factors, including social, cultural, and political differences (which I believe some people deliberately distorted for selfish ends), there can be no doubt that racism was a primary factor in many people’s minds. Here are a few suggestions about what you and I can do to address that particular factor, beginning today.
- Ask God to open our eyes to our own personal blind spots, prejudices, and racial sins (Ps. 139:23). Then we need to resolve to push against our inclination to gravitate toward people of our own race and consciously seek conversation, understanding, and friendship outside our familiar circles.
- More specifically, we can pray that God would bring to mind any time we treated another person disrespectfully because of their race or any other characteristic God gave them. If we can find that person, we should go and confess our sin and ask for their forgiveness (James 5:16).
- Weep with those who weep, and mourn with those who mourn (Rom. 12:15). Michael Brown’s parents have experienced one of the greatest blows a human can know: the death of their child. Regardless of the circumstances surrounding his death, their pain is normal and excruciating. We need to reflect on that. To imagine how we would feel if we were in their place. Then we need to pray for them. If you are not moved to tears, then ask God to forgive you for your hard heart and to give you the compassion of Christ (John 11:32-36).
- Pray for Officer Darren Wilson. Whether his actions were justifiable or not (only he and God know for sure), he has done something God did not design any of us to do: he has taken a human life. That is a painful burden to bear. Like every police officer or soldier who has done the same, even if justified, he will carry this memory the rest of his life.
- Pray for repentance, confession, forgiveness, and reconciliation to liberate the Browns, Officer Wilson, and others from the bondage of a life-time of bitterness.
- Pray for the thousands of other families who are impacted by the same societal dynamics that have fueled the events at Ferguson. Even though progress has been made in recent decades, the vestiges of racial inequality continue to haunt our land. Subtle and overt racism, family breakdown, educational and economic barriers, higher crime rates, and higher rates of arrest, incarceration, and killing within the Black community are systemic issues that grieve the heart of God and undermine a civil society.
- In particular, pray that God will give people grace to stop pointing at the logs in other people’s eyes and to humbly seek to see the specks in their own eyes (Matt. 7:1-5). Blaming others immobilizes us; seeing ourselves as responsible human beings who, by God’s grace, can change our choices, invigorates us.
- Pray that God would mute the voices and actions of those who would use these events for their own personal advantage, whether political or otherwise, and amplify the voices of those who are holding forth a message of wisdom, non-violence, and hope, such as Martin Luther King, III, Dr. Alveda King and Darryl Davis.
- Step out of your comfort zone and listen to people who view these issues from a perspective that may be dramatically different from your own, such as Thabiti Anyabwile, Joy DeGruy, Tim Wise, and Anne Bradden. I disagree with some of what these people have written or said, but I still benefited greatly by trying to see the world through their eyes. Their writings exposed more of my own blind spots, naivete, and sinful attitudes, and helped me to gain a little better understanding of what it feels like to live as a member of a minority race in our country. But I still have a lot of growing to do …
- Urge your pastor to preach on these issues and to lead your church in prayer for those who are suffering under these burdens (see this excellent example). Invite a Christian leader of another color to visit your church and speak on these issues from a different perspective.
- Contact your local police department with a personal visit or note. Commend those officers who have dedicated and often risked their lives to protect our communities. At the same time, encourage your local officials to improve their training on racial engagement and the de-escalation of violence, and to focus additional resources on preventing crime (see this powerful TED talk) and on the promising concept of community policing.
- Make a commitment to improving your ability to exercise empathy, compassion, and consolation (see Seven Steps to Empathy) and to teaching empathy to your children (see Raising Empathetic Children). It takes serious effort over a long period of time to develop these qualities, but they are essential to seeing life through others’ eyes and building authentic understanding and relationship.
In short, we all need to exercise a much greater level of relational wisdom as we face these challenging but surmountable issues.
Specifically, we need greater God-awareness so we can understand his design and intentions for our racial diversity and how the gospel reveals a path to healing and reconciliation, both with God and one another.
Each of us also needs a higher level of self-awareness, both to see our own unique giftedness and calling, as well as to face and battle our hidden prejudices.
Finally, we need God’s help to become more other-aware: to see and celebrate the differences God has built into the human race, to understand the struggles and burdens that those differences sometimes bring to others, and to personally act to alleviate that suffering, fight injustice, and love others as Christ has loved us.
I know these steps are only a beginning, yet for many of us they will still be challenging. But if 12-year-old Devonte and Sgt. Barnum can reach across this divide, so can we.
– Ken Sande
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© 2014 Ken Sande
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