What You Can Do About Racial Tensions

What You Can Do About Racial Tensions

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As I watched the George Floyd memorial service this afternoon, I was grieved more than ever by his tragic death, the loss that his family is feeling, and by the fact that thousands of people continue to feel deep pain and fear because of the ongoing racial, social and cultural tensions in our land. These tensions are vividly summarized in an email I received from a ministry friend.

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. I’ve been followed by store clerks. I’ve been called a black b—- by a white man for driving 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 predominantly Anglo church in the heart of the Bible belt 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 recent demonstrators 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 of another Black man’s death 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 graciousness this woman has modeled. I doubt I would respond this well to such treatment. Would you?

I was equally convicted as I watched the video included at the end of this blog in which children describe how they have been taught to cope with their fear of mistreatment by police officers. Here’s what one little girl had learned to say: “I’m Ariel Sky Williams. I’m eight years old. I’m unarmed and I have nothing that will hurt you.”

I had tears in my eyes as I watched this video. I’ve never had a negative experience with a police officer in my life, so I never felt the need to teach my children such words. It breaks my heart that other parents and children have had such painfully different experiences.

Clearly, I still have much to learn about how other people have experienced life. Perhaps you do too. So I offer the following thoughts as a way to follow the example of the people who are striving to model love and grace during these turbulent times.

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, ethnicity, 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. 4:8-11). 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., while other churches championed abolition. State-sanctioned doctrines of racial superiority fueled World War II, leading to the deaths of over fifty million people.

Although most western societies now renounce overt racism, various forms of prejudice still taint our daily lives today. Scientific research shows that people naturally notice others and interact with them not only on the basis of race but also of gender, social and economic status and physical appearance.

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 Miroslav Volf, a witness to the genocide in Bosnia and Serbia, points out in his landmark book, Exclusion and Embrace, “Our identities, whether it’s race and ethnicity, gender, religion, socio-economics … becomes the basis of excluding others. This is not about identity politics, although that’s a subset. This is about understanding the concept of ‘otherness.'”

Volf traces this problem back to Genesis 4, which records the first murder in the Bible. As he said in a recent podcast:

“For whatever reasons Abel’s offering was deemed more acceptable. The other person (Cain) felt threatened. And the response was not, let’s figure out how do we readjust our identity, how we think about ourselves, how do we embrace one another? The response was, let’s go out in the field. The response was, you cannot exist. If I’m going to preserve my own identity and sense of myself. ”

Throughout millennia, this has been the foundation of conflicts, this rivalry between “Us” and “Them.” The dehumanizing, the belittling and the killing of our ‘brothers,” are manifestations of this malady.

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 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 diverse and yet 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 and part of the global “human race” (Gen. 1:26).
  • God is the designer and builder of every human being; it is he who assigns each of us our racial background, 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; 2 Cor. 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).
  • In his great love for us, 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, 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 differing characteristics (Gal. 3:26-29; Gal. 4:4-7).
  • As God’s chosen, holy and beloved children, we are called to turn from our sins (including the sins of prejudice and racism), to imitate his love by treating one another with “compassion, kindness, humility, meekness and patience” (Col. 3:12), to discern, value and use our God-given diversity for the common good (1 Cor. 12:12-20) and to display a unity across all distinguishing lines that shows the world the reality of Jesus’ redeeming and unifying 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 turmoil in our country is fueled by many factors, including social, cultural and political differences, at this point in time racism is a primary factor in many people’s minds. Here are a few suggestions about what you and I can do to address this particular factor … beginning today.

Note: these suggestions are by no means comprehensive, but if each of us could make some personal progress in a few of these areas, our churches and communities might be in a better position to work together to pursue further progress.

  • Ask God to open your eyes to your own personal blind spots, prejudices and racial sins (Ps. 139:23). Resolve to push against your inclination to gravitate toward people of your own racial, ethnic or economic group and consciously seek conversation, understanding and friendship outside your familiar circles. Move beyond superficial conversation by encouraging others to candidly describe life experiences and perspectives that are different from yours.
  • Pray that God would give you courage to take personal action when you witness unjust or discriminatory behavior. George Floyd would be alive today if just one of the three other officers present on the scene (Asian, Latino and African American) had taken action when they heard George say, “I can’t breathe.” Our personal failure to act in similar situations contributes to countless human tragedies and stains us with the same culpability that marked Saul when he stood by as Stephen was being stoned (Acts 7:58).
  • Weep with those who weep and mourn with those who mourn (Rom. 12:15). George Floyd’s family has experienced one of the greatest blows humans can ever know, the loss of a loved one through an act of violence. Their pain is excruciating. We need to reflect on that. To imagine how we would feel if we were in their place. If you are not grieved by their loss, ask God to forgive you for your hard heart and to give you the compassion of Christ, who wept when others wept (John 11:32-36).
  • We should weep and grieve in the same way for the many other people who are being hurt or killed during these demonstrations, especially for those who are placing themselves in harm’s way to keep others from harm.
  • Pray for former officer Derek Chauvin. He has done something God did not design any of us to do: he has taken a human life. Whatever legal consequence he justly experiences, the guilt of killing another man is a burden he will have to bear on his conscience for the rest of his life. Pray that God would give him grace to turn to Christ, repent and grieve deeply over his sin and confess it to the Floyd family.
  • Pray for the Floyd family and all those who have lost loved ones in similar situations and in the recent riots, asking God to give them grace to find freedom and peace through forgiveness.
  • Pray that God would give all of us the humility, courage and wisdom to fight against the societal dynamics that fuel these kinds of tragic events. 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,fatherless homes, educational and economic barriers, higher crime rates and higher rates of arrest, incarceration and killing within the Black community are 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 specks in other people’s eyes and to humbly seek to see the logs 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 or to incite violence, and that he would amplify the voices of those who are holding forth a message of wisdom, non-violence and hope, such as Dr. Bernice King (daughter of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.),  Dr. Alveda King and Darryl Davis.
  • Step out of your comfort zone and actively seek out perspectives that differ substantially from what you have experienced or believed (see, e.g., articles and books by people like Anne Bradden, and movies like Amistad, Best of Enemies , Just Mercy, Same Kind of Different as Me and 42 (Jackie Robinson). We all benefit  by trying to see the world through different eyes, even if we don’t agree with all of those perspectives. Writings and movies like these can expose our blind spots, naivete and sinful attitudes, and help us to gain a better understanding of what it feels like to live as a member of a minority in our country.
  • Urge your pastor to preach on these issues and to lead your church in prayer for those who are suffering under these burdens. Invite a Christian leader of another color to visit your church and speak on these issues from a different perspective.
  • Support your local law enforcement realistically and avoid painting all officers with a single brush … just as we should avoid judging any group by the actions of a few. As one police chief has observed, “There are three kinds of police officers: great officers who do their job well every day and deserve our appreciation and support; good officers who make mistakes and need to be taught how to become great officers; and bad officers who need to be identified and quickly removed from the force.” Recognizing these distinctions, take action to encourage the great officers in your community (like this one, this one and these ones). Send a note to your local police department commending those officers who work diligently and sacrificially every day to protect your family and community. When you see an officer on duty or having a meal, take a moment to walk over and express your appreciation for his or her service to your community. At the same time, take action to encourage your local law enforcement officials to continue seeking ways to improve training on racial engagement and the de-escalation of violence, and to focus additional resources on proven strategies to enhance non-discriminatory law enforcement (as vividly advocated in this powerful TED talk).
  • Challenge political candidates and leaders to move beyond empty slogans and promises and to commit to and pursue concrete actions that can bring about genuine and lasting changes in the social, political, educational, legal and economic patterns that perpetuate prejudice.
  • Seek to improve your ability to exercise empathy and compassion toward other people (see Seven Steps to Empathy) and teach your children to do the same (see Raising Empathetic Children). It takes deliberate practice 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. As a starting point, watch this video with your children or with friends and discuss how these children and parents have felt as they cope with their lack of confidence in American law enforcement.

  • As you improve your God-given capacity for empathy and compassion, keep reading and listening to others for more accurate insights on these issues, and seek opportunities to engage in humble and meaningful conversations about the deeper spiritual, social and family issues that perpetuate prejudice and impede the social and economic advancement of all segments of our society (see Phil. 2:1-11). To improve the skills needed for these types of conversations, make time to go through our Discovering Relational Wisdom 3.0 course (which is available for free until June 14).
  • Most importantly, ask God to give you grace to share the gospel of Christ more openly and frequently, because it is only through a renewed heart that any of us can sincerely live out the steps outlined above and love our neighbors–all of our neighbors–as we love ourselves. For a summary of how the gospel can inspire and guide us in improving our relational skills, see RW and the Gospel. For practical guidance on how to bring the gospel to bear on racial issues, see Bloodlines: Race, Cross and the Christian, by John Piper.

In summary, 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 in order 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 each of us would seriously pursue the changes God has given us the power to make in our own lives, we could find greater unity in spirit and purpose as we work together to make even greater progress on these issues. May God make it so.

– Ken Sande

This is a video of a sermon I delivered this past weekend based on this blog post.

In the light of the enormous relational stress created by the COVID-19 crisis and ongoing racial tensions, we are continuing to offer our online training for free until June 14. We’ve already given away $180,000 worth of training, which has been approved for continuing education in several professions. For details, click here.

Reflection: I encourage you to share this post with a few close friends, asking them to make time to read the post and linked articles carefully. Then get together to discuss these matters thoughtfully and honestly, admitting your weaknesses and failures in these areas and committing to ways that each of you will seek to apply some of these principles in the days ahead.

Permission to distribute: Please feel free to download, print, or electronically share this message in its entirety for non-commercial purposes with as many people as you like.

© 2020 Ken Sande

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