I’ve been thinking a lot about what to share this week. When I was in Atlanta for an Urban Ministries class last January, our conversations were understandably laced with the language of racial injustice. We had the opportunity to visit Martin Luther King Jr’s old church, and the National Historic Park associated with his civil rights work. In Atlanta; with its history of slavery, Jim Crow laws, and red-lining policies that prevented black Americans from purchasing homes; racism inevitably falls along certain lines. The city of Atlanta, along with many regions of the American South, has engaged in a centuries-long struggle to become what Martin Luther King Jr envisioned as “The Beloved Community,” in which—as he famously stated in his “I Have A Dream” speech—people “will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.”
But King’s dream of a world in which character matters and skin color doesn’t remains elusive. As a social construct, racism seems to be as insidious and deeply rooted as it was in King’s day, and it goes far beyond the binary black/white issues most prevalent in cities like Atlanta and Minneapolis. Taken as an isolated incident, George Floyd’s death was tragic and appalling, but framed in a larger context of race relations and policing in Minneapolis specifically and America in general, the response should not surprise us. Sadly, when our societal reaction should be clear and certain, we struggle instead with clarity of message and purpose; peaceful protests mutating into rioting, and police succumbing to the temptation of excessive force. It becomes gut-wrenchingly hard to advocate for racial justice when confronted with the images of rage and destruction and violence—Christ calls us to stand with the oppressed and the marginalized, but not with violence and rage. Supporting the police and submitting to the governing authorities is built into our ethos as Americans, but we also have a long tradition of resisting unjust governments and challenging immoral power—and as we’ve seen, an unfailing moral compass is not always part of the uniform.
Christians absolutely must stand against racism. The Scriptures are exceptionally clear—in Christ there is no Gentile or Jew, no Barbarian or Scythian. Ethnic heritage is real, but as King envisioned, the color of a person’s skin cannot be an excuse for discrimination. And when the status quo is one of entrenched injustice prejudicing one type of person over another because of their race, then to be passive is to be complicit. We must accept this—that doing nothing in the face of injustice is not a Christian option—but we immediately encounter the complexity of our current situation. Christians are also called to peace, and peace is in short supply these days. Christians are not called to bring about change through the violent and coercive use of force—either the force of rioting or the force of rubber bullets and pepper spray. And it is difficult to detangle the righteous from the unrighteous on each side of this conflict. Vengeance is a dangerous weapon, best left in the hands of God.
So what are we left to do, as faithful followers of Jesus, when we want to work for racial justice, but cannot support the violence of protests turned to riots? What do we do when we want to support peace and security in our communities and those many conscientious and compassionate officers who are just trying to do the right thing, when the excessive use of force by police is at the very heart of the matter for so many people of color? Who do we stand with?
We stand with Jesus. Jesus was willing to heal the centurion’s servant in Matthew 8—a centurion who was the physical embodiment of oppressive governmental force. Does that mean that Jesus sided with the oppressor? Jesus heals the daughter of the Syrophoenician woman in Mark 7, an outcast and despised by the Jews because of her race. Does that mean that Jesus nods approvingly at everything done in the name of racial justice? Standing with Jesus often means reaching beyond the corrupted and conflicted politics of an issue and connecting with the people who suffer. Jesus seems to be less concerned with ideology and shallow platitudes than He is with true need. This is not to say that we do nothing on a systemic level, but that we recognize that without changed hearts, changed policies are meaningless.
Sanford Middle School serves the community at the epicenter of violence and destruction in Minneapolis. Every store within walking distance of the school had been damaged and closed, and bus service had been suspended. Sensing the growing need, the administrators of Sanford put out a call to the city, hoping to gather between 85 and 150 grocery kits—a small collection of staples and non-perishable food items that they could then distribute to the children and families who had been cut off by the rioting. They told people to come to the school at 8:30 to drop off the kits, and volunteers would then distribute the kits to homes in the neighborhood. People were lined up before 8:00. Before the end of the day, over 30,000 kits had been dropped off at the school. Cars lined up for miles, block after block. Some arrived in U-haul trucks with trailers. Excess food was distributed around the city.
Even in the heart of destruction, people can stand with Jesus. Whether they were Christians or not, people were standing with Jesus when they overwhelmed Sanford Middle School with donations of food. This was not a protest demanding justice with raised fists, this was not police risking their lives to push back a mob of looters. This was a different form of social change. It was good people, in a bad situation, offering love in a paper bag full of food. Some might argue that this kind of charity is a bandaid over a gaping wound, and they may have a point—even 30,000 bags of groceries is not enough to right all the wrongs in our world. And others might complain that this kind of aid perpetuates a sense of welfare entitlement. But here’s the truth: ideology is fine, but you can’t eat ideology. And Jesus wants people to have food, and to live in safe communities, and be treated with justice and compassion.
Jesus tells His followers that in this world, they will have troubles. There is an inevitability to the struggles of humanity. But this should never be used as an excuse to do nothing to make this world better—God loves it, so we ought to love it, too. The question inevitably is what to do to make it better. Is the best approach a systemic approach that seeks to address the broad, societal problems that confront our culture? Is it to enter relationships with the disadvantaged in our communities, sharing life with them and working to understand and help meet the challenges they may face? We may each be drawn to one approach or the other, but we cannot forget that each is part of God’s redemptive plan—systemic solutions are meaningless without the grass-roots relational healing, and local solutions alone may perpetuate broader patterns of injustice—the bandaid on the gaping wound. What we are called to do is both broadly systemic and intimately personal. But what we do is less important than how we do it. Work for justice, but know that justice is hollow without love and grace and compassion.