Intro: silent prophets.
In seminary I took an Old Testament class where the professor assigned a book by MLK jr. The idea was to see how Biblical Prophecy tended to be more about forth-telling than fore-telling.1 And by anyone’s standards, MLK jr was a pretty good modern day example of the former.
Later in the semester, the professor decided to hold a discussion on race. The problem was that once the professor opened up the floor, an awkward silence gripped the room. The vast majority of the class was white.
Looking back, I think my biggest takeaway is that for a lot of white folks, race is simply an uncomfortable topic.
And on that point, I sympathize a little with them.
No Christian leader (seminarian or otherwise) wants to be accused of being a racist any more than they would want to be accused of being a heretic. Furthermore, an accusation of racism can often be a conversation stopper for which little defense can be easily mounted.
And when you couple this with the fact that many white folk, even if only subconsciously, feel the weight of white culpability over minority suffering (i.e. white guilt), it makes sense why it’s easier for a lot of white folks to simply avoid the conversation. At least that has been my experience with many conservative white people.
The problem with this is pretty obvious. Unless we talk, openly and often about this, it’s never going to get solved.
Racial Tensions are getting worse, not better.
In 2016, polling was done by Washington Post, ABCnews, The NYtimes, and CBSnews. Each one of these outlets found that a majority of people (Pew reports 63%) see race relations in the US as bad and getting worse.
The election of Donald Trump to the presidency has certainly not helped things in this regard. It can’t be denied that his presidency has galvanized and emboldened actual racist elements in our society, worsening the country’s already bad racial tensions.2
Racism is a sin. And like all sins, it doesn’t simply go away with time or neglect. Doing nothing actually exacerbates the problem.
The problem with doing nothing.
In 1963, MLK jr wrote A Letter From a Birmingham Jail, in which he voiced his disappointment with the silence and inaction of non-black clergy on racial justice. Here is one excerpt:
“We will have to repent in this generation not merely for the hateful words and actions of the bad people but for the appalling silence of the good people. Human progress never rolls in on wheels of inevitability; it comes through the tireless efforts of men willing to be co workers with God, and without this hard work, time itself becomes an ally of the forces of social stagnation. We must use time creatively, in the knowledge that the time is always ripe to do right. Now is the time to make real the promise of democracy and transform our pending national elegy into a creative psalm of brotherhood. Now is the time to lift our national policy from the quicksand of racial injustice to the solid rock of human dignity.”
There are two things I want to glean from this quote. The first is about sin.
One of the underlying principles that was guiding King is that the sin of racial injustice and all other sins work the same way. Sin is more than just breaking rules. It is a kind of pollution or contagious corruption. Like a living sludge, it moves and spreads. To do nothing about it will produce the same result as intentionally trying to make it worse. And so it is with racial injustice.
Secondly, King really believed that the key to winning 1963’s America to the civil rights cause was non-Black (read: white) clergy. In other words, he knew that the Black Rights movement needed White America on its side. And that would only happen if White America had its clergy leading/shepherding them to the “promised land/dream” of a racially shalomic reality.
Why White People?
Following King, I contend White people will have to be a greater impetus towards a solution.
If you are white, please understand that because of your social standing, you have a greater responsibility to address racial problems.
And I’m going to make my case by appealing to Peter’s instructions to Christian husbands in 1 Peter 3:7 about how to live peaceably with their wives.
In 1 Peter 3, Peter exhorts slaves, wives and husbands to behave in accordance with what was acceptable and proper in Greco-Roman society.
But when he gets to husbands, Peter tells them to:
“…live with your wives in an understanding way, showing honor the woman as the weaker vessel, since they are heirs with you of the grace of life, so that your prayers may not be hindered.”
By “weaker vessels”, he means that women live in a world where being physically and socially weaker than men makes them vulnerable to attack…by men.
Peter is saying that men had a responsibility to mitigate the vulnerabilities of the women in their spheres of influence, because they held higher standing. i.e. They were physically stronger and held higher social authority.
To extrapolate and apply this principle to our discussion3, white Christians, by virtue of their social standing, have a responsibility to work for the equality of and mitigate the vulnerabilities of minorities in this country.
Now I know that this can sound like an accusation and indictment of my white brothers and sisters in Christ. I assure you I don’t mean it to be. Instead, I ask that we all move the conversation from being about culpability to responsibility.4
I am not trying to accuse anyone. Instead, I’m trying to urge and motivate my white brothers and sisters to Christian action by taking their responsibility as the ones with higher social standing seriously.
Minorities have responsibilities as well. I’m not suggesting in the least that they do not. But social standing confers higher obligations. We need to acknowledge this and act accordingly.
- This does not mean that the Bible contains no predictive prophecy. It just means that foretelling was generally not the Prophets were trying to do.
- It is not clear which came first. In this vox article, researcher Seth Stephens-Davidowitz, found by studying Google analytics that Trump’s candidacy was accompanied by a tremendous spike in searches with racist sentiments. These analytics are important because they reveal more accurately what people are thinking as people tend to “..tell Google things that they don’t tell to possibly anybody else, things they might not tell to family members, friends, anonymous surveys, or doctors.”
- In context, Peter’s words are about apologetics and not social justice. Hence the ‘extrapolation’.
- This is not to say that we should sugar coat or sanitize the problem for the sake of fragile consciences. As per one writer, “There is nothing gentle about racism and our responses to it don’t warrant subtlety or kindness in return.”