As we drove through a small town one evening, in what would be described by many as the “heart of the Midwest,” we passed by a police car that appeared to be looking for speeding drivers. The county highway had a significant change in speed limit and I’m sure many people were caught and issued tickets if they weren’t paying attention to that change. We, however, were paying close attention.
As we slowly passed that police car, the officer pulled out behind us and followed us for a few blocks. I recall not experiencing any fear, anxiety, or concern. The others who were with me, however, immediately sat up and made sure that they had their seat belts on (they did) and I could tell they were worried.
After coming to a full stop and turning right as we followed the county highway, the lights went on and I pulled over and prepared to provide the officer with my license, registration, and proof of insurance. The officer eventually made his way to my window, after shining his flashlight a lot at the passengers, took a look at my license (which was from the same state we were in), and then began asking the passengers in the vehicle where they were from.
You see, my passengers were all people of color. Three African Americans and one Latino. Over the next hour, and after three other police cars showed up, it was made very clear that my friends did not belong in that town and as we stood outside our vehicle and watched as the police officers looked for the drugs that they were “positive” and “sure” we had, I was took aside by one of the officers and told that I shouldn’t be hanging out with the others because they were trouble makers.
Let’s back up. From 1999 until 2005 I spent a significant part of those days touring across the United States as a hip hop artist signed to Syntax Records. As a white emcee in a predominantly black culture, I often found myself in situations where I was regularly around people of color and witnessed first-hand the type of racism that seems to now be front and center before mainstream America.
Returning to that evening where the five of us were standing on the side of the road, I remember clearly just how embarrassed, angry, and frustrated my friends were. No matter how respectful and cooperative we were, the barrage of insults and prejudices on display continued.
Finally, after all of our property was emptied onto the side of the road, the police officers said we could leave and left us. They left us with all of our property strung out on the side of the road. Our clothing, several crates of vinyl records, two turntables (and a microphone!), and any sense of pride or value that my friends had… all left on the side of the road.
I distinctly remember feeling wronged and could NOT believe what had just happened. But as we drove off, continuing our tour, I was given a full summary of how often that had happened to those men. I only knew of such activity and corruption via music and movies; they knew it from personal experience. And for about six years of touring and being deeply rooted in an African American cultural expression known as hip hop, I can tell you that I saw literally hundreds of instances of racism.
And this past week, millions of us watched a murder take place right in front of our eyes. And it was not the first time.
Let that sink in.
For the past few days we’ve seen thousands of people protesting the murder of George Floyd and dozens of cities across the United States have experienced violent and destructive rioting by radical Left and Right groups. Along with millions of others, I am grieved and have been in prayer. I have been praying for the kingdom of God to reign and for the Lord to bring healing.
But I also need to speak up about some things that are weighing heavy on my heart and because after hours of prayer, I clearly sensed the heart of God and the prompting of the Spirit to write.
The increasing divide that exists between people, based on differing religious, political, social, and cultural ideals, is one that demands we take time to work hard at listening and to take special care in how we communicate. I am still convinced that knowledge is power and I’m also convinced that those who are willing to humble themselves and listen will be rewarded with a better understanding of the world and how to make a deeper impact. And I must say that I feel especially inspired by the Holy Spirit to make some things clear and I hope you will take the time to hear me out. This may be a longer piece, but if you respect me at all or want a better understanding of where a lot of people are at, I think this may be helpful.
Racism is Real.
It seems obvious that racism is still a problem, but I think we need to make it clear that for many, many, MANY people, racism is a part of their regular life. They experience the injustices of a system that is rigged, and they constantly have an uphill battle. And what’s more is this: I’ve never met anyone who thinks that they are racist. We all think we aren’t racist and that it’s everyone else. And that’s why you’ll hear or read people say things like the following: “I’m not racist! I had a black friend in college” or “My wife is Mexican so I’m obviously not a racist” or “I don’t see the color of people’s skin.”
None of these statements, of course, mean that someone doesn’t have views or opinions that aren’t influenced by a worldview that prioritizes certain ethnic groups over others. And I think it’s increasingly important to point out that when we don’t speak up, we are guilty. If we witness people experiencing institutional, systemic, or social racism and we do not say anything, we need to come to full awareness that we are leaving that person to face the pain, embarrassment, and injustice all along.
And listen, the evil of racism has been around for a very, very long time. It’s roots are literally weaved into the fabric of our society. Erica Buddington recently put on Twitter one of the most important history lessons you could ever read. Erica’s tour de force calls our attention so many instances of black people being killed for the color of their skin that it litereally made me sick reading. For example:
- the Cincinnati Riots of 1829 where hundreds of white rioters attacked black people in order to get them to leave their city;
- the NYC Draft Riots of 1863 where over 119 black people were murdered for the color of the skin;
- the Memphis massacre of 1866 where 46 black peole were killed, 100 robbed, and 5 black women raped. Oh, and 91 homes, 4 churches, and 8 schools were burned down (which, to be clear, were all of the black homes, churches, and schools);
Erica’s thread goes on and on. And even sitting with that makes me so sad and angry I need to take a moment to collect myself. Add to that list George Floyd, murdered right before our eyes.
*taking some deep breaths and praying for the Holy Spirit’s continued guidance*
Here’s my point. As we look back into our history, we must come to terms with the fact that America’s first and original sin is racism. I mean, the way that we tell the story of how American came to be generally is something like this: “After the Americas were discovered, some really great Christians known as Pilgrims came here in search of freedom of religion.”
But there’s a problem with this narrative. As Mark Charles writes,
“You cannot discover lands already inhabited. That process is known as stealing, conquering, or colonizing. The fact that America calls what Columbus did ‘discovery’ reveals the implicit racial bias of the country—that Native Americans are not fully human.”(Unsettling Truths)
This country came about because white people stole land from the previous inhabitants, made treaties with those same people (and constantly broke those treaties) for more of their land, and then built the economy on the backs and graves of slaves. These are historical facts.
So before we continue, you need to understand that the systemic injustices and institutional oppressions that have been so prevalent throughout our history went on for a very long time and the effects are so deeply ingrained in society that most of us don’t even realize they exist.
And that’s why we need to humbly listen. And that’s why we need to unashamedly declare that #BlackLivesMatter and NOT respond to that with the red herring #AllLivesMatter. The reason why we need to say that #BlackLivesMatter is precisely because all human beings matter. The assumption that declaring the beauty and value of black people suggests that white people or police officer’s lives don’t matter is simply ridiculous. The ongoing oppression and racism violently perpetrated against African Americans demands followers of Jesus to take a stand for their lives in the same way that many Christians took a stand for the lives of Jews during the Nazi’s demonic commitment toward destroying the Jewish race. Imagine if someone in 1941 said, “Jewish lives matter” and your response was “Well all lives matter.” Of course all lives matter! That’s why we needed to specifically declare that Jewish lives matter!!!Imagine if someone in 1941 said, “Jewish lives matter” and your response was “Well all lives matter.” Of course all lives matter! That’s why we needed to specifically declare that Jewish lives matter!!! Click To Tweet
People of Color Have Something to Say.
So I have really struggled with whether or not to write this piece because I know that for many people, the cultural idols are so strong that they have completely lost the ability to weigh differing ideas and perspectives. For example, when I express my dislike for the tone and some of the policies of the presidency of Trump, the common assumption is that I’m (1) a Clinton supporter, (2) must not care about abortion, (3) don’t believe in the freedom of religion or speech, and (3) must be a “progressive liberal Democrat.”
Nope… try again.
It’s similar to how it may be easy for some to assume that because I believe that corrupt police officers should be prosecuted to the full extent of the law and should be held accountable, I don’t value the overwhelming amount of police officers who are serving their communities and trying to protect people from the “bad guys.” Nothing could be further from my mind. I have numerous friends who are amazing police officers and who are excellent examples of the type of law enforcement that communities need. Those brave women and men, both white, black, Latino, and Asian, make a huge difference in their communities. Though I wish many of them would be a bit quicker to condemn police brutality, I know that the suggestion that all police officers are corrupt is simply ridiculous. But there is definitely something wrong and there is a systemic issue within the very center of our society’s being. Many that get classified as “bad guys” because of the color of their skin are, in fact, not.
At any rate, we can’t remain silent. We must declare over and over and over again how God’s kingdom is a kingdom that is rooted toward the oppressed and that God’s heart is for ethnic reconciliation and that black lives matter! This is a gospel / kingdom issue.
So we need to listen. We need to read. We need to understand that white supremacy is evil and we need to also understand that this ideology has been woven deeply into the soul of America. We need to also SPEAK UP and DO SOMETHING in order to make a difference. We need to wrestle with “white fragility” and why we struggle with talking about race. We need to understand that if we actually read and understand the full work of Martin Luther King Jr., we might not be so willing to celebrate his holiday. After all, MLK said, “A riot is the language of the unheard.” So we need to ask ourselves, “What is it we haven’t heard?” And again, I do not condone the use of violence or believe that looting and burning down buildings, many of which are owned by immigrants and people of color, is helpful. But we do, I think, need to understand the angst of society.
Moreover, we need to take seriously the kingdom of God and come to terms with the fact that the kingdom of God has not arrived until justice is experienced for one and all. This is made explicitly clear in the Hebrew Scriptures, with the prophet Isaiah declaring that the Lord loves justices (Isaiah 61:8), the prophet Jeremiah declaring that God practices justice (Jeremiah 9:24), and Amos indicating that God’s kingdom longs for justice to “roll down like waters” (Amos 5:24). When Jesus taught us to pray, “Let your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven,” we need to understand that followers of Jesus must pray for the justice and freedom of God’s kingdom to come and be established here on earth.
Quite frankly, we need to wake up. As Eric Mason writes,
“… the gospel strengthens us through the Spirit to see things in our society that others do not. We are called, as the people of God, to wake up. To see what others don’t and call it out. The church in America is not awake to the reality of what is happening in communities across this nation, and we are missing out on our calling to shine the light into these places of darkness for Christ’s glory.”(Woke Church)
Friends, let me remind you that our allegiance, as followers of Jesus, is to King Jesus and his kingdom. Throughout history, Christians have been willing to die for that truth and we need to understand that for many of us, we have been blinded by what can only be adequately described as cultural idols.
I know that stings.
But something is deeply wrong when we are willing to ignore the stories and cries of millions of people simply because of the color of their skin. Something is painfully amiss if we are complicity and remain silent about the injustices that occur around us. And we need to understand that while we may think that being “colorblind” is helpful, people of color find this extremely unhelpful, demeaning, and patronizing. As Sarah Shin notes,
“Colorblindness, though well intentioned, is inhospitable. Colorblindness assumes that we are similar enough and that we all only have good intentions, so we can avoid our differences.”(Beyond Colorblind)
So if you want to be hospitable… if you want to a better neighbor…. if you want to learn… listen to the stories and opinions from people of color.
And let me be clear, people of color do not owe you an explanation, so please do not expect them to be willing to answer every single question you have about race. In my experience, many are very happy to help in the context of friendship, but it might be better if you just pick up some of these books and get started on the important and hard work of rooting out any and all signs of prejudice, racism, and evil that may be implicit or explicit in your thinking and actions!
The Cross of Christ & Sacraments as Protest & Vindication.
Years ago, a famous fundamentalist Baptist theologian and seminary president stated that Harriet Tubman, the famous American abolitionist, civil rights activist, and underground railroad rescuer, should have obeyed her slave masters and was sinning by not submitting to her masters. While that theologian later realized just how stupid his comments were, the fact that a person with a PhD in theology could misinterpret the Bible so poorly should cause us to pause and consider the fact that we may also make similar mistakes, both in how we interpret the Bible and how we apply Scripture.
So what is the gospel about? What does the Cross of Christ teach us? The Cross convincingly demonstrates that God sought to free all humans from the shackles of all oppression. The gospel of the kingdom vindicates those who have been enslaved to sin and darkness and calls us to seek the freedom and well-being of all other humans. Many followers of Jesus seem to have bought into a gnostic platonic dualism worldview that seems to say that the only freedom that matters is spiritual. But this reading of Scripture is informed by a level of privilege that the majority of the world does not have. And we need to repent of it and invite the Spirit to transform us and renew us and re-center us on a better and more eternal ethical framework!
And these are a few of the reasons why we celebrate the Eucharist. When we raise the Bread and Cup, we re-center ourselves on the King and Kingdom that demands us to be aware of the intrinsic beauty of all human beings. And because of the fact that black and brown bodies have often been considered and treated as ugly, I want to remind you of the intrinsic beauty of black people, brown people, and all people of color. Created in the image of God, every one of them, we must declare these truths. Christianity is about siding with the oppressed, not the cultural idols. Following Jesus demands compassionate empathy for those who have been seized with a depth of brokenness we cannot know. White privilege does not mean that white people do not suffer; rather, white privilege means that we do not suffer due to the color of our skin.
White America’s Inconsistencies.
So here’s why I actually had to lay it all out there. For the past few weeks I’ve watched as people I love and value share things on social media supporting white people showing up on state capital buildings with guns because governors have “taken away freedom,” all while decrying African Americans from protesting the numerous injustices they have experienced.
I’ve watched as people have shared numerous articles outlying how their freedoms have been oppressed and how unconstitutional the government’s regulations have been due to the COVID-19 global pandemic. Some of these people have made suggestions that we should pursue governmental overthrow due to what they believe is government overreach. Yet when people of color protest the hundreds of years of injustices they have faced as a people, which are felt by their community as a whole, they are told they are being excessive or need to calm down and that they shouldn’t be so angry.
If we can’t call that inconsistent, let’s just call it what it is – stupid and sinful. In fact, it’s an example of the implicit racism that exists in the thinking of so many of us.
We can’t tell people that riots and violence are never the answer while encouraging people several weeks ago to participate in the Liberty Fest. You can’t tell people protesting is wrong while celebrating the Revolutionary War, often connected to a clear and explicit white-washing of history. Remember how it was a bunch of Colonists who dressed up like Native Americans (so that the British would take their vengeance on those people created in God’s image) and rioted and eventually protested via the use of force against what they believed to be unfair governmental control? We need to seriously wrestle with why we find some acts of violence okay and others are not. And by the way… Jesus got pretty physical when he overturned tables and I think most of us would agree that Jesus had a good and just reason to do so, right?
And to be clear, I’m not condoning violence at all. I’m simply acknowledging the same thing that Martin Luther King Jr. did… protesting and rioting is how people who feel unheard eventually try and get other people in power’s attentions. I should also note that I am not connecting the protests to the radical left and right groups who are simply carrying out looting for the sake of looting.
By the way…Jesus was and is not white. He is a middle eastern person of color. He is not American, not a Republican or Democrat, and consistently stood with the marginalized and oppressed. Click To Tweet
I realize this is long and I haven’t even said everything I want to say. I also know that, like me, you may have more questions than answers. But I sure hope we don’t ignore the fact that in the past month we have watched with our own eyes black men murdered. I don’t care if Auhmad Aubrey and George Floyd were both guilty of the crimes they were accused of or were Muslims or were late on their taxes… their murder and the lack of immediate attention was / is unjust and is indicative of a societal breakdown, political corruption, and a deep and dark cultural idol.
Let me say this as clearly as I can: God deeply loves every single human being, no matter the color of their skin.
So I pray. I speak up. I grieve. And I long for the day where God’s kingdom, the teachings of Jesus, and the Church will impact the world in a way to bring an end to this evil.
Luke is a pastor-theologian living in northern California, serving as a co-lead pastor with his life, Dawn, at the Red Bluff Vineyard. Father of five amazing kids, when Luke isn’t hanging with his family, reading or writing theology, he moonlights as a fly fishing guide for Confluence Outfitters. He blogs regularly at LukeGeraty.com and regularly contributes to his YouTube channel.