The obvious tragedy of August’s “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville was the reminder that overt, Jim Crow-style racism still exists in our country.
There are still those who believe people of color should occupy a secondary status in the United States. Some still believe that European-descended whiteness is the gold standard for human existence and are willing to take up torches to illuminate this alleged fact.
And, let’s be honest, Charlottesville revealed that there are still those who would lynch a black man in the town square if we all decided to look the other way.
But this event, and others like it, comes with a second, less visible tragedy, which is that it lures us into believing that racism in America is a simple, easy-to-solve issue that involves Good People vs. Bad People.
The Bad People are those with torches screaming about White Supremacy; the Good People are everyone else. (Granted, there is a small subjection of those who believe there were good people with torches in Charlottesville, but I’ll leave that for another day.)
This trap makes us think that if we just stand on the correct side of the racist divide and get the few remaining on the wrong side to come on over to the other side, then racism will successfully be defeated in our country.
This is a tragedy because it leaves some very difficult work left undone.
Good People vs. Bad People?
It ignores the reality that racism isn’t just about Good People vs. Bad People, but that it is an ingredient baked into the cake of our history.
Because of this, many of us “Good People” are just as culpable for White Supremacy continuing to be prevalent as the “Bad People” who preach White Supremacy as a creed. We dismiss cries for justice for police brutality against young, black men as something that is the fault of young, black men, but then scoff at the suggestion that we still have some racist tendencies.
We blame poverty and violence in poor black communities on the absence of a traditional family yet shield our eyes from the fact that mass incarceration of black men in our country (for crimes that get white men mere citations) has kept fathers out of families for generations.
But we are nice and love everyone, so what’s the big deal?
We are on the right side of the line that divides the Good People with hugs from the Bad People with torches, so keep your “racism is systemic and structural” mumbo jumbo to yourself and leave us alone.
I’m reminded here of a quote from Sister Helen Prejean: “Being kind in an unjust system is not enough.”
I would add that it is even more insufficient if we deny that our system is unjust. In fact, it would probably be better if we were unkind in an unjust system than to be kind in a just one, because at least then we know where everyone stands. For those who follow Jesus, it is easier to convert someone from hate to love than it is from denial and self-preservation to belief that there is a problem, and we are part of it.
The times are tumultuous, and the world needs congregations to speak true peace into the storms that are dividing us. This peace obviously isn’t going to come from our leaders in the highest human offices, who would rather make cries for justice an issue of patriots vs. non-patriots and standing vs. kneeling than to take up the hard, long work of dismantling unjust systems that took centuries to build up.
We’ve also seen that it will not come from the Evangelical leaders who have risen to prominence as enablers of this mindset.
It will only come from those following Jesus who stop along the pathway and actually listen to those crying for justice and — this is the important part — take them at their word.
Because I’ve never known Jesus, either in the written biblical text or in my own experience with him, look someone in the eye who has been pushed to the margins of society crying for help and healing and say, “I don’t believe you,” or, “It’s your fault.” He approached every hurting person with a hermeneutic of compassion and belief.
‘An evil ink’
I’m not Calvinist or Reformed in the broad (or even particular) sense of the word, and I have often had Calvinist theology in my crosshairs over the years. I have had a tenuous relationship with what we call “Evangelicalism” for some time. But it is in some of these corners of the body of Christ where the most difficult work is being done with regards to systemic and structural racism.
I’m thinking specifically of pastors John Piper and Matt Chandler, as well as writers and preachers such as Beth Moore. These are not historically people whose quotes show up in my social media feeds often, but they have been courageous and bold in confessing that racism is not simply about Good People and Bad People but about an evil ink that is in the water we are all swimming in. I may not agree with all their conclusions or suppositions, but I am challenged and encouraged by their voices.
‘We believe you’
Like women who have recently spoken or written the painful confession “#MeToo,” which demands us all to take notice, it is the duty of every person who claims the good, compassionate news of Jesus to respond with, “We believe you.”
When people of color gather to protest the senseless murder of young black men at the hands of law enforcement, the response of our churches has to be, “We believe you.”
When athletes decide to take a knee during a ritualistic practice of the empire to say, “Hey, LISTEN to us!” every last Evangelical leader needs to be kneeling down in front of them, looking in their eyes, declaring, “We believe you.”
And the response to learning about the concepts of white privilege should never be one of defense or shock, but a simple, humble, “We believe you.”
It’s time for us to lay our swords of defense down and be agents of peace. But we are going to have to walk through some uncomfortable feelings and conversations that don’t feel very peaceful before that peace is realized.
May we be humble and courageous enough to do this difficult work.
Craig Nash grew up in Chandler, Texas, and is a graduate of East Texas Baptist University and Baylor’s George W. Truett Theological Seminary. He has lived in Waco since 2000, where he works for Baylor and attends University Baptist Church. If he were any more Baptist, he would need a committee on committees to help him decide who will help him make major life decisions.