Responsibility and Sympathy
A young girl goes to middle school every day. The snacks in her backpack she stole from the corner store that’s on the way to her bus stop. She usually finishes up her last sip of orange juice in first period, right before she takes a nap in class. Not too long ago, she returned to school from being suspended from her second fight this year. This was her fourth suspension. She had also cussed out a teacher and spit in the face of a security guard who pushed her against the lockers to restrain her from another fight. She is pregnant again, but plans to carry this one. Her last one she aborted. She is failing most of her classes, still reads at an elementary level, and is often caught skipping, being picked up by an older lady who is known as a Madam in the community. Her baby’s dad is a drug dealer in high school, and they spend the afternoons smoking a few joints and drinking together.
Clearly this young lady is out of control and drowning in her sin. We know as Christians that from our hearts come forth all kinds of evil. We know we will all be held responsible for our own actions.
What I did not tell you is that this young girl lives in an abandoned home with her cousins and her older brother. She moved in with them after escaping her mother’s house. Growing up, she was fed one meal a day at home and not much of that has changed since she moved with her brother and cousins, but for her it was worth the transition. At her mother’s house, she was exposed to her mom bringing different men into the house who would spend the night and shoot up heroin with her. Some of these guys were allowed to rape this young girl for her mother to receive compensation. Her mother would abuse her physically and verbally for senseless things and neglect her basic needs. Her school was a failing school, with a lack of resources and many teachers who didn’t really care about the children.
Many of you have already assume this young girl is black, or at least dark-skinned, right?
I don’t know what skin color she has, because she is fictional and it is beside my point. This is not a sob story to make you feel bad for her and disregard her sin. This is not even written to make you feel bad for poor children in the inner city. Rather, it is written to make another point. We know that someone could grow up rich, in a clean-cut home, with loving, Christian parents, in a neighborhood with Grade A schools, and still live an unruly lifestyle. We understand that our hearts are prone to evil. However, the principle should be easy to understand, especially for those who believe in covenant theology. Someone who grows up under such oppression and exposed to such wickedness as described above will be prone to more such wickedness themselves. Those who do grow up to be righteous and successful that same degraded environment we could easily call an anomaly. Or, as we Christians would say, “It was the grace of God.” Many would say it is a miracle.
What is my point? It is that, clearly, we understand that the responsibility still stands for the young girl to live righteously, but at the same time, it is not a contradiction to sympathize with her due to her experience. We can sympathize, understanding that there is a snowball effect or a domino effect. Anyone who cannot simultaneously hold her responsible for her sin, and at the same time condemn her oppressors, and understand why she has made the decisions in life she has, is simply not reflecting Christ. Can we preach the Gospel to her and she be saved? For sure. Can she then be sanctified even while continuing to live in the midst of her current environment? For sure. We all know that just because someone gets saved does not mean their environment changes automatically. Just because they cross the bridge to come to church every Sunday in a clean environment does not mean that remains their reality after service.
So, why is hard for Christians to comprehend that the same principle may apply to a community in general—in our context, the black community?
We understand that, clearly, in the black community, there is much violence between blacks, fornication is rampant, abortion is rampant, theft is rampant, drug use rampant, drug dealing is rampant, prostitution is rampant, fatherlessness is rampant etc., etc. We also know that many of these same issues are in white communities as well—some just as much or even more than the black community, although they don’t get much media coverage. Nevertheless, it is clear the black community is broken, and that is not to say that the white community is perfect. We see who is filling up the prisons. We see who is underemployed. We see what schools are failing. We see the income gap.
Unfortunately, from the narrative we hear from some white people—and sadly, white professing Christians—we are often led to believe it is the nature of black people to live this way. If we had only some of these conservative white (and black) evangelicals in America to tell the story, blacks are just violent, lazy, and always seeking an excuse to be victims.
Context is Key
When I gave the example of the young girl, I did not start off with the full context. I just told you about her and how she lives. On the surface, it is easy just to condemn her and look at her as a savage. But when I gave more context, it helped us understand the picture more clearly. We weren’t so quick to judge her as harshly. Obviously, changing her circumstances is not going to save her from hell, but it would be good for her soul now, and would be helpful for the sanctification for any Christian in the long run.
When we look at the black community today and do not give a clear context of the historical oppression of black people from the 1600s even up until now, it is easy just to write off blacks as savages. It is easy to say that “we just need to preach the Gospel to them,” or “blacks are the biggest problem for blacks,” or “blacks just need to get saved and straighten up like everyone else.” Even though they may get saved, however, that doesn’t automatically release them from the oppressions they face. Yes, salvation is priority. However, we are also called to love our neighbors and meet their physical needs as well. Our soul does not just begin to exist after we die—we are a soul now. Nowhere in the Bible do we see God saying our lives here and now do not matter because this world is sinful anyway. We must, therefore, comprehend historical context and understand what oppressions exist today and why. (Listen to this podcast by Jovan Makenzy to get a little more background on America’s oppression on black people: Social Media is Evangelicals Worst Nightmare.)
While I could obviously write many articles addressing the rampant sin in the black community, my article “Why some black people can’t take the ‘Church’ in America seriously anymore” actually was meant to make a different point. It was also not, however, to blame the “white church” for the sins that are rampant in the black community. The article was addressing the fact that injustice still exists against black people, particularly in America, and many white evangelicals simply ignore the injustices, or fail to comprehend their duty to help their brethren. There are even black Christians who ignore it as well, and fail to see the church’s role. In a future article, I will address why our white brothers and sisters are vital in this conversation.
I must also address my statements on black people leaving the “church.” First, I understand that unregenerate people usually end up leaving the fellowship of believers. I understand that some people “go back to the world” simply because they were not saved to begin with. Let it be known I believe in the doctrines of grace. However, I also believe all of what the Bible says. I also believe that Jesus warned against Pharisees who were blocking the entrance of the Kingdom by their actions and their legalism. I understand that Jesus said, “Woe to the world for temptations to sin! For it is necessary that temptations come, but woe to the one by whom the temptation comes!” So, yes, I clearly understand the responsibility people have to repent for their own sins. I also understand the responsibility we have to go and preach the message which calls them to repent. I also understand our responsibility to love our neighbors and seek justice for them and to do righteousness. When the church is preaching, yet is not loving their neighbor or even declaring that we should love our neighbor in a certain way, it presents a distorted view of the God we claim to serve. It’s easy to call someone an apostate who left your “church,” but how do you paint God? Some congregations need to ask that question literally, “How have you painted God?” That is the context in which I was speaking.
White Privilege and the Gospel
In this country, even if dark skinned people seem disproportionately to engage in the most crime and perhaps even the most sin, dark skinned people are also the most oppressed, for various reasons. In large part, it is because of tyrannical government we have created, which could very well be a curse in result of all the bloodshed and oppression of dark skinned people (and some by dark skinned people). You reap what you sow. The difference is, when white men speak out against tyranny in this country, the ground shakes in the White House. When black men cry out against tyranny, the ground opens up beneath their own feet. When white women cry oppression, mountains move. When black women cry out oppression, mountains grow. Christians have said, “There is something about the name of Jesus. When you speak his name things change.” Well in America, there is something about what is called white privilege.
When society normally listens to one group and usually not to another, that is a privilege. It is the way things should normally be for everyone, but when it is not, experiencing it is, relatively speaking, a privilege. And when a white person uses that privilege to negotiate on behalf of those without it, that is a picture of Christ.
When white people speak, things change. That is not at all to deny the power of God, or the fact that what some people call “white privilege” is imaginary and a real abuse of victimization. But God will use, and has used, white people to carry the burdens of blacks in this country—and we need so much more of it.
If anyone questions whether seeking justice for blacks is just a “social Gospel,” or black liberation theology, or being a “Social Justice Warrior,” or another gospel, they should think again. Seeking justice for blacks in America is a picture of the Gospel. As Sylvia Chan-Malik, Assistant Professor of American Studies and Women’s and Gender Studies at Rutgers said, “whiteness is an asset.” No matter how much people would like to deny it, it still true. This is not a good thing, as we know there is only one race and racism is a social construct. However, white people can use their advantage to help get the message across to the world. As long as black men and women stand alone for the most part (except for white liberals who only have answers that handicap us), we will be looked at as people who are just crying victim, when we actually live among wolves—white, brown, and black wolves! When a white person can see it, and actually humbles themselves and suffers with people that society says are not “their own,” and when they do not have to, that is pointing them to Christ.
How then shall we live?
My white brothers and sisters have asked me frequently how they can join the fight. How can they get involved? This question is usually presented by one of two types of people. One type is the Christian who understands and genuinely wants to help. The other type is one who wants either to back into a corner people who have no clear answer, or to provoke a response that helps justify why they believe this is a “social gospel,” “victimization,” or other category they can dismiss. Honestly, people make what we are saying to be more complicated than it is. This is not rocket science. It is not deep theology. It is basic. I am amused that pastors with all these degrees and exegetical skills cannot seem to find in Scripture that the church has a role in seeking the welfare of people—especially oppressed people. For those people, I do not focus on application. I focus on them acknowledging the issue first. I focus on them seeing even the fact that we should even do something about it. For the people who already understand that, we can move on to practical applications.
To my white brothers who are ready to put their hand to the plow, I’ll be the first to admit I do not have all the answers. No black person does. But that is exactly why we speak out and reach out for help. There are some black brothers and sisters who don’t have any answers, but they do see there is a clear problem beyond just the issue of getting saved. That is the beauty of it all: by raising awareness of the issue, image bearers of God can be provoked to love and good works (Heb. 10:25)—to use their brains and be creative. Image bearers of God are able to take their personal talents and passions and use them to love their neighbor, while proclaiming the Gospel.
Examples of how to get involved are endless. Every individual will be able to bring something different to the table to the glory of God. The first way to get involved is awareness. Obviously you see that people in your own circles do not even agree there is an issue. There is nothing new under the sun. During slavery, there were white people going to church every Sunday believing they lived in the greatest country ever to exist, all the while sitting right on top of a system of utter oppression they believed was directly sanctioned and smiled upon by our Lord. The same was true during the civil rights movement. The same was true all during an era where whites, in the name of Christian civilization, defied due process in order to lynch blacks for all kinds of accused crimes the courts couldn’t prove. So, while my ancestors were being brutally beaten, raped, and their children were torn apart from them, many never to be seen again, white evangelicals were “just preaching the gospel.”
What changed all of that, you ask? There was no overnight success. There weren’t people in political positions who were just changing laws for the sake of black people. No, there were abolitionists. Among others, God used radical abolitionists here in America, but even before in Britain. What was their weapon of choice, you ask? Ink. Their pens. Sometimes words, sometimes art, sometimes their voices. Way before the world of social media, abolitionists made known to the world the wickedness of slavery. Through poetry and song, the world was informed of the oppression of blacks to the point it could no longer be ignored. Abolitionists were not soft; they were in-your-face. If you want to fight abortion in this country today, the world needs to see the pictures of mutilated babies. That is the approach abolitionists took during slavery. They painted it as ugly as it was. They did not call for gradual change but immediate change. They went forth with urgency. If it wasn’t for the boldness of people like Thomas Clarkson, William Wilberforce, Frederick Douglass, Elizabeth Heyrick, Harriet Tubman! Thank God for William Lloyd Garrison’s Liberator newspaper. Many of these abolitionists were not even orthodox Christians; but God used them for speaking out on a subject Christians should already have addressed, but failed. God used them to spread awareness of the harsh realities, like them or not.
These did not expose through emotional appeals alone, but through objective evidence. To have evidence is key. This is why calling for more accountability, body cams on police officers, community control, the exposure of private and public prison systems through documentaries, and the exposure of unfair trials and arrest, are all examples of seeking justice today. It seems to me that Christians who would oppose even such basic measures are opposed to greater evidence being available, and thus opposed to greater justice. It would seem odd, wouldn’t it, for Christian conservatives, who normally say, “If you’ve got nothing to hide. . . .” to be in favor of allowing those with power to hide as much as possible.
Start locally. You don’t have to look too far, even if you live in a rural area, to address local stories and put them in the public eye. With social media, the exposure is endless. Unfortunately, Christians are so disconnected from their own communities, they don’t even know what is going on in their back yard, much less across the bridge or the railroad tracks. Your whole world can’t be trapped in those four walls where you fellowship on Sunday. You need to know what is going on in your community.
Abolitionists used slave narratives to dismantle the system. What were these but documentaries that exposed the evils of their day? Were they hard to read (watch)? Yep. Were the authors and publishers accused of lies, exaggerations, and making stuff up? Were they accused of “fake news” and “having your own facts”? Yep. Were they controversial? So much so that many southern towns and leaders placed standing death threats on any abolitionist speaking out in their area. These abolitionists’ lives were in danger every day for exposing slave masters, some of which were pastors or politicians, or connected to them. Slaves themselves learning to read and write—which was a dangerous thing—were in some cases able to write their own narratives. Imagine gathering stories from people who have been abused by the powers that be, through the Prison Industry, from police, to the court room, to the cell. Again, these are just a few examples. There are many more narratives you could collect and tell today.
The goal is to expose and dismantle “white supremacy,” yes, but all forms of injustice, whether committed by blacks or whites. For some of you, this will present the uncomfortable reality of confronting people in your own circles, including family members. Some of your family members are judges, politicians, police officers, or other community leaders. Some of you have avoided having tough conversations with them, let alone the Gospel and biblical justice. But we can’t expect demonstration or change without awareness. We cannot mobilize people without informing. On Facebook, there is a page called “Police the Police.” I don’t know too much about this page, but I have seen their attempt to hold police and the courts accountable in some cases. Even though we know how blacks are targeted in this country, they don’t just focus on blacks being mistreated. This is one example of how you can explore helping to bring awareness.
If you research the Black Panthers, you will find how they were patrolling their own neighborhoods, protecting them from internal criminals as well as external criminals (including injustices by police). The Black Panthers were hardly pure and blameless in their ideology or practice, but their views on the Second Amendment and self- and local-government are to be admired in many cases. (Also, considering that they had little help from orthodox communities, it is no surprise that their ideology was hardly pure.) In bringing the Gospel to particular communities, you also should teach them how to protect their own communities. You lawyers, especially those who understand Common Law, in discipling people in this context, you should teach people to understand their rights. Hold local classes in churches and communities to teach people—don’t wait until they’re clients!—to be able to defend themselves in court, because you know the reputation of public defenders, and often such individuals cannot afford anything more.
The And (&) Campaign led by rapper Sho Baracka and others have a couple of interesting platforms in which they want to involve themselves. Their mission statement is, “TO ADDRESS THE SOCIO-POLITICAL ISSUES WITH THE COMPASSION AND CONVICTION OF THE GOSPEL.” Their vision statement is this: “The AND Campaign is an urban coalition that promotes the voice of human flourishing in the socio-political arena. We seek to assert biblical wisdom and restore the true narrative of humankind to its rightful prominence which is justice for all.”
Whether you agree with their whole campaign or not, these are three areas they are seeking to address:
Require independent investigations into police-involved deaths
End for-profit policing
Train officers to be members of the community
Some would say abolish the police department altogether. Whether I agree or not right now is irrelevant. However, both options are better than doing nothing and acting like the system is innocent. It is better than responding with the clichés like “Police just want to make it home safe to their families too.” Of course they do, but these responses are too often used to neglect the responsibility authorities themselves have to God—a duty not just to do justice, but to do it justly. These responses are too often used to ignore the blood on the hands of a corrupt justice system in America.
Imagine if the stories of American abolitionists were included in church history in seminaries. How would that change the worldview of many pastors today? I think they may see some parallels, and it would allow their affections to be stirred somewhat, because of how relevant these issues are to us. Sadly, only Christian slave masters are included in many seminaries’ curriculum, and usually without any recognition of this area at all. What if pastors understood that in equipping their church, they could expect to see writers, singers, rappers, artist, lawyers, and businessmen, etc., going forth with their talents and professions to impact the world with the Gospel and a full Christian worldview, bringing the world into obedience unto God.
Finally, in understanding how systemic injustice has played a role in degrading the black community, we must also seek to meet needs on a one-on-one basis. That may be through rehabilitation, counseling, or using resources to create jobs. It may look like self-defense training for those who live in dangerous neighborhoods so they don’t have to wait on police (usually 10 minutes at least—way too long to prevent crime), and also to teach discipline in defense to prevent unnecessary violence. Obviously, education is a huge problem in black communities; therefore, why can’t we build private schools in low-income neighborhoods just like missionaries do in Africa? The only religious private schools in black communities are usually Catholic or Muslim. Homeschooling is not always the easiest option for inner city mothers, so in order to avoid sending children to the poisonous public schools, having the church subsidize a private Christian alternative would be extremely helpful. You may say this is the responsibility of the churches in those communities. I would agree. But do you really think they are in a position to meet it? Those impoverished, hurting churches are our brothers and sisters, and they lack resources and need help. What should those Christians who have been more privileged economically think to do?
This is not just soup kitchen talk. This is reconstruction. This is ministry and mission. This is true religion. This is application of the Gospel. I pray that these examples are helpful and stir you up to good works!