I, along with members of our board and staff, participated in Eddie Moore’s “21-Day Racial Equity Habit Building Challenge.” Every day for 21 days we read or listened or watched something that we hoped would expand our understanding of historic and present racist realities in our country and in our churches. In the first week I read “Instead of ‘We can no longer be silent,’ try ‘We got it wrong’” in Sojourners magazine, written by Marc Antoine Lavarin. The following lines continue to haunt me: “Before your church decides to go out and protest, consider protesting your own theology that continues to intentionally and unintentionally do harm to black and brown bodies. Before taking a knee and holding a prayer vigil, consider this — there is no real substantive difference between a racist bigot holding a Bible in front of a church and a Christian holding up a #BlackLivesMatter sign with no plans to parse out the practical implementation of the holy truth of justice.”
Lavarin’s article, and in particular those two sentences, forced me to examine my actions, motives and commitment – or not – to equity and justice. Equity entails a redistribution of wealth, resources and opportunity. Justice requires substantive policy changes on a national scale and reparations for harm done. The practical implementation of the holy truth of justice begins with an honest accounting of the white church’s role in promulgating and perpetuating racist theology and systems. We white Christians must assess the countless ways we justify our privilege with theology and wrap our oppression of black and brown bodies with the mantle of Jesus.
Recently, a short film created by Indie Grits Labs called “Invisible Hands” arrived in my inbox. The paragraph introducing the film notes that this is an “intimate film documenting a group of Mexican seasonal laborers who spend 10 months every year in rural South Carolina, doing the often-hidden work of providing produce for the U.S. food supply from seed to harvest … this film … follows a typical day in their shoes.” A little over eight minutes long, the film is captivating, set in a place not far from where I lived for many years. At about the two-minute mark, I was caught short by the sight of one of the men, sitting on the ground eating his lunch, wearing a sweatshirt emblazoned with the name of a South Carolina Catholic school, a school one of my children attended for a year. Another minute and half later the scene shifted to the men going through donated clothing, the very assortment, I assume, where that private school sweatshirt had been gleaned. It struck me how close and yet how far we are from our Christian siblings.
Our theology motivated us to donate the clothing our children no longer wear to those who likely share our faith but do not share our fate. Our theology says give your shirt but somehow falls short of remembering that being clothed in Christ requires a radical unity that refuses to tolerate our fellow human being’s hunger, nakedness, imprisonment or thirst. For hundreds of years preachers in our Presbyterian tradition proclaimed the spirituality of the church, a false teaching that held up salvation of the soul without any regard for care of the body or even a recognition of our shared humanity. We white Christians were far from silent; we were loudly, repeatedly, tenaciously wrong. And we often still are.
It is not enough to hand over our used sweatshirts or hold up our righteous signaling sign. We white Christians must reckon with the ways we cause our neighbors’ suffering and oppression and feel magnanimous in empty acts of charity that really cost us nothing, let alone our very lives.
We need a season of prayer and fasting where we ask God to open the eyes of those of us quick to claim our goodness but slow to upend injustice and amend inequity. We need to listen to those long silenced. We need a period of self-examination and real excavation of the places we inhabit and the policies we employ in order to make real plans to parse out the practical implementation of the holy truth of justice. God help us.
Grace and peace,