I am a proud Black nerd. Most know this. I open most messages these days with superheroes or science fiction. I am fascinated by the values and ethics in both genres, the stories that compel the characters to maintain or break their commitments and the consequences therein. Take Star Trek, for example. Their prime directive “is to never interfere in the internal affairs of alien worlds.” No matter where they go or who they meet, if someone has drama at home, those Star Trek captains cannot interfere–unless it makes for a good episode. There are principles and decisions that guide our favorite shows, characters, and stories. A good story will tell you on the front end what those principles are. However, some shows reflect what is too often the case in life—namely that we discover what those guiding principles are based on the decisions that are made.
Selective Memory. Take the United States. The founding and history of the nation are beautiful, or appalling, depending on who you talk to. We are the land of opportunity, and we have become that economic and militaristic powerhouse by directly and indirectly oppressing people throughout history. African-Americans have experienced part of this oppression for centuries. Slavery, segregation, economic exploitation, academic inequality, gentrification, disproportionate police stops and arrests, mass incarceration, wrongful convictions, and other injustices have been documented throughout history and are proven facts. However, before there were statistics, there were stories. Before social media, there was and remains a social memory. Black people didn’t need the data to tell us we were oppressed—we live it every day. My mother so eloquently pointed this out when she saw my rage at the non-indictment of [insert any name of any controversial shooting of the last ten years] and responded, “Sean, I am 70. I have forgotten the names of all the unarmed black people killed in this country. Nothing ever happens.” As a nation, we are all about controlling the narrative and telling the story that makes us look the most just–even when the margins of America are bleeding in the streets and crying in the courts. America tells the story of a bright future, never including an accurate past or present, thus ensuring that pending dream will always elude us.
Selective Justice. That social memory my mother carries from her own experiences and those of her family taught me to be cautious around other cultures especially white people, my expectations of America as a nation, and the judicial system. Philando Castile is another person the Black community will add to its social memory of someone killed during a traffic stop. The story remains universal: police make a routine stop, police fears for their life, the Black person is killed and vilified, police hailed a hero, and there are no legal consequences. There will be calls for quick forgiveness, reconciliation, and reminders of how much progress has been made. Then news networks and various organizations will post photos of a Black person hugging a white person. America will move on, and the Black community will continue to grieve the death of another father, brother, son, another family line that has ended. Although the police officer that killed Philando was Latino, it reinforces the social stigmas associated with race in America (i.e. All Latino and Hispanic people are immigrants; everyone of Middle Eastern, Indian, and South Asian descent is a potential terrorist; Black people are violent criminals who are always armed and dangerous). The ethnicity of the shooter can be different, but the outcome is always the same: unjustified murder.
In America, justice is not defined objectively, but by the majority opinion. Whoever is in power determines what’s objective. The perpetual shootings of Black people by law enforcement in varying circumstances have reinforced wounds in the Black community, broken trust with many in law enforcement, emptied calls for patience with the system, turned us inward, and creating social justice uprisings like Black Lives Matter. How has America responded to our response as a community? Strong affirmation for police, calls for “law and order,” labeling BLM domestic terrorists (the same was done to MLK, Malcolm X, Black Panthers, etc.).
What does not happen is the acknowledgment that the system is broken and doesn’t just need repair–it needs to be rebuilt. We must acknowledge and rebuild every system in our nation as it was designed to protect one group (specifically white men) and alienate every other–unless you learn to assimilate and accept white-male culture.
The Evangelical Christian Community
Selective Awareness. Watch how many evangelical pastors and leaders respond to Philando Castile in the next few days. Sermons, prayer vigils, addressing their congregations, weeping, any of it. Watch what they do promote as important: their next book, missions trips to Africa, praying for 45. Far too many are quick to admit they aren’t a current events churches or ministries. They preach the content of the gospel and avoid the context congregations are called to live in. Being subjective in what we bring before those we lead indicates to them not only what we value as ministries, but indirectly what God deems as important.
Selective Advocacy. Last year, when Philando Castile and Alton Sterling were killed on the same day, I felt my heart age in a way it never had before. Most of my friends did, too. One friend, Latina said, “Those two…that day, something broke in the Black community and we haven’t been the same.”
I have retired from asking or expecting the Evangelical community to respond to any of these incidents. I don’t mean a tweet or a blog post (the all too common default of a response). I mean change your sermon on Sunday (even on Father’s Day as Philando was a father). I mean change the vision of your organization for the foreseeable future to teach, train, and develop leaders with cross-cultural competencies that isn’t white-centered–where we move beyond the basics of defining terms to a biblical understanding of justice, a confession of historical injustices, repentance of apathy and silence, and commitments to the Lord and the community moving forward to advocate for the least of these in our communities. I mean the hiring, retention, and promotion of people of color that will challenge norms. That won’t happen, however, because “It takes too much time. It “costs too much money. It would be offensive to some.” So, diversity in too many evangelical circles will continue to be reflected in representation (numbers), not equity and calls for justice, and gifted leaders and people of color will continue this exodus out of American Evangelical systems because it “has a form of godliness but denies its power” (2 Tim. 3:5).
What exactly is the black community supposed to do 17 years into the 21st century? We are being killed without consequence by law enforcement around the country. There are calls for unity from politicians and pastors. Churches won’t say or do anything because it will affect financial giving, but everyone wants Black people in their photos, offices, congregations, and leadership teams (as long as they are committed to things staying the same).
Wonder Woman and Black Panther
DC and Marvel have struck gold recently with Wonder Woman and the trailer for Black Panther. (Tangent: Sweet Baby Jesus. I called it. I knew Gal would knock it out of the park! Pray my strength for Black Panther!) Both movies depict heroes for the margins who don’t come to assimilate or take over. They simply come in the name of justice. There’s a reason why many women needed to see Wonder Woman without men. There’s a reason Black Twitter erupts when an image or a trailer for Black Panther comes out. Marginalized people don’t want reverse discrimination or oppression. We simply want a society where leaders, pastors, and presidents lead in a manner that lives up to the values we have written on paper. The deficit is so strong with overwhelming examples of injustice until whenever the margins are affirmed, we need to great safe spaces to clap, cheer, and cry a mix of joy and sorrow. As one pastor remarked, “We have to celebrate the small moments. For us, joy has to endure for a night, because weeping will come in the morning.”
These two characters in many ways reflect the character of the people of God in Scripture. Their “prime directive,” and ours, is to treat every life with dignity because people are made in the image of God. There is no greater good. There is no Unitarianism, protecting the needs of the many over the needs of the few. There is no allegiance to one people group over another. There is simply justice. Shooting someone, especially an unarmed person, tarnishing the character of the deceased, ignoring communities that have perpetually suffered–is not just. It is not justice. It is cruel and un-Christian, period.
Christopher J. Wright, in his book, Old Testament Ethics for the People of God, wrote that we can tell who people worshiped by the decisions they made. “If society moved in the direction of such rampant evils, it was clear proof that the people had forgotten the Lord, whether or not they protested vigorously that they were still worshipping him…Choose the wrong god and you get the wrong society.” It is true then and true now.
America clearly worships herself, but I don’t know who the North American church follows. We see injustice. We see violence. We see the oppressed, marginalized, and the hurting, and response of the Evangelical world is to protect its image and perpetuate a false narrative of empty hope that Goliath will be defeated with time and patience, not direct action.
Protests don’t keep America divided. Politics don’t keep America divided. Racism doesn’t keep the church divided. It is our stubborn commitment towards not living up to the values we profess to have. Preaching about justice and ignoring injustice maintains the divide. Preaching reconciliation while not addressing what caused the division maintains the divide.
Watching another not guilty/non-indictment in another case of another Black person killed by another police officer maintains the divide.
Where Do We Go From Here?
We need to wake up as a nation to the injustices in our own home.
We need repentance from injustices this old continue to this day.
We need revelation on building a new community, that truly has liberty and justice for all. This has yet to be done. We need leaders who will pioneer work, not maintain old broken systems.
I would have written more action steps, but to be honest, I and others have written a great deal on what to do.
We did it the last time an unarmed Black person was killed…
Where do we go from here? John the Baptist said it best, “Bear fruit in keeping with repentance.”