By Stephen K. Reeves
Will anything change this time? Will we look back on 2020 as the time America radically changed for the better? Will the arc of the moral universe be bent towards justice?
As a pandemic rages claiming the lives of more than 100,000 Americans, so too a spiritual sickness grips our nation. Racism has often been called America’s original sin. The Apostle Paul in Romans teaches that the wages of sin is death. Our Savior came to offer abundant life. Do you believe the one who came to free the oppressed values property, comfort and the status quo?
We only shake free from sin when we repent. Is this the moment we as a people turn around and march towards a more perfect union and away from impending death?
That’s up to you.
What will you do differently this time? Will you vote differently? Will you have the courage to speak up on social media, or at the Thanksgiving table? Will you ensure racism is addressed head-on in your congregation? Will you get involved with your city council? Will you join with advocates of criminal justice reform?
You say something has to change? No. That is far too impersonal. You have to change.
I have to change. White Americans have to change, or nothing will change.
Who are you waiting for? Dr. King will not be resurrected, and if he were, I shudder to think what he would have to say to us 52 years after his assassination.
By almost any measure of societal health, we are failing black Americans. It has always been this way. No matter the system, it fails black Americans—healthcare, education, housing, criminal justice, financial services, income inequality, on and on and on. To blame black Americans for these failures because of some cultural or innate deficiency is blatant racism. No. We fail black Americans because of how these systems were intentionally constructed, and they must change.
The change might start by addressing police brutality and criminal justice reform. However, what we really need, the repentance required is no less than a complete system overhaul. Systemic racism and white supremacy infect every corner of our nation. Properly addressing it is going to take a massive government response.
Guess what? We’re the government. A government of the people, for the people and by the people, remember? “The government” is not an anonymous unseen other.
For many, I know this sounds radical. Our society works well for you. This sort of change sounds costly. It probably will be, but I implore you: We cannot be living as faithful Christians with agency in this democracy and not confront how it is failing so many others. President Franklin Roosevelt once said, “The test of our progress is not whether we add more to the abundance of those who have much, it is whether we provide enough for those who have too little.” I grieve how far we are from acting upon such a noble ideal. One that resonates with the Gospel of Matthew, “Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine….”
We know that terrible, dangerous, and deadly inequality exists. You can see it in your town. We saw it pressed down violently on George Floyd’s neck. We don’t need to be convinced that there is a problem. Plenty of people have policy ideas to transform systems that are worth consideration and debate. What we lack is political will and political imagination. The white majority has felt no moral conviction to reorder this country in a fundamental way. Yes, again, it is going to take government action. Since 1619 it is policy decisions that have led us to where we are today.
I know systemic reform sounds overwhelming. I’m not blind or naïve to the obstacles. Our democratic process itself requires fundamental reforms. You may feel powerless. Engage anyway. Study, advocate, speak up in your family, in your church, in your town, in your state and yes, speak up in Washington. Pastors, you especially have more influence than you may know. When you fight for racial justice but are defeated, keep going. If you don’t, nothing will change.
We should acknowledge that we’re not just struggling against flesh and blood, but also against principalities and powers, this present darkness (Ephesians 6:12). We are struggling with the remnants of a toxic theology – what some have called slaveholder religion. It was Baptists and other Southern Christians who were convinced they could be “saved” and in good standing with the Lord while they owned and abused their neighbor. Many White Christians have never confronted and exorcised such demonic theology from their churches. Doing so starts by recognizing the truth that we cannot claim to love God and hate our neighbor. We cannot claim to love our neighbors while watching so many struggle and die.
In this work, we don’t need people who are “not racist.” We need more antiracists.
How do you start? Listen and learn. Educate yourself. Get okay with being uncomfortable—you won’t be changed if you’re unwilling to be challenged. Be willing to be led. Give up control. Endure failure. Know you will say the wrong thing. Apologize. Give yourself grace. Be humble. Play a role. Show up.
Work to build real cross-racial relationships of mutual respect and trust. Hear their stories. Believe them! Don’t expect them to teach you. Your lack of knowledge is not their burden. Confront every instance of racism, no matter how small. Don’t let a joke slide, or a microaggression go unaddressed. Find co-laborers and lean on one another. Recognize your privilege. Acknowledge your blind spots. Ask for forgiveness. Invest the time to be formed by black art and culture – books, movies, documentaries, television shows, rap and jazz and blues music. Diversify your social media feed and podcasts. Follow black leaders and publications on Facebook and Twitter. Amplify black voices. Be willing to get uncomfortable in your own family and church and as a guest in black space. Support black-owned businesses and HBCUs.
There are so many good lists available to help you begin this journey. CBF Advocacy has revised suggestions that we published after the Charlottesville massacre. You will find them here. We have also compiled a substantial racial justice reading list. You will find that here.
Dr. King’s response to riots has been quoted again and again in the last several weeks. In Letter from a Birmingham Jail, he comes to the regrettable conclusion that the greatest stumbling block to progress was the white moderate more devoted to order than justice. He then asks, “Will we have to repent in this generation…for the appalling silence of the good people?” I urge you brothers and sisters in CBF, do not be silent. Speak out, even if your voice trembles. Do so with humility, vulnerability, and honesty. I know there will be a cost and you’ll feel uncomfortable, but your friends, family and fellow church members are not the only ones listening.
Are you willing to forsake comfort for justice? It is a matter of life and death. We will all remember this year in our country. Do not regret things left unsaid and undone.
Brothers and sisters, this is a long, hard road, but it leads to life. Have bold faith. Listen to the Holy Spirit. Pray fervently. Join the struggle. We’re not called to be winners; we are called to be faithful. Be prepared to lose yourself for the sake of the Gospel.
Will this be the moment we finally change? You decide.
Stephen K. Reeves serves as associate coordinator of partnerships and advocacy for the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship.