There is a time for everything, and a season for every activity under the heavens (Ecclesiastes 3:1; New International Version). In light of what transpired throughout 72 painful hours of American history in July 2016, many were asking a multitude of questions. First, why did these tragedies occur? But equally important, what do we do now? Although the second question implies taking the necessary steps to learn and grow from these heinous atrocities that claimed the lives of seven men, it is not meant to minimize the reality that there are hurting children, distraught loved ones, and splintered communities that are still reeling from these terrible events. In no way does it seek to overshadow the excruciating pain of young people who were left without fathers and families suddenly without providers. Yes, we must be careful to not rush the grieving and healing process by moving on too quickly; but we also cannot spend an inordinate amount of time merely glorifying the problem of injustice that continues to plague our nation.
Even as we grapple with this critical challenge, one that is packed with possibility and promise for tomorrow, we should not deceive ourselves that the answer is simple—not that we would want such a response. Instead, we must work to develop and implement a multifaceted strategy that effectively addresses a complex issue such as racism. When the Apostle Paul wrote that we are not wrestling against flesh and blood but against principalities, powers, the rulers of the darkness of this world, and spiritual wickedness in high places (Ephesians 6: 12; King James Version), it is analogous to warring against things that we cannot see—things that transcend what can be discerned with our natural senses. And so it is with racism: a systemic structure of inequity that is maintained by some benefiting while others are necessarily mistreated. For this reason, the problem is not Black people or White people. The problem is not law enforcement or police brutality. The problem will not be addressed through the lens of gun lobbyists, increasing access to mental health treatment, or changing legislation. These things are symptomatic of institutionalized racism, which is embedded within our political, educational, and every other societal system. Although no individual or entity bares the blame for the place in which we find ourselves, it will take everyone’s involvement to dismantle a centuries-old establishment.
In responding to a national tragedy in 1994, I heard these words from Rev. DeForest Buster Soaries, Jr.: “it boggles my mind and challenges my ministry...” A simple statement, but its profundity continues to echo as I, like many others, seek to not only understand what happened but also what must be done in the days, weeks, and years ahead. As you continue reading, I invite you—Black, White, Native American, Asian, Hispanic, poor, middle class, rich, female, male, gay, straight, transgender—to consider three ways, albeit far from exhaustive, that we can honor the sons, brothers, boyfriends, husbands, and fathers whose lives were lost on July 5, 6, and 7, 2016.
THE ROLE OF THE INDIVIDUAL: IT ALL BEGINS WITH ME
As Jesus shared a meal with his disciples before his impending crucifixion, he told them that one of them would betray him—very soon. Alarmed by this disheartening news, each of them began to ask, Lord, is it I? Recorded in Matthew 22: 26, this simple question offers an important lesson: we must always ask ourselves what we did, or did not do, to contribute to our present circumstances. In other words, before expecting anything from anyone, we must consider this fundamental truth: maybe it’s me; maybe I’m the problem.
1 Corinthians 13 (vv. 1-8) eloquently speaks about the preeminence of love. And as individuals living in times like these, the best that we can do is demonstrate love. In spite of all that is going on around us, love never fails (v. 8). Very importantly, love has nothing to do with agreeing with others but everything to do with respecting the dignity and humanity of all people. In fact, it was love for all people that ultimately led Christ to voluntarily endure the suffering and shame of the cross as atonement for all of our shortcomings and sin. Even in these difficult days, do we love as Christ would love—unconditionally regardless of social status, political affiliation, gender identity, sexual orientation, and ethnic group membership?
Additionally, each of us can do something to advance the case for justice. Regardless of being a member of a marginalized group, we can use aspects of our privilege to advocate for someone else. Also in 2016, one of the best examples of this was Officer Nakia Jones’ scathing rebuke to her sisters and brothers in blue. Although she is a Black woman and is subjected to discriminatory practices in a variety of ways, Officer Jones used her influential position as a good cop to rightfully challenge those who were not upholding their sworn oath to serve and to protect. Brother, sister, you too might be a law enforcement officer. Are you speaking up and speaking out against the criminalization of Black men? And to my White brothers and sisters—those who are not victims of racial profiling and other unfair practices—consider these words from Benjamin Franklin and Martin Luther King, Jr.:
Justice will not be served until those who are unaffected are as outraged as those who are.
I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the Ku Klux Klan but the White moderate who is more devoted to order than to justice.
THE ROLE OF THE COMMUNITY: THE STRENGTH OF COLLECTIVE UNITY
Through the lens of behavioral psychology, the manner in which Black men are treated in America is a matter of classical and operant conditioning. The majority culture, in many ways, has constantly associated being Black with things that should be feared and that are inherently bad and inferior. While headlines refer to White men who’ve used guns to assault others as shooters, Black men are more often described as killers. Albeit subtle, these and other practices have classically conditioned people, even Black people, to fear Black men through their repeated pairings with violence, crime, drugs, aggression, and intimidation. Additionally, the lack of appropriate punishment for those (e.g., some members of law enforcement) who commit crimes against Black men has been reinforcing, which enables these violent acts to continue. Whether intended or not, the absence of an unpleasant consequence communicates that what was done is okay and therefore it happens again, and again, and again.
As community members, we must harness our collective strength by organizing and prioritizing. What is important to us, as Black people in our communities? And, how can we accomplish what we want for our communities? Although voting in federal elections is important, our local officials—county executives, sheriffs, school board members, district attorneys, and county judges—have significantly more influence over our day-to-day lives. The current policies that have led to a disproportionate amount of Black men being killed by police cannot be effectively addressed by the federal government alone. Communities, therefore, must identify injustice and demand change—improved legislation and greater accountability—from their locally elected officials. Sisters and brothers, let’s commit to becoming more actively involved in local politics.
Pentecost (Acts 2), an event that forever changed the course of history through the birth of the New Testament Church, was the result of a group of people who were gathered in one place and who shared the same vision. The place in which we find ourselves calls for unity—not Black unity, but human unity. Let’s organize our communities and ourselves so that we can experience the collective strength and impact that is only possible by having a singular purpose and goal.
THE ROLE OF THE CHURCH: THE CENTRALITY OF THE GOSPEL
A passive approach to Christianity is an indictment on the living and breathing Body of Christ. Passive Christianity—a belief that God will take care of everything while we pray and have faith in his power to do the impossible—is a convenient and lazy excuse to not do and become all that he requires of us (Matthew 5: 13-16). For example, the 14th verse of 2 Chronicles 7 is often referenced in the aftermath of national tragedies. And while it admonishes us to humble ourselves, pray, and seek the face of God, it also says that we must turn from our wicked ways. In other words, coupled with praying—for justice and for God to change the hearts of people throughout the land—he also expects us to do things differently (James 2: 14-26).
It would be tremendously insensitive to move on too quickly—of resuming business as usual in our quest to restore normalcy. While many houses of worship likely referenced the awful events during their initial weekend services, what about now? Because news stories and social media activity are focused on other things, has The Church, which has been charged with advocating for justice and the least of these, followed suit? In the same manner that Advent is a season and is celebrated over 4 weeks, we, as a people and a nation, are in a season that cannot be limited to a single week’s cursory acknowledgment. What, then, should churches do?
For those of us who boast of our sensitivity to the leading of the Holy Spirit, pastors and church leaders should consider suspending their sermon series, especially if they are not salient to the realities of the current socio-cultural climate. Because the Holy Spirit is alive and responsive to what we need, at times he will interrupt our best laid plans. Let’s pray that our church leaders would be both sensitive and courageous enough to hear and follow the leading of the Holy Spirit so that we won’t miss what needs to be said in this pivotal and prophetic moment. Relatedly, as a former music director, parishioners occasionally asked me about the process of identifying worship service selections. My response was that the songs sung had very little to do with what I liked or what was in heavy rotation on the radio. Instead, I would ask the Lord what he wanted to hear. The One who is touched by our feelings, our emotions, our hurt, and our pain would want to hear songs that encourage those who are afraid and filled with questions. Although the Gospel is not a fairy tale, it is Good News. For this reason, more than ever before, The Church must be intentional about giving their congregants the hope that is found in Jesus Christ. Regardless of all that is happening around us, The Lord of Hosts is with us and the God of Jacob is our refuge (Psalm 46; King James Version). And even though we are pressed on every side by troubles, we are not crushed. We are perplexed, but not driven to despair. We are hunted down, but never abandoned by God. We get knocked down, but we are not destroyed (2 Corinthians 4: 8 & 9).
As a Black man living in 21st century America, I never imagined that I would be experiencing, firsthand, what is going around me. These problems should have been solved by now. These things, reminiscent of the tumultuous and turbulent 1960’s, should not be happening. But alas, they are and we must find the strength to work towards better. Although difficult, this requires the work of challenging ourselves, first as individuals; working together, with all people, as communities; and the Body of Christ proclaiming the Good News of the Gospel in both word and deed. Paraphrased from Galatians 6: 9, let’s not get tired of doing what is right; because eventually we will see the results and it will be worth it. Regardless of how uncomfortable, let’s not abandon this place—this difficult place of suffering. Let’s not abandon this place of pain. But let’s work through it, together. Let’s learn from it, together. Let’s grow from it, together.
Walk together children, and don’t get weary.