Monday, July 6, 2015

While I was in Charleston


Emanuel AME less than 24 hours
after the shooting
The afternoon following the horrific Charleston massacre at Emanuel AME Church wasn't as crowded or chaotic as I had expected. It was quite calm.

I was on vacation in Charleston and had even been on a tour of the historic city just a few hours before a racist killer entered the prayer meeting. My wife's uncle, who led the tour, gave a glowing review of a concert he had attended at this beautiful church. For obvious reasons, I felt compelled to return the next day. I just wanted to pray for them, display unity with them, and serve as a representative of the many students, faculty, staff, and alumni of school who are passionate about the issue of racial reconciliation.

I had expected a larger number of people in front of the church, but most of those directly outside were either press members or policemen. Around 10-15 people were standing just outside of the area marked off by the police tape praying, so I simply stood there and prayed alongside my fellow mourners.

The event of the previous night was so clearly unjust and evil that the last thing on my mind was any sort of politics. With pure motives and a quiet atmosphere, empathy and prayer came naturally and easily. Easily, that is, until I was bumped sideways by someone who was suddenly in a hurry to get somewhere quickly. Confused and a little perturbed, I opened my eyes to see what was going on. It was a camera woman who knocked me around, but it wasn't immediately clear why she had done so until I looked to my right. Enter Al Sharpton.
Rev. Al Sharpton and a few friends have a
moment of silent prayer and reflection. There
were no comments made in front of the church.

I wasn't very excited about this, to be honest. I feel that he often makes things worse. In anticipation of this possibility, I felt tempted in that moment to focus my mental energies on divisive politics instead of why I came in the first place.

GETTING DISTRACTED

What a metaphor for those who desire racial reconciliation! Just when you think you're operating with pure motives and doing something everyone can agree on, you start getting bumped around and distracted.

I believe that distraction is one of the great tools of Satan when it comes to issues of race in this country.

Specifically, I want to challenge white Christians who, like me, would generally describe yourselves as being socially conservative. Most of you would emphatically declare, not only that you aren't racist, but also that you desire to see unity among black and white people (If you simply need to repent of racist attitudes, you will need something different than this article). You realize that racism in our country is real and did not simply write off the Charleston shooting as a drug problem.

I want to humbly ask a couple of probing questions and I pray you will consider them.
  • Do you spend a lot of time talking (or posting) about your disagreements with African-Americans over political issues (e.g. Michael Brown and whether or not Darren Wilson was justified) and completely avoid talking about the reality of racial prejudice and the importance for all of us to examine our hearts for our own bias (we all have them) and our own sin? 
  • Do you ever post blogs and website articles encouraging brothers and sisters in Christ to seek unity and reconciliation across ethnic groups?  
I am not trying to convince you that your opinions on recent events are necessarily wrong. Personally, I have felt very differently about the individual police shootings. For the record, I have great respect for the selfless work of policemen and I'm very slow to criticize law enforcement. Consequently, I sometimes agree and sometimes disagree with some of my African-American brothers and sisters in Christ over the details of these events. I do not for one second, however, believe that racism doesn't exist and that bias doesn't happen. I've seen it in society at large and I've seen it clearly in churches where I've been a member. I have black friends for whom I have great respect (including pastors) who tell me stories about getting pulled over by the police when they are doing nothing or just getting long and lingering looks while walking down the street. This doesn't happen to me. This draws me towards compassion and a desire to better understand the world and how our fallen nature affects others and how it affects me. In addition to this, my love for God and the gospel narrative which concludes with a picture of people from all tongues and tribes worshiping around His throne compels me to seek unity. 

I'm convinced that one of the main reasons we become distracted is that we let our defensive desire to avoid being misunderstood as racists trump our desire for unity and reconciliation. Before I explain further what I mean, I need to let you know where I'm coming from.

I'm not writing as an outsider who wants to bash Southerners. I'm a white conservative evangelical Christian from Alabama. As such, I've dealt with my share of stereotyping. In other parts of the country it is often abundantly clear that those I meet are skeptical of my intelligence as soon as they find out where I'm from. It doesn't matter if they already know I have a lot of education and they have comparatively little. Intellectual superiority over me is assumed from the beginning. It is also often assumed that I'm a racist. In upstate New York I was asked if I was in the KKK (by young people who also were surprised we wore shoes). I've even been asked this question while living in a small town in Central Java, Indonesia. Escaping the shadow of Bull Connor has proved elusive.  

So I sympathize with the reaction many white people have when events are quickly attributed to racism before all the facts are in. If we think for one moment, however, that anything we have been through is on par with the African American experience throughout the history of our country, we are delusional. Slavery, Jim Crowe, KKK lynchings, the Civil Rights struggle... and now Charleston. Yes, things have improved dramatically. I have always been grateful that I didn't have to choose to be rejected by society in order to love those who are different from me. Every time I passed by 16th Street Baptist Church I was thankful that I didn't live in an era where violent racists would bomb innocent people gathering for worship... and now Charleston.

Again, I want to stress that I am not here asking you to change your mind on issues such as gun control. My concern as I watch things play out on social media is this: What should be our first response and our major impulse?  I believe strongly that, because of our past and current issues with racial prejudice, our first response should be to seek unity and to show compassion.

Our hearts should hurt over the racial divide. We should long for greater reconciliation and always keep in mind that we're not just talking about the white community and the black community; we're talking about brothers and sisters in Christ on opposite sides.

I will go as far as to say this: If you don't feel an ache to see unity between black and white in the body of Christ in tangible ways, you are simply missing the heart of our Savior. You are missing the reality of the gospel as expressed by Paul when he told the Ephesians that Christ has, through His death, "created in himself one new man in place of the two" whereas Jew and Gentile had earlier been separate. You're missing the big picture of biblical history which culminates in people from all tongues, tribes, and nations worshiping the Lord in perfect unity around His throne (Rev. 7:9). You're also missing the heart of Jesus as expressed in the Lord's prayer when He commanded us to pray for God's will to be done "on earth as it is in Heaven" (Matt. 6:10).

It's too little to "not be racist." We must move beyond that to show tangible love. We also need to be balanced in the way we react to events online. For example, regardless of how you feel about whether or not the policemen involved in the shootings of black men are innocent or guilty, please consider these questions:
  • Have you prayed for everyone involved? 
  • Have you admitted to yourself the reality of racism in our country before making a quick evaluation and putting your opinions online? 
  • Is your ultimate hope that there will be healing on both sides or that the other side will be proved wrong? 
  • Is there a longing for unity that is deeply dissatisfied regardless of where you stand? 
  • Do you at least consider the other side of the argument and the feelings of many black Americans before your only reaction is to cry "false racism!"? 
Our defensive reaction to a racist allegation can blind us. It can blind us from seeing the greater reality. It can blind us from seeing or even caring about what is most helpful. It can turn a helpful and truthful statement into a sarcastic barb painting everyone on the opposing side in a negative light. Being right isn't always the same as being wise.

What I saw early on the Thursday after the Charleston massacre was clear sympathy to a horrific tragedy. It was, however, disappointing to see how quickly the subject changed to gun control. That did not mean that Christians who believe in gun ownership were obligated to quickly counter by flooding social media with protests - to the exclusion of offering sympathy and prayers to the victims' families, Emanuel AME Church, and the black church in general! Even with this clear cut "black and white" case involving obvious racism, many people found a way to talk about everything but racism. It was sad to see, as things developed, some people passionate about defending the confederate flag and seemingly lacking any compassion for the hurting.

Maybe some of you are responding now by thinking, "But I was, in fact, horrified by the shooting in Charleston. I did pray for them. I didn't deny that it was racism. It's just that I didn't say anything about that and I did speak up about gun control." Herein lies the problem. Some of you don't use social media for anything political in the slightest. I have one Facebook friend who insists that it should only be used for "fluffy bunnies and spring meadows." If that's you, you're off the hook. But if we do use social media to speak out on issues, we need to understand that silence on this one will be very discouraging to our black brothers and sisters in Christ. Try to just imagine what they are seeing instead of well-reasoned statements and sympathetic prayers and this point should be obvious.

The negative reactions I'm writing about above certainly don't describe all white southern Christians (to any outsiders who may be reading this). The reaction from the majority of Christians whom I consider to be spiritually mature was encouraging. But it's times like these that remind me of the lack of spiritual maturity in our churches. It's a reminder of the existence of cultural Christians who show little or no evidence of a relationship with Jesus Christ at all. Also, it's a reminder of how easy it is for everyone (myself definitely included!) to broadcast thoughtless remarks to hundreds of people with the click of a mouse. Social media is messy.

I certainly don't have all the answers for our problems. But the way forward must include more substantive relationships between black and white Christians. As we pursue this, remember that we don't have to agree with every nuance on every issue in order to have unity in Christ. However, we can be guaranteed that our opinions will be impacted when we are no longer simply commenting on a political issue, but we are considering the thoughts and feelings of friends we love and respect.

Even when we are wrong (and we will be), genuine love can "cover a multitude of sins." Obviously that's a general statement and no guarantee every individual will react in a similar way. People are people and this is definitely a challenge. However, when we refrain from engaging in meaningful relationships because of fear that disagreements will spiral into an unhelpful misunderstanding, there is no opportunity for love to be shown.

A BIBLICAL GUIDE FOR CONVERSATION

It's often said by those desiring to see things improve that we just need to start talking about our race issues. While I believe this is ultimately true, it's also true that we first need to know how to talk about them or else, as illustrated above, we can simply make things worse. I've chosen a few scriptures that I believe speak to this issue (There are many more, of course). In fact, they speak to how we approach almost all disagreements.

  • If one gives an answer before he hears, it is to his folly and shame (Proverbs 18:13, ESV)
  • Do not repay evil with evil or insult with insult. On the contrary, repay evil with blessing, because to this you were called so that you may inherit a blessing. (1 Peter 3:9, NIV)
  • I do not ask for these only, but also for those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one, just as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me. (John 17:20-21, ESV) This is the "high priestly prayer" of Jesus before his death, burial and resurrection.
  • A soft answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger. (Proverbs 15:1)
  • Strive for peace with everyone, and for the holiness without which no one will see the Lord. (Hebrews 12:14)
Too often we are simply trying to win an argument instead of trying to win a person. A serious consideration of how God has commanded us to believe and to act makes such an approach inexcusable.

STAYING FOCUSED

So there I was. Standing outside of Emanuel AME Church in Charleston less than 24 hours after a tragic, dramatic, and historic event. I went there to pray. I wanted to pray for comfort for the victims' families, for Emanuel, and for the black church in general. I felt compelled to pray for God to do something for unity in our country and to make a plea to God for individual churches to reflect the true diversity of His people.

Then, without warning, I suddenly get bumped around and find myself wondering if I was about to hear a "made for media" speech distracting from the sanctity of the situation (which didn't happen, by the way). I found myself wondering, "What do I do now?" The answer came quickly and easily.

I put my head back down and I prayed.

- David Parks