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Does silence equal complicity with racism?

George Floyd by Temi Coker
George Floyd by Temi Coker: Courtesy of www.coker.studio

I am a father of four children. Three of those image-bearers are girls.

So imagine the fear, tears, and anger that engulfed my heart when I learned of Larry Nassar, the Michigan State University doctor charged with sexually abusing young ladies ranging from the ages of six to twenty-one years old. His predatorial reign was first documented as early as 1990, but it was not until 2015 that the first action was taken against him

One of the many questions that came to my mind after reading about this horror was: “How can someone sexually abuse girls and women for over twenty years?”

I’ll tell you how: silence. 

USA Gymnastics was silent. Medical professionals were silent. Coaches were silent. And, tragically, in some cases, parents were silent

These women and girls reported their real-life horror stories to every proximate authority and were met with doubt and dismissive cover-ups. 

I know that this harsh reality could be triggering to some, but, as I look at the state of our nation, I see another real-life horror story being swept under the rug of silence. 

Shouting for help

African American men and women have been crying out for over four hundred years about the abuse we have suffered in America. 

We have told America about systemic racial injustice and economic oppression. 

We have told America about gentrification and redlining. 

We have told America about the racial disparity in education and in healthcare. 

We have told America about police brutality and mass incarceration.

We have made documentaries like 13TH by Ava DuVernay to demonstrate the “intersection of race, injustice and mass incarceration in the United States.” 

We have made songs like “This Is America” by Donald Glover (aka Childish Gambino) to depict police brutality and innocent black people being killed at their church. 

We have written books like The Mis-Education of the Negro by Carter G. Woodson to demonstrate that, in his day, blacks were being culturally indoctrinated rather than taught. Although written in 1933, it still rings true in 2020. 

Yet, with all of our attempts to scream for help, many—if not most—white Christians have been silent. 

Hearing crickets

What hurts the most is not the silence of America but the silence of our white evangelical brothers and sisters. 

Martin Luther King, Jr. echoed this pain, saying, “In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.” For the purposes of this article, “our friends” are my silent siblings in the family of God.

Complicity, whether overt or covert, is contrary to our mission as followers of Jesus. 

In fact, when Jesus saved us as “his workmanship,” it was “for good works” (Ephesians 2:8–10). One of those good works is to ensure that the “dividing wall of hostility” between ethnic lines, that Jesus destroyed by his blood, remains in rubble. 

Micah 6:8 says we are “to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God.” We are also to continue the work of the Messiah to “proclaim good news to the poor . . . proclaim liberty to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind . . . set at liberty those who are oppressed . . . to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor” (Luke 4:18–19).

The problem is that our siblings know these passages.  

Yet silence from many in the family of God has told us to “wait.” This silence has also rejected our peaceful protests as “untimely.” 

I’m reminded of Dr. King’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail. Many are willing to support our cause in private via text messages but refuse to publicly and specifically condemn these injustices amongst the larger community. 

The vertical beam of the cross is emphasized: we are called to be reconciled to God. 

But the horizontal beam has been sawed off, causing us to forget that we are also called to be reconciled to our neighbors. 

The end result of silence from our siblings is not just the devaluing of the Imago Dei, but complicity with the racism of America.  

In the immortal words of Edmund Burke, “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.” 

Silence communicates complicity. 

Silence has caused your black brothers and sisters to be abused over and over again. 

And silence is an enemy to justice.

What are you willing to sacrifice?

The question remains: “If we all know these truths, why have our white siblings not joined in the fight against racism in America?” 

In Divided by Faith, Christian Smith addresses this issue: “Evangelicals usually fail to challenge the system not just out of concern for evangelism, but also because they support the American system and enjoy its fruits. They share the Protestant work ethic, support laissez-faire economics, and sometimes fail to evaluate whether the social system is consistent with their Christianity.” In other words, speaking out against racial injustice will cost the “comforts” of America. 

However, where it may cost white evangelicals their comfort, for black brothers and sisters, it has cost us our lives—socially, spiritually, economically, emotionally, and physically. 

The fight for justice should not be about our comfort, nor our country, but about our allegiance to the kingdom of God. 

Our allegiance to Christ should compel us to fight with righteous indignation to tear down the systems of racism in America.

A starting point for Christians to fight racial complicity

If there is one ray of hope I can extract from the brutal murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery, it’s that the world is crying out against this racial injustice. 

Protests are not only happening in the United States, but Britain, Germany, France, and even Denmark have joined in the chants of “No justice, no peace.” Now it is time for our white siblings to collectively confront racism and injustice here on the homefront in America.

How can our white siblings move from silence and complicity to collectively confront injustice? 

Jemar Tisby, in his amazing book The Color of Compromise, gives three broad categories of action known as the ARC: Awareness, Relationship, and Commitment. This model is a starting point for Christians to fight against their own complicity in racism so that we can tear down the systems that separate us and exalt the Messiah who saved us. 

Awareness

Navigating the terrain of awareness includes evaluating your personal journey of biblical reflection and cultural education. 

Often, culture has a way of informing the interpretation of Scripture rather than Scripture informing the interpretation of culture. According to E. Randolph Richards in his work, Misreading Scripture with Western Eyes, “This misreading of Scripture arises from combining our individualism with a more subtle, deeply hidden and deeply rooted aspect of our Western worldview: we still think the universe centers around us.” In other words, when you read Scripture, you tend to only see yourself and not other ethnic groups in the text. 

For example, I have heard many white evangelicals quote Galatians 2:20: “I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.” 

But I have noticed that our white siblings tend to glance over the fact that this text was written in the context of the racial tension between Paul and Peter. In this text, Paul confronts Peter over his prejudice toward Gentiles whenever he was in the presence of Jews (Galatians 2:11–14). It’s easy for white people to dismiss the racial tension and dilemma in this text because most white people rarely, if ever, have to think about their “whiteness.” This can largely be attributed to the privilege of being a part of the majority culture. 

While other cultures have no choice but to assimilate into white culture, it will take more effort by white people to force their way out of the culturally “white” box and diversify their narrative. Consequently, they should diversify their commentaries and read the Bible in the context of the culture that it was written in and about. Lay aside the temptation to place yourself, your perspectives, and your cultural preferences in the text. 

To increase awareness, one must also increase their cultural education. What books, articles, sermons, podcasts, etc. are you reading or listening to? Does this list include books, articles, and sermons by people of color? 

Avoid the pitfall of only listening to people who fit your traditional Christian narrative built around your preferences. Instead, let the only prerequisite be to listen to those who communicate biblical truths. Do the work of searching out these resources. We live in a digital era, making this pursuit easy. There is nothing more fulfilling than self-discovery and personal enlightenment.   

Relationship

As you walk along the path of awareness, then you will discover the need for building relationships. Expand your homogenous circle and befriend your black brothers and sisters. 

I’m not talking about surface-level friendship. I mean engaging in meaningful conversations and listening to their heart. Your perspectives may be different, but it is your responsibility to listen. Listen to their story. Ask questions. Listen to their answers. 

You will be surprised by how they have been treated in the church and in America. 

At the heart of building these relationships, be willing to embrace empathy, as it is hard to care about racial injustice if you do not care about the people who are being oppressed. 

Start with the people you know and are closest to you. Please understand that pursuing these relationships may have a rough start. Nonetheless, continue the pursuit and lay a foundation of trust. 

Also, remember that people are not projects. See these relationships as a means of loving your neighbor as yourself, not just a means to answering your questions. My prayer is that you will be able to “rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep” (Romans 12:15).

Commitment

Finally, as you are on this continuous pursuit of awareness and building relationships, commit to doing the work. 

One action I will call you to commit to is speaking out against injustice. 

Speaking out is a reflection of the character of our God and our call to do justice. Two passages that demonstrate this truth are: 

  • Proverbs 31:8–9 “Open your mouth for the mute, for the rights of all who are destitute. Open your mouth, judge righteously, defend the rights of the poor and needy.”
  • Jeremiah 22:3 “Thus says the Lord: Do justice and righteousness, and deliver from the hand of the oppressor him who has been robbed. And do no wrong or violence to the resident alien, the fatherless, and the widow, nor shed innocent blood in this place.”

Our God is just and righteous. Therefore, we should take our cue from him and justly and righteously speak out against racial injustice. 

We speak out in our homes, jobs, and churches. 

We speak out through our blogs and social media platforms. 

We speak out by donating and joining organizations that fight the good fight of justice. 

We speak out with our votes on the local, state, and federal levels. 

Our biblical responsibility 

Racial justice is the biblical responsibility of the kingdom people of God. 

It’s a matter of life and death. 

Let us stop perpetuating the trauma that black boys, girls, mothers, fathers, co-workers, athletes, and more are enduring in America. “But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream” (Amos 5:24). 

Let us remove the boulders of complicity so that we can experience the continuous flow of justice. 

Let’s do the work!  

Let’s speak up.


Jerry Wagner is the husband of Temira Wagner. They reside in Dallas, Texas, where they love four beautiful children.

He is an alumnus of Dallas Theological Seminary and founder of Disciple City Church.

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