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Our head isn’t in the game because, like my high school soccer team, the white church has focused so much on our past “wins” against racism—racism that polls show the majority of white Americans think is a thing of the past—that we’ve failed to recognize the enemy in our own house. And what a foe it is.
The past few weeks have been exhausting for me. When news first broke of Andrew Sterling’s death in Baton Rouge, followed almost immediately on my news feed by Philando Castille’s murder, I had a feeling something would be different about these incidents. Little did any of us know that what awaited us was the horrible murder of seven police officers in Dallas. And something was different. I could’ve never imagined the contests I’d be embroiled in by the following Sunday.
When it comes to human rights, my church has always been in the fray, rolling up our sleeves and getting messy. From local needs and causes to international ones, from controversial guest speakers to costly projects, I’ve been so proud of the charge we’ve lead. As such, on that Sunday, I expected to fight against the world when it came to championing black lives. Instead, I faced members of white churches and members of my own church.
Much like this presidential election cycle has brought to light issues that have been festering in the hearts of voters for years, this second week of July brought to light attitudes which, personally, I was naive to think weren’t present. Facebook truly lets people say things that are in their hearts that they would rarely say in public, at least not face-to-face with people they respect.
Every argument, every talking point, every quarrel has a common thread: none of them are from the black perspective. Not one. They are from whites, white homes, white churches, and white news machines. Not a single contentious white person that I’ve spoken with has been able to respond to me when I’ve questioned whether or not they’ve asked a black person what they think about any of this. The truth is, many whites care more about the opinions we can derive from news sources than we can from those the news is about. We care more about the opinions we come up with, those seemingly logical arguments that ensure our safety and security than we do about the opinions of blacks.
“Well I have plenty of black friends,” is a common retaliation from those I’ve encountered. But have we spoken with them? Have we asked them to bare their soul to us? And if their responses sound oddly like our own, have we ever considered that if our public rhetoric matches that of those in white news, that they’re fearful of telling us the truth? I wonder how many are standing in our churches, afraid to speak. I wonder if their desperation to find a place of worship exceeds their fear of being shunned. How noble. And how tragic.
My black friends have been pulled over for tail lights being out, only to be handcuffed and placed in the back of a police car. Multiple times. Unwarranted. That’s never happened to me. As children, my black friends had squirt guns taken away by their parents for fear that someone would misappropriate it for a real gun. That’s never happened to me. My black friends were regularly followed home at night by cop cars while on their college campuses. That’s never happened to me. Whether you chose to recognize it or not, our society has built a culture of trust around her white citizens and a culture of suspicion around her black. It’s on every street corner, every college campus, in every grocery store, and yes, even in our churches.
Most whites, probably including you, don’t have original first-hand experience with growing up in inner-city neighborhoods, participating in civil rights marches, or working and playing in environments where we are perpetually suspect. Therefore, it is perhaps one of the grossest misuses of our privilege to so easily buy in to and regurgitate rhetoric that has not originated from our own life experience. We would not want it done to us, so we should not do it to others. Of all the news to believe, wouldn’t we want to hear from our neighbors first? Wouldn’t we give those that the news is actually about the first right of refusal in speaking to us about what’s happening on the streets?
The truth is, we’d rather believe what’s fed to us online and on TV than we would do the hard work of building meaningful relationships with those who we have seemingly nothing in common.
Our head isn’t in the game because, like my high school soccer team, we only like playing well on our home field. We like our team’s plays, our coach’s terminology, and our crowd’s cheering. We only like when we win.
Speaking the Same Language
One of the things that inspires me about black culture in the United States is the emphasis placed on community. To make my point by contrast, nowhere have I ever heard whites use the pronoun the white community to discuss large-scale social issues. We never talk about things that are important to white culture, or how things are affecting whites. We’re just us. But to blacks, the black community is an all-encompassing term that gathers anyone of color into the fold. What effects one of them effects all of them. There’s such a deep sense of personal identity because of a shared struggle that, right or wrong, they all benefit or suffer from one another’s behavior.
I recently heard a story from a black man who said that when another person of color starts acting up in a public place, he immediately thinks, “Oh, no. Please, stop. You’re just going to make things worse for all of us [blacks] tomorrow.” That’s because things are felt by a community. In no context have I ever looked at another white person doing something stupid and thought, “You’re going to make things so hard for me tomorrow as a white man.” I simply thought, “Wow, you’re foolish.” And that was the end of it.
For whites, our identity is almost exclusively wrapped up in who we are as individuals. Our world revolves around our safety, our family, our job, our church, our state, our nation. We have a deep sense of personal ownership in nearly everything we do, even when discussing massive entities. We use terms like “my company” for the firm we work for even though we have nothing to do with corporate ownership.
While much of this attitude is honorable, and it’s something I’m proud of as a white man, it’s also extremely debilitating when trying to understand a culture that doesn’t have this mindset.
In the black community, when one person suffers, they empathize; in the white community, when someone suffers, we sympathize. In the black community, when one person wins, they all feel as if they’ve won; in the white community, when one person wins, we are happy for them (if not secretly jealous).
It’s for these reasons, and many more, that the black community sees injustice done to one member as part of a larger systemic problem done to all members. This mirrors how God weighs individual sufferings as corporate sufferings. Oppression has a powerful way of uniting those who suffer commonly while dominance insulates those who benefit from the comforts of narcissism. This is why there are black riots in the streets when a black man is gunned down by police, but hardly a tear shed by whites. Accordingly, if a white person doesn’t perceive that they have racist tendencies in his or her own heart, then it’s written off as someone else’s problem. “Me? I’m all right,” we say. Because we’re individualistic in nature. You may be fine, my friend, but for a people whose worldview is about community and systems and congregations, we are not fine. We are complicit because we’re a part of a larger community. “How horrible to be lumped in with others just because of the color of my skin,” you might say, to which I reply, welcome.
To miss the significance of this is to fail to place yourself in someone else’s context. What’s the importance of adopting someone else’s perspective? Someone else’s language, culture and ideology? If you’re a Christian, try asking Jesus.
If Jesus acted like many of us, he would’ve shown up on Earth in a celestial body. Not flesh, but something heavenly, because it looked better, smelled better, bled less, and ached less. He would’ve disregarded Aramaic as a language and instead insisted that everyone try learning the native tongue of heaven, then he would’ve written anyone off who didn’t bother to pick it up quickly. He would’ve abstained from all customs, traditions, and cultural nuances, because He’s God, after all—what good are those?—and then imposed only ideologies which were eternal.
The point of adopting the worldview of others is that we become as like them as possible to serve them without being noticed. Taking on the conditions of others is the very essence of the incarnation! Without it, we’d never know Jesus. We only know God in his fullness because He chose to know us in ours.
 Black Lives Matter and Racial Tension in America, Research Releases in Culture & Media. Captured: May 5, 2016. https://www.barna.org/research/culture-media/research-release/black-lives-matter-and-racial-tension-in-america#.V5-F55MrK34
 Exodus 3:9 (ESV): “And now, behold, the cry of the people of Israel has come to me, and I have also seen the oppression with which the Egyptians oppress them.”