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Dear White Christian,
I’m writing to you, specifically those who I’m pastoring within the locality of Jefferson County New York for whom the majority of my life has been dedicated to serving, in the hopes of accomplishing three primary goals. I don’t expect everyone to be helped by this letter, nor those deeply saturated in years of media-endorsed rhetoric; your’s is a longer road which only begins when you unplug. But I do trust that there are some who’ve felt a growing uneasiness over the widening gap between what we’ve believed in the past and what we need to believe moving forward. It is for you that I hope to offer a voice of reason, a glimmer of light in the darkness of negativity.
My first goal is to present alternate perspectives to the many given by the loudest voices within our white contexts; namely right-wing media outlets, and churches that have continually ignored Jesus-centric views on marginalized people groups. Statistically and behaviorally, the right is acting extremely unChristian for those who so adamantly claim to champion the ethical causes of Christ. Tragically, what I hear most are opinions and judgments coming from people who rarely, if ever, take into consideration the side of those they’re deciding for. This mentality is a large part of what’s gotten us here. It fails to embrace empathy, instead opting for self-justification at the expense of the marginalized, an action ultimately rooted in pride.
My second goal is to provide language with which to speak about subject matter that’s largely outside of our purview. I believe there are many people who watch national events unfold who feel helpless in their ability to dialog about them. We’re stuck with words like “frustrated” and “enraged,” and would love to know how to express ourselves more thoroughly, more effectively. For you, may you find new vocabulary, new metaphors with which to explain the complex state of our world.
Lastly, I would like to offer up my recommendations for specific actions. There’s nothing worse than reading someone’s moving call to the streets only to be left on the curb with nowhere to go. While I don’t have the exhaustive list, nor even the best list, I do have a few ideas that I hope provoke others to move forward and add to an ever-growing wealth of shared strategy.
Problems always seem simple when we’re far away. When I see someone bent under the hood of a car on the far side of a parking lot, I assume they just need some jumper cables. It’s not until a mechanic gets up close that he or she can diagnose the complexity of a fuel sensor error and a clogged gas line. In order to understand the problems we’re facing as a nation and as a church we must be willing to get up close and get messy. If not, we’ll continue to misjudge what’s really happening, settling instead for our own false narratives.
Getting Our Heads In the Game
I remember my high school soccer coach yelling at our team during a state finals game. “Get your heads in the game!” he roared at a halftime that found us losing to a team we would’ve beaten handily in any other situation. He rightly perceived that we were being thwarted by two issues, neither of which had to do with our actual opponents. First, we’d become so comfortable beating all the opponents of our past that we’d forgotten to play the opponent of our present. And second, we’d become comfortable playing on our home field, a statistic that bore up against our away losses. Our heads were in the wrong place in the wrong time.
Our senior pastor, Kirk Gilchrist, recently asked our church two serious questions. Why did the civil rights movement of the 1950s die out? He followed it with an even harder question: How was the white church complicit in its demise? If we can stomach a third question, I’d pose: What patterns of silence and inactivity of the 1950s and 60s are still present in our churches today?
These questions, if we’ll let them, should drive our knees to the ground in repentance and our feet to the pavement in action. It was precisely these themes that worried Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. enough to pen his famous Letter from a Birmingham Jail, April 16, 1963. He addressed it to his “Fellow Clergymen,” which were eight well-known white clergymen in the South, and opened by recognizing their beliefs that his “present activities ‘unwise and untimely.’” Sadly, I think his letter is as needed and potent today as it was in 1963.
If Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was successful in rallying people to the cause of civil rights, I believe it was because the movement was birthed from the church and then moved into the secular landscape. It captured the spiritual heart of America, not just the intellect. Civil rights, therefore, was a social cause because it was a Christian cause—the two weren’t mutually exclusive. It was believed that God championed freedom for the oppressed far more than the State did (Lk 4, Is 61), and therefore it was the church’s divine mandate to see it played out.
Throughout the Old Testament, the prophets, specifically, warned the wealthy nation of Israel about the blind eye it turned toward the oppressed, the marginalized, the fatherless, the widow, and poor. Whether it was Micah citing God’s call “to do justice,” Isaiah’s rebuke for “withholding justice from the oppressed,” or Malachi’s scathing call that God “will come to put you on trial” for their lack of consideration to those in need, the scriptural calls for change are prolific (Mic 6:8, Is 10:2, Mal 3:5). The book of Proverbs alone gives at least ten critical calls for God-followers to lend their attention to the oppressed (Pv 14:21, 14:31, 28:27, 31:8-9, 19:17, 22:9, 21:13, 22:22-23, 29:7, 17:5).
In the New Testament, Jesus fulfills these prophetic charges of the past by demonstrating compassion to society’s oppressed. From healing the unclean (Mt 9:20, Lk 8:43), to forgiving the impure (Jn 8:11), to granting the wish of a racially outcast “Canaanite” (a derogatory term used to describe Israel’s archenemy and conquered people group almost 1,500 years prior) (Mt 15: 21-28), Jesus drew rebuke from the elite and praise from the poor. His implication that Israel should show mercy to the socially outcast (the Widow of Sidon), and pray for the healing of generals over its enemy armies (Naaman the Syrian General), nearly got Jesus killed (Lk 4:25-28).
Upon Dr. King’s death, many of the moral responsibilities that churches should’ve carried on largely disappeared, especially in white church. Since it wasn’t directly impacting us, we stopped showing up to peaceful protests, stopped petitioning congressional leaders, and largely withdrew from activities in black neighborhoods. The silence became deafening. With no voice to sound the clarion call, and no central icon to look to for direction, our focus drifted from the ongoing plight of our black kinfolk, appeased by the false security of legislation. Since it was not our freedom to champion, it was not our cause to carry on. Our sickness was one of trusting laws to write on our hearts what only the hand of God can.
I believe the late Supreme Court Justice Learned Hand was well suited to critique the systems of our nation when he wondered if we “rest our hopes too much upon constitutions, upon laws and upon courts. These are false hopes; believe me, these are false hopes.” For all his influence, for all his use of law, he still concluded that the moral fiber of the nation could not be elected, but only projected. “Liberty lies in the hearts of men and women; when it dies there, no constitution, no law, no court can save it; no constitution, no law, no court can even do much to help it.” Christian nationalism is the same disease that makes us believe the right President, the right Supreme Court Justices, and the right Congress will turn our country around. Neither the Constitution nor the Bill of Rights can ensure a people that will follow fast after the ways of Jesus. Only our consciences can do that. And we must find ours again.
 Justice Learned Hand. “The Spirit of Liberty” – speech at “I Am an American Day” ceremony, Central Park, New York City (21 May 1944).