On the weekend of June 5, I preached a message titled "How Should the Evangelical Church Respond to the Murder of George Floyd?" If you haven’t had the opportunity to listen to my message you can find it here. The response to this message was overwhelmingly positive. I received an enormous number of texts, emails and phone calls from church members, online viewers and pastors from around our nation thanking me for the message.
However, I knew this message would upset some and it did. That’s why, at the beginning of my talk, I warned listeners that the message might be uncomfortable for some of us white folks. But sometimes as a Christian pastor, I need to say uncomfortable things. There are times that all of us, including me, need to feel uncomfortable. Jesus said many uncomfortable things, and as his follower, I need to do likewise. I received more than a dozen negative emails, many from folks asking a handful of similar questions.
The attitudes and behaviors I hope for in any follower of Jesus Christ, but especially Vineyard Columbus members, when confronted with the uncomfortable truth of racial injustice are the following: reflection, listening, engaging, learning, humility, and openness. When I encounter the opposite: defensiveness, denial, deflection, or outright hostility to the very notion of pervasive racial injustice in America, anecdotes about having a black friend or anecdotes about negative experiences with black people, I have to admit, it is very discouraging!
The interesting thing about most of the negative responses was that they almost all repeated one of four themes. It is, I think, instructive for all of us to hear these repeated objections and how I responded to them.
"I feel bad about what happened to George Floyd but…" ("He was no hero", "he was no Martin Luther King, Jr.", "he was a felon", "he was a drug user".) Here’s how I responded.
One of the most common narratives when a black man or woman is murdered by the police is to dehumanize that man or woman; to imply that they somehow deserved to be killed even if they were not resisting arrest, were running away, or were not engaged in a violent crime at the time of their death. The idea, I suppose, is that because of a murder victim’s checkered past they are somehow less worthy of life than the rest of us.
The truth is, we never do this in reverse. We never say when a police officer is murdered: "I feel bad that Officer Joe was murdered, but let’s be honest, Officer Joe was no hero! He was charged twice with domestic violence. He was divorced three times. And he was an alcoholic for years!"
Trashing the reputation of a black murder victim is sadly a feature of our media-saturated culture. But it is so stunningly inappropriate and dehumanizing that one would hope we Christians would never traffic in such things. We simply do not engage in a moral inventory of a murder victim’s character because unlike the world, we Christians believe in the "sanctity of all human life" and mourn the deaths of all murder victims.
"It was wrong for you to critique the President. We should support and pray for the President, not critique him." Some writers felt I was exposing my obvious left wing biases by critiquing this President (if you are interested in knowing my political leanings, click here). Here’s how I responded.
I’ve preached nearly 1,600 messages at Vineyard Columbus over the past 40+ years, and I’ve publicly critiqued a President by name exactly five times. Once I preached a message about President Clinton’s abuse of power and abuse of his office by his affair with an intern. Twice, I criticized President Obama for his support of abortion. And twice I criticized President Trump: once for his comments regarding the Charlottesville protests ("There were good people on both sides."); the second time was during this message. Suffice it to say, critiquing a President is an extremely infrequent practice of mine – five times in 40+ years of preaching.
Further, I am not a committed Democrat or Republican. As I said in my message, we Christians need a divorce from both political parties. Instead, we need a renewed commitment to the kingdom of God and to Jesus as our only King!
I asked several letter writers: Are you opposed to critiquing the President as a matter of principle? In other words, when friends of yours critiqued President Obama in your presence (or when I did in my past sermons) did you object and say: "We should not critique the President. Instead, we should support him." If you did, although I disagree with your perspective, I respect you! That is a principled stand! On the other hand, if critique is only wrong when it is of President Trump and not President Obama then your objection is just partisanship!
In fact, political leaders are frequently criticized in the Bible. Indeed, the 22 chapter book of Revelation is an entire New Testament book-length critique of the Roman government and its Emperor.
So yes! We should pray for the President, which I frequently do. But with our prayers we can and should, in our democracy, call our leaders to account when they violate biblical standards of behavior.
"Why didn’t you mention abortion?" Several letter writers asked why I didn’t mention abortion which is a much greater sin than racial injustice.
I responded that my message was not about abortion (or world missions or healing the sick, for that matter). I have preached on the subject of abortion more than a dozen times in past years. I’ve also written extensively on our church’s Value Life practices and position. Read my most recent article here. And, of course, Vineyard Columbus has one of the largest church-based Value Life ministries in the country. But, we Christians ought to have a broader social agenda than simply ending the practice of abortion. For example, we Christians ought to be the most vocal supporters of immigrants (inasmuch as caring for foreigners is the second most repeated command in the Old Testament). We ought to protect the environment since we are also commanded by God to do so. And, we ought to fight against racial injustice since racial injustice attacks the imago dei (the image of God) in our black brothers and sisters. So, yes, abortion is important. But abortion is not the sole concern of God or his Word and ought not to be the sole concern of a thoughtful Christian!
"There is no such thing as systemic racism." Many letter writers objected to the whole notion of systemic racism. Here’s how I responded.
My message centered on "systemic racism". Systemic racism simply means that the governmental and private structures of America for the past 400 years have treated people with black skin worse than people with white skin. This is not an indictment of individual whites accusing every white person of intentional discrimination against black people. Rather, "systemic racism" refers to the corporate and institutional structures which have conferred benefits on whites and denied those benefits to blacks. You ask why would anyone say that, especially a pastor? Here are some reasons why I think that in America our system has been tilted against black lives:
- A black boy born today in Washington, D.C. or Missouri, Alabama, Louisiana, or Mississippi among other states has a shorter life expectancy than a boy born in Bangladesh.
- Blacks died from coronavirus at more than twice the rate of whites.
- A black woman is 2 ½ times more likely to die in childbirth than a white woman.
- People of all colors use and sell drugs at remarkably similar rates. Yet, in some states black men are incarcerated on drug charges at rates 20-50 times greater than those of white men. Nationally, black men are incarcerated on drug charges at a rate that is six times greater than white men despite using and selling at the same rate.
- Communities in America are segregated today because federal, state, and local policies were specifically designed to segregate neighborhoods racially and private actors, such as banks and real estate companies, red-lined white neighborhoods and steered blacks away!
- The average black family in America has one tenth of the wealth of the average white family.
It’s a broken, racially biased system that produced these unjust results. I then asked a question: "Have you ever read a book length treatment of systemic racism?" Have you watched any films laying out the case for systemic racism? Many letter writers admitted they had never read a single book on systemic racism. If you haven’t, may I suggest some resources to you?
- Holy Post - Race in America Check out this 17-minute video by "Veggie Tales" creator Phil Vischer by clicking here.
- When They See Us If you have Netflix, check out the Netflix series “When They See Us” about the so-called “Central Park Five”. There’s a follow-up episode done by Oprah Winfrey on “When They See Us”.
- Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson. I would strongly recommend this book. Just Mercy is also available as a movie for free on Amazon. It’s really worth reading and watching.
- The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander. This book lays out in massive detail the systemic racism that exists in our criminal justice system regarding arrests, prosecutions, sentencing, and conditions of parole. Michelle is a believer and was an occasional visitor to Vineyard Columbus before she moved to New York City.
- The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of how our Government Segregated America by Richard Rothstein. In exhaustive detail, Rothstein demonstrates that the current pattern of segregated communities is not simply the result of economics (i.e. many poor blacks simply can't afford to move into white suburban neighborhoods). Rather, the current pattern of segregated communities in America came about as a deliberate consequence of federal, state and local laws. This book is really eye opening.
- Divided by Faith: Evangelical Religion and the Problem of Race in America by Christian Smith and Michael O Emerson. I would also encourage you to read this wonderful Christian book. It discusses the way that systemic racism has divided our churches.
As our country grapples once again with our history of racial injustice, my prayer for all of us at Vineyard Columbus is to approach this moment by renewing our own individual and church commitment to learn, to listen, to grow, and to fight for racial justice in America.