Dear White Christians: Jennifer Harvey on Ferguson, Missouri
Christians are called to love our neighbor and welcome the stranger.
What do these biblical injunctions mean in a nation where a Black person, injured, alone, in need of urgent medical care after a brutal car accident cannot knock on a stranger’s door seeking help without reasonable worry that he/she may end up killed instead?
What does it mean for white Christians to proclaim a gospel of love while living in a country where African American men and women who encounter police for whatever reason are three times more likely to end up killed during that encounter than are white Americans who encounter police? (Though unarmed in 44% of these cases — data from the FBI.)
The US-American epidemic of violence against men and women of color is nothing new. Nor was the horrific killing of Michael Brown and the treatment of his slain body afterward in Ferguson, Missouri, unique.
What is unique in this moment is that the outpouring of rage, resistance, and righteous protest by men, women, and children in Ferguson has caught the attention of white US-Americans—including white Christians. Outrage in Ferguson seems to be generating a new level of awareness among whites about the epidemic of violence against men and women of color and the epidemic rates at which their killers walk free.
But Ferguson raises many difficult questions for those who claim to follow Jesus. These questions are urgent. They won’t go away any time soon. They also are so difficult we may find ourselves afraid or unwilling to ask them at all, let alone equipped with ready answers.
But ask them we must.
What does it mean for white Christians to claim to love neighbor and stranger while our brothers and sisters of color daily live with the prospect of state-sanctioned violence—death—never far off?
What does it even mean to be “white” and “Christian” in this nation?
Ferguson’s outrage is the kind that comes when a community is unsurprised by a killing like Brown’s. It’s the kind that comes when a community is oh-so-tired of the relentless predictability of it all.
It may surprise or frighten white US-Americans, but the resistance happening right now is best understood as that of a community oppressed and subjugated for so long that it finally dares to insist this: that it will assert its rights, declare its very humanity even if and when the “appropriate channels” and “standard systems” of justice violently refuse to do so.
But Ferguson undeniably exposes something else that is critical for the church to recognize. It lays bare the truth about the depth and width of our racial alienation in this country.
Since the end of the civil rights era, we in the church have loved to lift up the vision and accomplishments of the civil rights movement, and talk about our Christian call as that of seeking racial “reconciliation.” We have continued to imagine ourselves as part of a “beloved community”—even when we’ve admitted we have yet to fully realize this vision.
Ferguson requires us to admit how inaccurate this narrative—how inadequate this vision—really is.
In contrast to the story we tell in church, in the late 1960s Black Christians spoke with increasing frequency, power, and righteous anger about the failures of civil rights. These Christians were clear not only that visions of beloved community were still far from being realized, but that attempts to realize beloved community were not nearly enough to change the actual circumstances of the African American community.
Black Christians pointed to evidence that had become more and more pronounced as the 1960s progressed: that white Christians, comfortable with reconciliation-talk, were far less willing to throw energy and efforts into transforming social structures that could actually address issues of poverty, employment, and police violence.
Black Christians made plain that white Christians were overly focused on abstract visions of reconciliation when they should be committing, instead, to repentance and repair. Concrete and material forms of repair were required to both demonstrate the authenticity of repentance and actually create just racial transformation.
We might think of this as Black Christians saying to whites by the end of the 1960s something along the lines of what Jesus said to Zacchaeus: “You want fellowship and reconciliation? Come down from the safety of your high perch. Admit the ways you have used this unjust system to your benefit and give back what is now due. Open up your home, yourself, and your future to radically different possibilities.”
We might think of this as Black Christians saying to whites by the end of the 1960s something along the lines of what Jesus said to Zacchaeus: “You want fellowship and reconciliation? Come down from the safety of your high perch.
As it turned out, white Christians would not tolerate this message. The more prophetic, theological, and Christian this Black Power analysis became, the more quickly white Christians—even those who had been allies in the civil rights movement—repudiated, rejected, and ran away.
And for the most part, we’ve never gone back.
Reconciliation has remained our mantra.
And Ferguson has exposed how inadequate it has been.
We may be in a kairos moment—a moment when everything changes.
Ferguson makes clear how far from reconciled we are. This distance is, in large part, the result of white Christians having not (yet) truly taken up the work of repentance and repair.
But we can.
Those of us anxious, aching, grieving and distraught over what’s happening in Ferguson are not without guidance. Black Christians have told us over and over again what it must mean to be “white” and “Christian” in this nation. They have made plain what it might look like for white Christians to love neighbor and stranger.
Our job is to finally listen and to respond. White Christians are called by God, right now, to repentance and to the biblically-required work of repair that always accompanies it.
This is a painful moment. But it may also be a kairos moment. If we will only do our part.
Jennifer Harvey is associate professor of religion at Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa. Her newest book, Dear White Christians: For Those Still Longing for Racial Reconciliation (in the Prophetic Christianity Series), was recently released from Eerdmans. She is a regular contributor to the Huffington Post and keeps her own blog at formations. living at the intersections of self, social, spirit. This article was originally published on the Eerdmans blog and is reproduced here by permission.