Dear White Church,
Please hear me out. Please read to the end, and hear my heart. I’m your brother in Christ. I love you. I’m for you. You carry my blood in your veins and you worship my Savior. We are brothers and sisters, you and I.
In this genuine, heart-felt spirit of affection, and yet urgency, I have something which I desperately want to share with you–something which lies heavily on my soul, and has been growing heavier with each passing year over the past decade. And because we are brothers, because we care for one another, I can’t–no, I shouldn’t–keep it to myself.
But where to begin? See, I know that just about every word I choose, no matter how intentional, can hold the potential to divert from my caring, loving purpose. I can be misunderstood as inflammatory when my aim is affection. So, please, I plead with you again, please remain with me to the end of this letter. And perhaps any additional letters which follow, because I don’t believe I can possibly cover this issue in one mere article. Matters of great importance require great thought and length.
I want to talk to you about the palpable grief that your black brothers and sisters in Christ are experiencing. If your local congregation includes people of color, they are mourning among you. If your local congregation is only Anglo, they are mourning apart from you in the assembly down the street or across town.
George Floyd is dead. Murdered. Suffocated. And people of color all across this country are feeling the pain and sorrow of one more life discarded like it doesn’t matter. And they fear. And they are angry. And they are anxious. And they worry. But before I can really talk about these things, I know I need to explain my intentions more fully.
I’m not writing to all white people.
I’m writing only to the white people who make up the majority of the blood-bought saints of the American Church.
And I’m not writing about all black people.
I’m writing specifically about the black people who make up a segment of the blood-bought saints within the American Church.
I’m writing to the white church about your brothers and sisters, the black church.
Please do not jump to conclusions about my intentions or my biases or my political affiliations or my agenda if you hear a word or a phrase that you’ve heard from other voices such as the news media or radio talk show hosts or college classrooms or other friends. Hear me out. Hear what I’m meaning. Hear my heart.
If you are still reading at this point, thank you. I recognize that referring to you as the “White Church,” can be a turnoff or feel spiteful or political at the very onset. So let me explain.
Roughly 70-75% of people in the United States identify as “white” according to the 2010 census (higher or lower, depending on which particular locale you call home). However, when I say “White,” I am not referring merely to a particular race or skin color. When I say, “White,” think “Majority,” or “People sharing cultural similarities with the most number of people.” But see, if I opened this letter with “Dear People-sharing-similarities-with-the-most-number-of-people Church,” you probably wouldn’t be reading it right now because you wouldn’t understand that I mean you. And my aim is to address you, particularly, in this letter.
I’m writing to you, who may or may not have skin which is lighter, and may or may not have European ancestry. I’m addressing this letter to those of you who have generally experienced a life growing up and currently enjoy a life that is not characterized by being “other.” You are part of the population majority. You feel a sense of “normalcy” in your workplace, your school, your building where you worship on Sunday. You rarely feel “out of place,” or a sense of needing to “blend in,” in order to belong. And in fact, you may wonder why anyone would ever feel “out of place.”
When I say, “White Church,” I realize that phrase is a bit of a misnomer. From its inception, the Church has always referred not to a building, but to a people. And not to a specific group of people with a certain skin tone or embracing a specific culture or living in a specific location, but all ethnic groups, tribes, languages, and social classes which shared the incredibly barrier-shattering link of redemption and adoption through sacrificial purchase by the blood of Jesus. So to say, “White Church,” sounds divisive and even theologically inaccurate, rending the oneness that Jesus bought with his death. However, I’m not using the phrase “White Church,” to segment the church, but to address a particular audience based on your shared experiences. This is exactly what Paul does in Scripture when he refers to Gentile segments of the church or Jewish segments with specific applications or when the prototype deacons were installed in Acts to address a specific problem being faced by the Greek Christian widows (Acts 6:1-7).
So, White Church, you whom have been redeemed and ransomed from the snare of sin and self-sufficiency by the all-sufficient Christ, but specifically who make up the majority of American congregations, please hear me out. A little over a week ago, on May 25, an unarmed black grandfather, black father, black brother, black friend, George Floyd, was murdered in Minneapolis by a white police officer via strangulation. And right now as I type this, there are protests, demonstrations, mourning, and in some cases, riots, which are occurring all across this country in response to his murder.
I will not have space to unpack here (but perhaps in a follow-up letter, I will) why you should not jump to the conclusion that every person throwing a Molotov cocktail or an egg at a police officer in one of these riots is necessarily connected to the mourning of black people in this country, or even the grief specifically of losing George Floyd so senselessly. I will state here only that you should caution yourself from tying the two together. But this is a topic for another day.
The subject at hand is that black Christians are hurting. They are deeply hurting. And by and large white Christians are silent–deafeningly silent. Perhaps you are silent because you are not aware of the pain of your black brothers and sisters. Or perhaps you are indeed aware to a small degree, but simply do not know what to say. Or perhaps, and I pray this is not the case, you are aware of the pain and heartache, but deny its legitimacy, or even scoff at it.
I beg you, if you are a follower of Jesus Christ, indwelt by the Spirit of the God of compassion, do not look away from the grief of your black brothers and sisters. Do not assume it is political. Do not assume he or she is wrong for mourning. Do not assume their tears are excessive. Do not conclude these issues of black death and black mourning and black lament are irrelevant to the aims of the church Christ has bought with his blood.
You may not understand why there is such a visceral response to this murder. Seek to understand! The more you understand, the more you dive deeply into the pain, the more you will learn that this is not just one life discarded–which is tragic and sorrowful enough–but it is one more death in a long extended string of senseless slaughterings. It’s not just an instance of grief. It is a long line of instances, which means it’s not an instance at all, but a flood of griefs which have been born on the soul of black people for a very, very long time. You do not see this and you do not feel it because you are not “other.” It is very, very difficult to see, to understand, to sympathize with grief, with mourning, with anguish, when its cause is utterly alien to you.
But this is the very characteristic of love to which you’ve been called as a disciple of Jesus. Jesus is the weeping God. Jesus is the one who enters in to our pain, enters in to our hardship, and declares himself the God-Who-Is-Near, Immanuel. Jesus entered in to the heartache of Mary and Martha and wept real tears of sorrow when their brother Lazarus died. He did not question their grief. He did not call their lament excessive. Even though he knew their grief would later be eclipsed by resurrection, he exposed himself to their heartache, and allowed himself to be moved by their pain. Jesus saw the weeping. Jesus was deeply moved in his spirit. Jesus was greatly troubled by their trouble. Jesus wept. Jesus entered in.
Now when Mary came to where Jesus was and saw him, she fell at his feet, saying to him, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who had come with her also weeping, he was deeply moved in his spirit and greatly troubled. And he said, “Where have you laid him?” They said to him, “Lord, come and see.” Jesus wept. So the Jews said, “See how he loved him!”John 11:32-36 (ESV)
When we read in Hebrews that Jesus is the perfect high priest because he has experienced our humanity and can sympathize with our weaknesses (Hebrews 4:14-16), I don’t believe we are adequately caught up in the awe and wonder of such a statement. Have you contemplated the enormous intentionality of God the Son to deliberately, consciously experience what we experience as humans plagued by the pain of temptations per the sin curse? The Eternal One, who enjoyed perfect pleasure, love, and oneness with his Father and the Holy Spirit for eternity past, entered in to our pain, sorrow, and brokenness. He did not merely rescue us from a distance, and he certainly did not explain away our sorrows. In fact, the writer of Hebrews states he was made perfect or complete as the founder of salvation by the very experience of suffering (Hebrews 2:5-11).
Dear White Church. Enter in. Enter in to the pain of your black brothers and sisters–the pain which you have never experienced, and never will experience unless you simply sit and grieve with them.
You may be thinking to yourself, “Of course the death of George Floyd is sad. It’s sad that this particular man died, but it’s not so sad that the whole country should be mourning. Isn’t this excessive?” But see, this is how you feel and respond if you have not truly entered in. It’s because you don’t understand that black people are not simply weeping over the death of one man, but the murder of so, so many black men and women, and they fear for the lives of their own children and grandchildren as well as themselves, and they are frustrated at the seeming powerless ability to end the injustice, and they are hurt over and over again when they weep over these things, and they are told by their white Christian brothers and sisters that it’s all just in their heads. Or white Christians simply say nothing, the awkward guest at a funeral who is oblivious that anyone is grieving.
You may also be thinking, “But the black people I know are happy! They never talk about these things. It’s only the liberal black people in the news who feel this way.” Friend, I cannot speak for, nor will I pretend to speak for every black Christian, and I will certainly not attempt to categorize an entire population of people into a single mindset as the media and political parties attempt to do for their gain. However, let me be clear. God has granted me the grace of friendships–actual flesh-and-blood relationships–among black believers across the political, geographical, generational, and theological spectrum, and nearly all of them bear this grief which I describe. Some are homeless. Some are computer programmers. Some are police officers. Some are seminarians. Some are community activists. Some are pastors. Some are Baptist. Some are Presbyterian. Some are nondenominational. Some are old. Some are young. Some are Republican. Some are Democrat. Some do not vote at all. Some are from the North. Some are from the South. But no matter how diverse their life experiences or station in life, the lament over repetitive black death and either the silencing of that lament or apathy towards it by white Christian brothers and sisters touches nearly all of them.
Over the past 8-10 years, I’ve sat and had my heart turned upside down by the deep mournful wails of my black brothers as we’ve beseeched the God of all comfort when Botham Jean was murdered. I’ve shuddered under the weight of shared sorrow as black mothers have wept loudly and could not be comforted because their children were no more. I’ve watched as black believers have cried out for mercy from the God of righteousness and justice to plead their cause.
And see, if you name the name of Jesus and have been adopted into his multi-ethnic family of redeemed ones, it means that you have taken on the responsibility of loving all other members of that family. It means that when a black brother of Christ hurts, you hurt. It means when an Asian sister hurts, you hurt. It means when a Polish brother rejoices, you rejoice. It means when an Iraqi sister praises, you praise. And it doesn’t matter whether these fellow believers sit in a row next to you on Sunday or not. To be part of the family of God means to be a part of his universal family. This is why the Gentile believers throughout the New Testament letters collected the necessary funds together to support their Jewish brothers and sisters across the globe in the midst of persecution. To be a member of this global family called “the Church,” is to take on all the joys and heartaches of each member of that family. Paul points to this very clearly when he commands that the Roman Christians, “Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep” (Romans 12:15). He was saying this to a group of people who did not necessarily always understand one another, who experienced divisive issues, and who could succumb to pride or arrogance, because right after this command, he added, “Live in harmony with one another. Do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly. Never be wise in your own sight” (Romans 12:16).
I’m not recommending here that you go force open a conversation about race and grief with the first black Christian you meet. Truth is, if you live and breathe in the majority culture like me, you tend to talk way more than necessary and listen way less than helpful. This is not love. But if you have a relationship with a black brother or sister in Christ, let him or her know that you are praying for them. And mean it. And go learn things that you don’t know by studying the history of American lynchings (both past and present), preferably as told by black authors who lived it. Be quick to have your mind changed by the perspectives of others. Sit in the mess. And work and pray for what Paul commanded in Romans–living in harmony, not being haughty (proud), never being wise in your own sight–as you seek to not just be an acquaintance with black believers, but actually begin to hear their stories, dreams for the future, and sorrows over the past and present.
Christ-crafted love does the hard work of entering in to the grief and pain of another, and not explaining it away, but feeling it, sensing it, bearing it, drinking it, and walking alongside of the one in grief. This is difficult, excruciating, emotionally taxing work–the work of multiplying your own sorrows by entering in to the sorrows of another–but it’s the happy work of children who were adopted by a sympathizing risen King.