“He who passively accepts evil is as much involved in it as he who helps to perpetrate it. He who accepts evil without protesting against it is really cooperating with it.”
–Martin Luther King, Jr.
Years ago, when we were church planting in Canada, we worked with a lot of new immigrants, mainly Chinese, but from other countries, as well. One of these new immigrant families many of you from River’s Edge will know, Chris and Debbie. Most of us can only imagine how difficult it is to immigrate to another new country as an adult. Everything is different. What you know to be true is often no longer true. I can still remember getting a call one day from Chris that someone had broken into their apartment and stolen several things. It was a traumatic experience. As we were talking, I asked if they had called the police. Chris was aghast that I would suggest such a thing. I got the impression (right or wrong) that you would never call the police for something like this in China, that calling them would result in more trouble, not less. I tried to explain to Chris that in the west that was not the case, that the police are our friends, that they are here to protect and to serve and to restore justice, not to cause more harm. But of course, I’m white; and so, I had no idea that I was lying to Chris.
I’ve been thinking a lot about that conversation in these last several days, about how wrong I was to make such a statement without qualifications. See, if you are black in America today, any encounter with the police could turn out to be catastrophic. And if you are a person of color, any encounter with the police could be trouble. But I am white, and I never encountered much of that; so, I had no idea it was even true. But sadly, it is true. Systemic racism in our country has made it true. And I wish it was only out there, in the world, in that God-forsaken part of our country; but it is not. It is everywhere. It is in our churches and in us. You may object strongly, denying any hint of racism in your being. But if Dr. King was right (and he was) that our silence aligns us, consciously or unconsciously, with the perpetrators, with the evil, with the racist, then many of us stand guilty and in dire need of repentance.
Maybe it used to be okay to be silent and to let our lives speak for themselves. As Christ followers we proclaim Christ and try to live out the greatest commandment, to love God and to love our neighbors no matter what color they are as ourselves. So many of us simply went about our day, believing that if people saw what we did, they would know where we stood. But today, that is not true. I’m quite sure it wasn’t even true back then. It was just a lie we told ourselves to make us feel better. The truth, uncomfortable though it may be, is this: to be silent is to cooperate with evil. Edmund Burke’s words have always been true: “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.” In other words, we cannot remain silent. It is always right in issues of justice to take a stand and to have your voice heard. But I fear I have not spoken up enough about this issue. And I fear I have not done enough on this issue, and I fear I have not provided enough leadership on this issue so that all of us with one voice and with one heart can stand against the sin of racism that is all around us and in us. But in light of the recent murder of George Floyd, a murder in a long line of murders and crimes of social injustices, such a silence is unacceptable.
So, let me say it: there is no excuse for racism anywhere in our city or country or world. And while that is true, it needs to be said even more strongly in regards to the church. Racism is absolutely unacceptable for God’s people. In fact, it is a sin of the vilest form. True, it is not in the Ten Commandments; but it is on almost every page in the New Testament. When Paul says love one another, accept one another, honor one another, live in harmony with one another, bear with one another, forgive one another, serve one another, he was talking to Jews and Gentiles who were struggling to coexist because of their racial and ethnic differences. Why? Because racism was rampant in the church. But the gospel tears down walls that we have erected to keep people out, and the gospel of grace makes us all one in the bond of love no matter who we are or where we came from or what color our skin is. And as the gospel took root in the lives of God’s people, they began to see people outside of the church as people imprinted with dignity and honor and worthy of love and acceptance. And so, they began to give themselves away to people who looked different than they did, who behaved differently, who thought differently; and they rejoiced that they could now claim those who were vastly different from them as part of their very own family. One hundred years earlier, they would have despised these people as being inferior; but now, as a result of the grace of God in Christ Jesus, they saw these people of worthy of all honor and themselves as their servants.
See, racism is not just a cultural issue, it is a deeply theological issue of the first level. And any trace of racism undermines the very nature of the gospel.
And since this is true, the murder of George Floyd brings to the forefront things we must believe.
- We must believe in the dignity and equality of all people, no matter what color there are.
- We must confess that recent events are not simply isolated events, but are part of a long history of injustice in our country.
- We must repent over our lack of understanding of the plight of our brothers and sisters of color because we have not actively sought them out and asked them to share with us their story and their heartache.
- We must lament that, for many, America is not a safe place or a just place or even a good place.
- We must confess that for many of us, being rooted in white privilege, are self-deceived about the issues; we deny that racism is a widespread sin; we deny that it is that serious; we deny that it is the cause of these incidents and, instead, blame it on economics, unfortunate circumstances, unsupported police forces, and so forth; and we deny the cries of our brothers and sisters in pain while we go about our merry way (see Amos 4:1-5).
- We must confess that we have been silent too long and that we should have been far more active in promoting racial equality in the past and should have already committed ourselves to making a difference in our churches and in our country in the future.
- We must mourn over the many examples of the misuse of force and the abuse of power, and we must demand changes in how our police conduct their business.
- We must also give honor to our local police forces who work hard to bring justice, safety and protection to our communities, and applaud them for not giving into fear and hatred; but at the same time, we must challenge them in the strongest ways possible to maintain the highest ethical standards and to seek the good of all peoples, regardless of their color and must demand swift and firm justice when a police officer oversteps his or her bounds.
- We must pledge ourselves to protect the vulnerable and to minister to the needs of those who are suffering and to do so here and now in our country and not make the mistake of thinking that the vulnerable only refers to people “over there somewhere.”
- We must pray and pray and pray for God to heal our land and to bring the sin of racism to an end in our churches, in our communities and in our nation.
- And we must root out any trace of racism in our lives.
But you may think that this is still a problem out there in our world that doesn’t touch our lives regularly. But you are wrong. General Assembly is our annual denominational meeting. It takes place in a different city each year, and most people drive if they can. Not too long ago, we gathered in this one city in the Southeast. After the first day’s meetings, eight pastors, five black and three white, got together and were talking. One of our black pastors asked a question that seemed out of the blue to some. He asked how many in this group had been pulled over by the police on their way into town. The three white pastors kind of laughed since the question seemed preposterous. None of them had been pulled over. But all five of the black pastors had been. And these were my friends. These were people that you would love. These were your brothers. How can we fulfill Jesus’ command to love one another if we do not grieve over situations like this? How can we be one in the bond of love if we do not mourn that our brothers had to endure such a horror? How can we honor these men if we don’t feel their pain?
So, what can we do? The list is too long to elaborate here, but be sure we will be proactive in the future and address this topic more regularly. In the meantime, consider this as a first step. If you survey our list of missionaries, you will come across an interesting name, Wy Plummer. Wy has an impossible job. Historically, the PCA (our denomination) has been a very white denomination. In fact, shamefully, in the 1960’s several of churches even stationed elders at their front door to invite any people of color who might drop by, to drop by other churches that might be more appropriate. Now, that is not true today, and these churches have confessed that act as sin and have deeply repented over it; but the stain still remains. And even though it was only a few churches who participated in that racist sin and even though it isn’t true about any of our PCA churches today, it is still hard to get people of color to come into the PCA and embrace it as their church home. I get that. Knowing that history, I certainly wouldn’t want anything to do with the PCA as a person of color. But if we are going to grow in terms of spiritual health as a church, then we need to be far more diverse. I’m not talking about reaching more numbers or having a plan for church growth, I am talking about our spiritual well-being. Without being diverse, without reflecting our communities, our churches will dry up and die because you can’t ignore the people around you and call yourself the church of Jesus Christ. That’s where Wy comes in. WY has been called to change the PCA and to enfold African Americans into our body. As such, he recruits black pastors, church planters, ministry leaders and ordinary people to come into the PCA and to worship with us, and he calls us who are white to love our brothers and sisters and to welcome them and to be the body of Christ with them. And yes, that is an impossible job, but Wy is accomplishing great things and the face of the PCA is slowly changing. Will this end racism in our churches? Probably not, but it is a great, great first step and one that I am passionate about. I don’t know a lot I can do, but I know I can do this. I can support Wy and pray for him and pray that his vision of a diverse body worshipping together as one would come true. Dr. King said, “Darkness cannot drive out darkness, only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate, only love can do that.” Maybe by worshipping together, by fellowshipping together, by getting together, we can learn to love one another and, in that act, slowly, but surely, drive out the darkness of racism from our lives and from our churches and even from our country.
I leave you with one more quote from Martin Luther King, Jr.: “Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.” Think about that and then act in Jesus’ name to bring justice and light and love to our neighbors.