Let’s Talk About Race: A Letter to My Pastor

*Note: I first emailed this letter to my pastor on July 12, 2016. After discussing it, he has given me his consent to post the letter here. I have merely omitted any names mentioned from the original.

Dear Pastor _____,

Normally, I wait until Preaching Team to share my reflections on the prior Sunday’s service. This week, however, I want to carefully craft the concern I feel for the following subject, while not having to worry about being heard amongst a large group of voices. So thank you for being accessible enough for me to write you this letter and for having a shepherd’s heart that’s open to hear the cries of your flock.

This Sunday, I felt deeply disturbed that during our pastoral prayer we lifted up the policemen in Dallas who were shot and killed, yet we entirely omitted the two black men who were shot and killed by police in Louisiana and Minnesota. Certainly, we needed to address the murders of the five officers and the wounding of the other six in Dallas. Our silence concerning the racial tension that caused this violence, however, spoke louder than our prayer. The Dallas officers’ deaths did not occur merely because of “lawlessness.” Those men died for the same reason that Alton Sterling and Philando Castile died last week: Racial prejudice plagues the heart of our nation, causing division and enmity amongst our people.

As Christians, we recognize that any behavior or action that attempts to devalue another human being derives from a fallen nature and a sinful disposition. Our Scriptures consistently teach that the hidden thoughts in our hearts are inextricably linked to our outward behaviors and how we treat others. The link between inner feelings of hate and the murder of another human being is too close for comfort. Thus, in the Old Testament, jealous Cain killed his only brother. And in the New Testament, Jesus taught the religious leaders that those who thought about hatred committed murder in their hearts. Ultimately, then, we have a major heart problem. And how are we instructed to address heart issues? Through confession.

When we are silent, therefore, we allow an inner heart problem to become an outward disaster.

Our silence on issues of race is what allows racism to continue. Because we are so uncomfortable with the term, we ignore it altogether. Racial prejudice that leads to the murder of policemen merely becomes “lawlessness” in our vocabulary. And the manslaughters of two black men at the hands of white officers is never spoken.

In our attempts for comfort, we create an in-group by surrounding ourselves with others who resemble us. If you looked around our church community during the second service on Sunday, you could count on one hand the number of colored faces. All others were white. We can then make excuses as pastors, saying that we care for the needs of our people. And as white, middle-class Americans, we care about others like us. We more easily relate to the police officers, because they have jobs like we do; it hits closer to home. But we do not connect with a black man in Louisiana, who had a prior record. And we can turn a blind eye to the black man in Minnesota, because he’s just different enough from us that we do not have to feel his pain or loss. Thus, praying for our police brothers while ignoring our black brothers becomes justified.

For the majority of our church, I presume, people felt the tragedy of the police officers’ deaths and paid little attention to the tragedies of Alton Sterling’s and Philando Castile’s deaths. If my presumption is true, then we as a community are wrong and demonstrate a lack of compassion.

We are ignoring the needs and injustice against an entire population within our nation. We are allowing for the cries of our black brothers and sisters to go unheard, because we do not care enough to listen—because we can look out in our congregation and see no black sibling, whose burdens we must help to bear.

If any black neighbors were to step foot into our doors, and if they had the courage to give up their personal cultural preferences in order to worship with us, they would learn that we do not care for their weights and burdens. They would learn that we shake their hands, but do not listen to their stories. They would infer that we are a church that would not keep their best interests in mind; that we do not care about the things they care about. And they would gather, rightly, that they are not truly welcome; for when they enter our gatherings, they must leave their blackness at the door. All this, because of our silence. Our silence teaches more to our black friends than anything else we say.

And what about our white members? What we teach in our services, we encourage our people to live out in their ordinary lives. Thus, as we remain silent in leadership, we teach them that they, too, can remain silent. Rather than engage courageous conversations on race, they can ignore them altogether. Rather than listen to the plights of black friends, they can think people of color are crazy for saying racism still exists. They can continue in their small groups and circles of people who look, think, and act the same way they do, never being challenged to broaden their perspective by learning from people who are different.

But imagine what could happen if we truly became like Christ and cared for the marginalized in our community. What if we proactively engaged the divisive current ripping through our country? Perhaps we could go to a black church in our city, asking them how we can embrace them as our brothers and sisters. We could ask them how they’d like us to use our voices and our influence on their behalf. We could plan times to worship together and invite others to join in. We could represent the incarnation of Christ by entering into hard conversations and leaning into the pain of our friends instead of running from it. Perhaps, we could then join with ______ and ______ as they minister to officers as chaplains. As a black and white church together, we could seek to serve our police officers. We could share stories of brokenness and how Christ has brought healing. Perhaps our church would even begin to look more like our city with 90% Caucasian and 10% a beautiful array of diverse ethnicities.

If we learn to start speaking openly about race and other tensions that plague our inner hearts, I believe that we will experience greater theosis in our local congregation as our worshipping community transforms even more into the likeness of our Savior. If we refuse to engage these issues, however, I believe we will miss out on Christ’s power without even knowing it; for our church community will never know the difference, but our black and colored brothers and sisters will be left to fight the battle alone. In the very least, can’t we at least pray for them?

 

Dwelling in Him,
Starla J. Gooch

 

P.S. If you have not watched the videos of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile being shot, I encourage you to do so—despite the graphic nature. It is vital for us to know why these manslaughters are causing so many significant waves across our nation and for us to genuinely grieve for their lives alongside our black brothers and sisters. I don’t know how we could see these men die with our own eyes and not talk about it.

Here are links where you can watch the videos:
Alton Sterling: http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2016/07/06/new-video-shows-alton-sterling-was-not-holding-a-gun-when-baton-rogue-police-killed-him.html

Philando Castile: http://heavy.com/news/2016/07/philando-castile-falcon-heights-minnesota-police-shooting-facebook-live-video-watch-uncensored-you-tube-police-shooting-man-shot-lavish-reynolds/

The Bible Is Not Crystal Clear

A recent Christian news source published an article that stated, “The Bible is crystal clear about [insert controversial topic].” Contrary to such dogmatic statements, the Bible is not crystal clear about anything. For example, think about something that seems undeniably crystal clear in the Bible, beyond any dispute. How about the resurrection of Jesus Christ? Most Christians would probably say that the Bible is absolutely clear that Jesus experienced bodily resurrection from the dead. Yet church history teaches that within the first century after Jesus’ death, people tried to deny that Jesus had physical flesh. They called this docetism. Docetists believed that Jesus was only a spiritual being, more like an apparition, that people only thought or perceived him in physical form. “But what about Thomas?” Some may say: “He doubted, so Jesus invited Thomas to physically touch his hands and feet to prove he was physically there.” This is absolutely correct. But even with such documentation, people—those who may have seen Jesus himself or knew others who did—still thought that he was a bodiless spirit.

Things that seem crystal clear to one person may contrast what seems crystal clear to another. Our cultures, worldview, age, gender, and race—along with many other parts of our personhood—contribute to our understanding of the world around us. When it comes to Scripture, we cannot help but read the text through our own cultural lenses. Most often, we read into the text what we already believe.

Is all Scripture ambiguous? Certainly not! The Bible is the inspired word of God, spoken through approximately forty individuals to communicate God’s truth to humanity. When we read the Bible as a whole, many themes repeatedly appear as we navigate over thousands of years of history. When each theme occurs, we have to study each individual passage where the theme occurs to discover what the author was trying to communicate to the original audience. Then we extrapolate the major principles from the passage and compare it to the overall evidence of Scripture to see if it still weighs true. If the principle stands, it must be true for all people, at all times, in all places. It must be just as true for a twenty-first century American female as it was for Mahatma Gandi who lived in India over a century ago. This is where the issue gets sticky.

Our culture wants to say, “You do what works for you, and I’ll do what works for me. You live your truth and I’ll live mine.” Simply put, such a relativistic philosophy cannot succeed for long in a society. Societies can only function by upholding shared values. Without absolute truth, societies no longer have values to share, which breaks any sort of communal bond by isolating individuals. This is why demanding that the Bible is crystal clear on an issue can be so damaging. Taking the Bible at only face value allows readers to believe something without understanding it. This also encourages people to shut down those who do not see as they see. The Bible becomes an individualistic endeavor for interpretation that excludes those with differing perspectives, making each reader his or her own island.

When we read Scripture, we can never assume that we fully understand it. Even what initially appears obvious, we should seek to study more. Studying well does three things in us.

  1. Embracing our lack of understanding points us to the all-knowing, omniscient God.
    We become most aware of our finite status and limitations, humbled before the God who is greater. We must open our hearts and minds for the Holy Spirit to give us truth that we cannot come to on our own.
  2. We must rely on the community around us.
    When we do not know the answer to a question, we must ask and learn from someone who knows more than we do. We ask others whose experiences and worldviews differ from our own. As we learn to see through the eyes of others, we gain a fuller picture of the God who is entirely other from creation. We begin to see things to which we were once blind. Such learning grows us into fuller, mature persons.
  3. As we become confronted with God and also with our peers, we discover what we truly believe and develop ways to explain it.
    Shallow faith cannot endure in the presence of God or others. God sees through to our shallow hearts, and others see through to our ignorant minds. We are forced to dig in, to explain coherently our beliefs and have the integrity to live them out.

Words are important. How we say something is just as important as the message we seek to communicate. Setting an ultimatum by declaring that something is crystal clear shuts other people and opinions out of the conversation. If we want to engage in genuine dialogue, we need to use language that intentionally keeps the discussion open for other people to engage with their own ideas. If we refuse to listen and understand, no one will want to hear what we have to say, and our input—whether true or not—becomes useless.