As I watched things unfold in Ferguson recently, I felt a surging of different thoughts and feelings within me. There was a mixture of sadness and fear, anger and helplessness, and my mind raced to come to terms with what this means not only for our nation but for the church. I’m a pastor of a multiethnic church in Milwaukee. Our church has been a community that is diverse ethnically, socio-economically, politically, and in other ways. As I sat and watched the events and all that has followed since, I wondered, “what is required of the people of God when such difficult and painful things grip our nation?”
As I have reflected since that painful evening last week, I have reached some preliminary conclusions. Let me suggest the following things we need to do as Christians, and a few action steps specifically for church leaders in light of the events of this past week and the ongoing national dialog.
1. Humble yourself: A posture of humility allows you to hear God’s voice above the political commentators and the ungodly opinions of this fallen world. In this situation, humility means that we are willing to step beyond our own desires, fears, and pride to consider things from God’s perspective and desires.
2. Think theologically: This is not just a social issue, this is a theological issue. God created all of humankind in His image, yet not all are necessarily treated as “image bearers.” This should cause unrest and lead to repentance within our Churches and Christian Institutions.
3. Watch and listen: It is easy for us to turn away from situations that are uncomfortable. It is even easier to do this when we start to feel like the situation is not ours or related to us. But we have to pay attention. This is not just a white and black issue. It is a human race issue and a national issue. We need to discerningly listen to the voices and watch what’s happening so that we are aware.
4. Get inside the history of others (be incarnational): The pain gripping our nation is not about one event, but about systems and history that have brought differentials in fairness and justice. This is cumulative, not acute. As a white male, I have spent the last year taking time to learn about the history of African-Americans in the United States. It is not an easy history to read. It hurts. Maybe you could read the book The Warmth of Other Suns in order to understand the great migration of the 20th century and the factors that led African-Americans to flee the South. Maybe you could watch 12 Years a Slave to get a sense of what happened in the early years of slavery within our nation. Have a conversation with someone whose life background and situation is different from you and just ask questions. You may be surprised at what their story reveals.
5. Differentiate between people and systems: The evangelical tradition tends to think in terms of personal sin, personal decision-making, and personal salvation. These are important within our tradition but because of this we are often blind to the way systems shape our lives. Paul addresses the important role that ‘principalities and powers’ play in the spiritual life, and we need to see how social and political systems are used for evil. One of the greatest needs for the church in our present time is to both see and address the systemic evil that creates disparities we often do not want to acknowledge. The response to Ferguson highlights the larger frustrations certain citizens feel about systemic injustice that goes unseen or ignored by many. As Christians whose God is close to the marginalized, such as the orphan and widow, cannot be blind to the systemic evil around us.
6. Live Into peace and reconciliation: Two weeks ago, I sat with a Palestinian Christian originally from Gaza. He talked about his own challenges of bitterness in the face of so much pain in his land. He began to talk about how he learned to forgive those who demanded so much and had been aggressors in his life. As I listened to him, I said, “Israeli and Palestinian Christians are the key to peace in the Middle East.” He said, “There is no other way.” In the same way, I am convinced that no other group of people has so much to offer for a divided nation than the multi-ethnic church in the United States. If Jesus really has taken down the dividing walls and become our peace, as Paul outlines in Ephesians 2, then we have both the theological, spiritual, and relational power to live into peace and reconciliation. This is hard work built on the Cross, mutual understanding, and trust building. If we cannot do it, then who will?
7. Lament together: Professor Soong-Chan Rah often talks about the interplay of lament and justice. He writes, “What is needed is a corporate lament — a corporate acknowledgement of the reality of suffering and pain….My sincere prayer is that the Christian community…would lead in the area of repentance over this national sin.” In our feel-good American Christianity, we have lost corporate lament over sin. One of the most important practices we can return to in these days is to lament together over the pain that has been unearthed in these last months. We can lament the injustice that goes back many years. We can lament the inability we have as humans to conquer our divides. We can lament the violent response that erupts from frustrated pain. We can enter into Daniel’s prayer: “Lord, the great and awesome God, who keeps his covenant of love with those who love him and keep his commandments, we have sinned and done wrong” (Daniel 9:4-5). It would be good if some of our corporate prayer and worship gatherings added some sober lament in these days.
8. Pray: Of course, prayer is the critical piece in all of this. Prayer is woven all through what we’ve said before, but needs to be articulated outright. Without prayer we cannot move forward. Without prayer nothing will change. In Life Together, Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote: “the most direct way to another is found in prayer to Christ whose influence is greater.” If we want things to change, we have to first admit our inabilities and throw ourselves upon God’s great ability. We must not resort to prayer without any action, but neither is prayer-less action going to bring lasting fruit.
The church must not be silent. This is the time to show what it really means to love our neighbor as ourselves. This is the time to step forward like Jesus into the fray of our divided country. Let’s unite as the Body of Christ and defeat racial sin in America.
Chris Brooks is the Executive Pastor of Crossover Church in Tampa Florida and Founder of The Issachar Group, a consulting collaborative that focuses on Biblical Justice. Get in touch with Chris via Twitter at @chrisbbrooks.
Matt Erickson is the Senior Pastor of Eastbrook Church, a multi-ethnic church in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Get in touch with Matt via Twitter at @mathyouerickson.