#BlackLivesMatter and (Mostly) White Churches

#BlackLivesMatter and (Mostly) White Churches

As protest and demonstrations swept the nation, united by the banner of #BlackLivesMatter, many (mostly) white churches remained quietly disengaged. One is reminded of Martin Luther King Jr.’s words from a Birmingham jail about white churches during the Civil Rights movement, that “have been more cautious than courageous and have remained silent behind the anesthetizing security of stained-glass windows.”

At Highland (Memphis), we are finishing a six-week course entitled “Race and the Cross.” As a (mostly) white church, we wanted to better understand the #BlackLivesMatter movement so that we too would not remain “silent.” To do so, we’ve studied seriously institutional racism in the justice system, and in educational and economic inequality. We’ve wrestled with white privilege, and attempted to understand legacies of opportunities-given and corresponding legacies of opportunities-denied.

After weeks of discussion and study, our class culminated last week in a discussion of lynching and the cross of Jesus. Many white churches tend to think of lynching as a tragic but solely historical practice, rather than as a contemporary phenomenon still threatening black lives.

But at a local community organizing event following the death of Darrius Stewart, an unarmed black teenager in Memphis, I listened as #BlackLivesMatter advocates and pastors said, "They are still lynching us."

One friend here in Memphis, a curate in the Episcopal church, then made a crucial and eye-opening connection for me. "The same brutal forces of empire that lynched Sandra Bland, Aiyana Stanley Jones, Tamir Rice, Trayvon Martin and Emmett Till, are the brutal forces of empire that lynched Jesus Christ 2,000 years ago on a Roman cross," Broderick Greer said.

His statement, developed more fully in James Cone's The Cross and the Lynching Tree, and resonant with the theological backbone of the #BlackLivesMatter movement, demands that white Christians pause and consider its indictment.

Are the same brutal forces of empire that lynched Jesus still at work taking black lives? Are we, by our codified silence, enabling the brutal forces of empire to steal away black lives? Are we, by our blindness to white privilege, unwilling to glance suspiciously towards the empire that provides it to us? Have we become the religious people in the gospel stories who ignore the innocence of Jesus, and find ourselves yelling, "Take him away! Crucify him."

Are we lynching our black brothers and sisters?

Most (mostly) white churches would say, "No." Many, as I've heard them say, believe this is really an issue of personal responsibility. Young men like Darrius Stewart had every opportunity they did and simply chose to make bad decisions. If you follow that course of logic to its natural end, when you get there you shrug your shoulders and murmur, "I guess he got what was coming to him."

Which is not too far removed from, "Crucify him!"

 The #BlackLivesMatter movement, and perhaps the Gospel, require that we reexamine that "logic" in (mostly) white churches.

In my follow-up post I want to do just that. How are we "missing it" in (mostly) white churches?

I think the answer is biblical, and involves that most unfortunate animal: the scapegoat.

Eric will be leading a session at Lipscomb's Summer Celebration in June on "Talking about Race in (Mostly) White Churches." There he will outline the curriculum Highland used to discuss race, racism and biblical justice.

Header image by A Jones. Millions March NYC. Taken December 12, 2014. Retrieved from flickr.com. Some rights reserved by Resa Sunshine.

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