Our intention has always been to rotate the photo on our front page regularly. Like many goals, that’s ended up being neglected. With only one full-time staff person, it never really seemed that urgent. But during a recent conversation with members of the Executive Board and Advisory Council, we decided to change it to a photo I had taken a couple weeks earlier.
If ever something could be called a “third rail” of American political discourse, it would be race, racism and racial hostility. A third rail powers the train. You can ride on a train that is connected to a third rail. You can even touch the train. But if you touch the rail directly, you die.
Similarly, race is part of what shapes every American’s relationship to the city and to the country around us. To be American is to be dedicated to the self-evident truth that all men are created equal…while existing in a society that treats the cultural norms of middle-class people of western European ethnicity as normal. If a family isn’t middle class, or isn’t of western European descent, then they have to behave like middle-class western European families when they leave the house. Otherwise, they aren’t considered respectable.
This fact, combined with our country’s long and well-documented history of racially motivated violence and injustice, is part of the context surrounding every conversation we try to have about how to best order our society. Every conversation we have about poverty is incomplete without acknowledging the disproportionate numbers of whites above the poverty line. Every conversation about public resources is incomplete without acknowledging the fact that resources that promote social goods (think parks, public transit, libraries, etc.) tend to be located in majority-white neighborhoods, while resources that tend to have negative social effects (think heavy traffic patterns, bus depots, waste treatment centers, etc.) tend to be closer to non-white neighborhoods. Even conversations about our zoning and about the fact that majority white and majority non-white neighborhoods exist are incomplete without acknowledging the legacy of Jim Crow laws and practices like redlining—our country may have taken those laws off the books, but our unrealistic dedication to the myth of individualism and self-creation blinded many of us to the fact that taking the laws off the books did not somehow undo the damage they did to families and communities.
These things are undeniable. And, like a third rail, it is extremely difficult to discuss them—to make contact with them—without killing the chance of having any productive conversation.
When we started this ministry, we knew that race was a significant undercurrent in our political discourse, but in those blissfully optimistic days of 2015 and 2016, we thought that we would have more time before it stopped being subtext and started being super-text. We thought we would be able to use four, or even eight, years to get our feet under us, learn more about our mission field, and learn from people more expert in the history and legacy of race in American government before we needed to start discussing it openly. We didn’t want our ministry to just parrot back talking points from the debate happening around us—we wanted to figure out how to talk about this issue in light of the specific calling we believe God has set aside for us.
So, we haven’t talked much publicly about protests, marches, police militarization, and racially biased use of force. Instead, we generally try to leave room for people who can speak more expertly or more personally than we can. We point to people like Steve Park and Seth Wispelwey and Richard Smith, or to organizations like The Front Porch and the Institute for Cross-Cultural Mission.
But at a time when so many of my countrymen are in mourning, and so many of my countrymen are overwhelmed by lifetimes of public abuse, I think it’s probably important for Christians across the political spectrum to come to terms with at least one basic fact about our faith:
People shouldn’t have to grieve alone.
Our faith teaches that God voluntarily took on the pains and sorrows of people who were objectively beneath him, overtly hostile toward him, for the sake of giving them someone who could sympathize with them. And then he commissioned people who experienced that sympathy to take up our crosses and follow him in it.
There’s a very old story in the Jewish and Christian Bibles about Job, a privileged man who loses everything and everyone he holds dear. Three or four friends hear about this, and travel a very long way to comfort him. And they do pretty well at first—they sit with him and they mourn in silence. After a full week of this, though, they get anxious or uncomfortable or maybe they just lose sight of the ball, and they start talking. They start rationalizing. They start explaining away what happened, or telling him what he could have done differently, or how he should change in the future to avoid this again.
And then, out of a storm, the voice of God tells them to shut up, and to hope that the man who is grieving prays for them.
Hundreds, or maybe thousands, of years after that story was first told, Jesus affirmed people who are mourning in this current, broken world, and made them a promise: “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.”
Listening to people who are hurt and grieving is an important spiritual skill. It puts those of us who are at risk of being satisfied with the world as it is, or at risk of over-estimating our own strength and ability to master the universe, under the tutelage of people who were singled out by Jesus and by the full scope of scripture as experiencing some particular kind of spiritual privilege and maturity.
That’s why, when the current protests over police brutality against black Americans were first sparked by the killing of George Floyd several weeks ago, I went down to the area around the White House. I wanted to be with the people who were grieving, pray for them silently, and serve as a presence that may indicate that they were not alone in their grief.
And make no mistake, the protestors were grieving. Yes, they were angry, but they were committed to nonviolence. Over the course of several hours—both before and after dark—I saw a total of two people risk turning violent, and they were quickly calmed by the crowd around them and herded away from the militarized police officers surrounding the protest zone.
I took the photo that’s on the front page of our website just a few minutes before these people—who were standing still, hands in the air, many of them crying—were shot with tear gas for the first of three times during my time on-site. Every time, they scattered, coughed, and then filled back in calmly to resume their chanting and their crying.
The Bible calls us to be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to anger. Learning to listen and grieve alongside others is a hard enough skill when you can put a face and a name on the grieving person, when you know the grieving person well and are sitting shoulder-to-shoulder with them. But in the US, every resident is also a participant in the structure and operations of the state, and we share in a massive collective responsibility. Listening on this civic scale—this political scale—is a unique and daunting challenge. I have seen and heard about so, so many protests and marches and vigils and demonstrations decrying police violence since 1992. It seems to me that my black countrymen have been very slow to anger in their grief, and that every American has a patriotic duty to at least listen when other Americans claim en masse that something about our country is broken and needs to be repaired.
I don’t presume to prescribe exactly what listening looks like in your town, with your particular regional history and your particular relationships, skills and influence. But for anyone reading this who shares my belief in the life, death, resurrection and eventual return of an itinerant Semitic teacher and miracle-worker in an unfashionable and unruly backwater of the most expansive empire the world has ever known, please take a few minutes to think and pray about how you might run this race set before us following in the footsteps of the God who made himself flesh so that he would be able to sympathize with our suffering.