Protests and Prayer

Our Executive Director shares a personal reflection on the protests that have sprung up over the past week, and leads a brief prayer for how we respond to them.
In this episode…
  • Rick Barry is Executive Director of Center for Christian Civics, where he helps ministry leaders and faith communities develop missional approaches to their local public squares. He has worked on campaigns for local, state and federal office, is a former writer and editor for Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City and oversaw communications for the Grace DC church network. He and his wife live in Washington, DC.

TRANSCRIPT

RICK: I was hoping to bring you our first book club episode last week, but it seemed untimely at best and inappropriate at worst, given the numerous stories that arose last week about police violence in Minneapolis and civilian threats against black Americans in New York City.

But it seems like the protests that those stories kicked off aren’t likely to end any time soon, and even if they do, we’ll still be living in their shadow for a while, which means no time is really going to be better or worse than any other. So, I’m just going to go ahead and release that episode later this week.

First, though, I want to offer a brief and personal editorial on the protests of the past few days and the more heavy-handed responses to them. This is me speaking personally, from my own experience and from the heart, and no one on the Christian Civics Executive Board or Advisory Council or the team that works on our curriculum has even read any notes for this episode, so I can’t speak for them and I wouldn’t presume to. This is just something I think is probably worth offering up as context for how I’m personally thinking about exploring the issues that these protests bring up, and some of the baggage I’ll be bringing in to our conversations about how we are going to approach these issues in our work.

The police and military response to the protests that have sprung up in the wake of the killing of George Floyd is upsetting to me on a number of levels. The state using violent force against peaceful protests that represent a valid expression of rights articulated and enshrined in our constitution is egregious and indefensible.

I know from first-hand experience that tear gas, pepper spray and other physically violent actions are being taken against crowds that are assembling peacefully. I have attended protests to prayer walk, and I have attended because history suggests that more white faces in a crowd mean that the people working crowd control are slower and less likely to behave aggressively toward the crowd. I was in a crowd that was standing still, hands lifted overhead, on the other side of a fence from law enforcement when law enforcement fired tear gas into the crowd. This action was unprovoked, and happened without any antecedent violence or threats of violence.

Over the past week and in the weeks ahead, many ministry leaders will be struggling to put words together to properly articulate the depth of anguish people are feeling—over these attacks, over the violence they incite, and over the violence that spurred these protests in the first place.
As you do, it is more important now than ever to speak in ways that transcend the accepted terms of debate our culture has adopted.

There is no question in my mind that the pain the protesters are articulating is pain that is biblically validated. There is no question in my mind that a democracy militarizing its police force and mobilizing it against citizens who are lawfully exercising their freedoms of speech and assembly is a democracy that has behaved with a sinful level of irresponsibility. And, personally, I believe that our aggregate failure to listen to or respond appropriately to decades and decades and decades of peaceful lamentation and cries for greater justice should puncture any illusions we may hold about our nation having some kind of uniquely “Christian” public character.

That said, the church can not be satisfied with merely adopting or co-opting the language of the movement for justice whole cloth.

The majority of our pastors and public figures in the church are not political activists, historians of race and justice, or experienced managers of public debate. And it would be unseemly for us to assume that posture and those responsibilities now. It would risk making us appear to be dilettantes at best. Or opportunists at worst.

The thing pastors and ministry leaders can offer now, which political organizers can not, is context. It is not enough for us to repeat or even share the anguish of those who are suffering. It is our unique privilege to be able to place that suffering in a context that leads to blessing for the afflicted.

It is not enough for our prayers to lament, or confess, or claim that we repent of racial bias and systemic injustice. Our prayers must model a vocabulary that helps those who pray with us internalize the fact that racism isn’t just bad—it’s a sinful degradation of the God of the universe.

It is not enough to pray for comfort for the grieving. Our prayers must orient those who pray alongside us in the fact that our faith is predicated on and our reality is sustained by a God who saw people suffering—even as a result of their own sin—and joined them in their grief.

It is not enough to pray for an end to racism. Our prayers must reveal to people who are troubled by racial injustice that it troubles them because it’s not what we are meant for, and it’s not what we are heading toward.

To quote Leslie Newbigin, a man with an imperfect history but whose best glories have shaped my thinking and my discipleship as much as any other Christian leader:

We have before us the vision of the holy city into which all the glories of the nations will be brought.

All the glories of the nations. Every people-group. Every tribe and tongue. Lamenting hundreds of years of racial injustice isn’t just good because racism is bad—it’s good because it means our hearts long for the very thing God has promised.

The other night, I had an impromptu conversation with two men who were closing up their business for the night as I was walking by. I said hello, meaning to just leave it at that and keep walking. But—probably because the streets were pretty empty and they hadn’t seen anyone else in a while—they struck up a conversation with me. We of course got to talking about the protests, and they said that they can understand protesting quietly, but not destruction of property.

I’m half middle eastern, but I’m functionally white. I’m third generation US, raised suburban middle class, and honestly didn’t know where the middle east even was until seventh or eighth grade. I’ve always considered myself an American first, before any other ethnic or cultural heritage.

I’ve only been exposed to the potential of violence once in my life—a kidnapping that was over within a couple hours and ended up being more of a misunderstanding than anything else. And that one experience—that ended in an apology, and an offer to cover my medical expenses, and during which I had constant phone contact with friends and colleagues to ensure my safety—still left me with PTSD. I still get anxious if a cab or a Lyft misses a turn.

I told the men I talked with the other night that I can’t imagine what it’s like to grow up feeling like you are under siege, or constantly under threat, and I’m not sure I know how to tell people—how to tell my countrymen—dealing with that kind of trauma and grief how they should be processing it. They said that that was true, that they’ve never felt unsafe, and that they didn’t know how they’d react in that situation, even without the added stress of being tear gassed.

But Christians live our lives in the service of a King who told us that those who grieve are blessed—affirmed by God—because our sorrows now are articulating things that will one day be set right. We serve a God who calls the weary and the grieving to himself. We have a great high priest who made it his business to sympathize with our suffering—even when we brought our suffering on ourselves and took it out on his body and by taking his life.

I know that a lot of people listening to this probably have a hard time sympathizing with the grief expressed and shared by many of our non-white countrymen. But their grief articulates ways in which our world falls short of the Kingdom. Listening to it, deciphering it, is an opportunity to get a clearer view of what that Kingdom is like.

I’m going to end this on a lighter note by tossing out an illustration from pop culture:

I love the TV show Doctor Who. It’s about an alien—who looks human, of course—named The Doctor, traveling around time and space having adventures and saving planets. A few years ago, they did a storyline where our hero thought he was becoming too famous, and so he went around deleting every record of himself from every database in history, all around the universe. But it didn’t take long for him to encounter a new enemy who tried to look him up and realized what he’d done…and then point out the flaw in The Doctor’s plan: Anyone could put together a usable bio and description of our hero by looking for the gaps in the stories, figuring out what was missing.

You can get a rough idea of what something is like by looking at the effect its absence leaves.

The kingdom that is to come is a kingdom where every tear will be dried. There will be no more sorrow or grief. So the things that cause sorrow and grief now can teach us something about how our world is different from the world that is promised.

If we can’t understand that grief now, that’s not an indication that the grief is wrong. It’s an indication that we have an opportunity to learn. We can better understand the Kingdom by better understanding the way people mourn its absence.

Prayer

Heavenly Father,

We are so, so sad at the destruction of human life, and the violence and the abuse of force and the shattering of democratic norms we are seeing in our country. You have entrusted us with this responsibility of government—put us on a 300 million person monarch committee—and we have yet to live up to that awesome responsibility the way we hope to.

Forgive us, for Jesus’ sake.

We offer these prayers in the name of Jesus, who called those who are mourning, those who are afraid, those who are burdened to himself, and promised them rest and a lighter load.

We offer these prayers in the name of Jesus, who called us to follow him, to be his hands and his feet in that work until he comes again.

Forgive us for the things we don’t know, show us the things that are mistaken in us, and lead us in a better way. Make the love you have for the world through us not just an emotion or a disposition, but a track record. We pray these things in the name of Jesus, who went to the cross praying for mercy and forgiveness for the people who were putting him there, because we knew not what we did, or what we do.

Amen.

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