In 1933 Hitler took effective control of the German government and immediately moved to unify all Protestant churches into a single pro-Nazi Protestant Reich Church. A group of pastors protested and formed the Confessing Church in opposition to some of the Nazi ideals, including antisemitism. Most of those pastors ended up in concentration camps or graves. While most German Christians shrunk back in fearful capitulation, a brave few, including brilliant theologians Martin Niemoller, Karl Barth, and Dietrich Bonhoeffer, stood their ground. Faced with obvious evil, it was a defining moment for the church. It’s possible that the Christian Church in America faces a similar moment.
The American Confessing Church
I don’t intend to compare our current government to Hitler and the Nazis. They clearly are not.
We live in one of the greatest countries in the world. We enjoy a balance of powers that holds all our leaders accountable.
I do not believe that our leaders on either side of the aisle are evil. Although our form of Democracy may be fragile, it has weathered far worse than this.
Neither do I want to cast Police Officers in the role of evil. I know too many good Police Officers who are amazing at what they do.
My point of comparison has to do with the evil of racism, the systematic way it seeps into all our institutions, and the stranglehold it has on our national life.
This is a moment for the Christian Church to stand and make her voice heard. I don’t expect everyone to agree. But, I pray every day for the brave souls who will sacrifice everything for the cause of justice, which is always the cause of Christ.
I pray for an American Confessing Church to emerge from the rubble of racism.
George Floyd’s America
On Monday, May 25th, Minneapolis Police Officer Derek Chauvin pinned George Floyd’s neck to the ground with his knee for approximately eight minutes. At the time, Mr. Floyd was lying face-down on the ground with his hands handcuffed behind his back.
Mr. Floyd’s desperate pleas for air went unanswered. At one point, he called out for his mother (who is deceased). I’ve been at enough death beds to know that this is what some men do at the point of disorientation moments before they die.
Eventually, Mr. Floyd’s cries ceased. An ambulance arrived to carry his limp body away. He was pronounced dead on arrival at the hospital.
This was a horrifying scene that brought out deep-seated pain for so many. The chorus of angry voices has been practically unanimous.
Until I know more, I refuse to assign a motive to Officer Chauvin’s actions. However, I will call out his actions. Nothing Mr. Floyd did or said could justify ignoring his pleas for air. His tragic death was avoidable. He didn’t deserve to die.
I am at a loss to understand how this could happen to any human being in America … but, that’s because I’m not Black.
My friends in the Black community know exactly how this could happen, and they know exactly why it happened. It’s an all-too-familiar story for them. And I for one will stop trying to convince them otherwise because the avalanche of anecdotal evidence confirms that they are right, and I am wrong.
There is something terribly wrong with the America I love, and it’s time to say it – it’s way past time to say it. If we don’t say it we will never be able to heal. Jesus taught us that when dealing with evil, naming it is the first small step in exorcising it (Mark 5:9).
The America I have witnessed this last week — George Floyd’s death, the looting and burning, and bloodshed and fear — is not my America (not the America I know) … but, it is George Floyd’s America — not the America he would want, but the America that many Blacks live with every day.
The Deep Roots of Racism
Fortunately, racism did not make it into the U.S. Constitution. In fact, nowhere in the Constitution — or in the Declaration of Independence, for that matter — are human beings classified according to race, skin color, or ethnicity. Our founding principles are colorblind.
Unfortunately, principles tend to reveal our highest ideals and not our reality.
The reality was that slavery was a thriving and important economical institution that the constitutional architects profited from, affirmed, or tolerated. Forty-One of the Fifty-Six signers of the Declaration of Independence were slave-owners, including Thomas Jefferson (the primary architect of American Democracy).
Black Americans lived with 245 years of slavery and another 100 years of Jim Crow. The ramifications of that will not miraculously disappear.
If we can’t face the truth of our past, we are doomed to drown in the miseries of her turbulent waters.
A Predictable Reaction
The reaction to Mr. Floyd’s death has been swift and predictable. The image of a white police officer with his knee on the neck of a dying Black man is more than our national psyche can bear.
Tens of thousands have taken to the streets to engage in non-violent protest. I commend them.
Thousands of Christians have gathered publicly to offer their prayers and support. I commend them.
Others have used George Floyd’s death as a premise to loot and burn. I condemn them.
Whether spontaneous or orchestrated, there is no place for violence in the framework of Christian thought (Floyd’s family has publicly denounced the violence, saying that George would not have wanted it).
I cannot, with integrity, condemn police violence and at the same time commend mob violence. Both are unacceptable and inexcusable. Both are symptoms of a virus more powerful than Covid-19.
Condemning the actions of one police officer does not mean that I condemn all Police Officers. Most Police Officers are good people trying to do a difficult job.
Condemning protestors who loot and burn does not mean that I condemn all protestors. Most protesters are protesting peacefully with a desire for change and reconciliation.
What Is Wrong With Us?
I grew up on an old caliche road, somewhat isolated from most of the world. About a mile down the street from us lived a white family. They were the first white people I remember knowing. We played with the kids every once in a while. The father was missing a leg. I remember being afraid of him.
Why was I afraid? He never hurt me. I’m sure he was a good man. Why was I afraid? I was afraid because he was different. There is something baked into our DNA (a Darwinian survival instinct) that makes us uneasy with that which is different.
There’s a reason God had to consistently remind his children to treat the foreigner with kindness (Lev. 19:33-34). Our natural tendency is to treat that which is foreign with suspicion and contempt.
The Bible teaches us that everything that is broken in this world is a consequence of our rebellion against God. This means that none of us are perfect.
Four Factors to Consider
With that in mind, allow me to share four factors that feed the virus of racism, and offer three possible ways forward.
They are darkened in their understanding, alienated from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them, due to their hardness of heart” (Eph. 4:18).
We don’t know what we don’t know.
Most of us have a startling ignorance with respect to the Black experience in America. To make matters worse, we also have a stubborn ignorance of our ignorance.
I have read every major biography on the life of Martin Luther King, Jr., including the magisterial Bearing the Cross, but that doesn’t make me an expert on the Black experience in America.
I am Latino, and have lived mostly on the hyphen between Mexican and American, but that doesn’t make me an expert on the Black experience in America.
I don’t want to hear about your “good friend” who is Black. I too have friends and colleagues who are Black, but honestly — I don’t have any close friends who are Black. And even if I did — that wouldn’t make me an expert on the Black experience in America.
I am painfully ignorant — and so are you.
let the wise listen and add to their learning …” (Prov. 1:5a).
The only way to break through our woeful ignorance is to admit it and to listen to those who have lived it. Learning requires open ears, a humble spirit, and an investment of time.
2. False Narratives
Therefore, having put away falsehood, let each one of you speak the truth with his neighbor, for we are members one of another” (Eph. 4:25).
False narratives. I grew up with them, and to one degree or another … so did you. Even if you were fortunate enough to have parents who didn’t verbalize them, you still heard them at school or on the playground or at work. You saw them played out in advertising or television or the Hollywood screen.
Blacks are lazy. Blacks are dirty. Blacks are dumb. Blacks are only good at sports (by the way, except for the sports thing, they said the same about Mexicans).
And then there were the jokes — an innocuous tool to internalize and perpetuate the False Narratives. Jokes have the creative power to demean another human being (or an entire race of human beings) while disguising the violation with a smile — candy-coated poison to make it go down smoother.
Two confessions: (1) Although I have always known the False Narratives to be lies, I have laughed at the jokes; (2) I have been critical of people for being overly sensitive when it comes to the negative stereotypes (i.e., wanting the Washington Redskins to change their chant and their name).
No more. It’s time to listen and to root out the False Narratives wherever we find them. It’s the Biblical thing to do (Proverbs 6:16-19). A lie is a lie, even if for some perverted reason it tickles my funny bone.
Pride goes before destruction, and a haughty spirit before a fall” (Proverbs 16:18).
Frankly, much of the dialogue over race is laced with a veneer of pride. The arguments leveled against the protesting of the Black community often swirl around a national pride that refuses to admit any fault with our collective experience.
Pride deadens the ears and hardens the heart. There’s a reason the early Christian church included it in the list of the seven most deadly sins. Pride has the power to destroy us.
One example: Many of those who righteously denounce the violent protests of looters and arsonists (rightly claiming that they are “doing it the wrong way”), were the same voices who excoriated and crucified Colin Kaepernick when he was practicing his American right to non-violent protest (“doing it the right way”).
If you equally denounce those who use violence AND those who use non-violence to protest, the only reasonable conclusion is that you really don’t want to hear it at all.
And if you are too proud to listen to the Colin Kaepernicks of the world, then what you are now experiencing is the unfortunate and inevitable consequence as less-thoughtful, less-principled Americans grab bricks and torches.
“The thing we want to learn about a stranger is fragile. If we tread carelessly it will crumple under our feet … The right way to talk to strangers is with caution and humility.” — Malcolm Gladwell
[NOTE: Malcolm Gladwell’s book, Talking to Strangers, should be required reading for every American.]
There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear …” (1 John 4:18).
It is natural to be afraid of that which is unfamiliar to you. However, fear has a way of paralyzing and polarizing.
Sociologist describe a cocooning effect in America that began in the 1970’s (on the heels of the tumultuous years of Civil Rights protests). Neighborhoods managed to integrate because neighbors rarely spoke to each other.
Bowing to the demand, architecture shrunk front porches and expanded fenced-in backyards. The advent of the automatic garage-door-opener created a fortress mentality where you now don’t even have to get out of your car until you are safely in the fortress. Gated neighborhoods, once the necessity of only the most elite celebrities, became commonplace.
There’s nothing inherently wrong with small front porches, garage-door-openers, or gated neighborhoods (I have two of the three).
It’s just that we no longer talk to each other because we don’t have to. Unfortunately, it feeds more ignorance, misunderstanding, and fear.
Three Ways Forward
I’ll conclude with three suggestions.
1. Start a conversation with a Black person.
The only two requirements are — (a) listen twice as much as you talk; and, (b) make sure the Black person thinks differently than you do.
It doesn’t count if the Black person is your good friend who reads, votes, lives, and thinks the same way you do.
2. Read Christian writers who approach Scripture from a different perspective.
There is a stubborn and willful ignorance in those who refuse to read anything from an author who doesn’t share their theological, ideological, or denominational perspective.
These are also the people who feed on only one news source every night, greedily gobbling up everything they already want to hear. These are the same people who find Jesus conveniently in their corner on every issue.
I have learned so much from non-Baptist, non-Evangelical, non-Eurocentric writers. They have enriched my spiritual life and theological perspective, as they will yours if you give them a chance.
3. Look at this as a Human Life issue and not strictly a Race issue.
I have a friend who is colorblind. Literally. He has Achromatopsia and sees everything in shades of grey, black, and white. I’m a light shade of brown, but look the same to him as a white person.
His condition is rare. Most of us are not colorblind and never will be. Let’s just say it. We see color.
The only way forward is to see everyone as a person of color — “red, yellow, black and white” — as the song of my childhood sings it (they left out brown, but that’s for another blog article), and to see every person as a human being.
While we can’t help but see George Floyd as a Black man, I pray there will come a time when we will see him primarily as a human being — and his death as a tragedy against human life.
In that world, we would grieve collectively and unanimously over every tragic death. In that world, George Floyd would probably not have died.
In 1937 the Confessing Church of Germany was forced underground. A few of her members worked to rescue Jews and fight Nazi propaganda. Some of her members complained that the Confessing Church was impotent, unwilling to do enough.
In 1948 the Confessing Church of Germany ceased to exist when the territorial churches formed the reorganized Evangelical Church. The Nazi threat was over. The Confessing Church was no longer needed.
That’s too bad. We could use her spirit again.