Earlier this year in April, former Minneapolis Police Officer Derek Chauvin was convicted for the murder of George Floyd, who died due to Chauvin kneeling on the neck of Floyd for nearly nine minutes. More recently, Gregory and Travis McMichael as well as William Bryan were convicted for the murder of Ahmaud Arbery, who was shot by his assailants as he was jogging through a neighborhood.
Sadly, there are other names and cases in recent years that could be mentioned, all reflecting the underlying issue of white racism. Although we celebrate the measures of justice reached by the state of Georgia and Minnesota, we should not think for a minute that the underlying issue of white racism is resolved. Until we address this issue true justice and reconciliation remain beyond our reach.
If you’re wondering why I am naming the issue specifically as white racism, I’ll explain. I don’t deny the fact that people of all races and ethnicities are capable of prejudice and racially discriminatory actions. However, America has never had to ratify an amendment to the Constitution and pass legislation in response to bigotry and prejudices among any people except white people.
The issue is white racism and not merely racial discrimination, though the two are related. White racism is rooted in white supremacy, the systematic policies such as slavery, Jim Crow laws, and even more recently the practice of mass incarceration which Michelle Alexander has documented in her book The New Jim Crow. Systemically, white racism was apparent when convicted murderer Susan Smith originally blamed the abduction of her children, whom she murdered, on a fictitious black man. That same goes for the miscarriage of justice that landed Walter McMillian, a black man, on Alabama’s death row from 1988 to 1993, which was chronicled in attorney Byron Stevenson’s book Just Mercy that was adapted into a film of the same name last year. Most recently though, we saw the systemic white racism not just in the murder of Ahmaud Arbery but in the inexcusable failure of law enforcement to make an arrest on the McMichaels, justifying their actions until the footage of the incident went viral which caused enough public pressure to make the arrest.
The systemic culture of white racism that pervades America also means people can unknowingly be complicit without harboring any racial discrimination towards others. All we have to do is refuse to speak up like I sadly once did when I witnessed an employer discriminating against black applicants in the hiring process. Or like the different ways in which we might respond to a white man jogging through the neighborhood versus a black man. That said, with reports of Asians being targeted during the current Covid-19 pandemic, we must remember that white racism doesn’t just affect blacks and whites. Although many Asians have assimilated into the white culture of America, it only takes a virus originating in China for Asians to be singled out again in our racist culture. Likewise, it only takes a couple of high-profile crimes committed by undocumented Latinos to begin singling out immigrants and refugees.
The point is that moral outrage over the deaths of people like George Floyd and Ahmaud Arbery, or over the unjust disproportion of prison sentences for black people, is not enough. We must fix the deeper problem. Until we address the issue of white racism, true justice and reconciliation remain beyond our reach. Justice requires truth and until we are honest with the truth, justice will elude our cries for such.
I remember a conversation once with a pastor who was leading a church to pursue economic justice among an impoverished Hispanic community. During the conversation, he offered a simple illustration to denote an important difference between justice and mercy that has always stuck with me. He spoke about the hypothetical scene of coming upon someone drowning in a creek. Out of compassion, most people would attempt to safely pull the individual from the creek. That’s showing mercy. But imagine every day seeing another person drowning in a creek and every day showing mercy by pulling the person drowning to safety. At some point, people might decide to go up the creek and find out why people are falling into this creek. As they do, they might then be able to address the actual issue so that people will no longer fall into the creek. Addressing that issue is the pursuit of justice in that matter.
When it comes to racial matters, if there is ever to be justice, and subsequently reconciliation, then we must address the issue of white racism. Before working for justice we must be honest with the truth. As Frederich Buechner once wrote, “after the silence that is truth comes the news that is bad before it is good, the word, that is tragedy before it is a comedy because it strips us bare in order ultimately to cloth us” (Telling the Truth, 1977, 33). The only path to justice is first facing the honest truth about this culture of white racism, no matter how tragic and terrifying the truth is. Facing the truth is also an invitation to repentance on the part of the offenders, particularly white people—White Evangelical Christians included. Honesty with this culture of evil we have cultivated opens space for us to listen with humility and learn from our neighbors of color how we might help cultivate a culture of racial justice and reconciliation in America.
As followers of Jesus, this should be a welcomed endeavor. That’s because the pursuit of justice and reconciliation are the result of the gospel, the good news about Jesus Christ and the kingdom of God he proclaimed. In fact, the gospel reimagines for us a life in which we are formed for the pursuit of justice and reconciliation among other pursuits. As we follow Jesus, we learn to embody the very beliefs, values, and behaviors that make the pursuit of justice and reconciliation possible.
Now I’m not so presumptuous to know practically what practicing racial justice might entirely look like. Ideally, local churches are communities where both justice and reconciliation are practiced as part of the embodied gospel and so local churches are the catalyst. However, the difference between the ideal and reality may differ significantly. Nevertheless, we must realize that embodying the gospel among local churches is more than just worshiping together on Sundays. Overcoming racism means that believers of different races and ethnicities must learn how to serve with each other and practice hospitality with one another. That becomes possible when the beliefs, values, and behaviors we learn from following Jesus are put into practice.
To say this another way, it is in following Jesus that we learn how to humble ourselves, listen to each other and repent as necessary. Then we might not just worship together, sharing a pinch of matzah bread and a sip of wine. Instead, we’ll share in true communion with one another, as brothers and sisters in Christ who stand in solidarity with each other. That’s if we will let Jesus have his way.
Now, if I may, as a pastor who happens to be white, let me specifically address my fellow white Christians. In America, we have never had to worry about being denied a job because of our whiteness. We sure don’t have to worry about anyone assaulting and killing us when we are jogging through a neighborhood because of our whiteness. Why? Because we are the majority race in America and occupy most of the leadership positions in church and society. So as followers of Jesus, the burden begins with us. It’s upon us to give up that privilege by becoming humble enough to listen to our neighbors of color. Let’s take our cues from following Jesus but doing so as we listen to those who have been oppressed by racism.
Lastly, we know that the pursuit of justice is always a noble cause. But let’s be honest and not tell ourselves that murder convictions in two high-profile cases are the sum of justice. We have much more work to do and the gospel, for those with eyes and ears to see and hear, makes that work both possible and noble.
K. Rex Butts, D.Min, serves as the lead minister/pastor with the Newark Church of Christ in Newark, DE. He holds a Doctor of Ministry in Contextual Theology from Northern Seminary in Lisle, IL, and a Master of Divinity from Harding School of Theology in Memphis, TN. He is married to Laura and together they have three children.