Observations from A White Suburban Pastor: The Pursuit of Justice & The Power of the Gospel
Observations from A White Suburban Pastor: The Pursuit of Justice & The Power of the Gospel
Like most Americans, over the last three weeks I have been actively observing the national dialogue that has been ignited by the murder of George Floyd who was killed while being detained by four police officers in Minneapolis. This inexcusable and completely avoidable tragedy has awakened in many the anger, sadness, and longing for change that such injustice should illicit in us as image-bearers of God. Similarly, George Floyd’s death serves as a reminder of a greater and sadder reality. It is a reminder that sins of racism and inequality are not just a problem of America’s past, but of America’s present. The mixture of emotions that many people feel has found expression in everything from the wide-spread protests across our country, to the constant conversations and declarations that have filled social media platforms.
Whether by protesting in person, posting on social media, or talking around the dinner table, Americans as a whole are engaged in a common conversation and white evangelicals in particular are wrestling with what to think and how to participate in a conversation about an experience that is foreign to them.
It is important to recognize that each one of us enters this national dialogue from a particular point of view. I enter the conversation as a thirty-seven-year-old white male who pastors a mid-sized Presbyterian church that is predominantly white in an upper-middle class suburban area just north of Cincinnati. I share this for several reasons. First, this statement is a recognition of what I am and just as importantly, of what I am not. I am not and do not know firsthand what it means to live as a black male in America. I have learned much for the stories of others, but to treat my secondhand knowledge like firsthand experience is naïve at best and arrogant at worst. Second, it is a recognition of my age and generation. While my four children like to point out the ever-increasing gray in my hair and my beard, I recognize that in the eyes of many I am still a younger man. However, my younger friends and congregation members would quickly point out that I am not that young. I was not alive to personally experience and therefore contrast the Civil Rights Movement of the sixties with the movements of today. However, as an almost forty-year-old I can personally testify to the issues of racism and injustice I have seen in my own lifetime. This alone recognizes that racism is not a distant relic of the past. However, thirdly, I share this because as a pastor I endeavor to engage in every conversation, including this one, through the particular lens of the gospel. I firmly believe that the gospel uniquely gives us the resources needed to productively engage in any conversation and relationship, and certainly, our current national conversation about race and inequality is no different.
Rather than rattling off statistics or waxing sermonic, I think the best way to illustrate the power of the gospel has in our pursuit of justice and equality is to simply describe its work in my own life. I’d like to share several ways that the gospel personally informs my posture and approach in hopes that it would be of some value to you as well.
1. Gospel Humility to be Learners
One of the great resources that the gospel provides us is what I will call “the humility to be learners.” On the one hand the gospel of Jesus Christ reminds me that I am finite. While God is omniscient and can infallibly see every facet of every argument without ever having to ask a question I most certainly cannot. I need God because I am not God. I need the perspective and direction that His Word and Spirit provide. I need the salvation that only the perfect Savior could accomplish. As it relates to other people, this means that I need listen far more than I speak. It means I should not assume I understand other people’s experience and know other people’s motives. I should be much more “curious than certain.”
Similarly, the good news of the gospel of Jesus Christ acknowledges that I am not only finite with all the limitations of my humanity, but that I am also fallen. You see, my problem isn’t just that my view of the world is limited but that my view of the world is corrupted by my own sinful nature. Recognizing the limitations of my finiteness and fallenness gives me the humility to be a learner. The gospel humbles me to listen to God and to others. It is what drives me to follow James’ admonition to “be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger” (James 1:19, ESV).
Very practically, one of the implications of being a gospel learner is recognizing that I need to hear the perspective of others, especially from those whose experiences differ from mine. After the national conversation about racial inequality that was ignited by the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri in 2014, the Lord convicted me that I need to proactively diversify my network of friends in ministry, and to introduce those friends to my congregation. Almost six years later, I am incredibly thankful for the way the Lord has given me friends in ministry around the country from whom I am honored to learn. Some are black, some are Chinese, some are Korean, some are Japanese, some are Latino, and some are Indian. Some are male and some are female. However, a common lesson that they all have taught me is that I don’t know what it is like to be them. I am thankful that the Lord has humbled me enough to recognize my finitude and to learn from these dear brothers and sisters in Christ I have also found that learning from the personal experiences of these dear friends has been a far more powerful teacher than the reports of the media or the national statistics that are often quoted to dismiss the stories I hear. Very simply, these personal relationships have made the reality of injustice and the need for change a personal reality rather than a distant headline.
2. Humility to Acknowledge our Faults and Failures
Enlisting the perspective of others has also meant that I must be willing to admit when I am wrong. As Proverbs tells us, “The one who states his case first seems right, until the other comes and examines him,” (Proverbs 18:17, ESV). There are many times that I have first stated my case to the echo-chamber of fellow white evangelicals, only to be proven wrong when examined by friends with backgrounds different than myself. Again, Proverbs tells us, “Faithful are the wounds of a friends” (Proverbs 27:6) and that, “Iron sharpens iron, and one man sharpens another,” (Proverbs 27:17). I am thankful for the way that God has given me friends who have sharpened me, and at times faithfully wounded me with their loving correction. There are times when God has shown me my ignorance, and other times where He shown me the bias or indifference in my own heart that I didn’t even know was there. While it is uncomfortable to admit you have been wrong, the gospel truth that in Christ I am fully known, loved, and forgiven gives me the humility and security to allow others to point out sin in my life, including the sin of bias in my heart.
The work that the Lord has been doing in my heart is a reflection of the work He has been doing in the denomination in which I serve. While the Lord is certainly at work in diversifying our denomination, the Presbyterian Church in America is a predominantly white denomination. One obvious question with which I have been wrestling is “Why?”. That isn’t an easy question to answer, mainly because of what we find as we dig into the past of the church in America in general and of the Presbyterian church in particular. However, I am thankful that the gospel has given our church the humility and security to engage in uncomfortable conversations for the sake of a deeper faithfulness and a more beautiful future.
3. Humility to Pursue Rather than Dismiss
While the gospel has given me the humility to be a student, and I am incredibly thankful that it has also given my friends the humility necessary to be my teachers. Teaching is hard work, and the greater the difference between the expertiese of the teacher and the aptitude of the student, the more difficult the task of teaching can be. I am sure there are times when my friends have felt like Mozart teaching a kindergartener to play scales. I am confident that it has been exhausting at times for my friends to answer my questions. I know it has taken both bravery and energy for them to tell the story of their experiences, wondering whether their testimonies will be believed. However, I am thankful they possessed the humility and energy to be my teachers on the subject of racial inequality in America. I know it is the gospel that made this the case.
One of the most profound truths of the gospel is that Christ came to make his enemies his friends (Romans 5:10). Think about that. Jesus drew near to the very people who would crucify Him. One surprising dynamic of the current national dialogue that has struck me as a pastor is how openly and adamantly many people reject anyone who doesn’t instantly agree with them. Those on social media declare, “If you don’t ___________ (fill in the blank), you should just unfollow or unfriend me now…” The temptation in our culture is to “speak your truth” and to tell everyone who doesn’t get in line to get out of the way. Such a posture couldn’t be more contrary to the gospel. I am so thankful that Jesus drew near to his enemies in order to woo them into becoming His friends. I am also so thankful that I have friends who have embodied and modeled the patient love of Jesus with me. They have shown me how the gospel teaches us to invite people in rather than write them off. May the gospel lead me to do the same with others.
4. Motivation to Act
Fourthly, I also believe the gospel gives us the motivation to act. After reminding his readers of the gospel truth that Jesus loved us by laying his life down on the cross, the Apostle John asks them a rhetorical question: “ But if anyone has the world's goods and sees his brother in need, yet closes his heart against him, how does God's love abide in him?” (1 John 3:16–17, ESV). The good news is that the heart of Jesus was open to us as sinners. Because His heart was open, His hands were nailed to the cross that secured my forgiveness. It is the good news that His heart was open to my need that motivates my heart to be open and my hands to respond to the needs of others with the resources God has given me. That has led me to reflect on the practical question, “What resources has God given me that I can use to address the need for greater racial equality in our country?” I have been asking the Lord to help me answer that question for years, and I hope that He will continue answering it for the rest of my life. Here are a few of the conclusions He has helped me reach. While I do not have vast material resources by American standards, I have a wealth of resources God has given me. I can pray to God who holds the heart of kings and authorities in His hands. I can use my voice and influence, however small it might be, to speak out about the need for racial equality in our country. I can offer a word of encouragement to my black friends so that they know that they aren’t alone. I lend a listening and sympathetic ear to those who need it. I can offer my presence at a protest when needed so that government officials can visibly see that a lack justice for some is an insult to justice for all. The way I answer that question will certainly change over time, but the gospel means that I must never stop answering it. The gospel is my motive to care and to act when the experiences of others are unlike my own.
5. Fortitude to Persevere
Lastly, I believe the gospel gives us the resource of fortitude to preserve. At once, the gospel tells us that the problems we face are older, deeper, and more complex than we would often like to admit. Our culture likes quick fixes and easy buttons. We want a microwave solution for every crock-pot problem. However, the gospel tells us that our problem with sin runs to the core of our nature and is as old as humanity itself. As one of my friends has pointed out, America’s racial sins are at least as old as 1619 when the first group of Africans slaves were brought to Virginia. The Bible tells us: “Do not be deceived: God is not mocked, for whatever one sows, that will he also reap,” (Galatians 6:7, ESV). Sins of racial inequality have long been sown into the soil of American history: our economy, the placement of our interstates, the formation and sale of our neighborhoods, our laws, and our law enforcement. To be surprised that we are still reaping the lingering reality of racial inequality in our country is self-deception. You can’t sow something for four hundred years and expect it to be cleaned-up overnight. To do so is to naively ask for an easy button fix to a complex historical issue.
My late father was a pastor as well. The church he pastored, David’s Fork Baptist Church, was founded in 1801 and is one of the oldest churches in Kentucky. The original building of the church has two entrances. There is a main entrance with two large white double doors at the back of the building. On the side of the building, there is a small white door and a staircase that leads up to the balcony. It wasn’t until I was a teenager that I learned that the side door was once the slave entrance that led up to the “slave gallery”. In 1865 the laws in our country changed to abolish slavery. Unsurprisingly, many of those former slaves chose to form a separate church when given the freedom to do so. It is one thing to change a law. It is quite another to change a culture.
The longing for greater racial equality in our country is about more than simply changing the laws of our nation. It is about changing the hearts of its people, and that work is not quickly, easily, or comfortably done. It is only done through the gospel. My friends have helped me to see and apply truths of Scripture that I would not see without them. God’s path to justice and redemption often takes far longer than anyone expects. However, the gospel gives us the patience to both trust His character and timing when it is not our own. Certainly, on the day of Christ’s crucifixion, many believed that God had failed, and that the light of hope had been snuffed out. However, in the light of Easter morning the goodness of God in the gruesomeness of Friday gleamed brightly. The gospel gives us the humility to keep learning, to keep teaching, to keep repenting, to keep acting, and to keep going. Our country has a long way to go. I have a long way to go. However, I am thankful for the gospel’s work in me.
North Cincinnati Community Church