Elmbrook Articles

A Personal Letter Responding to Racial Tensions

May 29, 2020 by Greg Marshall

Hello Elmbrook Church, 

The name George Floyd is probably familiar to you now. He is the man who died in Minneapolis when a police officer kneeled on his neck for several minutes, a tactic not sanctioned by the Minneapolis Police Department or any police department that I know of. Now we see anger and exhaustion exploding through new videos of protests, tear gas, looting of stores, and fires. What does it look like to respond at this moment as followers of Jesus?  

Before answering that question, please read this text I received this week from a close friend of mine who is African American: 
"I would really like to have you over to the house. With this situation in Minnesota and the conversations I am having with my kids and family, I really need them to see us interact, the actual love we have for each other. I don't want them to be jaded towards white people. I need them to know the difference between white supremacy and white people. I love you, but I'm afraid of where we are going in our society. There is momentum building for an actual race war or another riot like the '60s, where people are forced to choose a side. That is unfair and ungodly!! I don't know what to do, but I feel their souls hang in the balance, and this is a crucial time for people."

I've known his teenage sons since they were tiny. They are some of the most kind and thoughtful kids you'll meet. Right now, they are angry and tired of feeling unseen and not cared for by much of society. 

Should we listen carefully to their story and learn from it, or try to explain why they shouldn't feel that way? 

And what about the riots? 

Stores are being looted, and fires started. Does that mean we should not listen to and learn from my friend and his sons? Are the feelings of my friend's family and the African American community now invalidated because of those riots?  

And what if their stories and experiences are true? What do we do with that? 

It's ok for us to admit we don't know what to do as a church of mostly white people. It is far better to accept that and then aim to be curious and teachable. We can allow people of color to speak into what we do not know so that we can understand. To invite those perspectives does not threaten the gospel or our wellbeing. To invite those perspectives is actually one of the most gospel-inspired actions we can take right now. 

What does it look like to respond at this moment as followers of Jesus? 

For me, it looks like this: 

I believe, with every fiber of my being, the Christ-like response to this situation is to listen to the community that is crying out for help. 

The riots are scary and destructive, but they do not negate the reality that black people across the nation (who are not rioting) are also saying, "We are tired of feeling afraid for our lives. We are tired of being treated less than human." And those statements represent feelings that go far beyond the topic of police brutality. 

Those cries have continued for far too long. 

To determine our response, we reflect on how God responded to our broken world in the divine person, Jesus. 

Christ pursued us, became human, and demonstrated his love for us in this: While we were still sinners, He died for us. (Romans 5:8)

He identified with the struggles of humanity, allowing himself to suffer with us. (John 1, Hebrews 4:15) 

And he made himself a sacrifice (Romans 3) so that we could have life we would not have otherwise. 

I believe we are called to cut through the noise of riots, political rhetoric, and emotional reactions to do the hard work of learning from a community that is asking us for help. 

It's time for us to actively consider how we can be part of changing things for our black and brown brothers and sisters, and this calling to love well is not negated because some people are choosing to riot. 

And at the same time, yes, of course, we pray for and support the many great police officers who are also feeling afraid for their lives right now. We can discern as a church how to best serve police officers in our communities – this, too, is critical. We do not need to choose between helping the African American community and supporting police officers. 

Again, thousands of our black neighbors who support the work of good police officers are still crying out to say that racism is a problem. Nothing will change until we, their white brothers and sisters, are willing to listen to the heart of the situation through all the noise, to learn and act. 

As for my family and me, we will listen and take action. 

Practically speaking, this means: 

  1. I'm going to spend time with my friend and his sons, and I'm going to show empathy. I'm going to learn from them. I have much more to learn than to teach in this situation. And I'm going to resist any urge to explain away their experience. I'm going to resist any urge to tell them they shouldn't feel how they feel. Because that would be empathy blocking behavior, which is not Christ-like. 
  2. I'm going to learn as much as I can about why things are the way they are in our country, specifically related to the African American community. I am not going to accept the narratives that are dominant in any one political party. I'm going to invite disruption to my perspective. Recently I listened to a podcast series called 1619, which is about the history of black people in America (1619 is the first year a slave ship landed on our shores). I found it helpful and inspiring. 
  3. I'm going to research more about how peaceful protests turned into fiery riots. I believe that was avoidable, and I'd like to know more about what could have been done by the protesters, by the police, and by the city leaders to find a more peaceful path. 
  4. I'm also going to reach out to a friend who is a leader in the Milwaukee Police Department to see if there is anything I can do to help them strengthen relationships with the community. Because I know that choosing to listen to the African American community does not mean that I'm choosing to support the African American community instead of police officers. That's a false dichotomy. I'm choosing to live out the love and ministry of Jesus in relationship with both the African American community and the men and women who serve the community as police officers. 
  5. I'm going to challenge my friends and family who respond to this situation with statements or attitudes that block empathy and avoid deeper learning and listening. Statements like: 
    1. Slavery is over; black people need to get over it. 
    2. If black people would stop setting buildings on fire, then maybe I'd listen. 
    3. If black people would stop (fill in the blank), then perhaps I'd listen. 
    4. Racism is not as prevalent as black people say it is. 
    5. Etc. 

That's how I'm going to respond. 

Whatever you choose to do, let us apply a Christ-like mirror to everything we say or do concerning this situation. Every conversation, every post, every tweet, every family interaction, let us consciously ask ourselves, is this Christ-like? Am I pursuing, listening, and sacrificially loving? If we call ourselves Christians, then we must hold this mirror up and reflect the image of Christ in everything we do. 

The life and ministry of Jesus is our compass. 

I love you, church family. With tears in my eyes and an aching heart, I'm asking you to please consider what a Christ-like response is to this situation, and then to do it. 

With love, 
Greg Marshall