Reclaiming Black Lives In the Church

 Photo by {artist}/{collectionName} / Getty Images

Photo by {artist}/{collectionName} / Getty Images

by Jennifer Taylor

Trayvon Martin. Michael Brown. Eric Garner. Sandra Bland. Philando Castile. And now, Justine Ruszcyk.

These names were attached to identities; to individual lives with goals, accomplishments, families, friends, and emotions. They were people, in many ways, like you and me, who God loved and sent His son to die for.

These names are forever memorialized as heart-breaking  symbols of the tragic epidemic of police shootings and gun violence, often fueled by the pervasiveness of racism, racial bias, and fear of unarmed citizens of color. Since the beginning of 2017, there have been 492 people fatally shot by police. While these incidences have been part of a larger political debate, by placing police shootings of unarmed people in the “political issue” box,  it doesn’t fully recognize the historical, social, and institutional roots of this systematic problem. Somewhere along the line, speaking out against police crimes and shootings has become synonymous with being anti-police, anti-government, and ultimately anti-patriotic.

As vehicles of law enforcement-- laws made and enforced by shifting political parties, temporarily placed in power, police officers somehow have been melded into the intense tug-of-war political climate of this country. As a result, we see extreme polarization amongst those who call the U.S. home.  Some even characterize conversations about police shootings, not as discussions highlighting a societal problem, but rather as an attack devised by liberals, in the attempt to strip away the foundation of the structures and institutions meant to serve and protect the people of this country.  Others portray all police officers as trigger-happy conservatives, prone to shoot carelessly and recklessly.

So how does this relate to the body of Christ? Unfortunately, we as Christians have also fallen into the trap of compartmentalizing these issues under the label of “political discourse” rather than acknowledging that they are not subjective partisan issues, but social and often religious.  Many Christians refuse to recognize that, political parties aside, these shootings disproportionately target communities of color, communities that continue to be affected by hundreds of years of oppression and institutionalized racism.  Racism is an issue that has and continues to profoundly impact our brothers and sisters in Christ, from one generation to the next.  When we remember our role as believers in this world, it is hard to ignore the implications of a broken structure that has bred abuse and continued structural oppression. Yes, sin created this imbalance, but we are more than conquerors in Christ and have been charged to be like Him in showing the world the love of God through our words and actions and loving our neighbors MORE than ourselves. That is a profound and challenging concept,  one that can be understood, accomplished, and flourished solely through the power of the Holy Spirit.

Let’s be clear: Jesus was a radical. He did not care about the things that we focus on like family background, skin color, ethnic heritage, religious preferences, political affiliation, or citizenship. He simply loved all people sacrificially. He was passionate about carrying out his Father’s mission here on earth.  He was the tangible image of the divine, inviting those who were hopeless to find eternal life. He did not concern himself with being “politically correct,” but he was never unkind or without compassion.  He simply loved others in the purest and most proactive way.

Most of us, if not all of us, have heard this phrase before: Love is an action word. Love is not passive or conditional. It is a fierce witness and the driving force that expels all fear and presses forward in this broken world as a vehicle of healing. So what does that mean for us in the context of the anti-police corruption and gun violence movement? It's about being allies to those who are hurting over the injustices ascribed to black lives, such as the Black Lives Matter coalition. It means standing with them, and not denying or minimizing their experiences.  Ignoring the experiences of those who are marginalized communicates to believers and nonbelievers alike, that their lives do not in fact matter.  It is victim blaming at its core. Silence can be an ally to injustice and an enemy to real change. Who will stand beacons of light in these dark times, if not us?

Once we bear the burdens of those directly or indirectly affected, we truly begin to operate in love and compassion. Being a light means moving away from political correctness (and therefore, silent), and moving toward the Holy Spirit as an open channel for His work and an instrument of peace. As Christians, we cannot allow the ills and hurts of our society, including police shootings and violence, to anger us to the point of sinful bitterness and rage. That is where the enemy wants us.  God wants us walking together in grace and unity.

Here are five ways that we can help our brothers and sisters heal and obtain justice:

LISTEN INTENTLY:

There is a difference between hearing and listening. Hearing is physiologically perceiving sound, whereas listening requires concentration and focus, humility and restraint.  Listening intently, therefore, allows the words of the speaker to sink into the heart. Many times we fail at listening in favor of speaking over or drowning the other person out with scriptures and common “Christianese” phrases. While our intention may be to help, sometimes these catchwords do more harm than good. What is challenging is be present, allowing the person to express their complex emotions around injustice. In other words, less is more. Sitting in silence can be just as or more powerful to a person than giving advice or offering comforting words. Sometimes a person just wants to be heard and understood. “You must invite those who are hurting to express their pain through lament,” says Pastor Brunel Bienvenu,  Director of Intervarsity Christian Fellowship.

ENCOURAGE:  

For me this is tricky. As I  mentioned above, canned (never heard of this expression) phrases can be dismissive and can minimize the very real pain that people feel. However, with discernment,  true encouragement can be an extremely powerful way to bring hope to a seemingly hopeless situation. This can be in the form of a hug, scripture verse, or an encouraging word. The intent here is to uplift and not “shut down” someone else’s painful experience.

PRAY:

It is the way we directly communicate with God, the most powerful tool we have in our spiritual arsenal. I firmly believe that prayer is the fastest vehicle to the miraculous, yet we tend to consistently underestimate the true power of it.  How do you pray in this context? Pray against the sin of silence from our churches and that we would be  more proactive, acting as Christ’s hands extended against racial injustice and violence; pray for healing and comfort for our brothers and sisters;  pray that our police officers will receive the necessary support to do their jobs effectively, with love and compassion, and pray for God to deliver and/or remove the corrupt officers and officials that continue to perpetuate the cycle of violence. Pray in solitude, pray as a group, pray over a hurting person. Prayer is dynamic so let's use it MORE often!

SPEAK OUT:

I am a believer that this has to happen on all levels, whether you are a pastor, a ministry leader, a volunteer, or someone who “just” attends church, we all have a voice and have spheres of influence. This can be as simple as talking to friends and family and encouraging them to act in some capacity. If you have it in your heart to do this on a larger scale, perhaps develop a discussion group or table at an event with the intention of informing the public about police shootings. If you pastor a church or lead a ministry, you can, in a wise and discerning way, preach about the abuse of power and prejudices some officers perpetuate, or how to comfort and support those who are hurting. The important thing is to expose the sin and bring it to light so that it doesn't continue to take root.

VOLUNTEER:

There are tons of organizations combating racial injustice around the nation that you can join. Here is a list of faith-based organizations and events:

“The church is a place of healing, redemption, reconciliation and proclamation of the good news,” says Pastor Brunel. Let our actions as believers be framed in truth, grace and love, and let the church rise up and take a stand against evil, bigotry and injustice.