A white man’s frank and repentant exploration of how racism finds a home in white folks’ souls.
Tell the story
Learning to hear the collective witness of black brothers and sisters in Christ
by Jeffrey A Schooley
I want to begin with a proposition: (1) Evil prefers to hide from view. (2) Systemic racism is evil. (3) Therefore, systemic racism prefers to hide from view.
Now, if in that proposition you heard the claim that white people are evil, please read again. While white people living in the United States are the beneficiaries, and sometimes the ardent defenders, of systemic racism, the evil we are talking about is a system. It is a collection of well-documented economic, educational, and social structures that give advantages to some and disadvantages to others.
If this proposition is accepted, then the challenge before us is to find ways to examine, hold to account, and repent for systemic racism. We know it won’t be easy. This evil will resist being seen, held accountable, and repented of. And yet we as Christians must confront it. So says our own Book of Confessions: “The [children] of God fight against sin; sob and mourn when they find themselves tempted to do evil; and, if they fall, rise again with earnest and unfeigned repentance” (Scots Confession, 3.13).
Thankfully, though, we do not fight alone: “They do these things, not by their own power, but by the power of the Lord Jesus” (3.13).
‘For all the focus on white power structures and black lives, society has moved barely any closer to either acknowledging or denying the existence of the evil of systemic racism. Why hasn’t this regular attention resulted in better understanding?’
Together, empowered by the Spirit, we can do this. And incidences of white police officers killing black citizens are just such an opportunity for examination, account, and repentance.
Yesterday marked the one-year anniversary of Michael Brown’s death at the hands of officer Darren Wilson in Ferguson, Missouri. Over the past year the news media has played an active role in bringing more and more of these sorts of stories to the public’s attention. And throughout the past year a certain process—indeed, a narrative—has begun to take shape:
(1) A black man (though, occasionally, a black woman) is killed by white police officers (though, occasionally, black officers are also involved).
(2) The media reports the death.
(3) People protest the death.
(4) The legal system weighs one way or the other on the death.
(5) Some people disagree with the legal system’s ruling, while others applaud it.
(6) Other systems of support or contempt (social media, protests, riots, Kickstarter campaigns, etc.) are used to confront the legal system.
(7) We forget about it until the next time someone dies (and by “we,” I mean the media and white people; trust me: black people do not forget).
The result is a surprising blind obsession with issues of race in America. But the key word here is blind. Because, for all the focus on white power structures and black lives, society has moved barely any closer to either acknowledging or denying the existence of the evil of systemic racism. This can seem bewildering. Why hasn’t this regular attention resulted in better understanding? That’s because such evil can only be seen through the process of examination, accountability, and repentance. Short of this process, evil will remain hidden. All that the news media has proven is that evil really can hide in plain sight.
This tired media trope, however, has done more than fail to serve the general population. It has also deluded Christians into believing that it is the best way to uproot systemic racism. In short, we have traded in a holy inheritance for a modern media spectacle and asked the spectacle to do what it is unable to do.
The media will always fail at the task of exposing systemic racism because it is impossible for a single event—a single story—to encompass a systemic reality. It is impossible for a single narrative to reveal a metanarrative. Just as one cannot explain the “metanarrative” of Scripture without appealing to—at least—four major sources (the creation, fall, redemption, and consummation), neither can one white officer killing one black citizen explain to us the entirety of systemic racism. It is pure and simple hubris on the part of the media to claim (implicitly or otherwise) to do so and folly for advocates on either side to think that the media has either proven or disproven the metanarrative of systemic racism in a single story.
To know the Word of God, we look to a whole host of Jewish and Christian witnesses in the Bible. In fact, the compilers of our holy book were so concerned about the metanarrative of Christ that they chose not one but four Gospels to tell the story of Jesus, despite the discrepancies between them.
If we rely on the collective witness of the people of God to know God’s covenant with us, I suggest that we switch to a similar source when it comes to racism: the collective witness of black brothers and sisters in Christ.
‘We have come to see black brothers and sisters in Christ in this light because we worship apart from them, because we don’t share Table fellowship with them, because few of us have seen black hands hold a white baby and baptize her in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.’
It has to be a collective witness. Requiring multiple voices and multiple stories is to humbly acknowledge that the sort of evil we seek to eradicate is too wily for just one voice and story. (Even so-called progressives forget this when they, for example, extol Martin Luther King Jr. to the exclusion of other voices.)
It also has to be a “witness.” A witness is someone who has seen or heard or experienced something that he or she needs to share. Christians trust witnesses. None of us has come to Christ without such a witness (church, family, friends, the Bible).
It also has to be “black brothers and sisters.” To be sure, white people experience this system of racism too. But we tend to experience it unconsciously (we might notice the racial slur but not the silent privileges we’ve been afforded). We need to rely on the witness of those who consciously experience the impact of systemic racism. We who are blind must rely on others’ sight.
Finally, it’s got to be “in Christ.” It is only through the power of Christ that any of this is possible. And it is Christ who walks us on the path of examination, accountability, and repentance—through which Christ transforms and saves.
Tragically, this is the place where white soul tends to falter. When an African American speaks about racism, we tend to see, not a brother or sister in Christ, but a political animal with a political agenda. We tend to malign witnesses as advocates.
Worse yet, we have come to see black brothers and sisters in Christ in this light because we worship apart from them, because we don’t share Table fellowship with them, because few of us have seen black hands hold a white baby and baptize her in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. And short of these holy encounters, we have allowed other media narratives (for example, the angry black man) to infect our consciousness.
And so this month’s spiritual discipline of repentance is worship—especially inter-racial worship. We must come together in that place where we all stand in mutual adoration, mutual repentance, and mutual forgiveness. We must hold hands in prayer and see a sea of different colored hands raised in worship. We must hear truth spoken from white lips and black lips alike. We must let white elbows rub against black elbows as they share a hymnal. And when we start doing this, we will find that the cacophony of media voices will give way to the collective witness of our black brothers and sisters in Christ. And it is only their witness—and our worship-centered trust in it—that will finally stop systemic racism from hiding in plain sight.
Jeffrey A. Schooley is a teaching elder at Center Presbyterian Church in McMurray, Pennsylvania. He is also a PhD in Theology candidate at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh. Biking, Netflix, reading, teaching, and spending time with his wife and dog round out the rest of his life. He can be reached at ThinkLikeChristians@gmail.com.