This post is in response to remarks made in TIME magazine’s cover article, “After Trayvon” (July 29, 2013). In this article, the authors record comments from black individuals about the continuing racism against black men perpetuated by citizens, as well as by law enforcement. In the article, some people put forth solutions for how to reduce day-to-day crime, social/fiscal policies, and disenfranchisement. My response will be directed at the comments made by black pastors in this article, because I think their comments show a lack of theological conviction about what the real issue is. The issue isn’t racism, it’s sin.
In “After Trayvon,” Pastor Howard-John Wesley of Alfred Street Baptist is quoted as saying: “Paula Deen, a Supreme Court decision and now this . . . There’s a racial consciousness that rises up within me that somehow takes my ability to see this objectively. I am angry.” I understand. Do not think that I write this response because I disagree with their sadness and grief. Do not think that I write this response because I am on George Zimmerman’s side. I am not on a side. I am indeed saddened that black parents have to teach their black children about race-specific ways to interact with a police officer. It pains me to read the words by Jeannine Amber when she recounts that she had to tell her sons, “If you are stopped by a cop, do what he says, even if he’s harassing you, even if you didn’t do anything wrong. . . . Keep your hands where he can see them. Do not reach for your wallet. Do not grab your phone. Do not raise your voice. Do not talk back.” We should appropriately feel a sense of injustice that children must be given these instructions simply because of their race.
But as Christians, we understand that race is not the ultimate issue, sin is. And this is why I feel compelled to respond to the cover article, because in hundreds of words and responses from several black pastors, the problem of sin is not once mentioned. If we think back to the first murder, where Cain killed his brother Abel, it was not done out of historic incongruities in race relations. “History” was 100 years old, and God had not yet invented race. The reason Cain killed Abel is sin. The depravity of his nature drove him to murder his brother out of jealousy. God said to Cain, “Why are you angry, and why has your face fallen? If you do well, will you not be accepted? And if you do not do well, sin is crouching at the door. Its desire is for you, but you must rule over it” (Genesis 4:6b-7). God knew that the total corruption of Cain’s nature lay in wait to manifest itself. One verse later, it did: “And when they were in the field, Cain rose up against his brother Abel and killed him” (4:8).
We commit terrible acts against each other because we were born that way. Racism is not the ultimate problem, sin is. You want to break the power of racism? Break the power of sin through salvation in Christ. You want to improve race relations in America? Improve Americans’ relationships with God by reconciliation through Christ. Address the root of the problem, the sinful nature of man. Pastors, this is your job and your calling. It misses the mark–and displays a tragic misunderstanding of the core issue–when a church’s most notable response is to “add a clinic titled Live 2 Tell to [the church’s] annual back-to-school program to teach young African-American men how to minimize themselves as racial-profiling targets and how to respond when they are profiled.” I’m going to say it, as difficult as it is, because I’m convicted that it’s true: the best way to teach young African-American men to minimize themselves as racial-profiling targets is to preach the gospel and pray to God for the transformation of the hearts of racial-profilers.
In the cover article, TIME says that there is, “[i]n North Carolina, a growing weekly protest against Republican-enacted social policies organized largely by black clergy.” Rev. Dr. William Barber II explains the “four-pronged approach” behind these protests: “We’ve got to protect voting rights, because voting rights is the way we get many of the people on our court systems. Two, we’ve got to repeal stand your ground. Three, we’ve got to pass anti-racial-profiling laws. Four, we have to stand against violence and the proliferation of guns.” With all due respect, Reverend, though I think this will be helpful in forcing a reduction in the expression of racism, so long as it does not address the sinful heart behind racial issues, it will do no long-term good. The first and main prong should be the gospel. Why would we as those who believe in the gospel settle for anything less than the transformed hearts of those who were once slaves to sin?
Lest I be misunderstood, I must make some concessions. I don’t believe these are necessarily bad responses. I am certain that the Live 2 Tell program and passing anti-racial-profiling laws will help reduce the number of cases like these in the future. Michelle Alexander and Mayor Michael Nutter of Pennsylvania advocate addressing economic and financial issues in the black community, and I think that will help, as well. I am thankful for these responses. But on their own, they are incomplete. As Christians, we know sin is the problem, which is why I deeply wish that the black pastors had made some reference to the gospel and the healing, unifying, saving, transforming power of Christ. In his blog, Pastor Thabiti Anyabwile says the following: “We live for justice–yes–but the kind of justice that takes account of the cross of Calvary. . . . We need to take the risk of faith that fights for both the civil justice that courts can grant but also the reconciliation that only Jesus can provide.” That’s how pastors, black and white, ought to respond. It’s what we believe. It’s what glorifies our God and the work of Christ.