I’ve been really rattled by the shooting death of Mike Brown. Shaken up. In no small part, I’m sure, because I am the father of black boys, and so there is a very real sense in which Mike Brown could’ve been my son. And so the image of him with his hands up, yelling, “Please stop shooting,” just guts me.
But there is another, more important reason I’m torn up by the death of Mike Brown. And that is that I am a Christian. More specifically, I am a Christian in a denomination that has explicitly made it a goal to strive for a future free from racial injustice.
So this past Sunday, following the challenge of Eugene Cho, I preached a sermon on Jeremiah 34, a passage in which God punishes his people because they go back on a covenant they had made to liberate all their slaves. They set them free, but then they force them back into slavery. It was impossible not to see the resonances with the history of African Americans and the situation in Ferguson. And so I said so. And I hoped in some small way that speaking that truth would make a difference.
Then last week, I wrote a blog post about white privilege. Again, hoping in some small way to make an impact. And it got a lot of hits. And I felt a little better.
And then I read this post from another pastor, Thabiti Anyabwile. Anyabwile, who is a black man and a fairly conservative evangelical, throws down the gauntlet for his fellow evangelicals. He says, in no uncertain terms, if evangelicalism does not have a response for the oppressed people of our nation, then evangelicalism is dead:
…most of what’s been said [about Mike Brown and Ferguson] by evangelical leaders thus far (including my post yesterday) has been a general lament. It’s been the expressing of sentiment. There’s not yet been anything that looks like a groundswell of evangelical call for action, for theology applied to injustice. …our most influential leaders with the widest reach [have] been silent en masse. Today I think we need to be pushed a couple steps ahead.
Otherwise, orthodox evangelicalism is dead. It’s dead to oppressed folks in our back yards who need to hear the word of God spoken into their situation with all the prophetic unction our Lord would give. It’s dead to grieving parents required to have closed casket funerals for their children because racist systems and people so disfigure the body it can’t be shown. Orthodox evangelicalism is dead to the marginalized because it’s so allergic to the margins. It wants its mainstream, its tree-lined streets of cultural acceptance, its reserve and respectability. So it’s dead.
So here’s my call: Let there be the founding of a new conservative evangelical body with the aim of (1) providing clear, understandable, biblical theological frameworks for the pressing problems of the marginalized coupled with (2) organized calls to action and campaigns consistent with that framework.
Though I don’t (very comfortably at least) identify as an evangelical, I do identify as a orthodox Christian, and so I was cut to the heart by Anyabwile’s words. They reminded me that when Trayvon Martin was shot, I was rattled then too. And I read my denomination’s official statements condemning his death and calling for justice. And I posted them on Facebook. And I felt a little better. And then I forgot about Trayvon.
Like most prophetic voices, Anybwile’s challenge is simultaneously inspiring and convicting. It is a challenge that applies not just to those who identify as evangelicals, but to all streams of Christianity. (You should read the whole thing). Sermons and tweets aren’t going to cut it. If we don’t have a way to apply our faith to the injustices around us, if we don’t show solidarity with the poor and oppressed, if we don’t go out to the margins to stand with the marginalized, then the church in America is dead.
Most orthodox Christians have been focussed on their own marginalization from the cultural and political center of American life, as our views of sexuality have become increasingly unpopular. Given the rapid pace at which this has accelerated the past several years, that’s understandable. But if we’re so focussed on our own marginalization from the halls of power and the public square that we walk by our neighbor laying wounded in the street, then we have really—as the British say—lost the plot.
I, for one, will answer my brother Thabiti’s call. I am ashamed that I forgot Trayvon. I will not forget Mike Brown. I don’t have any easy answers, or even any sense of what concretely to do yet. But I’m going to start by listening to Thabiti and my other African-American brothers and sisters in the church. And I’m not going to stop until I do know what to do.