Social Issues, Theology

They should know us by our love, not our dismissal of black suffering

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You’ve probably seen the viral video by now, or at least heard about it: white police officer Amber Guyger being hugged by the brother of the black man she killed when she entered his apartment, claiming it was her own. Brandt Jean told her, “If you are truly sorry, I know I can speak for myself, I forgive you.”

The video stirred all kinds of reactions on social media. If you pay attention, you may notice a pattern: everyone praising the video for being a modern visual of God’s grace and redemption tends to be white. Everyone disturbed by the video, more likely than not, is black.

That was how it looked on my social media feeds, anyway.

As someone who has struggled to forgive her rapist, and still can’t quite get there yet, I was moved by the video. I believe Brandt may have a better understanding of redemption than I do, and I envy the depth of his faith. Stripped of its racial context, it is a beautiful scene. It’s also completely insane — the woman murdered his brother, for crying out loud! — but that’s also part of the whole point. Grace is supposed to be scandalous, because even the most undeserving can have it.

The problem is that you can’t remove the racial context from the video. I admit, I didn’t understand the negative reactions at first: my whiteness, ahem, colored my response to black criticism. It was such a beautiful moment, why make it about race?

It wasn’t until I came across this article by Dorena Williamson from Christianity Today that it started to become clear for me:

Most have probably seen this footage. Brandt’s offer of forgiveness and hug has been shared and praised widely across social media.

But many have likely missed footage from the rest of the family, including these words from Botham’s mother, Allison Jean.

“Forgiveness for us as Christians is a healing for us, but as my husband said, there are consequences. It does not mean that everything else we have suffered has to go unnoticed,” Mother Allison told the court.

As Americans Christians, we often long for snapshots that make us feel good. We want anecdotes of grace. But in the hurry to resolve painful and uncomfortable stories, we rush past the systemic injustice that lies beneath. Even in the face of overwhelming evidence of racism in our criminal justice system, too many of us remain stoically convinced that injustice is only personal, and rarely, if ever, systemic.

When a black person extends radical forgiveness, we see the grace of the gospel. But when we ignore a black person’s call for justice, we cheapen that grace. Both are acting like the God we serve; we need to listen to them both.

I started sharing this article in response to some of my white Christian friends sharing the video on Facebook, with the following comment: “Here’s another important perspective.”

The responses were…not great:

I am so sorry you and Doreena Williamson( the author of the article you posted here) clearly have so much pain and bitterness about racial differences as is portrayed in this article!

As a white person, I want you to know that not everything is about the race card including the exchange of forgiveness that Brant Jean and that judge showed here. Such a thought never even entered my mind until I read your post and it saddens me to see the continued perpetuation of racism in such a lovely display of Christ when, that act of love had nothing at all to do with black and white, but it had everything to do with the love of Jesus Christ and what He did for me and you on the cross!

I’d encourage you to look up and ask Jesus what He thinks about your dialogue here and, as a Christian, which you proclaimed yourself to be, take very seriously the representation and stewardship you are being given here to represent Jesus! Ask Him if He agrees with your summary of what Brant and that judge said and did in the courtroom. I think you might find He feels differently.

These responses all came from white people, as indicated by their profile pictures. Perhaps they have black friends. That doesn’t erase the blatant tone-deafness in their words, however.

Sure enough, I got accused of making this about race when it was actually about grace. Yep, that is me: making things about race since November 2016. Nice to meet you.

I can’t, and won’t, feel bad about “making this about race” because  these responses parallel my own experiences as a Jewish-born Christian: Why are you so angry about anti-semitism all the time? Jesus was Jewish! There is no Jew or gentile in Christ! It enrages me because I don’t see compassion anywhere in responses like these. I don’t see Jesus in those words at all.

This is what causes people to walk away from the church.

This is what people are talking about when they accuse American Christianity of being complicit in racism.

Black people are trying to tell us that many of our responses to the video are hurting them, and we are not listening. Why? Why don’t we care?

No, the majority of white Christians are not advocating for a return to the days of Jim Crow in which black people had separate churches and separate drinking fountains and separate schools and were routinely denied services in restaurants. The majority of Christians certainly don’t condone lynchings or burning crosses on black people’s properties.

The complicity in racism, the enabling of white supremacy on a national scale, comes from condescendingly patting black people on the head when they speak up about their experiences: Stop complaining, things are so much better now. Why do you have to be so bitter and angry all the time?

Or worse: Let me, a white person, explain to you, person of color, how you should feel about your own experiences.

I am no Bible scholar; I didn’t even finish seminary. But when I read the Gospels, I see Jesus siding with the oppressed over the oppressor, every time. I see Jesus calling out the blind spots of an inherently oppressive empire.

White Christians, whether we like it or not, we are part of that empire. We may never fully understand the experiences of our black brothers and sisters, and that’s okay. But that shouldn’t stop us from empathizing. That shouldn’t stop us from taking a seat and allowing them to speak. We love through listening, not by bragging about how many black friends we have, and certainly not be prefacing our statements with, “I’m not racist, but…

If we call ourselves disciples, we owe them that much. We want to be known for our love, not our dismissal of black suffering. We’re so used to saying “The truth is offensive” when we talk about Jesus being the only way to heaven, but for some reason we don’t believe it when confronted about our own sins against others.

Photo from Dallas News

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4 thoughts on “They should know us by our love, not our dismissal of black suffering”

  1. I find it interesting that you say “No, the majority of white Christians are not advocating for a return to the days of Jim Crow in which black people had separate churches and separate drinking fountains and separate schools”

    Because really, if you look around, we all sort of know which churches are black churches and which ones are white churches. We know which schools are black schools and which schools are white schools. But I guess we don’t technically have separate drinking fountains, so yay for progress?

    Like

    1. I wrote that because chances are, if you ask white Christians, they will tell you that of course black people are welcome at their churches, that they aren’t racist, etc.

      I’ll be cautiously optimistic and say that most white Christians have good intentions. But, as you pointed out, the reality doesn’t always match up.

      Like

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