“We, as God’s people, have got to start holding these systems accountable” – Pastor Broderick Connessero
On the heels of Eric Garner, my pastor decided that all congregation members should wear black in protest as we hosted a special service in which we discussed recent deaths. When I posted the flyer to Facebook someone commented that protests are not why they attend church and that we were bringing too much of the world into the church.
My annoyance level went through the roof; I could not believe that a black man would assert that the black church should not protest for black lives. I was stunned, I was frustrated, and I was hurt. This entire movement, I’ve been waiting for black churches to do more. And watching their silence angers me. As a Christian, as a black woman, as a historian that comprehends the value of the black church in the community, that one comment, that seemed to validate the church’s silence, rocked me to the core.
Historically, black churches have been the cornerstone of black justice. I assure you that a sizable number of the rights you now enjoy are the result of some form of protest that was organized in a black church and/or by a black pastor. There were other places, such as colleges, as well; but none shone like the church. The church was a beacon of hope for weary black souls and gospel spirituals were leaned on for inspiration.
What made the Civil Rights movement so phenomenal to me is that it showed just how much the church cared about injustice. The church cared about us. Unfortunately, that has all changed. As I have watched college students take their rightful place in protests, organizing mass marches just as students did through SNCC years ago, I have watched churches skirt their place in the movement and do minimal. I don’t understand.
It seems churches now clamor for the claim to be “less worldly.” As if the more we talk about God as an abstract concept, and the less we speak about the problems facing the world, the more holy we are. That doesn’t make sense to me. If Jesus truly is the answer for everything, why must we only discuss Jesus outside of problems that need answers?
What we are failing to realize is this: God is the World. God specifically gave us a charge to heal the world, to love his people. Proverbs 31:8-9 charges us to:
Speak up for those who have no voice, for the justice of all who are dispossessed. Speak up, judge righteously, and defend the cause of the oppressed and needy.”
It is not worldly to speak up, it’s Godly. We’re seeing dead boys whose voices are taken from them but we are not speaking up and not defending. Is this Godly?
Moreover, we are followers of Christ. This means we are to follow the footsteps he set for us. Jesus himself was a revolutionary. He was not just a revolutionary in religion but also in society at large. If we go back to the story of the adulterous woman (John 8), we note some key points. Everyone quotes “he that is without sin,” but few actually think on this story beyond that.
What Jesus did comes down to more than a simple “don’t judge this woman.” Jesus saw a woman about to be stoned for a crime that a man was getting away with. Jesus stood up against this injustice. Jesus stood up for this woman. Jesus himself stepped into the justice system and campaigned and spoke for this woman. We have police stoning black boys in the street, and we don’t step in; we don’t campaign; we sit in silence. Is this Christ-like?
Most importantly, Christianity means change—not just personal change, either. People should note that a church is in their neighborhood because things should change in their neighborhood. They should have more resources, more support, more love, because the church is doing all it can to provide it. There should be transformation. More and more churches are popping up, yet less and less transformation is happening.
What is a church that doesn’t fight for change? How do we sit back and watch life after life, hashtag after hashtag, and not mobilize? How do we convince people Jesus cares without showing that we care? How do people notice our light if we refuse to let it shine in the darkest places? What is the point of fighting to save souls if we’re not fighting to save the lives that house those souls?
For the last year, I have seen my denomination plagued by racism. I’ve seen racist remarks made by students TWICE at two separate Adventist universities during Black History Month. I have seen students ask for the dismantling of the Black Student Union at a university. When my division put out a statement following Philando Castile, I saw the most hurtful, racist, and disgusting comments underneath. These comments came from people who claim to serve the same God I do. And in all of this, my world church has been silent. I see young adults in my church clamoring for recognition of our struggle. (Please check out Adventists for Social Justice.)
We get support from our conferences (that happen to be divided among racial lines), but the world church looks over us. I applaud preachers who have stood up, invited activists into their churches, and organized mass boycotts. But the church as a whole is still not doing enough.
Many believe that this is not our place and that the issue is “divisive.” I will concede that the issue is divisive, but so was the Civil Rights Movement. Should we have been silent then? So many churches opted to be quiet during slavery, so many chose to uphold Jim Crow. We accept now that the churches who were silent then were wrong.
Are we ready to be wrong again just for the sake of unity? And are we truly united if our unity can only come if we silence members of color? The idea that we should be united in racism and oppression is not of God. What is the point in unity if we’re wrong? The church needs to speak, not leave it to the oppressed to speak for ourselves. We have to hold the system that fails God’s children accountable.
I understand that times are changing, and churches are no longer held as the cornerstone in many families. But this is no excuse. Time change or not, God is clear on our position in movements of justice. History has shown us that the church is vital in these movements. Of course, the church cannot do it alone, but the church must put forth the effort.
I don’t have all the answers. I can’t tell you exactly what each church needs to do to make an impact. What I can say is that we should be doing more than just offering silent prayer. God is telling us to speak up. We need more unifying, more protesting, more speaking, more campaigning. The church cannot be the church we say we are if it is silent. These are our kids. These are God’s kids. God doesn’t want his kids dying unjustly, and thus we should not stand for it. Isaiah 59:15-16 states:
The Lord looked and was displeased that there was no justice. He saw that there was no one, He was appalled that there was no one to intervene.”
We cannot continue to ignore pleas for help. We cannot maintain silence as our community cries. We must intervene. It is our Christian duty.
Melissa Swauncy is a current graduate student who specializes in the criminology and history of hate crimes, war crimes, and genocide. She's also a blogger (both written and video), church communications leader, debate coach, teacher, and mom.
Image Credit: Vlad Tchompalov / Unsplash
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