Over the last few weeks, I have witnessed a very disturbing pushback from individuals I respect. This pushback is against the Black Lives Matter movement born out of the stories of Eric Garner, Michael Brown, Tamir Rice and many more.
I’d like to offer a few reasons why I am convinced that as white Jesus followers, our place is beside our brothers and sisters within the Black Lives Matter movement.
1. Jesus’ New World Is Not Color Blind
Whenever racism is discussed, you will always have a few well-meaning people who seek to dismiss the conversation by saying, “I’m color blind. I don’t see color. There is no such thing as race. We are all part of the human race. The more we talk about this, the more we continue to keep racism alive.” Part of that statement is correct. Yes, we are all part of the human race, but the idea that talking about a problem somehow keeps the problem alive is misinformed at best. We can’t fix a problem without talking about it. Racism will not go away by ignoring it. Not to mention that there is a significant difference between a white person saying, “We are all part of the human race,” in an effort to shut down a discussion on racism, and a person of color saying, “We are all part of the human race,” in an effort to open up the discussion and address the blind spots of privileged white people. One is insensitive and perpetuates racism; the other does not.
My black friends will be the first to tell you that there is nothing wrong with seeing their color or their race. It’s part of who they are, and there is nothing wrong with their race that I shouldn’t see it. It’s a huge part of their identity. The problem is when we treat one another as “less than” based on their race. THAT is racism.
Racism is a social construct created to divide human beings from other human beings in order to privilege some at the cost of others. When monarchies were thrown down and people began to believe that “all men are created equal,” hierarchy could no longer to be rooted in the bloodlines of kings and queens. So hierarchy took a new form. A new idea was created. This idea was that some races are superior to others, and this is how hierarchical privilege lived on.
2. Jesus Was About Liberation
Out of all the Old Testament pictures of Yahweh that Jesus could have chosen, Jesus chose the Advocate God, the Liberator of the Oppressed.
Jesus chose to stand in a deeply oppression-confronting, prophetic lineage. Each of the prophets made his respective privileged class uncomfortable by calling for systemic change as each stood in solidarity with the oppressed.
James Cone, in his book “God of the Oppressed,” states,
Any interpretation of the gospel in any historical period that fails to see Jesus as the Liberator of the oppressed is heretical.” This has grave implications for us as Jesus followers. We are called to be liberators, too! This is why Cone goes on to say, “Any view of the gospel that fails to understand the Church as that community whose work and consciousness are defined by the community of the oppressed is not Christian and is thus heretical.” (Emphasis added.)
Gustavo Gutiérrez, in his landmark book, “A Theology of Liberation” wrote, “The gospel itself contains the seed of liberation from all things that oppress.”
3. Jesus’ Liberation Is From Systemic “Sin” As Well As Private
One of the deepest disconnects for many of my white friends is that they still are looking at these stories emerging from the black community as isolated and individual occurrences without connecting the dots. They want to debate the intricacies of each case individually without stepping back and looking at the big picture. If we will stop and listen first, we will discover that our fellow Christians of color overwhelmingly see these cases not as disconnected, but as one example after another of an entire systemic problem. The stories of Eric Garner, Michael Brown and Tamir Rice somehow hit the news and caught everyone’s attention, but they are not isolated occurrences. These stories are symbolic of the larger experiences—the daily experiences for people of color.
We follow a Jesus who came to liberate us from systemic sin as well as personal or private. I want to share two more statements from Gustavo Gutiérrez:
Grace moves individually AND socially.” (Emphasis added.)
Sin is evident in oppressive structures, in the exploitation of man by man, in the domination and slavery of peoples, races and social classes.”
When we focus on liberating individuals from personal sin while ignoring systemic sin, we create a reality that is deeply problematic. Let me try and illustrate why. Imagine systemic sin within a society as an automated locomotive train racing down the tracks. We are all on this train together. We as individuals may not participate personally in the operation of the train, yet we are still on the train with everyone else as it is moving along.
Someone can choose, privately or personally, to be a Jesus follower, but that person is still a member of a much larger society around him or her that is racing down a track. Just because the person is not racist doesn’t mean he or she is not on an automated train that is. As a white follower of Jesus in society, I may be completely unaware of how vastly unfair the societal structures are. Or, I may know, but choose in my private life to be different. But the train we are on is still moving us all together down the tracks.
Some will ask, “If we just focus just on healing hearts, won’t we heal the systems as well?” It’s a beautiful thought. It’s simply not that automatic. John Newton, the slave trader who wrote “Amazing Grace,” did not look at the slave trade after his conversion and simply say, “Eh, it will take care of itself if we keep converting souls.” No, he intuitively saw the difference between systems and the people who live within those systems. Just because he was converted didn’t mean the system had changed. He immediately went to work changing the social order of slave trading in his society.
If one is privately a follower of Jesus, than one should publicly be involved in ending systems of oppression and privilege. We must purposefully, as Jesus followers, be swimming against the current—swimming upstream, if you will forgive the mixing of metaphors. It’s not enough to be neutral; we must actually be anti-racist. We must be intentionally standing against present racial inequality, while putting on display a world that could be radically and racially different. That the current train is moving down the tracks and remaining neutral or privately non-racist isn’t enough. We must privately and publicly be anti-racists.
Neither is it anti-police to want law enforcement systems to be fair. Today, we live within an automated racist system (train) without racists (conductors). Therefore, if we are going to be following a liberating Jesus, we, like Jesus, must seek to take apart racist systems as well, even if we don’t personally think we ourselves are being racist.
As Peter Gomes stated, “Social sin does not differ from private sin: both stink in God’s nostrils.” Jesus came to heal us from more than individual and private sickness. We must not only embrace the private healing and shun the public healing. Jesus came not only to heal the heart but to heal our sick, social structures as well. John 3:17 reads, “God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.” The word translated “save” literally means “heal”. (I’ll come back to Jesus’ healing motif in #7.)
4. Jesus Shut It Down
In Mark’s gospel, we get a little tidbit that is most often overlooked.
“Then he entered Jerusalem and went into the temple; and when he had looked around at everything, as it was already late, he went out to Bethany with the twelve.” (Mark 11.11, emphasis added.)
When Jesus arrived at the temple, it was already too late in the day for his temple protest to accomplish his desired result. So he had to go back to Bethany, spend the night and come back the next day, when there would be a sufficient amount of people to make shutting down the temple sacrifices an effective demonstration. (Imagine if Jesus had had Twitter.)
Luke tells us that as a result of Jesus shutting down the temple, the priests began “looking for a way to put Jesus to death.” And it would not be long before the temple police showed up at night with swords and clubs to arrest Jesus. (Talk about police brutality.) During Jesus’ trial, Jesus was even subjected to police brutality according to John’s gospel. “When he had said this, one of the police standing nearby struck Jesus on the face, saying, “Is that how you answer the high priest?” (John 18.22 ) We can respond to this two ways. We can either say Jesus should have known how to talk to law enforcement respectfully, or we can see Jesus as not being disrespectful, but that there was a much more deeply systemic problem here with a very long history.
James Cone, again in his book “God of the Oppressed,” writes, “The only meaningful Christian response is to resist unjust suffering and to accept the painful consequence of that resistance.”
Jesus, in shutting down the temple, had “resisted” the oppression of unjust exploitation and ecclesiastical abuse, and now he must “accept the painful consequence of that resistance.” To their violence, he must respond by turning the other cheek. He must love his enemies—and even seek to restore them. He must do whatever it takes to endeavor to win them away from their own enslavement to systemic evil—even if it is through death and resurrection.
This is where the power, not of Jesus’ death, but of the resurrection of the Jesus narrative, takes center stage. Jesus’ death is nothing more than yet another lynching by those at the top of oppressive systems when their privileged way of life was threatened (economic via Herod, political via Pilate and religious via Caiaphas).
At the moment of Jesus’ lynching, Matthew tells us: “the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom” (Matthew 27.51).
The priests claimed God dwelt at the heart of their temple, at the heart of their system of oppression. But when the curtain that covered the central room of their temple, where they said God dwelt, was torn in two, it was seen that the room was empty. No “presence.” No “ark of the covenant.” Only an empty room, uncomfortably announcing the absence of God.
Now, place alongside this the story detail of the resurrection—where the torn curtain tells us where God was not. The resurrection tells us where God actually was. God is not at the heart of that system of oppression. The resurrection reveals that God was in solidarity with the one being lynched. Whether it is civic violence (Pilate), religious violence (Caiaphas) or economic violence (Herod), or what today is racial violence at the hands of law enforcement, the Jesus story puts on display that the presence of God is not found within the most exclusive holy places belonging to those systems of oppression. The true dwelling place of the presence is found in the one shamefully suspended, lynched on the “hanging tree” at the orders of those oppressive systems. In other words, God is standing, and always has stood, in solidarity with those our systemic injustice is oppressing. No matter what white theologians say, oppressive systems are not of divine origin, but actually capable of lynching God, too, if God were come as one among us and be viewed as an intrusive threat to such systems.
We have before us the story of an innocent man, born into poverty, who questioned authority and was unjustly executed because of it. Through religiosity, the story has lost its impact. Yet it is the story that is repeated in every Eric Garner.
“The cross was God’s critique of power—white power—with powerless love, snatching victory out of defeat.” (“The Cross and the Lynching Tree.”)
5. Jesus Taught Us How To Protest Civil Justice Issues Effectively
Jesus gave us three examples in the Sermon on the Mount of how to protest injustice both nonviolently and effectively. Please notice that “peaceful protest” and “nonviolent resistance” are not always the same. There is a subtle difference between passive nonresistance taught by those in positions of privilege because they would like to have their lives left undisturbed and what Jesus taught as nonviolent, de-centering and discomforting noncooperation that endeavors to disturb and wake up oppressors to their participation and perpetuation of systemic injustice. Let’s look at those three examples.
The first was the turning of the left cheek to be struck as a social equal instead of being humiliatingly backhandedly slapped on the right. This was a demeaning act whereby a supposed superior (master over slave, husband over wife, parent over a child, Roman over Jew, man over woman) purposed to humiliate and dehumanize. This is especially relevant in matters of race today. At its heart, racism dehumanizes, saying some races are “less human” than others. In Jesus’ example, a blow in retaliation would have most definitely invited escalating retribution. But in offering the left cheek, the one being dehumanized showed that the supposed inferior defiantly REFUSED to be humiliated in such a way. And with the left cheek now bared, the one struck was effectively stating that if a blow was to be given, it would have to be given on the proper cheek with a closed fist, which would have been an acknowledgement that the one struck was the social equal of his or her striker. Jesus is giving the one struck a nonviolent way to protest the intended dehumanization of the oppressor.
The second example was of standing stark naked in a court setting as if to “shame” an oppressor. Whether we like it or not, Jesus is endorsing in this example public nudity as a valid form of nonviolent protest.
And the last example is of putting the Roman soldier in the uncomfortable bind of causing him to break his own law by allowing the voluntary carrying of the conscripted burden a second mile.
In each of these examples, Jesus is putting the oppressed person in charge of the moment while exposing the exploitative system and decentering, shaming and discomforting the oppressors. Jesus was teaching nonviolent ways for oppressed people to take the initiative, to affirm their humanity, to expose and neutralize oppression. Jesus is demonstrating nonviolent ways in which people at the bottom of society or under the thumb of systemic oppression can learn to recover their humanity while at the same time reach out to redeem and restore those who are their “oppressors.” (I have written more about the cultural context of these three examples here.)
These were methods whereby oppressed people (such as the Jews under the Romans) could overthrow systems of injustice through waking their oppressors to their own victimhood to systemic injustice and winning their oppressors away from these systems to standing in solidarity with the oppressed.
This is what Martin Luther King refers to as the “double victory”:
We shall match your capacity to inflict suffering by our capacity to endure suffering. We shall meet your physical force with soul force. Do to us what you will, and we shall continue to love you. We cannot in all good conscience obey your unjust laws because noncooperation with evil is as much a moral obligation as is cooperation with good. Throw us in jail, and we shall still love you. Bomb our homes and threaten our children, and we shall still love you. Send your hooded perpetrators of violence into our community at the midnight hour and beat us and leave us half dead, and we shall still love you. But be ye assured that we will wear you down by our capacity to suffer. One day we shall win freedom but not only for ourselves. We shall so appeal to your heart and conscience that we shall win you in the process and our victory will be a double victory.” (Christmas, 1957)
This is especially why white Christians most of all should be standing alongside people of color at this moment in America. It is time for white Christians to proclaim the liberating power of Jesus in putting on a display of how Jesus woke them up to their own victimhood to systemic injustice as perpetrators of racial inequality. It’s time for white Christians especially to put on display a Jesus who has set them free to now stand in solidarity with those their white forefathers disadvantaged, marginalized and oppressed. THIS is what it means to announce the new world that has arrived in Jesus.
We must not close our ears, as some have done, by saying, “Well, maybe there is something wrong, but they are destroying their own neighborhoods. How does that help?” I want to go on record that, as a Jesus follower, I do believe that nonviolent protest is a force more powerful than violent protest. But it’s not my place as the white person who is benefitting from systems of oppression to dictate how those who feel harmed express their frustration. As Dr. Martin Luther King said, “A riot is the language of the unheard.” Let’s assume King is right. What isn’t being heard? Yes, there are looters, but this happens every day on white Wall Street as well. We cannot use this as an excuse to tune out the legitimate groaning of a group of people who are trying to say that their experience in the world is very different than ours.
Those who benefit from white privilege must take great care not to do more damage by writing off the voice of the protestors because of a few who become violent. It smacks of what Broderick Greer tweeted recently: “So the loss of property is more important than the loss of Michael Brown’s life? #capitalism.” It is not the place of white Jesus followers to critique the voice of the black community who is giving voice to its oppression. A Jesus follower of color may do this, but as a white Jesus follower, I cannot. I am disqualified by my place of privilege within this system. No matter how sincere my critique may be, it comes across as only desiring to have my place of privilege not be made uncomfortable. As white Jesus followers, our place is to mourn with those who are mourning, lament with those who lament, march with those who march nonviolently, and to participate alongside people of color in nonviolent demonstrations. (The sit-ins of the ’60s have now become die-ins.) All the while continuing to ask ourselves, “What are we not hearing?” Before we judge, we must genuinely listen.
Again, I do believe nonviolence is a force more powerful. Yet it is not my place as a person of privilege to critique the oppressed. That only breeds further oppression. I’m not justifying violence protest; I’m simply saying we should care more about the voices who feel they are not being heard, voices who feel that their only option is violence. We should care more about the value of those voices than the value of our property.
6. Jesus’ “Kingdom” Is Not Of A Mere “Spiritual Nature”
When Jesus said to Pilate, “My Kingdom is not of this world” (John 18.36), he was not saying that his kingdom is “spiritual” rather than this worldly. This is the tragic mistake of dualism. Jesus’ kingdom is not “OF” this world—meaning, his kingdom is not from this world. It doesn’t operate the way kingdoms of this world operate. It’s a kingdom that is really an upside-down kingdom—an un-kingdom, so to speak.
Jesus also refers to it as the kingdom “of heaven.” He does not say that his kingdom was in heaven; rather, it was of or from heaven, and had come to earth. And its arrival contained significant implications for the present social structures of his day. These implications are outlined in Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. With this, Jesus was not telling of a future, post-mortem heaven one could be assured of by experiencing personal, private, individual spiritual renewal now; rather, Jesus announces that if you are hungry, weeping, morning, or hated because of the present system, this new world he had come to found was especially for you. It was a message of liberation now for the presently oppressed. The arrival of Jesus’ un-kingdom marked the beginning of a new world of restoration, liberation, redistribution and a rearrangement of how life on earth was structured. (See Luke 6.20–26.) (I give more detailed explanation of how Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount was announcing liberation to the oppressed here.) This is why Jesus’ followers of the first century were seen as such a threat to the elite and privileged of their day. If Jesus’ followers of the first century were endeavoring to only promote a “spiritual” kingdom, Rome would have never given it a second thought. But instead, those at the top of their social conventions felt especially threatened by this new Jesus movement.
Some say, “Well, this all sounds too political.” Let me say “political” doesn’t go far enough. Not only does Jesus’ new world confront political systems, it confronts social systems, ecclesiastical (religious) systems and economic systems as well. Wherever there is oppression, Jesus stands in solidarity with the oppressed being the beacon of liberation from, yes, both private and social evil.
Notice how politically, socially, economically and ecclesiastically challenging the early Jesus movement really was.
In protest to calling Caesar “Lord” they proclaimed Jesus was “Lord.” (Acts 16.31.)
In protest to calling Caesar “Son of God” they proclaimed Jesus as “Son of God.” (Acts 9.20.)
In protest to calling “Pax Romana” (Peace through Rome), they proclaimed the “Pax Jesus Christo” (Peace through Jesus Christ). (Acts 10.36.)
In protest to Rome being called “Savior of the World,” they proclaimed Jesus as the “Savior of the World.” (1 John 4.14.)
Jesus called us to make disciples of the nations. We are not to only call individuals to follow Jesus, but systems, structures of the nations as well.
“All nations” includes America. As Jesus followers, we are to call the nations to abandon their abuse of humanity and follow the teachings of Jesus as well. This is radically different than calling on America to enforce Christian values (often by the sword). This would be an abandonment of the teachings of Jesus by the Christians themselves who called for such. This is a call for America, as well as all nations, to no longer be conduits of oppression, to no longer depend on systems of injustice, but to submit themselves to the liberating new world that has arrived in Jesus, too.
7. Jesus Came To Heal The World
Jesus emphatically taught that his purpose in coming to this world was to heal it. “God did not send the son into the world to condemn the world [as the political party of the Pharisees were desiring] but that the world, through the son, might be healed” [John 3.17; σῴζω (sózó) means “healed”].
Nowhere in the gospels do we ever find Jesus going around trying to get people to say a special prayer so they could go to heaven when they died. Jesus wasn’t focused on getting people to heaven later, but on bringing heaven into people’s lives in the here and now, today! For Jesus, salvation meant healing. And when he sent his first followers out themselves, he told them not only to proclaim the good news of a radically new world, but to “heal the sick” as well. There are more sicknesses in this world than mere physical sickness. There is social sickness, ecclesiastical sickness, political sickness and economic sickness. (For more on this, you can check out the presentation I gave, “A Time For Change“.)
Jesus died to liberate us, not from the evils of a future, disembodied age, but to “set us free from the present evil age.” (Galatians 1.4.) White Christians—praise God for the exceptions—historically have been too busy saving people’s souls for eternity to even consider the bondage to social injustices and oppression that their potential converts are under in “the present.”
What Would Jesus Have You Do, Right Here, Right Now?
Some have said, “Why don’t we just focus on Syrian Christians who are suffering at the hands of ISIS in the Middle East, rather than civil, racial equality issues here in America?”
To those I would ask, “Why assume that racial inequality here is not affecting your brother and sister ‘Christians’ here?”
In all actuality, the question itself is born out of an experience only rooted in white theology. White theology is not the standard, default, “real” theology. There is no such thing. There is no such thing as just “theology.” All theology is done from someone’s vantage point. It is time we start naming what has passed as “theology” as really “white theology,” and allow other voices, other theologies that are speaking from different vantage points, to be heard.
ISIS is rebellion against the oppressive empires of the West that are associated with empirical Christiandom. Nonviolent noncooperation or protest was never something Jesus offered to empires as a means of defeating insurrectionists, but something Jesus offered insurrectionists as a powerful means of overthrowing oppressive empires. (I write more about this here.)
But most importantly, the fight with ISIS, for most of us in the States, is far, far away rather than right in front of us. The fact that we would rather identify with Syrian Christians thousands of miles away rather than our fellow black Christians right here is very telling. But Syrian Christians are a safe distance away. We will likely never meet them. We will likely never have to wrestle with their narratives. We can speak about our solidarity with them without ever having to bear a cross (or a lynching tree) with any of them.
Right before us is a very tangible but costly option. The stories of our black brothers and sisters are stories that we cannot project our own stories onto to justify our solidarity with them. These stories call us, like none other presently, to embrace what has too long been labeled, even among Christians, as “other,” as “equal but separate.” It’s time to embrace the liberating narrative of Jesus and to choose, in solidarity, to stand against the systemic racial injustice around us.
We do not look at physical sicknesses such as cancer and refuse to search for a cure, saying, “This will not be solved till Jesus’ return.” Why should we do this with social, political, ecclesiastical or economic sicknesses? Why should we do this with the cancer of systemic racism?
“As you go, proclaim this message: ‘The kingdom of heaven has come near.’ Heal the sick.”—Jesus, Matthew 10.7–8
“And until the white body writhes with red rage, until the white heart heaves with black tremors, until the white head bows before yellow dreams and tan schemes and olive screams for a different world, any communion claimed will be contrivance of denial. A theologian—speaking of resurrection, in a body not bearing the scars of their own ‘crucifixion’? Impossible!”—James Perkinson, “White Theology”
“White Christians that refuse to affirm that #BlackLivesMatter are rejecting the concrete option for Christian Solidarity in the way of Jesus.”—Drew G.I. Hart, @druhart on Twitter
“If your success is defined by being well adjusted to injustice and well adapted to indifference, then we don’t want successful leaders. We want great leaders who love the people enough and respect the people enough to be unbought, unbound, unafraid and unintimidated, to tell the truth.”—Dr. Cornel West
“True peace is not the absence of conflict but the presence of justice.”—Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
The resurrection assures us that we need not fear the consequences of our engagement against systemic injustice, racial or otherwise. We stand in the victory of Christ over all injustice, a victory that has already been won.
Till the only world that remains is a world where love reigns …
This article originally appeared in Herb Montgomery’s Renewed Heart Ministries website and is reprinted here with permission. Herb Montgomery is an author, internationally recognized speaker, and the director of Renewed Heart Ministries.