In light of the violence and unrest that has dominated the media in the United States over the past weeks, I’ve decided to take a moment to speak up and share a few things I’ve learned in my experience as a white pastor in a mostly black, inner city context. The conversations surrounding race, social justice, and police are sensitive for everyone, but I am limited in many ways, so I will not be able to address everyone. Therefore I am directing this article specifically to white Christians for the simple reason that I am one, and it is the population I can most closely understand and relate to. I don’t intend to alienate white people, but I’d like to offer advice to those brothers and sisters who may find themselves angry, confused, or uncomfortable with the many conversations about race and justice that are becoming more frequent in the Church. With that said, here are seven things white Christians need to do:
1. White Christians need to utilize the Christian community to talk through these issues.
Having lived in both rural and inner city settings, I have seen the Christian community expressed in two very different ways. In urban and inner-city settings, where people live in close proximity to their neighbors, Christians tend to have an easier time entering into authentic Christian community. In suburban and rural contexts, however, there is a greater tendency for Christians to live largely isolated lives. The early church thrived in cities, and now I understand why: The community is absolutely vital to our growth, and cities are already setup for community to happen naturally. Therefore, those who live outside of the cities need to fight the state of separation they live in by contending against individualism, privacy, and fear of vulnerability. The community needs to be our starting point, because talking through the issues of race and justice in a prayer centered and biblically informed setting is the first step to growing in understanding and unity.
2. White Christians need to engage cross-culturally to the best of their ability.
I once heard a conference speaker challenge hundreds of pastors to fight for their churches “to become multi-ethnic.” I’ve also heard another pastor say, “It is a sin for your church to be monolithic.” While I’m sure these men had the best of intentions, the goal of every church becoming multi-ethnic is not only unrealistic, but also unnecessary. I think a better challenge is that all churches reflect their local demographic. Therefore, in a multi-ethnic neighborhood, it is good for churches to be multi-ethnic. But in an all black neighborhood, I expect the churches to be mostly black. Likewise, in a white suburb, I don’t think there is anything wrong with churches being mostly white.
And while our churches may reflect our local demographics, we should fight to create and maintain relationships that extend beyond our neighborhoods, churches, and culture. And there is a very practical reason for this: If we’re willing to be honest with ourselves, I hope that my fellow white Christians can admit we are seriously lacking the knowledge and understanding needed to navigate the issues of race and justice in this country. Therefore, whites need to reach out to create cross-cultural relationships and seek to be informed by Christians who are ethnic minorities. Beyond building relationships, whites also need to take the position of students. Whites have historically refused to submit or learn from ethnic minorities. It is time for that to change. It is time to admit that we don’t have all the answers even if we believe that we do! To learn more about taking the submissive role to minorities, read my article “The White Messiah Complex,” which can be found here.
3. White Christians need to have a statement in place that clarifies their position on justice issues that includes a plan of action.
It has been interesting to learn that most white Evangelical churches speak very little, if ever, about social issues aside from abortion and gay marriage. It seems that many whites believe that “social justice” is synonymous with “social gospel,” and subsequently, “liberalism.” This is simply not true. Social justice issues are gospel issues. In the same way that the gospel speaks to abortion, the gospel speaks to poverty, racism, and abuse. Therefore, white Evangelicals need to learn from churches that have historically fought against social injustice, even if they disagree on other issues. Once social justice is recognized as a gospel issue, churches must articulate what they believe the Christian response(s) is to injustice. If we have our positions and plans clarified ahead of time, we can act instead of argue when events like the recent ones inevitably occur.
4. White Christians need to care more about understanding than being understood.
I am often preoccupied with the need for people to understand me more than I am with a desire to understand them. This isn’t a white problem; it’s a human problem. We have a tendency to believe that we are right about most things and we have an extremely difficult time understanding another person’s viewpoint. I have repeatedly found myself confronted by my unwillingness to understand others when reading this prayer by St. Francis of Assisi:
O Divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek to be consoled as to console.
To be understood as to understand.
To be loved as to love.
At this juncture in time, white Christians should seek to understand more than to be understood. If you are not black then you literally cannot understand the black experience in America, so you must rely on your black brothers and sisters to help you understand. This is not the time or place for them to hear you out. It’s time for you to hear them out with a heart that genuinely wants to learn.
5. White Christians need to accept corporate guilt.
One of the loudest and most political religious groups in the United States is Evangelical Christians. Ask any politician and they will tell you how important it is for them to appeal to Evangelicals because they are such a politically powerful people. For a group that is so loud about abortion, gay marriage, Israel, and the military, it’s amazing how quiet Evangelicals are when it comes to acknowledging racism and social injustice. And as Protestants who boldly declare, “all have sinned” I’m surprised by how few Evangelicals will acknowledge corporate and systemic sins. If we believe every individual is sinful, then why is it so hard to admit when groups of individuals come together to form sinful policies? I regularly hear statements like these:
“I never owned a slave”
“I never shot a black person”
“I never forbid black people from worshipping with me”
While these statements may be true, we are still obligated to accept the guilt of the people group we identify with. In the Bible, God held people accountable for corporate sins all the time, and he made sure their great-great grandchildren were aware of these past sins. Keeping past sins in front of a people group is the best way to keep them from committing the same evils again. If you are a white Evangelical then you need to accept guilt of the sins of your people that occurred in the past and continue to occur in the present. While you may not have personally committed acts of racism, most of our white ancestors were complicit in supporting a system of racial injustice, and if we cannot speak out against past and present injustices, then we are no better than they were.
Don’t feel hated. Don’t feel victimized. Don’t feel attacked. Don’t feel like this is all about you. The quicker you can confess corporate sin without being so defensive, the quicker we can make progress.
6. White Christians need to validate black Christians even when they do not understand or see the injustice.
I’m a white man who is married to an African-American woman, mentored almost exclusive by African-American men, and pastors at a mostly African-American church, yet I have to admit, I don’t fully “get it.” I don’t feel the same grief, I don’t experience the same outrage, and I don’t feel the need for justice in the same ways that black people do. I see the world through my experience, and that’s something I cannot change. However, I do have a choice in how I respond to the black community: I can choose whether or not I validate black people in their grief and outrage. I have to accept the fact that blacks are the experts in black issues, and I am not. I don’t advise scientists about science or lawyers about the law, therefore I will not advise black people about black issues. They are the specialists here!
If I claim to love my black brothers and sisters in Christ, then I have to be willing to affirm them in their pain even if I do not understand it. But beyond that, I need to affirm that their pain is valid and is based on something real. By refusing to validate their claims I would be charging them with delusion, or even worse, dishonesty. Black Christians across the globe claim that this type of oppression exists, so to deny it would be to completely question their integrity.
7. White Christians need to repent of nationalism.
On July 4, 2016 the Christian Hip Hop artist Lecrae tweeted a photograph of slaves on a southern plantation with the caption, “My family on July 4, 1776.” I showed this tweet to my wife and we together scrolled through the responses in a state of disbelief. Lecrae’s white fans were completely outraged as they brought serious charges against him, accusing him of divisiveness, ingratitude, and immaturity. But one response stood out to me. One fan accused Lecrae of being “borderline unpatriotic.” Borderline unpatriotic? Was this person implying that being unpatriotic is a sin? Where in the New Testament do you ever see a call for patriotism? And even if Lecrae were “unpatriotic,” why would you expect him to be anything else? He’s looking at a picture of his family enslaved on a day when the rest of the country is celebrating freedom! His family was literally in bondage when America was “set free.” The fan that tweeted this accusation, along with the hundreds of others who rose against Lecrae, chose to defend the reputation of the United States rather than affirm a brother in Christ who was doing nothing more than exposing a real, factual, historic sin.
The fact that Lecrae’s post offended so many white Christians exposed a problem in conservative Evangelicalism that is more serious than I ever imagined. If you are a Christian, then you are primarily a resident of a transnational entity called the Church. Saint Peter calls the church a “holy nation.” Jesus rules this nation, and as citizens of the Church, we are called to live in unity across the Earth as the one and only Christian Nation. We are a nation that is called to live in a way that is completely backwards from any other nation on earth: loving enemies, being peacemakers, and refusing violence are just a few of the radical ethics we are commanded to identify with. Our Church citizenship must always take priority in our lives, and Jesus’ radical ethics must be at the forefront of every decision we make.
At this point you may be thinking that I am “borderline unpatriotic.” And that may be true, but before you get angry, ask yourself why that bothers you. Depending on where we live in the world, some of us experience great benefits in our countries, others of us experience great suffering, and many of us experience a mixture of these. While we should be grateful for the benefits we experience, we need to be very clear about some things:
America is not God’s favored nation.
Christians are not responsible to make any nation “great.”
Christians are not called to fight on behalf of or defend any nation.
Christians should never put the interests of their country over the well being of other people, especially brothers and sisters, whether they live in Iraq or New York.
And while Christians are called to be good citizens in whatever country they live in, their allegiance must be to Christ and his kingdom, not to the United States or any other country. You have brothers and sisters in Christ who live across the globe, and they are your fellow citizens. But the Evangelical commitment to nationalism has led many of us to favor “American values” over the duty to love and respect fellow Christians. Whether we support dropping bombs or deny racial injustice, we are choosing to defend a corrupt nation instead of “the least of these.”
I know much of what I said may offend, but please know that has not been my intention. I know the conservative Evangelical narrative very well, and know it is very difficult to see the other side. Please, for the sake of unity in the church, do not disregard what I’ve said. No one expects you to “get it” right away. I only ask that you take a posture of humility and choose to listen and learn.
 I do not believe the same should be expected for minority churches. Remember, blacks were forbidden to worship with whites for a large part of our nation’s history. People groups who have historically been marginalized and forced into ghettos should not be expected to take initiative with the people group who oppressed them. It is the duty of white Christians to own systemic sins of the past and reach out the olive branch to minority Christians.
 The United Methodist Church and The Mennonite Church USA are denominations that lead by example when it comes to fighting for justice. A good book to start with is Resident Aliens: Life In The Christian Colony by Methodist scholar, Stanley Hauerwas.
 I have my own views about the best ways I believe the church should fight injustice, but I will save them for another article. I believe that Christians have many good options from which they can choose. The important thing is that you form a position with a plan of non-violent action, whatever it might be.
 Exodus 34:6-7, Deuteronomy 5:8-10, Leviticus 26:39.
 To learn more about systemic sins and white privilege from a Christian perspective, please see The Next Evangelicalism by Soong-Chan Rah.
 Matthew 25:40
 For more information on the topic, please see The Myth of a Christian Nation, by Greg Boyd.