“Let’s wait and see. Let’s pray. Let’s hope for the best.”
These are the most repeated phrases we’ve heard and read from white American Christians since November 8th. They come from friends and family members who span the rural/urban, wealthy/poor, educated/uneducated, Christian/non spectrums of our country. While not every one of them voted for Donald Trump, this man’s unprecedented ascendance to the most powerful seat in the world and the emergence of his administration is being tolerated by white American Christians like an unpleasant odor that we’ll learn to live with.
Accompanying these sentiments is deep confusion over why people of different skin tones, religious traditions, and documentation statuses are outraged or even terrified by Trump and his administration.
Our confusion simply exposes that we white American Christians know very little about life on the underside of privilege. Most likely, we’ve never been impacted by a traffic stop that went lethal. We’ve probably never been racially profiled in our neighborhoods, schools, stores, restaurants, and airports. There’s a good chance that our lives have never been touched by the tragedy of American mass-incarceration. It’s likely we’ve never had to march the streets, engage in creative non-violent action, and risk hospital and jail time for civic disobedience because these were the only options we had left to demand the just treatment of our people.
As we’ve traveled the country and worked with churches from the east to the west, we’ve discovered that the vast majority of us are out of touch with the pain of people who are different than “us.” We’re out of the loop because, for various unfounded reasons, we’ve chosen not to be in relationship with them. Most of us are ignorant of and indifferent toward the plight of our migrant, Muslim, LGBTQ, and black neighbors. While we’ve notice the dehumanizing rhetoric of the President-elect and are aware that his administration has zero track record for protecting the rights of the marginalized, we simply mumble our sentiments about hope and promise to pray for “peace” from within the confines of our homogenous neighborhoods and worship spaces.
While we sing songs about a God who “fights our battles” and “sets us free,” those who are not white and Christian tremble in fear. They’ve been threatened by an overtly racist Presidential administration and simply cannot afford to “wait and see.” They don’t have time for our prayers and platitudes. They need to experience white American Christians following the Jesus we talk about.
This is what Martin Luther King Jr. called his white Christian colleagues to on April 16th, 1963.
A few days prior, Dr. King was arrested for disturbing the peace in what was, at that time, the most segregated and one of the most “churched” cities in the United States. The status quo of racism and segregation in Birmingham, AL, marked by a broken criminal justice system and bombings of black homes, business, and churches, was a pseudo-peace that favored the white community. It was a “peace” that was reinforced by the silence of the white worshipping community.
This was a “peace” that demanded disturbance.
So, for months, Dr. King and his allies worked tirelessly with the faith community, civic community, and economic influencers in Birmingham to bring the violent injustice to an end. Sadly, the protection of power by the white community trumped their desire to acknowledge the human dignity and equality in their black neighbors. Benefitting from the unjust status quo in Birmingham trumped faithfulness for its white Christian inhabitants.
With the diplomatic efforts falling short, Dr. King and 1000 friends showed up in non-violent protest. Their intent was to impact the economic infrastructure of the city but before their strategy could materialize, King and his associate, Rev. Ralph D. Abernathy, were arrested and jailed.
Behind bars, King received an open letter from the white pastors and rabbis of Birmingham renouncing the unrest caused by his protests and condemning the “outsider” for poor timing.
On April 16th, Martin Luther King Jr. penned a letter in response to his white colleagues. It reads as strongly today as it did fifty-four years ago and exposes a very scary reality: we (the white Church in American) have made very little progress since that day.
It’s a letter saturated with what have become words enshrined in infamy. Statements like “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” are on the lips of contemporary white faith leaders who look back on this letter and “those times” with generous imaginations. We automatically position ourselves as allies who would have unquestioningly marched, even laid down our lives, for the rights of the threatened.
But are we? Have we put in the time to move from strangers to allies with those different from us? Are we engaging in acts of creative non-violence alongside those whose rights have been and are being threatened? Are we outraged to the point of action about the overt racism of the President-elect and the racist agendas of his administration? Are we leveraging every bit of the power and privilege we have in order to ensure the flourishing of the marginalized in our neighborhoods and cities? Are we men and women who are actively following Jesus by disturbing a pseudo-peace in the same way he did 2000 year ago?
Or are we like those white Christians in Birmingham AL who worshipped their safety and protected their power from within buildings adorned with stain glass images of sacrificial love? Are we like those well-intentioned white Christians who noticed the pain but could only muster platitudes like, “Let’s wait and see. Let’s pray. Let’s hope for the best.”?
From King’s perspective, well-intentioned white Christians who worship safety, remain silent, and encourage the marginalized to “hang in there” were more dangerous and a greater threat to justice than the violent few. He wrote, “We will have to repent in this generation not merely for the hateful words and actions of the bad people but for the appalling silence of the good people.”
Friends, history has proven that white American Christians are fluent in apathy. King put it this way: “…the contemporary church is a weak, ineffectual voice with an uncertain sound.”
History has proven that we are indifferent to the pain and plight of those not like us, and are, therefore, irrelevant. King’s offered this: “Far form being disturbed by the presence of the church, the power structure of the average community is consoled by the church’s silent—and often even vocal—sanction of the thing as they are.” He continued, “If today’s church does not recapture the sacrificial spirit of the early church, it will lose its authenticity, forfeit the loyalty of millions, and be dismissed as an irrelevant social club with no meaning for the twentieth century.”
The evidence is in. But more than irrelevant, the white American Church has become a liability to justice in the eyes of those who are not “us.”
The time has come for us to become fluent in creative love. The time is now for the white American church to reclaim its identity as the Reconciled Beloved and its vocation as Beloved Reconcilers.
Toward this end, we give our lives.
Author: Jer Swigart – Cofounding Director of Global Immersion Project