What continues to contribute to the separated black and white Church is not just the race conversation but also how each Church experiences God in their racial and social experience. For each of these churches, it’s more than race; it’s the existential experience as well.
In 2016, I held two simultaneous pastorships at the same time that painted a clear picture of why the white Church desperately needs to incorporate faithful justice at its core.
One congregation was predominantly white, while the other was black in a historically black church.
It is very rare for a black minister to navigate both of these spaces because it’s true that the Sunday morning experience still remains the most segregated hour of the week, as MLK suggested during the civil rights movement.
As a pastor, I engaged the historically black Church through the lens of social justice, with meetings and prayers often focused on the community’s struggles, such as members in poverty affected by relentless gentrification and displacement. Then, when present in the predominately white church services, there was no mention of outside struggles.
Not one thought about injustices the community faced, not one word about events in the news that placed burdens on people who looked like me as a black man. It was difficult and still is difficult when I minister in these spaces.
Acknowledging what the Lord has to say about the suffering around the community was a part of my faith tradition and development as a black man in America.
However, the white congregation would call out to God for their personal struggles, with a more inward-facing focus and meetings centered on individual nurturing and faith.
There were times I left the white church depleted after hearing sermons littered with messages to love their neighbor–while simultaneously thinking about the black congregants I pastored too, who were facing the struggles that needed the attention of a good neighbor. Each of these churches had a different existential reality and relationship with God.
This is how I noticed a divide and the lack of faithful justice in the white Church. I found myself caught between two starkly different perspectives of the world and even witnessed the breakdown of empathy, understanding, and communication between brothers and sisters.
While working to be a bridge between communities, it became evident that the Church hides behind its walls to uphold systems of capitalism and appease and comfort consumerist members.
Dr. Eddie S Glaude Jr, professor of history and religion, comments on the necessity of proximity to others in order to understand the experiences of the marginalized. He states, “if one really wishes to know how justice is administered in a country […] ask the wretched how they fare in the halls of justice, and then you will know, not whether or not the country is just, but whether or not it has any love for justice, or any concept of it.”
Only once we come together in understanding and heartfelt proximity can we pursue faithful justice. The Church has an opportunity to extend the Lord’s table and to cry out that ALL are welcome. If we can make that change, the elements that divide us will not seem so cavernous.
Even when it was not popular, Jesus ate with tax collectors, affirmed women, and was proximate to those who were shunned by religious leaders. Jesus came for the poor to preach good news to those who were oppressed, and he did this without thought to the target it made him. Being faithful in this way gives us a chance to identify with the one that came and set the standard for humanity—our Savior. We must emulate his struggle and strive toward faithful justice unwaveringly: it is in our makeup as believers.
Jesus asks us a question: ‘will you follow me?’ He does not force or demand but asks us gently. When we follow, Jesus guides us into spaces to affirm those who have been deemed untouchable. The Church has an opportunity to become more than a place of healing, but also a place of release whereby we send people out into the world to “act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God” (Micah 6:8).
As the pandemic continues to surge, injustice, disparity, and racial and political tension intensify. We are literally in a moment in history where we need the people of God to embody empathy, compassion, and faithful justice more than ever.
Jesus provides a clear example of what it means to lean in with compassion during times of suffering and injustice. During his witness, he was wrongly charged with blasphemy, brought before an unjust court of public opinion, traded for a criminal, wrongly sentenced, and unjustly executed under Roman oppression.
Jesus’ compassion amid injustice against himself provides a framework for us to learn how to incorporate faithful justice during times of crisis.
When we reflect on the impact Jesus had on those around him and whom he chose to spend his time with, we come to realize something that should shift our perspectives of what it means to be a Christian: Jesus was a frontline worker.
He came close to lepers, healed the sick, and grieved with those who lost loved ones. He was the embodiment of what it means to show up for neighbors struggling with crises of injustice.
Faithful justice means fighting for what is right even when it is not popular or given attention.
Faithful justice means showing up in lament and standing up regardless of popularity, convenience, cost, and even calculated risk.
Performative justice, however, is doing so for the sake of personal appearance. It is turning your attention to injustice issues to cover up complicity when issues arise. It only seeks out the opportunities to show up when times appear outwardly tense, not realizing that there are always opportunities to serve and that these issues do not vanish when your energy wanes.
Performative justice is shallow diversity engagement.
Prefomotive justice is when diversity is propped up and used as a charitable check box instead of striving for true inclusivity.
Performative justice places social capital at the center instead of others’ liberation, while faithful justice prioritizes fighting for what is right even when it is not popular.
We must ask ourselves in the middle of blizzards, layoffs, furloughs, and COVID-19 – what must we do to show up to love people on the margins of society?
We must ask ourselves what we might do to ensure those experiencing economic, social, and personal loss have what they need?
How might we love the sick or embrace those made poor by systems of oppression?
What does it mean to practice presence and proximity, offering sacrifice with consistency instead of performatively?
The events in 2020 increased my desire to show up on the frontlines like Jesus. Jesus addressed issues of justice not with a highlighter but with his life. In a year full of unprecedented trauma, pain, and historically significant events, the embodiment of this dedication to justice was more vital than ever. Striving for faithful justice is much more than giving talks or writing opinion pieces to highlight critical issues. Instead, those striving for faithful justice must focus on real-life work where it is needed most.
Faithful justice means acting now. When planning long-term action, we must turn our attention to the Church universal; it holds an intricate role of disciplining people to be centered in faithful justice.
The white Church needs to disciple people in a personal theology, but also incorporate public theology which asks, what does God say about what is happening in the rest of the world?
This public theology will equip believers to think about their neighbor and their neighbor’s concerns — because you can’t claim to love your neighbor if you neglect the neighborhood that shaped them. When Jesus said to love your neighbor, he meant the neighborhood and the problems it faces too.
White leaders must genuinely ask this question of their congregations — what does God say about my neighbor?
My black neighbor?
My Asian Neighbor?
My Latino Neighbor?
My Immigrant Neighbor?
Or my homeless neighbor?
Asking these questions not only honors God but requires that we respond with faithful justice.
The white Church has a responsibility to challenge those occupying leadership spaces which have used their platforms to remain silent and ignore the very persons Jesus identifies with and is proximate to. We must ask these questions during black history month and teach Christians to live an outward and actionable faith, engaging with those in need and living a sacrificial life, as Jesus did even if they do not look like you.