Like many of you I’ve been reading as much as I can get my hands on about Ferguson and the movement to end state violence against people of color, particularly black people. At times, I’ve been overwhelmed by the glut of brilliant work that is being done to inform, educate, and transform our culture of anti-blackness. I’ve also been overtaken by the task ahead as I’ve seen how entrenched white supremacy is in our country. Even after all that we’ve seen in the last few months–the protests, the teargas, the videos of fathers and children killed in the street–we white folks seem more committed than ever to our historic, evil suppositions.
I’ve heard a lot of people call for peace. I’ve seen a lot of people blaming protestors for “dividing us” with their righteous complaints against brutality. We have prominent Christian bloggers and teachers using their platforms to implore us to hear “both sides,” and others blaming their own communities for the violence done against them. In the popular evangelical places, we seem clueless about how to proceed even though there are skilled teachers and justice-bringers among our ranks working through every possible media to tear down strongholds of inequality and build up believers in a beloved community.
Yet despite these resources, we white evangelicals are still sitting in stunned silence and confusion, vacillating between callousness in the face of misery, fearful silence, and our own clumsy attempts to make it all go back in the box. We can do better, y’all.
A while back, I participated in a women’s leadership study through my local church. When we got to the section on conflict, we were invited to examine several passages of Scripture. One passage stuck with me and feels particularly applicable to our current circumstances as a church, and as a nation. In Acts 6, the newly-birthed church was struggling to get its feet. Even when Jesus was on earth, His followers were often reluctant to accept those He brought into their company. The unbridled entrance of the Holy Spirit upon Jesus’ departure had brought even more cultural diversity to the band of Christ-followers. At Pentecost, we see people of many languages and cultures radically invited into the church. This influx of new believers created conflicts in an already easily embattled Hebrew church.
The central conflict in Acts 6 is an unjust treatment of the Hellenistic (Greek) widows:
Now in these days when the disciples were increasing in number, a complaint by the Hellenists arose against the Hebrews because their widows were being neglected in the daily distribution. And the twelve summoned the full number of the disciples and said, “It is not right that we should give up preaching the word of God to serve tables. Therefore, brothers, pick out from among you seven men of good repute, full of the Spirit and of wisdom, whom we will appoint to this duty. But we will devote ourselves to prayer and to the ministry of the word.” And what they said pleased the whole gathering, and they chose Stephen, a man full of faith and of the Holy Spirit, and Philip, and Prochorus, and Nicanor, and Timon, and Parmenas, and Nicolaus, a proselyte of Antioch. These they set before the apostles, and they prayed and laid their hands on them.
And the word of God continued to increase, and the number of the disciples multiplied greatly in Jerusalem, and a great many of the priests became obedient to the faith. Acts 6:1-7 (ESV)
The first thing that interests me in this text is that there was no explicit attempt to “hear both sides.” The Hellenists complained, and the twelve original apostles summoned the full number of disciples to come up with a way to rectify the situation. The Hellenists, the minority, were simply believed.
Just a tip here: if you think you are being balanced by hearing “both sides” of these issues, you’re not.
We have a dominant narrative, and a narrative that’s being silenced to death. Lose your scales of “justice” here. They’re broken.
The second thing that strikes me about the way injustice was remedied in the situation was that the twelve, themselves busy in the work of teaching and building the foundations of the fledgling church, made justice a priority. They create a safeguard against this kind of xenophobic favoritism by empowering Greek believers to lead the food distribution. I’ve heard this passage preached many times as a lesson in division of labor: some folks teach, some folks man the kitchen. But the passage is addressing a complex problem with a Christlike solution: Hebrews, be like Jesus and get low. The check on the abuse of power here is to decentralize power and promote both shared responsibility and, perhaps most importantly, accountability.
It is incarnational to take this posture. Jesus did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, held onto. What an amazing work of God could be done if we white folks disabused ourselves today of the unholy notion that we are the almighty arbiters of who lives and dies in America. God gives and takes life away. We cannot possibly justify our grip on that power. Wielding such usurped authority is bound to kill us all.
The Hebrews may have bucked against this change in leadership. We don’t know. We can be generous and say they probably cooperated. The fruit of this new dynamic suggests they did because the disciples multiplied. Rather than wreaking havoc, this new power structure proved winsome, even to the Jewish priests. They, too, were liberated from a social and political structure driven by competition and brought into a body formed by cooperation and giving and sharing of diverse gifts.
One of the most poignant aspects of what is happening in Ferguson and across the country is how young people have organized around the ideas of democratization and inclusiveness. DeRay Mckesson, along with Johnetta Elzie have been publishing a weekly newsletter since Mike Brown’s death, reading and selecting pertinent articles or photos, and offering opportunities to get involved in a variety of ways with those working on the ground. Mckesson says of their work:
“I think that what’s really powerful about Ferguson is that it started because regular people without an organization came together because they knew something was wrong…What is different about social media and I think what is true about this movement is that it allows many voices to be heard at the same time and it’s not necessarily a competition for air, which is really powerful.”
The church could learn something about what it looks like to share or even abdicate power from these young folks. We could learn from those early days in Acts. We could learn from Jesus’ model of solidarity with the marginalized and His commands that we go and do likewise.
Instead, we stay committed to a hierarchical paradigm that was framed for us by the greed and bloodlust of white supremacy. In the spirit of getting low and dying-in, I’m offering a few resources that have challenged me to think critically about the ways that I can participate in this culture shift as a white person. Read, pray, and act, friends.
(Note: all these folks are on Twitter. Find and follow them. I’d link for you, but my hands are hurting from all the other linking and typing.)
You bought the lie She’s tearing down the untruths of white supremacy like Samson smashing up a godless temple.
Break the silence wise counsel for all of us who have been afraid to speak or stuck in the listening phase to the point that we’re confused about when it’s our turn to talk. If it’s not your turn, someone will tell you to sit down. If they do, you’ll live. I’m a walking testimony that rebuke is completely survivable.
Virtual Book Club with John Luce, where folks (myself included) will be reading through her book, Disunity in Christ which is conveniently on sale at IVPress this month! If you live in the DC area and would like to be a part of an in-person discussion, hit me up on Twitter.
Redeeming privilege: how privileged people can work for justice (she gave up space on her blog for a white sister)
The Road Forward is a Bridge White folks love talking about bridges, but we often build them on the backs of people of color. For anyone interested in reconciliation work, this helps you count the cost.
Where white people should start Resources and links galore from a white anti-racist on her journey.
Ten ways a white person can be interrupted by the Ferguson movement Another white anti-racist woman calling us white folks to self-disruption
The cross and the lynching tree This whole blog is a trove of knowledge for white folks learning about anti-racism. This post is part of a series examining James Cone’s seminal theological work on the subject of American anti-blackness.