A Brief Look Back at 2020, Race, and the Church
2020 was the year that…well…hmmm. Let me start over.
2020 was a year of levels. Discovery, panic, prayer, trust, devastation…even hope. Because there were so many levels I could easily litter this article with biblical passages as we go, but I will instead encourage you to do the work of looking them up after reading.
In some ways you could say that the great experiment called the United States was placed under a global microscope from both a secular and spiritual perspective. It seems odd to think that the rest of the world had time to stop and pay attention to our country when they were already dealing with brushfires, oil prices tanking, mudslides and hurricanes, a massive explosion in Beirut that injured thousands, civil wars, poverty rate spikes, and a global pandemic to name a few. But as the research and global reports would show…they did.
Around the world, millions tuned in to watch and see how we would handle the pandemic, how things would playout between the US and Iran, what our president would do next that caused social media to buzz, watch how we would handle the stock market crash, as well as…yep…that’s right…how we would deal with Murder Hornets.
Perhaps nothing was more surprising to me than the global response to one US event that seemed to mobilize and galvanize millions across every continent.
The murder of George Floyd.
The act of kneeling on an African American man's neck for 7 minutes and 46 seconds sparked a flame of universal outrage. An outrage that led to months of protests not only here in the US, but deafening demonstrations that could also be heard in Britain, Germany, France, Denmark, Italy, Syria, Brazil, Mexico, Ireland, and more.
But why? Black and African American citizens have been dealing with injustice and brutality in the country since 1619. Why now? Why the world?
It tends to makes sense in hindsight. In the extended time in which we were all required to live secluded lives and stay glued to our TVs, apps, or social media in order to figure out what was going on around the world, let alone our own neighborhoods, if major events happened in 2020, we could not help but sit still and watch.
For some in the US, the death of George Floyd seemed like an easy opportunity to say, “now that was bad.” An opportunity to state what seemed obvious to the majority and move on about their day without needing to take the added risk of looking any deeper into the issues of police brutality, race, and how it may impact society on a larger scale.
However, for many Black and African American citizens of this country, witnessing the murder of George Floyd was one of many thrusts that broke the dam for a culture that has grown accustom to suffering. Accustomed to crying out to majority culture for justice. Accustomed to exhausting conversations and narratives which usually culminate in phrases like, “if they would have just complied.”
Our gaslit existence in 2020 was also layered by the actions of Amy Cooper, a white woman who weaponized race by falsely called the police on a Black bird watcher in Central Park. This was another event in which the Black and African American community has dealt with repeatedly without the advantage of having video footage.
More kindling for the Black and African American communities came in the form of the burning of Black Churches as well as the deaths of Rayshard Brooks, Daniel Prude, Breonna Taylor, or one of the 164 other Black men or women killed by police in the first eight (8) months of 2020. Other deaths like that of Ahmaud Arbery or the lynching of black men found hanging from trees in California…were not new attacks in terms of racially motivated attacks to the Black and African American communities. In the age of digital media, they have simply had a larger magnifying glass placed over them for more objective audiences.
As a man of faith, I can honestly say that I could not have ever expected the personal reality that would following these tragedies. It wasn’t the calls, text, emails, and social media reach outs from hundreds of friends that got to me. What proved to be the ultimate reality gut punch at this time was that the vast majority of those calls from friends concerned about my wellbeing came from friends living overseas. Friends who lived in various countries all over the world who took the time to reach out to pray and uplift me as I wrestled with how to move forward in a way that was pleasing to God.
Many of the messages and conversations I experienced in smaller settings here in the US were not as warm or consoling. I was approached, in many ways, with a multitude of combative ideological questions focused on critical race theory, or Black on Black crime, or really any number of topics that could be used a shield to the truth of foundational racism. It was as if the questions asked were brought forth to set up the next topic for debate. But I had no desire to debate or argue. I wanted to move forward in truth, love, and unity. But regardless of the data, historical fact, or simply noting the compounding sins of racism and its lasting impact on our country, the overwhelming majority of those who asked to have smaller group discussions on the topic seemed threatened by what admitting that systemic racism exists would mean. What they would have to "give up" if they admitted that there was an advantage to being white in this country.
In contrast, what continued to give me hope were the hundreds (literally hundreds) of one on one conversations that led to mutual understanding and growth. As a result of many of those conversations, for the first time in my 46 years on this planet, I witnessed majority culture brothers and sisters begin to really wrestle with this reality. It was as if many were truly looking at the foundation they were standing upon and realizing, for the first time, that some things that they have been taught to believe were shaky at best. That they needed to listen more and talk less. That they were sold a bill of goods that did not add up when it came to Black and African American citizens in this country. And for that matter, all people of color in this country.
In many of those cases, they were able to come back to the table (digital table because Zoom or Facetime became the only reasonable meeting place) and tell me about tough conversations they had with family, friends, or coworkers. They were able to come back and tell me that things they learned from their own research like the term “Black on Black crime” was a false narrative used to try and separate sin by race when there truly was little to no difference. That Black fathers aren’t what the media make them out to be. Over a period of time they began to understand just how devastating and long lasting the impact of Redlining and Jim Crow has been to the Black and African American communities, and by extension all communities when you consider what has been lost when you intentionally withhold opportunities from an entire group of people.
And this gave me hope. This provided me with inspiration to continue to engage in the discussions. It fueled my prayers.
In this season of unrest and anguish presented by 2020 I also found myself thrust on to a much larger platform than I could have ever imagined. Small meetings with churches. Large conferences with thousands of attendees. I was passed the unenviable task of attempting to unpacking racism and providing its realities to people in a way that could be digested and understood within a one-hour package. But of course, as you could imagine, there is no way to do such a thing.
Tackling racism cannot be assembled into a convenient package. It cannot be whittled down into an annual sermon series. Such attempts have led to the secular world taking over in leading people on how to handle the topics of justice, love, and equality when the Church could have been at the forefront. The US Church’s attempts to place Band-Aids over a topic that requires surgery has left its congregations looking for secular answers on how to deal with racism and bigotry. It has rendered it’s congregations without the basic tools needed to handle open conversations on race.
Unpacking racism in this country is layered, and tough, and risky, exhausting, and heart breaking. It requires pastors who are willing to risk upsetting the crowd while holding them accountable. It requires pastors who are willing to upset that major donor who may not want to help the church build the new wing if the subject of racism comes up.
But tackling racism and bigotry as a means of speaking truth in love to their congregation also provides hope, it engenders trust, it builds bridges, it sheds light on sin, it breeds equity, it breaks down the boxes and stereotypes that we assign others. Most importantly, it is pleasing to God and it is also His command.
As we begin to take our first steps in 2021, I pray that it is a time of healing and understanding. Of empathy and growth. Of bold proclamations of justice, truth, and love from the US Church.
As hard as the previous year was, for me it was also a time of hope and optimism. An optimism that came from the need to slowdown and live a more secluded life. A more prayerful and intentional life. It came from seeing so many step up and step in. 2020 gave me hope because so many willingly dug below the surface to learn more about the effects of racism and sought to understand more than they sought to be understood.
This year…it will be what we make of it. I pray that we make room in our lives for more than just survival. I pray that we find ways to unite as people and actively chip away at this nation’s original sin.