As we look around at our current circumstances in the US it doesn’t take long to understand the level of suffering that many are enduring. With unemployment claims that have climbed to the 33.5 million mark in the last 7 weeks, families are struggling with attempts to adjust to a new reality, how to make ends meet, deciding what bills to pay this month, and how to afford rent or mortgage. (Department of Labor, 2020)
COVID-19 has ravaged our communities, various cultures, ways of life, and families are dealing with deeply troubling scenarios. How do we interact with one another, knowing that more than 4 million people have contracted the virus, but less than 5% of our population has been tested? (Johns Hopkins University of Medicine, 2020)
Families are wrestling with heavy issues, particularly in communities of color, for reasons both historically constructed as well as presently inflicted. But perhaps the most devastating effects come from not knowing how to handle the loss of a loved one, as rules, regulations, and the advice of medical professionals would prevent us from seeing off those we have lost to Coronavirus.
Yet in natural disasters and extreme times of need, in the United States, humanity has shown its uncanny ability to unite and find ways to serve each other in extraordinary ways. It is in those moments that I have witnessed our tendency to remember Jesus’ command to love one another as he loves us (John 13:34). And as a result, food drives open up, money is donated, and speeches are made about how proud we should be about our accomplishments during this stressful time.
It is also during these times that social media explodes with shared videos of fellowship and a pause in divisiveness. Hashtags appear in waves and selfies of individuals running for a cause or donating to a fund go from the exception to the norm. Pastors also often take a break from posting highlights from the sermon series to share how heartbroken and outraged they are about the given catastrophe or tragic event.
But, undoubtedly, things eventually return to normal in “majority culture” while the rest of us...well...the minorities continue to our normal struggle for dignity, justice, equality, a decent education, and the like. And almost like a tide that crashes upon the shore and returns to the sea, the jogs, money, hashtags, and teachings from pastors tend to fade away as well.
In James 3:1-12, James continues his lesson from previous chapters where he contrasts our words from our actions. In particular, James says to our pastors and priests “Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness.”
In the midst of so much natural suffering caused by the virus, I can not help but to look at the unnatural and tragic death of Ahmaud Aubrey... another young black man whose life was tried, convicted, and executed in the street. I can’t help but wonder if majority culture preachers, pastors, or priests understand the gravity of sin that comes with allowing things to go back to “normal” in their faith community after tragic events like this occur?
The “normal” I have associated with majority culture usually consists of the daily trials of single life or married life, struggling to pay bills or dealing with the kids' drama, personal temptations or career stresses. Some even come in the form of more serious issues like divorce, domestic abuse, substance abuse, or sometimes even death. These are the normal things that come up in conversations when I pray with my brothers and sisters who don’t look like me.
These things are genuinely tough to deal with and understandably stressful. They often require community, guidance, and prayer in order for our efforts to be pleasing to God. However, I want to challenge you for a moment to imagine dealing with any or each of these things while attempting to cope with racism and the ever-present gaslighting that accompanies it.
Imagine dealing with any of these in the context of consistent persecution from a faceless aggressor. Imagine dealing with your normal life stresses and struggles yet adding to it the threat of having the police called on you for jogging in the “wrong“ neighborhood while you are trying to work off your stress, or a doctor who gives you less effective care, or an educator who repeatedly overlooks your child’s needs in class. Imagine trying to survive your “normal” life in the context of being pursued, abused, and taken advantage of by the people who are supposed to protect you, but chose not to simply because of the color of your skin. And to make matters more complicated, a minority could present the evidence, provide proven statistics from trusted sources, or even share the live video footage of the offense and their cries for justice and equality are met with the requisite tokens, "It's a fallen world," "God's got this," or the most frequently heard, "I'll pray for you."
James speaks of the tongue controlling everything in The Book of James 3:2-5. That its power, the tongue, is like a tiny spark that could set an entire forest on fire. Imagine if our pastors utilized that power to continually fan the flames of justice and racial reconciliation…even healing between the races in this country. What if it was made a daily priority and woven into the DNA of our churches instead of utilized as a series topic addressed once every other year or so?
Imagine if there was just as much effort put behind influencing the faith community to pursue justice and equality for African Americans and people of color as pastors and priests place on pro-life activity? (The irony of that last question should give you pause.)
“What good is it, dear brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but don’t show it by your actions? Can that kind of faith save anyone? Suppose you see a brother or sister who has no food or clothing, and you say, “Good-bye and have a good day; stay warm and eat well”—but then you don’t give that person any food or clothing. What good does that do?”
~ James 2:14-26
Imagine if pastors and priests consistently taught verses like James 2:14-26 in the context of race. What if our religious teachers framed it so that James spoke of you witnessing a person being mistreated via racism instead of lacking food or clothing? How powerful could that lesson be for those who think racism is just too big a problem to solve?
What if preachers, pastors, and priests frequently urged their faith community to do more than go for a jog to support the disenfranchised and persecuted or release a well-intended post about their shock the next time an African American or person of color is accosted or killed in the United States? What if faith leaders taught their flock to offer more than the tokens and half measures? What if they taught their faith community how to deal with the racially motivated sins of their fathers?
African Americans and people of color have been actively protesting, and fighting, and voting, and speaking, and singing, and writing about these experiences for the majority culture audience in this country for centuries and... it is time, pastors. While we are on a forced pause around the world, there could be no better time than now for you to reevaluate the efforts (or lack of efforts) you have made to influence your communities of faith on this topic.
It is time to begin worrying less about what topics are trending or popular, which catchphrase will trend on social media, what will fill the seats of your churches when we can safely return, or what won’t offend the large donors in your church. It is time to take the definitive step forward and consistently address a problem that has persisted since 1619, and teach your flocks how to take up this cross, our nation's original sin, like Simon of Cyrene… because people of color are exhausted.
Sources: Johns Hopkins: https://coronavirus.jhu.edu
Source: Department of Labor: https://www.bls.gov