Be not conformed to this world: but be ye transformed by the renewing of your mind. – Romans 12:2
This morning it was reported that the family of Sandra Bland has reached a $1.9 million dollar settlement in a wrongful death suit against Waller County and the Texas Department of Public Safety. Bland was pulled over in July of last year for failing to use her turn signal, and was arrested after refusing to put out her cigarette. The arresting officer, at one point, threatened her with a taser, saying, “I’ll light you up”. Officer Encinia accused Sandra Bland of assaulting him, but dash cam footage refuted this and he was later indicted and fired. Three days after her arrest, Bland was found dead in her cell, from what the autopsy determined was a suicide. The family’s lawsuit claims that the Waller County Sheriff’s Office failed to do appropriate and timely checks on Bland while she was in custody. All of this of course could have been avoided if Bland hadn’t been harassed and arrested in the first place.(1)
Compounding the impact of this news, is a story reported this morning, of yet another black teenager shot by police in Columbus, Ohio. It seems there is not a week that goes by without the news reporting the death of a black person at the hands of police. In July we all watched the graphic videos of the police shootings of Philando Castille and Alton Sterling, and according to Mapping Police Violence, 168 black people have been shot and killed by police in 2016.
Honestly, I have no idea how to react to any of this. I vacillate between anger, sadness, frustration, shame, and fear. As a middle class white man, who travels in overwhelmingly white circles, and works in one of the whitest church denominations in the country, I often feel completely immobilized by my distance from the reality of life experienced by African-Americans in this country. I want to support the movement to end police violence, and I have challenged myself to take part in direct action, and to learn as much as possible about systemic racism, our broken criminal justice system, and the ways in which my life might be contributing to these systems of oppression. But, all of this feels woefully inadequate. More often than not I am left feeling disheartened and cynical, and the temptation to throw my hands in the air and say “There’s nothing I can do”, is always floating around me.
Coincidentally, when the news of Sandra Bland’s family’s settlement, and the shooting death of Tyree King came across my news feed this morning, I was reading Strength to Love by Martin Luther King Jr (This is an assigned book for a class at seminary, so I don’t say this to show how forward thinking I am, or to stroke my own ego. I was told to read this book.). I’m grateful for the way Dr. King appeals not only to the responsibility of the citizen in the fight for equality, but also to the responsibility of the Christian.
“In spite of this prevailing tendency to conform, we as Christians have a mandate to be nonconformists. The Apostle Paul, who knew the inner realities of the Christian faith, counseled, ‘Be not conformed to this world: but be ye transformed by the renewing of your mind.’ We are called to be people of conviction, not conformity; of moral nobility, not social respectability. We are commanded to live differently and according to a higher loyalty.”(3)
These words by Dr. King stuck out to me as I considered my own cynicism and frustration. Am I not conforming to this world when I back away from my feelings of outrage and give into my feelings of apathy. King reminds us that as Christians we follow a Christ who was anything but apathetic, and the very height of nonconformist. Should we aspire to less?
This call to live differently is not a call to the individual Christian alone, but to the Church as a whole, and it is leadership in the Church, especially predominately white church bodies, that we need most right now. As a white member of this church body I need help. I don’t know how to support this movement effectively, or how to talk with family and friends about such an important issue. I have no idea what my own capacity is for action. I need the Church (2) to see this for the dire situation it is and to refuse to be stifled by the status quo or the fear of divisiveness. Dr. King reminds us that the Church has struggled to take a stand for justice before:
“Millions of American Negroes, starving for the want of the bread of freedom, have knocked again and again on the door of so-called white churches, but they have usually been greeted by a cold indifference or a blatant hypocrisy. Even the white religious leaders, who have a heartfelt desire to open the door and provide the bread, are often more cautious than courageous and more prone to follow the expedient than the ethical path. One of the shameful tragedies of history is that the very institution that should remove man from the midnight of racial segregation participates in creating and perpetuating the midnight.” (3)
Midnight persists, and as the Church we need to refuse to conform out of the fear of divisiveness, lowered church attendance, personal safety, or expediency. As followers of Christ we need to step out in courage to support and stand with those in the world who are crushed under the weight of injustice and oppression. This will require more than just our prayers, our liturgy, or our sermons. It will require us to take visible direct action, to learn to listen and follow, and to refuse to give in to the temptation of cynicism and privilege. So many churches are taking on this responsibility, and are beginning to understand that justice requires more of us than sympathy, and I applaud those efforts. However, there remains an enormous silence, where the Church’s voice desperately needs to be heard. WE are the Church, and as such it is up to us to be that voice.
I don’t want to give into cynicism anymore, and I don’t want to continue to rest comfortably in my own privilege, knowing that I will never have to face the kind of abuse that African-Americans face on a daily basis. I want to repent of my own silence, and my own indifference. I want to repent for all the times I have scrolled past a story of violence and oppression with dispassion. For not challenging the racism I witness, and for not truly listening to the voices that need to be heard. I want to be transformed by the renewing of my mind. I can do much of this inner work for myself, but at the same time I’m really counting on the Church to help me.
- CNN Sandra Bland’s Family…
- When I speak of the “Church” I am referring to the white church in America, of which I am a part of, understanding that the black church has always led this fight.
- King, Martin Luther. Strength to Love. Minneapolis, MN: Fortress, 2010.