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What Can Churches Do to Overcome Racial Injustice?

This article grew out of a video conference with NorthStar Church Network in early June 2020. I was asked to lead a session on the theme “What Churches Can Do to Overcome Racial Injustice.” (Watch the video conference here.)

Marshal Ausberry

As I have personally observed and talked with several pastors in Virginia and around the country, there is a recurring response about what is going on: “This seems different.” This moment that we are in—where racial injustice is the focal point—just seems different.

I believe the response is different because it is as if God allowed the whole world to be shut down for such a time as this. We are not distracted with our own personal agendas. We are not distracted with sports, parties, school, work, shopping, vacations, and a host of other things that normally capture our attention. So when the video of the death of George Floyd was broadcast around the world, the harsh reality could not be ignored. It gripped our attention like never before.

It is different because this time it not only gripped the black community, but moreover, it has gripped the white community. The white community has largely been repulsed and disgusted with the lack of human dignity shown to George Floyd. I believe the white community has felt the emotional trauma, pain, and disgust like never before. This time I see that our white brothers and sisters and our black brothers and sisters are linking arms together to declare unequivocally that racism is wrong, and we will not tolerate it anymore.

Now let me say a word about law enforcement. There are many men and women who serve in law enforcement who are good and decent people. They do their jobs well. I have several law enforcement personnel who are members of Antioch, and they proudly protect and serve. However, law enforcement agencies are not exempt from persons who go too far in policing to the point where people are abused, harassed, and even killed. Those cases get highlighted, as they should, in order to bring about fair and equitable policing in all communities. I respect law enforcement, and when I dial 911 I am glad they respond quickly to protect and serve. I encourage law enforcement as they examine their history and practices to make necessary improvements.

Here are some of the suggestions I shared during the NorthStar briefing. I do not profess to have all the answers; no one does. But I hope this may stimulate discussions that generate other ideas for churches to consider. Each church community is different, so their needs and responses will be different.

  1. One of the first steps for churches is to help the congregation understand what is meant by racial injustice. If we can’t define something, we will not be able to identify or rectify it. There are times when we may see racial injustice but may ignore it, because we are not sensitized to perceive it for what it is.A simple definition of racial injustice is “when an individual or group, because of their race, is mistreated by someone of another race. Racial injustice is evident when one is treated unfairly with disparity, when compared with the treatment of others of a different race.”
  2. Racial injustice shows up in racial profiling, when someone is judged to be a criminal, inferior, or treated with suspicion simply because of the color of their skin. Racial injustice shows up in employment discrimination when someone is denied a job, denied a promotion, or not paid equitably when compared to their counterparts of another race.
  3. We see racial injustice in prison sentencing when people of color receive longer jail and prison sentences for the same or similar offenses as others of a different race. Racial injustice is observed in the manner of treatment when people of color are arrested. Observations are that people of color are treated more harshly with more verbal, physical, and emotional abuse than their white counterparts.
  4. The placement of abortion clinics in urban centers where there are heavy concentrations of African-American and Hispanic people results in a higher number of abortions in those communities. While African Americans represent 13% of the population, they represent 36% of all abortions (according to the CDC, 2015). Since 1973, 19 million black babies have been aborted. It is often thought that the placement of abortion clinics in urban centers is a deliberate modern-day genocide of black and brown people.
  5. We see racial injustice when one’s race is used as a weapon against them. You may have seen the video of the black man in New York City who asks a white woman to put her dog on a leash—consistent with the leash law for that area of Central Park. She refuses and is captured on video calling 911 to say falsely that a black man is attacking her. This is a classic example of weaponizing one’s color to falsely accuse them of a crime. A system of racial injustice creates an environment where one’s color is used to assert a plausible threat when there is none, thus potentially jeopardizing the life of the person of color.

Some people might ask why is this important? Why are we still talking about racism and racial injustice? In the words of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., (in Letter from Birmingham Jail): “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.” We keep talking about racial injustice because it is increasingly showing up in the day-to-day lives of black Americans, to their detriment.

What can churches do?

Pray

We are a praying people. It is always a good time to pray. During Jesus’ earthly ministry, he is consistently found engaged in prayer. If Jesus is often praying, then you and I should also be engaged in prayer. We should pray individually, and we should pray together.

We should pray for God to help us identify and confront racial injustice. We should ask God to show us in our own lives where we have contributed knowingly or unknowingly to racial injustice. We should repent of our own personal sin of racial injustice. We should pray for God would to give us a heart like his—that the things that grieve God would also grieve us. We should pray for those who are disadvantaged and mistreated because of the color of their skin.

We should pray that God would break our hearts as Christians so we would be more aware, more sensitive to the mistreatment of those around us.

We should pray for an end to racism in our country. We must bring the power of heaven to our earthly situation. We need God to help eliminate racial injustice in our nation. In addition to prayer, we need to engage the power of the pulpit in preaching.

Preach

There is power in the pulpit. Holy Spirit-filled preaching will bring about transformation. Powerful preaching brings about transformation in our personal lives, in our marriages, in our parenting, and in many other areas of our lives. Through powerful preaching we also have an opportunity to effect change in the hearts of those in the pews.

God has called us to preach the full counsel of the Bible. The pulpits of the U.S. must not be silent. The pulpits must not repeat the mistakes of the past; that is the mistake of silence. The pulpits must loudly and unequivocally declare that racism is wrong! Racism inside and outside the church is wrong. The pulpit is the platform from which the prophetic message is to be declared to the world.

One of the biggest errors when it comes to racism in the U.S. lies at the doorstep of the church. When we investigate the history of the church in this country, we discover that there was a deafening silence when it came to racial injustice. Most churches were strong proponents of slavery and strongly embraced and perpetuated racism. If the pulpits were embracing racism, it was lived out by those in the pews.

Currently, I serve as the First Vice President of the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) which was founded in 1845. The SBC was largely founded out of the regrettable position defending missionaries owning slaves. The church was either silent on this issue or overtly endorsed slavery. The ills of the church were perpetuated by men like George Whitfield and Jonathan Edwards, who both condoned and owned enslaved persons. The church even propagated the lie that blacks were inferior to whites and incorrectly used the Bible to justify it.

I believe that much of the racial injustice we endure now is the result of the ungodly positions of the church back then. We are still recovering from the vestiges of slavery, racism, oppression, and hate toward people of color because the church was silent.

In 2020 God’s church can no longer remain silent. I believe that God is challenging the Church to preach and proclaim that we are all equal in God’s sight no matter the hue of one’s skin. The church must preach that racism is sin and the church will no longer wink at the sin of racism.

When it comes to overcoming the ills of racial injustice, I believe the church is the last best hope for America. God has given us a sacred duty at such a time as this to preach the truth like never before in order to transform the world around us.

We must preach that racial injustice is sin and that the church will no longer tolerate that sin.

Personal Conviction

No matter what anyone else does, make a personal conviction that as far as you and your household are concerned, you will not tolerate racial injustice. I encourage you to model intolerance of racial injustice in your home and church. When you see racial injustice do not remain silent and do not simply go along to get along. To borrow a phrase, “If you see something, say something!”

For example, if you are in a private group and someone tells a racially offensive joke, just don’t laugh, instead address it. Share that their comments are offensive. Don’t stay in the group, make an exit—and tell them the reason you are exiting.

This kind of response may seem small and insignificant, but it has the power of one thousand sermons. Changed hearts begin one heart at a time. Let God use you to change the hearts around you.

Love

We need to be able to love one another as brothers and sisters in Christ. We need to love the world around us with the same type of love that Christ showed toward us. When we have a heart that loves people, our actions will follow. We can love others who are different from ourselves when we remember that Christ first loved us. God is love, and God’s love compels us to love others.

We can love others because they also bear the image of God. Let us show our love for God by loving others who are different from ourselves.

Act

Over the last few weeks I have had the opportunity to share some thoughts on what churches can do. There is one question that continually comes up with my black and white friends. They both ask, “What’s next; what can we do?”

For this season God has us not just to talk as means of expressing our deep grief and concern for what we have seen and heard. We all can do something to make our communities better places. So in closing, I have noted below some things to consider to help make this world a better place—or, at least, our little piece of the world.

  • Consider acts of kindness. If you are white, consider reaching out to a black person in your neighborhood or community and just share with them that you are grieved at what has been happening in our nation. Have a conversation, and do a lot of listening. Do not try to fix the situation in that conversation; just be a listening ear. Listening will show that you care. Be authentic, as you may have no idea what some of your black and brown residents have been enduring for years. But take the posture to listen. Don’t make excuses or try to explain or justify—just listen. Consider praying for them after you listen.
  • View people who are different from you—black or white—as fellow image-bearers of God. The person who may be of a different color, nationality, or ethnicity is just as much an image bearer of God as you are. View that person as your equal–not inferior, not subservient, and not undeserving of God’s grace and your respect.
  • If you are an employer or manager, examine your perception of others. Are you reluctant to hire or promote someone who is of a different race than you? Do you unknowingly view them as inferior or not deserving of a promotion or a raise in pay? Make sure you don’t use their skin color against them in how you see them in positions of authority simply because of their race. When you promote from within or hire from without, do you typically hire or promote people like yourself?
  • If you have a racially diverse church, do you have non-whites in significant leadership and management roles? If not, ask yourself why you don’t. Be honest with yourself. Most people whom I’ve spoken with just don’t think about it. But now is the time to think about it. We may be missing the full beauty and benefit of the diversity of God’s kingdom.
    Do you have any black friends? And if you are black, do you have any non-black friends? Why not? Don’t put a sign out, “Wanted: Black Friends.” But instead, begin to pray and ask God to begin to put potential friends in your path—black and white. Don’t force it; let it be organic and if a friendship takes root, praise God.
  • Don’t be afraid to tell someone that their experience is not your experience. You can tell them that you are sorry for the unfair treatment they have experienced. That alone will mean so much! It sends a message that you care. The old phrase still applies, “People don’t care how much you know until they know how much your care.”
  • Be willing to hold law enforcement accountable on behalf of others. If you do not already have one, consider developing a group from several churches in your community to periodically meet with law enforcement to discuss community concerns, and let it be an open, two-way exchange. Ask law enforcement how your group can help to make community policing more effective and less threatening to black and brown citizens.
  • Be willing to have some uncomfortable conversations as brothers and sisters in Christ. We don’t know what we don’t know about each other. But if we never have any uncomfortable conversations, we may never truly understand and appreciate our differences. God deliberately has not made all of us identical. God loves variety. And let God’s variety enable God’s Church to thrive.

I love God’s church and God’s people—all of God’ people. Our purpose statement at Antioch is “Loving God, Loving Others.” Antioch, from her founding over 30 years ago, has been a part of the Virginia Baptist family. We celebrate the diversity and the goal of reaching men, women, boys, and girls for the cause of Jesus Christ. We have traveled around the world with many of our Virginia Baptist partners. I see even better and brighter days ahead as we continue to love each other and work together for the furtherance of the gospel. I am convinced that God has not brought us this far to leave us, and God’s got work for us to do together for his glory.

Marshal Ausberry is Senior Pastor of Antioch Baptist Church in Fairfax Station, VA.