WASHINGTON (BP) — Evangelical Christians are becoming aware of the racial disparity in American culture, Southern Baptist ethicist Russell D. Moore said in the wake of unrest over the police killing of an African American teenager in suburban St. Louis.
The funeral for Michael Brown, 18, was held Monday (Aug. 25) at St. Louis’ Friendly Temple Missionary Baptist Church, which is near the suburb of Ferguson where Brown was shot to death Aug. 9. Police officer Darren Wilson shot Brown, who was unarmed, six times. The killing was greeted by protests that sometimes became violent and police crackdowns that received criticism. Recent nights in Ferguson have proven more peaceful, and Brown’s father, also Michael, asked for a protest-free day Aug. 25 in remembrance of his son.
Brown’s death also has been greeted by what many Southern Baptist leaders are citing as evidence of a discrepancy between the treatment of whites and blacks by law enforcement officials and of a divide that still exists between the two groups.
Speaking on a Public Broadcasting System program, Moore said he thinks “there’s an awakening across evangelicalism to see that we have a legal problem, we have a systemic problem, we have a cultural problem, and then behind that, we have a spiritual problem.”
Alton Pollard, dean of the Howard University School of Divinity in Washington, D.C., joined Moore in the discussion on PBS.
Moore, president of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, said he is “particularly concerned when I see white people and African-American people not having conversations with one another about what’s happening in Ferguson, reading this in completely different ways in many contexts. I think that needs to change in our own congregational life, when we have congregations where reconciliation is modeled within the pews of the church.”
White evangelicals who have expressed concerns about issues the events in Ferguson have brought to the surface are “in contexts where they know people and are serving together in congregations with African American and Asian and Latino people,” Moore said on the episode of PBS’ “Religion and Ethics NewsWeekly,” which was telecast Aug. 23-24. “And so the more that we have congregations that aren’t neatly segregated up into white churches and black churches and white-collar churches and blue-collar churches, the more you’re going to see people recognizing, ‘This affects me. I am part of a body of believers who have a very different experience than I have.'”
As an example of an evangelical awakening on the issue, Moore pointed to a 2013 resolution adopted by the Southern Baptist Convention that called for sentencing and prison reform. He also mentioned a conversation he had with an African American Southern Baptist pastor as an example of the disparity in America.
The pastor told Moore, “You know I was going through applications for my son to go to college, and there were certain schools that I was praying, ‘Lord, please don’t let him go to those schools, because I didn’t think it would be safe for him.'” Moore said he realized, “I had never had to have that sort of prayer. Those sorts of conversations, I think, spark a beginning of an awareness of what’s going on in ways that we need.”
Moore said he thinks reconciliation is “going to happen, and we should pray for it to happen more.”
In an Aug. 14 blog post, Moore had said, “Whatever the particulars of the horrific situation in Ferguson, racial division is far from resolved in America.”
“[W]e know that the myth of a ‘post-racial’ America is contradicted by a criminal justice system in which young African-American men are, by almost any measure, disproportionately more likely to be arrested, sentenced, or even killed when compared to white peers,” he wrote. “It’s not just the situation in which there’s disparity, but also even in the perception of the problem.”
African-American leaders in the convention offered recommendations in comments for BP.
Fred Luter Jr., who served as the first African American president of the SBC, said Southern Baptists must “continue to offer hope to people across the nation, that no matter what city or town or situation, that Christ is the answer for what’s happening in our country today. … [We Southern Baptists] need to step up to the plate and recognize that if there’s going to be any healing, it’s going to be through a personal relationship with Jesus Christ.”
“We need to have an open and honest conversation with African American leaders across the country, both non-Southern Baptists and Southern Baptists alike,” Luter said, describing cross-cultural dialogue among pastors as an important step in healing and in future ministry. He suggested, for example, that white pastors consider getting in touch with some of the African American pastors in their community to become “sensitive to what’s going on in the community and how they can help the healing process.”
Conversation is needed “with the youth in our churches about how they are dealt with in our communities, particularly … what their behavior should be if approached by the police,” said Luter, longtime pastor of Franklin Avenue Baptist Church in New Orleans. “We have a lot of police officers in the church and we’ve had them to address our young men as to how they should respond if approached by a police officer in the city of New Orleans.”
Although white teens may not face difficult encounters with police officers, Luter encouraged them to “understand that this could happen to some of their classmates and neighbors, and that they should be sensitive to the fact that they might not know Michael Brown but it could be somebody that they go to school with or somebody they possibly go to church with.”
K. Marshall Williams Sr., president of the National African American Fellowship, SBC, said, “I weep, mourn and pray today for the Brown family, the Ferguson community and our nation” as Michael Brown is laid to rest.
“This is a sin-sick, self-centered secular society in which we live” afflicted with “greed, hatred, racism, classism and injustice. … We need passionate prayer, spiritual renewal and revival in our land,” said Williams, pastor of Nazarene Baptist Church in Philadelphia, Pa. “As blood-bought believers who have been birthed into the body of Christ, we are being summoned by God to be Kingdom citizens, not elevating our political ideologies nor our cultural ethnicities over our biblical authenticity.”
Williams urged Christians “to unify by the power of the Holy Ghost and exemplify radical obedience to the Greatest Commandment (Matthew 22:37-40) which is to love God — and inextricably linked up in loving God is loving your brother.”
Ronnie Floyd, president of the Southern Baptist Convention, called for prayer. He told Baptist Press, “As I prayed for the situation in Ferguson last week, I called the director of missions in the greater St. Louis area, asking for the names of a couple of pastors I could call. I wanted to let them know Southern Baptists are concerned for their community, their churches, and we are praying for them. I was able to connect with two pastors who are doing what they can do at this time, leading their churches and joining with others in the community, to come together in prayer, love and ministry. At this time, our Southern Baptist family needs to pray consistently for the spiritual leaders and churches in Ferguson.”
Southern Baptist pastors and leaders, both black and white, have blogged about the events in Ferguson, especially regarding racial disparity in America.
— Thabiti Anyabwile, assistant pastor of church planting at Capitol Hill Baptist Church in Washington, D.C., wrote a series of posts. An African American, Anyabwile said an evangelical movement to address the issue is critical for evangelicalism, for church leaders and members, for marginalized people and for the glory of Christ. While there have been expressions of lament and sentiment, he wrote Aug. 19 on his blog for The Gospel Coalition, “there’s not yet been anything that looks like a groundswell of evangelical call for action, for theology applied to injustice.” He said, “Let there be the founding of a new conservative evangelical body with the aim of (1) providing clear, understandable, biblical theological frameworks for the pressing problems of the marginalized coupled with (2) organized calls to action and campaigns consistent with that framework.”
— Matt Chandler, lead pastor of the The Village Church in suburban Dallas, tweeted Aug. 18: “My son Reid has blonde hair and blue eyes & will more than likely never be seen as ‘suspicious’ by police #WhitePrivilege #Ferguson.” In a blog post later that day, Chandler wrote, “[T]he way white people tend to perceive the situation in Ferguson . . . and in situations like this is through distinctively white lenses. We believe that our experiences, histories and benefits of our hard work are universal experiences for everyone. This is simply not true. . . . In all of this, for the black and the white (and every other color), our only hope is the gospel. Until there is an acknowledgement of privilege and repentance for discrimination, the kingdom and what God has purchased for us in Christ isn’t going to be displayed and lives are still going to be destroyed. It’s systemic, historic and horrific. Might we be men and women with calloused hands and knees as we seek the Lord for racial reconciliation.”
— Two pastors at The Summit Church in the Raleigh-Durham area of North Carolina published a conversation Aug. 24 at the church’s website. J.D. Greear, lead pastor of the church, and Chris Green, Chapel Hill campus pastor for The Summit Church, discussed issues regarding Ferguson as a white and black man, respectively. They provided these guiding principles: (1) “To love someone is to try to understand their pain from their perspective.” (2) “We should, as much as we can, give the due processes of the law a chance to work.” (3) “There is no doubt that minorities (and black males in particular) start life from a trust deficit.” (4) “This event exposes the superficiality of ‘racial harmony’ in our culture and shows that we need a more powerful solution.” The entire discussion is available at http://is.gd/vKx7DI.
— Trevin Wax, the managing editor of The Gospel Project at LifeWay Christian Resources, blogged Aug. 14 at The Gospel Coalition that the events in Ferguson are “ripping the bandages off the racial wounds we thought were healing but instead are full of infection. … Privilege is real, and so is oppression. We live in the same country, in different worlds. The town of Ferguson is speaking up; this is the time to listen, and pray for justice.”
Video of the “Religious and Ethics Newsweekly” episode is available at http://is.gd/y20kqP.
Tom Strode is the Washington bureau chief for Baptist Press, the Southern Baptist Convention’s news service. With reporting by Art Toalston, Baptist Press editor, and Diana Chandler, BP general assignment writer/editor.