I sat with a lump in my throat as the people around me stood and waved their hands, singing “How Great Is Our God,” because while I believed it to be true, I was not ready to sing it and was both inspired and puzzled by the dozens around me who could not just sing it but feel it. It wasn’t the only internally conflicted moment I had during the local vigil honoring the nine victims killed in an act of terrorism against Black people. And a few of them got me thinking and discussing enough to step out on a limb and speak to White, Black, and immigrant churches about what might be next for us in the wake of this tragedy.
If you read my writing regularly, you’ll know that I try not to instruct communities more on the margins than I, and I try to be compassionate in my suggestions to the White community. You’ll also know my focus is on bringing communities together rather than separating them. But our roles in the coming days of this work to dismantle racism as a whole and specifically the culture and codification of anti-Blackness will mean different things for different communities. So I ask for both grace and accountability as you respond to these reflections and the closest I might ever get to a manifesto:
To White Churches:
When the Black church says, “It could have been any of us,” that doesn’t include you. And it’s important for you to talk about that. At the vigil last night, the AME pastor hosting the vigil said, “so many of us host those prayer groups and bible studies; it could have been any of us.” So often, White people are ashamed to acknowledge explicitly what White privilege looks like. Here’s an easy one: Talk about the fact that you do not have to live in fear of racially motivated hate crimes by random strangers participating in anti-White organizations or fear that you or your children could be assaulted by those who have sworn to serve and protect you, all for the crime of going swimming, whether you live in Texas or Ohio or anywhere between or beyond. White supremacy protects you. You need to break the silence that keeps white supremacy in place. (And don’t even get me started on the argument that this was an attack on Christianity. Manipulative and dangerous irrationale like that is exactly why the Southern Poverty Law Center recently designated Fox News a hate group.)
Remember that your brothers and sisters died in that church this past Wednesday, and ask your congregation how they will honor the deaths of the six sisters and three brothers going forward. These were your brothers and sisters who were part of a church doing work that your church needs to partner in. They were doing God’s work in your behalf: the work of liberating the captive and freeing the prisoner, not just metaphorically but literally. What is your church’s role in partnering in that work so that they do not have to be alone in good doing? In Christ they are as close to you as blood kin; that is what our faith teaches. How will you respond to the race-based killing of your blood kin, and how will you respond to the culture that shaped the murderer to hate and called his hate part of his culture and knew he plotted violence but did not seek to change his heart? Because as Martin Luther King, Jr said of Jimmie Lee Jackson’s murder 50 years ago, the culture of White supremacy killed our nine siblings just as much as the bullets did.
Do not fall prey to the manipulative rhetoric that the church should not be political at a moment like this. The White church is political when it ignores racially motivated hate crimes, when it ignores disparate sentencing for drug offenses, when it ignores mass incarceration, when it turns its head from police brutality in America. The church participates in the politics of White supremacy. It undergirds the politics of anti-Blackness. The political sin of omission is as destructive to lives and souls as the political sin of commission.
To Black Churches:
Editorial addition: A beloved Black clergy friend asked me to make explicit for non-Black people this caveat in case we are not clear that this was my intent: Black people in America walk around everywhere with a target on their back. This was true during slavery, during Jim Crow, and it is true today. Therefore, these are points for reflection with an awareness that the mere act of survival and coming together once or twice a week to love and support each other may be exactly and only what a Black church needs to do to contribute to the movement. With that caveat…
When you say, “It could have been any of us,” pay attention to how that is both true and untrue. Mother Emmanuel AME Church holds a special place of honor in the Black church because of its revolutionary heritage, its commitment to honoring the dignity of Black lives as part of how it lived the gospel. From among many Black churches, on the anniversary of Denmark Vessey’s revolt, a young White supremacist targeted that particular church for attack. None of us should have to live in fear of such an assualt, and there is unquestionably an assault on Black lives in America. But the people at the greatest risk are the people putting their lives on the line for the movement. Last night at the vigil, I did not see the same Black leaders (for the most part) that I have seen in the streets risking arrest and battery and abuse as they fight against police brutality and the stripping away of their civil rights (in Oakland, there is a curfew on gatherings after sundown, but while it was enforced fiercely against nonviolent Black protests, it was not enforced during the impromptu celebration of the Warriors NBA championship win). When the people in the streets and in the strategy meetings are not the same people in the pews, God may have found some new folks to work through, and that is worth paying attention to.
When people say “The Black Church is the only thing that can save America,” no matter how validating it feels, wrestle with how true it is. A Black clergy colleague shared with me as we talked about respectability politics in the church that in Bible study the other day, some of his members started getting high and mighty about gays and lesbians going to hell, and he just sat back, thinking of our mutual shero Alicia Garza and her faithful, powerful, unapologetically queer Black leadership, and he said, “As long as y’all are comfortable being the Pharisees in the scripture, because Jesus was hanging out with exactly the kind of folk you’re always complaining about.” (With profound apologies to any Jewish readers — the church has turned the pharisaical movement into something different than its actual historic role.) Respectability politics has a huge cost to the prophetic legacy of the Black church. And it has a huge cost to the role the Black church will play in saving America. The irony is that the people fighting for change look like the people Jesus hung out with, but they don’t always look like the people the church wants leading at or on behalf of the church.
Honor the legacy of Emmanuel AME in your actions, not just in your words and prayers. That historic church played a role in ending slavery. Rev. Pinckney played a role in standing up against modern day segregation and slavery by serving in political office. That church rose from the ashes when White supremacy burned it to the ground, but it did something that truly threatened White supremacy in order to go through that cycle in the first place. LGBTQ and allied Christians joke, “Live your life so that Westboro Baptist Church will picket your funeral.” In extreme language, at a time when Black lives are threatened daily, would you rather be remembered as martyrs for God’s justice or as victim’s of this nation’s injustice? At the very least, though, how can your church, honoring the legacy of Emmanuel AME, be a threat to White Supremacy?
To Immigrant Churches:
DO NOT OPT OUT. This conversation on its face is so not about us. No one is talking about our role in the shootings or in the conversation about gun control or race. And that is so often the case: we avoid the controversial issues in public, because church is a safe place for us in a world that can be threatening. But church was a safe place for the nine people who were killed on Wednesday, until it wasn’t. Even if we are not being invited into the conversation, even if we would rather not navigate our way through the complicated issues of race where our own role is not always clear, we have an obligation. We have an obligation to understand and share with the rest of our church how Black people in America are treated. It may actually help our churches understand why we get treated the way we do. We have an obligation to honor our Black brothers and sisters in worship on Sunday and to call them brothers and sisters, even though we have also been shaped by the anti-Black culture of America even as we are marginalized also. In fact, honoring them is an important step in shifting our churches’ silence on violence towards Black people, so that we can move towards Christ’s vision of how all of us are equally wonderfully made in the image of God. And it might help us remember that we are wonderfully made in the image of God, also, even though America undermines that teaching. We have an obligation to tell the story of Emmanuel AME, so that we might find strength from their history of courage and faithful resistance to evil and injustice; perhaps we can learn from them how to stand up ourselves against injustice in our adopted land. And we have an obligation to reach out to the Black churches we are connected to, to let them know that we are praying for them and grieving with them, and that as Christians, we are also angry at the sin of racism that took our siblings’ lives. You have no idea how infrequently Black churches hear that message from Asian and Latino churches.
To multicultural churches:
Do not buy into the myth that worshipping together is your contribution to the movement for racial justice. Many multicultural churches are still shaped by dominant culture systems and structures, and multicultural worship often comes at a cost to the people of color who worship there — the cost of getting to be in a space where they can just be themselves without translating themselves into another culture (code switching), or the cost of worshipping in their own language or colloquialisms or their own family foods after worship. They do so willingly. But a multicultural church that is not both brokenhearted and determined to stand up against the culture of racism in America after this shooting, it’s a multicultural church that is not really in touch with God’s vision of the Beloved Community; it is only interested in creating something that makes people feel good…well, makes some people feel good at the expense of others.
To all churches:
Find ways to become “co-conspirators” (as the Dean of American Baptist Seminary of the West said to us last night at the vigil) in ending White supremacy and the assault on and commodification of Black lives and Black bodies.
If St. Teresa of Avila is right and Christ has no hands on earth but ours, Christ needs our hands right now, all of our hands, to tear down the White supremacy that really has made us many churches instead of functionally one church. And Christ needs our hands to build up a Beloved Community where all of our gifts are honored, all of our needs are met, none of our bodies are exploited, violated or commodified, and none of us need live in terror or fear because of how God made us.