By Brian Jones
If you’re angrier with rioters for looting and pillaging than with the event that preceded it—the killing of an unarmed black man by police officers—there’s a really good chance you just don’t get it.
Let me explain.
One of my favorite memories growing up was going to the police station with my grandfather, who was a Franklin County sheriff in Columbus, Ohio.
He pretended to lock me up in cells, fed me prison food, introduced me to all the guards, and allowed me to sit in his cruiser and turn the siren on. My grandfather was a pretty big deal: corner office, dozens of people reporting to him, walking around and joking like he knew everyone.
I trust police officers because my grandfather was a kind, gracious, strong, fair man. I simply expect every police officer I meet to embody the same characteristics as my grandfather. Few have disappointed me.
But if I’m being completely transparent, my experience with law enforcement was quite literally formed from the inside, and from a uniquely white perspective. In fact, I never remember meeting a black police officer as a child. Police officers were all white, and kind, at least to me.
An Alternative Perspective
An equally poignant memory I have is that for all 18 years of my childhood, all of my best friends were black. In fact, writing that my friends were “black” still, to this day, kind of grates on my senses. They weren’t black to me. They were just my friends. My mom still talks about when she came to school to drop off cupcakes for my birthday in first grade. I was so excited to have her meet my best friend, Brian Hunter.
“Mom, you’ll know him when you come in,” she remembers me telling her. “He’s a little shorter than me, his hair is curly, and he likes to play dodgeball too.” She was surprised, after meeting him, that I didn’t simply tell her that he was the only black kid in my class.
The first time I ever heard someone call a friend of mine the N-word was in seventh grade. My best friend, Eric, and I were walking to school when we were jumped and beaten up by a group of 10 to 15 stoners. As they pushed us around, they kept calling Eric that word. I, on the other hand, was just wealthy and skinny, so they called me other names.
This pattern of bullying continued until it escalated into more severe violence toward both of us, resulting in prolonged, extensive legal action that lasted into eighth grade.
Eventually my intense, yearlong bout with anxiety subsided, partly because of the injunctions by the judge, and partly because between seventh and ninth grade I grew from 5 feet 7 inches and 120 pounds to 6 feet 3 inches and 205 pounds.
My friend, Eric, grew to similar proportions, but never outgrew being called the N-word.
It wasn’t until much later that I fully understood why Eric’s mom moved him and his brother to an all-black high school in Cincinnati to start the ninth grade.
The Book On Racism
The Bible tells us that because God purposely created human beings to be ethnically diverse (Acts 17:26), he judges everyone impartially (Romans 2:11), looking only at their hearts (1 Samuel 16:7), and demands that we do the same (James 2:9), including fighting against injustice and inequality when we see it (Micah 6:8).
My white Christian and black Christian friends all agree on this.
Why, then, don’t white Christians understand the antipathy many blacks have against law enforcement?
More pointedly, why don’t you, as a white Christian, get this?
I think there are three reasons white Christians don’t understand black antipathy toward the police:
1. As a white Christian, you’ve never been targeted by police because of your skin color.
You’ve never been shaped by that experience.
I remember riding in the back seat of my friend Eric’s older sister’s car. Not once did it occur to me she might be pulled over for having a white kid in the back seat, simply so the officer could peek in the window and ask, “Son, are you all right?”
We have a number of mixed couples in our congregation, and one woman has shared numerous stories about being pulled over by the police so that an officer could make sure her car wasn’t carjacked and that she, a white woman, wasn’t being held hostage by her husband, a black man.
I’ve never had anything remotely close to that happen to me, or to anyone in my family. You probably haven’t either, unless you’re black. Having a memory bank full of those kinds of experiences has a way of shaping a person, not the least of which is to make one feel “on edge” whenever a police officer approaches.
2. As a white Christian, you’ve never been presumed to be character deficient because of your skin color.
Chances are, as a white person, you’ve never walked into a store and been considered more likely to shoplift because of your race.
It took me a while to realize that whenever I went into stores with my best friend, Donny, during my senior year in high school that he was being watched the whole time. Storeowners were less vigilant when we were together than when he was on one side of the store and I was on the other. It makes me sick to my stomach to this day to think back to that.
My other black friends tell me how even now, as educated, wealthy, middle-aged professionals, they still go into establishments and are treated differently. Hearing their stories enrages me.
This is important, as it pertains to this conversation, because police officers are only half of the law enforcement process. The other half involves the very people who often show the bias described—people who call the police, give testimony after an incident, and sit on a jury.
For average black people, a police officer who mistreats them is simply a manifestation of the entire community’s prejudicial attitudes.
3. As a white Christian, you don’t realize that complete objectivity does not exist.
Yes, you can be objective when it comes to flipping on your television and seeing looters ripping apart stores, for which many good, decent, hard-working business owners have worked their entire lives to build.
“Where’s the justice for that store owner?” you may ask. And I will agree with you. It’s senseless. It doesn’t help anything. It is stupid and needs to be met with calculated force to restore order.
At the same time, we must acknowledge that for all of our objectivity, and for all our supposed ability to carefully weigh the pros and cons of each of these cases, we do so as outsiders.
As an educated person, you can render objective judgment.
But as a white person, you cannot render genuine empathy.
That’s because we’ve never lived a day in a black man’s shoes.
For all my time spent doing life with my black friends and being welcomed into their beautiful, gracious families, I recognize I’m still not one of them. And neither are you. Their stories are not our stories.
Ground Rules for Future Conversations?
If you’re white, chances are you don’t have relatives who have told you stories about what it was like not to be allowed to vote, eat wherever you wanted, or marry whomever you pleased.
You’ve never been pulled over for your skin color, trailed by security in a store because a “group of you” was suddenly there, or been called violating, soul-numbing words.
As you turn on CNN, you pride yourself with your Cartesian, linear logic, in your objectivity, your enlightened ways of being able to see both sides of the coin at the same time—the police officer and an unarmed black man—and the strengths and weaknesses of a case. You debate what you would do as a juror. You make it a point to lecture your kids on the lessons learned from these incidents.
But how many black friends do you actually have?
I’m talking about that 14-year-old boy living in inner-city Baltimore who’s selling crack because it’s the only way to feed his two little sisters. The boy who goes home at midnight on a school night to no parents, no food, and no heat in the house.
How many people do you actually know who live in the kinds of circumstances you are so objectively kept abreast of while watching that flat-screen television with that exorbitant triple-play cable subscription from Comcast? How many conversations with minorities have you had before you so flippantly pontificate on Facebook through your $600 iPhone made possible by your $300 monthly Verizon family-share cell phone package?
I can honestly say I’ve had ZERO conversations lately with the kinds of people caricatured on the news reports.
And it is this exact hubris—the kind that boasts about being able to be objective without actually knowing a person—that God addresses in Scripture.
Our problem as white Christians is not so much our discrimination as our presumption.
As I said above, if we’re angrier with rioters for looting and pillaging in the aftermath of an unarmed black man being shot and killed by police officers, there’s a really good chance we just don’t get it.
The way to start to get it is to stop sharing our opinions, and instead to become friends with an actual live human being in this situation.
In fact, that ought to be our rule of thumb, whether we’re black, white, Hispanic, or whatever: never will we share our opinion about people with whom we’ve never shared a meal.
Doing so will guard us from becoming what G.K. Chesterton in his book Orthodoxy called “the madman”: a person who lives without “healthy hesitation and healthy complexity.”
Until that happens, we will respectfully remain silent, no matter how insightful we consider our opinions.
From Brian Jones’s blog post, http://brianjones.com/blog/2015/05/05/why-white-christians-just-dont-get-it/.
Brian Jones serves as senior pastor with Christ’s Church of the Valley, Royersford, Pennsylvania.
AS A TEENAGER, I remember thinking that my kids wouldn’t have to deal with race issues. Never have I been more wrong, so I appreciate Brian Jones’s challenge, personal example, and points of application. We’d rekindle Martin Luther King Jr.’s dream if we’d sit at the table with those we don’t understand.
The words of U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice Roger B. Taney in Dred Scott v. Sandford, still echo, “The negro is a different order of being.” I’m hopeful that a decreasing number of Americans believe different means lesser, but I fear a high number still believe the word different applies. Regardless of whether different means better or worse, any belief in hereditary, fundamental differences assaults the teachings of the Bible and the findings of science. Until the conversation goes there, we’re still dancing on the surface. But how can we create enough space to have a conversation like that?
It’s true, many don’t get it. They dismiss the fact that our country allowed 200 years of slavery, followed by 100 years of Jim Crow, followed by 50 years of more subtle entrapments. But the language we use to couch our arguments matters. If I utter, “You just don’t get it,” I’ve ended any chance to be heard by the defensive people who most need to hear my perspective.
When I’ve tried this approach, the people I’m speaking with just grow more defensive. Others have run to the opposing corner, blaming every personal failure on the system. The rest of us are forced to make a tiresome choice between two nonexistent Americas: One that is irretrievably and unforgivably racist, and the other where there is no racism, discrimination, or privilege at all.
Most racial issues require more nuanced thinking than we allow, and a more gentle tone than we offer. If we can season our conversations with nuance and gentleness, perhaps we’ll create enough space to have a conversation that digs deep enough to make a difference.
—Brian Jennings, minister, Highland Park Christian Church, Tulsa, Oklahoma (hptulsa.com)
TO BE CLEAR and biblically accurate, there is only one race, the human race, with all equally created in God’s image. As Brian pointed out, there are various ethnicities and nationalities, which create specific and unique cultures. Because of the sin of pride mixed with fear, each cultural group sees itself as better than, or superior, to others, who are viewed as inferior. And when this happens, prejudice and bigotry flourish.
Brian, thank you for your provocative words which challenge the reality of “white privilege.” If you are white and reading this, I would imagine you have some level of defensiveness. When our whiteness is associated with racism, we can grow uncomfortable or defensive, and/or feel judged or convicted. Can we please stop being so hypersensitive as we live in our white cultural segregated bubble and start being a proactive agent of true reconciliation (2 Corinthians 5:16-20)?
Embarrassingly so, 11 o’clock Sunday morning is still the most segregated hour in America. In stark contrast, the first church birthed in Acts 2 was multiethnic, multicultural, and multilingual. The answer to this racial polarization is to transition the apartheid church and plant intentional multiethnic, restoration churches. Such a strategy champions the inclusive gospel and answers the final prayer of Jesus (John 17:20-23).
—Matt McGue, lead pastor, One Church, Ridgeland, Mississippi (www.thatonechurch.org)
READING BRIAN’S ARTICLE quickly brought to mind memories of growing up in a black, single-parent home. One of the first major life lessons my mom taught my younger brother and me was how to, and how NOT to, interact with the police. My mother made it clear that while our white friends might have the luxury of being friendly with the police, we as young black men should be very careful to avoid becoming simply another statistic. This is a life lesson that, irrespective of your social strata, geographical location, or your faith story, millions of black people (particularly young black men) are taught as a literal rite of passage.
This call to be careful is born in part from decades of racial violence and terrorism directed at black citizens. Local citizenry carried out attacks on personal property and conducted beatings and lynchings and rarely, if ever, did any of these illegal acts result in police action to truly protect people of color. While my faith in Christ provides me great hope for this life and the life to come, I still must face, live in, and deal with the reality of racial brokenness almost every day.
—Robert M. Daniels, executive pastor, Westbrook Christian Church, Bolinbrook, Illinois (www.westbrookchurch.org)