The mood in Ferguson, Missouri, is tense, after a grand jury decided against indicting a police officer for the killing of unarmed African-American teenager Michael Brown. The tension ought to remind us, as the church, that we are living in a time in which racial division is hardly behind us. That reality ought to motivate us as citizens to work for justice, but also as the church to seek to embody the kingdom of Christ.
We haven’t as of yet sorted through all the evidence the grand jury saw and we don’t know precisely what happened in this nightmarish incident. What we do know is that the Ferguson situation is one of several in just the past couple of years where white and black Americans have viewed a situation in starkly different terms. White Americans tend, in public polling, to view the presenting situations as though they exist in isolation, dealing only with the known facts of the case at hand, of whether there is evidence of murder. Black Americans, polls show, tend to view these crises through a wider lens, the question of whether African-American youth are too often profiled and killed in America. Whatever the particulars of this case, this divergence ought to show us that we have a ways to go toward racial reconciliation.
One of the things I’ve learned over the past year is that nothing brings out more hate mail, nothing, than when I say that too many black kids are being shot in America. Often this hate mail is accompanied by the sort of neo-Confederate rhetoric that I would have thought would have died out, at least in its explicit form, a long, long time ago. That’s just mail, with no real harm. I cannot imagine what it would be to worry about the physical safety of my sons. We have come a long way toward racial justice in this country, but we shouldn’t be deceived. The old zombie of Jim Crow still moves about.
So what should we do? In the public arena, we ought to recognize that it is empirically true that African-American men are more likely, by virtually every measure, to be arrested, sentenced, executed, or murdered than their white peers. We cannot shrug that off with apathy. Working toward justice in this arena will mean consciences that are sensitive to the problem. But how can we get there when white people do not face the same experiences as do black people?
The answer for the Body of Christ starts with a robust doctrine of the church lived out in local congregations under the lordship of Christ. The reason white and black Americans often view things so differently is because white and black Americans often live and move in different places, with different cultural lenses. In the church, however, we belong to one another. We are part of one Body.
The reason African-Americans tend to speak out against racial profiling and disparate sentencing is because often they can imagine their own sons or brothers or nephews in that place. As those in Christ, we have the same family dynamic at work, regardless of whether we are black or white, Jew or Gentile. In the church, a black Christian and a white Christian are brothers and sisters. We care what happens to the other, because when one part of the Body hurts, the whole Body hurts.
Consciences are not simply shaped by ideas. They are shaped by affections. As sociologist Robert Nisbet pointed out last century, soldiers aren’t motivated to fight chiefly by the patriotic speeches of their commanders but by their sense of unity and camaraderie with their fellow fighters. They are a band of brothers. The same should be true, except infinitely more so, within the church. That’s why the early church saw to it that they listened to the Greek widows who felt ignored in the distribution of food (Acts 6), and why the largely Gentile churches were included in an offering for the relief of the church in Jerusalem.
In order to get there, we will need churches that are not divided up along carnal patterns of division—by skin color or ethnicity or economic status. We will need churches that reflect the manifold wisdom of God (Eph. 3:10) in the joining together of those who may have nothing else in common but the image of God, the blood of Christ, and the unity of the Spirit. When we know one another as brothers and sisters, we will start to stand up and speak up for one another.
That doesn’t mean that every situation will have an immediate resolution. We will still live in a fallen world, in which the justice system will sometimes discover wrongdoing and sometimes won’t. But it will mean that we will go a long way toward reflecting in our churches the united kingdom of Christ more than divided states of America.