Left behind? Justice and the church after George Floyd
‘In August 2014, the shooting death of Michael Brown, a young, unarmed Black man, by a White police officer in Ferguson, Missouri, sparked a new level of national discourse in the United States on race, civil rights, and systemic injustice.’
So began a Lausanne Global Analysis that I wrote five years ago. In it I highlighted some of the American church’s response—and non-response—to a wave of high-profile killings of unarmed Black men and women. I explored the significance of systemic injustice to global mission and concluded with a call for Christians, individually and corporately, to pursue practical acts of restorative justice. The article was published a few months after a massacre by a white nationalist at a Black church in Charleston SC. This was a moment in which the church could have called for a reckoning on the issue of race and the need for justice on the road to reconciliation. Instead its racial divisions and differences were brought into sharper focus.
2020 was punctuated by another series of high-profile killings. There was a nightmarishly familiar feel to the events of last year: another death, another media wave, and another round of protests. Looking back at that Lausanne piece, it is tempting to think that little has changed, that we are just going in circles, enduring another iteration of atrocity, outcry, attention, and inaction.
Such a Time as This
George Floyd’s killing by Officer Derek Chauvin in May 2020 catalyzed the fury, collective pain, and pressures of Black life in the United States. His death came on the heels of two other national stories: the horrific killings of Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arberry. The world witnessed massive demonstrations of primarily young adults, in all 50 states, in major cities, suburbs, and rural communities.
Protest amidst the Covid-19 pandemic was noteworthy for two reasons. First, the willingness of protestors to risk catching and spreading Covid-19 reflected the dire need to take a stand against racial injustice. Second, the pandemic further exposed the impact of systemic injustice affecting Black and Brown people: the prevalence of pre-existing medical conditions and lack of access to health care tied to racism and poverty, coupled with higher representation in “essential worker” roles, which carried greater risks of infection and death from Covid-19.
The cumulative impact of these killings, along with the disproportionate deaths of Black and Brown people from Covid-19, pushed me and many other Black folks beyond the customary feelings of racial fatigue into new spaces of racial trauma. At the same time, new segments of the American population awakened to the realities of systemic injustice and white supremacy. As the video of George Floyd’s killing went viral, millions were transfixed and horrified by the 8 minutes and 46 seconds that Officer Chauvin knelt on George Floyd’s neck.
The response internationally to the Floyd video mirrored what was happening in the streets of Minneapolis and other US cities. People all over the world, already connected in a unique way because of the global battle against Covid-19, joined in affirming the value and dignity of Black lives, demanding policing reform and justice for George Floyd, Ahmaud Arberry and Breonna Taylor. Crowds turned out during a global pandemic, literally risking their lives, to protest events happening in another country.
Historically, the United States has played the role of calling out injustices in other countries and affirming human rights for those living under oppressive conditions. In this instance, the tables turned. America was being challenged to live up to its ideals of life, liberty, and justice for all. These world-wide protests could not have been scripted or orchestrated by an individual or single group. They were a powerful symbol of solidarity signaling that the time for change had come.
Unlike other nationally profiled killings, George Floyd’s death has resulted in police reform in cities and states across the country. By June 2020, at least 23 cities completely or partially banned the use of chokeholds, carotid restraints, or both by police.1 Other policing reforms include duty to intervene when fellow police officers exert excessive force, reductions in police funding with reallocation for youth programs or other community services, increasing transparency, and better training and education.
There is once again a generation in American society that has grown tired of racial injustice. Sustained protests in 2020 have increased awareness of long-standing racial disparities in American society. The government, corporations, universities, and other public institutions have responded, committing funding, creating policies, and developing economic initiatives to address racial injustices. The church has primarily interpreted these events through political and cultural lenses, failing to acknowledge the spiritual significance of systemic injustice or engage in biblical responses. While holding, at best, to familiar historical patterns of response – lament, apologies, and symbolic repentance–the church has been left behind. Its racial divisions have hardened.
Reconciliation, Exhaustion, and Liberation
Prior to 2015, racial reconciliation was a prominent theme at evangelical conferences. Multi-racial congregations, particularly mega-churches, were seeing more Black congregants in their churches. “In 2012, according to a report from the National Congregation Study, more than two-thirds of those attending white-majority churches were worshiping alongside at least some black congregants, a notable increase since a similar survey in 1998. This was more likely to be the case in evangelical churches than in mainline Protestant churches, and more likely in larger ones than in smaller ones.”2
Within American evangelicalism in the last few years, racial reconciliation has become “a road less travelled.” The Trump presidency stoked racial division and white nationalism. For many Black Christians in white evangelical spaces, the endorsement of Donald Trump in 2016 by 81% of white Evangelical voters created a painful breach of trust, which contributed to an exodus of Black members from white evangelical ministries. Michael Emerson, one of the co-authors of Divided by Faith, noted, “The election itself was the single most harmful event to the whole movement of reconciliation in at least the past 30 years.”3
That election was one of the starkest visible expressions of the deep differences in understanding between white and Black Christians on matters of race. Subsequent research further elucidated the disconnect between Black and white Christians about race in America. The Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI) in 2018 examined the perspectives among white Christians (including evangelicals, mainline Protestants and Catholics) compared to whites who are religiously unaffiliated. These trends generally persist even in the wake of the recent protests for racial justice.4 The survey revealed:
- White Christians are more likely than whites who are religiously unaffiliated to deny the existence of structural racism.
- White Christians are nearly twice as likely as religiously unaffiliated whites to say the killings of Black men by police are isolated incidents rather than part of a pattern of how police treat African Americans.
- White Christians are about 30 percentage points more likely to say monuments to Confederate soldiers are symbols of Southern pride rather than symbols of racism.
- White Christians are also about 20 percentage points more likely to disagree with this statement: “Generations of slavery and discrimination have created conditions that make it difficult for Blacks to work their way out of the lower class.”
Similarly, in mid-2019, Barna undertook a study with the Racial Justice and Unity Center which highlighted “stark racial contrasts” in perspectives between Black and white American Christians:
- Only two in five white practicing Christians (38%) believe the U.S. has a race problem. This percentage more than doubles, however, among Black practicing Christians (78%).
- Three-quarters of Black practicing Christians (75%) at least somewhat agree that the U.S. has a history of oppressing minorities, while white practicing Christians are less likely to do so (42%).
- Three in five white practicing Christians (61%) take an individualized approach to matters of race, saying these issues largely stem from one’s own beliefs and prejudices causing them to treat people of other races poorly. Mean while, two-thirds of Black practicing Christians (66%) agree that racial discrimination is historically built into our society and institutions.
- Seven in 10 Black practicing Christians (70%) report being motivated to address racial injustice. Only about one-third of white practicing Christians (35%) says the same.
The disparity in perspectives underscores why there would be frustration in multiracial settings in which Black Christians want a higher level of engagement around issues of systemic racism, while white leaders and congregants would be less likely to acknowledge a problem with racial injustice or have the motivation to address it.5 The result has been dissonance and pain, which has taken a toll on the Black Christian community.
The exodus of Black churchgoers from white ministries was described in a 2018 New York Times article as “mostly quiet, more in fatigue and heartbreak than outrage.” For those who have stayed, Christian counsellors have spoken about the psychological toll of remaining in multiracial churches. Others have spoken about the necessity of spending dedicated time with those who have shared experiences, for the purpose of renewal, so Black members can return to multiracial spaces energized and ready to engage across racial differences.6
In the post-George Floyd era, the focus has shifted from dialogue on racial reconciliation and efforts to bring together congregations from different racial groups to action that acknowledges systemic injustice and meaningfully increases the equity and inclusion of Black people and other communities of color impacted by racism. For veteran leaders who continue to pursue the ministry of reconciliation, the journey must begin with engaging racial injustice. Brenda Salter-McNeil, an African American woman preacher, author, and professor who has taught, studied, and practiced the work of racial reconciliation for decades, writes,
“Now more than ever, those who care about the reconciliation command of the cross must speak up and out about injustice and must go about the work of dismantling the structures of this injustice and combating the harmful, even deadly result of this country’s unchecked legacy of systemic inequality and discrimination. The church must talk about justice. I must talk about justice. The time is now.”7
Similarly, Chris Rice, Director of the Mennonite Central Committee United Nations Office in New York City and former cofounding Director of the Duke Divinity School Center for Reconciliation, writes,
“Like the comfortable religious leaders in Jesus’ Good Samaritan story, we dare not pass quickly by the murdered body of George Floyd on the other side of the Jericho road. As I wrote elsewhere, you cannot reconcile with someone who has a foot on your neck. We dare not talk about reconciliation without getting feet off necks. For everything there is a season. In the spirit of Luke 4 and of Amos, this is the season to take down racial disparities. This is the season of liberation.”8
Credibility, Courage, and Change
In that Lausanne piece five years ago, I asked: will the church address systemic injustice on the road to reconciliation? Despite the rich Biblical language commissioning the church as an agent and embodiment of racial justice, the hard truth is that throughout history religion has more often been used to justify division and oppression.
Nonetheless, the call remains. And given the powerful role that students have often had in driving social change in both American and broader global history, we who are engaged in student ministry face a particular responsibility. The students to whom we minister, and the students whom we hope to reach, have tremendous potential as agents of transformation, and the world needs that now. Furthermore, what they learn as students will inevitably shape how they live out their vocations long after they leave campus. How we shape their understanding of the gospel’s approach to equity, inclusion, and attention to the marginalized will have lifelong impact on whose voices they hear, whose problems they see, and who they welcome to every dinner table and conference table as they continue in their adult discipleship.
In addition, the world is watching us. If the church is not willing to engage deeply and honestly on these pressing questions, we risk slipping further into irrelevance. We have already lost so much credibility. The church continues to haemorrhage young people, and on matters of racial justice, few are looking to the church or to older generations to lead.
As we enter 2021, we are not merely going in circles on questions of racial justice in the United States. In multiple sectors of society—government, education, philanthropy, the arts—we are seeing efforts by individuals and institutions to understand and address long-standing systemic discrimination. The American church’s failure to grapple with a heritage of racism and the consequent inherited inequalities hurts us spiritually, and it destroys our credibility as witnesses before a student generation aching for real change.
As our global society continues to navigate a Covid-19 pandemic, we as individuals, families, institutions, and countries are being forced to embrace change. We’ve survived major disruptions to life as we know it and finding our “next normal” will require courage, innovation, creativity, and resourcefulness. Within InterVarsity USA, we have embraced a longing for revival and are looking to God to perceive the “new thing” that is unfolding in faculty and student ministry. As I look to the future, one of my greatest sources of hope is this generation of young adults who have already demonstrated a willingness to stand up against systemic injustice, demonstrating courage, resilience, and a commitment to change. As we develop disciples, groom leaders, and plant new student movements, we have the privilege and opportunity to invest in those individuals who will build equitable new systems and structures that render our old ones irrelevant.
1 “Cities and states across the US announce police reform following demands for change”, Karina Zaiets, Janie Haseman, and Jennifer Borresen, USA Today, June 19, 2020
2 “A Quiet Exodus: Why Black Worshipers Are Leaving White Evangelical Churches”, Campbell Robertson, New York Times, March 9, 2018
4 Racism among white Christians is higher than among the nonreligious. That’s no coincidence. Robert P. Jones, THINK, July 27, 2020
5 Black Practicing Christians are Twice as Likely as Their White Peers to See a Race Problem, Barna Research, Articles in Culture and & Media in Faith & Christianity, June 17, 2020
6 The Downside of Integration for Black Christians, Jemar Tisby, The Witness, August 21, 2017
7 Becoming Brave: Finding The Courage to Pursue Racial Justice Now, Brenda Salter-McNeil, Brazos Press, 2020, p. 20
8 Racism in America, Post-George Floyd, RECONCILERS with Chris Rice, August 4, 2020