Last Sunday at church, my pastor finally decided to comment on national and international events, in light of not just the killings of Philando Castile and Alton Sterling and the backlash of killings of police officers in Dallas and Baton Rouge, but also the coup in Turkey, terrorist attacks in France, Bangladesh, and Saudi Arabia, and ongoing civil unrest all over the country and world.
I wrote in my journal last week that I was disappointed that, as the Black Lives Matter movement was taking over the news in response to ongoing racial injustice in our very own backyard, nobody at church had much to say about it, beyond perhaps a heartfelt “We’re living in tough times; let us pray.” Of course, how could I be surprised? The churches that I have belonged to for most of my life steer clear of politics and social justice. They steer clear of life itself. I admit that this is a broad generalization, but it really looks like modern American Evangelicalism only concerns itself with a very limited set of socio-political issues and doesn’t realize that since all of our lives are connected, all the problems that plague society are, as well.
Furthermore, almost all of their justification comes straight from the Bible and is informed by nothing else, which, theologically and ideologically speaking, is admirable, but also risky. This is why Christians can be so vocal about being against abortion and cite Psalm 139, but then remain absolutely silent on women’s rights in general, since our Scriptures are somewhat lacking in feminist themes. American Evangelicals cherry-pick a few causes to support and go nuts about them, while bizarrely ignoring or even obstructing others that are closely related.
I was frustrated last week, because as I read updates in the news and on social media on the explosions of furor against police brutality happening all across the country, I got the feeling that I belonged to two different worlds. In one camp, my peers (largely from Swarthmore and Fulbright) called out the racial injustice they saw, supported the protests, and rallied together to mourn with and comfort the Black American community. In the other camp, all my childhood friends, mostly Asian American, and a swath of what I consider my Christian community in the Bay Area… said nothing.
Thankfully, nobody in any of my immediate circles was arguing for the ridiculous notion of “All Lives Matter” or actively supported White supremacy and its many insidious tentacles. Overall abstention from the ongoing social media discussion could be interpreted as neutrality. But as Desmond Tutu said, “If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor.”
I know, of course, that not everybody chooses to use their own Facebook wall as a platform for promoting any sort of agenda. For some people, Facebook is a safe space for cat photos, quizzes, and self-promotion. (And now, Pokémon Go updates.) But it wasn’t just the lack of online engagement that frustrated me; I think that it’s actually much easier to pass along an informative op-ed through Facebook than it is to talk to real people in real life about real problems and real ways to solve them. So the fact that so few of my friends of faith would open up even on the internet actually reflected the fewer who were taking active steps to fight for justice off the internet. (E.g. silence on this issue from the pulpit on Sundays.)
My reaction, then, was to stir up some indignation on the internet. I believe wholeheartedly, as a Christian, that our faith has to be lived out and not just professed on Sundays. It should translate into action. And to me, there were some obvious actions that even the most lethargic citizen could do. So I wrote a message on the Facebook wall for my church’s young adult fellowship. A fairly long message. Here’s part of it reproduced below:
Hi fam, if you look around you today you’ll notice a lot of social unrest (what else is new). Rather than stepping back from it this time and praying that “this too shall pass”, I invite you to take some concrete steps to help bring God’s kingdom here (i.e. make this world a better place while we still live on it).
I look at the recent police shootings of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile, I look at the Oakland PD racist text messaging scandal, and I see the symptoms of corrupt police departments and the consequences of a society stepping aside as latent White supremacy infiltrates institutions that are supposed to serve and protect. I support Black Lives Matter.
You might not! For whatever reason. I’m not here to convince you that our country has a huge problem with systemic racism. But if you are a Christian, you should be against all violence and all acts of racism. You should be mourning the deaths of our Black brothers and sisters, and also the deaths of the police officers in Dallas, and you should be thinking about what you can do to help bring down the death toll.
Here are some suggestions:
1) Write to your local representative (in Berkeley, SF, or Oakland) — write a letter to the mayor, the police chief, your district rep. Ask them if they are doing everything in their power — since they have political influence and they are supposed to keep the people they serve from dying — to train police officers better and improve the well-being of underserved communities around us. Here’s a template (link).
2) Talk to your friends and family. Don’t be afraid to bring up this subject in casual conversation. Many of us are Asian American, and it may seem like our race has nothing to do with this “Black vs. White” issue. Well, it’s not a Black vs. White issue. This involves all of us, as we are all part of the same country. Start with this awesome multilingual letter (link) that explains BLM in simple, non-judgmental and not incendiary terms.
3) If you speak out in support of Black communities, put your money where your mouth is and support local black-owned businesses and restaurants. Donate to black-led social justice organizations (link) or to Campaign Zero (link), a movement to reduce the number of civilian deaths at the hands of police to zero. There are gofundme campaigns out to support the families of Philando Castile and Alton Sterling — remember when Jesus literally told us to help the widow and the orphan? Here’s a great opportunity to do so.
That’s all for now! Let’s get a conversation going. Let’s do our part as Christians to show Christ to this world.
I wrote that, prayed for a moment that it would be the right thing to say, and then published it. It was meant to be friendly but prodding, and I hoped that at least one person would be moved to write one letter to their local representative.
A couple of Facebook Likes trickled in. But the first comment was actually a pushback against BLM. Someone wrote that police departments in the country may have done wrong, but we should remember that police officers have also been killed and why is nobody talking about this, and also Black people have a higher crime rate than any other ethnic group in this country so why aren’t they doing anything to fix themselves. The comment’s author wrote that Satan was trying to (and succeeding at) dividing our country over this issue and we all just needed to get on our knees and pray, pray, pray. I was momentarily dumbstruck and decided that it would be best not to reply to the comment until the next morning, when I wrote:
I’m not here to convince people to take the particular stance that I do. If you think that criminal activity in the Black community is to blame for their higher rates of incarceration and death at the hands of police officers, then fine. We can debate the merits of that opinion somewhere else.
What I would like to encourage our community to do, however, is to take action *in addition to our prayer*. I don’t deny the power of prayer. It’s an important “first-response” reaction to any tragedy or wrong-doing. But surely there is more that we can do! By way of analogy, let us suppose that your neighbor’s house is on fire. When you see this, you may support them with your thoughts and prayers. But you should also call 911. The prayers alone will not put out the fire. As Christians, we have the privilege of doing both: pray for divine intervention AND do something concrete to provide immediate aid.
I’m reminded of a passage in James 2: “Suppose a brother or a sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and well fed,” but does nothing about their physical needs, what good is it? In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead.”
So [redacted], my original point was: “If you want to do something to help, here are some ideas, external resources, places to donate your money, etc.” I see that you have a heart that wants to love our nation. Once you say “Amen” and exit The Upper Room, then, what are you going to do about it?
The reason I’m reproducing my comments here is to kill two birds with one stone: now my readers know what I believe, and they know what I did to substantiate that belief. Still, I recognize that it was just words. It took me no more than half an hour to gather my thoughts and send them out into the void. Publicly sharing my thoughts did not pose any threat to myself or my community; the potential waves of my actions would never compare to those made by activists who marched on City Hall or used their bodies to literally protect Black lives.
In the days to follow after this polite but tense exchange on Facebook, I heard from a few fellow church members who were grateful that I spoke up when I did. I mostly shrugged: this was quite literally the least I could do. One person wrote, “Just wanted to say how thankful I am to be part of a community that fosters open communication on important matters like these.”
When I read that, I almost scoffed, because I realized that our community doesn’t foster open communication on important matters like these. To its credit, my church is full of smart, kind, and well-meaning people with strong faith, but activists we are not. The communication we had was open, civil, and good, but it was not fostered or encouraged by the general climate of our community. If it actually were, we would be listening to sermons about racial justice and non-violent retaliation instead of “How to Love Your Spouse”, and we would invite our Black friends and our police officer friends (and our Black police officer friends!) to home group to talk about reconciliation instead of robotically following the Bible study schedule that was set at the beginning of summer. We might even call an emergency community meeting to discuss our role, as mostly affluent non-Black Christians living next to a chronically poor, disenfranchised, predominantly Black and Latino neighborhood, in providing for our neighbors, as Jesus told us to do.
But we don’t do any of that. We sit in our pews in our pretty sanctuary and nod vigorously as we are told to pray more, lest the devil get a foothold on our hearts.
All of this is context for why I was surprised and grateful that my pastor dedicated about five minutes before his sermon last Sunday to tell us, as a congregation, to “wake up and not be numb.” He told us to acknowledge that “there is injustice and real people are hurting”. I sat in the very back row, listening and wondering what had brought on this change. He reminded us that our real enemy is not the police, or any ethnic group, but Satan, and our real weapons were not guns or our bodies, but the Gospel. “The more chaos and division there is, the more we as believers must unite, pray, and show compassion.”
It was a good message, a good reminder for me personally that as worked up as I can get about the going and doing, what really drives me forward (or what should, at least), is the compulsion to have the world see and understand God’s love for it. My god is a god of justice, but I forget that not only justice, but also mercy and salvation, come in His name.
It was a good message, and I only wish that it had gone on for the full hour instead of being a brief tangential pre-sermon remark. And now, back to our regular programming, a treatise on “Biblical marriage” based on the “wives, submit to your husbands” passage from Ephesians 5… Some things just can’t change.
Word of the Day: hebetude, from Latin, meaning a state of lethargy or sluggishness. Remember the seven deadly sins and take care to avoid a hebetudinous response to our unfolding national crisis! See also: acedia, ennui, otiosity.