All lives matter, when black lives matter.

When I sat down to write this, I thought to myself “I want to write about racism”. Instantly my next thought was “but I’m ‘white’, I can’t write about that”. And that is why I decided to write about it. Therein lies the problem of racism in America, and more so in the church: we remove ourselves from issues that we think don’t affect us, not realizing that our distance allows those very issues to thrive.

Now this can be said about a variety of issues, and it more obvious about certain ones, like the environment, or poverty. But it is so true about racism. Yes, I am a ‘white’ middle-class female, living in white suburbia, and yes I do belong in anti-racism movements. In all reality, I’m not ‘white’ whatever that has come to mean; I’m a Latina, that just happens to have light skin, and thus the privileges of being white have been conferred to me. That’s where the painful truth lies- it doesn’t actually matter where you’re from, your cultural background, or who you are as a person- racism has no regard for the individual and is a dehumanizing prejudice based solely on appearances. White is not an ethnicity, it’s a skin color. How can something so vain and superficial be perpetuated by so many? Won’t so many people be surprised when they get to heaven and realize that Jesus isn’t white.

Now, of course, racism exists against many different people-groups. Asians, Hispanics, Native-Americans- they have all suffered from the disastrous effects of racism, as have many others. But I’m here today to talk about racism against blacks: the racism that makes the least sense, and yet is the most widespread in America today. You see, racism against Latinos or Native-Americans is judgement based on race; racism against blacks is judgement based on color. It doesn’t matter where they’re from- South America, Europe, Africa- the color of their skin supposedly merits judgement. Not to mention the sad truth that many Black Americans don’t even know where they’re from. While the majority of Americans can trace their lineage and say, matter-of-factly, that they are Welsh, Irish, German, French, and 12% Eastern Russian, many black Americans know nothing other than the fact that they are American. Even the last names of many black Americans are only reminders of being bought, sold, and owned.  The institution of slavery in our country stripped all identity from our brothers and sisters of color- no culture, history, or ethnicity remains. The truth is, while slavery may be hundreds of years in the past, its effects are excruciatingly real today- not only in the lack of cultural identity, but also, arguably, in the lack of equality in American society.  And that, my friends, is unacceptable.

Now, background aside, why is this all relevant? The church carries some of the blame. Now you might be thinking “Hold on, I’m a part of the church, and I’ve never been racist towards anyone”. And to that I say I wish I could be more like you. The truth is, while we might not desire it, many of us are preconditioned to make some racist judgements, and even if we are not actively racist, we still contribute to mass racism if we choose to stay out of it. While I won’t get into the psychology of our subconscious racial biases, (see here), I will try to explain my heart behind the involvement of the church in racial issues.

Racism exists today. Racism thrives today. It saddens me to hear so many people say that “people are blowing racism out of proportion”, or “people are too sensitive about black racism” or “why do race issues have to be so important?” The very fact that these statements and questions exist is a cause for concern. This reminds me so much of Jesus and the religious leaders- they were so caught up in themselves that they missed the point of their faith. If Jesus was roaming the streets of America today, he would probably be telling the privileged racial majority to stop asking so many misguided questions and face reality: arguing about oppression does not help the oppressed.  These questions are only cover-ups that allow us to live in our comfortable denial; they are a “get out of jail free” pass that enable us to silently remove ourselves from any responsibility to those in oppression. This truth is heart-breaking, because it is the opposite of what we’re called to do.

The church is meant to be the hands and feet of Christ- in other words, we do the work of Christ on earth because He is no longer physically here. The heart of God is for the oppressed. From Genesis to Revelation, God continually reveals this heart, and his passion to care for those who are hurting. Then, enter Jesus Christ. The human version of God. In Jesus we see God’s heart for the hurting so evidently; from his healings to his frequent lunch hang-outs with sinners, and ultimately Him stepping out of His perfection to give life and restoration to all, the oppressed are center-stage in the life of Jesus. We claim that the church and our lives are supposed to be about the gospel, but we miss the point entirely. The gospel isn’t just word, it is action. Jesus, the perfecter of the gospel, saw the hungry and fed them, saw the sick and healed them, and He died to give us life. So if we live within the walls of our churches and say that the gospel is greater than racism, yes it is, but it will only be so if we live it out as Jesus did. How can we expect God’s work to be done on earth if we don’t get out and do it? Paul tells us to live a life worthy of the gospel, and with that “[we] should not only believe in [Christ], but also suffer for his sake”. (Philippians 1:27-29). Does being an activist for black lives makes you uncomfortable? Good. There is not much room for mercy in only doing activism that makes you comfortable (Michelle Higgins).

Desmond Tutu describes it perfectly when he says “If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor.” He explains it using the image of an elephant and a mouse: If an elephant has his foot on the mouse’s tail, and you say to the mouse that you are neutral, the mouse will not be very appreciative of your neutrality (Tutu). Silence is an action. Of course, we as the church voice our opinions loud about certain issues, but when it comes to racism and the lack of fundamental rights that accompanies it, we tend to unplug the microphones and hide away in our pews. Some don’t see its importance, some deny its existence, some claim to be too uniformed or uneducated to say or do anything. I used to be in that last category, but now I’m seeing that it’s simple- blacks in America are suffering and I’m not. And that is not okay. Of course it’s good to be informed and educated on the depth of the issue, and to not let ignorance or privilege cloud your views, but the truth is we cannot be silent because humanity is in question. Indifference in God’s kingdom is not an option.

Any excuse for our silence only encourages a lack of empathy. I will never be able to understand what it’s like to be black, or the pain of racism, but I cannot sit by under the protection of privilege and do nothing. I have no right or experience to speak for the oppressed, but I can come alongside them as they speak out against their injustices. Jesus didn’t just say that the hungry deserve food, he fed them. He didn’t just command us to love the unloved, He went and lived among them. Jesus constantly risked himself for others; He didn’t count the costs or weigh the alternatives- if He saw injustice, He acted. When we consider how much our actions will cost us, our privilege is revealed. Matthew 16:24-15 says “If any of you wants to be my follower, you must give up your own way, take up your cross, and follow me. If you try to hang on to your life, you will lose it. But if you give up your life for my sake, you will save it.” Jesus wants us to deny our privilege in order to help the hurting, just as He did on the cross.

Racial reconciliation is not enough. To reconcile means “to restore friendly relations”. So we become friends and pretend like nothing ever happened? No! Hundreds of years of pain and suffering can’t be swept under the rug. The pain is still real, the wounds have not yet healed, and as the church, regardless of race or skin color, we have to come alongside the hurting and embrace them in their pain. We cannot only reconcile. We must ask for forgiveness, and with true repentance comes a change of heart and action. In order to ask for true forgiveness, we must step into the issue of racism and be present for our brothers and sisters who happen to be black. How many were enslaved in the name of religion in the early days of this country? How many continue to be enslaved in chains of injustice and prejudice today, while churches benefitting on white supremacy sit back? You see, the church historically is very responsible for racism, and while we think that we today are so far removed, we are not- the church should be the loudest in denouncing racism, learning from generations of mistakes, and repenting for the perpetuation of injustice. Only then can we move forward and become a unified body of Christ. We must be a radically inclusive family of believers, wherein God takes precedent over any cultural, ethnical, or societal difference, but before we can do that, we must acknowledge and care for the hurts that exist. All lives matter, when black lives matter. To say the former without assuring the latter is injustice.

Brothers and sisters of color, I am sorry. I have no idea what it’s like, I can’t feel the magnitude of your pain, I have no right to make any claims or speak on your behalf, and I’m sorry for the hurt that I’ve perpetuated. All I can do is ask for forgiveness as you teach me how to empower and encourage you in dismantling this injustice, to give you the chance to speak out, and to listen to your stories to try and understand your pain. Having said all this without any authority, I encourage you, my black brothers and sisters who are reading this, to reach out to me and help me understand the things that I am ignorant of, and to tell me how I can better support you and be a voice against racism. I pray that we learn to live, speak, and act like Christ, and that the living and active Gospel sustains and heals us until the day that injustice is no more. 

*Many thanks to Captain Anthony Barnes for his invaluable insight, and the words of activist Michelle Higgins for inspiration.

Julia Kleemann

Julia Kleemann

Jesus lover, adventure taker, injustice fighter. Gardener by trade, artist for fun. Loves movie theaters, laughter, the 1980’s, and playing air drums in the car.