Recently, a pastor I hold in high esteem said to me “I haven’t seen it this bad since the tension of the 1960s…but police officers weren’t being killed then.” He made that statement due to the national tension we’re experiencing after the deaths of Alton Sterling in Louisiana and Philando Castille in Minnesota, and the murdered police officers in Baton Rouge, LA and Dallas, TX. Like many, the palpability of the societal strain has wracked my heart. Yet, as it is in all matters, God has provided the guidance we need in His holy word.
Proverbs 28:5 says “Evil men do not understand justice, but those who seek the LORD understand it completely.” This brings things like the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement into clear focus when we fully grasp the reality that evil men do not understand justice. Consequently, we must wrestle with whether the current national outcry is for justice or revenge. There is an eternity’s distance of difference between the two.
Jesus said “blessed are the peacemakers” in Matthew 5:9. Peacemakers are different from peace keepers. Peace keepers are those who enter an already peaceful environment and simply maintain the conditions they’ve inherited. Peacemakers are those who enter chaotic environments and forge peace out of the chaos. Think blue helmeted U.N. peace keepers versus the U.S. military storming the Normandy beaches. Evil men cannot understand justice so they are incapable of forging peace, especially as it applies to the current “BLM vs. Police” tension tearing at our nation. Christ’s Church, however is uniquely and exclusively suited to lead the way. In order to do so we must embrace a few baseline considerations.
America, the greatest nation in the history of the world, has a stained history when it comes to prejudice, discrimination, and racism. That is an undeniable fact. Our glorious constitutional republic is marred by its history of slavery, Black Codes, Jim Crow laws, and segregation that made the 1960s Civil Rights movement necessary. Black people in America have suffered unspeakable atrocities. Who were the people charged with maintaining “order” under the Black Codes and Jim Crow laws of our nation’s past? It was the police. As a result, many black people maintain skepticism and hesitancy concerning the police. Regrettably, the stain of racism still rears its ugly head at times today. Current experiences are often viewed in light of America’s history.
Does this mean all police officers today are prejudiced against black people? No. But it also does not erode the reality that there are legitimate experiences of injustice today. Conservative Republican United States Senator Tim Scott gave a speech on the floor of the U.S. Senate detailing his own negative experiences with police officers which have occurred since he’s been a duly elected member of the federal government. Lack of personal familiarity with anguish of this sort doesn’t make it non-existent.
Conversely, many white people have perceptions of black people based on personal experiences and statistically demonstrable facts. If we’re to be honest, it is a verifiable fact that America’s inner cities are rife with criminal behavior. For a multitude of reasons, many of these inner cities boast black majority populations. And an appreciable number of young black males are involved in criminal activity. These are facts.
According to USA Today, Chicago’s murder rate has skyrocketed 72% in 2016. Shootings have increased in Chicago 88% over 2015. Chicago police data shows 75% of the people murdered were black. Seventy-one percent of the murderers were black. The city had 470 murders in 2015 and is on pace for astounding 570 plus murders in 2016. To date, there have been 370 homicides with a total of 2,259 people shot in Chicago this year. This is just one American city.
Additionally, consider the fatherlessness that is crippling black families. Seventy-two percent of black babies born in America today are born into fatherless homes. Children that grow up without a father are five times more likely to live in poverty and to commit crime. They are nine times more likely to drop out of school and twenty times more likely to end up in prison. The true pipeline to prison is a fatherless home.
Then, add the images of black men portrayed in movies, media, and music and it becomes clear that there are real perceptions that exist. Does this mean that all of the negative perceptions of black people are legitimate or even justified? No. But, lack of personal familiarity or experience with individuals upon whom these perceptions are based do not make them non-existent.
As one could expect, God’s word has already shown us the way out of this current quagmire. After all, there is nothing new under the sun. Acts 2:41-47 recounts the day of Pentecost which concluded with three thousand converts being added to the initial body of 120 believers. Then, that 3,120 spent time together daily going to the temple and interacting in each other’s homes. What were they doing? They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching, fellowship (koinonia), sharing meals and praying together.
Who were these original “followers of the way?” Acts 2:5-11 tells us. People gathered in Jerusalem “from every nation” to celebrate the Jewish Feast of Weeks fifty days after Passover. The crowd included Jews as well as converts to Judaism that were “Parthians and Medes and Elamites and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, Cretans and Arabians.” The 3,120 that made up the early church at this point came from modern day Iran, Iraq, Kuwait, Egypt, Israel, Jordan, Turkey, Greece, Libya, Tunisia, Algeria and included Arabs and Romans. In addition to all of this geographic and ethnic diversity they spoke different languages.
During this time, God’s church enjoyed Spirit-breathed unity even when tensions were high. Israel was occupied by Rome. European-looking Roman policeman were tasked with keeping order. Jesus’ followers were being monitored as potential enemies of the Roman state. Non-Romans were considered second class citizens. Many people languished in poverty. But in the middle of all of this societal, economic, and racial tension, there stood the Church as an oasis in the desert.
One of the factors that led to the explosive growth of the early Church was the unity and love demonstrated within it. The members volunteered their own resources to provide for one another “as they had need.” You have to spend time with someone to know what they need. Any ethnic hostility or prejudice between the North Africans, the Arabs, the Romans, or the Israelis was resolved at the dining table and the seat of fellowship. It’s hard to hate someone you hear pouring their hearts out to God in prayer on a daily basis. You may find that they are as desperate for the Lord as you are. How are these “followers of the way” able to cross societal, economic, and linguistic barriers to enjoy such unity?
Galatians 2:11-13 records an egregious account of racial prejudice displayed by the Apostle Peter. During a visit to the Galatian church Peter and Paul enjoyed great times of ministry, prayer, fellowship, and dining together with the Gentile believers. The joyous time continued until James (Jesus’ brother), Barnabas, and other Christians from Jerusalem visited. When they arrived, Peter no longer ate with the Gentiles.
On the day of Pentecost Peter declared, “This is what was uttered through the prophet Joel: ‘And in the last days it shall be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh’” (Acts 2:16-17). But he acted in Galatia as if he forgot that sermon. Paul confronted him about the sinful prejudice and hypocrisy displayed during the fellowship meal. The Lord followed this confrontation by ministering to Peter personally about the sinfulness of his prejudice against Gentiles in Acts 10:1-18. Then God sent Peter to preach the Gospel to his mortal enemy, a Roman Centurion. Remember, the Romans were responsible for keeping the Israelites under their thumb and their agency of subjugation was the Roman military. Lastly, Cornelius’ entire household, relatives, and friends were all converted to Christianity and Peter realized that “God shows no partiality” (Acts 10:21-34). Peter was transformed from a xenophobe into an advocate for Gentile Christianity.
Afterwards, Christians were summoned to Jerusalem to discuss how Gentile Christianity should be handled throughout the world (Acts 15). The issue at hand was whether Gentile Christians should be required to adhere to Jewish traditions in order to be recognized as full citizens in God’s kingdom. Interestingly, it was Peter who made the case for full Gentile inclusion. His appeal turned the entire meeting for the Gentiles. The former racist, bigoted, xenophobe led the fight for the Gentiles. It can happen today just as it has before.
Evil men cannot understand justice so the Church must lead the way. The best route to do this is for the Church to become the model for what society should look like. Let’s return to fellowship, breaking bread, and prayer with people of different ethnicities and languages. Invest the necessary time to hear the hearts of our brothers and sisters in Christ who don’t look like us and who may not share our experiences. Can we come together in the Church to genuinely hear the cries of injustice that many of our black brothers and sisters have like Senator Tim Scott? Can we break bread together and hear our white brothers’ and sisters’ as to why they feel the way they do about some black people?
The only way to change inaccurate perceptions is to confront them head on within a context and framework that allows for candor and honesty without knee-jerk emotional rejection. Can we cry out to the LORD together to heal the pain we are experiencing in our nation and set our hearts to personally live out what we profess to believe? If we would devote ourselves continually to the scripture’s teaching, fellowship, breaking bread, praying, and doing life together the church can demonstrate how we can love our way out of this mess. We have to get past superficial interaction, spend time together beyond the Sunday morning meetings and really be the Church. How good and pleasant it is when brethren from all ethnicities, socioeconomic backgrounds, languages, and experiences dwell together in unity. The bond we share, having been washed by the blood of Jesus, is just as powerful today as it has ever been.