America's racial problems run deep in its soul. Here's how we can confront them.
Without defensiveness, without counter-argument, without self-justification, white Americans need to listen to our black brothers and sisters.
I, Marisa Prince, am a black independent Christian who leans to the Green Party. My style vacillates between pigtails and hoodies, and my natural 'fro and heels.
I, John Kingston, am a white Christian who has been pretty darn conservative my whole life. Some might say I look like I come from central casting — if you were looking for an old gray-haired executive.
Given that we have long anticipated this moment of reckoning in our country, we came together — as Christians and Americans — to launch a campaign for the soul of America.
We believe in the power and possibility of our faith, and our country. As Frederick Douglass stated while critiquing the Christianity practiced in his time (he called it a deceit and fraud), we love the Christianity of Christ and its transformative potential. We also believe that the remarkable words first stated in our Declaration of Independence 244 years ago — all are created equal — created a tectonic shift in the aspirations for governance across the world. While we continue to struggle for their fulfillment centuries later, these words have not lost their force.
We believe it is right and just to speak first to people of our shared faith, to call us to transformation. Our faith — which is one of sacrifice and redemption, not power — has been used as a tool by political forces throughout time.
Churches used to oppress people
As Douglass observed, that is never more tragic than when it is used to oppress people in the name of Jesus. In too many cases, the white church notoriously advanced a theology that the slavery of African peoples was intended by God, and variations of that theology continued on too pervasively through the generations. We live and breathe that heritage; through today, we haven’t truly seen the value in each other, nor seen our differences as strengths.
Few care to admit that aloud, but it’s true, and recent political cycles have laid bare that reality. Tantalized by political power, too many prominent pastors and spiritual leaders would rather be “in the room where it happens” than addressing the real threats to Christianity of overlooking the wrongs done in society by our political and religious leaders.
Yet we press on in the vein of American greats like Douglass, Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King Jr. — influenced by their faith, they articulated anchoring principles to guide us forward.
First, we were all created — remarkably differently but equal — in the image of God, which laid the foundation for the principle that we are equal citizens in the republic. Yes, that means people in the pews beside us who vote differently — for far too long, the dominant spirit of some congregations is the same spirit that animates Rush Limbaugh instead of the Holy Spirit. That has to change.
As Dr. King often reminded us, God’s plan to restore us to one another and to himself will ultimately not be thwarted. In what were radical and earth-shattering words 2,000 years ago, great biblical writers declared that we are created to be together and bear each other’s burdens no matter our identity — Jew or Greek, slave or free, Republican or Democrat. In what must have blown the minds of tribal peoples of that day, heaven was described to be populated with a vast crowd from every nation, tribe, people and language, together reflecting the glory of their creator.
If you look closely through all the carnage of recent weeks, you can see glimpses of that glory. In Nashville, protesters asked National Guardsmen in riot gear to lay down their shields, and for the most part they did. Then, in a poignant display of faith and hope, they together sang an old spiritual, “I’m gonna lay down my sword and shield, down by the riverside.”
We need to listen to each other
But we will only begin to heal as a people and achieve our potential when we begin to hear one another. Without defensiveness, without counterargument, without self-justification, white Americans need to listen to our black brothers and sisters, whose experience of this country is so often radically different from our own.
If we truly listen, we may begin to feel the grief and lament. Recognize that at times, there are no words to touch such deep places. The word “injustice” fails to describe the violence to Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery or George Floyd, or the psychic cost to all black Americans who have experienced something in that vein or bear the burden of knowing that such things can happen to people who look like them.
If we haven’t experienced that darker side of the American experience, we should be grateful for all those (particularly in the black community) who have stayed so patiently with us in this American process. When they do not give up on America, when they would be so justified in doing so, that is extraordinary strength and grace in action.
Lastly, we must raise our voice and take action. Dr. King said, “There comes a time when silence is betrayal.” Our black brothers and sisters need us to speak. They are (too often literally) dying for it.
If you are white, now is the time to offer support, love and possibly repentance, if you have been calloused or ignorant of the difficulty of fellow black citizens. If you are black, now is the time to courageously reject cynicism, if you are watching white brothers and sisters finally desire to understand.
A final point to share with our beleaguered nation. It has long been clear that America was afflicted with a pandemic of the soul before it faced the 2020 pandemic of the body. Yet however painful this moment, it may provide us the perfect opportunity to find our way, awaken America and fulfill our promise.
In times of crises, the giants whose shoulders we stand on — like Douglass, Lincoln and King — drew from the well of our great spiritual and American ideals, and illuminated our path forward.
In that spirit, we close with Lincoln’s second inaugural address. At the end of that most profound of American crises — a Civil War that claimed nearly 700,000 lives — his speech was given just weeks before his own assassination and sacrifice for this cause: "With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us ... bind up the nation’s wounds ... to do all which may achieve and cherish a just, and a lasting peace, among ourselves."
May this be the path for our nation, in 2020 and beyond.
Marisa Prince founded American Awakening with John Kingston and serves as its producer, including for its upcoming “Better Together” concert series. Kingston is author of the forthcoming "American Awakening: Eight Principles to Restore the Soul of America."