“Let nobody give you the impression that the problem of racial injustice will work itself out. Let nobody give you the impression that only time will solve the problem. That is a myth, and it is a myth because time is neutral. It can be used either constructively or destructively. And I’m absolutely convinced that the people of ill will in our nation—the extreme rightists—the forces committed to negative ends—have used time much more effectively than the people of good will. It may well be that we will have to repent in this generation, not merely for the vitriolic works and violent actions, but for the appalling silence and indifference of the good people who sit around and say, “Wait on time.” Somewhere we must come to see that human progress never rolls in on wheels of inevitability. It comes through the tireless efforts and the persistent work of dedicated individuals. Without this hard work, time becomes an ally of the primitive forces of social stagnation. So we must help time and realize that the time is always right to do right.” Martin Luther King Jr.
As a nation we are experiencing one of our darkest seasons. Many of us feel hopeless, helpless and clueless as to how we can help fight this battle. Jim Wallis in his book America’s Original Sin can help those of us who are labeled by society as “white” find our place in the struggle alongside our African American sisters and brothers. I hope you find these insights helpful.
Telling the truth about our history: Wallis reminds us of our ugly past
“The United States of America was established as a white society, founded upon the near genocide of another race and then the enslavement of yet another.
The story about race that was embedded into America at the founding of our nation was a lie.
Slavery didn’t end in 1865; it just evolved. Until the 1950s, thousands of black people were routinely lynched in acts of racial terror, often while many in the white community stood by and cheered.
The country made progress dismantling the most obvious forms of racial bigotry in the 1960s, but we refused to commit ourselves to a process of truth and reconciliation.
We are the nation with the highest rate of incarceration in the world, a phenomenon that is inexorably linked to our history of racial inequality. The United States contains 5 percent of the world’s population, and 25 percent of the world’s prisoners.
Due to 246 years of brutal slavery and an additional 100 years of legal segregation and discrimination, no area of the relationship between black and white people in the United States is free from the legacy of racism.”
Today’s poverty is the natural outcome of our historically racist systems. Our attempts to manage symptoms of poverty through our criminal justice system is at the root of our current crisis.
“The painful and combustible connection between poverty, crime and hopelessness is another of the lingering national sins. Law enforcement is expected to control or at least contain the predictable outcomes of poverty’s chaos, pain, anger, and hopelessness in those black and brown neighborhoods, while the rest of us evade our responsibility to end that poverty and hopelessness.
Our criminal justice system can’t control the results of such poverty, even when it militarizes to do so. Add to that mix the clear racial bias of too many police officers, departments, and cultures, and you get the explosive and even deadly results that we have witnessed across the nation.”
Wallis issues a challenge to the church:
“Sometimes the church’s opposition to genuine repentance is at the heart of the problem, as it has been with white churches’ lack of response, frequent denial, general conformity, and even direct support of white racism.
The church should be a source of truth in a nation that has lost its way. Telling the truth about America’s original sin is the best way to deal with it and ultimately be free of it. As the Bible teaches, repentance is much more than saying we are brokenhearted and sorry; it means turning in a totally new direction.
All this suggests that repentance isn’t possible until we name the sin to be repented of. Admitting, naming, and confessing sin is the first step in repentance. The sin of white racism must be named, directly and publically, especially by white people, for the process of genuine repentance to begin. Just saying we are sorry won’t be enough. The new generation of young leaders, from all racial backgrounds, that is calling on society to reverse the sins of a racialized criminal justice system could embody the true repentance that we so critically need.
Unity in Christ was meant to be one of the most important pillars of the church. The apostle Paul’s epistle to the Galatians perhaps says it best: “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus” (Gal. 3:28). This text powerfully asserts that the three most divisive barriers between human beings—race, class, and gender—are meant to be overcome in the new human community that had formed around Jesus.
This breaking down of cultural and racial barriers became a prime characteristic of the early church, pulling a divided humanity together. Many Christians today don’t fully realize that racial and cultural integration was an original mission of the first disciples of Jesus.
The church can be a spiritual and social community where the ugly barriers of race are finally torn down to reveal the possibilities of a different American future.
It’s time for white Christians to listen to their black and brown brothers and sisters, to learn their stories, and to speak out for racial justice and healing. The country needs multiracial communities of faith to show us how to live together.”
Wallis issues a challenge to white Christians:
“It’s time for white Christians to be more Christian than white—which is necessary to make racial reconciliation and healing possible.
No matter where you go as a white person in American society, no matter where you live, no matter who your friends and allies are, and no matter what you do to help overcome racism, you can never escape white privilege in America if you are white. I benefit from white privilege (and male privilege as well) every single day, and I don’t have any more say in that than black men and women who experience the opposite.
The reality that young black men and women are treated differently than are young white men and women by our law enforcement system is beyond dispute.
How can we get to real justice if white people don’t hear, understand, and, finally, believe the real-life experience of black people?
White people need to stop talking so much—stop defending the systems that protect and serve us and stop saying, “I’m not a racist.” If white people turn a blind eye to systems that are racially biased, we can’t be absolved from the sin of racism.
Loving our neighbors means identifying with their suffering, meeting them in it, and working together to change it.
Racial healing is a commitment at the heart of the gospel. If we say we belong to Christ, that mission of reconciliation is ours too.
Let me add a personal conclusion to my white brothers and sisters: you can’t continue to say you are not racist when you continue to accept and support systems that are. That’s why evil always continues to exist: because we tolerate it.”
Throughout the book Wallis suggests steps that white Christians can take toward racial healing. Reminding us that racism is both personal and systemic:
“Much of American racism as it is experienced today is rooted in the broader structures of society such as education, employment, housing, and the criminal justice system.”
Below are some of the suggestions that I found most helpful way we can address personal racism:
1. Telling the Truth
“Only by telling the truth about our history and genuinely repenting of its sins, which still linger, can we find the true road to justice and reconciliation.”
2. Accepting the call
“Our scriptures and our democratic principles call all of us—across all of our racial diversity—to both personal and social responsibility in fixing the sins our nation was founded upon.”
3. Listening to local African American leaders
“I have always found that we’ve had much more success when we listen to local leaders, ask them questions instead of giving them our “answers,” and, most important, follow their lead. The strategies for how black and brown people will challenge and finally overcome the ever-changing face of white racism must always originate within communities of color themselves. White allies can play a significant role in the struggle against racism in partnership with people of color.”
4. Building relationships beyond your own race
“Public Religion Research Institute’s 2013 American Values Survey found that the social networks of white Americans are an astonishing 91 percent white, with fully 75 percent of whites having entirely white social networks. What changes biases is exposure to different facts, realities, and situations, and, especially, getting to know and understand real people who can change our stereotypes and biases about them.”
5. Celebrate Diversity
“If God created us in all our human diversity, then that diversity must be important. Our recognizing, acknowledging, embracing, and even celebrating humanity’s ethnic diversity is the beginning of living in the new and real world that is coming.”
6, Read the writings of people outside your race and denominational affiliation
“If white Christians hope to build multiracial and multicultural communities of faith, they must be prepared to listen to and include the worldviews and theologies of nonwhites and non-Westerners. That process can begin by recognizing that many non-Western expressions of Christian theology have just as much to teach us about God as Calvin, Luther, or German popes do.”
In addition to these personal responses, we need to work together to address these systemic challenges:
1. Use your voice to challenge institutional racism
“Racism in white institutions must be challenged and eradicated by white people and not just by black people. In fact, white racism is primarily a white responsibility.”
2. Admit that gun laws are a part of the problem and work toward reform
“The spread of legalized open-carry and concealed weapons and the generous self-defense laws that accompany the guns will certainly lead to more tragic deaths, and to the deaths of more black men in particular. If our society wasn’t steeped in a gun culture, even many of these “justifiable” shootings could be avoided.”
3. True justice includes economic opportunities for all
“When work disappears, the results are catastrophic. In the year before March 2015, between 25 and 35 percent of black teenagers from sixteen to nineteen years old who looked for work couldn’t find jobs. The human meaning of such grim statistics can be seen in the faces of the kids in the inner-city neighborhoods where I have lived and spent time. For many young people of color, society has ceased to be a society for them, with very little ownership or sense of belonging.”
4. Address housing segregation
“But de facto economic and housing segregation still exists for the majority of African Americans, and the geography of race still separates most black Americans from most white Americans.”
5. Fight for a quality education for ALL the children in your community
“Our education system is another part of American society with vast racial inequalities. According to Richard Reeves at the Brookings Institute, “the school system remains highly segregated by race and economic status: Black students make up 16 percent of the public school population, but the average black student attends a school that’s 50 percent black.” The average black student, Reeves said, “attends a school at the 37th percentile for test score results whereas the average white student attends a school in the 60th percentile.” And only 17 percent of African American kids graduate from college, compared to 31 percent of white kids.
To move forward, we need to get personal about all of this, to regard the children in these statistics as our children”
6. Advocate for Community Policing
“It may be that the best way for police departments and the communities they serve to increase the trust and sense of legitimacy between them is to embrace a model for their relationship called community policing. Community policing, another of the key pillars that the President’s Task Force identified, is “a philosophy that promotes organizational strategies that support the systematic use of partnerships and problem-solving techniques to proactively address the immediate conditions that give rise to public safety issues such as crime, social disorder, and fear of crime.”
7, Reform our Criminal Justice Systems by Promoting forms of “restorative justice”
“Restorative justice is a process that engages “those who are harmed, wrongdoers and their affected communities in search of solutions that promote repair, reconciliation and the rebuilding of relationships.. . . Restorative approaches seek a balanced approach to the needs of the victim, wrongdoer and community through processes that preserve the safety and dignity of all.” The transformation from retributive to restorative justice is the most important work that we need to do in order to reform—and even transform—our criminal justice system. The Little Book of Restorative Justice, a wonderful primer for anyone who wants to know more about or begin learning how to practice restorative justice.”
Wallis reminds us that “It was the inclusive biblical theology of the church King loved so much that formed a foundation for his commitment to racial integration in a pluralistic society.”
In a sermon delivered on his last Christmas Eve, Dr. King expressed the vision in his heart and behind the movement that he led: “Our loyalties must transcend our race, our tribe, our class, and our nation.”
“The question is not whether we will be extremists, but what kind of extremists will we be. Will we be extremists for hate or for love? Will we be extremists for the preservation of injustice or for the extension of justice?” Martin Luther King Jr.
“May the fruit of our Christian unity be justice.” Jim Wallis