By Abbie S.
Last Saturday evening, a group of St. John’s members and affiliates gathered together over Zoom for the second session of our film series on racial justice. The first week, we watched selections from the films 13th and Unchained to remind ourselves of the history of racism in America. During this second session, we considered selections from the films White Savior and The Color of Compromise in an effort to examine more closely the American church’s complicity in centuries of racial violence.
I appreciated how White Savior pointed out the ways that the story of “racial progress” has ultimately been scripted by White narrators and has left out crucial evidence that indicts the American Church. When protests swell after yet another Black life is extinguished, White American Christians are often the first to quote Martin Luther King, Jr., lionizing him as a prophet of peace. When we do this in such a selective way, we are actively rewriting the true story of history, in which White Christian leaders—including Episcopal clergy—repeatedly enjoined MLK to exercise patience, and in which MLK refused on the grounds of justice: “Justice too long delayed is justice denied” (Letter from Birmingham Jail, 1963). We often narrate the story of race in America as a story of White people gradually learning to embrace our Black neighbors, rather than a series of hard-won battles that claimed the lives of so many of our Black brothers and sisters—and that White people opposed and resisted every time.
One of the most important questions in this conversation seems to be this: What stories are we telling about race in our church communities? Do these stories reflect the truth of what actually happened, and what is still happening today? In our first Zoom session, we discussed a sense of guilt and shame when confronted with the truth of White complicity, and one member of the discussion helpfully pointed out that while it may feel uncomfortable, Jesus calls us to live in the truth, and to love the truth. It can be difficult to level one’s eyes and not turn away from the truth, but it is our command.
In The Color of Compromise, evangelical writer Jemar Tisby helpfully outlines some of the reasons that White evangelicals (a group of which I count myself a member) particularly struggle to believe the truth about race in America today. Evangelicalism is a strain of Christianity that emphasizes personal, individual accountability to God—and it is all too easy to apply this theological understanding of the self to society as a whole. For this reason, we find it difficult to understand the level to which racist policies disadvantage our Black brothers and sisters. How do we begin to change the way we tell the story? How do we become truth-tellers?
I think the key is to begin by listening—to be attentive when our Black brothers and sisters tell us the truth about the ways racist policies impact their lived experience. I am a bit ashamed to admit that for a time in college I considered myself “above” political debates, preferring to spend my time mulling on literature and music and things that I believed transcended this mortal coil. It wasn’t until I met my husband Armando and began learning about the way that immigration policy shaped the course of his life that I had to admit the true story: I only had the luxury of avoiding political conversations, debates, and advocacy because the deck was already stacked in my favor.
In John 8, Jesus tells his disciples, “If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” My sisters and brothers: let us be lovers of the truth. We who have ears, let us hear.