In the last month since we have been in Athens it seems that the unraveling of American community life has picked up speed. The recent outrage over the deaths of two black men at the hands of the police and the attacks on police in Dallas and other cities seems to mark a frightening escalation of violence and distrust.
I spent several hours reading about the events yesterday. It is strange to observe them from the other side of the world. It's like watching the television without the sound. You can see what is happening, but the surrounding chatter is silenced.
It is somewhat ironic that our family wrestled long and hard about the safety implications of coming to Athens to work with the refugee community. From my current vantage point, America looks far more dangerous at the moment. I know that everyone is writing their thoughts on social media, but I have a few observations to make from outside of the thought bubble of North America.
Policy solutions will be necessary and complex. It seems clear that there need to be policy solutions that address the concerns of the black community. The website https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/series/counted-us-police-killingsshows that blacks are killed at roughly twice the rate as whites. It also would seem that these numbers correlate strongly with poverty rates. Blacks are much more likely to live in poverty than whites, and this is particularly true in the city of Pittsburgh, which has a comparatively small middle class. Black children are nearly three times as likely to grow up in poverty as white children. (See: http://www.npc.umich.edu/poverty/)
At the same time, we cannot forget that police offers are real people who are struggling to do a very difficult job. They are regularly put in harms way and experience the cutting edge of all social tensions. Attacks on police have risen in the past year with nearly 25 officers being shot. The current crisis is not good for the black community, it is not good for the police, and it is not good for our country.
The background for this crisis is complex and does not seem to lend itself to easy solutions. While it might make a good slogan to say that the police should "stop being racist" or that the black community should "stop making a big deal about the police" neither are realistic. There is a (near) complete breakdown of trust between the black community and the police. This is fueled by layers of historic problems. We can't ignore the past oppressive practices that leave a lasting legacy on the black community in America. There is no "easy button" to push. Careful and thoughtful analysis is required for necessary action.
We must seek paths for personal action. I think that the big temptation is to focus on the things that other people need to do differently. As I outlined above, it is reasonable to call for policy changes, but those changes will not be simple or easy. I fear that what is lost in all of this is the call to personal action. It is much less costly to call others to make a change. It is more costly to seek change in yourself.
Perhaps you are asking the question: What would it look like for me to pursue personal change? We have been wrestling with this question as a church for the last two years. As church leaders we have taken steps towards forming an action plan on a call for personal and congregational action. (This has not been finalized, but the bulk of it has been discussed publicly.) As a denomination we have taken steps to repent of our past racial sins and we are seriously seeking steps for active repentance. Let me boil all of this down to a simple Christian concept. There is one easily identifiable problem that lies squarely at the feet of the church. Addressing this problem is necessary for our obedience to Christ and it would make an impact on the world around us.
The problem is the ongoing (and mostly unintentional) segregation of the American church. Black and white Americans still live relatively segregated lives. This is particularly true in churches. That means that when a crisis begins to boil, the American church cannot respond as a unified whole, but rather as two fairly separate entities.
I believe that it necessary for us to address it. I believe that there are four areas in which we can address this problem.
1.) We can seek to make City Reformed a more accessible place for people of color. 2.) We can seek to build better relationships with black congregations.
3.) We can support black Christians who are called to leadership in our denomination.
4.) We can engage in ministry in underprivileged minority neighborhoods.
Our church has taken small steps in all of these directions and we need to continue the process. All of these steps require energy and sacrifice. They cannot be pawned off on someone else and they cannot be mandated by the government. They require personal action.
We must prayer together. For years otherwise secular Americans would respond to a crisis by saying, "Our thoughts and prayers and with you." But we knew what that meant. It was a solemn way of saying, we are thinking about you. But no one was really praying to a God who would answer prayer. Not in the public realm.
Is it different in the church?
I have noticed a growing cynicism about responding to tragedies with prayer. Some have begun to see prayer as a pious dismissal of a problem. "Oh, I will pray about it. Now let's stop talking about it." I fear that the church may have given the world reason to believe this. During this sabbatical I have come to the painful conclusion that my personal prayer life is woefully disobedient. I have been shaped by our modern secular culture to believe that God is not really present and that solutions to major problems are to be found in merely physical actions. I have surrendered my prayer life to modernity. That needs to change. It is changing.
Let me ask the reader a personal question. If you are a Christian, then you believe that God calls us to prayer and answers prayers. Are you actually praying about this situation? Are you on your knees begging God for his mercy at a time of national crisis? Are you seeking ways to pray with others? Have you looked for opportunities to join your African American brothers and sisters in prayer?