Reflections in Solidarity: Our Work to Do
How much can our country handle at once? That’s a question I’ve heard and asked a lot lately.
More than 100,000 Americans have died from COVID-19, and hundreds of thousands more have been ill, some of them seriously ill. Those serving on the front lines of the response to this crisis have done so at times without needed protective gear, enduring enormous trauma that will affect them for years to come. The coronavirus will continue to disrupt our daily routines for the foreseeable future as we do our best to control the untimely loss of human life. Our consumer-driven economy is collapsing, and more than 40 million Americans are unemployed. People of color have borne the brunt of the pandemic and its myriad impacts. And now our communities are convulsed by unrest, triggered by horrific murders, including that of George Floyd at the hands of one Minneapolis police officer as three of his colleagues were in a position to intervene and did nothing to stop it.
Yet we know that the trauma, pain and grief we are seeing in the demonstrations for racial justice across the United States and in cities around the world right now are about much more. It’s not just a reaction to the latest example of police brutality against an unarmed Black man or woman. It’s about 401 years of oppression on these shores, about centuries of murder, rape, enslavement, dehumanization, redlining, racist hiring practices, educational inequalities, unjust distribution of resources and more that continues to this day.
I write as this story continues to unfold, yet I have this sense that not only is this season of reckoning inevitable, it is necessary. As painful and shameful as it is to admit, it takes the burning of American cities to get our collective attention, or more precisely, the attention of White America. Our brothers and sisters tried to get our attention with numerous peaceful protests, like taking a knee during the singing of the national anthem or reminding us that #BlackLivesMatter. Nothing changed, and indeed, those who protested faced an intense backlash from the privileged majority.
What is our work to do? It’s a personal question that I believe every White person in this country needs to be asking herself right now. For me, it starts with understanding the roots of racism and implicit bias. My continuing education has accelerated into an intensive study, and my current textbook is How to Be an Antiracist by Ibram X. Kendi. I had heard about this book for months, but the events of the past several days compelled me to read it now. I’m struck by how vulnerable Kendi is about his own continuing process of choosing to be antiracist rather than racist. His candor allows me to be honest with myself, to interrogate assumptions that in other times might be unquestionable.
I’m a self-described freedom-loving Baptist, so one particular story got my attention. Kendi tells about his father’s conversation with theologian James Cone in 1971, in which he asked Cone for his definition of a Christian. Cone responded, “A Christian is one who is striving for liberation.” Kendi remarked, “James Cone’s working definition of a Christian described a Christianity of the enslaved, not the Christianity of the slaveholders.”
I desperately want to be on the side of the enslaved and not the slaveholders. And yet, I know that my Christian roots are Southern Baptist — a denomination that was formed to defend and preserve chattel slavery, and recently has started to talk openly about its racist origins. Though I haven’t identified as a Southern Baptist for more than 30 years, those were the waters that I was dunked into. The more progressive strands of the Baptist family that I continue to associate myself with must continue to examine our role, and work to reconstruct a theology that is on the side of the enslaved, the disenfranchised, the powerless — one that is closer to the theology of Jesus than what we see largely evidenced in American Christianity right now. (Luke 4:18)
Learning demands listening to the experiences of others. I’m trying hard to listen with all my senses to the pain of my Black brothers and sisters in this moment. Though there is a tendency to “fix” the problem as quickly as we can — to end the protests — to do so prematurely is to silence their voices yet again.
I write not only as an individual White Christian, but as the leader of BJC (Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty), a coalition of Baptists and others committed to protecting faith freedom for all people. What is BJC’s work to do right now? We at BJC are currently learning and listening. Last September, BJC’s Board of Directors appointed a Special Committee on Race and Religious Liberty to study BJC’s past. From our beginnings more than 80 years ago, BJC has been a group of White and Black Baptist denominations committed to protecting religious freedom, not just for Baptists but for all people. But how welcome were those Black Baptists at the BJC Board table, and how well did we White Baptists listen to their concerns for freedom when they most could have used the power of BJC’s privileged allyship and advocacy? Our committee is studying those difficult and uncomfortable questions now and will report to the Board later this year with recommended actions for reparation.
We cannot just study the past and not act in the present. Last year, we launched a campaign, joined by a broad coalition of Christian leaders, called Christians Against Christian Nationalism. The statement of principles — signed by more than 15,000 individual Christians to date — says that “Christian nationalism seeks to merge Christian and American identities, distorting both the Christian faith and America’s constitutional democracy.” In our list of principles, we assert that Christian nationalism “often overlaps with and provides cover for white supremacy and racial subjugation.”
It is that last statement that has caused the most backlash from people who oppose the campaign and therefore, I believe, the concept we most need to lean into now.
BJC is hosting a national conversation on Friday, June 26, at 12 noon Eastern with two thought leaders on this topic — scholar Robert P. Jones and political journalist Joy Reid. You are invited to join us for this timely and necessary discussion about American Christianity and white supremacy.
In this uncertain time, join us as we discern our next actions — the work of doing justice, loving mercy and walking humbly with our God (Micah 6:8), in solidarity with our brothers and sisters who are crying out for freedom.
Amanda Tyler is executive director of BJC. This commentary is also available on BJC’s Medium channel.