Photo credit to Tom Ferrara
There was a protest in Downtown Annapolis the other week. Hundreds of people turned up for a demonstration organised by the clergy of the African-American churches to allow a corporate response to the confusing and terrifying reality to which the public conscience has been awakened. Within a matter of days a meeting between ministers had galvanised to become a city-wide invitation to gather, pray, weep and speak into the issue of how racial minorities are treated by the establishment of the United States.
I had heard the rumour of a protest passed around in a midweek prayer gathering attended by local Evangelical Pastors and by Friday the word was final: Meet at 5:30 and there will be a march. When I arrived I saw one or two familiar faces, clergy friends dressed up in their clerical collars. The contingent of white ministers I saw were Episcopalian, UCC or from other Mainline denominations. I found that remarkable because it seemed to me that the Pentecostal and Holiness traditions represented by the Black clergy would probably cause many of those from the Mainline to choke on their tea. Nevertheless, these contradictory groups could stand shoulder to shoulder as leaders of the Christian community in our city.
They marched under a banner with the name inscribed ‘Jesus’ and shouted and chanted and marched. The most remarkable moment for me was when the white ministers stood together and collectively expressed the sorrow they felt for representing institutions who had supported slavery and prejudice in previous generations.
It is the power of the Gospel which enables us to face down our sins and to turn from them. To my mind, that evening was an authentic expression of the Good News of Jesus, reconciling not only God to humanity, but drawing all people together in himself.
It was beautiful. It was tragic also.
At that Wednesday prayer gathering all those intelligent, brave, charismatic Evangelical leaders had prayed to the Lord that he would help them be unified and to have fellowship with those African-American churches and ministers. They knew it to be an issue of everlasting importance and rightly they plead to God that he would do the work which is too hard for any one person.
On Friday night I shook hands and greeted the White clergy who would probably not find a great deal in common with the pastors from Wednesday prayers and I looked around expecting to have to make some introductions.
I could not find one minister from that prayer group came out to stand with the Black community of the city they prayed for.
It was clear to that group of White Mainliners that they ought to be there. Why was it not equally clear to the Evangelicals?
I can think of three possible answers:
1. The issue is too morally ambiguous
The official enquiry into the shooting of Michael Brown by the Grand Jury decided that there was no criminal case for which Darren Wilson had to answer. Middle-Class White Evangelicals might have a problem with taking a stand on an issue which seems settled to an acceptable standard of justice. We trust our systems and powers and duly receive their pronouncements as essentially true. Therefore there is no cause for protest.
2. Some bad people are involved
There has been a spark of violence and rioting in many of the demonstrations against the police and the Grand Jury’s decision. Therefore by participating in the demonstrations and protests, Evangelicals believe that they are endorsing the activities of these delinquents. We desire to support a just and ordered society and so cannot stand with those who seek to overthrow it on a whim.
3. Evangelicals have a gap in their interpretation
Why do the Black Pastors and White Mainliners pick up the Christian Bible and interpret it into their context in such a way as to perceive that the announcement of the Good News of Jesus is inseparably intertwined with the events of contemporary America? It is a bold and contentious interpretive path from the coming of the fulfilment of the promises of God for all Creation (Jesus) to then contend with the established government such that it begins to look a little more like that coming Kingdom. It is clear to them. It is apparently not so clear to Evangelicals.
Perhaps it is the case that the first two points are halting the progression of the third. The ambiguity surrounding contemporary events makes it hard to feel as though one if making an informed stand, that one is indeed doing God’s will in participating in some collective action or other. It is my belief that the African-American leaders and Mainline pastors have gained an eschatological vision which somehow enables them to engage in political activity without having to ask questions of other people’s motives. Yes, it can be argued that the Michael Brown shooting is only tangentially relevant to race issues, since it has lost all legal power. Yet in a theological imagination this issue becomes a rallying point around which a wise leader can gather support to proclaim a potential future where these painful events will not be possible.
This is what I saw the Clergy accomplishing on that cold Friday night in December. I hope my Evangelical brothers and sisters will reconsider what role their actions can have. Yes we may misstep and accuse the established powers of crimes they have not committed, but surely it is better to do this than to be confounded into inaction.