“We need to step back and realize this is real grief speaking from real wounds.”
My wife and I were speaking with a friend about headlines consuming the East Coast, particularly where we lived only 50 miles from Baltimore. In spring 2015, a young black man, Freddie Gray, tragically died while in custody of the Baltimore Police Department. It sparked violent riots with dozens injured, hundreds arrested and buildings set ablaze.
We were hearing many vocal opinions about the nearby protests. Friends in law enforcement were quick to condemn those creating disruption—justice will be served when the officers are investigated, they noted. Other friends, most of them African American, saw it differently. Knowing Baltimore’s history of racial discrimination, the death of Freddie Gray seemed to rip off a bandage over unhealed wounds. Nationwide, political partisans lined up (predictably) on either side.
This friend of ours was showing another way. A mother of four who co-led a prayer ministry on Capitol Hill, she saw issues of racial strife through the lens of intercession. Scriptures like 2 Corinthians 5:18 have been lived out over years: “All this is from God, who through Christ reconciled us to himself and gave us the ministry of reconciliation.” When two rancorous sides are each convinced they see the whole truth, the people of God are called to run towards the crisis as peacemakers.
Her outlook of interceding for the nation sparked several questions. What aspects of U.S. history have I missed? Where inequities exist, to what extent is current bias a factor? How do law enforcement experts see these issues? What shifts in culture and public policy should be pursued?
Such research, dialogue and prayer would soon prove helpful, as race relations in America faced further flashpoints over the next year. There are not easy answers. In seeking to see past my own bias—we all have it—a few sources have proven helpful. Mostly I’ve come to know how much I don’t know, as learning and listening are lifelong pursuits.
1. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Shares Why We Can’t Wait
Come January and February, it happens every year. Friends on social media share an avalanche of quotes by civil rights icon and Christian minister Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. The quotes focus on love triumphing over hate—rarely the hard stuff calling America to repent. And let’s be honest: most of us sharing the quotes are white.
Few Americans have actually picked up one of his books and read every word. Doing so will likely change how one views the civil rights movement. I recommend Why We Can’t Wait, which includes Dr. King’s expanded version of his “Letter from Birmingham Jail.” The pro-life group where I served for three years urged all staff to grapple with Dr. King’s views of justice and nonviolence as expressed in this work.
We find that the Christian gospel firmly grounds Dr. King’s convictions. For example, his Ten Commandments of Nonviolence begin with committing to “meditate daily on the life and teachings of Jesus.” We also realize that his policy views—even in 1963, five years before his assassination—hardly align with either political party. There’s talk of institutional racism, the dangers of nuclear weapons, bias in employment practices, dehumanizing rhetoric, church segregation and a host of issues.
The culture around us edits Dr. King’s words to sanitize and shave off the sharp edges of truth. I don’t deify Dr. King; his life and views were surely imperfect. Yet when we read him in context, the power of his voice cannot be denied. More than 50 years later, we must also admit that his dream remains unfulfilled.
2. Pew Research Reveals the Current Black-White Divide
As a business graduate and former think tank staff member, I recognize how statistically sound figures serve to reflect truth. Pew Research is recognized as the gold standard of public opinion research. Their in-depth report “On Views of Race and Inequality, Blacks and Whites Are Worlds Apart” reveals that the attitudes Dr. King saw in the American majority persist today. Over many months, the research team interviewed over 3,700 U.S. adults in every state.
Many would be shocked to know that 71 percent of blacks and 52 percent of Hispanics say they have personally experienced discrimination. Sadly, on many questions, a 40 percent gap exists between whites and people of color. Two-thirds of blacks surveyed say they are not treated fairly when applying for a loan or mortgage; only 25 percent of whites think any unfairness exists in this sphere of society. The numbers are nearly identical on workplace discrimination.
Do people of color receive fair treatment by police? Again, a 35 percent gap between whites and blacks. It brings to mind a dear friend of mine, a young black man of impeccable academic credentials and a passionate Bible teacher who happens to drive a nice car. Getting pulled over once because “your vehicle seemed to match a suspect” is one thing. When it happens multiple times—today, 50 years after passage of the Civil Rights Act—we come to see a pattern black men face.
My friend doesn’t have a chip on his shoulder. He’s following the call of God on his life. But I still grieve this injustice. Thankfully, his experiences have been unlike Philando Castile, a school cafeteria worker shot seven times by a county officer in 2016 with a four-year old girl seated behind him.
Considering both statistics and personal stories, we see real lives impacted by racial prejudice. Pew Research also shows, without any political commentary, who denies that racism exists today. Most of the deniers look a lot like me: white, Christian and predominantly conservative. It’s inconvenient to admit, but it’s true.
3. The Bible Project Illustrates the Quest for Justice
Many in my generation question if a two thousand year-old book has anything relevant to say to current social issues. I believe it does, as Dr. King did. And I’m thankful to live in a time when biblical scholars are using media in creative and compelling ways.
Based in Portland, The Bible Project provides graphics-driven summaries for every chapter of the ancient text. The team has also ventured out into theme videos that explore particular ideas in Scripture. A recent “Justice” video may be their best work. With references to Old and New Testaments, it reveals the flawless standard of justice God established—and how mankind has thwarted this ever since.
It’s not a one-note message. This “Justice” video cautions how those who have been oppressed often become oppressors. With a fallen nature easily swayed by how our culture defines justice, my attitudes must be cross-examined by a higher truth. Prayer is the means God gives us for such a reality check.
What good can prayer do? It brings us back to where we started. In summer 2016, the verdict was announced in that trial of a Baltimore police officer. The officer was found not guilty on all counts. I happened to be in a prayer meeting with some friends in downtown Washington, D.C. when we got the news. While we support and often participate in nonviolent demonstration, tensions were so high that violence seemed likely.
Our little group did what we came to do: we prayed. We confessed our part in those wounds, mourning how we the church have so often marginalized our black brothers and sisters. Then someone spoke a specific prayer for rain to fall in Baltimore. It wasn’t in the forecast. Could a downpour rein in any charged riots?
A local news story tells the rest. “Journalists descended on the city in the expectation of outrage, perhaps even violence, but heavy rain fell for most of the day, seeming to dampen any thoughts of demonstration,” the reporter stated. “Nothing was out of the ordinary and the city seemed peaceful.” Coincidence? Oh ye of little faith.
The history, emotions and even current policies that have sparked riots still exist. Race and ethnicity divide many communities in America. The public, nonviolent marches Dr. King called for will surely continue. Yet whether right or left, well-meaning people choose to approach these issues looking through the lens of their party’s talking points. It’s a challenge to hear and attempt to reconcile hard truths from both sides.
People of faith are called to be reconcilers. Our culture is crying out for those who will take up this mantle. “We all know the truth: more connects us than separates us,” says King T’Challa at the end of Black Panther. “In times of crisis, the wise build bridges, while the foolish build barriers.”
Josh M. Shepherd covers culture, faith, and public policy issues for media outlets including The Stream. He has served on staff at Focus on the Family, The Heritage Foundation and Bound4LIFE International. A graduate of the University of Colorado, Josh and his wife, Terri, live in the Washington, D.C. area.