MIA: White evangelical leaders and black deaths

April 16th, 2015

The killing of Walter Scott, the unarmed South Carolina black man shot in the back by police officer Michael Slager, is a provocative example of law enforcement gone wrong. Cell phone video of the shooting, taken by a civilian bystander, was so compelling that Slager was fired and charged with murder after it was released.

It also reveals what continues to be wrong with Christianity in America. I say this because once again, at least so far, white evangelical pastors and churches are missing in action on protesting police shootings of unarmed black men. 

Please note I’m talking specifically about white evangelical leadership, not white Christians generally and certainly not white people as a group. Plenty of whites have joined protests against the shootings and supported the Black Lives Matter movement. But those who have anointed themselves as the moral conscience of our nation — the pro-life/anti-abortion, anti-same-sex marriage, pro-personal responsibility crowd — are noticeably missing in action when it comes to these troubling, unjust shootings.

And that’s especially disturbing because these “waistband shootings” are not new. According to the San Francisco Chronicle website, the NAACP reviewed 45 of them that occurred in Oakland from 2004 to 2008. This is what it found: 

  • 37 of the people shot were black; 
  • no whites were shot; 
  • no weapons were found in 40 percent of the cases; 
  • no police officers were charged in any of the cases. 

Armed or not, it’s clear that black suspects are shot and killed disproportionately in encounters with the police. FBI data shows that white police officers killed about two black people every week between 2005 and 2012, according to USA Today. Nearly 1 in 5 of the blacks were under 21, compared to less than 1 in 10 of whites killed by police.

A decade-plus of white evangelical silence regarding this epidemic problem is a scathing indictment of their faith and practices. 

The Rev. Jim Wallis also finds the dearth of white Christian leaders addressing waistband shootings disturbing. Wallis, the president and founder of Sojourners and himself a white man, was blunt in his criticism during the heat of the Ferguson protests last year.

“If white Christians would act more like Christians instead of like white people, black parents would have less fear for their children,” Wallis said. “My son will never have happen to him what happened to Michael Brown. Never happen.”

If white evangelical leaders need inspiration, they should look to the story of the Rev. Jonathan Daniels, a young, white Episcopal seminarian who answered Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s call in 1965 for more voting rights volunteers following the infamous Bloody Sunday beating in Selma, Alabama. Daniels was so committed to racial justice that he stayed in Selma to continue his racial justice work after the third and successful Selma-to-Montgomery march. 

Shortly after being released from jail for a subsequent protest, the young, unarmed priest was shot and killed by a sheriff’s deputy in Hayneville. His killer was acquitted by an all-white jury, but Daniels continues to be revered. His sacrifice put a face on relevant, sacrificial faith.

Race is still America’s most challenging battleground. Just a generation or so removed from legalized segregation, wounds are still raw and many people — non-white and white — count themselves among the wounded.

History has proven that the most potent, healing justice comes in the context of faith. It’s also taught us that the justice imperative resonates more broadly when those born with white privilege sacrifice their skin color advantage to stand for what is right. 

Which is why I say that what we need today is white religious leaders who are willing to stand with their black brothers and sisters in the clergy, fully embracing the words of the ancient prophet Amos: “Justice must flow like torrents of water, righteous actions like a stream that never dries up.”*

*Amos 5:24, NET 

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