Justice in the Name of Jesus: Teaching White Teens to be Anti-Racist
As we have witnessed over the last month the unnecessary deaths of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and George Floyd, we confess that our silence has been damning.
I (Kendal) can still remember where I was as I penned a response four years ago following the deaths of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile. Now, my anger feels deeper. As a white minister, it would be far too easy for me to not respond, to bow out because it all feels like too much. But I realize now, four years later, that the ability to even consider “moving on” is a privilege. It is a privilege that many of my neighbors, fellow ministers, friends, and even my students of color do not have.
In the past, I (Seth) have been silent because I was afraid of speaking “out of turn.” I reasoned that words about issues this sensitive and political “really should come from the lead pastor.” And since I’m not black, I also assumed I didn’t have a right to speak up. Besides, I’ve always felt outmatched by the complexity of this situation. “I just don’t know enough.” I need forgiveness for the ways I used false humility to cover my cowardice.
The lives of George Floyd and Ahmaud Arbery are not complex bits of political or social chatter I need to have a gospel sound bite for. They are men – at least, they were men – created, designed, purposed, and chosen to bear the image of God in beautiful black skin. God ordained these men as living representatives of the power, divine nature, splendor, and complexity of himself (Romans 1:20).
Civil Rights activist Angela Davis has said, “In a racist society, it is not enough to be non-racist. We must be anti-racist.” This is why it’s time for us as white parents and youth ministers to become anti-racists for our African-American neighbors, and before our children. We have a rising generation of young people who love justice. We will waste that or see it misdirected if we don’t teach them to be anti- what Christ nailed to the cross. The dividing wall of hostility between unlike people was torn down when Christ was torn from the grave. Not being racist isn’t enough anymore than not chanting “crucify him” was enough to escape complicity in Jesus’ death. Both violence and silence make us culpable. We must stop reasoning ourselves out of our duty to seek justice and love mercy.
Fellow ministers, this will not be a one-and-done conversation with our students. As we join in the prayer of our Savior, pleading “your kingdom come,” we must remember how Jesus described his kingdom. Like yeast and seeds it will grow slowly and out of sight. So with Paul, we say “do not lose heart.”
But if you are anything like us, you wonder how does a white minister rightly charge our students to take a Christ-like stance toward justice and mercy in this time. Here are a few places to start talking to your white students about the deaths of Arbery, Taylor, and Floyd:
1) Lament Publicly
We need to invite our white students to grieve publicly with us over the deaths of Arbery, Taylor, and Floyd. Our students see our nation’s grief on their social media feeds. They see the hurt of their cities and peers. Yet our white students often believe they do not have a right to mourn, or worse, a need to mourn with their black and brown neighbors. This is the wrong way to think about lament.
Biblical lament is an expression of sorrow that moves us into worship. Tears and grief over injustice is one of God’s chosen means for us to experience his power and presence. John Perkins once said, “Suffering is a virtue. When you enter into the suffering of others, you get passion from that pain and it is redemptive.” If we do not grieve publicly, we hamstring both our students’ experience of God, and our prayers for God’s kingdom to come. God’s redemptive power is fueled by the prayers of His people, in joy and in sorrow. Our tears were meant for such a time as this.
2) Pray for the Impossible.
With lament comes prayer: prayer for things that cannot be undone except by God’s hand. Redemptive racial unity will not be produced by man alone. We must learn to pray for it. Model for your students dependence on God’s unitive power by bowing in prayer to the one who alone can break down the walls of hostility. Pray for impossible things in front of your students. Pray for impossible things in Jesus’ name. Jesus’ kingdom is what we need.
We need peace. He is peace (Eph. 2:14).
We need justice. He is justice (Romans 5:1).
We need love. He is love (1 John 4:8).
We need forgiveness. He is forgiveness (Eph. 4:32).
We – like George Floyd – need breath. Jesus is the breath of life (Gen 2:7, John 20:21-22).
Our deepest need is not merely to renew our broken systems. Our deepest need is for complete renewal and redemption of our broken world. This work belongs to our God. he has and will do it. In Isaiah 9, the prophecy of God’s kingdom in Christ includes the ever-increasing peace in a kingdom of righteousness and justice. Let us pray with our students that we might see a visible expression of this increase in our day!
3) Teach the Imago Dei
We are made in God’s image, and this should be a culture-shattering truth. It’s why the early church was mocked as a religion of “women and slaves” by the elite. It’s why Christians chose to stay in plague-rattled cities while the wealthy fled to the suburbs. It’s why Paul advocates for the equality of Jew and Gentile in Ephesians and Galatians and Romans. It’s why Christians advocated for the abolishment of the slave-trade and the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. fought for civil rights. The Imago Dei is a doctrine that has motivated centuries of justice movements. Your students need to hear you teach it that way, because historically it’s Christians who have moved the moral arc of justice forward.
In fact, we have no gospel without the Imago Dei. If the exact image of God did not come to earth as a homeless, middle-eastern, brown-skinned man we would have no hope for justice, no promise of rescue, and no confidence that God himself knows our suffering.
Tell your students that God intimately knows George Floyd’s suffering. Crucifixion was death by asphyxiation – Jesus, too, couldn’t breathe.
Jesus knows the pain of speaking while being choked. It’s to our shame that some of Jesus’ final choked-out words were to forgive Roman law enforcement; so many of our own full-lunged words dismiss the pain of those suffering like Christ to exonerate those enforcing law like the Romans. The doctrine of the Imago Dei fulfilled in the person of Jesus has the power to, and the track record of, upending institutional and systemic injustice. As a minister of the gospel, we must not grow weary of preaching the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, that has put an end to death’s sting and, and will one day give rise to the end of all brokenness and sin in this world.
4) Remember Our Students Are Not Only Listening, But Watching.
Yes, our words in this time will carry a tremendous weight, but so will our silence. While we wait for the right moment to speak, our students are counting the seconds we say nothing. Jackie Hill Perry once said, our “indifference will be the norm to which (the next generation’s) worldview is shaped.” We must remember that our silence will catechize our students just as much as our words.
Our students see who we don’t invite to our dinner table. They take note of the authors, theologians, and pastors we don’t read. They notice the current events we don’t reference in our sermons. There is deep work that needs to be done in our own hearts as we seek the work of God in our student’s hearts. This means that not only do we need to talk to our white students about racial reconciliation, but we need to pursue it with our lives.
As we do, we will do well to remember Paul’s invitation to his disciples. He did not ask them to merely follow him, but to follow him as he followed Christ. Our pursuit is not toward perfection, but toward Christ Himself.
I heard it said that one way to invite our students to seek awareness is by asking three question: (1) What
does God say? (Biblical truth) — (2) What does God see? (Historical realities) — (3) How would God have you respond? (integration and application of truth).
While it may be tempting for our white students to initially point a finger at all the ways our systems are broken (historical and cultural truths), we must first encourage them to recognize the sin and brokenness and hidden prejudice corners within our very own hearts. The Word of God is the foundation on which we can rightfully confess our sins, seek repentance, and have full assurance of God’s grace.
A.W. Tozer said, “A man can believe in total depravity, and never have any sense of it for himself at all… repentance is a wound I pray we may all feel.” May our students see our willingness as their parents and leaders to not simply point out the brokenness in others, but to deeply trust God with our own brokenness.
6) Help Them Use their Lives.
Help your white students understand what it means to leverage the opportunities they have that their black brothers and sisters do not. Only they will be at their family dinners when the conversation turns political. Only they will be there when a friend makes a racist comment online or at a party. Only they can represent the worth of fellow-image bearers when the protests dwindle down.
Help them to learn how to navigate those conversations with grace and truth. Help them to understand the importance of holding both justice and grace in unison and how the gospel helps them do so. Part of that teaching will be allowing black thinkers, writers, and creators to teach your students. Recommend good books written by black theologians. Tell your students to follow black and brown social media influencers. Encourage black artistry and expression beyond Lecrae’s album playing in the background by sharing and talking about black music and art.
We know the weight of what we are calling you to do. It will not be easy. We will surely falter. However, the way forward can’t be silence and passivity. It’s better to try and stumble at times than to never enter the race at all. For those who have been pursued by the fierce justice of the cross, fierce justice for our neighbor is the necessary result.
Those of us at Rooted who are white realize that we need to take the posture of listening. Rooted is in that very process, and working to compile a list of resources from Black pastors, preachers, authors, etc. who have much to say that we need to hear. Check back for more on the blog next week!
For more Rooted resources, check out a three-part interview with Isaiah Brooms titled “How Jesus Uses Youth to Carry Us From Division to Unity.” For further reading, check out this list of Black History Month resources from Dorena Williamson.