Let us refuse to be silenced by fear, ability, distance or guilt.
Cries for God’s justice have echoed from pulpits, pews, prayer benches and street corners; but not from white evangelicals.
I love communication. I feel it is one of the greatest abilities given to humanity. Be it the cry of an infant, the excited squeal of a group of teenage girls at the mall, the cheerful banter of a family over a meal, even the sobbing that accompanies the loss of a loved one—I can’t imagine what life would be like without the gift of communication.
In a loud, painful public discourse, white evangelicals have been largely silent, absent and evasive. Why is that?The things that we say—our spoken words—are probably the most recognizable form of communication, but many people would agree that everything about us communicates something: our facial expressions, outfits, posture, choice of friends or spending habits. They all communicate something about who we are, what we value, where we are headed.
Even with all of that being true, there is an aspect of communication that we often misunderstand or overlook altogether. I’m referring to silence. Silence communicates.
When I think about the nearly 13 years since I met my wife during our college years and the eight years that I’ve served in vocational ministry in Minneapolis, I’ve had to become a much better communicator. Being married and being a pastor have taught me to listen for words, to watch for nonverbal cues and to pay attention to moments of silence.
I’ve become acutely aware of the ways in which silence can be just as effective an indicator of a person or group’s thoughts, feelings, values and intentions as a mouthful of words. At times, silence conveys a message that causes one to have great hope. At other times, silence is deafening, harmful and cowardly.
Unfortunately, there has been an undeniable silence among white evangelical Christians.Let me explain one example of the latter.
Jordan Davis is a name the average American probably had never heard before 2012 and probably had forgotten again until last month. That’s understandable, though. Jordan was a regular young man from Florida. His life was not in any way remarkable or noteworthy. He lived the life one would expect of a teenage boy: full of music, sports and time with his friends.
What separates Jordan’s story from that of the vast majority of other American teens is that in November 2012, he had an encounter with an armed adult at a Florida gas station. At the end of that encounter, Jordan Davis lay in the back of a friend’s SUV with two gunshot wounds in his legs and another that had ripped through his liver, lungs and aorta.
Jordan died that night and his shooter drove away, returned to his hotel and had a drink before falling asleep. The shooter was later arrested, but not until he and his fiancé had driven 130 miles the next day back to their home.
Fast forward to February 2014. Just months after handing out a not guilty verdict in the murder of another young black Florida teen named Trayvon Martin, the state sat on the brink of another pivotal legal decision in the trial of Jordan’s killer. Despite the testimony of Jordan’s three friends who were also in the vehicle that night and the damaging testimony of his own fiancé, Jordan’s killer was found not guilty of first-degree murder.
In a strange legal ruling, the jury convicted the shooter on the charge of attempted murder for firing 9-10 shots into the vehicle, but did not convict him of first-degree murder when three of those bullets found their target. The public outrage was immediate and fierce. Unfortunately, it was mostly divided along racial lines.
In the weeks since the verdict, there has been a lot communicated by men and women who profess to be followers of Jesus Christ. There have been calls for boycotts of the state of Florida, appeals to the moral conscience of our entire nation, prayer for the safety and protection of our children and much more. Cries for God’s justice have echoed from pulpits, pews, prayer benches and street corners.
Unfortunately, there has been an undeniable silence among white evangelical Christians. In a loud, painful public discourse, white evangelicals have been largely silent, absent and evasive. Why is that?
I believe there are a few reasons, some understandable, others a bit more difficult to excuse. Here’s my best estimation of why many white evangelicals chose silence in this and other cases of racial injustice:
Many white evangelicals realize that confronting racial injustice is dirty, messy work. The terrain is full of land mines and any misunderstanding—any comment taken out of context, any assumption made—can potentially “set things off.” I’ve seen situations where well-meaning friends have been accused of being prejudiced, ignorant, even racist. For many, that possibility is enough to keep them quiet, even when biblical justice calls for them to do otherwise.
Perceived Lack of Skills
Similar to the previous reason, many white evangelicals don’t believe they have the right skills to navigate this type of situation. They believe they lack the right words or the necessary experiences. Being silent often seems less treacherous.
Some white evangelicals are so emotionally disconnected from the likes of a Jordan Davis that they really have no reference point in which to identify. The idea of their teenage children leaving home and losing their life at the hand of some troubled adult just isn’t a reality for them. They remain quiet, often while harboring thoughts like, There must be more to the story. Stuff like this doesn’t just happen. Social distance makes it difficult for us to identify with those in other stages of life.
Finally, many white evangelicals remain silent about racial injustice because in order to address situations like the Jordan Davis case, we would have to address the historic, systemic roots of racism and injustice based on race in this country, including in the American church. Unresolved guilt, even for Bible-believing Christians is a struggle.
One of the underlying reasons that evangelicals are more committed to international missions than they are to missional work at home is that in order to do the hard work of justice in America, it would require us to acknowledge the deep, dark legacy of racism and racial injustice that haunts the American church. It’s easier to do compassion work on the other side of the globe than it is to let justice roll down our own streets.
The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. understood well the complexities of balancing the call to follow Christ with the challenge to fight injustice. In fact, his work to eradicate racial injustice was fueled by his love of God and his proper understanding of the Imago Dei. In 1956, Dr. King said: “There are not gradations in the image of God. Every man, from a treble white to a bass black is significant on God’s keyboard, precisely because every man is made in the image of God. One day we will learn that.”
I join Dr. King in pointing us toward a day when every human life is equally valued in our churches, our communities and given equal protection by our justice system. Even more so, I look with eagerness to the day when God will wipe away every tear from our eyes, freeing us from all vestiges of sin, death and hatred.
Until then, let us not give in to any impulse that would keep us silent! Until then, let us refuse to be silenced by fear, ability, distance or guilt!
Rev. Edrin Williams is an Associate Pastor and Director of Youth & Family Ministries at Sanctuary Covenant Church in Minneapolis.