Mark Wingfield: Why white clergy must say 'Black Lives Matter'
Bigstock / Terry Bouch
We’ve been saying “White Lives Matter” ever since the Pilgrims landed on Plymouth Rock, says a Baptist pastor in Dallas. It’s past time for white Christians to acknowledge the ongoing sin of racism, confess our own biases, and seek to create new patterns of thought and behavior.
Less than 24 hours after a sniper murdered five police officers here in Dallas -- on the heels of two more fatal police shootings of black men in other cities -- a group of black and white Christians from throughout the area got together to pray. Nothing unusual about that. Every time a crisis hits, every time racial conflict emerges, every time a mass shooting rips across the headlines, people get together to pray.
The Friday night prayer service, held July 8 at a prominent black megachurch in South Dallas, was led by black, white and Hispanic clergy and drew an ethnically mixed congregation -- folks like me who were perhaps overly eager to greet people of another skin color to demonstrate that we, unlike others, are not full of hate.
Nothing unusual about that either.
But this time, something unexpected happened. The prayer began with confession, and not just easy confession. Two of the white clergy, both pastors of conservative evangelical megachurches, went out of their way to say that “Black Lives Matter.”
One of them, the more socially and politically conservative of the two, explained that when he first heard about the Black Lives Matter movement, he thought it was puzzling and even unnecessary. Like many other white evangelical Christians, he countered, “Don’t all lives matter?”
But then a black friend explained it to him in terms he could understand. The friend recalled the pastor’s outspoken opposition to abortion and concern for the unborn. He asked the pastor, “When you say you’re speaking up for the unborn, does that mean you don’t care for children who already are born? Does it mean children living outside the womb are less important than children developing inside the womb?”
Realizing he was trapped in a Jesus-like parable, the pastor conceded the point, and his eyes began to open. Now he uses his considerable influence to speak up in the Dallas community in favor of Black Lives Matter. To embrace this statement, he explains, is not to slight anyone else. It does not take away from the worth of police officers, white people, brown people or any other people. This is not a zero-sum game.
The other white pastor who made a surprising confession about Black Lives Matter spoke about his deep friendship with the black pastor of the host church, about their pulpit exchanges and shared vision for Dallas. As pastor of the most affluent Baptist church in our city, he declared that “white privilege is a real thing” and concluded, “If ‘All Lives Matter’ is your response, you don’t get it.”
I feel secure in saying that neither of the pastors’ congregations would endorse their advocacy for Black Lives Matter if it were put to a churchwide vote. Yet there they were, speaking prophetic words -- because the moment demanded moral leadership from white pastors, not a congregational vote. This is an issue on which white pastors must become leaders, not followers.
To substitute “All Lives Matter” for “Black Lives Matter” signals to people of color that white people are once again pitching a fit, saying, “Me too! Me too!” The reality is that we’ve been saying “White Lives Matter” ever since the Pilgrims landed on Plymouth Rock. Everyone knows that message by heart, and it isn’t the message that’s needed in the current moment.
When Jesus preached the Beatitudes, he could have looked over the crowd and declared, “Blessed are you all.” But he didn’t. He spoke of those who had specific characteristics and called them by name: the meek, the mournful, the poor in spirit, the hungry, the merciful, the pure in heart, the peacemakers, the persecuted.
And speaking of the persecuted, here’s another part of the problem white clergy need to address. White evangelical Christians in America are not persecuted, yet they increasingly believe they are. Where are they getting this idea, if not from white pulpits?
According to new research released in late June by the Public Religion Research Institute and The Brookings Institution, almost half of Americans -- and nearly 80 percent of white evangelical Protestants -- say discrimination against Christians is as big a problem as discrimination against blacks and minorities. These statistics are both astonishing and disturbing.
A few days after that poll came out, we learned that in Russia, Vladimir Putin has virtually erased religious freedom. Now, tell me again how persecuted American Christians are?
Talk with black Americans and hear their stories of persistent discrimination in all areas of their lives and then tell me how persecuted white evangelical Christians are in America today. There is no comparison; to say otherwise is a lie that feeds the fire of our racial mistrust.
When we say “Black Lives Matter,” we’re not saying police lives don’t matter. But we are saying police and everyone else must realize that black people in America understandably believe that their lives are less valued than white lives, as evidenced by the frequency with which black males end up dead in police custody.
After the Dallas shooting, when everyone was rushing to praise the police (well-deserved in Dallas, by the way) and declare that “All Lives Matter,” a black friend asked me a good question:
“Where were all these people when black men were getting shot? Where were they when Trayvon Martin was shot dead? If they really believe ‘All Lives Matter,’ that should have included the black lives we’ve already lost. But where were they before white people got shot?”
The week of the Baton Rouge, Minnesota and Dallas shootings, I posted this note on my Facebook page: “If you say to a child who has been injured, ‘I love you,’ you are not saying you don’t love all other children. You are speaking the need of the moment.”
The next day, a friend asked me, “What if multiple children are injured? Wouldn’t you want to tell all of them you love them?”
Yes, but in the current case, the greatest injury has been felt and is being felt by my black brothers and sisters, not by people of all races.
White evangelical Christians must stop acting like we’re the ones who have been injured and abused and profiled. That’s simply not the case. If it were, how could so many self-professed white evangelical Christians have been elected to public office all across America?
This is a moment when white Christians must finally and fully acknowledge the ongoing sin of racism, both in our history and in ourselves. It is not enough to say racism was America’s original sin -- though it was. We today must confess our own biases and seek to create new patterns of thought and behavior.
Too often, these biases prevent us from even hearing the news with clear understanding. Every time police shoot a black male, white folks lecture, “If you’ll respond in a courteous way when stopped by a policeman, everything will be OK.”
That may be a valid statement from a white person’s experience, but it is not the experience of many black Americans.
We cannot speak from a point of view we have not experienced. But we can speak up for those whose experience demands that we view their point. Our white lives will matter when we acknowledge that Black Lives Matter.