February 3, 2020

The Color of Lives that Matter (to God)

Why are matters of race so divisive? What can be done about it?

Alex Bryan

Pastor, what does God think of Black Lives Matter (BLM)?”

The question was thrown at me publicly on Sabbath, October 1, 2016, in the midst of a fiery furnace—an American political campaign starring Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump.

Election Day was just 38 days away. Racial bullets were flying. Public protest was vigorous after the violent deaths of several Black American youth. Football quarterback Colin Kaepernick was refusing to stand for the national anthem. David Duke, avowed white supremacist, was running for the U.S. Senate in Louisiana. Traditional and social media were freighted with stories of racial hatred and responding outrage.

The Sermon Game

The rules of the game were straightforward (I had written them). Throughout this sermon series Walla Walla University students could ask me, their senior pastor, anything at the conclusion of the weekly worship service. Their questions would become the topic for the following week’s sermon.

“Pastor, what does God think of BLM?”

At home after church that day I saw myself in the hallway mirror. A twice-terrified White man stared back at me: the politically and racially charged season and subject already frightened me.

But I now faced a deeper worry:I had been invited to speak to an experience not my own—a spectator asked to comment and speak truth about life in another man’s skin. I did not sleep well that night. The terror of setting off political tripwires in a congregation filled with conservatives, liberals, partisans, nonpartisans, unknowns, was real. But failing to honor, in front of 3,000 people, the community of color from which the question came would be much worse.

So that week I cleared my calendar and listened. A lot. I replayed in my head and took notes on decades of conversations with Black classmates, Black colleagues, Black neighbors, Black friends. I reread relevant books by credible voices. I ordered new books to arrive overnight and consumed their wisdom. I rented Twelve Years a Slave and wept as I watched the portrayal of Solomon Northup’s captivity. I met in person and by telephone with people I trust, whose experiences I needed to hear afresh: stories about twenty-first-century mistreatment—in restaurants and grocery stores; in roadside pullovers with police; at church, where racial slurs were spoken. I shivered as I listened.

“Come on, tell me that didn’t happen,” I’d say.

“Yes, Alex, it did.”

I kept listening. And maybe this is the first lesson for all of us who are White. I listened because I was afraid. I was afraid because I was not certain that I could enter this conversation without making a mess and causing even more pain. Fear drove me to humility. Humility inspired genuine curiosity. Curiosity provoked questions. Questions led to understanding. And understanding yielded a small measure of knowing.

The Sermon: No Game Now

Sanctuary pews creaked under the weight of attendees at church that day.

Hundreds of high school students from around the country added to the usual Walla Walla University crowd. Though floor and balcony were at capacity, with latecomers standing at exit doors, I still remember the decrescendo into collective silence as I read the question: “What does God think of BLM?”

First, I explained that I’d decided not to address the specific BLM movement in favor of a broader reflection on the Black experience in America. In my own interactions with students I had come to realize that conversations about the persistent tensions between the police and the Black community were sometimes dissatisfying because more foundational conversations had not yet happened.

I began with a text: “When [Jesus] saw the crowds, he had compassion on them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd” (Matt. 9:36). Some people, Jesus realized, were harassed and helpless, “distressed and dispirited” [NASB],1 “thrown down,” the Greek suggested. These were humans kicked to the curb; viewed as disposable; denied human rights and social dignity; lacking any solid protection from those in power.

The Gospels and early church leaders demonstrate specific concern for those who are poor, sick, women, children, slaves, and for persecuted racial and ethnic groups. Jesus’ attentiveness to those who are vulnerable was certainly amplified by reading the Torah’s outcry against slavery (Ex. 3:7); the Scriptures’ care for those oppressed (Ps. 9:9), afflicted (Ps. 10:17, 18), fatherless (Isa. 1:17); by its stand against unjust laws (Isa. 10:1, 2), and the abuse of those weakened by societal norms (Amos 2:6, 7).

For Jesus, the Bible calls for extraordinary concern for those not properly valued as human beings. He heard the call. He saw the need.

The Christian starting point for humanitarian concern, including appreciation of the Black experience in America, is hearing and seeing as Jesus did. Jesus did not bury His head in the sandbox of fervent Bible studies, elaborate worship services, or amazing speculations about the timing of the end of this world and the glory of the age to come. As a man immersed in the Holy Scriptures, as the very embodiment of perfect biblical living, Jesus saw. He paid attention. Recognizing the plight of those who were not being well-treated was at the heart of His faith. For those who claim to follow His way, this must be the core of our faith: we must see.

See what? What would Jesus see if He came to America in 2020? What color of lives would matter to Him?

I reminded the congregation: whereas the first English settlement in North America was founded in Jamestown, Virginia, in 1607, we now have more than 400 years of European history in this New World. I showed them a timeline of these 400 years: slavery remained legal until 1863 with the Emancipation Proclamation, meaning that for 250 of these 400 years African slaves were treated not as people but as property. I showed hard-to-see pictures: slave ships, Black slaves working on the great American railroad, public beatings, lynchings, and artwork showing that a White man could do whatever he liked to his slaves, male or female.

The Bible calls for extraordinary concern for those not properly valued as human beings.

I told the congregation how much I loved the city of my birth,2 Washington, D.C. But visiting was always a mixed blessing.

Why? Because I could never forget that the White House was built in part with African slave labor, as was also the United States Capitol building; that Thomas Jefferson, great author of the Declaration of Independence, a man magnificently memorialized on the banks of the Tidal Basin, was a slaveowner; that our first president, greatest general, father of our country, celebrated by the towering Washington Monument, owned more than 200 African slaves. Most of our nation’s founders chose to sustain what Seventh-day Adventist abolitionist James White called “the darkest and most damning sin upon this nation.”3

Slavery ran through the first 250 years of our 400-year time line. There followed 100 years of defacto slavery that rivaled the shame and victimization of slavery’s days: exclusion from formal learning, restaurants, hotels, public transportation, restrooms, city parks, good employment (sometimes all employment); unchecked political intimidation, unjust legislative and judicial decisions, lynchings by the thousands; second-class citizenship, if citizenship at all; treatment as animals, or worse.

It is a story some prefer to silence, forget, or escape from with the earnest plea “I didn’t own slaves. Can’t we just forget about the past and let it go?”

The Past 50 Years

What of the past 50 years?

In 1967 Blacks achieved about 55 percent of household income in contrast to Whites. Today that number is about 60 percent.4

Black adults are twice as likely as Whites to hold less than a high school diploma.5

Whites are more than twice as likely to hold a bachelor’s degree in comparison to Blacks, a gap that is widening.6

Black babies die at a rate twice that of White babies.7

Black Americans are killed at 12 times the rate of citizens of other developed countries.8

Blacks are more than five times more likely to be incarcerated than Whites.9

For the same criminal conviction, prison sentences for Black men run nearly 20 percent longer than for White men.10 Black and White Americans might as well be living in different countries.

My children love to compete with me in little races around the house. If the race is too close, or if Dad wins, they always say the same thing: “Daddy, give us a head start.” And if that result does not secure a victory, they wail, “Daddy, give us a bigger head start.” And sure enough, with a sufficiently generous early starting time, they win every race.

I challenged those listening that day: “I could beat any of you in this church in a race, in any race. Just give me enough of a head start, and I will win.”

I continued: “This is also true: as a White man, I enjoy a huge head start in American society. Don’t believe me?” I then treated them to numbers on White male privilege:

  • 44 of 45 American presidents (98 percent) have been White men.
  • 1,942 of 1,983 U.S. senators (98 percent) have been White. Senator Tim Scott, belonging to the 2 percent, has spoken openly of being accosted at the Capitol after five years as a U.S. senator, and despite wearing his senator’s pin. The officer who detained him said, “The pin I know. You, I don’t. Show me your ID.”
  • 100 of 106 U.S. Supreme Court justices (94 percent) have been White.
  • 472 of 500 Fortune 500 companies’ CEOs (94 percent) are White.
  • the owners of American basketball, baseball, and football teams, whose players are dominated by athletes of color, are 92 percent White men.

And Seventh-day Adventist General Conference presidents? 100 percent White men. It’s no secret that I can be half as good as someone not a White man, and still often get the job, the promotion, the opportunity.

Moreover, Senator Scott highlights the other side of this regrettable story: not only does he not get a head start, he doesn’t even get a fair shake.

What Next?

You’ve heard the lines in committees: “We should be following the Holy Spirit and not the dictates of diversity.” Translation: things need to stay the way they are. And you’ve heard the Adventist television station where they’ve even elected not to broadcast worship services featuring certain music. Translation: White European music is OK; Black music isn’t.

Then there are the comments on the Martin Luther King, Jr., holiday or Black History Month: “We don’t need to exclusively focus on Black people, because all this emphasis does is divide.” Translation: it disturbs the noble White narrative of Washington, Adams, Jefferson, Madison, Monroe. A sprinkling of color is fine so long as color does not get too big, too loud, too influential.

Nothing I say here is to shame or diminish Whites, deny the progress we have made, discourage the church, or divide the community. No, I lift these experiences to the fore because they remain a painful symptom of America’s original sin: slavery.

My sermon ended as I end this article: we can do better. We are not doomed to repeat the mistakes of previous generations. We can engage in the hard yet beautiful work of racial understanding. We can learn about our shared history. We can confront the brutal facts of injustice. We can forge fresh relationships with people who do not look like us. We can listen—listen well. And we can act. Especially when it’s hard, for that’s what Jesus did: “While we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Rom. 5:8).

Racism is sin. Apathy about someone else’s racism is sin. Rationalizing self-justification is sin. Demanding that other sinners repent first is sin. When Jesus died for us, He “gave himself for us, that he might redeem us from all iniquity, and purify unto himself a peculiar people, zealous of good works” (Titus 2:14, KJV).

  1. Scripture quotations marked NASB are from the New American Standard Bible, copyright © 1960, 1962, 1963, 1968, 1971, 1972, 1973, 1975, 1977, 1995 by The Lockman Foundation. Used by permission.
  2. I was actually born just outside the city limits, in Takoma Park, Maryland.
  3. Review and Herald, Aug. 12, 1861.
  4. www.pewsocialtrends.org/2016/06/27/on-views-of-race-and-inequality-blacks-and-whites-are-worlds-apart/st_2016-06-27_race-inequality-overview-05/.
  5. www.usnews.com/news/best-states/slideshows/top-10-states-for-education-equality-by-race.
  6. www.highereducation.org/reports/pa_decline/decline-f2.shtml.
  7. www.healthsystemtracker.org/chart-collection/infant-mortality-
  8. u-s-compare-countries/#item-.fivethirtyeight.com/features/black-americans-are-killed-at-12-times-the-rate-of-people-in-other-developed-countries/.
  9. www.prisonpolicy.org/graphs/raceinc.html.
  10. www.wsj.com/articles/SB10001424127887324432004578304463789858002.

Alex Bryan is system executive for mission at Adventist Health, Roseville, California. He has previously served as a church pastor, college professor, and college president.