It’s confession time. Back when I was an undergraduate at Andrews University, I came to despise a certain yearly celebration that arrived every February: Black History Month. Somehow, someway, I found myself sliding into the cynicism of wondering why our chapels and church services had to be saturated with the constant—or so it seemed to me— recounting of not only the positive contributions of persons of color but also the indiscretions of my own race that hampered their advancement.
Of course, I confess this to my shame. God has been merciful to me—as have former classmates who have, since then, very graciously reminded me of some of the embarrassing and shameful things I said in person and wrote in student publications.
This is not the confession of some super woke liberal, influenced unwittingly by Marxist propagandists. This is the confession of someone who has sat down and listened to the heart-wrenching stories of loved ones and friends who’ve dared to share a bit of their painful experiences with someone who has never walked—nor ever will—in their shoes. It’s the confession of someone who’s repeatedly read the Bible and can’t get around the impression that if one were to expunge Scripture of all its talk of racial reconciliation, they would have to tear out about half of Paul’s letters (for starters). The fact is, racial reconciliation has always been and always will be a fundamental gospel work.
A few years ago, on Martin Luther King, Jr., Day, I decided to read, for the first time, King’s “Letter From Birmingham Jail.” It was convicting and converting. The most compelling part was his line about the “white moderate,” which seemed to point
to me: “I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in the stride toward freedom,” he thus wrote, “is not . . . the Ku Klux Klanner but the white moderate who is more devoted to order than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice.” And then came the real clincher: “Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.”
Those words pierce my conscience and call me to action. Our Black sisters and brothers are still hurting. So during the past few years I’ve decided to use my modest platform to call attention to the ongoing pain and invalidation they’ve experienced both within and without the church. Sometimes I’ve received pushback and been encouraged just to stick to the gospel, since that’s sup- posedly less divisive. But, again, calling attention to ongoing racial disparities and the ways in which our Black sisters and brothers continue to feel excluded is a fundamental gospel work. And I’ve decided that if I’m to err, I’d rather offend my White brothers and sisters by my words than my Black brothers and sisters by my silence.
So how is one to do this? First: listen— with genuine desire to understand (not to invalidate). Then act. That’s what I now try to do during Black History Month—as well as every other month of the year.
Shawn Brace is a pastor and author in Bangor, Maine, whose book, There’s More to Jesus (Signs Publishing), further expounds upon a Jesus-centered understanding of Adventism. He is also a DPhil student at the University of Oxford, researching nineteenth-century American Christianity.