When our Silence Makes a Statement
George Floyd was murdered last week, and peaceful protests have been descending into chaos ever since. Meanwhile, I am a white, evangelical, Baptist pastor, who has not been particularly outspoken on the issue of racial injustice ─ or any social justice issues, for that matter. For the most part, I do believe my silence has been motivated by a well-intentioned desire to be wise. And more often than not, I do think it’s wise to stay silent rather than speaking.
“Even a fool who keeps silent is considered wise; when he closes his lips, he is deemed intelligent” (Proverbs 17:28).
But I won’t be silent about this any more. And I at least want to challenge you to prayerfully consider speaking out as well.
Why I’ve Been Silent Up to This Point
There are so many things I do not want to affirm about today’s “outrage” culture. I don’t want to feed the relentless appetite we have for social commentary, as if “everyone needs to hear from me” on every controversial issue. They don’t. Most people probably don’t care what I have to say; I’m fine with that; I think our culture would be far better off if more people felt the same.
I also think it’s completely inappropriate to use a moment of cultural crisis to simply be seen “making a point,” or proving how “culturally sensitive” we are. Especially as white Americans, we need to fight the temptation to make every social injustice about us, as if we are the heroes the black community needs right now.
We’re not. In fact, our voices should take a back seat to theirs.
Black people taught our nation how to protest. As far as I can tell, they’ve accomplished more social change through peaceful demonstration than any other racial group in the history of the world.
The black community has proven it’s more than capable of speaking for itself ─ quite effectively.
As a pastor, I’ve also been concerned about stewarding my identity in ministry. Above all else, I cherish a spiritual message ─ about sinful people being redeemed through faith in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. First and foremost, I want to be known for cherishing and preaching that message ─ not simply making this world a better place, but preparing all people for the life to come. If I do have a specific fear about speaking up on social justice issues, this is it. I fear being confused with the Christians and churches who have abandoned the spiritual message of the gospel altogether, in order to embrace a more-popular social gospel that has virtually nothing to do with sin, grace, faith, resurrection, or eternal life with God.
These have been some of my hesitations about speaking up on the issue of racial injustice. I still have them; I still think they’re valid. I’m sure many white evangelicals can relate to them.
But here’s why I’m done staying silent...
Why I Feel the Need to Speak
“Like a muddied spring or a polluted fountain is a righteous man who gives way before the wicked” (Proverbs 25:26).
I’ve always felt strongly that police brutality toward black men is a wicked thing, and a legitimate problem in our country. Most of my white, evangelical friends would all agree. But of course, we would also want to qualify, “Not every white police officer is a racist, and not every act of deadly force against a black man is motivated by racism.”
Yes. That’s true. The white police officers I know are some of the more mature Christians I know.
But I worry that I’ve let the many valid qualifications like this one justify my silence for far too long. Since race in general is such a complex and polarizing issue, too often, I’ve wrongly assumed that it’s not worth the risk of addressing. “People I love may question my motivations. They may accuse me of being a ‘social justice warrior.’ They may leave the church I pastor. I might alienate the white Christians in law enforcement.”
The list goes on. And the truth is, I don’t want any of those things to happen.
But if members of my social group, or my church were having their throats knelt on in the streets until they died, I don’t think I would be quite so complacent. I wouldn’t feel the luxury to be.
I’ve always known that racial injustice was evil. I’ve always wanted it to stop. But what I’m beginning to see more clearly, is that by not saying anything, my own “spiritual fountain” has become muddied and polluted. It’s as if my vision has been blurred, and I have not been seeing the urgency and spiritual weight of this problem.
Therefore, by not speaking, I fear I have made a statement ─ that this injustice is not urgent enough to be taken seriously by people like me.
The only problem is, it tends to be white men like me who commit these acts of injustice. They often grew up in Christian homes; some of them probably attend church; I’m sure many of them have the same interests that I do. I have to imagine there are plenty of white pastors who never would have thought that a fellow church member would unjustly harm a black man ─ until one of them did. And I’m willing to bet that, when this does happen, those pastors feel a strong temptation to appeal to our long list of qualifications about race in America.
Because their church member couldn’t possibly commit an evil act of injustice. They know him.
For this reason, by not saying anything, I fear I may be “giving way before the wicked.” Rather than actively battling the evil of racial injustice, at the very least, my silence could be creating a friendly territory for it to gain ground, undetected in the hearts and minds of those I pastor.
If a white police officer feels confident that his church family will help him hide behind a thousand qualifications if he ever uses unnecessary force against a black man, then that police officer will be far more likely to use unnecessary force against a black man. Chances are, he will also be far less likely to actually repent of it after the fact. However well-intentioned our silence may be, at a certain point, it leaves too much room for the wickedness of racism to lurk beneath the surface of our churches.
This is why we ─ especially white evangelical pastors ─ must speak clearly about the evil of racial injustice. Not to “save the day,” or to unfairly shame our white friends for no good reason, but to actively tear down any “safe havens” where racism can hide.
The truly Christlike among us will not scoff at the mention of these injustices, or dismiss them as if they’re just a big left-wing hoax. The truly Christlike among us will not endlessly appeal to the many qualifications that most reasonable people are willing to acknowledge.
The truly Christlike among us will see the injustice, condemn it as an injustice, and in the name of Jesus Christ, they will stand with those who have endured the injustice ─ regardless of their many social or political differences. They will stop asking, “Who is my neighbor?” and they will start loving their black neighbor as themself ─ as if they’re terrified that their son might be killed next.
The Cost of Speaking
When we do speak with clarity about the evil of racial injustice, will some of our friends accuse us of preaching a social gospel? Yes, they might. Will some of them assume that we’re implying any number of dangerous things that we’re not actually trying to say? Yes, they might. Will people be concerned that we’re not giving adequate attention to other injustices, like abortion? Yes, they might. Will they be nervous that we’re turning a blind eye to all the looting & violence?
Yes. They might.
Many of the concerns our friends share will be valid, and we should take them seriously. We do need to be wise and measured in our speech. Always. Especially when the stakes are this high!
And yet, when a white man callously strangles a black man to death by kneeling on his neck without saying a word to him, then silence from white churches should also be deeply concerning to us. In times like these, it should not be the least bit controversial for white Christians to peacefully stand with the black community and say:
“What happened here is evil. And in the name of Jesus Christ, it needs to stop.”
So long as it’s controversial for white Christians to speak up in this way ─ so long as we let the many nuances of this conversation keep us silent ─ this kind of racial injustice will continue. Our silence will give way to the wicked; our fountains will be polluted.
It's Not Simple, But it is Clear
So, when exactly should we speak up? And how should we go about it?
My goodness, I don’t know.
I have so much to learn. I’m also confident I’ll make plenty of mistakes along the way; please be patient and gracious with me when I do. But I no longer feel the luxury of deciding if I should speak, because I’m now convinced that my silence is making a loud and clear statement that I do not want to make.
If the day comes when white evangelicals are being unjustly killed in our streets on a regular basis, I hope my neighbors will stand by me and condemn that injustice without flinching. But in the meantime, today…
George Floyd was our neighbor.
Passively “agreeing” that his death was unjust is not enough. Endlessly appealing to the complexities of race in America is not helpful. Especially as white pastors, it’s time for us to stand with the black community and publicly condemn the injustice they’ve endured for far too long.
Without flinching, and without qualifications.